Archive for January, 2010

Spring deprivation and not getting enough sleep

January 27, 2010

It’s Spring!

Well actually, no, it’s not remotely spring yet. But I did see my first green shoots today, only a month later than last year. (They were in St James’s Square.)

And when the sun comes out (which it does, sometimes, for a few minutes), I sometimes imagine that I can feel spring in the air. I can’t, of course – it’s just the relief of seeing a glint of sunlight after so much grey.

But it’s nearly the end of January, and I’m beginning, if not exactly to look for the light at the end of the tunnel, to congratulate myself on having got a good chunk of the winter under my belt. It could still get a lot worse of course, and it might stay cold and nasty well into March, or even April, but the big hurdle of January is just about behind me. Childishly desperate not to be seen as weak or girly, I vowed not to take a single day off – and I compensated for this by promising myself untold hedonism and hibernation at the weekends. And I’ve done pretty well. There are two days to go. And my weekends have been positive orgies of good food, good wine, good company, and lots and lots and lots of sleep.

But the weekdays have been another matter. I read a scary article the other day (I really must start linking to sites other than the Guardian), about how children get far too little sleep these days, and how it’s making them less intelligent, more prone to obesity, etc., and there was a paragraph at the end that talked about an experiment performed on adults, where they were limited to six hours’ sleep per night. After two weeks, they all said they felt fine, but tests showed them to be in the same state as someone who’d been awake for 24 hours straight.

And I very rarely get more than six hours’ sleep per night! It’s a bad habit, bred (ironically) by laziness (much easier to gawp at a laptop till midnight than to rush around getting ready for bed by 10pm). I’m slightly amazed that I’m even able to stay awake this long – when I first started couriering, I was unable to keep my eyes open past 10pm, and was usually incapable of coherent speech or thought by 9pm. None of my friends saw me for weeks. I had never experienced such complete mental and physical exhaustion. But now I’m virtually back to normal – going to bed at midnight and getting up at 6.30am, just like people who have nothing to do but sit in an office all day.

But clearly this is nowhere near enough. And I’m suddenly worried about the effect this sleep deprivation must be having on me. I just had a phone conversation with a friend in which I repeatedly had to apologize for forgetting what I was talking about midway through a sentence. And, more seriously, if I’m really as out-of-it as someone who’s had no sleep at all, my judgement and reactions are probably in no shape to be cycling round in traffic all day. I’m becoming an expert in all the different stages of exhaustion – the sleepiness, the dizziness, the grumpiness, the shiveriness, the clumsiness, the weepiness, the itchiness, the achiness; the feeling that all your physical and mental defence mechanisms have been sanded down to nothing.

It’s 9.33pm now. I’m going to try and be in bed by 10pm. I really am…


Secret double lives

January 25, 2010

I got chatting to a receptionist in Mayfair today (whilst waiting for my Xda to come back from the dead so she could sign for a package), and after a couple of minutes she asked ‘do you do acting?’ My first response was incredulous laughter (wondering where on earth she could have got that idea from), and then I started to wonder which minor celebrity she’d mistaken me for. But it was my voice. Apparently I ‘enunciate very nicely’. Hmmm.

It’s true, I suppose. For better or for worse, I sound like I was brought up on a diet of silver spoons and elocution lessons. And that’s not how cycle couriers are supposed to sound ( how are they supposed to sound?). So she clearly thought I must have some kind of secret double life as a RADA student, or a RSC spear-carrier. Or the women who does the voiceovers for lifts (“second floor … doors opening … please remove obstruction from the doors” (that’ll be my bag)). And that I’m just doing this as my day job. In fact, there was an article in the Guardian just this morning about the alternately tedious and fascinating day jobs artists do to keep body and soul together.

Unfortunately I don’t really have a secret double life, but I know lots of couriers who do. My friend W. is a graduate of UCL, has made appearances on Radio 4 and in Alan Bennett’s Diaries, and is a gifted photographer. My friend N. used to run a cafe, and is capable of colossal feats of vegan bakery – and recently worked as a mechanic on the RAAM. Another courier I know illustrates graphic novels based on Shakespeare plays. Lots of couriers seem to moonlight as musicians and writers. Some of them race professionally. Some of them support families. Some of them probably do things I couldn’t even imagine.

