If we could only put more freight back on the railways, we lam-ent, wistful for the sylvan branch line and the sprightly guard hopping out at the drowsy halt to pick up the milk churn and the crate of racing pigeons... But trucks, these days, carry 95 per cent of Britain's freight traffic. If you doubled rail freight overnight it would still take only 3 per cent of goods haulage off our roads. Even 85 per cent of European air freight goes by road, because it works out quicker, without all the loading on and off planes, than flying it there. Heavy trucks deliver enormous quantities of things anywhere, even in the middle of the night, and right to your door, which is why everyone uses them, and hates them.
I, on the other hand, even like motorway service stations. I like their middle-of-nowhereness. Rothersthorpe; Charnock Richard; Rown- hams. Where on earth is Clackett Lane? I shall have to drive round the M25 to find out. To drive hundreds of miles and pull in, among so much hubbub, near to nothing! And I like the plastic, goldfish-bowl ambience of motorway services: their Country Kitchens and their Granary Restaurants - anywhere but the countryside: somewhere utterly synthetic, telling you to move on, that here is nowhere, that you're travelling.
So it was not difficult to get interested in trucks. Through the picture-windows of the Country Kitchen the only view is the truck park. One swings in as another rumbles off, packing the parking area, all on the way from somewhere to somewhere. Here areworking weeks, whole lives, even, measured out in Roadchef coffee spoons. In the Eighties, as a journalist driving all over the country on assignments, I saw a lot of trucks. I began to notice the same names on the sides of trucks, whether I was at Corley on the M6 or Thurrock by the Dartford Tunnel or Southwaite up near Carlisle. So who was Norbert Dentressangle, I came to wonder - and how did so many of his bright red tankers and trailers come to be scattered across the country? Why did all milk tankers and dairy produce seem to be pulled by trucks from Wincanton in Somerset? Who was Christian Salvesen - and what route had brought this Scandinavian to apparent hegemony in all Sainsbury's and Marks & Spencer refrigerated haulage? But then, among the recurring fleet names and liveries, the one-offs started to stand out - the one-man bands, the guy driving obviously the guy who owned it. Name scrolled on the cab door, side window chequered with stickers and pennants to mark past journeys, the address Peterhead, Scotland, when we were sitting at Gordano outside Bristol, and the container on the back read MILANO... Once upon a time even our goods and wares travelled romantically. Bales of tea, rolls of silk, jars of spices were dispersed across
the oceans in East India Company schooners and clippers. Between the wars, mail would be carried from Southampton down through Africa to the Cape by Imperial Airways "Empire" flying boats: Marseilles, Athens, Alexandria, Nairobi, Mozambique... These days we're trucked. Travel writers may still essay transnavigation of the globe by antique steam engine or renovated sail-boat, but trade doesn't. Almost everything that we need goes for some part of its journey by road, on a large truck. London Underground is currently scrapping its oldest trains and refitting others: you can see the carriages travelling up the M1 - on the back of a lowloader. What safer, less unpredictable means of transferring valuable products across the world than to give them to a single guy, at the wheel of his own truck, and pay him to be the modern Paul Revere with the massive message? The Iraqi supergun made it as far as Greece by truck.
Later, my eye, and curiosity, travelled forward from the stencilled trailer to the cab - and the guy inside. What must it be like to drive one of these great beasts? I wanted to meet the people who knew how to - and then I wanted to see if I could do it,too. These people in the cabs with curtains to pull round for the night: were they the last nomads of the industrialised world? Films such as Thelma and Louise stereotyped the trucker as the ultimate boorish sexist pariah - but how many people had met the guys who actually drove these things?
TO LEARN to be a truck driver I signed up with an HGV driving school called Roadtrain. Roadtrain's fleet of red Scanias was based at "The Best Place in the Whole Truckin' World": Truckworld, in West Thurrock, Essex, alongside the Dartford Tunnel: one of the newest and most brashly self-publicising truckstops in Britain. At night there is something apocalyptic about the scene. The horizon is skeletal with pylons and braided by the lights of the M25. Marooned in a floodlit clearing among grey warehouses and sheds and an intermittent wasteland of scrub and demolition site, 100 truckers, curtains drawn, are tucked up for the night. As the catering combines have bought up the old truckers' pull-ins on Britain's A-roads and turned them into dainty Happy Eaters and Little Chefs with no room for an HGV to park, let alone stay overnight, places like Truckworld have become increasingly important.
