The continuing story of Malcolm Brown and his transition from art student to arb expert on the local parks department

BACK in 2000, as the world headed into the new millennium, a revolution was taking place. Mobile phones were becoming ubiquitous, cheap and popular. They weren’t yet the smartphones we’re familiar with, but to a generation used to landlines and telephone boxes they were nothing short of amazing.

Although he didn’t possess one, Malcolm had been aware of mobiles for some time. His previous partner Edwina had been an early adopter of the Nokia 2110, which he nicknamed the “brick” (long before the much smaller Nokia 3310 acquired the name), so called because of its size and weight. It cost a fortune to use, had a short battery life and poor reception.

READ MORE: Tree Gang PT. 52: Arborist Malcolm runs into trouble

“It’s handy for emergencies though,” said Edwina, defending her purchase. 

“I suppose so,” replied Malcolm. “You could always hit a mugger with it.” 

A Luddite and proud, Malcolm couldn’t see the point of mobile phones. They were just another technological distraction as far as he was concerned. One of the joys of tree work was the chance to escape the endless phone calls that plagued the office-bound worker. For it’s hard to be micro-managed when you are five miles from the office, swinging from the upper branches of a tree. The short-wave radios the teams carried didn’t interfere much; they were cumbersome devices that often lost signal and didn’t record missed calls.

And so Malcolm carried on in blissful ignorance of modern technology until, that is, his team discovered pay-as-you-go phones. 

Overnight a new excuse was added to the list of reasons given for downing tools. Aside from fag breaks, toilet breaks and going to the shop breaks, there was now the phone call break, and it could strike at any time. 

“Vannie!” Malcolm shouted across the car park.

Vannie paced about, some distance from the pile of logs he was meant to be loading onto the van, with his phone pressed to his ear. 

In response to Malcolm’s shout he held up his free hand and mouthed: “It’s the wife.” 

Meanwhile, Karl and Graham were sending each other texts.

Malcolm was not impressed. “Please can we get on? I want this site cleaned up before we go.” 

With his attention fixed to the small screen, Graham replied: “Hang on. I’ll just text Karl to see if he has the rake.”

“He’s standing next to you, you idiot, and the rake is over by the van. I can see it from here. Now put that bloody thing away, I don’t want to have to come back after lunch,” said Malcolm, by now thoroughly fed up with the new craze.

“You should get yourself a phone,” Karl said to Malcolm as they piled into the van for lunch.

Malcolm shook his head. “No way. My life is full of enough distractions as it is.”

“Yeah, but think about it. You could get in touch with us if you needed to,” said Vannie, meaning

Malcolm could warn them if the boss was on the prowl and they were doing something they shouldn’t. 

However, Malcolm conceded there was some advantage in this. Many a time, when working close to the town centre, he’d been frustrated when a team member had “just nipped to the shops” half an hour ago. If he had a mobile phone he could call up and ask where the hell they were.

So that Saturday, Malcolm plunged into the modern world with the purchase of a Motorola 3788 on the Orange network. Soon he was mastering the language of textspeak that existed before predictive text became a thing and sending cryptic messages to the lads such as “Tk ptrl 2 Spud” or

“WTF R U?” 

Although now persuaded to embrace the advantages of mobile phones, Malcolm had some difficultly in keeping one. His first mobile met an untimely end, falling 30 feet out of his pocket to shatter on the ground while attending to hanging branches a large ash tree. His second phone was lost when Malcolm put it down on a log and walked off, forgetting about it. He purchased a leather case that attached to his belt for his third phone. 

Checking it for missed calls and texts became a regular twitch, as it was easy to miss the ringtone over the roar of a chainsaw or chipper. 

So far though he didn’t have to worry about a call from his boss. Hanbridge Council was slow to adapt to new technology, and steered towards the modern world like a supertanker doing a U-turn. Several years would pass before mobile phones became the default communication across all departments. Meanwhile, pay-as-you-go phones developed into a private sub-network between the workforce that operated outside of normal council communication channels.

Malcolm and his team shared phone numbers with tractor drivers, mechanics, litter pickers, union conveners and pretty much anyone who wasn’t management. It proved handy for keeping delicate problem situations off his boss’s radar, as Malcolm was to discover.

Out near Longshaw was a stretch of public space, tucked away between the housing estates, known as Holly Brook. An undulating woodland, criss-crossed with paths, it had been laid out over an old industrial wasteland and still older fields. The central feature was the brook that ran through the middle of it. A popular path followed it to where it joined up with Longshaw Brook at St Mary’s Corner. Malcolm had been called out to a tree that had fallen across this path. 