I found myself thinking ‘I bet none of these suits will be thinking any of this when they sneer at us in the lift’ – and then realized that I was dismissing the suits as much as I imagined them to be dismissing us! Because, of course, there’s often so much more to people than their day job. The immaculate banker I rub shoulders with at 11am might well be the Assos-clad lycra lout who leaves me for dust on the Embankment at 6pm. He might compose operas in his spare time. He might speak six or seven languages. He might run a charity that builds wells in Malawi. He might know more about postcolonial theory than I do. He might be going out on the town with his boyfriend after work. I think I’ll give him a smile next time.

On a completely unrelated note, I have started making my own bread – which makes me sound all earnest and earthmotherly and efficient, but shouldn’t, because it’s quite ridiculously easy.

Nonetheless, I have been riding around with a huge glow of achievement and satisfaction all day.

Weather and pessimism

January 22, 2010

I was riding along Queen Victoria Street yesterday afternoon, when something strange and actually quite shocking happened. See if you can spot anything unusual in the photo below.

The sun came out!

I nearly fell off my bike with surprise – I don’t think I’ve actually seen the sun for more than a few seconds since sometime in December. Well, I’m sure that’s an exaggeration, but it does feel like I’ve been riding around under permanently grey skies – and through snow, rain and sleet – for the past month. It probably explains why I’ve been in such a rotten mood. I’d forgotten the sheer exhilaration of charging through the city in fresh air and blazing sunlight. The weather over the last few weeks has been at best like this:

…at worst like this:

With only the occasional break in the cloud, like this:

(Which, I’ll admit, is heavenly while it lasts.)

And London feels like a completely different city when it’s not muffled under layers of cloud – it’s fascinating what a difference the weather makes to one’s spatial perception.

Of course, it went right back to dull and drizzly today. But it was also quite warm – to my surprise, having been shivering in sub-zero temperatures and wearing all my clothes at once for the past few weeks, I found I was getting all hot and sweaty, and wishing I’d left a couple of layers at home.

This winter does seem to be a bit more severe than last year though. One of the (few) things I love about January is seeing the first snowdrops – I always forget about them until the moment they appear. Last year I noticed them even at the end of December. This year, so far – nothing. Even though I never usually expect them, I’m now noticing their absence.

And it may still get worse before it gets better. After all, last year there was snow on the ground in February. I’m pessimistically steeling myself for another cold snap. If nothing else, it would be an excuse to buy one of those nice pink merino baselayers from Icebreaker…

High on speed

January 19, 2010

I’ve been feeling a bit blah lately. Work’s been slow-to-middling, but still makes me tired enough to ignore my To Do list in the evenings – so I ride around all day in a cloud of guilt, and am chronically fed up, because of all the projects I want to get off the ground, but don’t have time for.

And today was worse than ever – only ten jobs, which means I made about £30, much of which I squandered on food. And there was lots of waiting around, and I’d forgotten to bring a book. I was meant to be meeting a friend of a friend at Waterloo after work, to hand over some presents our mutual friend had sent over from Delhi (and which I’d left with Lawrence (in EC1) for safekeeping), and I assured her that, since work was absolutely dead, I could almost certainly be there by 5.30, and probably long before.

So I sat in Golden Square (W1), watching the clock tick round to 4.30… 4.40… 4.50… and planning to make my excuses and scarper the moment it got to 5.00 (or maybe 4.59). But then, at 4.53, I was given a pick-up from an architecture firm on High Holborn (WC1), going down to the wrong end of Tooley Street (SE1). But all was not lost – I made it over to High Holborn in 10 minutes, and found out that the job had a strict deadline of 5.30, so if I made that, I’d probably not be that late for the Waterloo rendez-vous.

But I’d forgotten that, in general, the more urgent the job, and the closer the deadline, the more disorganized and ill-prepared the client will be. Several times I’ve raced to pick something up, only to find that the hapless sender is still printing it. And more often than not they’ll have a problem with their printer. And frequently the deadline has passed before the package has even left their office. This was no exception. The nice architect who’d booked the job apologized profusely, but there was something wrong with the CD they were sending, and his colleague was struggling to fix it, and could I please wait a few minutes?

So I waited a few minutes. At 5.15 he went to check on his colleague, made grovelling phonecalls to the recipient and my controller, and came back to tell me it would be a few more minutes. I made frantic phonecalls to Lawrence, to make sure he wasn’t going to shut up shop and go home before I’d picked up the presents, and the lady in Waterloo, to delay our appointment till 6, and apologize for making her wait around.

