Sunday, 6 April 2008

I love my van

I love my van
I am sitting at kemble Airfield where the boy bids me to bring him in order to race his RC car. An assemblage of characters, all male and aged anywhere seemingly between 14 and 65, are watching intently as scale models of fast-looking cars are zipping around a small track. There is serious intensity of concentration as levers are twiddled and either near-silent, or irate-bee-sounding cars career in their miniature competition. Electric motors or nitro-methanol (internal combustion engines that would fit in your hand: Beautiful pieces of engineering) send these tiny objects of expenditure and devotion at outrageous speeds, into bends and along straits. I wonder at the enthusiasm. I remember toy cars as a boy; Imagining the tiny drivers in their adventures as I sent them to places only existing in my own mind.

But this is something different; A possibly almost exclusively male fascination with specific area of human endeavour.
And being bitterly cold, snow still clinging to the northern sides of the trees, I sit in my van, where it is warm and I can make tea and eat ghastly noodles from the Chinese supermarket, quickly reconstituted in a bowl.

I love my van. It used to belong to my father and I bought it off him for £1000 when his alcoholism made it no longer possible for him to drive. I have two photos of him on the wall in here, in homage to him not because I am a great ancestor worshipper or sentimentalist although there is a part of that, I grudgingly admit. No, mostly, it because I am grateful to him for his handiwork.
For it was he who took a standard 1992 semi-hi-top long wheelbase ford transit, and saw its potential. And using materials, mostly stolen, sometimes gathered and when no alternative means of sourcing was possible, bought, he turned it into the most significant form of escape ever.

The walls are of tongue and groove pine, covering the sides and the ceiling and giving the feel somewhere between a sauna and a cabin in a 19th century passenger ship. There are two beds in which all the means to live an indefinitely comfortable nomadic existence can be stored. They can be arranged as two single or a double bed and the bedding - a king sized duvet, sheets, covers and pillows, all sourced from my favourite german surprise emporium - lives permanently under one. Two mattresses purloined from a certain west-country budget holiday camp years ago, grace the tops. They are very comfortable and regularly hoovered, scrupulously cleaned and freshened with fabreze.

And here is where i shelter from the biting North wind, with the sun streaming through the windowns, thoughtfully fitted at quite some expenditure. A newly purchased leisure battery and an inverter provides my 240VAC for this laptop and could even power hair straighteners, a telly (god forbid!) or a soldering iron for those little home-improvement jobs needed from time to time.

Thus equipped, it is always ready for a getaway. Indeed, in 2006, i arrived home one evening and said to the family "C'mon! Pack! we are going to Cornwall!" And off we went, bikes on the back, boats on the roof, to Bossinney where we stayed for two and a half weeks of glorious carefree unplanned holiday. Whilst other campers sat in their tents and boiled up quick-cook rice and pasta with jars of sauce, I pulled out my big cooking pot from under the bed and made beef stew with beer, puy lentils and chorizo cassoulet and lamb korma.

On a day when there is surf, I look at eyeball surf-check to see the North Devon webcams and if I am so inclined, off I go with any rare friends brave enough, to Putsborough or Saunton to catch some waves. The kayaks, boards, wetsuits, all the other paraphernalia, goes into the back or on the roof, and within hours we are in the sea, and later, blue and thawing drinking steaming mugs of hot, sweet tea in the comfort of my van, looking at the breakers and feeling the wind rock the bodywork, we sit snug and mellow inside.

Or when the boys have a race for Greenpower ( we put the racing car in the back and off we go to Goodwood or Darley Moor or Castle Combe where the team use the van as a base for tea, bacon sandwiches or a quick snooze, or as a workshop to affect mechanical repairs to our racing car.

And always, I am looking at my old dad's crap carpentry and reminded of how his lovable just-good-enough pragmatism left his character clearly displayed for anyone who knew him to see and smile at: Crooked lines of screws, poorly hammered and bent-over nails, wonky shelves full of mugs. Sometimes, when it is raining, I go outside and sit in my van, under the guise of repairing something, and I just listen to the rain, and I talk to my old dad and tell him what's been happening. Then I can hear his wry laugh and his almost-useless but well-meant advice and I can feel like he is there again.

But still, with probably only a year or so of life left in my van,i look to improve and refine the design of this mobile toy box. My addition of the rear seats, folding table, cargo nets on the ceiling for clothes, the big framed poster of the sea, these are all things that, in the original spirit of its construction, go to make this portable living space more comfortable. Thoughts occur on planes, in traffic, on aeroplanes. Improvements are always suggesting themselves. Such improvements give me an inordinate and possibly disproportionate sense of self-satisfaction on a deep existentialist level. My indescribable sense of a source-of-potential (which I shall paradoxically attempt to describe more fully at a later date) is invoked.

The wonderful and empowering thing is that in my mind, I always know that if the corporate life grinds me down just that little bit too far, i can come home and just go, for a day, a weekend, two weeks, or maybe for an odyssey across the world.
And that feels good.

Some have their RC cars, some do train spotting, and I have my van. And when it fails its last MOT, i shall get another one.
We all need our escapes.
And now I shall put the kettle on.


