Once upon a time, I was a white van man.
My step-brother Adrian used to own a fish and poultry supplier on Highgate Road, London called Fish And Fowl. You may remember it, if you lived in the area. He used to open up to the public on the weekends; selling all kinds of fresh fish and free range chickens. His partner Robert (pronounced the French way because he is…er…French) was the most charming fishmonger in North London!
Ade’s main business was supplying to some of the best restaurants across London, such as The Ivy, The Square and Bibendum. He’d be up at the crack of dawn to buy his wares at Billingsgate and, on Saturdays through my late teens, I’d pick it up at 9am to deliver across London. There I was: windows wide open, elbow out, smoking a fag and singing to the radio at full volume. What a feeling!
Yes, there was a downside. Every week, I’d go home stinking of fish and had to scrub myself clean. At least it was only once a week. Ade had to deal with it every day!
One of my favourite parts of the job was entering the city’s most celebrated restaurants through the back door and seeing the kitchens at work. Joe Allen in Covent Garden always reminded me of the long shot in Goodfellas where Henry Hill takes Karen through the kitchens of the Copacabana on their first date (see blog post G for Goodfellas): the hustle and bustle; the smells and the stream; the meat and fruit and veg piling up as the deliveries poured in at the same time. I’d have to stand by as furious head chefs prodded the fish and sniffed the chickens, meticulously inspecting their quality as they barked orders over their shoulders to the quivering staff. It really was every cliché you can imagine.
My other driving job was also restaurant-related but a little less glamorous. In my year off before college, I was delivering laundry and hot towels to Indian and Chinese restaurants in London and the Home Counties, and picking up the dirties. I still loved the life on the open road but it wasn’t much fun sorting through curry-crusted tablecloths and mucky hot towels.
One afternoon towards the end of my time there, when I’d had it with the laundry and the traffic and the M-frickin’-25, I was ordered on one last delivery when I should have been clocking off. I threw the laundry parcels in the back of the van, slammed the doors and screeched off petulantly down the alleyway behind the factory . When I returned, I discovered that my boss had prevented World War Three with our mechanic next door neighbours because I’d knocked off the wing mirror of one of their cars. I escaped a beating that would probably have had me off work for a few days and had to pay for the damage out of my wages. I quit the next day.
The van man feeling never quite leaves you. I still find myself driving like a Londoner; a little aggressive, a little reckless with the gaps (“You could get a TANK through there!!”) and always looking for the perfect short cut. I happen to think I’m a great driver. My children say my driving makes them feel ill.
Tomorrow, my favourite film of all time. Until then, the best ever movie moment featuring a van.