Archive for October, 2009

Shouting at people

October 23, 2009

Every now and then, someone on a cycling forum will comment that London’s drivers seems extra-specially homicidal today, and someone else will opine that it has something to do with the moon’s phases – suggesting that motorists suffer from some sort of synchronized PMT.

Now I don’t know about that, but I had far more cause to shout at people today than I normally do. The first culprit was a chap who undertook me, and then promptly swerved across my path – and when I tried to take it up with him politely at the next lights, launched into a lecture about how I was far too far out from the kerb. Now, I’m always trying to improve my cycling, and to avoid doing things that might piss off other road users (and I have recently started hugging the kerb a bit more – because I don’t trust other cyclists not to try and undertake me, and also because I know now annoying it is when you’re trying to overtake someone and they haven’t left enough room to their right), so I might have been willing to accept that as constructive criticism, but his patronizing tone, and convenient amnesia as regards the second part of his misdemeanour, left me fuming so much that by the time I’d formulated a suitably scathing put-down, he’d turned off and the opportunity was lost. (Thankfully.)

And then there was the woman crossing against the lights who had the nerve to tell me I was ‘stupid’ for riding through them. She got off lightly – I told her to “learn to cross the road!” And the bloke pointlessly cycling along a very narrow and crowded pavement, whom I shouted at when he bumped into me (I was being a good cyclist, and pushing my bike). I had the pleasure of seeing him stopped by a policeman just round the corner. And throughout the day there were all the usual iPodestrians and people on their mobiles, not looking both ways till they’re halfway across the road, by which time it’s far too late. And by late afternoon, when the strain of a long week was beginning to tell, a chap crossed in front of me as I was slowing down for some lights. It was a near miss, but I was going so slowly that it barely mattered, so I just said “Oop – careful!” in a fairly lighthearted tone – to which he responded with a volley of invective so obscene that I’m actually uncomfortable writing it.

So I gave him the finger. And immediately wished I hadn’t. Because that’s what people do when they can’t think of a suitably witty or scathing response. And it made me look like a hooligan, rather than the nice young lady my initial remark might have painted me as. And it dragged me down to his level, and probably confirmed all his suspicions. I think it was at least partly this regret that meant I was almost in tears as I rode away. That, and the cumulative exhaustion of a hard week. Oh, and my hormones. Because I actually am premenstrual – and now can’t help but wonder whether I’ve somehow been projecting this onto all the other road users. Hmmm.

(But the day ended well – I was given a very urgent package on Newgate Street EC1, and told it absolutely had to be delivered to Capper Street WC1 by 5.30 (or the nice postroom guy would lose his job), and it was currently 4.59, and I had another drop on the north end of Goswell Road. But I rode up (and down) central London’s biggest hill faster than I ever have before, and managed both drops within 20 minutes. Perhaps this will make up for some of my other misdemeanours.)



October 23, 2009

I appear 1 minute and 37 seconds into this very interesting YouTube clip.

My media domination continues…

Review: Swrve Milwaukee Hoodie and Ibex Indie Crew

October 21, 2009


I’m contemplating winter with a mixture of trepidation and denial. I passed my first anniversary as a courier last week, so from now on I know exactly what’s to come, because I’ve done it all before. And what’s to come right now are four, probably five, months of freezing cold, frequent rain, sharp winds, icy roads, dark mornings, dark evenings, and general misery and suffering. I know that I’ll get used to wearing all the clothes I own, all the time, and looking and smelling like a tramp by the end of the week; I know that my body will ache in a whole different way at the end of each day – from the strain of keeping the bike straight on wet and/or icy roads, as well as all the usual effort; I know that my horizons will narrow so dramatically that for hours all I’ll really be able to think about is how much my hands and feet hurt, or when I’ll next have time for a hot coffee.

