Archive for February, 2010

La vie en gris

February 28, 2010

I’ve appreciated my job even more since I got my new camera. London is so bewilderingly big and varied, and I see curious, beautiful and intriguing things almost every second. And trying to capture them has taught me that a photographer really has to live in the moment. It’s no good telling myself that I’ll come back and take the photo another day, when I’ve got more time – it has to happen now, while the iron’s hot. I’ve even missed good opportunities in the 20 seconds I spend dithering before finally getting my camera out.

And one of the most elusive elements at this time of year is the light. We’re lucky if we get one good day of sunshine a fortnight at the moment, and even that’s long gone by 5 o’clock. The rest of the time, even if it’s not raining, the sky is nothing but varying shades of grey, and the streets almost monochrome in their monotony.

But I’m doing my best to appreciate this. A couple of years ago I was sitting on a roof terrace in Delhi, with Kiran, a photographer friend, when the sky suddenly clouded over, and the air filled with the smell and softness of forthcoming rain – and she started rhapsodizing about the beauty of ‘grey light’, and pointing out how it brought out all the colours of the flowers on the terrace, and taking photos of me in the strange almost-twilight that had suddenly descended, the moment before the first drops of rain fell.

Of course, living in the climate they do, Indians have very different views on such things – as Khushwant Singh points out:

An Indian’s attitude to clouds and rain remains fundamentally different from that of the Europeans. To the one, clouds are symbols of hope; to the other, those of despair. The Indian scans the heavens and if cumulus clouds blot out the sun his heart fills with joy. The European looks up and if there is no silver lining edging the clouds his depression deepens. The Indian talks of someone he respects and looks up to as a great shadow, like the one cast by the clouds when they cover the sun. The European, on the other hand, looks on a shadow as something evil[…]. An Indian, when the rains come, runs out into the streets shouting with joy and lets himself be soaked to the skin.

But, in order to make the best of a bad situation, and to look on the bright side (hopelessly inaccurate as that idiom is here!), I’ve been taking pictures of greyness, trying to understand Kiran’s obsession with grey light. And I’ve begun to realize that sunlight is almost boringly photogenic – clouds and mists and rain are much more of a challenge! I’ll leave you to decide how successful I’ve been.

A splendid (albeit slightly blurred) gothic dragon outside the Royal Courts of Justice, on the Strand.

The friendly local blackbird in St James’s Square.

I loved the way the smoke from the vents (just out of shot) blended with the mist. (Taken from somewhere high up in Exchange Square.)

A gloomy day in SW1.

One of two beautiful churches, marooned in the middle of the Strand.

Cranes, lamp posts and St Paul’s, from Blackfriars Bridge.

The view upstream.

Rooftops from Vauxhall.


Start spreading the news…

February 27, 2010

In less than three days, I will be exchanging this

for this!

It’s only for a couple of weeks – don’t worry! – but I haven’t been so excited about anything since I was a small child waiting for Christmas. I’m taking my bike (well, how could I not?), and I’m planning to spend my days zooming around, seeing the sights, eating every morsel that crosses my path, and acquainting myself with my New York counterparts. I might even be riding in an alleycat on Saturday – if I can screw up my courage to take the brakes off my bike…

The pursuit of free food

February 26, 2010

It’s been a very hard week. Rain upon rain upon rain, and a fair bit of wind. Some of my kit hasn’t been dry since Tuesday. And I can’t have been eating or sleeping properly, because today I felt absolutely knackered all day. And not just the normal, end-of-week, looking-forward-to-the-pub knackered. At 9 this morning I noticed my body trying to fall asleep between jobs. By lunchtime I was having to concentrate extra-hard to make sure I didn’t doze off whilst riding along High Holborn.

