The history of humanity is the story of supply chains. Ever since 3,000BC, when Bronze Age cities of the Indus valley traded carnelian beads to Sumer, Omani vases and lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, the growth and development of our world has been carried on the backs, packed on the beasts, hauled on the carts, sailed on the ships and driven in the lorries of traders and travellers who made and make their living transporting goods.
Hitch a long-distance lift with a truck, as I did, and you see the world from a startling new angle. Countless freight lorries trundling through every day and night and country are the red blood cells of our planet’s circulation. Yet that circulation has rarely been so erratic. Plunges and surges in demand and oil prices, palpitations in the global pulse caused by Covid-19, war, sanctions, Brexit, extreme weather and container jams have imperilled the system. The disarray is written in gaps on supermarket shelves.
Janet Yellen, US Treasury secretary, said recently, “Our supply chains are not secure, and they’re not resilient . . . that’s a threat that needs to be addressed.”
In Dorchester in southern England last month, I joined a crucial supply chain, travelling with two lorries carrying aid to refugee children from Ukraine. Our destination was Suceava in Romania, 1,600 miles away, and my preconceptions began collapsing in the first 10 minutes, when it became clear that we would not be using satnavs. Forget the predictability of smoothly plotted routes and timelines. Container ships follow these, as I discovered when I travelled with them. Road haulage is an altogether more idiosyncratic and exciting business.
“We’re not going to make it,” said Ian, six days later, on hands-free mobile from his truck. We had followed the blue back of his huge 40-tonne 460hp DAF lorry across Europe to Suceava, guided by memory maps in Ian’s head. I rode in the second lorry with Charlie Bailey, 23, owner of General Haulage of Great Britain, driver of one of his company’s three trucks and employer and student of the 23-year haulage veteran ahead of us, Ian Payne.
They were running out of driving time, which is monitored, along with rests, by tachographs in their cabs. Night was falling, we had crossed all of Austria and Hungary the previous day and a fat slice of Romania today. Now we needed parking, food, sleep and, ideally, showers. Ian’s first choice out of reach, we bore on towards his second.
Our mission saw more than 200 volunteers fill boxes with over 10,000 children’s backpacks, stuffed with supplies. But it is all very well for caring people to put together an aid mission to Ukraine. Without two men with Class 1 HGV licences and the kind of travel knowhow that can only be earned, all you get is tonnes of good intentions sitting in a Dorset warehouse.
Without the drivers’ knowledge, experience and chutzpah, we would never have made the delivery deadline in Romania. As we snaked thunderously into that first night, dodging checkpoints and weigh bridges, gathering intelligence about queues at Dover and the chaotic ferries (P&O was out of action, due to ships failing inspections), watching for police, tight turns and bad drivers, monitored constantly by tachographs, tracked by hundreds of automated number-plate recognition cameras, I began to understand how resilient and resourceful drivers such as Charlie and Ian are, and how complex and vexing their world. No satnav shows the truth of road haulage.
And no computer would design this trading world the way politicians have, with chaotic obstructions caused by Brexit, for example, requiring trucks going into the Republic of Ireland from the UK to present 700 pages of documents that take eight hours to prepare.
Archie Norman, chair of Marks and Spencer, said this week: “Some of the descriptors, particularly of animal products, have to be written in Latin and in a certain typeface.” Every sandwich containing butter, he said, requires an EU vet certificate, which means employing 13 vets and budgeting for 30 per cent more driver time.
Six-mile queues at Dover and 18-mile lines at Calais this year were caused by post-Brexit checks, worsened by small numbers of lorries with the wrong paperwork.
We can expect more delays in September, when a new security system may require drivers to leave their vehicles for facial or body scans, and more again next year when trucks will be inspected at the new inland border at Sevington, near Ashford, Kent.
The metaphor of supply “chains” makes the process sound orderly and smooth, but from the first this journey along them was more like an adventure through a wild ecosystem in which we were a prey, dashing between safe habitats such as lorry parks and filling stations, hunted by authorities, legislation and customs rules that sought to charge, delay or stop us.
It was not that the trucks had any deficiency to bother the police or the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency, which regulates haulage in Britain. It was that many drivers loathe and avoid the DVSA, and checkpoints of all kinds in all countries.
“They’re not on your side. They’re out to get you. It’s like they want to punish you for doing your job,” Ian said. “They want to fine you and take your money.”
The DVSA has a checkpoint on the A243. And so we went via Calais, Bastogne, Luxembourg, Karlsruhe, Munich, Vienna, Budapest and a little place in Romania called Jurca (a single track of crumbling tarmac over a hill, with power lines groping for the wing mirrors) but we will never take the A243 to Leatherhead.
By the time we reached Dover, having dodged the lorry stack the police were compiling on the M20 by slipping down the A20, I saw my companions as merchant adventurers, dazzlingly resourceful, swift to improvise, canny and funny as hell.
