Thursday, 10 September 2009

Oh I do like to be beside the seaside! 10/09/09

Oh I do like to be beside the seaside!

Although the life of a driver can be lonely, Mr Boss was happy for me to carry
passengers. Often this would be Girlfriend du jour. But just occasionally…

My first trip to Portugal was supposed to be a quick in and out in between my usual tramping work all over Europe. I had a load of girders to deliver just north of Porto and a load to collect from Jerez in Spain once I was tipped. The trip was scheduled so I arrived on the Friday, got tipped Saturday morning having cleared customs in Porto, then straight out into Spain again, ready to load on Monday morning. It was mid July, the sun was shining, and everything was all right with the world.

As I pulled up to the Spanish/Portuguese border at Villar Formoso I was met with a long line of trucks queuing to go through. I pulled in to the end of the line and parked, then got out to see what was causing the hold-up. The third truck I came to was a British registered wagon and so I asked the driver if he knew what the problem was.

“From what I gather there’s either a strike or a holiday. I can’t make it out.”
The pair of us walked further down the line and I asked the driver of a French truck what was causing our unscheduled stop. He shrugged in the typical Gallic way. He too was baffled and he accompanied us as we strolled up the line. A Spanish registered truck had its driver’s door open and the driver was sat inside reading a newspaper, so in my newly learned Spanish I enquired after the health of his toothbrush. He looked at me askance. I did a quick mental shuffling of Spanish nouns and managed to establish that the reason for the hold-up was preparations for a bank holiday on Monday of which none of us were aware. I passed the information on to my French friend, who, it transpired, spoke Spanish rather better than I did, and my English compatriot, who was impressed with my linguistic prowess, and I was not going to tell him any different!

Very slowly the queue abated and eventually I was waved through the rather primitive shed area of the Portuguese customs area, and into the country. There I sampled, for the first time, the Portuguese road system. When The Gods made Portugal they wanted to make it really big, but discovered that when it was shown on a map it made Spain look silly and so they hammered the edges until it fit better, and as a result the landmass got all wrinkled and crinkly. Now, it is possible that you may remember your geography teacher talking about tectonic plates, continental drift and other such guff. Personally I prefer my version. Either way, the route from the border to Porto was along some of the twistiest and steepest roads I have ever encountered.

As I crawled my way up an incline some miles into the country my eyes fell upon a vision, an apparition, a…what the hell was it? Walking along the road was somebody apparently clad in nineteen fifties drawing room curtains, with an Afghan Hound around its neck. As I drew nearer the Afghan Hound resolved into a very furry collar on a Parka, whilst the nineteen fifties drawing room curtains resolved into…nineteen fifties drawing room curtains. Purple paisley pattern fabric, red sashes, velvet, silks, cotton, all amalgamated into something that may have been trousers, may have been a skirt, but was, without a doubt, English. And the whole person was hitch-hiking. Intrigued, I stopped to see if it wanted a lift.

It turned out to be a very attractive young lady. Gratefully she climbed into the truck and threw her rucksack into the back.
“Hi! I’m Echo.”
“Echo!” she grinned at me.

I asked her what she was doing and she told me that she was going round Europe on a pound a day. Clearly I looked askance. She explained that she had finished University and was having a gap year before deciding whether to continue education or look for work. In the meantime she had allotted three hundred pounds and set out to hitchhike and walk around Europe, spending as little money as possible and depending on the kindness of strangers. I looked at her again. Tall, slender, waist length brown hair, startling blue eyes set in a perfect face. I was smitten. It occurred to me that if she had the same effect on other European males as she had on me she would probably return home with most of the three hundred unspent.

I asked where she wanted taking and she said that wherever I was going would be good for her. She was in no hurry and when I told her I was going to Porto she was quite happy to accompany me. I was happy to let her. And so we set off. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I am shy around strangers and more so around the opposite sex. Echo, however, was easy to talk to and even easier to listen to. As we toiled along the road between the boarder and the motorway, we discussed everything and nothing, we OOOHED and AAAHED at the scenery and within an hour it was as if we had known each other for years. Truth to tell, I can’t remember much about the journey to the coast, but before long we had reached the motorway that runs between Porto and Lisbon, and shortly after that we arrived in Porto.

Following the signs to the TIR yard I was concerned that there was little HGV traffic on the road. However, my concern became alarm when we arrived at the TIR park to find that apart from one Spanish registered truck it was totally empty. I pulled to a halt and we got out to see if we could make any sense out of what was happening. I was not a little impressed when Echo asked, in Spanish, what was occurring and nodded and chatted for a while. She then turned to me and explained that a bank holiday had been declared and no work would be done today, over the weekend or Monday. As a result, any chance I had for a reload was blown out of the water. I would have to park up, clear Customs on Tuesday and get tipped, and then hope to get a reload a soon as was possible.

The Spaniard suggested that British truckers usually congregated at The Atlantica Bar and pointed out on a map where it was located. He assured me that there was plenty of room to park and I should take the trailer as well, for security. Echo seemed quite delighted at the idea of stopping for the weekend and I was not going to argue with her, so we set out for Matosinhos and The Atlantica Bar.

The bar turned out to be a large single story building, literally on the beach and beside it were maybe half a dozen British and Dutch trucks, parked on compacted sand, right there on the beach. Oh my! Mid summer, Portugal, with three days off, parked on the beach, next to a bar, with a beautiful girl as company. What could be better?

Well, what could be better became better later that evening, when I suggested that Echo might like to borrow my sleeping bag and sleep in the trailer. She looked at me and at the back bunk.

“What is wrong with me sleeping there?” she enquired.
“Well that’s where I sl….Ooooh! Nothing. Nothing at all”

It was a more innocent time. STDs were the numbers you put in front of a telephone number if you were calling from out of town. Aids were a slimming supplement. We werenot fettered by mores and vows of chastity. We were not bound by promise of celibacy and faithfulness. In truth, the only thing that bound and fettered us was gravity and the small area that was an HGV bunk bed. Good taste requires that I draw a veil over the more physical aspects of that night, but I trust you will allow me a brief moment to remember and marvel that I didn’t dislocate anything major.

We leaned a lot more about each other that night. I leaned that oral sex did not involve talking at all and she learned that the distance between the bottom bunk and the top bunk was exactly five inches below where your head reaches when you sit up suddenly. I learned that she was incredibly sensitive when touched in a certain way and she learned that the distance between the bottom bunk and the top bunk was exactly five inches below where your head reaches when you sit up suddenly. I learned that her command of basic Anglo-Saxon was even more impressive than her command of Spanish and she learned that I knew how a gentleman apologises to a lady he has wronged. I learned that more than once a night was possible, when you were motivated strongly enough and she learned that more than four times a night was not possible without the aid of trained medical professionals. I learned that she was warm and cuddly and she learned that I snored. I learned that she intended to stay with me for a little while longer, at least, and she learned that I giggled. And people say that learning is boring…

The next morning, when I awoke, she was gone. Briefly I was mortified, but I realised that I should not really have expected anything else. I was an ordinary truck driver, of little or no merit, and she was an incredibly attractive, intelligent young lady. To her I must have seemed a toy, a means of transport a…there was a note on the dashboard.

“Hi, I’ve gone for a swim. Get breakfast cooking for when I get back.”

I have never really understood why, but I find a woman in a swimsuit at least as sexyas a woman out of one. Possibly the seduction of the concealed. Possibly the promise, the lure of what is to come. Possibly I am just weird. In any case, when she returned, in a shining pink and blue swimsuit I nearly burned my sausage.

Later that day we met up with some of the other drivers and went to the Atlantica Bar for a meal. On the menu was homemade vegetable soup and as I adore soups, I ordered a bowl. Marco, the waiter, came out with the order. Marco, the waiter, had a problem. Marco, the waiter, was stoned. As he came over, he tripped or stumbled, and the hot soup tipped neatly into my lap. Fortunately the sea was a few seconds away, at a dead run, and it provided a cooling solution. Eventually I emerged from the ocean, and trudged back to the truck, changed into dry clothing, then returned to the bar. The owner was stood at the door, and angrily waved a bill in my face. She wanted to charge me for the soup! Echo wandered up and explained what had happened, and I offered to show her the damage. The owner relented and offered me free food and drink for the remainder of my stay. I never did get around to trying the soup, however.

Sunday saw me up and cooking breakfast as Echo again went swimming, and shortly after that we both set out to walk into Porto and partake of some sightseeing. Regimented rows of white walled, red tiled buildings rose from the sea up into the hills. Designed for keeping port stored in exactly the right condition to mature; now they were beginning to be redeveloped into what was, at that time, a burgeoning tourist industry. As European money had been poured into its neighbour, Spain, now it was beginning to be routed into Portugal, but at the time of my visit Portugal was still an incredibly poor country. The jarring dissonance of wealth and paucity, affluence and effluent, was plain to see. An area of white stone villas segued uncomfortably into a shantytown of tin and breezeblock, then into an industrial sprawl of soot-belching chimneys, steel refineries, smoke and flame. It was simultaneously awesome and depressing beyond measure. We were entranced.