And nothing I did seemed to help. I religiously pumped in caffeine and sugar every hour or so, trying to create artificial energy to make up for the fact that I had no real energy left. The phrase ‘running on empty’ has never rung so true. I walked around the block whenever I was on standby, keeping moving for fear I wouldn’t be able to get going again if I let myself relax. Whenever I had a conversation with anyone, I slurred my sentences, and muddled up my words, as though I was drunk. I’m so glad it’s over.

And I probably wouldn’t have survived without this woman:

She’s called Leila, and I met her on Tavistock Street (WC2), as I was locking up my bike outside Treadwell’s Bookshop. She was standing outside her cafe, as you see above, beckoning people in for free hot drinks. Yes, FREE! (Well, 1p. That’s effectively free.) I was very sceptical. There had to be some sort of catch. But there really wasn’t, and she and the waitress were quite obviously delighted to prove people wrong.

And they had real European hot chocolate, almost as thick as custard. They gave me two cups, and refused to accept my 1p.

She told me to tell all my friends. So I’m telling you. If you’re anywhere near London, go. She’s at 36 Tavistock Street, and the offer’s on every day. It probably won’t last forever though, and wouldn’t you hate to miss it?

The inevitable fat issue

February 21, 2010

I had lunch with a friend yesterday. I’ve known her on and off for years, and have always rather admired her beauty, as well as her so-much-more-consistent-than-mine feminism, and healthy politics when it comes to things like gender, and equality, and all that. We did the food stalls at the Brunswick Centre, and then had coffee, and I had a good whinge about how I’m still feeling ill, and wish it would just bloody well get itself out of my system.

She recommended I go to a sauna, and sweat it out, and I launched into another whinge about how the women’s sauna scene is so much less vibrant than the men’s, and how there are hardly any places where you can just go and sit around naked. She admitted this was the case, but said she probably wouldn’t want to go to one anyway, at least until she’s found a way of being a bit more comfortable with her body.

And I was shocked. And rather sad. She’s so gorgeous, and so intellectually confident, that it seems absolutely absurd that she should be ashamed of her body. But, of course, telling her that – as I did – isn’t going to make much difference to the way she feels. I’ve been there. Compliments just glance off. And what’s more, as a feminist, she feels ashamed for feeling ashamed. I’ve been there too. I’ve put so much intellectual energy into liking my body, and spent so much time pointing out to myself that I am normal, and had arguments in my head every time I see a poster, or magazine, or film, or anything else that features an unrealistic example of female beauty ideals …yet, I still sometimes wish I were thinner, or feel secretly pleased when I notice I’ve lost weight. And then feel guilty for betraying my own principles.

It annoys me no end that I have this stuff cluttering up my head. And if it’s like this for me, when I’ve spent so much of my life trying to appreciate my body as it is – then what on earth is it like for the vast majority of women, who don’t? No wonder they’re all on ridiculous diets, and spend all their money on cosmetics and drop-a-dress-size jeans. And hating themselves.

But I think cycling has helped. Another friend, only last week, remarked that she thinks of me as someone who’s happy and confident in their body. And, the odd wibble and PMT day notwithstanding, by and large I am. It seems that, over the last 3-4 years (I didn’t really cycle seriously till 2006-7), I’ve gradually begun to prioritize what my body can do over how it looks. And it seems a bit unfair to hate it when it carries me over 300 miles a week.

Admittedly, it’s a lot easier to like my figure at the moment. I’m probably the leanest I’ll ever be and, no matter how much cake I eat, I keep having to buy clothes in smaller sizes. But my body is faaaaar from perfect! If I take my clothes off and look in the mirror, I see:

  • a big fat tummy
  • saddle bags
  • stretch marks
  • cellulite
  • saggy breasts
  • body hair

I’ve got a lot of muscle, and I can storm up Pentonville Road without getting out of breath, but I’m built more like a rugby player than a ballerina. And I weigh over 12 stone. (I quite like telling people this – they’re always shocked. And some of them are the same size as me, but only weight 10 stone. Which just goes to show how irrelevant weight really is.)