But hopefully this time round I’ll have learned some valuable lessons. Certainly, I now appreciate what a difference good kit can make. In summer it barely matters what you wear – even if it rains, you’ll never really get that cold, and might even come home slightly cleaner than usual. But winter’s a different matter. The only time I’ve ever shed a tear at work was a bitter day in January when both my gloves and my shoes were soaked through, and had an icy cold wind blowing through them. So this year I’ll be investing in winter boots and Sealskinz gloves (I already have Sealskinz socks, and they changed my life). I can hardly wait.

I reckon the promise of new kit to keep me warm and dry will be one of my main incentives as the days get shorter and colder. Because new kit makes me happy, and being warm and dry makes me happy – and being warm and dry when it’s raining cats and dogs and everyone else is riding around shivering or calling in sick makes me extra-specially happy (because there’s nothing quite like schadenfreude). And after all, keeping the morale up is just as important as keeping the feet dry.

Today I broke out my trusty Swrve Milwaukee Hoodie, which has been keeping me warm and dry for the past three winters, and is officially my favourite piece of kit ever. I discovered it through Minx, who very kindly sent me one to test, and I realized its magical powers one dark and rainy January night, when I was riding along the A10 between Cambridge and Royston, and found I was so warm and cosy that I didn’t want to stop! Wearing the hoodie in inclement weather is reminiscent of being curled up in your sleeping bag, listening to the rain falling on your tent, and knowing it can’t get to you. And it’s perfect for sweaty types like me, who don’t get on with the plastic-bag effect of lesser waterproofs. The hoodie’s made of gore-tex with a fleecy lining, so it’s quite stiff, and stands away from your body, giving the air a chance to circulate. (That didn’t stop me creating new organisms in mine last winter, but most people won’t be wearing it 12 hours a day for five months.) And it’s got decent pockets (I love pockets), including an internal one for your phone. And it doesn’t look like an anorak. And I’ve never met anyone in a Swrve hoodie who doesn’t love it. In fact, if two people meet for the first time, and realize they’re both wearing a Milwaukee hoodie, the first ten minutes of their conversation will be spent singing its praises. This is a fact I have observed time and time again.

I'm currently restraining myself from getting another one in green.

I'm currently restraining myself from getting another one in green.

And another thing making me smile at the moment is my brand new Ibex merino base layer. I tried on one of their outer layers last winter, and wasn’t impressed enough to buy it – the wool felt a bit harsh and stiff, compared to the other two jerseys (Sugoi and Swobo) I ended up buying. But this top is totally different – it’s soft and cosy, and because it’s made of merino, it doesn’t smell, even after several days. (I’m aiming to create fewer organisms this winter.)


And, naturally, the pink stripe both keeps me warmer and makes me ride faster.

The joy of cake

October 18, 2009

I’ve just got back from the LFGSS Bake Off. There was lots of cake.


Lots and lots of cake.


Some of it was brightly coloured.


Some of it was seductively drizzled.


We ate and ate and ate until the sugar did funny things to our brains.


Then we packed the leftover cakes into tupperware…


…and into shoeboxes…


…and rode home to bed.

Another foodie Saturday

October 17, 2009

Today I had another Urdu lesson, and then went back to the food market. This time I had a Moroccan meatball stew with vegetables and cous cous…


…followed by a slice of fig, honey and hazelnut tart:


And then I spent a very satisfying afternoon producing ratatouille, a carrot cake, and a courgette cake, for the LFGSS Bake-Off that I’m going to tomorrow. (I’m ridiculously excited about a whole roomful of cyclists and cake, and very much encouraged by how seriously people seem to be taking their contributions.)


The carrot cake was made to my mother’s recipe, which is a curious fusion of two others – Cranks and Sarah Brown. It’s crazily easy (I must have had it in the oven within ten minutes), and goes thus:

4oz butter
4oz honey
4oz sugar (Mum usually leaves this out; I compromised and put in 2oz)

stir in:
6oz SR flour
2oz dessicated coconut (apparently this really complements the texture of the carrot, but I didn’t have any, and so left it out)
8oz grated carrot
2oz raisins
1 tsbp (according to Sarah Brown) / 1tsp (according to Cranks)
1 tsp nutmeg

2 beaten eggs (which I left out, in order to make the cake vegan)

30-45 minutes

And that’s it! It was made from start to finish while the courgette cake was undergoing its 3-hour oven marathon, and seems to have turned out rather well. I’ll report back on the courgette cake tomorrow, once I’ve checked it’s fit for human consumption.

