Get your motor running . . .
Paul Rowlands quit his desk job with the Inland Revenue because he fancied life on the road – and never regretted it. Steven Russell hears about a journey that began with coal, sugar beet and fertiliser and now features Elton John and U2
THE magic of the open road that has gripped Paul Rowlands for more than four decades shows no signs of waning. He got back to Suffolk just 11 hours ago – following a trip to snowy Scandinavia whose early winter freeze would probably have brought England to a halt before you could say “gritters” – and he’s due out again in less than a week. This time he’ll be joining his son: driving trucks and equipment from venue to venue for the European leg of Colombian-born singer Shakira’s The Sun Comes Out world tour. (Berlin in December... sun... hmm.)
A month or two ago he was driving on U2’s 360� Tour as it took in 20 or so dates across Europe, including Moscow. With 50-odd trucks, it was billed as the biggest music tour ever. He’s worked as part of the Elton John circus, too.
Paul’s also been part of the logistical side for the theatrical show – “a dazzling $20,000,000 arena spectacle”, as the publicity machine put it – inspired by the BBC TV series Walking with Dinosaurs. It featured 15 life-size Jurassic beasts.
It’s a giddy turn of events for someone whose first job in transport involved delivering coal, before graduating to sugar beet, hauling fertiliser for Fisons and driving thousands of tons of grain in and out of Pauls & Whites Ltd in Ipswich.
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“I’m 64 next year and I still love my driving,” he says. “It’s strange – I thought I might have grown out of it – but it’s still interesting.”
Paul’s set down in print the story of his early days on the road. Not All Sunshine & Sand: The Tales of a UK-Middle East Truck Driver covers the era from the pre-tachograph days of the late 1960s to the mid-1990s. Wince when reading about petrol at 10p a gallon... or even 7p in Syria.
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Paul was 22 years old, a nine-stone Suffolk equivalent of the Milky Bar Kid, when he saw an advert in the EADT for a coalman at the Co-op yard in Stowmarket. He quit his job at the Inland Revenue – much to the consternation of his mother. Office work wasn’t for him when there was a world to explore.
The coalyard was but a stepping stone. Another newspaper ad brought another job, as a driver at George Thorpe Haulage in Mendlesham. The money was good, at �17 6s 3d a week.
He later secured his class one licence after a test in Ipswich and was able to drive 32-tonners.
Long-distance work was part of the dream. There was a sense of romance in going to places such as Scotch Corner and staying in digs, from crofters’ cottages in Nairn to B&Bs in Plymouth.
By 1974, after more than two years, he’d travelled the length and breadth of Britain and was looking for new challenges.
Perhaps he’d inherited wanderlust from his dad, who during and after the Second World War was in the RAF Motor Transport Division.
Born in South Wales, a forces child, Paul grew up in Southern Rhodesia, Germany and Holland, before finishing his formal education at grammar school in Singapore in 1964.
He switched jobs to pursue the chance of continental work, joining Felixstowe-based Bob Carter.
For a couple of months he did container work out of the port, often hauling Sealand containers. Then came the chance he’d been waiting for: to join a four-truck, four-week convoy to the Middle East in May, 1975. Paul would go to Abadan, where Iran, Kuwait and Iraq met at the top of the Persian Gulf. It was a 8,000-mile round trip.
That overland route had become popular largely as a result of the oil crisis of October, 1973. Oil-producing nations were awash with cash and went on a spending spree – sucking in imported goods.
This young man sporting a green Castrol jacket, denim cowboy-style hat and a droopy Zapata moustache – “Sadly, image and posing seemed important at the time. Bit sad really!” – was so excited he could barely sleep.
Through communist Yugoslavia and down through Turkey they went, each turn bringing new sights and sounds: from the colourful market in Istanbul to rather unappealing if amusing prostitutes targeting the truck-stops!
There were breathtaking vistas and “challenging” roads – such as the mountain-side “Death Valley”, where so many trucks had come to grief in the past.
Paul writes: “Across Western Europe on wonderfully smooth autobahns, then the contrast of the mind-numbing length of Yugoslavia with its rough, bone-jarring roads, untidy scenery and roadside religious icons. Then west again across the Bulgarian hinterlands to Turkey, a country of incalculable contrasts, with a history as old as civilisation itself.
“It was a country of massive extremes, where the West wants to be in Europe and the East doesn’t.”
The pounding from the worst roads caused a split in one of his diesel tanks. Scraping Fairy soap across the crack was a handy trick and stemmed the loss of fuel to a gentle drip.
Into Iran, with its semi-desert terrain and wide skies.
At a stopover he tuned in to what would become his “comforter and travel companion” on most trips.
“From the BBC World Service shipping forecast I learned the names off by heart. Dogger Bank, Fisher, German Bight, Rockall. Where were these places? This, followed by the national anthem and the chimes of Big Ben... was like a protective arm around my shoulder.
“I was always struck by the incongruity of it, laying in my bunk somewhere thousands of miles from home, possibly in the middle of the desert, listening to the shipping forecast. For me, it was a piece of Britain in my heart.”
Driving off the ferry at Felixstowe, at the end of his first trip, Paul felt he was a different person to the one who had left British shores a month earlier.
And so it developed, with most jaunts providing a yarn or two to file in the memory banks.
There was the time coming back from Jordan that he stopped to check something flapping at the back of the unit and discovered uninvited passengers: a portly and irate Arabic gentleman climbed out – followed by another adult, two children and five goats! They (the people, not the goats – obviously) were angry they hadn’t been let off miles before.
It seemed it was normal for locals in need of a lift to catch a ride with trucks. They’d link up with a Syrian or Jordanian driver. “Apparently there hadn’t been any suitable trucks at the border, so they jumped in mine, assuming I’d know the score... In future, at all borders I checked the trailer before I left.”