Lady of Serendip said...

Pete, how wonderful! My dad was also had a great way of reusing and converting things, although I confess he was something of a perfectionist. Perhaps it was something to do with when they grew up, hard times, etc. Still, I empathise with your attachment to yoour van. I am sure a modern camper van or those american homes on wheels could not be nearly so atmospheric! Time to start making notes for when you have to start afresh perhaps?

Rob Hopcott said...

That's a fine van :-)

I've been looking around for a replacement for mine recently. But, it is such a complicated decision which can almost become a lifetimes work.

Maybe I'll just stick with what I've got, or fix the synchromesh on 2nd gear ... Or perhap just forget about changing anything and get back to my music.

Perhaps my van is OK after all :-)

Great van, great post!

PerlNumquist said...

I certainly don't want a winnibafo or similar. I carry muck and fence panels and help people move house in my van. I just take the furniture out and cover it all in tarpaulins. Cleans as a whistle afterwards.
But the search for a new one is tricky: Do i go for the power, reliability and design of a Mercedes sprinter and put up with the cost of repairs? Or the ubiquity of a transit again, with exhausts for 70 quid and tyres three for a tenner?
I think the latter. And if i cycle to work all the time, I cn then justify the diesel for my little adventures.
Get a transit Rob: Ex-transco, like my mum just bought. Very tidy indeed and not ranted.

Rob Hopcott said...

Thanks for your interesting comments.

Guess what? My current campervan is a converted transit! see it here :-)

But I bought a tyre and it cost £70 - where did I go wrong?

Cost of diesel fuel is becoming my bugbear. I would like to travel more widely and tend not to because of the cost. Perhaps bed and breakfast with a cheaper mpg vehicle could be more cost effective.

I wanted to use bio fuel or veggie oil but my Lucas fuel pump is self lubricated so I can't. (It's actually even legal to do that now as long as you processs the veggie oil yourself!)

Plus 2nd gear synchro is duff and I have to double de clutch on any journey over 10 miles.

I'm currently wondering if a Romahome type van (if I could get one cheap enough) would be an option.

PerlNumquist said...

well, alright, I exaggerated the tyres bit, but I certainly havent paid as much as 70 quid! I buy mine in Sodbury. Certainly cheaper than for my skoda octavia which cost a bloody fortune.
Your van is a worthy vehicle sir! The young lads at my local garage all served their apprenticeships on transits and reckon they can put in a whole new engine in a morning for 500 quid. If your body work is in good nick, this might be an option (sadly mine is suffering the rust which will do for it sooner rather than later) It depends on the other investment, like furniture and to some extent emotional attachment.
And I know diesel is expensive, but you need your treats and your escapes. I just cut back elsewhere and drive carefully when i do drive.
You need a van Rob. You asked: WHence Bohemia?". A van is the way there, indeed, may actually BE it, with the right frame of mind.

Magdalene said...

I'm green with envy. I'd love a van, but make do with the occasional camping trip instead, which is blissful when all sorted, but does take a lot of organising. I love the idea of having everything to hand and ready to go. I guess it makes spontaneity possible.

Thesaurus Rex said...

Ah yes, the escape wagon. I've had a couple of them. One VW minibus, too silly in shape to be bothered to convert, but I did have 6 people sleeping in it at a festival once. One Bedford CF camper, tidy but the "indestructible" Perkins 2.2 diesel engine couldn't takt the steep parts of Bodmin Moor, so it blew up. Even 16 years on I miss the "lets go now" stuff. Defo go for transit, Mercs are overpriced.

Rob Hopcott said...

Attempts (possibly feeble) to sell my humble camper were unsuccessful so I've recovered it from the dealer and given it a new lease of life with a solemn promise to its windscreen that it does not now face redundancy (I'm sure it actually smiled back).

Second gear does need double de clutching, though, and when I get it wrong, I still jump out and beat the b**ch with a branch.

It feels good to be back in the driving seat again with its nose pointing to who knows where?

(Mind you, that 22 foot Rapido with fixed bed at Martins of Exeter was very tempting - a veritable home from home - but the price ...)

PerlNumquist said...

Well done Rob, your gypsy spirit can now at least feel it has an escape route, even if you do need to be skilled to change gear.
This is a symbolic thing: It makes you mobile in a profound way and represents adventure.
I only have to look at mine and I feel somehow less bund, less constrained by the usual ties of commitments. I have a job and responsibilities, but, I can get away to some extent and achieve a level of freedom.
Agree that Mercs are expensive, but german engineering is good. That said, my old transit has never let me down yet.
I will always have a van now. Or I will wither away to mediocrity. And we cant have that, can we?

Rob Hopcott said...

Mercs are better for bio-fuel too because of their Bosch fuel pumps, I understand.

Home brewed bio-fuel from used vegetable oil would be truly liberating, although with my understanding of chemistry and aptitude for the practical, I'd probably end up by blowing up the family home.

Mmmm, now then I'd have a good excuse for spending more time in the camper van :-)

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