Archive for June, 2010

The nicest pigeon in London…

June 30, 2010

…is called Pedro, lives in the loading bay at ITV, on Upper Ground, and is friends with Fabian, the postroom guy.

Fabian found him when he was tiny, and has been looking after him ever since. He’s completely tame, but Fabian’s going to try and release him into the wild tomorrow, so that he can find a girl, “or a boy, if that’s his thing”. So keep an eye out for him in Soho Square.

Fury

June 30, 2010

I’ve been going a bit faster lately, for one reason and another. (One reason was an unusually vitriolic altercation with a bus driver yesterday, which left me quivering with rage, and riding at crazy speeds was the only way I could get it out of my system. Another reason was the White Cube post-run (Hoxton Square, Wharf Road, Mason’s Yard, Hoxton Square, Wharf Road), which hit my Xda at 3pm today, when I had to be in Streatham Hill for 4.30. (I made it with ten minutes to spare, and was quite pleased with myself.)) And I’ve noticed that it drastically increases the number of near misses I have, even though I still stick to all the rules, am within the speed limit, stop at (most) traffic lights, etc.

It’s always other people doing stupid things, of course – but riding faster means I have less time to avoid them. A woman (avec iPod) stepped out without looking on Southwark Bridge Road, and I pulled a pretty impressive skid (unintentionally, I might add – you don’t expect to skid with a freewheel), and missed her by inches. Look out for that blue paint, by the way – it’s going to be a nightmare in the rain.

And god, there was an even worse one on Shaftesbury (heading east, between Wardour and Dean). A typical – and terrifying – three-second pedestrian encounter.

Second 1: Woman steps casually off traffic island (with very small child in tow), forgetting to check for oncoming traffic, then turns head, sees fast approaching cycle courier, and starts running across road, giggling, because, after all, dashing into the path of oncoming traffic whilst holding a toddler by the hand is probably the funniest thing in the world, isn’t it? And it’s not like anyone’s ever been killed or injured by traffic in central London, is it? And bikes don’t really hurt when they hit you, do they?

Second 2: Woman realizes she might have misjudged the pace of fast approaching cycle courier, pauses in the middle of the road, and ponders her next move. This is the most dangerous bit – no matter how much pedestrian psychology you have hardwired into your nervous system, you can never predict which way they’re going to jump. Cycle courier brakes for all she’s worth, imagining decapitated toddler and written-off bike (“…and oh yes, the road, I remember that from last time – surprisingly hard, if you go into it fast enough…”).

Second 3: Both parties almost at a halt; cycle courier executes a sharp turn and whips round pedestrian, usually with a withering glance or a choice mouthful of abuse.

And this time I surpassed myself. I have a little repertoire of abuse always to hand (it started out as staircase wit, but moved to the tip of my tongue as I got more used to dealing with situations like this), and sometimes spend the millisecond after I’ve avoided a high-speed collision contentedly rummaging through my wit for the most appropriate put-down. But today I didn’t even think. I just opened my mouth, and out it came, hearty, heart-felt, throaty and resonant:

“For fuck’s sake, you IDIOT!”

It was perfectly delivered. Sometimes I accidentally shriek, or stutter, or miss the moment, but this was loud and clear enough for everyone on Shaftesbury to hear. She shouted something inarticulate in response. I carried on. She wasn’t the first person I’d shouted at today, and she wouldn’t be the last.

But where did it come from? My usual comments have all been tailor-made to cause the maximum impact whilst carefully retaining the moral high ground. I’ve never sworn at a pedestrian before. What came over me? Or, rather, out of me? I’m slightly worried that this incident, and that row with the bus driver, and the idiot on Southwark Bridge Road, and all the hundreds and hundreds of other little incidents over the past few weeks are building up in my system. Usually I just let go of them – because you have to. There’s usually very little you can do, after all, and there’s no point holding onto the anger. You cycle it out, or you find someone sympathetic and rant, or you just take a deep breath and carry on. But none of that seems to be working at the moment.

God, I need a holiday.

Written in the streets*

June 22, 2010

I’ve been working up to a full-on whinge about how all the visible history I see as I ride around London is the history of the elite – all the statues and blue plaques commemorate a minuscule group of people, usually men, usually white and upper-class, usually long dead, usually no one you’ve ever heard of. Every now and then I’ll stop and read what’s chiselled under a statue, or printed at the entrance to a park, and feel slightly guilty for not knowing anything or caring about the mark this obscure person made on the city. And then I’ll ask myself why there should even be a statue there, if no one really cares. The one where Wilton Crescent meets Belgrave Square is a case in point – it simply commemorates a chap who used to own a lot of the area. And how does having once held the deeds to a large swathe of SW1 entitle him to the status of a massive public monument? Who really wants to look at a landowner, when they could be admiring much more interesting statues, and reading much more fascinating inscriptions?