Although close to a cul-de-sac of new houses, access was far from easy. Malcolm discovered this after climbing over a stile, dropping down a dip to a narrow footbridge, before scrabbling up a series of disintegrating railway sleeper steps and climbing over another stile to reach the main path. It would prove a long, arduous way to carry equipment, and a chipper was right out.

However, there was a possible alternative. Further up the hill near the bypass was a car park, with a gate down to the main path. Malcolm reckoned it should be feasible to reverse down this to the tree. By feasible he meant risky as hell, for the path was quite steep with a precipitous drop down to the stream near the top, but on balance he decided it was worth a try. 

So following morning break, Malcolm and his team rocked up in the van to navigate their way down to the tree. In reverse, as there was no way to turn around once down. With Vannie as banksman he crept towards the point in the path where it took a 90-degree turn 20 or 30 yards past the car park. Straining to hear instructions over the screech of tree branches scraping along the roof and sides of the van, Malcolm peered at his wing mirrors.

“Keep coming, keep coming,” called Vannie, as Malcolm inched his way down the path.

CLUMP! The far wing mirror clipped a thick branch and swung flat against the van. 

“How am I doing?” called out Malcolm.

“Good, good, go right a bit.”

Malcolm turned the wheel slowly.

“Other right!” shouted Vannie.

Cautiously, Malcolm turned it back. His rear-view mirror was blocked by the roll of netting used to keep loads from blowing away, and his only remaining side mirror showed another rapidly approaching branch. 

Stopping the van, Malcolm got out and, carefully avoiding the steep drop, cut away the branch. The scary steep slope to the streambed far below provided him with good incentive to take care. 

With limited rear vision and too close to the edge for comfort, Malcolm drove forward and tried again. 

“Loads of room on your left now. Swing her round,” shouted Vannie.

Branches cracked and thumped the roof, smothering his cry of “STOP!”

Unable to see Vannie’s frantic waving through in wing mirror, Malcolm swung the van round and felt a sickening lurch as the van tipped and his front wheel dropped away to the right. Only the presence of a young oak tree stopped the van tumbling down into the valley.

“Bugger!” said Malcolm, his nether regions clenching as he looked out of the window at the space below.

The van was stuck fast with the tree up against the driver’s door, preventing it opening but also preventing it falling down the slope. Any attempt to move would almost certainly result in disaster.

Vannie cast his critical eye over the situation. “You seem to be stuck.”

“No shit!” Malcolm replied with heavy sarcasm, already imagining how his boss would react when he learned what happened.

“We could all get out and push?” suggested Karl.

“And all die horribly as the van tumbles over us. Great idea!” said Malcolm.

“We need a tractor,” said Karl.

Malcolm reached for his council two-way radio then changed his mind and took out his mobile phone instead. He dialled a number hoping they would pick up.

Luckily they did. “Donc! Where are you? We’re stuck on Holly Brook. Can you come and help?”

Half an hour later Donc and tractor turned up with a set of chains and before long had pulled the van free with the Parks Management none the wiser.

“Cheers. Donc. You’ve saved us a roasting there,” said Malcolm.

Forestry Journal:

Donc grinned. “Mum’s the word, but I’d better go. I’m supposed to be cutting the pitches at Smythe Pool Rec. Norman will be wondering where I’ve got to.”

“I’ll give him a call,” said Malcolm, bringing up Norman Price’s number on his mobile. “In fact, I’ll ask if I can borrow his John Deere buggy. I’m damned if I’m taking the van down there again.”

The work was completed using the small Smythe Pool buggy, with minimal fuss, leaving Malcolm out of trouble and sold on the advantage of mobile phones. In the end they never interfered in his work as much as he’d feared. Noisy machinery and phones don’t mix. Cranking the volume up to eleven didn’t work that well and bluetooth ear pieces fell out or ran out of battery too soon. Even when set on vibrate the vibrations got lost over chainsaw and chipper. Nothing ever really worked to alert him, but perhaps that was just as well. You don’t always want to be contactable.

When Malcolm’s third phone got crushed after Vannie reversed the trailer over it, he bought a new Nokia 3510 and loved it immediately.

“Look at this!” he said to Karl. “Not only can you make calls and send texts, it has a calendar, a calculator, a reminder function, a clock and alarm, and a Snake game. What more could you possibly want from a phone, eh?”