Keep on trucking

Long-distance lorry driving was once a romantic pursuit, as Christopher Hamilton remembers. Can it s

There is nothing quite like watching your own road movie unfold from high in a lorry's cab, in open-plan comfort. But insurance and security issues make hitch-hiking harder to do than it once was; and now that Continental frontiers have largely disappeared, the romance of long- distance lorry driving seems to have run out of road.

European legislation dictates that truckers can drive only nine hours per day (ten hours twice a week), with enforced rests in between in a comfortable bunk. It's probably no bad thing that the disreputable types played by Stanley Baker, Herbert Lom, Sean Connery, Patrick McGoohan and David McCallum in the 1957 film Hell Drivers are no longer to be found exhausted, slumped over the wheel in a lay-by. But some drivers still hanker after old Foden and ERF lorries with Gardner engines and the magic of stirring treacly tea at foggy pull-ins like the Blue Boar at Watford or the Windrush Cafe in Oxfordshire, where Brechtians in leather jackets would sit at a corner table, waiting for something to happen - a set- to between mods and rockers, perhaps.

My own low-budget road movies took place in the early 1980s when I drove for a small removals firm created by a bunch of minor public schoolboys who had gone off the rails in Fulham. If they hadn't taken to the road, my employers would probably have sold jeans, or cars, or gone into aviation. The company was a kind of down-at-heel Foreign Legion on wheels, where no questions were asked as long as you could drive once around the block without hitting anything.

This was not foolproof. One driver (who had been cashiered from the Royal Signals Regiment) wrecked three trucks in a week - the last being turned into a rather fetching HGV convertible when he drove it under a low bridge in Cannes. On my first run, the driver's mate appointed to keep me awake had to be poured into the cab outside the Windsor Castle pub near Notting Hill, only to fall out again at Dover, on to a customs officer. There were Checkpoint Charlie moments abroad, too, because my papers (T2s, T2Ls, VA2s) were generally out of order and the load manifests dodgy at best.

On my weekly 850-mile trip to the south of France, the free cabin on the Newhaven-to-Dieppe ferry was essential, as freight drivers were given a litre of red wine to go with a huge (and very good) complimentary dinner. For lunch, an array of Relais Routiers between Calais and Paris offered (another) litre of wine with an excellent three-course lunch for 15 francs, with endless complimentary pastis before it and copious brandies afterwards, "pour la route"!

No wonder those long, wide, undulating roads between war cemeteries were littered with the detritus of appalling accidents. By 1998, when I last drove that way, there was not one of these places left.

In those days, drivers were given "run money" in cash. Many had fiddles, ranging from dodgy fuel chits to the selling of batteries and spare tyres: "Sorry chief, they must 'ave 'ad them away while I was asleep . . ." Though drivers now use plastic to pay for the costs of a run, fuel theft has become a big problem: thieves sharpen one end of a bottle jack and wind it up under the tank to pierce and drain it, or organised gangs use a high-speed pump to transfer those 500 litres of diesel (worth £670) into a waiting van.

It's already quite hard enough for many British transport firms to compete in Europe. A new tractor unit costs £100,000 and a new trailer will set you back £50,000. Road tax is between £1,200 and £1,800 a year; a Channel ferry crossing costs £180 each way; and insurance and European continental road tolls keep going up. "It costs £70,000 a year to keep a truck on the road," says Toby Ovens, of D Mortimer & Sons, near Melksham in Wiltshire. "And that doesn't include fuel."

Fuel prices are a worrying issue, especially as an articulated lorry does just 7-8mpg. On European runs, drivers try to fill up in Belgium or Luxembourg, where fuel is 20 per cent cheaper. At £6 per gallon, the price of diesel in Britain is second only to that in Norway - though both countries pump North Sea oil.

Mortimer's finds itself at the sharp end of the struggle faced by several small British transport companies. The family firm began as a carter in the 19th century and now specialises in carrying potatoes, in lorries emblazoned with the slogan "Eat More Chips" (although, with a nod to Jamie Oliver, perhaps, their lighter vehicles bear the legend "Eat More Fruit").

"Competitors from eastern Europe are heavily subsidised," says Ovens. "We can't match them on price and they don't stick to the rules." Many British truckers complain that they are unfairly picked upon by foreign police forces, even when they do stick to their hours.

It takes a law- abiding driver between two and three days each way to make a trip of 1,270 miles to Valencia in southern Spain - which adds up to a week away from home. It galls many hauliers to find their lorries having to run empty on one leg of a route, just to get them in the right place at the right time and meet contractual obligations to big customers - supermarkets come in for a lot of stick for "just-in-time" deadlines that often seem arbitrary.

New technology tightens things further, as satellites can monitor the position of a truck. GPS route finders are now commonplace and are increasingly blamed for the creation of new HGV rat runs. I could have done with one years ago, when I got lost in Liège during a fog. I had already stumbled, map in hand, through a doorway under a flashing pink neon sign before twigging that the girl in the window was naked. "Lost?" she asked. "You must be English - that's what all English drivers say . . ."

Physically, however, conditions are far better now for drivers, especially in the removals trade. Where we once struggled up and down seemingly interminable staircases with grand pianos and heavy boxes of books, some firms can now deliver goods through upper windows using conveyor belts and high-lift platforms. And those cabs just keep getting better and better, with their air-con, tellies and microwaves. Whereas my own "pit" behind the seats was a disgrace to mankind, a Mortimer's lorry is supremely clean and orderly.

So, if you are an unreconstructed petrolhead, you can have a last blast by buying an eight-year-old lorry with a million miles on the clock. Even if its 7mpg fuel consumption isn't economic for the suburban school run, at least, if push comes to shove, you won't take any more crap from taxis or Chelsea tractors. And when the oil runs out, you can always sleep in it.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Obama: What the world expects...