Class conscious

In the wake of the petrol crisis, and all the amazing snobbery directed by the left-wing press towards the aggrieved parties, I've been thinking about the social status of men with vans . . .

Sometimes you see an advertisement in a post office window: "Man and van," it says, followed by a phone number. It's the most elementary economic unit, especially when the van in question is empty - offered for hire, that is, merely for removals of . . . well, your typical van driver is probably not too choosy. He probably operates, like the lone gunman of the Wild West, on a no-questions-asked basis, and his van will be plain white, so that he is - to his fellow road users at least - like Clint Eastwood, "the man with no name". (It's the anonymity of drivers of white vans that makes them feared by the middle classes; the defiant absence of a sign reading: "How's my driving?")

The more superior sort of van man has a vehicle that is customised in some way. He is a specialist. There may be a ladder on the roof of the van - which still implies a pretty broad brief, admittedly - or some pipe-like tubes, possibly for the transportation of long bits of dowelling, whatever that is.

One notch up the social scale again is the man whose van actually contains something: a grindstone, for example, or a lot of carpentry tools. He is a tradesman, or perhaps more than that. It is just about possible to imagine a man driving a van full of the tools necessary for performing operations on animals: a vet, in fact. But this is a very unlikely scenario, because people with degrees mainly avoid driving vans. If they do have to hump stuff around in the course of their work, they tend to use estate cars, whose thoroughly middle-class nature is best represented by their earlier, racier name, "shooting brakes".

My own attitude towards men and vans is complicated. I don't like to be in front of them on a motorway (or, for that matter, behind them). But, then again, whenever I've met them in person I've found them to be incredibly helpful. In fact, I've been helped out of some very awkward moments by men in vans, so I'd better stop taking the mickey out of them. Right now.

This article first appeared in the 25 September 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Women: still firmly in their place