All of a sudden the smell of smoke assaulted our senses and in front of us a wooden building lit like a brazier. A few people left the building, at some speed, and it became apparent that it was a building used, not surprisingly, for the production of port. The fire drill was carried out with sufficient precision to make me think that this was not an uncommon occurrence and everybody appeared accounted for, so, always willing to watch a free show, I sat on the grass bank and observed.

Now, having seen the apparent haphazard nature of the rest of the Portuguese infrastructure I was looking forward to seeing how the fire brigade performed. However, I was really not expecting the arrival of a white Fiat 500 car, which stopped outside the burning property and disgorged four burly guys in black uniforms. One of them ran to the front of the car and opened the boot, the Fiat being rear-engined, and extracted a length of hose, then whilst the other three grabbed at the nozzle-end of the fire hose he ran with the reel to the fire hydrant. Unfortunately for him, but to our utter delight, he had failed to notice something that Echo and I realised fairly quickly. About a hundred yards from the fire hydrant the hose ran out, became taut, and his progress came to a sudden halt and both he and his three colleagues ended up on the floor. After regaining their composure a huddle occurred, a consensus reached and the hose was reeled, deposited back in the boot, and the four returned to the car and drove away.

We sat for a while longer, but as the building burned and the recent occupants stood about smoking, watching and chatting, nobody else turned up, and eventually, as the building fell in on itself we left and headed back to the truck, the Atlantica Bar, the ocean and another night together.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

The Pain In Spain 09/09/09

The Pain in Spain

It is possible that I may be misrepresenting the job of Continental Truck driver somewhat. For every yin there is a yang. For every up, a down. For every easy job a…let me explain…

My very first trip to Spain made me fall hopelessly in love with the place and the people. Sadly it is something like twenty years since I last visited, apart from a wonderful week when two dear friends of mine invited me to partake of an off-roading holiday in Andorra. Even that short return visit rekindled my love of the place. Even if Spain has tried to kill me on at least three occasions…

The first occasion was whilst I was delivering Blackpool illuminations to The Castle in Barcelona. I was, for reasons I have never managed to discover, delivering to The Castle the following:-

One Large Plastic Illuminated Postman Pat.
One Large Plastic Illuminated Postal Van.
One Large Plastic Illuminated Cat.
Two hundred and fifty Wuzzle’s bottoms.

I had no idea at the time what a Wuzzle was, but have since found out that they are combination animals. For example one is called Bumblion, a combination of lion and bumble-bee. Of course, they are characters from children’s TV and therefore only the better characteristics of each animal are manifested in each of the mythical beasts. Excuse me? What are the better characteristics of a bee and a lion? Does this beast have the capacity to sting you to death before it eats you, but chooses not to do so out of the kindness of its feline heart? And Eleroo. A cross between a kangaroo and an elephant! I’m still trying to imagine what would be the effect of an animal the size of an African Elephant hopping across your back garden. I’m guessing you’d need a JCB to discover whether your garden gnomes survived the attack. But I digress…

The whole concept was so bizarre that whilst the team were unloading the trailer, I went across the road and took pictures. As it happened there was an old wreck of a Renault 4 abandoned at the kerbside outside the main entrance, so I used it as a makeshift tripod whilst taking pictures of the load coming off and being carried past what turned out to be inflatable illuminated sarcophagi. It was obvious that the team that were unloading the trailer were quite skilled and before long they had completed the job. The trailer was empty and I was ready to return to the TIR park, to see my agent, and sort out a reload.

I am not the most striking of individuals. I don’t have ‘presence.’ People don’t stop what they are doing and stare when I walk into a room. I actually enjoy being inconspicuous. So you can imagine my surprise when I wandered into the office of my agent and the assistant shrieked, dropped her coffee and fled the room! Moments later my agent came out of his office and beckoned me, whilst gabbling on that he thought I was dead. Bemused, I followed him into his office, wherein he had a little black-and-white TV, whilst reassuring him that I had not, to my knowledge, shuffled off these mortal coils. He pointed to the TV, which was showing a local news program. I watched for a few moments and then, as my fairly limited Spanish began to understand what the rapidly speaking reporter was saying, my stomach turned over.

Apparently, a bomb of several hundred pounds of explosives had detonated outside The Castle causing mayhem, death and destruction. A lorry driver had been badly injured, police and soldiers had died in the blast. The bomb, it turned out, had been packed in the shell of a Renault 4 at the front of the castle. The same Renault 4 that I had used, not 90 minutes earlier, as a tripod.

As the news story unwound, we worked out that the explosion had happened no more than twenty minutes after I had had my paperwork signed. Had the crew who unloaded the trailer been less efficient, or I had been a little later with the delivery, then I could have been resting against the Renault when it exploded…

The second occasion was at a place called Vic, just outside Barcelona. I was in the process of delivering chopped polythene pieces to a factory near the fire station and had stopped on a hill just outside the town, so I could have some lunch. As I sat drinking a cold cola, I watched another Renault 4 drive past, heading down the hill into town. About three seconds later my brain caught up with my eyes and ears. There was no driver in the car and the engine wasn’t running. I looked down the hill to see what was going on, and my heart lurched.

At the bottom of the hill was a police centre, with police office, a courtyard and housing. The car had gone through the courtyard and the explosives had detonated. Later I was to find out that many of the dead and injured were women and children playing in the courtyard. I understand the politics, but I don’t care about them. No organisation can claim any moral high ground when it bases its protests on the slaughter of the innocents. No matter what ETA may claim, it can never take the moral high ground, and any political statements, any deals, any progress it makes toward gaining Basque independence will be forever tainted by the souls of their victims.

The third occasion required the combined efforts of the Guarda Civil, twenty tonnes of paper, the cack-handed mechanical ineptitude of Mr Boss and a paella, and can be read elsewhere in the book, under the title ‘Paper paper everywhere.’

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Dodgy 08/09/09

The idea of driving on the continent can be off-putting to some people. Driving on the wrong side of the road, seeing road-signs in a foreign language, having to remember driving regulations…it can be very disconcerting. There was only one thing I found difficult, and it was, and is, very specific. If I returned to the UK from Calais to Dover, Eastern Docks, and if I had to head north along Jubilee Way, I was fine until I reached the roundabout at the top of the hill. Then I had to stop, and wait for a car to go round, and then follow it. For some reason I could not remember which way to go round that one, specific roundabout.
Sometimes, of course, it is not me out of step, but the rest of the world…

“Look, it’s a dead easy job. All you have to do is take the tractor unit and go and pick up the trailer. It’s in Valencia, at the garage where Alan is getting the Volvo fixed.”

I was dubious. Mr Boss’s ‘easy jobs’ had a tendency to become ludicrously complex, because he either ‘forgot’ certain details, ‘forgot’ to make arrangements that he promised, or downright lied. However, the idea of a tractor-only run to Valencia, then straight back with half a trailer load of cardboard car door trims did seem like the ideal trip for a spring weekend. I agreed. You’d think by then I would have known, wouldn’t you?

I was, once again, in the little Volvo F6, the day-cabbed unit that was not intended to be a long distance continental truck. A day-cabbed truck is one in which the cab is designed only to be used during the day. There is no facility for resting or sleeping, whereas a sleepercabbed truck has, as the name suggests, a sleeping compartment behind the driving seat. I put up with the wisecracks from the other drivers.
“What are you doing? Road testing for Matchbox?” “What does it want to be when it grows up?”, because I knew something they didn’t. I knew that I was totally out of my mind to be doing the job with that truck, but loved the job too much to care.

The problems started when I was half way across Spain. At about 2pm, with no warning, there was a massive snowstorm. With no trailer there was no weight on the back axle, and being such an old truck there were no driver aids such as anti-lock brakes or wheel spin reduction. For a couple of hours the driving was quite interesting…

Valencia was under several inches of snow when I finally found Alan. I wandered into the cafĂ© that abutted the workshop that held his broken Volvo, and greeted him. “Broke the back axle. That trailer is heavy!”

I was confused. “ Heavy? It is supposed to be partly filled with door cards.”

“Yeah. But the rest is full of car doors. And engines.”

Mr Boss had done it to me again!

Strangely, when I rang him, he wasn’t available. His wife told me to contact the company we were contracting for, which I quickly did. When I rang them they made it clear that Mr Boss was fully aware of what the load consisted of and that the trailer had to be back at Poole within three days. Oh…goody!

Alan and I exchanged views on Mr Boss, then he helped me to couple the trailer and I left. Very slowly…

At this time the BP Truckstop in Bordeaux was still under construction and so the favourite stopping place for truck drivers was at St-Genise de Saintonge. We called it ‘Saintes.’ It is on the National 137, and for trucks heading for Cherbourg it was just one day’s drive away.

