I enjoyed general haulage for its variety. I could be carrying fertiliser one day or garage doors the next, and one day I was sent in to load at W.D. & H.O. Wills’ cigarette factory in Bristol. The load consisted of pallets of unused cigarette packets that were being sent to Kent to be recycled. When I asked why, I heard that Wills had launched a new brand with a gold pack that looked too similar to the rival Benson & Hedges. Gallagher, the maker of Bensons, had sued Wills and won. Wills’ new line was stopped by court order and all the pre-printed packs were due to be pulped. And so one minor result of this clash of the tobacco titans trickled down to me. As it happened, I didn’t feel like a neutral in this dispute. My brother, Ben, was then working as an assistant to a highly successful London photographer who shot many of Benson’s iconic advertisements, so I was pleased to see the brand prevail.
The Wills plant was a series of forbidding red-brick buildings, blackened with age, that towered over the yard where I was to load. As I waited, another driver approached me and told me to make sure I got my free cigarettes when I left. This was good news, since I was a smoker at the time and, looking at the sprawling factory around me, I expected Wills to be generous. The pallets of light and mobile card took careful sheeting and roping but finally I rolled up to the security gate with my loaded truck, where the security guard handed me a small pack of ten Embassy – one of Wills’ workaday brands. Perhaps the company was feeling the pinch after the court case, but I had hoped to get at least a pack of twenty.
Within the variety of general haulage, there was the occasional oddity. One day, Roger sent me into a nearby factory in Yeovil to pick up a piece of crane machinery that was over twelve feet wide, half as wide again as my truck. I had to carry this only as far as Bristol, but the width meant I needed a police escort. A patrol car duly turned up and one of the two cops gave me a sheet with a long list of conditions, which I’d have to sign. As I began to read it, the officer cut me off.
“You know what it means, don’t you?” I muttered something or other, and he continued, “It means that if anything goes wrong, it’s your fault.” That was hardly reassuring, nor was the idea that for the whole trip I’d be under the watchful eyes of the police. The officer told me to keep moving, and he and his colleague would clear the road ahead of me. The crane component was relatively light – six or seven tonnes – so I could make good speed. The cop returned to his sleek police Rover and sped off. As I rounded the first bend on the Yeovil street, I saw the flashing blue lights and the gratifying sight of a line of cars pulled to the side of the road. A double-decker bus had even mounted the kerb to make way for me. Once I was past this bottleneck, the police roared on to the next obstacle and so it continued. Every time there was a potential hold-up, traffic lights or a roundabout, other traffic would be held back to allow my truck free passage. I could learn to like this and I’d never had such an easy run through Yeovil. In fact, I covered the forty-odd miles to Bristol faster than I’d ever done. On the outskirts of the city, a second patrol car was waiting to clear my way to my final destination, and as I turned carefully into the customer’s yard, just easing the wide load through the gates, the cops simply waved and drove off, with a valedictory toot of their horn.
Extracted from George’s excellent new book, ‘Into the Distance: The Long Lost World of Long-haul Trucking’. Buy it here.