Last night I told a story about the process of building my campervan at the Storyclub Workshop Showcase at the Giant Dwarf theatre in Redfern. The audio isn’t great — I just left my phone on my seat in audience and recorded what I could. At one point you can hear Hayden, sitting next to me, kick a beer bottle over. But it’s there. And below is the text I was working from, in case you can’t make out my sweet Scottish accent on the mp4.
The genesis of this story is as follows: all weekend, I’ve been workshopping stories with the insanely talented Phil Spencer and Cait Harris at Bustle Studios. There were 12 of us in the group, and very quickly it felt very warm and welcoming, and like we’d known each other a lot longer than the reality, which was 48 hours. Then, on Monday evening, yesterday, we rolled up to the Giant Dwarf and told our stories.
Here’s my text…
I get happy when I hang out with Mother Nature. And, in other news: I’m an academic. At work, I say stuff like: “it’s important to acknowledge the role of lingua-cultural socialization in the construction of a gendered sense of self”. What that means is: I need to get out more. It also means I need a lot of headspace outside of work. And for this reason, when I go hiking and camping, I mostly go alone.
However, as you’ll have noted, I’m a lady-woman of the female persuasion. And I’ve found that if you camp alone near a trailhead, there’s a good chance you’ll run into, at worst, Ivan Milat, and at best, hoons doing doughnuts in a Holden Commodore. Little fun fact: in Adelaide, they call this circlework, like it’s a thing you can do for a living.
If you’re a lady camper and you want to go alone, the trick is to hike waaay out into the forest. Then you’re safe, because anyone that can be bothered hiking for six hours just wants a hipflask of bourbon and a rest. They’re not looking for any trouble.
So I hiked and camped a lot. But then last year, I injured my foot so I couldn’t hike. And I started to get sad. Then I thought, ‘mmm, what about a campervan?’ Have you seen how much campervans cost? Holy shit. The distance from the earth to the moon is 385,000km. And any campervan that’s done fewer kilometres than that will cost you at least twenty grand. And that’s a deathtrap that you buy from a backpacker. Alternatively, a five-year-old van with less than 70,000 on the clock is ninety grand.
And I thought, I’ll build one myself. How hard can it be? I buy a four-year-old electrician’s van –I mean the electrician was about thirty-five; keep up. And, as I live in a second floor flat, I rented some space in a diesel mechanic’s workshop. I spent a lot of time with Google. And I kind of got the gist of how you convert a campervan. It’s not that hard?
So on a Friday morning in October, day one, I go to Bunnings. At the desk in the timber section, I queue up behind a couple of blokes. They’re asking questions of Adam, whose name is on a badge. Adam has sculpted hair and he’s obviously on the management track because his acne’s starting to clear up nicely. He asks each bloke in turn, ‘what is it you’re doing?’ Then it’s me.
- What is it you’re trying to do?
- Oh hey, I’m looking for 19mil ply.
- Structural or non-structural?
- Well, which is it you’ve been sent to get?
I mooch around Bunnings buying a bunch more stuff, my hands shaking a bit at the expense and uncertainty of it all. Then I take all the stuff back to the workshop.
Andrew and a bunch of the other mechanics are there. Everyone wears work boots and high vis and I’m in my hiking boots with denim shorts and a vest top with flowers on it. As I arrive, the coffee van pulls up and Andrew buys us all coffee, taking the piss out of one of his employees who has used glazing silicone in an engine, haha. I have no idea why this is funny.
Over the next six weeks, I build the van. When the workshop is full, we listen to KIIS FM, and when I’m alone I listen to what Andrew calls my ‘stupid hipster podcasts’. The mechanics say good, supportive things as I line the van and build the fit-out. What they don’t realise is that I regularly sneak off and watch YouTube videos. How to use a jigsaw. How not to take your fingers off with a jigsaw. How to reattach severed fingers. I watch, then I go do the thing and, mostly, it works. But Andrew also shows me some clever little tricks, like when I’m rounding out screw heads with the wrong drill torque setting. [See? That’s something I learned.] And then on Friday afternoons we stand around with the engine parts having cold beers. And, we’re bonding.
But not everyone’s OK with me being there. Every few days, Grant swings by just to hang out. Grant is fifty and has a tan, a flash car, and way too much time on his hands. He turns up one day as I’m lying on my back, squeezed half in, half out of the van’s storage unit, holding the drill above my head, building a shelf. I’ve just glued wooden strips onto the metal around the back door to attach the mozzie net and there’s glue seeping out. Another clue: there’s a tube of Liquid Nails on the floor. I smell Grant’s cigarette smoke before I see him. And then I hear him.
- So, still building your campervan, eh?
- [From the depths of the van] Mmmm.
- So, Liquid Nails, eh?
- [Emerging from the van, sweaty, my hair everywhere] That’s right.
- How come you didn’t use self-tappers, mmm? You see, the thing is… [and Grant goes into a long explanation about self-tapping sheet metal screws].
- See, I didn’t want to damage the paint because then it’s not gonna rust. [I’ve read this online, but I’m on the very edge of my knowledge here.] And, you know, the glue holds it just as well.
- I’d be using panel screws. And that’s because… [And Grant explains. I don’t remember the details. Later, Andrew tells me, ‘don’t worry about him. Grant’s an arsehole’.]
But there’s a lot of this: DIY blokes explaining things because it makes them feel good, even though they actually know less than I do, and perhaps because they knew less than I do. Because, as I mentioned, I’m a lady-woman of the female persuasion. And their lingua-cultural socialization had constructed a gendered sense of self.
Despite all this, I build my van and I build my confidence. And then, just before Christmas, my little campervan is finished. I call her VANessa. She gets me out into the forest, and that, as you’ll recall, makes me happy. Converting a campervan is a million small tasks, each dependent on the one before it, and all of them are things you can learn. But the biggest thing I learned wasn’t any of that. What I learned was that even though I’m really happy in a forest, this academic weirdo is also reeeally happy hanging out with a bunch of tradies in a diesel mechanic’s workshop. And there isn’t a YouTube video in the world that can teach you that.