Now we’re prepared to bet that you believe all that media hype and regard white van man as some kind of road-bound scum. Soon after the term came into being, a survey by the Social Issues Research Centre revealed that the character was more salt of the earth than scourge of the metropolis. Nearly a decade later, and there are more white vans on London’s roads than ever: Londonist has been taking a look at the phenomenon.
Our cities might be kept moving by any number of fluffy green forms of public transport, and linked by train and plane and automobile, but the backbone of the capital’s commerce is white van man.
The stereotypical image of this character - builder’s bottom (gah!), smothered in tattoos, battered vehicle making the same size carbon footprint as a small African republic, and seemingly unaware of either parking regulations or indicator control – is just that – a caricature sketched out by some desperate journalist. Today’s panel van driver, in London at least, is most likely to answer to the name of Weng or Ali or Andrzej. And, OK, he may not be a master of suave politesse, but nor is he the lane hogging bigot that he’s made out to be (his only perhaps permissible trespass is the occasional and fully understandable run in with a bull-headed and intractable traffic warden having a bad day).
We are very much in need of white van man, for the vast majority of white vans are deployed to bring us our supplies: all those weird and wonderful things that make London so cosmopolitan. Small import and distribution companies do not and cannot operate a fleet of 40’ lorries – they rely on panel vans for just about everything, whether it be Turkish yoghurt, or Chinese greens, or African yams or South American palm hearts.
WVM’s day starts typically with a trip to the airport to collect a load of goodies: after an hour of grappling with incomprehensible paperwork (incomprehensible unless your hard drive is wired directly to Brussels), he can ask his freight agent to submit a customs entry on his behalf (every product has a code and sub-code, and as these vary from week to week and according to what colour socks you are wearing, no-one in their right minds handles the entries themselves, but rather pays a nominal fee to an expert with the patience of a saint). Assuming customs don’t want to detain his cargo and search every nook and cranny, and also assuming that port health don’t wish to impound his goods for analysis (at his expense of course), his goods should be cleared – he will be instructed how much money to pay to the government in tax, to the exchequer in duty and to the EEC in levy. Once the bonded warehousemen have taken their fill of bits and pieces, WVM can then load his van and get on his way.
Prosperous WVM will be able to afford to employ a parking pixie to help monitor the vehicle whilst deliveries are made, and indeed to help unload goods – but the vast majority are on their own. Seven to eight hours on the road, battling the traffic, dodging the queues, trying to recall the parking restrictions outside each of his customers, collating orders in a very small space, haggling with the often appallingly ungrateful shopkeeper or his truculent staff – it is a hard day. And don’t forget that WV’s are not equipped with all mod cons – CD players and air con are luxuries. His deliveries over, he then has to return to HQ to refrigerate any unsold fresh goodies, ready the next day’s orders, write up his accounts….
And for those of you who are worried about the planet, the food airmiles, the diesel fumes... Well, it won’t be long before the world becomes utterly homogenised anyway, and so travel will no longer become an issue and the term exotic will lose some of its feathers. Global warming is bringing the tropics nearer, and migration is mixing us all up like never before. AS long as WVM has his emissions checked regularly, he can’t be accused of doing any harm. He is not importing apples and pears, but rather the stuff that we cannot get, and that still will not grow here; and he is serving our growing band of ethnic communities. Dasheen in Deptford? Barberries in Borehamwood? You’ve got WVM to thank. He is, if you will, a herald of faraway cuisines and a harbinger of future times.
So expunge all thoughts of newspaper stereotypes and give him a cheery little wave next time you see him. He works damn hard and deserves respect.
White vans as far as the eye can see, from moley75’s Londonist flickr stream.