the state of our roads

Following on from a groundbreaking article (car ban or carbon?) written on the traffic congestion plague affecting Oxford, investigative journalist Jan Futchinelle’s latest piece focuses on the roads themselves. With kind permission, what follows is the full and recently published article, which many point to as responsible for triggering the recent wave of local popular support, lying beyond the city’s college halls. We are talking here, about the #roadsituation.

Controversy broke out yesterday, after a leaked budgetary document sourced from the luxuriously furnished office of the city council’s head spokesperson Heather Headwoman (42), confirmed less than 20% of road tax revenue is spent on maintaining the county’s road system.
Asked to comment, resident city analyst Marc Bolam (70) told me, “I’m no expert but neither am I surprised by this finding. Nearly everyone in Oxford knows that unless you wish for a broken axle, some roads are effectively no-go areas as a result of potholes. This includes several main arterial routes leading into the city centre.”
Invited to join him if I bought him a sandwich, we both stood standing at a majorly busy inter-section. We watched as cars, motorcycles and bicycle riders bobbing and weaving around potholes as large in diameter and circumference as a family-sized frying pan and as deep as your average common or garden jam jar.
Recognised by passerby Atricia Partmann (52), long time resident of Pigeon Toe Lane for more than fifty years and counting, I asked for her own two penneth on the subject and got back three and six.
“How long before an accident occurs due to a driver swerving to avoid a pothole, or being theatrically thrown off course by driving into one? But nobody cares!” She continued, her eyes watering up. “There’s global developmental delay rife and abundant within the council chambers, while the college knobs mostly travel around Oxford using the university-owned underground tunnel network. You’ll not get any change out of those ƒ∇⊆Κ∃ℜš!”
Elsewhere, I found emotions running high on the subject. Despite displaying my credentials, one elderly gentleman I approached for interview angrily beat me off with an antique walking stick. Although he hadn’t fought in the war, if he had, it wouldn’t have been this he’d have been fighting for, he told me.
A burly youth who helped me off the pavement, shared his experience of remedying potholes himself, in his own street.
“A week later, I woke up to the sound of workmen outside my house, digging out all the repairs I’d done.” He told me. “When challenged, they said it was all about liability and only the council could commission repairs!”
The council is failing in its statutory responsibility to maintain the road network. In place of repairs, expensive leather upholstered office chairs are bought to seat over-salaried senior managers. For the upcoming local elections, I encourage each of my readers to simply write across their ballot paper: “FIX THE BLOODY ROADS”.
Jan Futchinelle


Pothole Commando – short story, about 2000 words.

Rain fell in large splattering drops from vast clouds of greyness, as twilight edged in. Crouched beside the edge of a field with Dennis, an assessment was taking place, discussing exactly how we were going to get beyond the barbed wire fence.  Less than a week before, we’d been sat opposite each other in a crowded cafe, Dennis claiming he’d thought up the whole idea in response to an earlier conversation.

“As they say Danny-boy, if you’re not part of the problem, you’re part of the solution.”

“I think it’s the other way around, isn’t it?”

“No matter, same difference.” Dennis’ hands encircled a large-sized cup containing a cappuccino, his thumbs and index fingers met with each other around the rim. An air of relaxed confidence exuded from across the wooden table top as a wide grin spread across his face.

So?” he’d asked, “Are you up for joining me?”

“Joining you in what?”

“You’ve not been listening, have you?”

The honest truth was I’d only been half listening. It was an easy habit to get into when it came to the one-sided conversations experienced with Dennis. In an attempt to redeem myself, I plucked out a single sentence summary.

“You’ve formed a pothole commando unit?

Correct,” this was a close enough answer to what he’d wanted to hear, “aren’t you the one who’s been ranting on about the problem since I-don’t-know-when? So, I have formed the Vigilante Pothole Commando Unit, a.k.a. the VPCU.”

“Shouldn’t that be the VPHCU?”

“Ah, a common mistake amigo!” Dennis took great pleasure with corrections, “Pothole is often thought of as two words and there is no doubt that what we have here in this instance is the coming together of two separate words, originally existing in their own right: pot, and hole. However, let me assure you that in today’s common parlance of speaking, two have become one.”

“Ok Dennis, would I be correct in assuming you are the leader of this new, crack unit?”

“Indeed, you would.”

