Around a year ago, I had occasion to work with three other men on some construction projects for film sets. The work was scattered around a number of venues across London, and each job required various specialised tools. A large part of our time, then, ended up being spent driving -- well, crawling, really -- around winding metropolitan A-roads, nursing first-gear, as we laconically rolled towards the next set of red lights, in our big white van.
In effect, then, we had become White Van Men. We were, after all, the new inhabitants of a shiny(ish) 07-plated Transit van, but surely we were not really White Van Men in the way you or I know them? Since being coined by Jonathan Leake of the Sunday Times in 1997, the term "White Van Man" has accumulated so many negative bullish, crude and misogynistic connotations, that it has become sneery, pejorative shorthand for all that is deemed "wrong", by the intelligensia, with a section of tabloid-reading so-called working class society. In one of it's rare excursions into terra unPC, the Guardian described "White Van Man" as, generally, a "male, aged between 18 and 50, drives a white van... is generally shirtless with a mate on the passenger seat and a rolled up copy of the Sun or Star tucked between dashboard and windscreen... surrounded by cigarette smoke and newsprint breasts... his van and the 1.26m around it are his place of work, where he feels relaxed and confident."
Although we had the vehicle, I felt sure that my colleagues, who I knew as decent, polite, grounded and essentially normal blokes, and I would ever come to resemble the loutish caricature of stereotypical occupants of this legendary, unpigmented, motorised menace. But after cramming all four of us over the strange bench-like front seat of the van and beginning our stately progress through the city, something unexpected started to happen. As if the push of the accelerator combined with the snowy paintwork were some kind of mystic ritual, summoning the spirits of a neanderthal age, the atmosphere of and vocabulary used in the van began to change.
"Look at the norks on that!" exclaimed the driver.
"Terrific arse, shame about the face," added another passenger.
"The f**k is this spanner doing? Learn to drive!"
It went on like this for the entire journey. Expressions of pseudo-comic rage and casual sexism combined in a vinous blend of oppositional camaraderie. It was as if the windscreen were an immersive television, and consequences hung suspended in the air. We were impenetrable within this bubble, free to bond over the traditional method of mutually deriding others, amplified by our physical proximity.
Looking back, I suspect a few factors were at play. Firstly, the Van has become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, in that certain standards of behaviour have strated to be expected amongst its occupants. More importantly, though, the van, in its blameless whiteness, is anonymity in"van"nate. Slipping inconspicuously among so many of the conspicuously similar vehicles leads to a certain level of indemnification against ramifications.
In many ways, it is like opening the Sun on Page Three. Ostensibly, you are reading a newspaper, an otherwise worthy activity, so the privacy of the pages acts as an accommodatory barrier for the private male gaze in a pressurised environment that confronts and demands the viewer to respond. Solitarily, reading a paper, the response is mute, but under the unique conditions of the van, there is an expectation to vocalise the response you're invited to give to the world as it presents itself, within the company of seemingly anticipatory peers. Perhaps it is not White Van Man that should be in our crosshairs, but the noxious environment of anonymity and expectation that encourages and enforces retroactively disdained behaviour.