I recently moved from Bucharest to Liverpool. During this transition I spent some time in London, where I got a phone call from a guy called Joel:
"I work for BBC Radio 4," he said, "and I'm making a show about hitchhiking at night. I read your article about hitching and want to hear your experiences."
I told him about hitching between Edinburgh, my home town, and Liverpool where I studied politics and history in the 1980s. I explained that the best time to start was 3am because then you catch the early morning truckers and miss the rush hour. I told him about hitching into Tibet at night and how I'd written about it in my memoir 9 Months in Tibet.
None of this was being recorded and I assumed that Joel would invite me to the BBC, show me round the studios, treat me to a delicious lunch, introduce me to the presenter (Jarvis Cocker) and then give me a big fat cheque for my time.
Instead he suggested that we do some hitching around London so that he could record the conversations with the drivers and get a feel for it. Like most people, Joel had never done any hitch hiking. My suggestion of a visit to the studio or a payment was politely rejected and this fitted with what I'd seen in the papers: the BBC is being decimated by the Tory government.
Then it struck me: I could hitch to Liverpool and save myself a train fare. I told him I hadn't done this route since the 1980s but the M1 motorway was still there and all we had to do was get to the start of it - which used to be a Brent Cross - and stick out our thumbs. "Bring waterproofs," I said, "as there is nothing worse than being stuck on the side of the road for hours on end and getting soaking wet."
We met up at Brent Cross underground station at 10pm and ten minutes later were on the slip road to the M1, a motorway that goes to Birmingham and Yorkshire. To get to Liverpool we would need to somehow get onto the M6, which goes to the Scottish border, and then the M62 which goes to Liverpool.
An hour later we were still there, cold and starting to get miserable. I had been talking into a microphone about the ups and downs of hitching: it's the best way to see a country and meet people; it's joyful when you get a lift but usually you have to wait for hours and that's depressing; flash cars and single women never stop.
Why wasn't anyone stopping? Thousands of cars and trucks had passed us by now. Had hitching become illegal since I'd been living abroad? Were people afraid we'd murder and rob them? Were the drivers put off by the sight of one guy with two huge rucksacks (me) and another with two huge microphones?
More time passed.
The underground station was only 10 minutes away and it would be so easy to go back into town, get a sleep somewhere (even in a park) and get the next train to Liverpool. As I was contemplating giving up Joel said "let's give it half an hour and then go back." I agreed. This whole idea was ridiculous! People stopped hitchhiking years ago! Most of these drivers probably have no idea why I'm standing by the side of the road holding up an old piece of cardboard that says "M6 North".
Just then a car stopped and a chatty Pakistani with a poor grasp of English picked us up.
"This is how it goes," I said cheerily to Joel, "just when you give up all hope of getting a lift, when you are in the depths of despair - somebody stops." Joel didn't reply as he still had the microphone on and was recording the conversation, the sounds, the vibe of hitchhiking.
Ten minutes later we were at the side of the road again, at the first service station north of London. The driver was going to Luton, a small city he said was full of immigrants like him, and he left us at a big petrol station where we would surely get a lift up north. The difference now was that there was no turning back to the nearby underground station; we were on the motorway and all we could do was go on to the next town.
More time passed. We got deeper into the night. Very few vehicles passed and some of them gave us dirty looks. When drivers stopped to get fuel I would ask them for a lift but they mumbled excuses, and stared at their shoes. I resigned myself to a long and miserable night of being rejected. Joel was still happy; he was getting plenty of background sounds and was enjoying his first hitching excursion.
Just as I was giving up all hope of getting a lift, a flash little Audi sports car stopped. "Too good to be true," I thought "People in flash cars never pick up hitch hikers."
Despite these negative thoughts I raced up to the driver and he looked at me, as if for the first time. He didn't zoom off, as most drivers would have done. I showed him my cardboard sign with the word M6 on it, and said we're going to Liverpool. Could he give us a lift to the next town?
"I'm going to Manchester," he said, "hop in!"
As I squeezed my vast rucksack into the narrow seats behind the driver I couldn't believe our luck: we were going to Manchester, which is only half an hour train ride from Liverpool. And we were in a flash car! My faith in human nature, and in hitchhiking, was instantly restored.
Our driver introduced himself as Ali and didn't mind being interviewed by Joel. It was the first time he had ever picked up hitchhikers and did so because we "looked honest." He told us he was an oil and gas engineer and had been in London for the weekend, visiting friends.
Ali seemed like a typical Mancunian - direct, friendly and witty - but as we ate up the miles he told us his backstory: he was from Iraq. He had left that war-torn country when he was ten years old, in the back of a car, across the Western Desert to Jordan. His father was a doctor, got a job with the NHS and they integrated easily into the British education system.
He left us at a railway station by Manchester Airport. By breakfast time I was in Liverpool and Joel was on his way back to London. Ali's generosity in spirit stayed with me for several days - he went out of his way to leave us at a station - and I reflected how important migrants are for British society.
I had realized this in London where every bar, restaurant and shop seemed to be staffed by a migrant - how would the capital function without them? Meeting Ali made me wonder how many of the newcomers to our country get higher education, do important jobs and integrate into their local community? Like most modern economies, the population of Britain is ageing and we need all the young people we can get - especially if they are as motivated and driven as people like Ali.