The Ford Van and Funny Plumbing
My own energy story starts in the mid 1970s, having packed myself off to Stoke-on-Trent to broaden my academic horizons at University. Despite the fact that the punk rock revolution was about to explode ‘down south’, my attentions turned to the question of serious music: Matching Mole, Weather Report, Hatfield and the North. I had even tried to persuade the Keele music department to adopt me on my arrival, and it must surely have been the Fender Jazz Bass, unconventional hairstyle, and obvious lack of any classical musical training that had put the admissions tutor off. The optimism of youth! Then the advert arrived – ‘Chester rock band seeks experienced bass player’. Fashioned after the southern rock bands popular in the USA at the time, and sporting a tunesome Glaswegian singer named McTrusty, the quintet put the show on the road under the equally unlikely badge of Funny Plumbing. Described most famously once by the Manchester Evening News as ‘a tight but loose band’, the Plumbing were a roaring success on the pub and college circuits of Chester, Manchester and Liverpool.
Membership of a serious band with touring commitments was not only a question of personal (perhaps even imagined) identity, but brought forth also the question of wheels. The purchase of the obligatory second hand light van led me to a permanent state of pennilessness. Essentially a Ford Escort car with no provision for rear seats, the van – which was midnight blue – contained ample space in the back for various speakers, amps, drums and, on occasion, our lead guitarist perched seat-less amongst the equipment. In this semi-chaotic state the members of Funny Plumbing criss-crossed the lanes and byways of Cheshire and Staffordshire for well over 2 years.
Bathed in the spotlight, I never entertained the slightest thought that this might be a sustainability issue. Our highlights were a slot on BBC Radio Liverpool, the Clare College Cambridge May Ball, and Bangor University Students’ Union. Small beer you might argue, but we believed in it. The price to be paid was miles on the road – I would guess now at least 10,000 in my final undergraduate year at University. Average mileage for an ‘average’ person today, but not so a student in 1979. The blue Ford van did its job, ate the miles and money in equal measure, and consumed the petrol.
So was the Plumbing a practice, a performance, or a behaviour? Maybe we’ll never know. One thing was for sure: this was a moment of personal energy transition. After the group split to go their separate ways I gave up the miles, shortened my hair, and moved on to study for my PhD. The van eventually expired and I’ve never owned a car or van since. First I moved to London with good public transport links to work, and then because renting a car seemed simpler all round. Over time I also learned that ‘where you live in relation to what you do’ largely dictates your daily travel options.
And the energy moral of this happy little story? Never join a band with serious ambitions to entertain the public. Try to use car rental or car shares if you absolutely can (‘Autolib’ for Cardiff, yes please). Think very, very carefully about your day-to-day transport options – rail, cycle, walk, or bus to work – before you select the location of your next home. And finally, when next at Glastonbury please reflect for just one small peaceful moment on the miles consumed in getting all of the bands, and all of the people, to the same location, at the same time, for the same song. The Plumbing would have been proud of you.
The price to be paid was miles on the road – I would guess now at least 10,000 in my final undergraduate year at University. Average mileage for an ‘average’ person today, but not so a student in 1979. The blue Ford van did its job, ate the miles and money in equal measure, and consumed the petrol.