The most annoying loading bay in London

October 16, 2009

Something I worked out very quickly when I started couriering is that most of the larger buildings have two entrances: the swish one at the front, for employees and honoured guests, and the loading bay at the back, for the likes of me. Trouble is, you never know where the loading bay is, or how to get there, until you’ve locked up your bike, taken the package out of your bag, and waiting patiently to speak to the receptionist, who will have smiled sweetly whilst watching you do all this and who will now inform you that the loading bay is “out the door, turn right, turn right again, cross the road, turn left, down the ramp, and then follow the signs” or some such. Occasionally, you will end up in a goods lift that takes you back to the very same reception, just from a different side. I have never been able to work out the point of this.

But the very very worst loading bay odyssey in London is that which leads you – circuitously and frustratingly – to the loading bay of 2 Lambeth Hill, EC4. The front door is fairly accessible and easy to find, so you lock your bike up (they even have bike racks for you) and trudge in to find the receptionist…


…only to discover that the loading bay is actually on High Timber Street (why they can’t just save everyone’s time by accepting the envelope at reception, I’ll never know). So you check your A-Z. Turns out High Timber Street isn’t just round the corner – it’s right on the other side of Upper Thames Street – which consists of multiple lanes of fast-moving traffic, with railings down the middle. It would be easier to cross the Thames. It looks like this:


And, just to emphasize the ridiculousness of it, here’s Google Maps’ suggested route between the front door and the back door of the same building (they grey one you see straddling the road in the picture above):

God only knows how many courier hours have been spent trekking between the two.

The cafe with no name

October 15, 2009
Lawrence making my mocha

Lawrence making my mocha

I first met Lawrence on the Dunwich Dynamo in 2008, during the final lung-busting dash, once people pass the ‘Dunwich – 7 miles’ sign, imagine they can smell the sea, and crank up to race pace (forgetting that seven miles is actually quite a long way to ride at 20mph+, especially when you already have a century behind you). I was in good shape that year, so stormed past quite a few people on my pink Surly Steamroller (RIP), before getting stuck with Lawrence (on his old-skool Lemond gearie), with whom I was so well matched that we were neck and neck all the way to the beach. (Naturally I won in the end, otherwise I wouldn’t be telling this story.)

We celebrated over breakfast, and I quickly discovered Lawrence’s twin obsessions: bicycles and coffee. I’ve never quite worked out how many of the former he owns – he rarely appears on the same one twice, and is always trying to sell them off to make room for more. Nor have I worked out how much of the latter he drinks, though given that he is one of the loudest, chattiest and most unremittingly enthusiastic people I know, I suspect it’s quite a lot.

And ever since I first met him he’s been talking about uniting these two loves, and setting up a cyclists’ cafe somewhere in London, hoping that it would become beloved of bicycle and coffee fans alike, and planning to lure the courier community in with the promise of cheap coffee, a track pump, and somewhere to hang out when it’s raining.

Of course, the longer he talked about it, the more sceptical I became that it would actually ever happen. But then, about a month ago, he announced that he’d finally found the premises he was looking for, and within a couple of weeks he’d installed himself, a coffee machine, a workstand and an ever-increasing supply of second-hand bicycles – and suddenly I’m being offered a free coffee every morning!

It’s early days still – as yet the cafe has little in the way of interior design, and no name (though I believe he has something in mind). But he’s already shifted quite a few bikes (he’s connected to a workshop in Fulham, and is one of the few sources of decent second hand bikes I know who doesn’t have the whiff of Brick Lane). And his coffee is quite amazing – he made me a mocha this morning, and must have put extra KAPOW! in it, because I was simply flying for the first few hours.