“Don’t start Ian on Covid,” Charlie warned me. “He won’t stop.”
Ian and I disagree on Covid, immigration, Brexit, Nigel Farage, history, the shape of Earth and the BBC. On everything that really matters, we agree. I recorded our journey for a Radio 4 documentary, Writing the Road to War. They approved, up to a point. I practised caffeine diplomacy on them at every service station.
“Cappuccino with sugar, latte lots of sugar!” I cried. “On the BBC. You’ll be massive fans by the time we get there.”
“Never!” Ian retorted, and started on the government-controlled, lying media. He trucked the continent throughout the pandemic without ever filling in passenger locator forms, out-arguing border guards.
Charlie, Ian and people like them (there are female HGV drivers — I saw two in 10 days) feel they have no political clout. The transport unions, the Road Haulage Association and their MPs, they say, do not defend or advance their interests.
Britain, their favourite country among dozens they travel, offers them dangerously bad food, extortionate and grotty stopping places, avaricious and bullying oversight, low status and zero agency.
I asked Ian’s advice for anyone thinking of becoming a driver, mindful of post-Brexit shortages of hauliers in 2021, when some supermarkets were offering wages of £56,000.
“Don’t do it. It’s not worth it,” he said.
The way your money is ripped away from you is part of the problem. A driver actually makes around £700 net, Ian says, in return for 70 hours plus. Amazed at the ways we were taxed and charged during the journey, I pictured camel caravans harried by hyenas. Rest areas, frontiers, motorways and entire nations’ road networks all want paying, constantly.
Factor in licences, maintenance, diesel, subscriptions to broker websites where shippers offer loads and rates, plus constant travel expenses, and you have thin margins. Then you get pulled over by the French police.
Charlie loves his business and trucking life. He hopes to expand to five lorries. But you should hear him on France and the Gendarmerie. Henry V would blush. If your truck is capable of more than 56 miles an hour, regardless of what speed you are doing, they can fine you.
They love to check your tacho. It is almost impossible not to infringe the tacho. You must stop at intervals for minimum times — but suppose there is nowhere to stop, you are on a deadline, under vicious pressure from an employer, cannot afford the fees for that rest area, have run out of driving time and, held up by traffic or roadworks, you are late. You go over your set driving time, the police or an inspector checks your tacho, and you are fined.
In Britain you see trucks from eastern Europe on small roads and parked in odd places because many of their drivers are paid less than €100 a day.
Do you spend half of that on a rest area? No — you carry and cook your own food, defecate in the undergrowth, go without showers for weeks. Supporting your family, you are away for months, taking loads from wherever you are to wherever they are wanted, against the clock. You become tough and wily.
Decades ago Ian was interviewed for a job.
“How long can you stay awake?”
“Three days?” he said.
“You’re no good to me. I don’t need shunters,” came the reply. This was a legendary haulier who sent trucks from England to Kazakhstan, to the Chinese border, to Africa. A nonstop run to Italy or Spain would be nothing then, and barely cause for comment among drivers now, if you could get away with it.
“Some drivers took speed [amphetamine],” Ian said. “Not me. There was another trick — down a spoonful of instant coffee and a can of beer. That worked. Apparently.”
“Can the tacho be fooled?” I asked Charlie.
“Oh there’s endless tricks,” he said. “Magnets by the gearbox: it pulls the pin with the sensor, so the speedometer says you’re doing zero and the tacho thinks you’re stationary. You’d get jail for that.”
ANPR cameras can be defeated with gaffer tape on the number plates, altering letters and numbers. Although Ian and Charlie are committed to professionalism and probity, we were taking aid to child refugees from Putin’s war, on a deadline, and we knew Austria was closed to freight on Sunday. I had not realised that whole countries regularly ban all lorry movements, but they do.
Obstacles were thus overcome with guile and dash. At Dover we ignored a stationary queue of trucks for Irish Ferries, Charlie’s chosen operator.
“The DFDS lane is free, look!” he said (we talked cab-to-cab on hands-free mobiles). We zipped down it, Ian close behind, cutting into a space at the kiosk where an immigration officer stamped us out of the UK.
Now we took turns nipping into an inching line of lorries (it was the small hours now, but the tacho has a “ferry” setting that allows you to make little shuffles), Charlie holding them back, Ian leapfrogging ahead. It was glorious. They saved half a day.
On board, before dawn, exhausted truckers faced a vile insult to fry-ups. The bacon was grey. In a heap of fat and cholesterol, nothing had any taste. Charlie said French ships do a worse version.
We slept nine mandatory hours in a lay-by in “the corridor”, the Calais-Dunkirk road, muttering about being held legally responsible for refugees hiding in trucks. (This seems absurd: if customs and police cannot find or stop stowaways, how are drivers supposed to?)
