(Posted a day late, due to illness)
To some people the whole idea of driving trucks on the continent is anathema. To be away from home for extended periods, to be isolated from people who have the same culture and speak the same language can be daunting, but to be honest you can get the same effect driving from Sussex to Sunderland!
For others the idea of being a Continental trucker is what they have aimed for all their lives, and to yet others, like myself, they dread the idea, and yet when they try it they grow to love it.
Continental trucking is not, on most occasions, a structured job. You live from day to day, not knowing where you are going to go to reload, or when. You could spend weeks abroad, loading in one country, delivering in another, reloading in a third, or you could find yourself back in the UK for weeks, doing only local work. You could be flitting around the continent, carrying for different companies, or spending months, or even years on the same contract, carrying the same goods to the same destination. First, however, you actually have to gain employment...
One of the problems faced by a newly qualified HGV driver is that to get a job you need experience, and to get experience you need a job. Unless you are extremely lucky no good company is going to hire a newly qualified driver, which is why a lot of new drivers find themselves working for ‘cowboys’. Cowboys are that group of employers who believe that they are above the law and require their workforce to behave illegally purely for profit. I was no exception. I ended up working for a gentleman who will be referred to from now on as Mr Boss.
I’d worked for the company for maybe 3 months and had made it very clear that I would go anywhere, in any vehicle, and with any load, so long as I was home every night. Although I was single, I wanted to be with my parents, siblings and pets, and if I were dating, my Girlfriend du jour. Of course, I ran illegally. Mr Boss did not hold with the concept of drivers needling sleep, nor complying with tachograph rules, and weight regulations were written for people who were not him. However, he knew I wanted to be home at night, with my family and for the most part he endeavoured to make sure that I was. There were the odd occasions when I would be stuck with a night out, but most frequently he would give me warning of these, and if possible my Girlfriend du jour would come with me.
Eventually, one morning he rang me and asked if I had a passport. I informed him in the negative, that it had expired. He told me I’d better get one in a hurry, as I would be shipping out that night to Germany. I told him in no uncertain terms that this was not going to happen and he pointed out that there was any number of drivers who could do my job just as well. I buckled under the threat and got a 1-year visitor’s passport from the local post office.
The job, according to Mr Boss, was a sure-fire money-spinner. We’d load at the Ford factory in Halewood and ship to any Ford plant in Germany or Belgium. The catch was that the delivery had to be made within 24 hours of leaving Halewood. This was an ideal job for two drivers, but unfortunately Mr Boss thought that two drivers were better deployed in two trucks, so we did the whole job ourselves.
I was distinctly unhappy with the idea of going abroad. However, I needed the job, so I went. One of the other contractors doing the job was Paul Ashwell, the gentleman who found himself embroiled in the ‘Supergun’ affair and imprisoned in Greece. He and I often found ourselves on the run together. He was easy to recognise, as his Leyland truck had a silhouette of a cannon on each door.
On the occasion in question he and I were parked at the Ford factory in Saarlois in Germany, waiting to get unloaded, when a bright red UK registered truck pulled in to the truck park. It parked up, and the driver leapt out of the cab, and ran over to me. I swear he would have hugged us if I hadn’t retreated. After he stopped flapping, he told me that this was his first trip abroad and he had been slightly lost, for three days in Brussels, ending up in a narrow dead-end street that had required the police to close off several roads whilst he reversed out. To say he was upset would be an understatement. He pleaded with me to allow him to run back with us, and being kind hearted, I acquiesced.
At that time German customs were very concerned about the quantities of diesel that trucks were entering the country with. The maximum you were allowed was 200 litres, and they checked every wagon. I had been told that the easiest way to circumvent the problem and indeed the fines the German officials imposed for every litre over the 200 litre allowance, was to try and arrive at the border with the tank nearly empty. It should then be possible to refuel at the services in Luxembourg on the way back and also get a meal and a cup of coffee.
We pulled in to the rather crowded truck park and all went for a meal. The new lad eschewed coffee for a couple of pints, which surprised me, given that he had told us he hadn’t eaten for two days. After the meal and drinks we sat and chatted away our 45-minute break, and he told me of the trials and tribulations of his first and, according to him, last trip abroad.
“At least now I’m with you nothing more can go wrong!” he avowed. It has been my experience in life that making claims like that is a bad idea, and so it proved…We returned to the trucks and he let out a howl of anguish. I looked, and there was a stream of liquid running from under his truck.
“I don’t believe it! The radiator must be leaking!” he said, and before I could stop him he had crouched, dipped his finger in the trickle of liquid, and tasted it. As he did so I looked along the side of his truck. There was a large gentleman urinating against the front wheel of his truck, and the stream of urine tricked inexorably under the front of my poor unlucky colleague's truck….When he realised what he had just done, the poor man broke down and cried.
We did, eventually, get him back to Calais and the ferry back to the UK. When we parked up to sort out the customs paperwork he got down on his knees, kissed the ground, and swore that he would never ever go abroad again. As he spoke I had an epiphany. Clearly he was wrong. I realised that I had loved the job. I wanted, no, craved to do it again. After all, it was so easy! I took to driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road like a duck to water, and after all, that was all there was to this continental lark. What on earth could ever go wrong?
 In the early 1990s, Matrix Churchill, a Coventry firm, exported some tubes to Iraq. The tubes turned out to be the barrel of a ‘supergun.’ The person contracted to deliver the load was Paul Ashwell. He was arrested and imprisoned in Greece, and there was considerable effort made to have him freed. The scandal that followed was widely publicised, and brought about the collapse of the Coventry firm, the arrest of its Directors, and considerable dissembling from the Government at the time, as investigation produced evidence of Government sanctioned spying, and a cover-up operation.
Paul made an effort to get his life and business back on track, which was where he was when I met him. Where he is now I have no idea, but I hope that he reads this and remembers me, and I wish him well in the future.