It’s a measure of how positive my body-image is that I actually felt a certain amount of glee typing out the above. I’m not afraid of my imperfections any more. I love admitting to people that I’m medically overweight (my BMI is 27.5) and really not bothered about it – and then wowing them with my muscles. And I’ve begun to accept that some people will find my body off-putting. It doesn’t really matter that they do – I know enough people who find it wildly attractive, and there are probably many many more who just wouldn’t give it a second glance. That’s OK – I don’t need the whole world to love me.

But it’s going to be interesting to see what happens when  – eventually – I change my lifestyle. My body will almost inevitably get bigger, and softer, and I’ll probably start to find it more difficult to be proud of it. This, I suppose, is where the real challenge starts. I’ve long felt a certain solidarity with fat pride, and admired the work of Joy Nash, and the wonderful Charlotte Cooper. It was only comparatively recently that I realized that I wasn’t actually fat by anyone’s standards, and therefore probably had less of a claim on it than I thought. But, given that just about every woman my age seems to think of herself as morbidly obese, maybe fat pride has something to teach us.

I once came up with the following criteria, as staircase wit after a snide comment by grandmother. (My gargantuan size 12 frame seems to be something of a family disappointment.)

  1. Am I fit and healthy?
  2. Can I fit into my clothes?
  3. Do people find me attractive?

I can answer ‘yes’ to all three. Surely there should be nothing more to it?

Now to spread the word…

Various sorts of crack

February 17, 2010

Finally! I was back in work this morning. I couldn’t wait. Even though I didn’t get to sleep till after 1am, I bounced out of bed at 6.20, and clicked effortlessly back into my morning routine of porridge, sandwiches, tea, and watching the sky get light (earlier every morning!). By 8am I was ensconced in my usual coffee shop, sweating from my commute. By 8.30 I’d picked up my first job, and was heading towards the river, beaming.

But at about 9am, on my way back over Blackfriars Bridge, I started to feel a bit unsteady. Hmmmm. “Something’s not quite straight on this bike”, I thought (yes yes, apart from its rider…). I stopped and checked the wheels. They were perfectly (and uncharacteristically) true. Nothing seemed to be wrong with the cranks or the pedals. I examined the forks inch by inch – the bike did feel a bit like it did the time my last forks snapped, so this seemed a likely explanation. And then I saw it – my headset cup had a huge gaping crack in it. Like this:


I rode very slowly to Lawrence’s shop; no one in.

I went to Condor; they said they could get it done by 6. No good.

Same with that uninspiring new place on Clerkenwell Road.

So I wobbled over to Cavendish, and they said the mechanic wasn’t in yet, but he should be arriving within 20 minutes, and could probably turn it around within half an hour. And he did.

And while I was waiting I discovered Scandinavian Kitchen on Great Titchfield Street, where they have amazing cakes filled with cardamom and marzipan and cream, and sweets with names like Skum and Plopp and Spunk, and pictures of ABBA in the toilet. I think I want to go to Scandinavia.

And then I got back on the bike, and had an amazing day.

I often joke that my job is addictive, but I’m beginning to wonder how seriously I should take this. I’m wary of claiming to have what for many people is a chronic, damaging, and even life-threatening condition, but my relationship to cycling seems to have a lot in common with the more traditional addictions.

For example, I’ve been in a rotten mood the past few days, on more levels than I actually realized. I was very much aware of the stuffy, nervous feeling I know I’ll get when I’ve slept and eaten too much, and spent the day sitting still indoors. But it was only when I was riding around in the sunshine (yes, it was sunny today!), feeling that unique combination of exhilaration, calm, inspiration and joy, that I remembered that yesterday I was feeling overwhelmingly negative about my life – dreading the future, regretting the past, and beating myself up about all the things I should be doing, and am not. I’m a terrible invalid. I complain constantly, not only about how ill I feel, but about how fed up I am with not being able to get out and run around. And then I apologize for complaining. And then I complain again. I run out of conversation. I no longer find my friends interesting. I find myself unbearably boring.