Come to think of it [I thought], why do we not have little plaques and epitaphs commemorating all the other significant things that happen in London?

On this spot, in 1974, Bruce and Camilla had their first kiss.

Kamil lost a tooth here.

This park is where George learned to ride his bike, in 1988.

It was against this lamp post that thatmessengerchick wrote off her Surly Steamroller. RIP.

Silly? Maybe. But these people would be just as unknown to me as the owner of Belgrave Square, and the details of their lives are far more interesting. There’s a street art project there, I do believe – but actually, it’s already underway; here and there, in small ways, temporary and permanent, people are making their mark on the city. There’s so much more to graffiti than just spraycans and Banksy. Here’s a few examples I’ve found – of varying legitimacy.

The bench in Lincoln’s Inn Fields where I eat my morning croissants.

I love this alleyway (prize for the first person to tell me where it is!), and how the history of the area has – quite literally – been inscribed on its streets. A reminder of how many lives and stories today’s city workers are trampling on as they go about their business.

And again…

Graffiti in the Wetherspoons toilets on the corner of Carey Street and Chancery Lane.

I have no idea what this one’s all about (beyond that Elvis is dead), and I’m surprised that I only spotted it fairly recently. (Where is it then? Anyone?)

Again, no idea. This was on Herbal Hill, EC1. I think it probably had something to do with art students.

Found this on a rainy walk near Beckenham.

And the saddest of them all.

*The title of this post is shamelessly ripped off from Philip Diprose’s 2008(?) documentary of the same name – generally acknowledged to be the authoritative video portrait of London cycle couriers, or at least the one that has had the fewest holes picked in it by said couriers.

[One day I will work out how to embed video. It will not be this day. Just bloody google it.]

Oi!

June 21, 2010

OI!!

Look where you’re going!

Look where you’re going, idiot!

Idiot!

Hey!

HEY!!

Watch it!

Wake up!

Learn to cross the road!

Oi!

Careful!

OIIII!

They apply to you too you know!

Get out the road, idiot!

Get out the cycle lane!

Idiot!

Stand aside citizen!

Learn some manners!

Learn to cross the road!

Stop!

STOP!!

Stop at the lights, moron!

Hey!

HEY!

IDIOT!

I have to admit, launching (well-deserved) verbal attacks on unsuspecting pedestrians is one of the most satisfying parts of my job.

The merits of gluttony

June 18, 2010

Have you read Messenger of Doom’s guide to cycling nutrition? If not, go and read it now. It’s very short, and will make you laugh like a drain.

And I think he might have a point. You know how I went on and on about being knackered in my last post? The kind of knackered where your whole body aches, and your brain can’t hold a coherent thought for longer than a few seconds, and you know that a mere eight hours’ sleep might just about scratch the surface? (I didn’t even sleep that well last night – I often don’t, when I’m that tired.) I was really really really knackered. And also quite hungry – so I ate my usual Thursday night supper of a massive jacket potato, a pile of broccoli and a couple of mackerel.

But first I had half a baguette and a tomato salad.

That’s a hell of a lot of food. I think it counts as two dinners, and both of them were fairly generous.

But it did the trick. Today was Friday and, after four really hard days, I was expecting it to be a nightmare. But (as I mentioned above/below/in the last post) Fridays have a peculiar adrenaline-infused quality to them. Or perhaps it was all the food. Because I was flying. Racing around town, overtaking people left right and centre (well, mostly right – I can’t abide undertakers), storming through the traffic, feeling unexplained surges of strength in my legs with every push of the pedals, finding the breath and energy to sit back and sigh contentedly as I sped along at well over 20mph – whereas yesterday I was puffing and panting and wheezing, and almost couldn’t make it over Waterloo Bridge.

It’s the food, I tell you. Or, more specifically, the over-eating. And there’s some precedent for this. A few years ago I rode from London to Telford. It was about 145 miles, which was the furthest I’d ridden at the time, and I did it on a fixie, slightly hungover, after four hours’ broken sleep on a friend’s living room floor. It wasn’t a good ride. My legs never properly woke up, and I actually had to stop for a bit of a snooze halfway through.

I then spent the night at a friend’s house, before carrying on to my parents’ place in Wales the next morning. Other cyclists are the best people to stay with when you’re touring – they understand that you need lots and lots of food and a hot shower, they don’t mind you going on and on about your saddlesore, or that puncture you had near Kidderminster, and they accept that you won’t be able to make coherent conversation after about 9pm.