The CD was finally ready at 5.30 on the dot, and they generously assured me they weren’t too worried about it meeting the deadline any more. But I was more concerned about my own deadline. So I raced off, tearing through the rush-hour traffic with a fluency I only seem to command when high on adrenaline or panic, sped along Theobald’s and Clerkenwell, and swooped briefly into Leather Lane (where Lawrence was still packing up), where I apologized loudly, cursed deadlines and clients and architects and CDs, snatched the bag of presents, and tore off towards Blackfriars Bridge.

Half the commuters in London were heading in the same direction, and I had to elbow my way through whole fleets of motorbikes and scooters, which, ever since they were allowed into the bus lanes last year, have decided they’re allowed to use the cycle lanes and ASLs as well. But I had fire in my belly, and ducked in and out of them, before storming up onto the bridge, building up the kind of momentum I haven’t felt for months. As I raced along Southwark Street, I realized how long it’s been since I really rode to my limit – perhaps not since about 18 months ago, when I tried to keep the entirety of my 32-mile commute within two hours. I was panting, and sweating, and my legs were burning, and my face was glowing, and it felt amazing! My day-to-day riding consists more of skillfully weaving in and out of the traffic than breathlessly racing from one end of town to the other, and whilst the former feels like dancing, the latter feels like flying.

I pulled up at the delivery address at 5.49, deposited the package in seconds (they looked grateful), and sped off for Waterloo. It’s quite easy to get from London Bridge to Waterloo: once you’re free of the mêlée of Tooley Street it’s a clear run along Southwark Street and Stamford Street, and round the IMAX roundabout. I could do it in about 5 minutes if the lights were in my favour, and the roads were clear of commuters. As it was, I drew up at the station at 5.59 precisely, handed over the package, and continued on my way home.

There was no need to rush now, but I couldn’t help it. Rather than limping my way home at 5mph, as I normally do, I found myself storming past all the other cyclists, and flying up the hills. I haven’t had a high like this for so long, and it reminds me that there may one day be a reason to give up this (highly addictive) job. If I wasn’t permanently exhausted and always on the bike, I could race at the weekends, or go for long rides out into the country, or climb mountains, or go to the velodrome…

And the endorphins have very successfully banished my blah-ness. Ever since I got home, I’ve been bouncing around the flat, and I’ve got a massive jacket potato in the oven as a reward, and lovely warm glow, and a much better mood than I left the house with.

And in case you were thinking that was fast – it’s not. One of the alleycats the couriers occasionally stage takes the form of a ‘dash for the cash’ – everyone puts a couple of quid in a pot, and races from the Foundry, on Old Street, to Marble Arch, and then back. Whoever finishes first gets all the money. And the record is 20 minutes.

A Tale Of Two Jerseys

January 8, 2010

Sugoi (So Unbelievably Good (Or Incredible))
Swobo (Sadly Wears Out Before Others)

About a year ago, in one of my seasonal frostbite-fuelled spending sprees, I ordered two merino jerseys, from Minx. They were too gorgeous to choose between, so I bought them both. One was from Swobo, the other from Sugoi. Both were made of New Zealand wool, and flattered me in totally different ways. The Swobo one was black and chic; the Sugoi one was grey and sleek. They kept me warm on cold days, and stopped me from smelling too awful. I was delighted with them.

But this soon changed. Within a couple of months, the Swobo jersey had two holes in the back: one in the pocket, where I’d been keeping my phone, and the other where the seam between the pockets joins the main body of the jersey (inconveniently the main pressure point of my bag). I blamed myself for treating it too roughly, and started wearing a gilet over it, to protect it. But it carried on unravelling, and now, a year later, it looks something like this:

See all the holes? It’s also worn so thin that it’s transparent in places (which is why I’m protecting my modesty in the first photo). I’ve been reluctant to give it a bad review, because it was a really lovely jersey when it was brand new, but it’s really not fit for purpose – unless you’re only planning to wear it for a gentle canal path pootle (with panniers) once or twice a summer.

