I never pick up a hitch-hiker these days. But then you don’t see a hitch-hiker like you used to, thumb out, or rather the girlfriend’s thumb out, while you hid in the nearby bushes with the three bags and Afghan coat with its ripe-cheese whiff. Maybe that’s why teenagers have (this may be a myth) less sense of the country, where is where. There used to be lines of hitch-hikers at (say) Wetherby roundabout, hoping to go south or north (Wetherby is the place we used to use in the North-East as being on the cusp of the North or South, depending on which way you were travelling). The fact that there is no roundabout at Wetherby any more, just a line of cowed motorway drivers in an average speed area, is neither here nor there. Hitching is now the only way not to travel.
But I used to do it all the time. Fear of who might pick you up, or who you might be picked up by, plays a part. But so does the standard in-car entertainment systems that come with cars. In the early 1970s, even a radio was not standard. So a hitch-hiker might provide you with conversation, might pass the time, might give you, if you were a particular kind of driver, the opportunity to sound off. I quickly lost count of the conversations along these lines:
Driver: So what do you want to be?
Self: A teacher.
Driver: Well, you know what Bernard Shaw said: ‘Those who can…’ etc. etc.
It was surprising how many lorry-drivers were able to quote Shaw’s saw. Some of the drivers were plainly lost without an audience, someone with whom they could share their apercus, their views, their mottos and their hang-ups. I had one particular driver who covered almost all known moral and philosophical issues between Leicester and Newcastle, finishing with the punch-line, ‘I may be wrong, lad,’ – he was from Barnsley – ‘but I’m bloody sure I’m right.’ There was no answer needed. Another one (in Kent) was less sure of himself, and, after laying down the law about this, that and the other, would crack and say, mournfully, to himself, ‘But I don’t know. No I don’t. I really don’t know.’
Sometimes the drivers were patently trying out new identities, and sometimes, so was I. So two hours might pass in an improvised play, in which the driver talked about his career in management, and I talked about my children. It was a good impro exercise. You could say what you liked because you were never picked up by the same person twice. Still, a hitch-hiker did always hope to be rescued from the roadside by someone famous. You heard of it happening – a film star who wanted to slum it, ordering his chauffeur over to the grass verge. The closest I got was a guy in a car not much bigger than a Mini, who alleged he had been – or, sadly, even was – a member of The Newbeats. The Newbeats? You don’t remember? ‘I like bread and butter/ I like toast and jam…’ Not one of music’s finest moments. In fact, it might not have been ‘toast and jam’, it might have been ‘cups of tea’.
One driver (who had a large and menacing dog in the back) talked to every driver who overtook him (most drivers, it was a wrecked van), and gave them an assumed identity. ‘There you go, off to your family. They don’t know where you’ve been…’ It was quite wearing after a while.
What never normally happened, was being picked up by a woman driver. The only time I can recall this taking place, I was at Towcester, on the way to Oxford. I was so surprised that I said to her, ‘This is the first time I’ve been picked up by a woman driver.’ (I think I really was that rude.)
She looked across at me, before resuming her gaze on the road. ‘I prayed before you got in,’ she said. Oh. By the time I reached Oxford, I had been subjected to about an hour of neat, fundamentalist chat, and had had my soulless view of the Lord very thoroughly interrogated and exposed. It was one way to spread the word, I suppose.