Paul admits: “Those early trips were a steep learning curve and you had to accept the fact that in that type of job anything that could happen would, eventually.”
The coldest he’s ever been was near Erzurum in eastern Turkey in the winter of 1975/76: anything between -20C and -30C...
He was among nine guys and seven trucks dug in and waiting for severe weather to pass. Luckily, some truckers were Romanians with great experience of dreadful conditions in Russia. They nursed their less experienced fellow travellers through the toughest of days.
The imperative was never to switch off engines. The experts also organised things to burn, to keep key components warm if an engine stopped and increase the chances of getting it going again.
Late in 1978, heading back to England during his longest-ever trip (10,000 miles there and back to deliver machine parts to a textile company at Bandar Abbas, at the bottom of the Persian Gulf) Paul experienced perhaps the most dangerous moment of his life.
It was winter and he was in Turkey, trying to affix snow chains to the wheels. The truck started sliding on the icy road, threatening to crush him against a hard and tall bank of snow. “I have never been as scared as I was in those few seconds,” he admits. Fortunately, the vehicle stopped less than a foot away from the snow wall.
The following year brought another change in jobs. He’d married his first wife, who rather hoped he’d be at home from time to time, so he joined Toleman Transporters in Ipswich as transport allocator on the Volvo contract, learning over the next few years how to run a fleet of vehicles and how to adapt to a 7am-5pm working life.
The open road still called, however – particularly when sons Lewis and Leigh were born in the early 1980s and family finances were squeezed.
Paul jumped at the chance with Toleman to drive car transporters: a job that paid nearly double what he was earning. He delivered Volvo cars to dealerships from Ipswich to Falmouth and Truro to Ullapool.
By 1993 or 1994 the Toleman association had come to an end. He hooked up with a local haulier and enjoyed runs to, mostly, Italy and the old Eastern bloc.
A trip to Belgrade goes down as one of the scariest jobs he’s had. It involved transporting medicines for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees – this at a time of dreadful conflict in parts of the Balkans.
Delays at the Serbian border, where guards were armed with Kalashnikovs, set the tone. Paul went with his local agent to a compound at Belgrade Airport that looked like a scene from the post-Apocalyptic film Mad Max. “The place was like a huge rubbish dump; broken down and burnt-out vehicles lay everywhere.” Most driverless trucks had been siphoned for diesel, with many having holes drilled in their tanks.
The agent, Milos, arranged a night-time guard... a silent man with three guns. Paul never had any trouble, but it was all an edgy experience.
A few weeks later he was offered another trip to Belgrade... and declined. In his driving career of more than two million miles, probably, he’d been involved in only a couple of minor scrapes. This wasn’t the time to push his luck.
Trucks temporarily “parked”, Paul turned to smaller vehicles and wheels, buying a taxi and working in the Woodbridge area for about seven years.
After that he started his own business, driving people around in their own cars. When it was knocked by the recession he looked around for something else and for 20 months has been working for Bungay-based Transam Trucking Ltd – the haulier specialising in the rock business.
It rekindles the sense of adventure of those earlier long-distance days.
The job from which he’s just returned – Australian hard-rock band Airbourne’s No Guts. No Glory. jamboree – saw him flying out to Dusseldorf. After the concert there, and once the crew had packed everything away, the truck got away at about 1.30am for an overnight drive to Copenhagen.
After the show there, the circus set off again – for Oslo. Another gig. Another load-up. Another overnight journey.
“As we left Oslo the weather closed in. It started snowing. It’s 550km to Stockholm and we didn’t see the tarmac once during the whole trip!”
One of the support groups, travelling in another vehicle, had an accident and had to pull out of the tour.
When Paul arrived in the Swedish capital he helped unload, before flying to Amsterdam and on to Norwich. He got back to Suffolk at about 11pm.
Four decades on, trucking is still a thrill. “It does get in your blood – especially the continental work.
“I personally wouldn’t want to go back into general haulage. I’ve done my share, and loved it in the early days, but specialist work is much more interesting.
“The thing about driving in this country is you’ve got the same roads all the time. If you leave Felixstowe to go to Birmingham/Manchester you know it’s going to take two hours and 56 minutes to the M1 junction with the A14 – virtually exactly. That’s the routine – but most truck drivers are not enthused by routine!”
British roads are also densely populated. We don’t have the vast motorway networks of France and Germany that help make driving more enjoyable.
Paul can understand why recruitment in the industry has had its periods of difficulty (before the recession bit and eased the pressure). Couples tend to go out more today than they did in the 1960s and 1970s, and being away for long stretches makes socialising difficult.
He also recognises that the money paid by other careers tempts young people. Truck driving can be reasonably well paid, though that would involve putting in the hours – again, not something overly-conducive to a predictable social life.
All that said, he’d certainly recommend the life to a youngster mulling his or her options – particularly anyone keen to see the world and who enjoys a job that can be unpredictable.
“To me, life is a series of experiences. If you don’t take the opportunity to take something that’s offered to you, well, you’ve obviously missed it. If you take it, the chances are you’ll thoroughly enjoy it. That’s been the philosophy of my life, really.
“Travel is the most important thing you can do. If you don’t, you can become insular. You widen your life experiences, going abroad and seeing how other cultures operate. You might not always understand them, but if you’re open-minded you learn things from what you encounter.
“If I were offered the opportunity to go to China now, I’d take it. I’d be off like a shot!”
n All Sunshine & Sand: The Tales of a UK-Middle East Truck Driver is stocked by Waterstones in Ipswich.
It can also be obtained via www.bookguild.co.uk. It costs �17.99.