On a chilly Monday morning, six of us huddled in Roadtrain's lorry park at Truckworld at the start of our week-long course in how to drive an HGV. There was Norman from Dagenham, who had taken voluntary redundancy after 22 years as a chargehand gardener with the local council; Les, who delivered carpets across Eng- land for a firm in Basildon; Ivan from Tilbury, like Les, a lorry driver already, but only passed for rigids and now wanting his artics licence; Robert, who'd captained Supertankers in the merchant navy and was now driving a minicab; Eileen, whose husband had a haulage company and who wanted to be able to take on some of the driving; and me. Behind us the rush-hour traffic was tailing back on the new Thames Bridge. Beside us, a battered Scania, called Wanda.
The first lesson was coupling and uncoupling. Dropping Wanda's trailer was an immediate lesson in the hard physical labour of driving an HGV. You might need to deliver your trailer to Dover dock for it to go on a boat, and hitch up to another one to bring back. In which case you had to wind the trailer legs down with a big iron handle, pull the air-brake lines off - the emergency line gave a loud report of compressed air - and knock the locking pin loose on the unit's greasy fifth-wheel coupling. Disconnecting the air-lines required clambering over the back of the unit and balancing astride the tangle of grimy pipes; to get at the locking pin you ducked and craned under the trailer. You had to squat and wrench and tug: it was a good way to start, out in the open, learning with your ungainly limbs the inert, deadweight bulk of an 11-ton artic. I'd enlisted for this Roadtrain course at its other branch at South Mimms; the ex-army instructor there had signed me up with the clipped warning that "You willbe in charge of a very large killing machine." The glamorous frisson of those words had already faded. Charlie, our yard instructor, a stocky man in his fifties, watched me rotate the trailer legs winder with careful regularity. I must have looked like Windy Miller on Camberwick Green. "He's going to be here all year," he announced to the others, took over at quadruple speed, and I wished I hadn't worn my fancy black lace-up boots.
In the afternoon we watched Roadtrain's proprietor, Nick Smith, on an instruction video. Smith was another ex-army man, and his video began with early-morning kit inspection. "First Parade": all the things to check on your truck before you drove it away- everything from clean lights and lenses and registration plate to tyres with no cuts/bulges/bald patches/nails/ stones. Then he moved on to explain "some of the expressions you'll hear used in HGV driving". DEAD GROUND: the hidden dip in the road on the other side of a blind summit, possibly hiding an oncoming wide vehicle. THE MEETING-POINT: the illusion of perspective that caused the two sides of the road to appear to meet as the road disappeared around a bend. If the meeting-point didn't open up as you approached, you knew it was going to be a sharp one. THE CLOSING GAP: the diminishing distance between a truck's offside wheels and the white line in the road which told you it was pulling out, even if it hadn't signalled. LEAVING YOUR BACK DOOR OPEN: leaving space alongside you on a roundabout for a clever dick in a car to overtake you on your blind spot and force your trailer on to the kerb as you catch sight of him and swerve away. THE BUBBLE SYNDROME: safe procedure at roundabouts by thinkingof them as crossroads with a bubble in the middle. I wrote them all down - what resonant metaphors for something! Like Edge of Darkness and The Big Heat, they were spectral intimations of danger. I made mental notes of short stories to be called "Dead Ground" and "The Closing Gap". They're still unwritten. Once you've been at the controls of an 11-ton artic approaching a blind bend, or seen the back wheels of your trailer scour the grass verge in your wing mirror, metaphor seems - well, you just forget metaphor. Certain expressions, you understand, are coined in order to be used literally.