I’m still not quite better (my throat and chest made today quite hard work), but I knew I had to get back on the road. I didn’t know how I’d survive another day inside. And, thankfully, all is now well. But what happens if I ever get injured, and have to spend a few weeks – or months – recovering? I’m frightened to think about it. And what’ll happen when I eventually give it up, and find a proper job? That’s always been my intention, but now I understand why people stay couriers for so long – and why some of them repeatedly quit, only to reappear on the circuit within a couple of weeks. How could I go from this, to sitting behind a desk again?

Last year a photography student called Lisa Brambilla documented the courier community in this book. The line that haunts me is from Alex (p.42): “Don’t ever start this job, it’s like crack.”

It is.

Cabin fever

February 15, 2010

It’s Monday afternoon, and I haven’t taken these pyjamas off since Saturday evening.

As I think I mentioned, I vowed not to take a single day off in January, and succeeded. But my body clearly decided to get its own back, and I’ve spent most of February so far being ill. I’ve had the most horrible cold since last week, and have been taking days off left right and centre. And it really is nothing worse than a cold – I can’t pretend it’s swine flu, or even just normal flu. But it’s the kind of cold that makes my head ache, and my skin crawl, and my throat feel like I’m coughing up hedgehogs. So as well as feeling pretty bloody rotten, I’m beating myself up about being soft enough to take time off work with ‘just a cold’, and going stir-crazy cooped up in my flat, because I’m not used to being sedentary for longer than 10 hours at a stretch.

Illness is inextricably tied up with guilt for me. I start feeling guilty when I have to call my controller at 8am and explain that I’m not coming in. I always assume that they won’t believe I’m really ill, and will think I’m just having a duvet day. And last week they were really short-staffed, so even if they did believe me, they were still very sniffy about my taking time off. One of the managers phoned me up on Wednesday afternoon, to make sure I’d come in the next morning, and I hadn’t actually planned to, but I’m easily guilt-tripped, and I know hardly anyone else comes in at 8, so I said I would.

I also feel guilty about sitting around doing nothing – and somehow harbour the delusion that anything that’s wrong with me can be cured by going out on my bike and riding really fast. And it’s true – sometimes minor ailments can be flushed out of your system with a bit of vigorous exercise. But the trick is distinguishing these from the slightly more serious ailments, that will end up lasting a week if you don’t take a couple of days off right away to let them die down. And this is one of the latter. I had Wednesday off, then worked Thursday, and was feeling incredibly rough by the time I went to bed. Guilt forced me out of bed and into work on Friday, but by 10am I was getting dizzy and shaky, and had to call in sick and limp home, where I’ve been pretty much ever since.

And now it’s Monday, and I’m still too ill to work, and going stir-crazy. It’s horrible. I feel all cooped-up and stuffy, and am desperate to get out of the flat and get my heart and lungs going – but I’m also still feeling shaky and headachey, and my throat hurts so much I can barely talk, and I know that anything more than the slowest trudge around the park will just make me worse. I’ve got plenty to eat (lovely friends have been bringing me cake), but no way of burning it off, so it’s all just sitting in my stomach, and I’m longing to get back to riding around at 20mph all day, eating thousands of calories for breakfast and being hungry again by 11am.

I’m rather tempted to go for a (v e r y  s l o w) swim. It’ll probably set me back a bit, but that surely has to be balanced by how much it’ll improve my mood. Hmmmmm…

Gender pay gap

February 2, 2010

I found out today, quite to my surprise, that I’m regularly the highest-earning pushbike in the fleet. Yesterday I even earned more than some of the motorbikes.

