The courier mind

Long before I became a cycle courier – in fact, just about the time I was getting into cycling properly – a friend told me about a clubmate of hers who worked as a courier during the week, and remarked upon his impressive knowledge of the London streets.

“Basically, you mention two streets, and before you’ve even finished speaking, he’ll have worked out a route between them in his head. Quick as that.”

I found this fascinating, and for a long time it was one of my aspirations to have a similar command of the map. Give me an address in EC1 and a street in W1, and instantly the London map that’s permanently tattooed on my brain has a long jagged line scratched across it, and off I go. Quick as that.

I’ve only recently realized that it doesn’t work this way. At least, not for me. Maybe it does for other people. I’ve heard couriers say that eventually you’ll start seeing the map in your sleep. But that never happened for me. Somehow, although I know London’s every nook and cranny, the map itself still looks slightly unfamiliar.

'Scuse me mate, how do I get to the Guildhall from here?

How does it work then, my courier mind?

When I have to look up an unfamiliar street, I don’t worry about where it is in relation to the river, the West End and the City. Instead I look at the streets immediately around it, and figure out how it fits into the very localized jigsaw puzzle of landmarks and junctions I already have in my head.

Take Heddon Street, for example. The first time I looked it up I didn’t see it as a dot on the map, or even worry about how to get there from wherever I was. I saw it was adjacent to Regent Street, on the left hand side as you ride north, in between Vigo Street and Beak Street. Right across the road from Regent Place, which I already knew.

I don’t worry about how to get there – that’ll work itself out.

To my occasional surprise, I find that I very rarely have to think consciously about where I’m going. Perhaps sometimes, if I have to figure out the logistics of picking up five different packages from five different addresses in the West End and work out which order to drop them off in as I head off towards the City. But mostly I just pick up the package, note the delivery address, and then end up there without really planning anything at all.

I sometimes catch myself storming along Holborn and think “hang on, where am I going again?”, and for a second really can’t remember. But then it comes back to me – “ah yes, 160 Aldersgate Street!” – and I realize that I’m going in the right direction after all, and that my subconscious mind had it figured out all along.

I have quite a few routes I regularly take through the city. (North to south there’s that one that takes you off Euston Road at Fitzroy Street (look out for the raised kerb) and sends you swiftly through Fitzrovia and Soho, straight down to Shaftesbury; west to east you can cross Regent Street, follow Brewer onto Old Compton, drop down out of Soho onto Shaftesbury, flick right onto Charing Cross, take Litchfield into the Garden, cross Kingsway via Great Queen Street and into Lincoln’s Inn…) And once I have a destination in my head, I’ll unthinkingly follow one of these well-trodden paths to get there. It’s only when I’m very close that I’ll have to switch my brain back on and remember precisely which building or turning it is I’m after. With certain regular clients, my autopilot will deliver me all the way to the door. (This does occasionally backfire, when I find myself locking up my bike outside 66 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, only to remember that it was actually 55-56 I wanted this time.)

Rather than being a line on a map, my internal sense of direction is more like the directions given by Kit, the controller in Anna Livia‘s 1986 short story ’5½ Charlotte Mews’*:

“South along Berwick. West Noel. South Poland. East Darblay. Right at Portland Mews. Yellow doorway, left arch, top buzzer.”

But not quite, of course. Why would I need to recite street names and directions in my head? Perhaps I might have once, during my first few confused weeks on the road. But now I don’t think of the names of the streets at all – except the ones where I actually have to stop and deliver or pick up a package.

In fact, when everything’s going well, I find I actually need to think very little. As I remarked last year (in relation to riding in traffic), once you’ve done something for long enough to be fairly good at it, it sinks so far into your subconscious that your actions become instinctive. You’re so used to riding through tight gaps in traffic that you no longer have to size them up as you approach – you just know you’re going to fit. You find yourself slowing down inexplicably as you pass a bus, only to see a pedestrian dart out right in front of you, and realize that you must have noticed them out of the corner of your eye without even registering them consciously or making plans to avoid them. And you can ride swiftly and efficiently from Mortimer Street to Scrutton Street without planning a route in advance, or even remembering where you’re going, until you get there.

_________________________________

*A lovely little glimpse into the circuit of 25 years ago, before they invented GPS and made Poland Street one-way, though I’m sure Bill and Zero will be along shortly to tell me that it was Nothing Like That Really.

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16 Responses to “The courier mind”

  1. Bassjunkieuk Says:

    Great post! I have a rough idea where you are coming from as I cycle commute to about 6 or 7 different offices over the city. As and when I have to go to a new one I tend to just check where it is and figure out a nice simple route there from one of my “regular” sections. I piece them together and sometimes mix them up for longer/less hillier rides (coming in from just the wrong side of Crystal Palace….) after all an extra mile or two only adds 5 or 10 minutes!

    I think the most pertinent part for me is the riding in traffic and how it becomes second nature. One of the most common remarks I get when I say I cycle into London is “are you mad? You’d never catch me doing that it’s far to busy/dangerous”. I’ve always enjoyed the cut and thrust of it but don’t really “think” about it like that, I’ve had those times where I’ve noticed something and re-acted instinctively. I’ve avoided being left hooked before as I’ve seen drivers casually glance left then switch on indicators right alongside me. Too a lesser extent I guess this would explain why riding on quieter roads is something I’m don’t really enjoy (with the exception of leisure rides on country lanes but then I have nice scenery!) there just isn’t the level of feedback to keep my brain stimulated!

  2. zero Says:

    It Was Nothing Like That. Happy now? I’ll give it a read when I get home – some of us are busy!

  3. zero Says:

    Swiz! I thought you were linking to the story, not to a lousy bio. Harrumph! Now I’ll have to find it somewhere, ‘cos Charlotte Mews was home to the office of Hand’n’Deliver, the first (courier) company I ever worked for, and I wonder if the writer did some time there…
    Anyway, I think the ‘autopilot’ effect is by far the most common experience amongst couriers. It’s not an intimate knowledge of ‘the map’ rather, the map becomes hardwired into one’s head, becomes instinctual. As evidence I offer these links:
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/677048.stm
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/7613621.stm

  4. thatmessengerchick Says:

    It can be found in the Penguin Book of Lesbian Short Stories (pp. 251-262), ed. Margaret Reynolds. Let me know if you can’t get hold of it and I’ll try and scan it or something.

  5. Steff Says:

    So how does the Litchfield St -> Great Queen Street bit work then? I loathe Covent Garden’s one-way-black-cab-tourist-looking-wrong-wayness and avoid it wherever possible.

    One of the joys of riding (albeit not professionally) in London has been the sensation of one route I’ve learned suddenly falling into place with respect to another, but certain bits of town remain dark and forbidding in my mental map – Covent Garden is one and Victoria another.

  6. Brice Says:

    “It can’t be worth owning a whole volume full of lesbians just for 10 pages of courier…” errrrr, wanna bet? ;)

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