Oh yes, and the all-important details: he’s at 74 Leather Lane, EC1 – just off Clerkenwell Road. All drinks are currently £1 (or 75p for couriers). And there are quite often flapjacks baked by yours truly (chocolate and cranberry tomorrow), all proceeds to the LCEF.

The cafe with no name

The cafe with no name

My greatest mistake? Probably.

October 13, 2009

One of the (predictable) questions the Guardian people asked me yesterday was how well I know my way around London, and whether I still need to use the A-Z. I launched into a well-trodden, and utterly mendacious, speech about how of course I can name every single street and junction inside the congestion zone, one-way systems included, before admitting that even courier superheroes like me sometimes muddle up Heddon Street and Hollen Street, or Portland Mews and Portman Mews. Fortunately, none of these are very far apart in W1, so if you accidentally go to the wrong one, you can always get to the other one within 5-10 minutes, and with any luck your controller won’t even notice.

I wasn’t so lucky with Long Lane though. Sometime during my first week, I was sent to pick up a special from Long Lane, going up to King’s Cross. I’d been riding up and down Long Lane EC1 for several minutes, searching in vain for the address, when my controller pointed out that the company I was looking for was actually based in Long Lane SE1. So I apologized profusely, spent another 5 minutes studying the A-Z and planning my route down to SE1 (my geography was a lot less instinctive back then), and set about getting there as quickly as I possibly could. When I eventually found the place, I was told that this was a tender for a major contract, and absolutely had to be in by midday. It was now 11.40.

I assured the controller that I’d be as quick as I could, and raced off again – but of course, I was new; there were still bits of London that I had no idea existed, and I kept running into dead ends, going round in circles, and realizing that I was heading in the wrong direction altogether. By the time I’d got up to King’s Cross, found the office where I was meant to deliver the envelope, and handed it over to the receptionist, it was 12.15.

At the time I felt awful, but the controllers didn’t seem to mind too much, and the industry has a short memory – I barely remember the jobs I’ve done in the morning by the time I go home in the evening, and even major events and massive cock-ups tend to be forgotten within a week or so, as long as there’s no lasting damage. And since then I’ve had lots of similar tight deadlines – often the clients will still be printing off the documents when I arrive, and when they’re finished I’ll have to race across town to meet the deadline, only to find that the people at the other end couldn’t care less, or are out on their lunchbreak, or didn’t even realize there was a deadline.

But when I told S. from the Guardian this story, she improbably announced “Oh, I think I know the one!” and proceeded to tell me about her friend who worked for the company I’d mentioned, who’d told her about a major tender last year, that was rejected because it arrived 15 minutes after the deadline.

Obviously she was having me on.

“You’re joking, aren’t you?” I laughed.

“No – seriously” she said.

“You’re kidding me” I replied, a little more shakily.

And after a few minutes, I realized it wasn’t a joke. I really did ruin several weeks (or even months) of someone’s hard work, by going to the wrong Long Lane, and by not being able to ride from SE1 to King’s Cross in 15 minutes. The very fact that S.’s friend told her about it means that it was probably quite a big deal.

Part of me was aghast and astounded at the coincidence – of all the thousands and thousands of jobs I’ve done and could have screwed up on, it happened to be this one that she’d heard of. And the rest of me just felt awful – and still does. There isn’t a happy ending to this story. I can only hope that it’s karmically balanced out by all the times I’ve saved the lives of orphaned children by being on time with a package. And that S. won’t tell her friend where I live.


October 12, 2009

I acquired various things today:

1. A pair of hipster sunglasses, donated to me by a kind lady whose house I picked up from first thing this morning. She was actually in the shower when I arrived, but she rushed out in a towel to give me the package, and took pity on me when she saw how bright the sun was, so ran back into the house to get me the glasses. They aren’t the sort of thing I’d usually wear, but I’m rather bowled over nonetheless.