Then it was behind the wheel for the first time: Reversing Procedure. To pass the British HGV Class E test, you have to be able to reverse a 50ft tractor-and-trailer out of a bay only half as wide again as the vehicle, round the wrong side of a cone, andback into another bay on the other side of the cone. The clearances are tight anyway, and you're doing it all back-to-front in your rear-view mirrors, but trickiest of all is the relationship between your unit and your trailer. Steer your unit one way, and the trailer goes the other. Steer your unit round fast, and the trailer swings into motion only slowly. Ease off on the steering, and the trailer will swing on round regardless until you steer the unit in the opposite direction to correct it. I came to think of an artic as a huge, wheeled crocodile, the tip of the mighty tail taking an age to swish into slow motion, but then carrying all with it.
But if you waited too long before correcting the swing of the trailer, or, conversely, if you brought the unit round the other way too quickly, then you jack-knifed the thing: the unit's wheels were no longer under the trailer, but rather at right anglesto it, and now you had no control over the movement of the truck. Add in that, for reversing practice, you had Roadtrain's two most knackered Scanias, on both of which the power assistance came and went on the steering, the accelerator pedal wobbled, and the whole cab shivered and heaved unless you got the idling pressure just right. Charlie had been runner-up in the "Lorry Driver of the Year" competition: his reversing technique was as good as anyone's. When he showed us, he manipulated the wheel with one hand, a slight pressure this side, a slight pressure that, engine just ticking over, all 11 tons barely creeping across the truck park. I couldn't think whether left on the steering wheel was the same as left in the mirror, and whether that corresponded to left or right in the direction the trailer moved, and which way to pull the unit if that turned out to be the wrong way. Engine roaring, clutch grinding and shuddering as I rode it, I yanked and hauled and the unit kangarooed from side to side, and the trailer just kept slowly, inexorably sliding on into that cone.
`Go and get that guy over there," said Charlie. "The one scratchin' his cobblers."
So I jumped down and waved to Les to climb in next to Charlie, then joined Norman and Robert basking in the afternoon sun. "When he told me to use my left hand I was fucked," said Norman Bullock. "I was literally fucked."
That evening, I had an omelette and chips in the cafeteria - such a mountain of chips I had to smother them in sickly brown sauce to make any impression on them. Truckworld remains the only place in the world where I have seen men eating lasagne with rice and chips and potatoes, and finishing the meal off with a Himalayan bowl of fruit crumble and custard. Most nights I'd get up from the table cemented up to my oesophagus with starch and feeling like I needed a tow from a Scammell wrecker to pull me out.
THE SECOND day, and I couldn't get those air brakes. "Like treading on eggshells without breaking them," Nick Smith had advised. They gave an 11-ton truck a shorter stopping distance than a family car - when 20 mph gave an unladen artic the momentum of 80 tons you saw why - and they were amazingly sensitive. Apply infinitesimal pressure, and nothing happened. A minute increase, and if you'd done it coming up to traffic lights you'd have had a nice tailback up your rear end. I was starting to appreciate the subtle combination of brute force and extreme delicacy you needed to drive a truck. That great pole of a gear lever I could just about get my little hand round - you had to ease it in, revving the engine just right when you changed down - but becauseit was positioned almost behind your shoulder you also had to brace your whole arm to reach it at all. Charlie had a pair of solid boots: they had the feeling of the pedals so fine they could just use the gravitational weight of their shoe to depress the accelerator or brake the right amount. We watched a walrus of a man shoehorn himself out of a rigid van across the truck park. "It's only the last few years you've had really big blokes driving trucks. Look at all these big things coming in here," saidCharlie, "and a little tiny chap gets out. Great big blokes, they have trouble. Can't steer."
"I've seen some big blokes in the cafeteria."
"Yeah, and if you was to see what truck they had," - Charlie's accusing finger pointed at the Ford rigid - "it'd be some little four-wheeler.'
Charlie fished in his inside pocket for a piece of paper to draw a diagram of the manoeuvre, but his hand brought out a photo. "My son." He was standing by a Scammell tipper. "Runs a demolition business in Dagenham." Now he'd found the old envelope he was looking for, and hurriedly turned it over. But on the back, I'd already seen the list of all our names, in shaky black ink, the first day's covert assessment; and, surmounting all the other names with approving ticks beside them, my own, thus: "GRAHAM:????"