I pulled in the truck park at 6pm and the snow was falling heavily. I was absolutely shattered. To get there had been a struggle, as my poor little truck was pulling something in the region of ten tonnes more than its design weight. I stopped the engine and as the snow settled around me, I covered the windscreen with copies of the Sun newspaper, set the alarm for 2:45am, tried to get comfortable over the seats, avoiding the handbrake and fell asleep.

My alarm clock at the time was an ‘amusing’ device, in the shape of a cockerel and it crowed. My how I laughed when I saw it. How I giggled when I bought it. How I hated it that morning…

Getting out of bed was always a struggle. One’s body had to form an S shape to try and avoid the gearstick and the handbrake lever. There was little danger of taking the brake off, but it was three inches long, and no matter where you lay it wanted to become intimate with your buttocks.

No time for coffee. I changed the tachograph disc, checked that my driving break, at least, was legal, fired up the engine and started off. Around me the car park, the trucks and the road were swathed in a blanket of white. To my recently asleep mind it was if the whole place had been draped in a duvet. It was hard to make out where the car park ended and the road began. It was, I discovered fairly quickly, equally hard to see where the road side ended and the grass verge, ditch or pavement began. This was going to be an interesting trip back!

As I crested a small hill I saw headlights approaching me. Two or three cars in line. The front car started flashing its lights at me, rapidly. He was on my side of the road! Or was I on his? In my still semi-asleep state I considered the possibilities. Either I, a lone English truck driver, had awoken and sleepily driven onto the wrong lane of the carriageway, or several locals had decided to play a joke. At the last minute I swerved onto ‘my’ side of the road and the convoy of cars went past, horns blaring, fists being waved out of the windows. Each car had a GB registration and a GB sticker. And approaching me was another set of headlights, flashing madly. For now I really was on the wrong side of the road.

Having sorted out in my mind exactly where I was supposed to be, I pressed on again, as the snow continued falling. All was well, until I approached La Rochelle and in front of me was a long queue of cars. I eased in behind the last and realised that they had been there for some considerable time, as the snow was thick on them. I got out of the truck and spoke to the gentleman in the rearmost car. He explained that the slipway that he, and I, needed to get from La Rochelle to Cherbourg was closed, due to snow. Workmen were clearing it, but they had been there for over an hour and expected to be there for at least two more. I thanked the gentleman and returned to my truck, turned off the engine, and settled down to wait…

How remarkably peaceful it was! All external noise seemed to be damped by the snow. One or two of the cars ran their engines to keep warm, but the most prominent noise was the susurration of the snowflakes, drifting, falling, hypnotic in the light of the yellow streetlamps.

My hands caressed the satin-smooth skin of her shoulders, my fingertips stroking her throat as they slid down the gentle curve of her bosom to her full, magnificent breasts. As I cupped the left breast it went Dee!....intrigued, I caressed the right. Dah!...I had quite a rhythm going when I suddenly realised it was a police siren, and woke up...

Startled, I looked for the source of the noise. On the other carriageway a Peugeot, resplendent in its blue livery, red, amber and blue lights on the top piercing the snow-laden gloom, the word ‘Gendarme’ in white on its flanks. What was upsetting them?

I looked in my mirrors to see who they were waving at. Behind me a long line of cars, trucks and busses was becoming visible as the daylight started to break through the stygian darkness. I could see nothing behind me to warrant such excited behaviour, so I looked to see if it was any of the cars in…front?

There were no cars in front!


It would seem that I had fallen asleep, lulled by the peace and quiet and in doing so had become an unintentional traffic jam.

Oh, and I managed to catch the boat, by about five minutes…

Monday, 7 September 2009

Gas Trick Flu 7/09/09

Gas Trick Flue
I had settled into the rut of driving from Halewood to Fords and actually became quite comfortable with it. Were it not for an act of blind stupidity on the part of Mr Boss, combined with an incredible piece of luck, I would possibly be tramping up and down the road from Halewood to the docks to this very day…

Although initially I was reluctant to take the truck abroad I soon actually started to enjoy the work, and in spite of working hours that were long and illegal, for several months I had a lot of fun hauling loads to Germany for Ford. However, there was one thing that I was unaware of, and that my boss had decided to ignore in the hopes that I would sort the problem out for him.

At that time I was pulling the trailers with a Volvo F6 day cab tractor unit. This is not a vehicle designed to be slept in, and for months I’d been working around this by sticking up newspaper round the windows and sleeping across the seats in a sleeping bag. Whilst this was not exactly comfortable it was, at least, possible.

The thing that I was unaware of manifested itself on the 1st October, when I arrived at the German border with Belgium. The police officer on duty came out, looked at the truck, and promptly told me to turn round and go home. It soon became clear to me that Germany operated a rule whereby you could not enter the country after 1st October unless you had a form of cab night heating, as the weather began to deteriorate badly and they quite rightly didn’t want idiotic foreign drivers freezing to death and cluttering up their countryside.

A hurried phone call persuaded Mr Boss to send the only tractor unit that we had with a night heater, and he told me he’d make arrangements for my truck to be fitted with one. He sounded quite perky about the idea. This, in itself, should have put my on my guard…

I met the other truck driver and we swapped trailers. This meant that I ended up having to go to Spain and because of Murphy’s Law I ended up there for two weeks. No change of clothes, no food, and little money. I have to tell you, that was a long two weeks. It was also the first time I’d been to Spain by truck and I loved it. On returning to the UK, tired, hungry and smelly, Mr Boss showed up with the night heater...

Oh my…it was something the shape of a traditional flying saucer, with a grille at the top and a spout at the side. It came with a clear plastic bottle of liquid. It was, in effect, a paraffin heater! I asked for the instructions and was told not to worry about it. All I had to do, apparently, was fill it with the liquid and light it. No worries, it would turn itself off if it was tipped over. And like a fool, I believed him.

Back again to Germany, and the Police Officer tried to get me to turn around again, but I showed him the heater. He conferred with his book of rules and his colleagues, and grudgingly they allowed me in to the country. I smiled, waved and set out for Saarlois and the Ford factory.

Having unloaded the body panels, and reloaded empty cages, I pulled out of the factory and parked up in the truck park. It was too early for bed, so I wandered into the village, found a bar, had a coffee, and then went for a walk. I happened across a Pizza place and bought a chicken pizza and a bottle of cola, and then returned to the truck.

Pizza consumed, I stuck pages of The Sun to the windows, filled and lit the heater, and then retired to my bed.

The next thing I knew was being in the open, in daylight, with a blinding headache, a massive pain in my chest and an oxygen mask. Ye gods, I hurt! A paramedic was kneelingbeside me and one of my co-drivers was beside him. It took a while to find out what had happened. My co-driver and friend Carl had arrived in the early hours of the morning, unloaded and retired to bed. His alarm had gone off at six and he came over to see what time I would be leaving, but couldn’t get an answer.

Eventually he’d attracted the attention of a security guard, and they’d smashed the window and gained entry, to find me very unwell across the seats. By very unwell, I mean not breathing, blue, and cold. The ambulance paramedics had to restart my heart.

It took me a week to recover, another week to get home, and several more days to find out what had happened. Mr Boss, it seems, was not happy with buying the heaters and the fuel to go in them, so had simply bought paraffin. As you know, boys and girls, you should never use a paraffin heater in a room without adequate ventilation. This burner had been designed to run on a much safer fuel and it did not react well to paraffin. Subsequent investigation revealed that the fumes it gave off were noxious. I had been very lucky. If Carl had not been diverted to Saarlois, and had not come across to see me, then I would no doubt have died from Carbon Monoxide poisoning. As it was, my chest and heart suffered not inconsiderable after effects and for some years after I had to have regular health checks. As luck would have it there was no real long-term damage done, but it was only through sheer luck that I do not have to dictate this through the medium of a medium.

Mr Boss and I had words when I was fit enough to go back to work. Strangely it did not take me long to persuade him that the trucks we had were not suitable for the work and before long we were the proud owners of two second-hand Iveco trucks, with bigger engines and night heaters. Which, incidentally, didn’t work very often, orvery well, but at least he’d made an effort. My real continental truck driving life had started!

Wednesday, 2 September 2009


Gaz Hunter is currently tied up, but will be doing a daily update all next week, starting Monday, to make up. Sorry folk :(

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Tragedy 25/08/09

When you drive for a living you will inevitably come across road traffic accidents. Some are fairly minor. Some not so. I thought long and hard about including this story. It was the hardest decision I have had to make. In the end I decided that I had to, as a monument to ‘Tracey’, and as an explanation as to why I now consider drink-drivers the very scum of the earth. I confess that before this incident I did not drink much, but would occasionally go out and have one or two drinks with the lads. What was the worst that could happen? I was a good driver. A couple of beers wouldn’t make a difference.

This incident changed my mind, and my life. It played a big part in making me the person I am today. If, when you read it, it makes you think twice about having ‘one for the road’ then maybe I would have done someone some good.