2. A new (also rather hipster) black chain, plus chainring and sprocket. The bike’s been making a horrible noise for weeks, and I’d assumed (grumpily) that the £90 Phil Wood bottom bracket, which I’d fitted to replace the cheap Miche ones that kept breaking, had worn out, even though they’re supposed to last at least 10 years. And the constant grind-grind-grind-CLUNK-grind-grind has been ruining my riding experience, and making me worry that the bike’s going to fall apart under me (which means I ride much more slowly, and am grumpier, etc. etc.). But as it turned out, it was the chain. I refitted it all only a few months ago, but of course, I’m doing many more miles than I ever did before. I still haven’t got used to this. But now, of course, the bike’s gone back to being sleek and silent and silky, and I had a lovely fast ride home – even the potholes seem shallower now. (The bad news, of course, was that the repairs ended up costing more than a new Phil Wood bottom bracket would have. But never mind.)

Hipster chain

The third thing I acquired was a swollen head, as a result of being interviewed for a Guardian podcast – but more about that another day!

A sunny Saturday

October 10, 2009

I’ve just had the most wonderful Saturday. I’m working on Sundays now (editing, not couriering), so suddenly my Saturdays have become this big stressful crisis of ‘oh my god – it’s my only day off of the week and I don’t know what to do with myself!’, and I usually spend them wasting time and feeling guilty. But today I had my first Urdu lesson (at lovely lovely SOAS), and spent a gratifying couple of hours in a nice sunny classroom, realizing that I haven’t forgotten as much as I thought I had since last year, and reacquainting myself with Abida, the very sweet lady who put up with my bad pronunciation and overenthusiastic homework habits last year.

It was a lovely sunny morning (makes a change, after the rain I put up with last week), and after the lesson I wandered over to the Brunswick Centre – a pleasant but fairly run-of-the-mill shopping centre which on Saturdays is suddenly full of really enticing food stalls – and spent a happy hour browsing through them all, before deciding on Pantaniscas de Chorizo (apparently a Portuguese delicacy, made of chorizo, onions, tomatoes and green beans, all fried up together in some kind of concoction that reminded me of pakoras.

It was tasty and filling (though I think it could have been improved with heating), and I’m looking forward to sampling food from every other stall over the next few weeks. What a wonderful Saturday routine! A lie-in, two hours of gentle intellectual exertion, and then something exciting for lunch. And, no doubt, a happy afternoon, having reassured myself by spending the morning doing something worthy and worthwhile.

Pudding was a slice of lemon, rosemary, olive oil and almond cake. I tried to persuade the woman behind the stall to give me the recipe, but she’d only tell me the ingredients. Apparently it involves breadcrumbs. I’m wondering how many attempts it might take me to recreate it through trial and error, and how fed up I’d be of the idea by the time I’d succeeded. It’s a wonderful cake. The olive oil gives it a rather unusual texture, but means it’s not as cloyingly sweet as it might be, and the topping is lovely and sticky and tangy, in the best tradition of lemon drizzle cakes. Oh, I really want the recipe!

And then I rode over to Earl’s Court for the Cycle Show – having managed to blag a free ticket. It was a lovely way to spend an afternoon (though it seemed to be disappointingly smaller than the last one I went to, back in the ExCel days). I got moderately excited about all the flashy lycra and the new bikes, and very excited after several handfuls of jelly beans and free samples of energy bars (ahem), but what I found really interesting was all the innovative little businesses that are just starting up, with products like environmentally friendly bike oil, and this rather fabulous reflective clothing.

It’s not really meant for lycra louts like me – it’s normal clothes, like cardigans and scarves and socks and braces (braces!), made with some sort of yarn that has special reflective powers. I was very taken with it. In fact, I think it was the best thing I saw all day. The company that makes it is called Lost Values, and apparently they haven’t been going that long. I predict (and hope) they’ll do well though – their stuff is fabulous, and also rather beautiful. It makes me want to embellish a pair of bloomers with reflective lace, and bring my inner steampunk out to play.