MOST PEOPLE drive their car as if they're in one of those motoring sequences in Fifties films, where the couple sit in the stationary soft-top with the road spooling pleasantly by on a back projection. When you have 11 tons stretching 50ft behind you, you have to drive the whole road every second of the way. You're an ocean-liner captain looking through your telescope for icebergs. If there is another wide vehicle coming towards you on a narrow road it is already a factor affecting the speed you need tobe driving at when it is still a quarter of a mile away. Approaching any roundabout, a truck driver has not only to drive his own vehicle but, as it were, to drive - in the sense you do cattle - all the other motorists around him. He has to keep tight into the left if he's turning right - to exclude any unthinking motorist from nipping up on his nearside and getting clouted by the crocodile's tail as it swings round. If he's going left he has to move out to the right early, to give himself enough room to get the trailer round, and then move in left as soon as he's off the roundabout - Close Your Back Door - to prevent inside-overtakers from trying it on.
On my first outing, I watched the trailer's rear wheels brush the safety fence round a pelican crossing as I turned left. On my second, forgetting about all that truck behind me, I pulled up at traffic lights, blocking the entrance to a police station - an endorsable offence on the instructor's licence if we'd got caught. On my third, I cut a right-hand exit from a roundabout too fine and took out a line of cones around the inside. A judicious distance down the road, I told Trevor, "I've always wanted to do that."
"Slower... slower... SLOWER!" shouted Trevor every time we approached a roundabout as I caressed and fondled and stroked that brake pedal for just the right pressure and the thing kept rolling on and gathering speed until you found a touch more and jolted! to a halt. "Slower... brake well ahead... Make me walk... Make me walk..." Jolt. "Slower... slower... SLOWER!" - but we were coasting downhill, and I was trying to change down for the roundabout and couldn't use the brake until my foot was free from revving the accelerator to put the gear in; the roundabout was fast approaching and, because I'd come upon it so quickly the traffic that should have cleared was still on it, I'd have to stop and - jolt! ON THURSDAY the mood among the whole class was suddenly sober and grim. Les and Ivan had been entered for their tests on the following Monday; for the rest of us the week's course was already half over. I watched Norman practising his reversing, solemn and oblivious, fag dangling from his mouth, time after time. Charlie gave me one of the yard trucks for the morning, suggested I drive round the park as many times as I liked, and then work on the reversing in my own time.
Eventually, I cracked it. You used your mirrors as an alternative windscreen: looked through them and pretended you were going forward. Then it became a question of the unit pushing the trailer - you could give it a nudge this way and a nudge that way like a sheepdog nosing sheep through a gate. And if you wanted the back of your trailer to go left in your mirror, you steered the wheel to the left. It worked! I still hit the cone, I still drove over the sides of the bays, I still turned the wheel too fast - but at least I was doing it wrong in the right way.
IN THE morning I climbed into Wanda and took her round the truck park - by now I liked that loose-limbed rattle of the flatbed in tow, bumping and swaying over manholes. A car was so small that even when you drove one you felt like a passenger: now, in my throne-like position high above the tarmac, the big flat wheel like a desk to sit at, I was really driving! I pulled up into the first reversing bay. Reach that gear lever over into reverse, and get Wanda creeping backwards on idle. Hard left wheel as quickly as possible to get the trailer moving out round the far side of the cone, until you're on full lock. Watch your front wheels to check they're not going over the side of the bay. As soon as you can see the back of the trailer safely heading past the cone, right wheel to bring the unit back round and under the trailer. Head back diagonally across the truck park over towards the far bay, checking that the side of the unit's going to miss the cone. As soon as you can see the back end of the trailer framed by the sides of the far bay, right wheel again to start curving the trailer in - gradually, because you don't want to jack-knife the thing. Once you've got the trailer turning in, left wheel to straighten up the unit under the trailer again so youback in in a straight line. When you see the rear line of the bay level with the bulldog clip Charlie's fixed on the trailer's rear wheel mudguard: stop! I jumped down from the Scania, leapt in the air and clapped my hands above my head as I ran over toCharlie.
"You didn't think you'd ever do it, did you?" said Charlie as he pumped my hand.
"Now you can go and buy your first Yorkie bar," said Norman.
! Adapted from `A Thousand Miles From Nowhere', by Graham Coster, which is published on 23 February (Viking, £15).Reuse content