Names and locations have been changed. My feelings never can be...

There is a pub in Heysham, on the way to the docks. I don't recall the name; we all called it the Nuclear Arms, due to its location near to the power station. On this particular Sunday night I had taken a trailer load of toilet rolls to the docks, for shipping to Ireland. After dropping it off, I went to our agent's Portakabin to see which trailer I would be bringing back.

As it happened, on this particular night there was none to collect, so I would be going home "Bobtail", or unit only, with no trailer. This meant I would be home early. Result!

There were a few cars leaving from the Isle of Man ferry, and I tucked in behind the queue, waiting to exit the docks. The car in front was a Peugeot estate car, and sat in the rearfacing occasional seat in the back was a young girl. Her name, I discovered later, was Tracey, and that day was her 12th birthday.

The Peugeot went through, and I stopped at the barriers. A couple of minutes later I happened upon a scene of devastation. The Peugeot estate was stopped at the traffic lights. Embedded in the back was a blood red Peugeot 205 GTI.

Panicked, I grabbed my first aid kit from the truck, and rushed over to see what was happening. The driver of the 205 was yelling abuse, so he was okay. I looked in to the mess in the back of the estate car, and for the first time I understood what was meant by ‘my heart froze.’

I struggled in through the back window to the poor child.

Tracey was in a lot of pain. The floor and rear door of the car had folded in, crushing her from mid chest down. From the chest up she was cut by the flyingn glass. She was pale, and not crying, but talking quite calmly about what had happened. I started trying to clean her up, and calm her down.

We talked about the party she had been to in the Isle of Man with her auntie and her cousin. She told me she wanted to be a lorry driver when she grew up, like her uncle Trevor. I told her about my dogs, and she told me about her cats and her pet rat.

The emergency services turned up. They were concerned that I should get out and let one of them in, but I explained that I had spent several years as a paramedic, before I left to drive buses. It was decided that as I had achieved a rapport with her and was physically in there. I would remain, administer the IV and any supporting medication required whilst the fire brigade cut us out.

Over the next thirty five minutes we got to know each other very well. She wasn't too upset when I set up a saline drip, and she accepted my checking her blood pressure and pulse. I was terrified. I had not often seen such low blood pressure in a conscious person.

As the emergency services took her parents from the front of the car, and started cutting away the roof and sides, I got her to smile by telling jokes. She was not, to my surprise, scared by the noises going on around her. She was briefly worried that her mum would be cross when she saw that there was blood on her jumper, but I told her she would be so pleased to see her daughter she wouldn't worry. I promised, if her mum was cross, to buy her another jumper just like it. She decided she'd like one with a sheep on it. No. On second thoughts, she'd like one with a lorry on “just like yours.”

Thirty five minutes it took for the fire brigade to make everything safe for extraction. And then Tracey looked at me and said, "It’s alright. It doesn't hurt any more." And then did something I have not to this day forgiven her for.

She died.

The fire brigade got me out and the police were around. So was the driver of the 205. Apparently he had come out of the Nuclear Arms drunk and tried to drive home. He was still cursing the driver and family of the estate car for stopping at the red light.

I drove back to the yard, handed in the keys to the truck and asked them to take me off that job, effective immediately. I could no longer envisage going to Heysham. I could no longer pass the spot. I have never been back to Heysham since.

Her parents were badly injured in the crash. Her mother was pregnant at the time with what would turn out to be Tracey’s little brother. I stayed in contact with them for a while, but...the pain of the memory was too great. I understand that they moved to Spain to forge anew life for themselves. I'm sure her memory lives on in them as it does in me.

Friday, 21 August 2009

Customs Curiosity 21/08/09

Customs Curiosity

One of the more, um…interesting aspects of the driving job was that it forced you into close contact with that curious mindset, ‘The Official.’

Given to wearing impressive uniforms, often with even more impressive hats, these individuals have a job to do, and they are not going to let petty annoyances such as common sense and humanity get in their way.

That really isn’t a fair statement. For every ‘Official’ you meet you are likely to encounter tens of ‘officials’ who do their job so well and so unobtrusively that you never notice them. To these people I offer my humble apology, for the book will contain quite a few references to ‘Officials’ whilst barely acknowledging the existence of the ‘official’ who has made my job, my day, and my life just that little bit easier. To those people, those unacknowledged heroes of every day life, I salute you.

To the ‘Official’ however…

The job of carrying Ford car parts to Germany and Belgium was, for the most part, uneventful. Once we had been given suitable wagons we just got on with the work and tried, to the best of our abilities, to make our runs legal. It was not fun having to try and tiptoe a 38 tonne truck past every police car and weighbridge, trying to look inconspicuous. However, The Boss had decided that he didn’t have to bother with HGV road tax when ordinary car tax would do, so we were regularly getting pulled. It then fell to us to explain that yes, we knew the vehicle was not legally taxed, but that we were not responsible for that, and the very nice police officer would have to speak to our boss. I have no idea how many summonses he go about this, but I should imagine it ran into the high tens, possibly touching a hundred. Yet still he persisted in doing it.

The one bonus of the Ford job was that you almost always came back empty. The job paid well enough that a one way trip was worthwhile. Well, I say it paid well. Certainly Mr Boss made money on it, but we poor drivers were still getting paid £120 per week, whether we worked in the UK or abroad, and whether we went home every night or once a fortnight…

One thing Mr Boss did not mind was his drivers carrying passengers. This meant that I could at least take Girlfriend du jour with me when she was on holiday, so I got to see her. And it was on just one of these occasions when we were honoured by a demonstration of the thoroughness of the Customs Official.

Disembarking from the P&O ferry, we queued at the customs station. Now, frequently we would just be allowed through ‘on the nod,’ but on this occasion a young Customs Official came out and asked if he could search the truck. I nodded and climbed out of the cab, paperwork in hand.

“What have you got on board?” he asked.
“Glider engines,” I grinned.

He looked puzzled and wandered round to the back of the trailer, and asked me to open up. I got him to check the customs seal on the trailer, then broke it, an opened up the back. He looked in to a totally empty trailer.

“But I thought you said you had glider eng….OH. I get it. Yes, very good.”

He did not seem best pleased… He then asked if I would mind him searching the cab of the truck and again I nodded my consent. He climbed up into the cab and started poking around, opening cupboards, looking into carrier bags of dirty laundry…I watched in some amusement as he discovered the bag into which Girlfriend du jour had placed her worn unmentionables…

Finally he sat in the driver’s seat and asked if I understood my customs allowance. I agreed that I did indeed.

“Then why is it,” he inquired “that you have down here on the form that you have 400
cigarettes? You should know that your personal allowance is only 200”

“Yes, I know. 200 for me and 200 for her,” I replied and pointed to my girlfriend in the passenger seat. He looked over, saw her, apparently for the first time, yelped, and fell headlong out of the truck…

That’s right. He’d searched the cab, and totally failed to see my young lady in the passenger seat. Which is funny all by itself. But he’d also found her bag of used drawers. What the heck did he think that I would be doing with a bag full of lacy skimpies? No, on second thoughts, keep the answer to yourself, for I do not want to know

Monday, 17 August 2009

Something Offal 18/08/09

Something offal this way comes

I suppose that it is only fair, having pointed out how events that happen to other people can provide me with so much delight, to chronicle the (not all that) odd occasion when Murphy steps in to make me the butt of the joke.

People have varied images of truck drivers. To some the song ‘I like Trucking’ as shown on ‘Not the Nine O’Clock News’ epitomises the group. Overweight, dim as a penny candle, and endlessly scoffing Yorkie bars as they try to scare little old ladies out of their wits with their air horns.

Others see them as Knights of the Road, ever willing to offer help to stranded fellow drivers, to provide directions to the most obscure of places, and transport as well, if the need arises. To yet others the image is that of windswept and interesting modern day gypsy, endlessly driving their rigs to an unreachable yet beckoning destiny.

Each perception is right, in its own way, and each is entirely wrong. Especially the one suggesting the romance of the job…

“I want you to do me a favour.”

These words, taken at face value, are harmless. However, when Mr Boss spoke them they had an undercurrent of meaning. The words themselves were not important. The message was carried by the unspoken word. And the unspoken word said, “I have a particularly nasty job for you. A job I wouldn’t do if you were paying me three times the pittance I pay you. A job I have offered to all the other drivers, and which they have laughingly told me to shove where the sun doesn’t shine!”

Unfortunately I had been working for Mr Boss for less than a year, and was unaware of his duplicity, and helpfully enquired what the job entailed. Apparently he had a contract with a slaughterhouse to remove pallets of frozen offal to a disposal site. Oh, and the job started at 8pm, which would be nice, as it was the middle of a very hot summer. This, as it happens, would be an important factor in why the job went very wrong very quickly…

7:30 pm saw me at the yard, where I was met by Mr Boss. He looked a little concerned at my attire, but I had dressed for the weather in shorts, sandals and tee shirt. It would, in hindsight, have been nice of him to tell me what he actually knew of the job, but he was worried that if he told me the truth I’d turn around and go home, leaving him to do it. So he remained unhelpfully silent. I took the tractor unit and left the yard, heading for the meat processing plant a mile or so up the road.

