Van of Death, Van of Life


Image made available under the GNU Free Documentation License

There is a van in the market square in Cambridge which used to be known as the Death Van, but has at some point in recent memory rebranded itself as the Van of Life.

It sells kebabs.

It is, in a queer way, a cornerstone of Cambridge fast food. It is open late, well after chucking out time (i.e. when the pubs shut); it is cheap. You seem to run into it wherever you have come from, wherever you are heading. And to repeat, it sells kebabs.

In Cambridge, as elsewhere, the kebab is the après-pub food of choice. By kebab we mean usually a Turkish kebab (shish or döner), but the Greek are popular too (gyros or souvlaki).

A kebab van is a byword for cheap and effective if not especially nutritious alcohol absorption. I had a brief experience working in one, at the Reading Rock Festival in about 1988. I sold burgers, kebabs and bacon sandwiches from a van for 18 hours a day. I also slept in the van with my head by the burgers. It was good money, cash in hand. Health and Safety did not carry out an inspection. We were home free.

Thus if kebab vans have a reputation for insanitary food, I know from experience that it is sometime merited. The Death Van was in the marketplace when I was an undergraduate, in the late 1980s. We used to frequent it when we were too drunk and feckless to make it as far as Omar’s on Trinity Street (Omar’s subsequently moved to Green Street, I think) or, in my final year, Gardenia’s on Rose Crescent. Gardenia’s really made a superior kebab (I think they still do), but they shut a bit earlier.

I do not know if the rebranding has been successful. There is no disputing the implication that a kebab at the end of a long and emotional night is often a life-affirming experience. A life-saver even.I would take one over a Big Mac any day of the week (but especially Friday). I am sure their standards of hygiene are impeccable. And if I do not wholeheartedly recommend stopping by the Van of Life, it is only because in memory, at least, under all those swabbed surfaces and Health and Safety best practice, the sinister DNA of the Van of Death still lingers.


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