Ian and Charlie spoke of drivers’ fears and experiences of violence and intimidation from migrants desperate to cross from Calais to Britain.
We were glad to be on the continent, though. “They respect drivers here — the food, the facilities, the way you’re treated, everything is miles better in Europe,” Ian said.
Brexit, both men report, has been excellent for UK hauliers, limiting European competition. Charlie has more work than he can cover. As for the paperwork, Charlie said, “If you can’t fill in a few forms, that’s your problem.”
He is a paperwork Jedi. CMR forms (international waybills), customs declarations, commodity codes, road tax: Charlie had no language teaching but he rips through customs declarations in Romanian. Communication throughout the journey was a delight. Ian cracked me up apologising, in a German restaurant, for not speaking Dutch.
On the Austrian border we bought pre-paid digital boxes that beep when you go under motorway gantries, deducting fees. But there came double beeps — another box on the windscreen was also paying out.
“Hide it under your duvet!” Ian urged. Charlie did. The second beeps stopped.
We travelled by day. “I do the job because I love it, I want to see countries,” Charlie said. Ian, a gourmet, plans routes to restaurants with parking, ideally with showers, which can be reached by supper time. His cab is spotless, displaying ironed shirts on hangers. Charlie regards restaurants as an indulgence. He carries nuts, grapes and bits of chicken in his fridge, and vodka for sundowners.
The DAF cabs are well designed, with microwaves, good mattresses — I slept on the bunk above Charlie’s — excellent seats and wonderful views, including rearward and down, through five mirrors.
The men handle their massive vehicles with beautiful skill. You do not do U-turns, you “spin round”. Blind reversing is the hardest move, backing while turning in the direction opposite the driving position, when the mirrors show only the flank of your trailer.
Inside the cab: a trucker’s essentials
A fridge with food for picking and drinks for sundowners
Microwave and microwaveable food
Nuts, crisps, juice, energy drinks, lighters, cigarettes (Charlie smokes but never in his cab)
Comfy shoes for stops. Flip-flops, favoured by many drivers, especially eastern Europeans (often stored in the steps down from the cab because they are sealed off when the door is closed, preventing feety smells)
Duvet and pillows, clean spare duvet cover, pillows and sheets for some; hard-working sleeping bag for others
Toiletries, washbag, changes of clothes, books and magazines
Washing powder: many truck stops in Europe have washing machines and dryers
Hands-free mobile or CB for talking to other drivers
Multiple chargers for phones and laptops, needed for customs and borders paperwork
Printer, paper and spare printer ink, for paperwork
Digital tax boxes on the windscreen
Coat hangers for immaculate shirts
They conquered all of Austria and most of Hungary in one shot, with mandatory pauses. I was at two sleeps a day by now, morning and afternoon. They worked through Romania’s network of small roads, concentrating ferociously and crying out with delight at the beauty of villages, blowing their horns at the gestured requests of children by the roadside.
We marvelled over the snowy Carpathians, using the retarders and exhaust braking systems rather than the brake pedal; these slow the pistons and the truck without taxing the brake pads. I have rarely laughed so hard or learnt so much as I did on the road to Ukraine. The Romanian horse and cart displaying no lights provoked a comical eruption from Ian. If you should overtake a lorry and then slow down in front of it, being branded “special” is the least of the reactions you should expect.
We had vigorously to give one idiot, who cut out of a slip road without looking, heading for Charlie’s drive wheels (the third set from the front), the wristy international sign for offended disapproval. Only Charlie’s explosive reflexes saved idiot, and idiot’s father and son, from horrendous deaths.
On the last night we found Ian’s second-choice stop, where a horrid old man tried to rip us off, charging for parking that turned out to be free, and a lovely waitress laughed at our sign language for beef soup. We slept very well.
We “tipped” — offloaded — our cargo bang on time. The distribution point was the basement of a psychiatric hospital. Enthusiastic patients formed human chains to unload our boxes, to the delight of Gracie Cooper, publisher at Little Toller Books, Dorset, who organised this Packed with Hope campaign, raising £1.5mn in aid for Ukrainian children.
Charlie and Ian were as unfazed by this as by any other unexpected twist in their journeys. Ian took on a load for Syria during the war. Charlie researched loads out of Ukraine — it would be worth the lorries being shot up, they said, for the insurance. They were not entirely joking.
After we parted, Charlie took Romanian plywood to Prague, Ian the same to Poland. They would meet in Germany, tip, collect horse bedding, and head home. And now they are out there somewhere, everywhere, always, shouldering the supply chains from which dangle all our lives. They move the world. That the world remains largely unmoved by them does not seem just or right. Without lorry drivers and their predecessors in the story of haulage, our cities, our countries, our horizons and our lives would all be smaller, and much poorer.
Horatio Clare is the author of ‘Down to the Sea in Ships: Of Ageless Oceans and Modern Men’
Cartography by Chris Campbell
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