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!’