This surprises me because, whenever I run into another courier, and have the usual “How’s it going?” “Busy?” conversation, they usually say something like “Yeah, it’s really quiet today – I’ve only done about 22 jobs so far.” For me, 22 jobs counts as a good day, so I’ve long assumed that I must be one of the slow ones, or perhaps the controllers give me less work. I worried that it might have something to do with being the only girl in the fleet – either because people assume girls are less able, and therefore give them less work, or because girls are physically weaker, and therefore slower (and I hate having to think that!).

But clearly it’s just because everyone lies about how much work they’re getting!

And in other news: look – snowdrops!

(King’s Bench Walk, EC4; this morning.)

A day in the life

February 1, 2010

I thought it might be interesting to give a blow-by-blow-by-blow account of what I get up to on the average day. It might not be, of course. It might be incredibly boring. But I won’t know for sure unless I try.

6.30am: I get up and stumble through to the kitchen. Kettle on, make sandwiches. I’m very excited about today’s sandwiches, because I made onion and rosemary rolls over the weekend.

7.00am: I put large quantities of branflakes, muesli, grated apple and soya milk in a bowl, and eat it, and read a book, and watch the sky get light.

7.30am: (Or thereabouts.) Leave the house. Idiot check: keys, wallet, mobile, radio, Xda, lock, lunch, A-Z.

7.50am: Draw up at Carluccio’s in the Brunswick Centre (WC1). Pay £2.15 for a latte, and tell myself this is a ridiculous amount to pay for a latte, as I do every morning. Read about Martin Amis and feminism in Guardian. Say good morning to the staff. Call Andy on the radio to let him know where I am.

8.30am: Andy calls me with my first job – Fleet Street to Victoria Embankment. Hardly any distance at all. Admire the river. It’s a beautiful day.

9.05am: Holborn. I’m running early for my second job, so use this opportunity to buy my usual second breakfast of one almond croissant and one pain au chocolat (Sainsbury’s; £1).

9.16am: Take a photo of one of my favourite views, whilst waiting for the lift at Diffiniti.

9.25am: Jobs coming thick and fast; still waiting for a moment to eat pastries.

9.43am: Hungry. Take a couple of minutes after picking up a job, and stuff almond croissant into my mouth.

9.54am: Chap in a lift asks if I’m not cold riding my bike around all day. I assure him that the exercise keeps me warm. This is a conversation I have several times a day.

9.56am: Wolf down pain au chocolat before launching myself down Park Lane, which is simply glorious on a day like this.

11.16am: A healthy batch of SW1 pick-ups have taken me up to Camden, where I pick up a couple more for EC2. Hungry again, but too busy to stop and eat.

11.30am: Pick-up in Holborn. One of the van drivers offers me a pink lady apple. He couldn’t resist them in Sainsbury’s, because of the name (we both work for Pink Express). I can’t remember his name (or maybe I never knew it – I’m the only girl on the fleet, so everyone knows who I am, and sometimes they don’t bother to introduce themselves), but accept it anyway.

11.33am: A oldish courier whose name I don’t know offers me a fruit pastille as we wait for the lights at Holborn Circus, and comments on what a lovely day it is, and how everyone’s riding around smiling. January was the worst he’s ever seen, apparently. It was only my second, so I have less basis for comparison.

12.00pm: Paul, the lunchtime controller, comes on the radio.

12.05pm: I drop my last package, on Gresham Street, and decide to have a spot of lunch before I call in empty. I eat the apple.

12.11pm: I call in empty, correctly assuming that Paul won’t have any work for me right away. (Either he’s not as efficient a controller as Andy, or Andy never bothers to set up my next lot of jobs before he goes for lunch.) I eat a sandwich.

12.26pm: Still no work. I start on my second sandwich.

12.28pm: Called away to a pick-up in Jockey’s Fields, going down to the Strand. Debate hanging around to finish sandwich. Decide against it, and put half-eaten sandwich in bag.

12.39pm: Another pick-up on High Holborn. My Xda tells me it was booked at 12.35, which means I’ve picked it up in 4 minutes flat! I’m always pleased and a bit smug when this happens, even though it has more to do with good luck and efficient controlling than any skill on my part.