On arrival the site foreman took a look at the paperwork.
“Ah, you want trailer 1776, it is parked over there,” he said, pointing to a long parking bay full of trailers. I walked over to the row and started looking. I reached the other end, turned round, and walked back. Nope, I couldn’t see it, so I went back to the site office, and explained that I couldn’t find fridge trailer 1776 in the row at all.

“Fridge trailer? It isn’t a fridge, my friend. You’re looking for a tipper trailer. Should be easy to find too, as it has been stood in the sun all week, full of offal!”

Ten seconds later I was on the phone to Mr Boss, who denied ever telling me that pallets or fridges were involved. He was so convincing that I started to believe him and question my own sanity. As it turned out, I was later to discover that the guy was more closely related to the weasel than the ape, but that is for later stories…

I found the trailer, using nothing more than my sense of smell. Dear gods, it reeked! I looked for the sheeting to cover it, but one of the company drivers who were doing the same run told me that they didn’t sheet the load, as the sheets were then unusable for anything else. When I asked him what they did for load security I was told, “Brake very gently, and deny everything.”

My lord, how the trailer stank. I reversed under the coupling, checked the trailer was fastened and climbed on to the back of the truck to fasten the airlines. Whilst there I was able to see into the tipper body. You don’t want to know. Really you don’t. Okay, but don’t say I didn’t warn you…

Anything that was not useable by the butchers (which, to be honest, at a time before the ban on mechanically reclaimed meat and spine/brain material wasn’t a lot) was in that trailer. And you have to understand that if the butchers wouldn’t use it even for pet food, it was not just offal, it was awful. Worse, it had stood, uncovered, in the heat of the summer sun for a week, where flies and other insects could get at it. It roiled. It rolled. It heaved. It fulminated. Things crawled in it. Bubbles rose to the surface and POPPED in an oily sludge, producing yet more smell.

See, I told you that you didn’t want to know…

8pm, and off we set. Three trucks, each with its cargo of doom. Each driver firm of chin, clear of eye and wobbly of stomach. Two of the three drivers clad in waxed boiler suits and waders. What exactly did they know that I didn’t?

We hit the M25, and headed for the Dartford Tunnel, which, before the opening of the bridge, was guaranteed to be busy. The two drivers in the ERFs of the company fleet had pulled some distance ahead of me, as my truck was old, slow and poorly maintained, so when I got to the toll booths I was greeted by a worrying sight. A fleet of Landrovers in Dartford River Crossing logos, surrounding the two trucks. Another Landrover drove over to me, stuck on its blue lights and a ‘Follow Me’ logo, and escorted me to the hard shoulder.

It turned out that we were persona non grata at the site. They would very much like us to go away. To leave. They would be massively grateful if we would consider turning round and discovering a new route avoiding the M25 tunnel, if we would be so kind. Sadly they were couching all this in words that would cause a nun to blush. They really were not keen on us being there. Stupidly, paying no attention to the warning glances of the other two drivers, I enquired why they were so hostile.

It turned out that on the last expedition from the processing plant to the disposal site, one of the drivers had been less careful with the air brakes on the approach to the tollbooths than was sensible. You may recall I mentioned the lack of sheeting on the trailers? It seems that the sudden application of brakes had caused what we would call ‘a load shift’ and what the toll road officers referred to as, “throwing ten tonnes of shit at the tollbooths.” Apparently there was a scattergun effect when the load left the trailer and quite a number of people got a share of the effluvium. One girl ended up with a sheep skull pretty much in her lap. Whilst lacking skin or flesh it still had the eyes attached, and they gazed mournfully at her. Apparently flayed sheep skulls are not as cute as the ones still attached to the sheep, and she was now off work and on tranquilisers. The toll collector in another of the booths was so affected by the smell as to projectile vomit over a car, whilst the fumes caused the abandonment of a number of booths, and cars, for a number of days. To be air, the chaps did have good reason not to want us going through the tunnel…

So, we were unceremoniously turned round, and sent away. The officials didn’t care where we went, just that we went. So, we turned round, and went all the way back along the M25, anti-clockwise, which is not, on the whole, the most sensible way of getting to Canterbury from the north of the country.

One of the things you see on motorways and especially the M25 in summer is convertible cars with the tops down, tailgating lorries. Not so that night,strangely. Any car that drew up behind us very quickly pulled way back or passed very rapidly.

At about 1am we pulled off the motorway, and drove down quiet country lanes, and eventually up a narrow winding track. It only qualified for the name road rather than cycle path because nobody in their right mind would want to ride a bike down it. The smell of corruption was overwhelming. Good lords, and I had thought the trailer smelt bad!

We turned into a yard, lit with powerful yellow floodlights. My command of the English language is not sufficient to describe what confronted me. I will try, but however bad it may sound, believe me when I say it was in actuality ten times worse. At one end of the yard was an old brick building. Windowless, but with a multitude of vents, it steamed in the demonic light. Had Dante witnessed this place his Ninth Level of Hell would not have been ice, and Judas would have had much more to concern him than chilblains. (Incidentally, did you know that Judas was a red-head? That’s right. Judas is carrot).

In a hut adjacent to the building were three men in orange boiler suits. One acknowledged us with a wave and then wandered out. He was an imposing being, having shoulder length grey hair and a massive beard. We stopped the wagons and got out. The two other drivers started pulling on long rubber boots. What did they know that I didn’t?

After a brief chat, the two drivers wandered over, and told me that we had to tip the load in the courtyard. I looked, and it was at this point I decided that when I got back home Mr Boss was going to die. The ‘courtyard’ was in fact an area of about an acre, possibly of concrete, but mainly of offal, several feet deep. I watched as the first driver reversed his wagon in to the slurry, and got out of the cab. And I realised the significance of the boots. The tipper trailers had a small diesel engine to power the tipping hydraulics and it was mounted half way down the chassis. It was started by a crank handle, and this meant that you had to wade through the gunk to reach it. I looked down at my spindly white legs and sandals.


I will draw a veil over the next twenty minutes, except to say that there are nights when I wake in the early hours, screaming.

Having pulled the wagon clear I availed myself of the hosepipe on the side of the building. It was meant to be used for washing the wheels of the trucks before we left. I had a far better use for it. Whilst I was washing myself down I observed the chap with the beard shovelling some of the goop down a ramp into the processing plant. And then pick up a sandwich and start eating it.

In my time I have seen, heard and smelt a lot of things that would curdle the stomach of less hardy folk, and not even flinched. However, I have to say that it took me several weeks before I could look a bowl of beef broth in the eye again without breaking into a sweat. And it took me several more weeks before I managed to get the smell out of the truck...

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Roadside repairs 09/08/09

Roadside Repairs
Life can be full of surprises. I am endlessly amazed at the potential for humour in the most unlikely of places. It is not impossible that my stint in the ambulance service has furnished me with a somewhat skewed sense of humour, but I delight in observing the absurd, the amusing, the wonderfully unlikely. Even the act of driving down a road can be a source of amusement. For me, if maybe not for the unwilling participants…

Having come home from Belgium I had delivered a load in Birmingham and was on my way back home, when I found myself in a small queue of traffic on the M1, heading south. Just up ahead I could see there had been a road traffic accident and a car and a peoplecarrier were limping off the highway. I pulled in to the hard shoulder, as, having been a member of the emergency services, I felt duty bound to render assistance if possible.

It quickly became clear that I was not, in fact, the first medical practitioner on site. Parked in front of me was a pastel blue Morris Minor. Synapses unused since I left the ambulance service started to twang. Nerves that had relaxed began jangling, the hair on the back of my neck stood up. I knew, I just knew who I was going to face. Nevertheless, true professional that I was, I grabbed my first aid kit, and got out of the cab. And there she was. Stately as a galleon, scary as a scary thing. The District Nurse. My knees went weak and my skin tried to get back in the truck, but I pressed on, certain that she couldn’t be as bad as…

“What do you whant, yhoung mhan?!”

Damn it, knees. Keep me upright. She holds no sway over you any more. Her powers are weak!

“Ay said! What do you WHANT! yhoung mhan?” the Voice demanded, once more. I knew I had to answer. The lore foretold that if a District Nurse asked of you the same question thrice, then your soul was hers, forever.

“Um…please, I’m ex ambulance service, Nurse,” I replied, and blow me if I didn’t nearly put my hand up in the air before I answered.

She looked me up and down. I probably didn’t present a particularly stirring sight. Although later in my driving career I developed the habit of wearing a white shirt, tie and pressed trousers, at this moment I was clad in denim shorts, a teeshirt with a very unfunny joke, and wood and cow-hide clogs.

