London driving

Insha Allah I’m about to start my fourth week of proper work, something I have not had certainly since the middle of last year. Insha Allah this means I should be able to do a few things I’ve been meaning to do for ages - renew my passport for one thing, and I’ve also placed an order for a new Linux package, which I intend to review here once I’ve installed it and have a feel for it. The company is in fact looking for a permanent driver, a position for which I may apply even though it is in north-west London and requires a daily journey of an hour and a half.

Of course I’m grateful for all this, but I have to say I’ve never had a job which causes me so much frustration as this. The job is in the Indian food industry, delivering imported vegetarian foods to various cash-and-carry warehouses and supermarkets in and around London: Southall, Kenton, Wembley and the Asian hotbeds in east London too, like Walthamstow and Barking. This past week I had to make a journey to the south side as well. The vehicle, as I have already described, is a Japanese 7.5-tonne truck.

Now, Japan is not a big player in the truck market - I can only think of one known Japanese truck builder, namely Hino which is popular in New Zealand but which we don’t see much here. This one is an Isuzu, which uses the same cab as Mitsubishi’s small truck. The cab is based on a small-van cab, which means it is cramped and flimsy. It’s not like driving a truck, but rather an over-sized van. It doesn’t steer like a proper truck either - it requires a whole different technique and much more effort, and it’s not very responsive. It has a cooling machine, which is obviously necessary when used for delivering frozen food, but it doesn’t keep going when you switch off the engine, which you have to do when you stop in an enclosed loading area. So it gets warm, and then has to be cooled down again. One customer (a supermarket in Kenton, near Harrow) actually refused a consignment because the temperature was less cold than -15C. The back of my van is usually about -6C, and almost never goes down below -10.

The next big frustration is dealing with the Indian food industry itself. I don’t actually see myself being offered this job on a permanent basis, because they are likely to require someone from the right background who can speak at least one of the languages of this industry. English isn’t one of them. In the Indian-run cash-and-carry and Indian grocery shops I deliver to, almost nobody speaks proper English. Nearly all the people who work in this industry are Asians - I don’t mean British Asians, but immigrant Asians - Indians, Pakistanis, the occasional Bengalis and Nepalis. I really do wonder why they need to bring in so many foreign workers - do British Asians consider it below them to work in the food distribution industry rather than in accountancy or IT or whatever?

But the biggest frustration I have in doing a London driving job is simply driving in London. I always prefer to get a long-distance job, because it means less stress, more driving and less dealing with other people. The furthest I’ve been on this job so far is Slough. I make regular use, for example, of the North Circular Road, the main northern inner by-pass road.

The North Circular, or A406, starts at a big roundabout at the start of the main road out west, the M4. It then runs up past Acton to Hanger Lane, where it meets another major road out west, the A40 (Western Avenue). This is the start of one of the A406’s fast stretches, of which there are three. In between them, however, are bottle-necks they have never got round to sorting out, mainly because it would lead to howls from environmentalists - despite the fact that, if you look off to the side of the road, you’ll see that there is already land set aside for a wider A406. The bridges are long enough to span two carriageways rather than one; that junkyard is the width of another carriageway, and so on. These bottlenecks cause massive jams at rush hour, at precisely the times when I have finished a series of frustrating dealings with different companies and just want to get back to the yard, leave the van and go home.

Now, in the north-eastern corner of London there’s a long stretch which has been upgraded to near-motorway standard. This is presumably to make sure that there’s long stretches of good road either side of the M11 (the motorway which goes to Stansted Airport and Cambridge). Beyond the end of that stretch, the road quality goes down, which doesn’t matter as it ends at the Woolwich Ferry, which is only used by people driving vehicles too tall to fit through the Blackwall Tunnel, or carrying prohibited goods (like explosives and inflammable materials). That, in turn, leads to the truly abysmal South Circular road or A205, none of which has been upgraded and which goes through three town centres (Catford, Forest Hill and Wandsworth).

They’ve recently been changing all the signs around London, which shows that they’ve got some money to burn. They didn’t have the time to burn, however, to make sure that the new signs weren’t inaccurate or confusing. Going west along the A406, you reach a point where the A1 (Falloden Way), the main road to the north-east (but which also carries traffic from east-central London to the M1 and A41, both northwest-bound) converges with the A406 from the left. After another junction (for Golders Green), you get to the point where it goes off again to the right as Great North Way. That road leads to the A41 and M1. The A406 carries on to the left, where it meets the A41 itself a couple of miles down at Brent Cross. But the sign tells you that the way to the A41 is down the North Circular, not up the A1, which is actually shorter and quicker (this map should make it clear insha Allah). The old signs, in fact, told you accurately where these roads led. They also had some out-of-date information, such as that the same road led to St. Alban’s via the A6 (now part of the M25).

Now, the other day I had a number of jobs in east London before having to head for Croydon to deliver to a certain Pakistani-run cash-and-carry. For this I had cause to hit the A13, which has been seriously improved in the last five years or so. Those infamous rickety old flyovers are now a thing of the past, and it’s a match for the new Thames Gateway they built to take it out to the M25. The problem is, they set the speed limit at 40mph, which is way too low - it should easily be 50. The road is straight, with three wide lanes going each way, without being lined on both sides by houses. It gets worse. That stretch leads west to the Canning Town junction, at which the bulk of the traffic is directed into a new tunnel (the East India Dock tunnel), along Aspen Way through the Docklands and then another tunnel (the Limehouse tunnel), to end up at Tower Bridge. The speed limit at Canning Town, and in both tunnels, is 30mph.

This really is stupid. It seems like an attempt to tempt drivers to go faster than that in order to catch them on camera and fine them. The speed limit on all these roads should be 10mph higher than they are (or else made variable as on parts of the M25, so that it comes down at busy times). I live on a road which has three narrow lanes of traffic going each way, with houses on both sides, and the speed limit here is 50. The same conditions exist on the Western Avenue and East Rochester Way. (At all these places, the speed limit has been lowered in recent years. 50mph speed limits are a relatively new thing; previously it went from 40 to “national”, meaning 50 for big trucks, 60 for small trucks and vans and 70 for cars. National speed limit applied at these places until the late 1990s or possibly later.) Even in the southbound Blackwall Tunnel, with its two windy narrow lanes, the speed limit is 40, not 30.

Much as I like the novel experience of getting a reasonable pay-packet (or, rather, bank credit) each week, I sometimes hope that they will tell me I’m no longer needed because of how much of an ordeal it can be driving in London. One of the sisters told me a few months ago that we had an efficient public transport system here, which we don’t, in my opinion. We have a lot of railways, yes, but they were all built separately, by competing companies in the 19th century, and to a large extent don’t link up. Classic example: the Metropolitan line makes its first stop outside central London at Finchley Road. The next station out, West Hampstead, is served by the stopping Jubilee Line but not by the fast Metropolitan. It’s also served by the east-west North London line and the Thameslink line which runs through the middle from north to south. Why has nobody thought to change this so that the Met line stops at West Hampstead instead of Finchley Road?

And besides this, a lot of people don’t use it - they prefer the space their car affords them, despite the fact that they take up a lot of space more than they would on the train or bus. The reason the bus is slow is because there are too many cars on the road with just one person - very often someone who doesn’t like to sit on the train with all the riff-raff, or rather, all the other riff-raff. Stephen Norris, a Tory who ran for the position of Mayor of London, described all the other people you meet on the train or tube as “dreadful human beings”. My sentiments exactly. But there are plenty of them on the roads, where they take up the space I need to finish my job.

But it’s better than having no work and no money, so I can’t complain.

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