Melanie Reid was an award-winning columnist at The Herald in Glasgow before reporting and commentating for The Times from Scotland and then on the Comment pages. Having broken her neck and back in a riding accident in 2010, she writes her Spinal Column in The Times Magazine every Saturday.
THERE IS fellowship, and then there is white-van-man fellowship. One of my happiest alter egos is out driving my Mercedes Sprinter, alone, anonymous, liberated from disability to the extent that I can do 0-60 in, oh, at least 15 minutes, and I’m surrounded by dozens of hardworking, unpretentious, practical WVM, all busy going somewhere to do something for someone and listening to PopMaster on Radio 2.
I hadn’t been in my van for two months, prevented not just by ice and snow but the knowledge that if I got stuck or slid off the road, rescuing me would need more than the RAC. I imagined a headline: “Disabled female driver plucked from upturned van in blizzard – police, mountain rescue, crane and two fire appliances in attendance.”
Last week, though, furiously ignoring yet another skim of snow, I set off on a mission across the country. There is – and this may sound corny to people who don’t like driving – a real thrill in setting off in a big van on a motorway trip, a sense of escape captured by that crazy Blues Brothers quote, “There are 106 miles to Chicago, we have a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark and we’re wearing sunglasses.” I love it. Even alone, half-scared, I love it.
It’s the big steering wheel, the high driving position, the sheer size of the vehicle behind you in the mirrors. For me, it’s a brief snatch of power and escape. Being a white-van man is a state of mind, transcending the colour of your van and your gender. One in three WVM are women, and my van’s silver (next most popular colour after white). Honestly, it’s just the best club to belong to. Van drivers are what make the world go round – builders, couriers, plumbers, decorators, electricians, shopkeepers, florists, deliverymen – the people who, when times get tough, either start up their own businesses or go to work for one. Grafters. Proper people.
“In the cabs I don’t see cowboys; I just see people who are trying their best to keep to schedule and earn a wage”
More than one in ten vehicles on the road is a van, and the percentage is rising steadily every year. Department of Transport figures show vans travelled a record 48.5bn miles on UK roads in 2016, turning over billions of pounds. And yet their drivers are still treated like scum.
Remember Emily Thornberry in the 2014 Rochester and Strood by-election, when she tweeted the picture, dripping with snobbishness, of a white van parked outside a house displaying three flags of St George? She was dissing the backbone of the economy.
So in my van, my big, roomy symbol of ordinariness, I am really content. The visibility’s great; you can’t go fast. Us van drivers, we nod, invite each other to change lane. We know we’re busy. I almost always find WVM careful and courteous. Their number’s written on the side. They know if there’s a complaint they’ll be dragged before human resources, regardless of lack of evidence.
In the cabs I don’t see cowboys; I just see people who are trying their best to keep to schedule and earn a wage. Yet the petit bourgeois are such aching snobs – and the big housebuilders slap covenants on their new estates to stop WVM parking outside their homes.
You see great cameos in vans. I remember laughing aloud one sunny morning at the sight of three guys in the front of a van, at a red light, shoulder-boogieing in unison to La Bamba on the radio, happy on the way to a day’s honest hard work. They had the essential ingredients – music, van, copy of The Sun down the windscreen, flask of coffee, camaraderie.
Vans always have rules, apparently. A driver from Bristol, Nigel Hammond, blogs about his unwritten four: no sexist jokes; no farting on Tuesdays; no swearing out of the window; most important of all, what’s said in the van stays in the van.
Coming home from my meeting, wet dusk on the motorway, temperature plummeting, there was a pile-up in the fast lane just a minute or so ahead of me. One, two, three, four, five vehicles, wedged into triangles under each other’s rear ends. As I crept past on the inside lane, long before the emergency services arrived, I realised that two random guys with white vans and high-viz jackets had stopped, put on their overhead beacons and were clearing the road. WVM rocks.