“Ai dhont think you will be necessaryah. Ai have telephoned the real ambulance people. They will be along shortleah,” she said, dismissively, and got back in her blue Minor and drove out into the oncoming traffic, without looking, indicating or making any effort to avoid any oncoming vehicles. When you are a District Nurse, you leave all the organising to the rest of the planet, which obviously will arrange things for your convenience…a few hundred years ago she would have been classed as a witch…

Curious as to what had happened, I wandered further up to the scene of the accident, as my eyes started to water, my sides to shake and I had trouble breathing. Basic first aid requires that when you are faced with an open wound or a bleed site, you apply a sterile dressing. The handbooks suggest newly laundered sheets, clean handkerchiefs or any fresh linen. The problem is, very few people are fortunate enough to actually come across an accident whilst carrying any of the above. The advice continues that you should make do with whatever you have to hand. And she had.

As the local ambulance pulled in behind me, I grasped at the Armco, and lowered myself to the floor, eyes streaming, shoulders shaking with suppressed laughter. In front of me were the four ‘victims’ of the accident, all men.

It was bad enough that one had a split lip, one had a cut over his eye and one had glass cuts to his cheek. The District Nurse had applied what sterile dressings she had to hand, and so all three were pressing NHS sanitary towels to their faces.

But oh, how sorry I felt for the young lad that had the nose bleed. I won’t tell you what dressing she had applied, but the poor sod was stood there, red of face, with a small white piece of string hanging from each nostril…

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Taking the P*** 5/08/09

(Posted a day late, due to illness)

To some people the whole idea of driving trucks on the continent is anathema. To be away from home for extended periods, to be isolated from people who have the same culture and speak the same language can be daunting, but to be honest you can get the same effect driving from Sussex to Sunderland!

For others the idea of being a Continental trucker is what they have aimed for all their lives, and to yet others, like myself, they dread the idea, and yet when they try it they grow to love it.

Continental trucking is not, on most occasions, a structured job. You live from day to day, not knowing where you are going to go to reload, or when. You could spend weeks abroad, loading in one country, delivering in another, reloading in a third, or you could find yourself back in the UK for weeks, doing only local work. You could be flitting around the continent, carrying for different companies, or spending months, or even years on the same contract, carrying the same goods to the same destination. First, however, you actually have to gain employment...

One of the problems faced by a newly qualified HGV driver is that to get a job you need experience, and to get experience you need a job. Unless you are extremely lucky no good company is going to hire a newly qualified driver, which is why a lot of new drivers find themselves working for ‘cowboys’. Cowboys are that group of employers who believe that they are above the law and require their workforce to behave illegally purely for profit. I was no exception. I ended up working for a gentleman who will be referred to from now on as Mr Boss.

I’d worked for the company for maybe 3 months and had made it very clear that I would go anywhere, in any vehicle, and with any load, so long as I was home every night. Although I was single, I wanted to be with my parents, siblings and pets, and if I were dating, my Girlfriend du jour. Of course, I ran illegally. Mr Boss did not hold with the concept of drivers needling sleep, nor complying with tachograph rules, and weight regulations were written for people who were not him. However, he knew I wanted to be home at night, with my family and for the most part he endeavoured to make sure that I was. There were the odd occasions when I would be stuck with a night out, but most frequently he would give me warning of these, and if possible my Girlfriend du jour would come with me.

Eventually, one morning he rang me and asked if I had a passport. I informed him in the negative, that it had expired. He told me I’d better get one in a hurry, as I would be shipping out that night to Germany. I told him in no uncertain terms that this was not going to happen and he pointed out that there was any number of drivers who could do my job just as well. I buckled under the threat and got a 1-year visitor’s passport from the local post office.

The job, according to Mr Boss, was a sure-fire money-spinner. We’d load at the Ford factory in Halewood and ship to any Ford plant in Germany or Belgium. The catch was that the delivery had to be made within 24 hours of leaving Halewood. This was an ideal job for two drivers, but unfortunately Mr Boss thought that two drivers were better deployed in two trucks, so we did the whole job ourselves.

I was distinctly unhappy with the idea of going abroad. However, I needed the job, so I went. One of the other contractors doing the job was Paul Ashwell, the gentleman who found himself embroiled in the ‘Supergun’ affair [1]and imprisoned in Greece. He and I often found ourselves on the run together. He was easy to recognise, as his Leyland truck had a silhouette of a cannon on each door.

On the occasion in question he and I were parked at the Ford factory in Saarlois in Germany, waiting to get unloaded, when a bright red UK registered truck pulled in to the truck park. It parked up, and the driver leapt out of the cab, and ran over to me. I swear he would have hugged us if I hadn’t retreated. After he stopped flapping, he told me that this was his first trip abroad and he had been slightly lost, for three days in Brussels, ending up in a narrow dead-end street that had required the police to close off several roads whilst he reversed out. To say he was upset would be an understatement. He pleaded with me to allow him to run back with us, and being kind hearted, I acquiesced.

At that time German customs were very concerned about the quantities of diesel that trucks were entering the country with. The maximum you were allowed was 200 litres, and they checked every wagon. I had been told that the easiest way to circumvent the problem and indeed the fines the German officials imposed for every litre over the 200 litre allowance, was to try and arrive at the border with the tank nearly empty. It should then be possible to refuel at the services in Luxembourg on the way back and also get a meal and a cup of coffee.

We pulled in to the rather crowded truck park and all went for a meal. The new lad eschewed coffee for a couple of pints, which surprised me, given that he had told us he hadn’t eaten for two days. After the meal and drinks we sat and chatted away our 45-minute break, and he told me of the trials and tribulations of his first and, according to him, last trip abroad.

“At least now I’m with you nothing more can go wrong!” he avowed. It has been my experience in life that making claims like that is a bad idea, and so it proved…We returned to the trucks and he let out a howl of anguish. I looked, and there was a stream of liquid running from under his truck.

“I don’t believe it! The radiator must be leaking!” he said, and before I could stop him he had crouched, dipped his finger in the trickle of liquid, and tasted it. As he did so I looked along the side of his truck. There was a large gentleman urinating against the front wheel of his truck, and the stream of urine tricked inexorably under the front of my poor unlucky colleague's truck….When he realised what he had just done, the poor man broke down and cried.

We did, eventually, get him back to Calais and the ferry back to the UK. When we parked up to sort out the customs paperwork he got down on his knees, kissed the ground, and swore that he would never ever go abroad again. As he spoke I had an epiphany. Clearly he was wrong. I realised that I had loved the job. I wanted, no, craved to do it again. After all, it was so easy! I took to driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road like a duck to water, and after all, that was all there was to this continental lark. What on earth could ever go wrong?

[1] In the early 1990s, Matrix Churchill, a Coventry firm, exported some tubes to Iraq. The tubes turned out to be the barrel of a ‘supergun.’ The person contracted to deliver the load was Paul Ashwell. He was arrested and imprisoned in Greece, and there was considerable effort made to have him freed. The scandal that followed was widely publicised, and brought about the collapse of the Coventry firm, the arrest of its Directors, and considerable dissembling from the Government at the time, as investigation produced evidence of Government sanctioned spying, and a cover-up operation.

Paul made an effort to get his life and business back on track, which was where he was when I met him. Where he is now I have no idea, but I hope that he reads this and remembers me, and I wish him well in the future.

Thursday, 30 July 2009

A journey of a thousand miles 31/07/09

A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first stumble

How many of us can claim to have followed a childhood ambition to its realisation?

As children we looked upon the future with wide eyes, and each of us tried to imagine what that future would hold. Each of us had some idea of what we wanted to be, and for the most part that dream changed as we got older, as we became interested in different things.

I was lucky. I remember one of my ambitions, lowly as it was, was to be a truck-driver, just like my Uncle Roy. How well I remember standing gazing in awe at the Volvo F88 that he parked outside our house on the very few occasions he visited us. To me that Goliath was the epitome of cool, and he, as its driver, was the very King of the Road. That ambition never left me. However, I was not to realise my dream until over twenty years later, by which time I had been a laboratory assistant for the construction industry, a land drainage engineer, a video library owner, an electronics installation engineer, an ambulance paramedic and a coach driver. All of the jobs provided a certain level of satisfaction, but none of them, apart from the paramedic, gave me the buzz of a job well done…

I woke up in hospital. I knew, without conscious thought that it was a hospital. I’d experienced more waking up in hospital than I really wanted, and could recognise the clues. Soft pillows. The distant beep of a monitor. Quiet coughing. The too bright, sterile looking light. The smell of disinfectant that almost but not quite masked the odour of boiled cabbage.

Okay, I was in hospital, check. Next, where did I hurt? On cue my arm and neck started to throb and grate. I attracted the attention of a nurse by sitting up and yelping, she came over and spoke, in French. Right, either the NHS was having serious staffing problems, or I was in France. Pain relief was organised, and I sat back in a comfortable fug, waiting for things to start to make sense. Explanations would, I knew, happen in their own time, and in any case the morphia made straight-line thinking impossible. The little birds and fairies were far too distracting.