“Does that make you Captain Pothole?”

* * * *

A few days later, having largely forgotten the conversation, I received an excited phone call from Dennis.

“Mate, we’ve made a connection.”

“A connection?”

“Yes, timely, wouldn’t you say?”

“Dennis, what are you talking about?”

“There’s a group who’ve banded together in an outlying village.”

“Another pothole group?” I said, quickly fiddling with the volume control to compensate for the forceful projection of Dennis’ voice.

More like an identification squad.”

“Identification squad? What do you mean?”

“Well, they’ve gotten so fed up with the potholes in their roads, they go around identifying targets by placing yellow rubber duckies in them.”

“Yellow rubber duckies, you mean, like bath time rubber ducks?”

“That’s right my man!” Dennis paused, allowing me adequate time to process the information. “Now, this Friday evening, you and me, we’re out on our first mission. Our objective, is to clear the whole village of potholes, so when they wake up on Saturday morning, they’ll not know what’s hit them.”

“Clear? As in fill?”

“You’re reading me.”

* * * *

Attempting to pass through a barbed wire fence as the light begins to fade, is not something I am accustomed to, nor something I’d recommend. Several failed tries had already hindered my progress, with the low tension of the highest strung wire making it impossible to maintain balance during a manoeuvre to climb over. A tear in the shoulder of my jacket acquired while trying to pass through the middle section, had forced a reversal in direction. The uncomfortably cold and wet sensation coming through the seat of my jeans, as a result of slipping onto my backside, added to my feelings of disharmony.

With Dennis’ assistance, I finally made it through and we set off together, our footsteps squelching in the wet grass. After walking a short distance, following the perimeter of the field and passing an overgrown outcrop of shrubs, a long wooden gate came into view.

“Dennis! There’s a gate here!” I hiss in exasperation, “We could have just hopped over!”

We continued to tramp through the sodden field, heading – as Dennis put it, to the drop-off rendezvous point. Soon, up ahead I could make out a number of white plastic tubs stacked on top of each other and next to them, several aerosol cans.

There we go!” said Dennis triumphantly, “Our pothole filler supplies.”

“Where the heck did you get these?” I asked.

“Brian at the builder’s merchants, he had a few going spare that wouldn’t be missed, said he’d drop them off after work. We owe him a few pints mind, but he said he was glad to be of assistance. He’s as sick of potholes as everyone else, wished us good luck!”

* * * *

By the time we had entered the village, darkness had settled in. I could see Dennis’ silhouette a short distance in front of me, as we walked in short steps at a quickened pace. With aerosol cans wedged up under our arms and a white tub held in each hand, it wasn’t long before we came upon our first yellow rubber duck.  Half filled with water, the dimensions of the pothole were similar to those of a family-sized frying pan.

Dropping the cans and tubs, Dennis swung the rucksack from off his back onto the road and unzipped the opening. Out of it, he retrieved a large scrubbing-brush and a metal rod, which when twisted extended, until it stood from the ground up to his waist. Squatting down with the rod resting across his knees, he rooted around in the rucksack, before lifting out a flat, square-shaped piece of iron with a fitting on one side, into which Dennis slid one end of the pole. A hard twist of his hand followed by a reassuring sound, confirmed construction of the implement was complete.

“Alright compadre? Let’s get this one cleaned out.” Dennis said, his voice spoken in an unfamiliar whisper. Often feeling inadequate with manual tasks, I was keen to take this encouragement as an instruction.  Grabbing hold of the brush, I began clearing out the water, dirt and grit from the pothole. The bright pink washing-up gloves I’d hesitated to pack, were now proving useful, providing a degree of both warmth and protection. Before long, Dennis rested his hand firmly upon my shoulder.

“Good work, now let the filling, begin.”

Standing back a little, I watched as he held a can in his hand and casually pressed his thumb into the top causing the cap to fly off in a filmic manner. After a good shake, he proceeded to coat the inside of the hole with the spray, finishing off with a thicker application around the edge of the cavity opening. With a tub open, Dennis then began transferring repair compound to the pothole with a garden trowel. Once he had created a small mound, he stopped and looked up at me.

“I think that’ll do her,” he said, winking, “I’ll let you do the honours then.”

The tool Dennis had put together earlier, was thrust into my hands and directions given to indicate the action required. Inspired by my companion, I firmly tamped down the repair compound, continuing until it laid level with the surrounding road surface.

