Having finished university and gone back to Edinburgh, the big challenge was to raise enough cash to get to Shanghai – my target destination. Every job I’d ever done had only paid peanuts; washing dishes, selling books and working on building sites had been useful experiences but none paid more than was needed for booze, food and smokes.
Up in Edinburgh an opportunity soon presented itself. I had often helped out my father in his trucking business and I knew the ropes: I could pack valuable antiques and large paintings into the back of a truck without breaking anything. I knew how to drive his Three Tonner truck and was used to his non-stop hours. Trouble was he only paid the going rate for unskilled labour, about twenty quid a day, and I needed a lot more.
My father had a business partner called Gerry, a smooth talking Irishman who had an impressive moustache and, as my Grandmother would say, he could talk the hind leg off a donkey. Gerry fancied himself as an antique dealer, and would go off on important business trips. He was also a heavy drinker and womaniser. My father would get really angry when he didn’t show up for a job and I would be sent to pick up his truck and stand in for him.
Then Gerry announced that he was going to Texas as he had some big deals cooking; he mentioned antiques but refused to share any details. Would I be willing to look after the truck for two weeks? This was my opportunity to make some big money fast. Being in possession of Gerry’s truck meant that I could make the transition from driver and unskilled humper to equal partner. It meant that I could charge the full fee that my father would normally charge the client. If I worked like a slave over the next two weeks maybe I could earn enough to hit the road.
What I didn’t know was that Gerry was up to his eyeballs in debt and was, in fact, doing a runner. We never saw him again and I’m pretty sure that his story about going to Texas to stitch up an antiques deal was another of his eloquent fairy tales. I also didn’t know that his Mercedes truck was on hire purchase and a payment was expected every month; he hadn’t left me any instructions about debt payments. Just the key. For two miraculous months I was able to make big money – £500 a week, which was a fortune in those days – and not once did anyone ask about debt repayments, taxes or the whereabouts of Gerry. It seemed too good to be true and I soon realised that this was my chance to earn enough cash to get to China.
I worked at fever pitch past the original two-week term and carried on for two months. I would drive down to England every week, pick up paintings from artists living in remote cottages, deliver them to galleries in central London, sleep in the back of the truck, sometimes drive for 18 hours a day and go for drinking sessions when I was in the vicinity of friends. I learned to get through the city at high speed, to intimidate taxi drivers (the bullies of London traffic), to park and unload in impossibly narrow streets, reverse down alleyways with inches to spare and sweet-talk policemen, traffic wardens and officious porters. It was a great job and within two months I had saved £2,000 and was ready to go to China.
Then I had to overcome the biggest challenge of all: complacency. I was earning up to £500 a week and having a great time with my girlfriend in London who would give me full body shiatsu massages. The reasons for not going anywhere were building up fast. I could settle down in Britain! My father wanted to give up his fine art transportation business and part of me wanted to take it over. But my father was dead against the idea: You don’t want to work 18 hour days for the rest of your life, have no friends and sleep in the truck! Hit the road. Travel. Live your own life.
Finally I got the impetus to get up and go. My best friend from school, an artist called Christian Anstice, reminded me that we had planned to meet in Berlin on February the 20th (1986) and he called to say: You’d better be there.
It was time finally tear myself away from the comforts of life in the UK and do the rounds of saying goodbye. Everyone asked me when I was coming back but I really didn’t know. My father told me to park the truck near the garage where Gerry had bought the van. They’ll know what to do with it, he said. And that was it.
These chapters will soon be published as 9 Months in Tibet — the eBook. If you’d like to book a copy just leave a comment below as I will then see your email; or you could send an email to me at firstname.lastname@example.org