We are in the offices of Oxfordshire County Highways. Chief Deputy Assistant Director (Works, Signs and Railings) Wayne Notbright is alone in the office with his Sub-Deputy Assistant Director, Darren Dymm. All the other officers are out, either attending at one of the many sets of road works around Oxford and the county or at an EDDSHiT (Equalities, Discrimination and Diversity, Safety & Health in Transport) course at a stately home in the countryside.
Dymm: Wossa librey Whine?
Notbright: It’s a libr-ery, Darren, not librey. And it’s not “wossa”, it’s “what is a”. And my name is Wayne. It’s a place with loads of books and things in it. Posh people go there, and old people and kids. My mum used to take me in there, when it was raining like. I think people can take books out without paying. What makes you ask about lib-reries?
Dymm: My mum’s friend said it’s all my fault they’re closing them down. Why’s it my fault Whine, Wayne?
Notbright: All them bloody bankers have lost all our money so the county is closing lots of things down if they’re not really necessary.
Dymm: They won’t close us down will they?
Notbright: Nah. We’re necessary. We got to do all them works down the Iffley Road, so they can’t close us down.
Dymm: My mum’s friend’s a banker. I’ll tell her it’s all her fault. She’s a counter-clerk.
Notbright: I don’t think it’s those sort of bankers who lost all our money.
Dymm: Well, she works at the branch where the county’s account is, so if the county’s lost all its money it could have been her.
Notbright: It’s the government’s fault. It’s because of the cuts. Bloody Tories. There was always plenty of money to spend when Labour was in, so where’s it all gone now?
Dymm: Perhaps there was no money left because Gordon Brown spent it all.
Notbright: Don’t go there Darren, just keep off it mate, or your lib-rery lady’ll have your guts – and mine and the boss’s. We’ve had a good run, haven’t we? Botley Road, Abingdon Road, High Street, Cowley Road, all that stuff we did in Headington, them fancy lights at the A34 roundabout. Looks good on your CV doesn’t it? “Sub-Deputy Assistant Director responsible for spending bloody millions”. Just don’t ask where the money came from.
Dymm: But it all looks really nice now.
Notbright: Christ, I can see why you’re called Dymm. Yeah, of course it all looks nice. So it bloody well should after all the money we spent on it. But if you ask yourself if any of it was necessary…. would you have spent like that on your house?
Dymm: Nah.My missus wanted a new kitchen an’ all that, and I said it all works, still looks OK, didn’t she know that we ‘ad a recession on, an’ we ought to just patch it up till it was over.
Notbright: So why didn’t we do the same with the roads? Why have we been spending millions like some bloody TV makeover programme, tarting up streets which just needed a few holes filled?
Dymm: Don’t blame me, mate! You all said it ‘ad to be done. That’s what you told that councillor bloke, the bald one, what’s ‘is name, the one who looks like Mike Myers with the cat in Golddick, what’s it, Dr Evil. Why did he agree to spend all that money if it wasn’t necessary?
Notbright: Goldmember not Golddick. Yeah, I can’t remember his name either. He’s that sort of bloke. Just think about it will you? No, all right, don’t try and think, just listen. He had some business up in London and gave it up, just another little bloke who couldn’t hack it in business. So he gets to be a councillor instead. And we turn up and say we want to spend a few million quid here and a few million quid there, and he rather likes that. One minute he’s a nobody, and the next minute people are asking his permission to spend millions of someone else’s money, and he’s on the telly and in the papers. And Gordon Brown’s shovelling dosh at him cos its “front line public services”.
Dymm: I like that “front line” bit. That’s why I became an officer. My dad was always potty about the First World War, all them officers in the front line going over the top. And now I’m an officer in the front line….
Notbright: Oh you had choices did you? What were you before you became a highways officer?
Dymm: I worked in transport for Tescos. I pushed trolleys round the car park. Then one day I blocked up the car park exit for three hours with the trollies by mistake, and they sacked me. I thought I’d like to be a traffic warden.
Notbright: Was it you in charge when we trapped all those cars in the hospital car park a few weeks ago? No? Another of the bright little sparks we keep on the payroll, was it? Just as well we don’t sack people in local authorities. What happened when you applied to be a traffic warden?
Dymm: I failed the entrance test, an’ they said why not go an’ work in the offices, if you can push a trolley round a car park you can push paper round a desk like the other highways officers. An’ you was just starting a big job, Cowley Road it was, an’ the council wanted a Sub-Deputy Assistant Director. It looked like a secure job, and it paid really well, my old woman couldn’t believe how much it was. And when Cowley Road was done we did something else, then something else, always another big project on the go.
Notbright: And now it’s Iffley Road. Can you see why you ought to keep your trap shut about where the money comes from? Just get on and do the job, and the boss will work out what we do next, and next and next and you’ll get through to early retirement and a nice pension. Piss off too many lib-rery ladies and they’ll start looking at whether we really need to do these big jobs.