Raising his hand, Dennis indicated for me to stop. He knelt down, brushed away some loose material and applied more spray, sealing between the new and old edges. When complete, we both stood back a little, to admire our handiwork.

“What time is it?” Dennis enquired.


“Twenty one hundred hours?”

“If you like.”

“That took about… 14 minutes from start to finish?” Dennis’ brain was processing a series of different calculations. “From a satellite image sweep of the village I carried out earlier, we have about another thirty to go, by my reckoning – give or take a few.”


“That’s about seven hours work, meaning we’ll be finished somewhere around o-four hundred hours, unless we pick up some pace – which we may well do.”

“Yes, but we also have to find each one of them, you need to factor in the time required to actually locate the rubber ducks.”

“I know,” said Dennis, “I wasn’t going to mention that. Unfortunately, due to expense, night vision goggles aren’t an option so this torch will have to do.”

“And what about breaks?” I continued, “I’ve made sandwiches for us both and brought along a flask of coffee, we’ll need breaks – won’t we?”

“We’ll have two breaks each, which we’ll stagger time-wise so that the work can continue without stopping. What’s in the sandwiches?”

“Corned beef, cucumber and mayonnaise.”

“Perfect, come on, this way!”

Without further discussion, having picked up his rucksack, tool, tubs and cans, Dennis jogged off ahead.

* * * *

By day break, we were done. The village was modest in size and had been built around one long snaking road, from which four minor roads branched off. Working together with military precision and efficiency, we’d made good progress, with the repetitious nature of the operation aiding an increase in our productivity.

The empty tubs of repair compound had now found second lives, as containers for carrying all the displaced yellow rubber ducks. It was imperative we collected them up, Dennis had advised, or we might lose track, becoming confused with what we had done and with what was left to do. I couldn’t argue with the logic and in a way the completion of filling in a pothole was enhanced, by the collection a small trophy each time.

“Dennis, what are we going to do with all these ducks?

“Well d’Artagnan, the final operational stage will involve giving them all a good clean in my dishwasher at home, bagging them up and dropping them off to a charity shop of your choice.”

“You don’t think we should return them to the villagers? In effect, aren’t we stealing them, by taking them away?”

“It’s a fair trade, more than a fair trade.”

“Well, yes, I guess you’re right.”

We headed west out of the village, with the morning sun warming our backs and our elongated shadows stretched out in front of us. Wisps of water vapour rose from the dew covering the field we’d walked through, yesterday evening.

“Are those bullocks over there?” I said, pointing towards a cloud of mist above a herd of cattle in a corner of the field.

“I believe you are correct.” Dennis came to a stop and squinted his eyes in the direction I’d indicated, “Lucky we didn’t stumble on top of one of those in the dark.”

* * * *

In the two days following, I hadn’t given the escapade all that much thought. Only an occasional twinge and a gently fading ache of the muscle groups employed during the event, had evoked any kind of recall. During the evening of the second day, Dennis called me up on the phone, calm and collected as always.

“I’ve just come in halfway through the local TV news and an elected representative of the county council has just been interviewed, standing over one of our accomplishments.”

“Oh really?”

“Saying something about the high level of workmanship and how he expects the people of the village are very pleased with the repairs carried out by the mysterious duo.”

“Oh, we must have been seen by someone then?” I replied, adjusting the volume control down on the handset, as was customary when Dennis rang.

“Dog-walker probably. Even so, they don’t have a description.”

“That’s good then.”

“Mind, an investigative reporter has tied the event in with a donation made to a charity shop in town. They’ve shown a few fuzzy black and white CCTV images in the report, but don’t worry, I wore clothes I’ll never wear again and had a baseball cap on, pulled down low.”

“So where next, Dennis?”

“Well, you know what? I feel we’ve done our bit with potholes. Others will follow  precariously in our footsteps I imagine, in time to come. We have planted the seeds of inspiration and I don’t want to get tied down with any specific project. We’ll only end getting caught at some point and I’m not keen on the idea of public interest – to be honest.”

“Sure, I agree Dennis.”

“Yes, upwards and onwards is what I say, we have to keep moving. Are you ready for the next venture, Sundance?”

“Sure Dennis, count me in. What have you got in mind?”


(photo credit: Andy Omvik)