The Sugoi jersey, on the other hand, became – and remains – one of my favourite pieces of kit. It does everything you’d expect from merino – it keeps me warm in the winter and cool in the summer, and it somehow magics away all the bad smells, so that I can wear it for days on end without people starting to avoid me. It’s lovely and soft and cosy. It’s also extremely flattering – it’s cut quite long, so gives me a nice sleek silhouette, and is about as elegant as it’s possible to look in what is technically sportswear. Because of this, I started to wear it all the time. Seriously. I wear it for work, as a base layer and on its own. I wear it at the weekend. I wear it with jeans. I wear it to the pub. I wear it on dates. I even sometimes wear it in bed.

And despite all this – it’s still going strong! It must have undergone several times the number of courier days that the Swobo one did, and endured my heavy bag swinging across it about 50 times a day, and yet its only hole is a tiny snag in one sleeve, where I caught it on something. It costs about £90, and is worth every penny.

Here’s a picture – and alongside it is the new one I bought today (in black; it also comes in red), complete with ninja-style hood. So now I’ll be able to wash it slightly more often!

No such thing as bad weather…

January 5, 2010

When I first started couriering, back in autumn 2008, I was quickly informed that you’re not a real courier till you’ve done your first winter. And I realized that winter was going to be very very hard. I told myself that I had four months to get through: November, December, January and February. So once I got past Christmas I breathed a sigh of partial relief, knowing I was at least halfway through.

I was wrong. November and December are just the appetizer. November’s not that bad really, and December’s all festive and exciting, and ends quickly. January and February are where winter really happens – they’re long, bleak, unforgiving, and absolutely bloody freezing. Last year there was a huge snowfall at the end of January, which meant all the roads were packed with solid ice for the next week, and I slid around all over the place. And the weather’s really hard on the bike – I’ve lost count of how many bottom brackets and ball bearings I got through last winter. And wearing so many clothes is expensive, and they get in the way of riding, and make me look like a tramp. (A tramp offered to buy me a cup of tea the other day. I didn’t know what to say.)

And I’m expecting this year’s winter to be even worse, given that it started snowing even before Christmas, and everyone’s muttering darkly about a Big Freeze over the next few weeks. It’s working its way down the country, apparently. We Londoners have been bracing ourselves for days.

But I’m optimistic. I can’t avoid winter, but I’ve worked out there are ways of making it more bearable – it’s all about having the right kit, and making sure every single part of me is protected from both the cold and the rain. The Swrve Milwaukee hoodie (with at least three jerseys underneath) keeps my core warm and dry, I’ve got Sealskinz for my hands and feet, and last night I paid a visit to Chris (the Swrve guy) at his office in Brixton, shared a bottle of wine, and tried on all the shiny new kit. Chris and I have a friendly agreement: he gives me shorts for peanuts (or sometimes even for free), I return them after wearing holes in them (usually takes a month or two), he gets all excited about how my patterns of wear differ from those of his other testers (all men), and he gives me more.

It was very interesting to see all the latest gear, and to hear just how well Swrve are doing at the moment – demand is far outstripping supply (which makes me feel a bit less guilty for accepting his generosity). A few of the designs have been updated – including the Milwaukee, which no longer comes in Gore-Tex, but in some other high-end fabric. It looks a bit more porous though, so I’m worried it won’t be quite as waterproof as mine, which Chris hailed as ‘one of the old school’, and which I’ve been boasting about, to anyone who’ll listen, ever since I bought it.

I came away with a new pair of the softshell knickers (which I reviewed (and quickly wore out) last winter), a pair of the men’s skinny jeans (an experiment), and a couple of caps. I wore the knickers today, and immediately wished I’d gone up a size. Swrve women’s shorts are cut in such a way that they fit nicely round the waist, but are far too tight on the thighs – to the point of actually affecting my pedalling. When I’ve tried going up a size to accommodate my supersized quads, the waistband’s so loose it doesn’t even touch my body. The men’s tend to fit me a lot better, but for some reason (well, probably the wine), it didn’t occur to me to try those on too. Hmmm.

But the one huge advantage of the knickers is that they keep me warm. I decided today that I’ve finally cracked ‘dry cold’ – as long as it’s not precipitating in any way, I can keep myself warm. It remains to be seen whether I’ll cope equally well with ‘wet cold’. But I won’t have to wait long to find out. According to Metcheck, it’s going to be snowing for the next two days, and the temperature will drop as low as -12 °c on Thursday.