12.43pm: Sent back to same address for another pick-up.

12.44pm: Job on board. Time from booking to collection: 1 minute. Smug.

12.48pm: Another pick-up, from Aldwych. Time from booking to collection: 3 minutes. I now have four jobs on board. It’s a busy day. I start to feel a bit bouncy and over-excited, as though I’ve just had a strong coffee, which I haven’t.

12.50pm: Head onto the Strand. Flying along, full of energy, feeling on top of the world. Remind myself to be super-careful – it would be especially irritating to have some sort of crash when everything’s going so well. Earworm switches inexplicably from Anastacia to Glen Miller.

1.32: Get rid of last package at Stanhope Gate (W1). Stomach growling. I shut it up with the remains of the second sandwich. Am given next job two bites in, but ignore it, and finish sandwich.

2.30: Back in EC2. Little break in Bishop’s Square. Stifle a sugar craving with sandwich number three, and wonder whether I’ll be given the White Cube post run, an N1>N1>SW1>N1>N1 monster job, which starts in Hoxton Square at 3.00pm and is your likely fate if you find yourself empty in the City between 2.30 and 3.00.

2.39pm: White Cube post run appears on Xda, as predicted. Finish sandwich before dawdling over to Hoxton.

2.48pm: Pick up first installment from White Cube Hoxton Square, and head towards the warehouse, on Wharf Road.

2.55pm: Crawl up City Road. Legs feeling like wood all of a sudden. Post-lunch slump sets in.

2.59pm: Pick up post from White Cube warehouse, and refill my bottle from their water cooler.

3.21pm: Stop off at White Cube Mason’s Yard, in St James’s. Hope that I’ll be given one or two jobs to go back east with, because if the White Cube post run gets lengthened a bit, I usually manage to finish after 5.00pm on Wharf Road, which is only a couple of miles from my flat. (It’s so disheartening to finish in SW1, and have to ride right through the centre during the rush hour to get home.)

3.36pm: Pick-up on Sackville Street. A man smoking outside says “cor, aren’t you cold in this weather, with no gloves?”. I take my gloves out of my pocket. He looks a bit disappointed.

3.50pm: I have a nice little run of jobs on board – one drop on Newgate Street (EC1), then the White Cube returns (Wharf Road and Hoxton Square), then one more on St Peter’s Street, which is even further into N1, and consequently on my way home.

3.52pm: Andy ruins this plan by telling me the St Peter’s Street job’s a special, and needs to be dropped first. I ask if I can reverse the usual order of the Wharf Road and Hoxton Square drops, since I’ll be passing along Wharf Road on my way to Hoxton. I am told the client would have a blue fit, and I have to do it the usual way, i.e. first Hoxton Square, then Wharf Road. The EC1 is to be dropped last.

4.45pm: St Peter’s Street. (I don’t know why that took so long. I think there were another couple of jobs in there somewhere.) Almost within sight of home. Turn wearily back towards the City.

4.47pm: Pass the warehouse on Wharf Road, and think again how ridiculous it is that I can’t just drop off their post then and there.

4.53pm: Drop off the post at Hoxton Square, and turn back towards Wharf Road.

5.02pm: Ah, back at Wharf Road. Thank god the post has been delivered in the right order, and civilization maintained. Am less than two miles from home. Turn south again

5.17pm: Deliver final package on Newgate Street. Brusquely inform evening controller I’m going home, and hightail it up Goswell Road.

5.39pm: Hit Sainsbury’s.

6.15pm: (Or thereabouts.) Home! Make a start on To Do list; put dinner on.

7.00pm: Dinner. Pasta, pesto, tuna, tomato, carrot and toasted sunflower seeds.

Somewhat later: Cake. Carrot and orange. Courtesy of wonderful flatmate.

Somewhat later still: Begin to consider that packet of chocolate HobNobs I left in the cupboard.