And L. was no exception. I arrived to a table groaning with afternoon tea – sandwiches, scones, chocolate fingers, and several different sorts of cake. At first I thought this was the customary post-ride pre-shower snack, but there was so much of it that I wasn’t sure, and L. was on a diet, and barely eating anything, so perhaps this was all I was going to get. So, although I was still kind of hoping for a massive plate of pasta, I gratefully tucked in, and managed to put away a good half of what was on the table. I can eat a lot of cake, when called upon.

When I could eat no more, I went off to have a shower – and came back to find L. putting a massive plate of pasta (just like I’d been dreaming of) on the table, next to a smaller one for her, and a large pot of extra pasta, in case I needed seconds. So I ate the massive plate of pasta. And then I ate another massive plate of pasta, since I can never turn down a second helping. And then I sat back and sighed the sigh of the truly replete, whereupon L. went back into the kitchen and brought out the pièce de résistance – a large homemade rice pudding. And I …well, it would have been churlish not to. And then I went – stumbled – to bed, cradling my swollen stomach, belching slightly, and trying not to think about how many thousands and thousands of calories I must have stuffed into myself.

And then I woke up, breakfasted generously, and did the remaining ±60 miles to my parents’ house like it was nothing at all. At one point I found myself accelerating up a hill and grinning broadly. It was one of my best cycling days ever, and I couldn’t understand how it had come on the heels of one of the worst.

It’s the food, I tell you. Or, more specifically, the over-eating.

Sleepiness

June 18, 2010

I’m very very tired at the moment – as in, tireder than I normally am by Thursday*. As in, so tired that I actually bother to mention it. I think it might have something to do with Too Much Cycling and Not Enough Rest Days. I’ve been riding at least one day most weekends, and I haven’t had a holiday since …well, New York, but that was in March, and I did quite a bit of cycling there. Oh, and there was that Cornwall trip, but that involved quite a lot of cycling too.

So anyway, while I wait for my jacket potato to cook, and try to work out the most cost-effective way of spending a week Not Cycling, here’s some recent photos, since I don’t have the mental energy to say anything interesting.

I found a very tall iron pole at the top of the hill I live on. I have no idea what it’s for, or how long it might have been there. But it’s kind of cool.

I discovered you can get cupcakes in London too. This could be dangerous.

I’ve become very interested in scaffolding recently.

And in buildings that are half torn down.

Especially when you can see the sky through them.

I think this must be the old font of St Olave’s Church on London Wall (at the top of Noble Street; now just a small green garden with a few rocks in it). I like the contrast of the very old stone with the brand new buildings behind it.

Photos I wish I’d taken.

Four ducks flying down Aldersgate Street, quacking loudly.

The beetroot salad that leaked all over my bag. Thankfully, the inside of my bag is already pink. Unfortunately, the packages I was carrying weren’t.

The woman doing her eye makeup whilst driving over Blackfriars Bridge. In case you’ve never put on eye makeup before, it involves both hands, and lots of squinting into mirrors whilst holding one eye closed. And she was in a left-hand drive vehicle. I don’t know whether to be outraged or impressed – after all, I can’t drive or apply eye makeup, let alone both at once.

*Thursday is the toughest day of the week in my opinion – somehow Fridays are always a bit easier, even though you’ve got four days behind you instead of three. I think it has something to do with knowing you’re in the home straight, and that you don’t have to hold anything back for the next day. I always ride a lot faster on Fridays. And Mondays. Sometimes I get up to 11mph.

Public Service Announcement (Code: Free Food)

June 17, 2010

The more perceptive among you might have spotted that free food is one of my main motivations. Which is why I’ll be along to the City of London Bike To Work Day celebrations on Friday morning (the 18th, i.e. tomorrow, from 7.30), outside St Paul’s Cathedral. The police will be there, to write off people’s tickets, and explain why they never bother to go after motorcyclists who ride in the cycle lanes (friend of mine was knocked off by one on Friday). Halfords will be there, to give us useful advice on bike ownership and maintenance. Lorry drivers will be on hand, to let us sit in their cab and see just how invisible cyclists are when you’re negotiating a left-hand turn whilst simultaneously changing the track on your iPod, arguing with your wife on the mobile and trying to balance a full cup of very hot coffee with no lid. There will even be an organization called Young Driver, no doubt looking to secure our custom the moment we grow out of bicycles. But, above and beyond all of this, there will be a free breakfast for anyone arriving on a bike.

