Growing up, I never had any interest in driving.
I went through a very brief phase of being interested in cars - being from Essex it was practically the law that you had to have a vague knowledge of XR3i Escorts - and I always wanted to, one day, eventually own a Capri (although dad warned me that “the parts would be expensive” - a pressing concern when you’re 11 years old), but I never had the slightest interest in the actual act of driving beyond Formula One Grand Prix on my Amiga.
Eventually, I had to give in, for reasons of pure utility - I couldn’t keep relying on my dad to lug my bass amp around to gigs, which meant I needed some wheels and I had to reluctantly learn to drive.
It was a disaster zone from start to finish. My instructor couldn’t comprehend the fact that I had literally no idea what a clutch was, or why you needed gears (my BMX had managed perfectly well without any) and I had no notion of how lanes or roundabouts worked. It suddenly dawned on me that I’d spent my entire life in cars up until that point staring out of the window listening to Fleetwood Mac rather than paying any attention to what was actually going on out front. I got a ‘D’ for dangerous within 30 seconds of my first test after playing chicken with an oncoming car in a street with cars parked on either side (the instructor had to apply the brake). The second test was equally abysmal. The third test I - thanks purely to a fluke of a quiet day and being given the easiest manoeuvres to do - just about scraped through. I bought a second-hand Renault Clio and - finally - independence. Except I didn’t really enjoy it, because I knew I was a terrible driver with no innate talent for it so I had to concentrate extra hard to make sure I, or any other innocent motorists, didn’t die.
Driving was a chore. Something that had to be done. A burden to be reluctantly shouldered.
And then I got a van.
I was part of a nine-piece hip-hop funk collective at the time and we’d done a gig at a workmate’s brother’s stately home at which he held annual festivals (as you do). Having put in a memorable performance which included a 15-minute long Christmas medley - in August - and a dancing competition which no one in the crowd entered so we held between ourselves - (our set only lasted 35 minutes and we needed to bump it up to an hour) - he was so pleased he presented us with an envelope stuffed with twenties, totalling £800. We tried to refuse it, but he insisted - we’d expected nothing more than free beer and a few tents to sleep in for the night. We didn’t know what to do with our unexpected windfall. Should we split it between us? Seems a bit pointless, it’d be about 90 quid each. A couple of nights out maybe.
We could buy a van.
We bought the van. A knackered old white Transit with well over 100,000 on the clock, a speedo which had not worked since the three-day week and the shonkiest gearbox you’ve ever seen which, after approximately half an hour of driving, would rattle around like an weather vane in a hurricane.
I fell in love.
We shared the driving between us, and when it was my turn to take her out, it was incredible. You felt so powerful, you were so high up, your field of vision was so vast, everyone gave way to you but more than any of that - you were a man with a van. I felt that sense of belonging that can only come from being able to dismount from your bloody van, march into a greasy spoon with a paper tucked under your arm and order a massive fry-up.
It was the greatest time of my life. King of the road. Master of all. Even breakdowns were better with a van, as you’d whip open the bonnet, take a look at the rusted-to-high-hell engine, declare that it was probably a problem with the alternator (I don’t know what an alternator does) and then call out the AA standing proudly by your massive, wounded beast, but a beast which had put in a serious shift in its life already and had some stories to tell (once, upon telling someone the van had done 100k they remarked: “Transit? You’ve barely broken it in mate, it’s just getting warmed up”). The AA man would arrive and, impressed by the fact you were a man with a van, would treat you with good cheer and the respect that one could only get from a fellow van man.
I had no need for a girlfriend. For I had a van.
Eventually, sadly, she conked out, dying on the M4 on the way back from a gig by another band who’d borrowed it. I probably should have seen the warning signs when she was guzzling an entire three-litre bottle of water for the cooling system every single journey. The RAC man, when asked by my mate who was driving whether there was any chance of a fix, apparently laughed in his face and stated: “No chance. It’s fucked mate.”
She was towed to Acton where she lay, immobile and - the final indignity - when we went to reclaim the racing seatbelts and pay our last respects, she’d been towed. I never got to say goodbye and that hurt.
We eventually decided to all chip in and purchase a replacement, driving to Swansea to pick up a long-wheelbase blue Transit which, similarly, was an utter joy to drive, despite persistent battery issues and a tape player which frequently made it sound like Take That’s Greatest Hits (the only tape we had) was being played underwater.
It once saved my life, after me and my mate’s tent got flooded at Glastonbury and I had nowhere to sleep. Nowhere? Not so - when you have a van you are never homeless. Granted, it was the coldest I have ever been in my entire life, but we survived the night and aquaplaned our way out of the car park across the mud in celebration the following morning.
Eventually, we began doing fewer gigs, the van kept being reported by curtain-twitching neighbours who thought it had been abandoned, and we sold it on eBay. To the best of my knowledge it ended up in Nigeria where it is undoubtedly still going strong.
And since then, I have never felt fully complete.
It’s like a part of me has been missing. Oh, of course, I love my 2005 Golf; itself the proud achiever of the big 100,000, but it’s not a van is it.
Neither is a wife and family. Perfectly good. But it’s not a van is it.
They can try but they can’t ever give me that ‘nod’ that a fellow Transit driver, cruising past in the opposite direction, could give me. They can’t give me that feeling you get when you climb the steps on the driver’s side and take your seat on the throne. They can’t keep me safe in a cold, wet mudfest in Somerset. They can’t give me the thrill of a steady 60 miles-an-hour on a mildly-congested M6. They can’t give me fully 11.3 cubic metres of storage space.
A van can.
I don’t need love. I need a van.