As I was driving for a coach and holiday company at the time I was well looked after. During the afternoon one of the company tour guides, Bruce, turned up to see me. I should point out that all tour guides look the same. They may have long hair, or short. They could have massive moustaches or other facial topiary. Piercings were not uncommon, nor were scars, nor broken noses. With or without glasses, in their company uniform of blazers and light grey slacks, they were still somehow identical. The same was true of the men. I used to call then all Bruce, to save time.

Bruce told me what had happened. Apparently I’d been ‘off shift’ and asleep in the driver’s rest compartment of the coach. Situated under the seats on the left hand side of the vehicle, this is a small compartment big enough for the spare driver to sleep in, and if he is flexible enough, to get changed in. We all referred to it as ‘The Coffin,’ although up until that moment I hadn’t realised how apt the soubriquet was. As we’d rounded a corner a Spanish registered truck laden with sheet steel had come the other way, and a corner of the steel had struck the side of the coach, opening up the side like a tin opener. In doing so it had cut through ‘The Coffin,’ removed my pillow from under my head, and managed to compact the entire compartment into a space about half its width. I’d been trapped in there for about two hours, most of the time unconscious, so I had no memory of the events, before I’d been cut free. It seems I’d been incredibly lucky to get away with the injuries I’d sustained, as had the steel been a couple of inches higher it would have left the pillow where it was, and instead removed my head from my shoulders. As it was, my head had been rattled around like a pea in a can and I suffered a broken nose, badly damaged neck and a smashed wrist watch. I have no idea how…

I was in the hospital in France for five weeks before being transported home, and off work for another two months before starting back to work. I’d expressed an interest in not shipping out abroad for a while, as I was still a little shaken up, and so the company had given me an ‘easy’ job to start back on. I had to transport a coach-load of scouts and cubs to Devon, in the oldest coach in the fleet, an ancient Duple-bodied Bedford. This, at least, should have been a piece of cake.

The first indication that this was not going to involve cake of any sort occurred at a rest break outside Glastonbury. We’d stopped at a grassy picnic area, and the cubs were having sandwiches and drinks, and running around being children. One of them then decided that what he really wanted to do was to slide down the grassy bank, which would have been fun were it not for the broken beer bottle hidden in the grass. The resultant wound required hospital treatment, so we all piled in to the coach and I drove around Glastonbury until we found the hospital. The unfortunate child was decanted, along with one of the supervisors, whilst I waited with the coach on the road outside.

The duo returned about an hour later, with the cub looking somewhat green. Apparently the cut to his buttock had required cleaning and stitching, and a number of injections of local anaesthetic had been applied round the area before this could take place. On top of this he’d been given antibiotics and oral painkiller. All of this, combined with fizzy drink and sweets, was not sitting well with him, and so he was given a seat at the front, behind the driver, with the supervisor.

Off we set, en-route to Devon. The road out of Glastonbury was long, straight and narrow, with reed beds either side. Before long I’d accumulated quite a queue of traffic behind me, as the Bedford was not the fastest coach in the fleet, and the road did not provide many safe overtaking opportunities, and there were no places where I could pull over to let the traffic pass. And then I heard The Noise.

There is something unmistakeable about The Noise of someone about to be sick, and it is a noise that elicits a similar response in me. I was for some time with the ambulance service, and the sight, sound and smell of someone throwing up would usually cause me to honk in sympathy. The same is true of a lot of people, and indeed there is a theory that this is a primal response, from when we used to live in large social groups, in caves, and eat the same food. If one person was sick it was likely to be due to food poisoning and as everyone would have eaten from the communal ‘pot’ then the group vomit was a survival technique.

Knowing this, however, did not make it any better.

The Noise became louder and louder, and was combined with the supervisor’s desperate attempts to get him facing somewhere other than her lap. I am here to say that she succeeded and a veritable fountain of pop, chocolate, crisps, medication and lord knows what hit me, hard, in the back of the neck. I was…unhappy with this. It took a lot of effort to keep the coach on the road. It took considerable effort not to throw up. But it took most of my effort not to be most impolite to the supervisor for being so bloody stupid. And I knew that there was nowhere for me to stop for miles. I am fairly sure that driving the coach, in a miasma of second-hand picnic products, whilst the acidic stomach contents first cooled and then chilled, over my white cotton shirt, and hair, and the back of my ears, was the most miserable hour of my life.

I eventually found a lay-by, which by some miracle had a natural stream running out of the rock, and I was able to wash the worst of the explosion out of my hair and ears. Whilst I was doing this, one of the scout leaders provided me with a tee-shirt, whilst my company shirt went in the nearest bin. At least, I decided, things could not get any worse… We were only an hour from Porlock, and maybe two hours from our destination. I could then decant the little, um, dears, and get back home to a proper bath.

Once I was fairly comfortable, and the scouts had cleaned and disinfected the coach, and the smell had been reduced, we all piled back and set off. I am pleased to report that there were no further incidents, until, that is, we reached Porlock Hill.

Porlock Hill is part of the A39, and runs downhill approximately 400 metres in two miles, in a series of bends. It is not a road to be taken lightly, and has been the site of numerous accidents in the past, a lot of which involved coaches which had lost their brakes and hit the stone walls at the bottom of the descent. The gradient in some places was steeper than one in four, and on the outside, from our point of view, was a 400 metre cliff face, then the Atlantic.

The passengers were looking out of the windows, admiring the stunning views, as we started the descent. The nose of the Bedford dipped and I selected second gear. The engine revs slowly increased as the little diesel engine acted as a brake to slow our passage down the hill. I needed to use as much engine braking as possible, as the old bus had fairly basic brakes, and I didn’t want to ‘cook’ them before we reached the bottom. Eventually, however,the engine braking wasn’t enough, and I touched the brake pedal to provide additional arrest to our descent. Except instead of the slight HISS of air brakes there was a distinct THUD, and the pedal failed to move. I pressed again, harder, and again THUD, and no movement of the pedal. Oh heck, this was not a good thing! For a few panicked moments I trod harder and harder on the pedal, each time resulting in the same THUD and lack of braking action, and all
the time the old bus picked up speed, the engine roaring, and the first bend approaching. The younger passengers, for the most part, thought this was wonderful and all part of the adventure. I, on the other hand, was fairly sure I wasn’t having any fun at all. I managed, more through blind luck than on any skill on my part, to get the coach round the first bend, and by that time my head had cleared a bit, and I did what I should have done in the first place. I pulled on the handbrake and killed the engine. We slowed, and stopped.

One of the first instructions the passengers had been given was, “You will not eat, nor will you drink, whilst on the coach.” Nevertheless, once I had got my breathing back under control, I looked at the foot pedals, and there, directly under the brake pedal, was a glass cola bottle. This had obviously rolled there as we started down the hill and was just the right size to obstruct the brake pedal. I explained what had happened to the supervisor, who was bemused as to why we had stopped, and had not realised there was any problem until I explained to her how close we had come to becoming part of the scenery. She reminded the passengers of their promise not to eat or drink, and after some more time to catch my breath, we started, and this time completed, our descent.

The rest of the journey was pretty much without incident and I returned to base with an empty coach. However, the two incidents, so close together, had coloured my opinion of coach driving, and by the time I’d arrived at the yard I’d pretty much decided that it was no longer what I wanted. I loved driving, but I wanted something that didn’t involve passengers.

I was no longer comfortable with having so many lives in my hands, nor indeed happy with the not infrequent occasions when a passenger would become violent or abusive. What I wanted, in fact, was a similar job, involving driving long distances, but with passengers who didn’t answer back. A nice, easy, safe job. A job where I would never again get hurt.

What could that job be?

Monday, 27 July 2009

Dedication and Introduction: 27/07/09

Dedicated to all the truck drivers out there, who do a difficult and dangerous job, unnoticed by all but the few, yet serve the general public in so many ways. Without them every aspect of our daily lives would be so much more inconvenient. Without them Stobart-spotters would have to stand on cold platforms watching trains. Without them the life of the hedgehog would be longer and less two-dimensional.
In particular, to Ken and Jan, Gods rest your souls, and to all my friends on the road. I’ll see you on the flip-side!


Trucking, for me, is a combination of the very best and the very worst of jobs. I have been to places and seen things that the average man in the street could not even imagine.
Sunrise over the mountains in Salzburg, reflecting in the lake, bringing me to tears at its phenomenal natural beauty. Swiss-style chalets in Aosta in Northern Italy lit up with fairy lights in the very early hours of Christmas Eve, twinkling and sparkling in the snow-rimed landscape. Vast swathes of vineyards in the southern French villages, being lovingly tended by black-dressed elderly women, whilst men in the background sit in the sun, drinking wine.