Free breakfast? See you there!

Everything you ever wanted to say to a motorist, but didn’t think of until you were half a mile down the road

June 13, 2010

I normally avoid ranting about arrogant motorists, dangerous drivers, etc., because once you start you’ll never stop and, to be honest, rants all start to sound the same after a while.

Besides, Kirsten Hey has now said all there is to say. If you’ve been looking for a few choice comebacks for drivers who wind you up, I suggest you read her (highly eloquent and comprehensive) rant, then print it off, and post copies of it through the windows of cars that wind you up. And then ride like hell.

The Future

June 12, 2010

Is there one?

Before I started this job, I hadn’t heard much about the industry being in its death throes. People just talked about how cool couriers were, and how lucky (riding their bikes around all day), and how they’d love to give it a go, if they didn’t have to have a proper job to pay the mortgage. But now I’m in the thick of it, it’s become an all-pervasive theme – one of those conversations you have again and again, day after day; with different people, via different anecdotes, but still basically the same thing. Work’s been on a downward trend for the past decade, and now – well, I would say it’s reaching crisis point, but I was saying that six months ago, and things have got worse since then.

The real question is – where do we go from here? Will the work continue to dwindle, until the only people left on circuit are the three or four old-timers who couldn’t find a way out, and the annual crop of hipsters, biding their time till the ski season starts? Will the companies carry on cutting their rates to try and steal each other’s clients, passing on the loss to the people at the bottom (i.e. us), and keeping their balance sheets healthy by charging couriers an arm and a leg to hire the radios and bags they need to do their job? Will the dying breed that is the London courier finally limp its weary way to extinction? Or will the courier industry finally get its act together, and find a way to change things before it’s too late?

Naively, I’m still hopeful. But then, I’m still fairly new to all this, and can’t quite imagine that all the energy and vibrancy and creativity and camaraderie and love that make up the courier community could just disappear into thin air. Then again, I can easily see how they might be poisoned and eventually torn apart by the bitterness and resentment – and despair – borne of too many fruitless hours on park benches, listening (with a certain schadenfreude) to the silence on the radio that means no one else is getting any work either, or (with mounting paranoia) to the day’s meagre offerings being shared out among the rest of the fleet.

If we’re ever to come out of this miserable downward spiral, what has to change? Because some sort of change is vital, you mark my words. And the more I think about it, the more I realize that the change has to come from us. Sitting around waiting for our fairy godmother to come and put the work back into the industry isn’t going to get us anywhere. We have to do something. To be perhaps obviously Darwinist about it, we have to adapt to survive. And to be more particular about this, it’s not just going to be the survival of the fittest – those who last the next five years will not only be the fittest and fastest, but also the most resourceful and adaptable, and those willing to rethink the way they work, and to take matters into their own hands, and to make sacrifices. Because, as we all know, real change is usually difficult and painful. That’s why it doesn’t happen more often.

I’ve been talking to lots of people about this lately – both couriers and civilians. In the past 24 hours, one of the latter has said he thinks the answer is for the couriers to cut out the middleman (i.e. the courier companies who take more than 50% of what we earn), and one of the former has told me about a business plan he drafted a few months ago for setting up on his own. An exenger (who now works in a bike shop) just now opined that “the trick is not having a boss.”

This consensus is entirely in tune with what I’ve come up with so far – and with the views of almost every other courier I’ve exchanged rants with. People are increasingly disgusted and incredulous at the way courier companies blithely cut their rates, make spurious deductions from our pay packets, and habitually over-recruit so as to be able to cover the work more quickly (even though this means there’ll be fewer jobs per courier per day). And I have a feeling that, any moment now, all our impotent bitching might actually coalesce into action. Well, you never know.

So, what are our options?

1. Form a union and campaign for cycle couriers to be made full employees of the companies they work for, with a guaranteed minimum wage, insurance, proper sick pay and holiday pay, and the right not to be dismissed without at least a cursory disciplinary procedure. Wouldn’t that be nice? People have tried this in the past, with varying degrees of success and failure. The disadvantages? Well, for a start, anyone involved in such potentially revolutionary activities is likely to become very unpopular with their company, which could lead not only to their being given less work, but also to other companies not wanting to take them on, when they finally, inevitably, peremptorily, get kicked out. Furthermore, having to provide all the regular perks of employment to their sub-contractors could well send some companies under. After all, the money has to come from somewhere, and most companies have already cut so many corners that they’re practically circular. And not all couriers would welcome the constraints of legal employment – they’d lose the freedom that is the silver lining of increasingly cloudy self-employment. But I still have high hopes for this solution, especially after talking to 24 Tee, the grande dame of courier bloggers. Have a look at her posts, tagged under ‘revolution’; they’ll tell you all you need to know.