Dymm: Headington was the best one though – filling in that underpass they all liked. It worked a treat, that. I was up there a few days ago, an ev’ry time the cars moved up a bit, some old lady pressed the lights to cross the road. It’s pissed off the pedestrians, pissed off the drivers, pissed off the shops, proper job that was. Why did we fill in the underpass?
Notbright: Dunno. Er, well I do. Someone forgot to show it in the drawings, and someone else thought that meant it was going, and by the time we all spotted it, it was too late, we’d gone public with the plans. Then everyone made a fuss and said it was stupid, but they’re always calling us stupid so we couldn’t back down.
Dymm: Why do they call us stupid, Wayne? I heard a couple the other day ‘aving a row, and she said to ‘im “You’re as thick as a highways officer”. Why’d she say that, Wayne?
Notbright: It’s just an expression, Darren, like “as black as night”.
Dymm: You’re not supposed to say things like that! If that EDDSHiT woman ‘eard you say that, you’d be in trouble. Dave Plank said something the other day, what was it? That’s right, he said “I had a blackbird in my garden yesterday”. God they made a fuss. Immorality in public by an officer of the council, disrespectful term to refer to a woman, and irrelevant and discriminatory use of race, colour or religious belief to describe a person. He said he had to show them his bird-table before they understood what he meant.
Notbright: Dave’s been employed by the council long enough to know better. He’s lucky they didn’t have hidden cameras and all that to try and catch him at it again.
Dymm: I still don’t understand, Wayne. He’s not married. I don’t understand about the bird-table either – I know they have a little roof and all that, but how did him and this bird get up there?
Notbright: Why don’t you go and play in the traffic, Darren?
Dymm: Oh, thanks Wayne! I’ll get some of the lads and we’ll go and stick up some signs somewhere.
Notbright: Not the High Street, Darren. The hotel bloke will be out making a fuss and the boss has had enough of him. Not George Street either – there is no room for more signs there. Why don’t you go down Longwall? If you get a move on you can have that blocked before the evening rush hour. Dave’s doing something down the Abingdon Road, they’ve got the lights working again in Frideswide Square, and between them all we can probably bring the whole city to a halt. That’ll teach them to say “as thick as a highways officer”. Oh, and Darren: if you want a new sign, with different words like, for Christ’s sake ask the consultants how to spell it all. I’m still getting complaints about the “Whitney” one.
Notbright: It is if you are talking about the singer Whitney Houston. It is if you mean the engines company Pratt & Whitney. But I don’t think your sign was about either of those. You meant Witney, Oxfordshire, and apparently that doesn’t have an ‘h’ in it. I didn’t know that either, but that’s why we have outside consultants, so we can ask them how to spell things. Perhaps that’s why your mum’s friend thinks lib-reries are important.
This is all invented, of course, except that Oxfordshire Highways really did once dig up Longwall and the Abingdon Road at the same time; they also filled in a perfectly good pedestrian underpass in Headington, and the county council actually is planning to close libraries whilst allowing extravagant and unnecessary works in the Iffley Road, the only main artery which has not been dug up at vast expense during the recession. County Highways officers have recently been on an expensive junket at a country house to bond with their consultants – the sort of thing which most private sector businesses gave up a long time ago.
One of the most eloquent and consistent critics of Oxfordshire Highways has been the hotelier Jeremy Mogford. Oxfordshire Highways recently blocked the exit to the John Radcliffe Hospital for three hours, trapping drivers inside. They said it was unavoidable, but they say that a lot about the delays they build into motorists’ journeys generally. That coincidence of stupidity and power to affect peoples’ lives is not, of course, unique to highways officials from Oxfordshire; the rest are no brighter or better, and this seems to be true of anyone involved in wheeled transport in Britain – look at the railways, for example.
There has been correspondence in the Oxford Times as to Councillor Ian Hudspeth’s resemblance to former Soviet President Nikita Khrushchev. Hudspeth gamely offered Phil Mitchell or Eric Pickles as alternatives. I offer my own doppelganger for him. He is quoted on the County Council website as saying of the role of councillor that “You don’t really need to have any specific talent”, and after his years in charge of transport and infrastructure, we know exactly what he means. One suspects that he might usefully have spent a little more time in libraries when he was young.
It is also fair to say that I have not heard highways officers speaking for some time. I had to stop going to public meetings on highways matters after I once found myself clenching and unclenching my fists when listening to some proposal to spend our money on some expensive plan to screw up the traffic flow. I feared I was either going to burst an artery in rage or actually advance on the platform and break a chair over the heads of the deeply stupid people speaking on it. It has seemed safest to stay away ever since.
I have invented the titles and names used for the officers – they just sounded right. If by mischance I have got one right, do let me know and I will change it – almost any permutation of relevant words in almost any order will do for local authority job titles, and if we do in fact employ a Wayne Notbright or Darren Dymm, that wouldn’t surprise me but I lighted on the names by accident. Brian Thicke, Dave Runt, Bill Spender – there are endless possibilities of apt-sounding names to choose from.