Without the HGV licence I would probably never have had the chance to observe and enjoy such sights. There has been comedy, there have been tears, but only very seldom has there
been boredom.

The downside is that it really is a job for a single man. Marriages and other
relationships so frequently do not last, which is why I refer to ‘Girlfriend du jour’ throughout.

I am not a prodigiously romantic person, but I discovered that a relationship is so often not sustainable when time and distance are thrown into the mix. You can easily be away from home for six months at a time, and it is simply unfair on the partner who has to stay at home and keep house.

It has to be said, though, that in the midst of beauty there can be chaos. One of the
pre-requisites of good continental truck drivers is the ability to think on their feet, or
technically on their arse, because there are no plans so carefully made, no schedules so painstakingly drawn up that the hand of Murphy cannot totally screw up with just a little prod.

What follows is, in itself, a journey. My journey, from disenchanted coach driver to a member of the brotherhood (and increasingly sisterhood) of professional truck drivers. Next time you grow annoyed with the truck in front of you, just remember that he could be me.

Give them a wave and a smile. At the very least you will confuse them for the rest of the day


Before we embark on the journey, I should explain that I will be using technical terms throughout the book. I have, therefore, compiled a list of the more important terms for your information, and to save you scurrying for the dictionary. (I should point out that my concern is not so much that you should tire yourself in your relentless quest for knowledge and understanding, but that you should find the dictionary to be more entertaining than the book you are now reading)

Articulated Lorry:
A Heavy Goods unit designed to carry maximum volume and weight. These things are also
designed to bend when turning. This can come as a bit of a surprise if you have just sneaked up the inside at a crossroads or similar intersection when the artic is clearly indicating a left turn and yet is sitting on the right hand side of the road. Clearly he has left his indicator on in error, right? Wrong... That will be because he needs to swing out to the right before he turns left. And the trailer that is currently on your right is shortly going to be collecting you and
your car, and introducing it forcefully to the pavement, because, of course, you are now in the blind spot, and the truck driver cannot see you. If you happened to be the driver of the rather pretty pink VW Beetle in Winchester, well, now you know!

Another term for Articulated Lorry. See also HGV

When applied to geography, the most northerly part of the planet Earth. Not, in any way, another term for Articulated Lorry.

Car transporter:
A vehicle designed so the driver can have a multi vehicle accident all on his own.

CMR forms:
Convention des Marchandises Routiers.
Paperwork to facilitate the total confusion of drivers, warehousemen and customs officials throughout Europe.

Customs and Excise:
Throughout the known world Customs officials work tirelessly. No one really knows why.

The fuel that most trucks run on. Actually, more correctly called DERV (Diesel Engine, Road Vehicles) this fuel is a very pale yellow, incredibly smelly and slippery. You do not want to get it on your shoes if you want to keep your head higher than your feet. Red diesel is sold as a fuel for heating, for agricultural tractors and is tax reduced. Whilst it works equally well in cars and lorries, for some reason the Customs and Excise folk get quite peeved when people use it for such purposes.

Favourite word of one of my transport managers. We even nicknamed him Diesel Dave, for his habit of saying, ‘Diesel go there, then diesel go over there…’

Double manning:
The act of running one truck with two drivers, to allow more driving time, and to help with difficult loads.

A company that built coach bodies onto Bedford chassis, gearbox and engine.

Exhaust brake:
A device that is elegantly simple in operation. On long descents you really don’t want to keep using the brakes, as they can overheat and rapidly lose effect. An exhaust brake basically shoves a cork in the engine exhaust, turning it into a very powerful brake at the push of a button, and allowing you to control your descent without resorting too often to the main brakes.

Exhaust break:
The time you take out of the cab of the truck when your co-driver has had Brussels sprouts curry for dinner again…

Fifth wheel:
The mechanical linkage on a tractor unit that allows the trailer to be connected. You would be surprised, I think, at just how small the actual connecting pin is. Don’t, I caution you, have a look, or you will never ever tailgate a truck again.

Device to mechanically and pneumatically lock the brakes in the ‘on position’ on a vehicle.

Hand break:
The result of trying to catch a two hundred kilo pallet.

Heavy Goods Vehicle. Also LGV, or Large goods vehicle. Requires a special driving licence to operate, and a close attention to record keeping.

Night Trunking:
It is often convenient to move goods and materials between sites during the night, when roadsare clearer, and factories and warehouses are not at full capacity. The technique of moving a load from one depot to another, dropping the load, collecting a replacement and returning to your own depot.

Roll On, Roll Off ferries. These ships have doors at bow and stern, so trucks can drive on at
the docks and drive straight off at the other end, without having to reverse.

Your boat. Gently down the stream

A device which allows you to get hopelessly lost to an accuracy previously undreamed of.

Canvas and plastic covering, designed to both enclose and secure your load on a tilt trailer or a flatbed.

Your reaction when you realise you have just delivered the goods that were destined for York
to Alicante.

The name given to the air lines and electrical couplings linking a tractor unit to a trailer.

T Forms:
A set of paperwork that is required to be filled in by an agent, and stamped by Customs and Excise, to allow the passage of goods over borders.

Tea forms:
Chitty for a free cuppa.

Tacho or Tachograph.
Device for recording drivers’ hours, waiting time (see weight limit) break taken and road speed. Often known as the ‘Spy in the Cab.’ When I drove for a living it took the form of a device that recorded all driving hours, work that was not driving and breaks, on a waxed disc.
Every day you changed the disc for a new one, and you had to keep the old discs for
inspection by the police and other authorities. When you use a tacho disc you have to put your name, the start location, end location, and start and finish mileages on them, in pen.
These days they are being superseded by electronic devices that store digitally the same information. The words tacho and tachograph can be used for both the device and the recording medium.

TIR park:
It is not uncommon for vehicles travelling in a foreign country to finally clear customs not at the border but considerably inland of the border. To that end there are ‘TIR’ parks. Transport Internationale Routiers, where un-cleared truck and trailer loads have to park and where they may finally get customs clearance.

There are many types of HGV trailer.

• Tilt. This is a common, yet horribly unwieldy form of trailer. Very much like a frame tent, it has a steel skeleton that holds the canvas roof and sides, and has been designed so that you have to dismantle it to load pretty much anything. To dismantle it you have to remove the incredibly heavy, unwieldy canvas tilt sheet. Normally in the dark, in the rain, at 2am, on your own. To rebuild it you simply have to reverse the dismantling procedure. Except you have to somehow haul the sheet fifteen feet onto the roof, then get all the fiddly eyes to fit the hooks on the framework. Which they never do. Then you have to feed the security cable through all 150 hooks and eyes. In the dark. And the cable will always have one sharp strand of wire which will either snag or rip a chunk of skin off your hand. And once you have got the whole lot together, the loading foreman will say, ‘Sorry Drive, we forgot this bit. It’s the most important part of the load. Can we just pop it on the trailer?’

• Reefer. A refrigerated trailer. Using the same technology as a standard household fridge, but expanded to industrial scale, these trailers are common on the roads. They either have a diesel engine and compressor at the front or slung underneath the trailer, and can freeze the entire trailer to below -20 degrees. Some are designed so that different areas can be set to different temperatures, allowing the operator to carry frozen foods, chilled foods, such as fruit and veg, and ambient, such as clothing. If you get it wrong, of course, you can find yourself delivering 650 deep frozen The Little Mermaid costumes to The Disney
Shop on the Champs Elyse in Paris. Yes, I did.

• Flat bed. Not so common these days, this is just as it sounds, a flat trailer. A very useful trailer, but it does require the operator to have a grounding in roping and sheeting, lest he should wish to explain to the local constabulary exactly why he found it necessary to deliver twenty tonnes of glass milk bottles to the Renault garage on that tight bend. No, I didn't.

• Taut, taughtliner or curtain-sider. These trailers are possibly the easiest to use, under most circumstances. They are constructed as a flat-bed trailer, with a metal framework holding canvas curtains, which are pulled closed to contain the load, and fastened tightly with ratchet straps. It is worth remembering, however, that the curtains on their own are not designed to secure the load. Which is why you may see some of these trailers with bulges in the side, as the top pallet of bricks tries to make a break for freedom.

• Box trailer. The second simplest construction, being basically a box on wheels. The loads enter and leave through the back doors. These trailers are most commonly used for palletised goods that can be manoeuvred by means of a pallet truck.
There are other types, such as skeleton trailers, trombone trailers and step frame. Just be aware that skeleton trailers seldom carry bones, trombone trailers are pretty much useless for carrying brass band instruments, and step frame trailers have a step in the frame.

Another name for Tractor.

U nit:
You’ve just delivered the goods that were destined for Axminster to Alicante.

Weight limit:
The maximum weight of vehicle allowed along a certain route. This may be due to it being in a residential area, or possibly due to a narrow or weak bridge or similar structure.

Wait limit:
‘Look, if you don’t get this bloody trailer loaded pretty quick I’m pulling out of the line and
going home!’