2. Diversify. Seek out new markets and new civilizations. There’s only so much work you can wring out of the foundering banking industry, only so many tapes the media industry needs to send across Soho (incidentally, a friend in the know tells me that about 50% of them contain wraps of coke), and the lawyers are doing more and more of their stuff by email. But cargo bikes are on the rise, and with them we’re breaking into flower, food and stationery delivery. And if we can think of other things that might be delivered by bike, and persuade people that this is a good idea, we might suddenly be back in the game. The downside? Well, no more skidding around town on your fixie, with two envelopes and a CD in your bag. Cargo bikes are slower and heavier, and they get stuck in traffic jams.

3. Go it alone – keep everyone else’s hands off your hard-earned cash by setting up your own company, and operating as an independent courier. The pros? Everything you earn is yours, and yours alone. Seb, for whom I did my very first courier work two years ago, has done this, and charges a flat rate of £20 per job. This means that, if he does 10 jobs per day, he makes £200. If I do 10 jobs a day, I make £27.50. Another friend of mine works independently, and charges £5-10 per job, and usually makes over £100 a day. The cons? It’s a lot of work to do on your own, and there’s no one to mop up the surplus on busy days. And you’re not going to have busy days – or even make a living – unless you’re able to find clients, so you also have to be a marketing genius. My brother set himself up as an independent courier in Leeds, a few months ago and, as far as I know, didn’t make a penny. He now works in a bike shop.

4. Go in-house. Legends abound of savvy couriers who approached one of their company’s clients, asked how much they spent on couriers per year, and offered to cover all the work themselves, for less. Drew, who I met in New York, has a gig like this, though as far as I know he didn’t set it up himself. He and another courier work exclusively for a photography firm, where they make an hourly wage, no matter how much or little work there is, and have a nice office to themselves, where they get to keep their spare kit, go online when it’s quiet, and keep warm when it’s cold. The disadvantages? Well, it could get boring and repetitive doing the same runs over and over again, which is likely to happen unless it’s a very big company. And there probably aren’t that many firms with the money or inclination to support an in-house courier, although I do know of one or two in London. Plus, I don’t think there are many couriers who could get away with marching into the facilities manager’s office and dripping sweat all over their desk while they put forward their business plan.

5. Cooperate. Get rid of the boss, and set up a workers’ cooperative. It’s already been done, by Mess Kollective in New York and Velocity in Dublin, among others. No one’s in charge; everyone owns the company; everyone makes the same money. And it works. Just ask Brixton Cycles (the best bike shop in London, in my totally unbiased opinion), which has been run as a cooperative ever since it opened, nearly thirty years ago. The disadvantages? Well, you have to pull your weight. No slacking off, and no blaming your controller when it all goes wrong. And if you do slack off, be prepared to face the wrath of your colleagues, who will have to work harder to make up for your laziness. The current lack of responsibility in couriering is curiously restful. The buck stops with the controller, and he’s the one who has to call up the client and grovel if something goes wrong, no matter whose fault it is. In a non-hierarchical organization, I can’t imagine anyone else would be willing to clear up the mess you’d made. Couriers already working in collectives say it’s a lot more work than they did before, but that the satisfaction of working for yourself easily outweighs this – not to mention the satisfaction of knowing that every penny you make is going to feed you and your colleagues, rather than going towards the salary (and benefits) of your controller and his manager. And as a member of a cooperative, I think you’d be more likely to take pride in the quality and standard of the work you do, something people are doing less and less at the moment.

So what does the future look like?

I don’t know, but it seems increasingly likely that we’ll be in charge of it, which, eventually, has to be a good thing. And how we get there? Well, that’s the interesting part.

Exenger fantasies

June 11, 2010

I ran into Lloyd the other day.

Until two weeks ago he was a cycle courier – now he’s an engineer of some sort, who goes around town fixing photocopiers, for a regular wage. As you can see, this makes him very happy.

I didn’t recognize him at first. He walked past me and said “hello”, and I looked up and said “hello …oh hello!“, and even then took a couple more seconds to work out where I knew him from. It’s amazing the difference normal clothes and a bit of a wash will make.

I have my own fantasy, of one day getting a high-powered job in the City, and standing in lifts in my pinstripe suit, next to couriers I used to pass in the street on my bike, and seeing how long it takes them to recognize me.

Luckily, one of the defining features of a fantasy is that it isn’t fulfilled.


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