In the mid-1990s my partner Sally and I were involved in an organisation called Workers Aid for Bosnia. Well, I say “organisation” but I use the term loosely; it did have meetings, but it wasn’t really the sort of organisation with rules, a committee and all that. It was to some extent pretty anarchic and to some extent a bit Trotskyist. It didn’t even have an apostrophe. It did one big thing, and did it pretty well – it collected and transported aid (food and other essentials) to the non-sectarian community of Tuzla in Bosnia when all around that community were war and hate whipped up by various ex-Yugoslavian versions of the BNP.
WAB, as it was called for short, was a national group, and we were the Brighton section. We got hold of a 7.5 ton lorry which was donated by Thames Water. It was a Leyland DAF (and thus unofficially named “Leyla”) and it looked pretty big until you saw it parked alongside a really big lorry at a service station. The great thing was that you could actually drive a 7.5 tonner on an ordinary car licence. Well, it was “great” in some sense or other, but it was also “scary” in a lot of senses, particularly when some dickhead asked you to reverse it along Hanover Terrace and you left a trail of broken wing mirrors behind you … Nevertheless, we fell in love with it.
I never went to Bosnia in it, but I helped out with maintaining it. The people who drove it on the aid convoys were often not the sort to treat a piece of middle-aged machinery with much sensitivity (if any of them ever graduated onto wheelie suitcases, I bet they were the sort of people who bumped them mercilessly down stairs and then wondered why the wheels fell off). So the lorry needed a lot of TLC when it came back, not to mention the small matter of an MOT as well.
Some of us hit on the brilliant idea of letting the lorry earn its own maintenance money in the long months between convoys, by using it to transport people and things around. The idea was that we would put up adverts in the sort of places where they’d be read by “alternative” people, people who wanted something moved but did not fancy pouring money into the coffers of large removal firms. It was before the idea of “man and van” really took off, so there was not too much competition in this kind of market; besides, we had an ideological trump card up our sleeves – people liked the idea that their money was keeping an aid vehicle on the road and helping the hard-pressed souls of Tuzla, so they’d choose us in preference to Pickfords et al.
This very informal (and quite possibly illegal at times) practice went on for perhaps two or three years (I can’t remember precisely), was great fun, and introduced us to some lovely people. It has also generated some very poignant memories and produced material for many stories, which have been told, orally, many times. Recently, while writing my blog piece about car hire, it all came back to me and I thought maybe the best stories should be preserved in written form. So here they are. They may prove too numerous for one blog piece, in which case this will become a series.
At first it felt like a bit of a con. People knew we weren’t professionals, but still when we went round to look at how much stuff they’d got they probably thought we were sizing it all up professionally, working out what should go where, what should go first and what last, etc, but really we were thinking “I haven’t got a clue how to do this …” We did get quite good at packing stuff in though. But one of my most enduring memories concerns the one occasion when I deliberately abandoned all those acquired skills and tried desperately to pile things up all higgledy-piggledy.
A lady called Wendy (not her real name) asked us if we could take her to South London and pick up a few of her belongings from the house of a friend who had died. So we set off, found the house and started loading things onto the lorry. She had said at the start that it was just a few items of furniture; I certainly remember a large table. Fair enough; it was a nice table. But as we went on, more and more things began to be brought out – some of them looking rather the worse for wear, many of them covered in mould. It was not so easy to see why she wanted these things – the mantra that accompanied their appearance was “might come in useful”. When a whole load of bits of an old car appeared, I started to feel as though I wanted the ground to open and swallow me up. So I tried my best to fill up the lorry, and at last declared, with relief, that there was no more room. Ever since then, whenever I have experienced that panicky feeling that things are out of control, I am in a situation I don’t want to be in and everything is getting worse, I have referred to it as a “Wendy moment”.
Probably the most challenging job was being asked to take the constituent parts of an exhibition stand to the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham. It was for the BBC Gardeners’ World exhibition, and we had to be there by 8am on a Saturday, so that meant a pretty early start. We’d loaded up the night before so we just had to get there, unload, and meet up with the three exhibitors, who would then re-assemble it. Such a long round trip required two drivers, so Phil, another WAB person who did a lot of the driving, agreed to come along. We also had a passenger, a young lady who was moving to Nottingham, probably from university, with her small collection of belongings; I can’t remember her name, but as she features again in the story let’s call her Diana. The lorry had a compartment behind the cab with its own door, so that was perfect for her stuff. I picked her up at about 4am and we went to Phil’s house in Portslade. But try as we might, we could not rouse him. Door knocking, gravel on the window, shouting – all was to no avail. After maybe 15 minutes of trying to get a response, I realised that a decision would have to be made. I needed a co-driver. Optimistically, I turned to Diana and said “Can you drive?” But she couldn’t, so it was just me. I realised that I’d be able to do the return trip in 2 days, so a solution quickly appeared – I could sleep on the floor at Diana’s new place in Nottingham and return the next day. So we set off.
We got to the NEC in time, and unloaded the stuff. As we unloaded, the exhibitors (who had travelled separately by car) were supposed to be erecting it. But it quickly became apparent that this was no easy matter. They were two women and one man; the man had numbered all the parts, but none of them seemed to know how the numbers fitted together, and it was such a complicated structure that it actually needed several people, with bits being held in mid-air until they could be supported.
Time moved on …. One of the women ran off in tears … they apologised and offered me another £20, which in my embarrassment at holding Diana up, I gave to her. We were all five of us standing around holding things while someone tried to fit parts together and usually someone else was running off in hysterics (not that I am stereotyping artistic people here, please note). It was almost a Wendy moment. But we got there in the end.
Just in case I don’t get round to doing another blog in this series, I must mention one of the nicest jobs I had. I was asked to move an entire family (a couple, their young daughter and their cat), and all their possessions, from Sussex to Cornwall, where they were to “start a new life”. The daughter was four, and had so many teddies and soft toys that they took up the entire dashboard. She, Kara-Beth, and her mother Jenny sat in the front with me; Jeremy (Jez) and the cat (whose name I have unfortunately forgotten) were in the compartment behind the cab. There was a window between this compartment and the cab and so Jez and his feline companion were not completely cut off.
I don’t remember much of the journey; it was one of the longest ones I did, and I had to stay at my brother’s house on Bodmin Moor that night before returning home. But the whole trip was suffused by the strong, heady emotional atmosphere that one might expect to accompany such a radical uprooting. It felt good, everyone was upbeat, and I felt so privileged to be part of such a landmark event in this young family’s life. And the nicest thing about it is that we have exchanged Christmas cards every year since then. Kara (she dropped the Beth) is a young woman now; I am not sure if she still has the teddies. Every year I promise to try and get down to Cornwall to see them; hopefully one day I will actually make it.