Archive for September, 2010

The plastic wilderness

September 28, 2010

I’ve changed my mind again. I should really finish reading a book before I start passing comment on it.

I’ve followed Jay Griffiths into the Arctic, where she met people whose wilderness is my home.

P. 139: “Paul Amagoalik in Resolute, said, “To me, cities are wild: the concrete jungle.” Elders going to Ottawa for medical appointments have found themselves totally lost. Alexina Kublu spoke of being “be-wildered” in London.”

Perhaps I wasn’t being so presumptuous after all.

I spent a nervous hour this evening waiting for the flying woman outside the Curzon Cinema on Shaftesbury Avenue (my phone had died, so I had no way of confirming our plans, and was hoping she’d stick to the tentative rendezvous, and hadn’t tried to get in touch to suggest something else), watching the rush-hour traffic and marvelling at the chaos that I never really notice when I’m in the thick of it. Massive disorderly stampedes of taxis and motorbikes, shoals of cyclists, all crammed onto far too small a road, all going at different rates and in different directions – then just to add to the confusion of it all, flocks of pedestrians going against the flow, trying to cross the erratic stream of traffic, fighting their way through the current, standing on the islands and playing chicken with the cars.

Shall I cross now?
No, I’ll wait in the middle.
No, I’ll cross.
No – I’ll wait.
Oh, the car’s stopping for me!
No no, it’s not safe.
No, wait, I’ll cross…

Thousands and thousands of moving objects, all unpredictable. They may know where they’re going, but I don’t. How could I ever hope to navigate that?

A city is the chaos borne of too many different orders; everything has been planned, designed and manufactured, yet at every moment the arbitrary, the unexpected, the vague, the random, the sudden, slaps us in the face. Everyone in a city is partially bewildered (yes, even the cabbies and the cycle couriers) because of all its different landscapes – the physical, the historical, the personal – which coexist in exactly the same place, yet are disparate and mutually unintelligible. I know my London; I don’t know yours. I can beat my own path through the traffic, but from my seat outside the Curzon, I can’t imagine how anyone else finds theirs.

It’s an artificial, plastic, ersatz wilderness, but it’s wilderness nonetheless.

I don’t often feel lost in London, but every now and then, usually when I’m off the bike, and therefore not in my element, its terror suddenly strikes me afresh, and I wonder how I’ll ever find my way out of this chaos. Being in an unfamiliar city – even one’s own – is like listening to someone talking in a foreign language, eagerly catching at the one or two words you recognize, or the English words the person drops in, even though this doesn’t improve your understanding of what they’re actually saying. Or like tuning a radio, and suddenly hearing a few words of human speech in between the whistles and buzzes. As I sat and watched Shaftesbury in full flood, the cycle couriers who passed every few minutes stood out like beacons. Unexpectedly running into someone you know gives you the reassurance (or the illusion?) that it’s really not such a big bad world out there after all. One of the joys of London’s essential randomness is that the lines we draw through the city sometimes cross unexpectedly – the culmination of thousands of meaningless little coincidences; my being held up for an extra five seconds by that slow Brompton-rider, your EC1 pick-up meaning you go via Clerkenwell rather than Holborn.

Six o’clock came and went; I concluded that the flying woman must have had other ideas, and set off home, deciding to go via Charing Cross Road and Whitehall, rather than Haymarket and Pall Mall, simply because I didn’t fancy trying to cross Shaftesbury to go south. And as chance would have it, I ran into Gordon at Cambridge Circus, and stopped to chat. And as further chance would have it, right at that moment the flying woman flew up Charing Cross Road, late, and I stopped her and apologized for my phone almost ruining our plans, and all was well.

And one more thing, from Wild:

P. 150: “We are wild but tamed by television, controlled by Captain Clock, hemmed in by routine and obedience to petty convention. The more suffocatingly enclosed we are, the louder our wild genes scream in misery, aggression, anger and despair. In wildness is our self-willed, self-governing freedom, and such wild freedom blossoms within us, bubbles over with an anarchic ivresse of feeling. And we glint when the wild light shines. We are drawn to derangement and drugs and – living in a way that denies our natural wildness – we choose self-induced wildness of mind when we can.”

I often wonder about this.

Are cycle couriers really wild, really free? In some ways yes we are – we’re not stuck behind a desk, and we get to plot our own course, and make our own way through the city. And ride our bikes all day while everyone else sits inside envying us. And it’s exhilarating. But we still pick up whatever packages our controller tells us to, have to work the same hours every day or we’ll lose our ‘jobs’, and are completely dependent on the very system of commerce and capitalism we think we’ve bucked.

We’re a little more free than everyone else, and perhaps also a little less.

Which is perhaps the perfect example of how the plastic wilderness of the city is constructed. Within the great tangle of overlapping systems, between the countless layers of different authorities, there’s the potential and spontaneity that could only come from such a near-infinite number of choices. We’re not really free – after all, there are only a certain number of roads you can take. But nonetheless, London has so many roads that we might as well be.



September 26, 2010

Picture this. You’re approaching a four-way junction, the lights are in your favour, and you’re going straight ahead. There’s a car coming in the opposite direction, indicating to turn right (i.e. across your path), but you know you have right of way, so you carry on. You make eye contact with the oncoming driver, and he or she notes your presence, and then turns right anyway. You have to brake sharply, or swerve to avoid being hit.

This has happened to me a lot lately. And I always find it rather chilling – because the driver is well aware that she or he is performing a manoeuvre that will result in my serious injury or death unless I do something to avoid it, and yet none of their human instincts intervene to stop them. I mentioned this to a friend recently; “god, that’s fucking dark” was her response. It certainly is.

Much as half the world whinges about dangerous cyclists bombing through red lights, you’re actually very unlikely to be seriously injured by a cyclist. This is partly because, if you step out in front of me, my own self-preservation instincts will kick in, and I’ll instinctively swerve to avoid you. I think this is the reason I’ve hit so few pedestrians. Couriers sometimes joke that, if someone steps out in front of you, you should just aim straight for them (especially if they’re fat), because it’ll be a softer landing. But I don’t think many people’s instincts would let them actually do that, even if it were logically the safer option. I’ve fallen off avoiding pedestrians more often than I’ve hit them. And when I have hit them, our injuries have been fairly equal. (And of course, if a cyclist and a pedestrian, or two cyclists collide, the damage is likely to be cuts and bruises, or at the very worst broken bones. Sometimes serious; rarely life-threatening.)

But wrap someone up in a secure metal bubble, with airbags and side impact protection systems and whatnot, and they no longer need this self-preservation instinct – at least where soft, cyclist-sized objects are concerned. So a driver can aim their car at a cyclist, and if the cyclist doesn’t get out of the way – well, that’s her problem. (If a cyclist hits a pedestrian, the problem is fairly mutual.)

Doesn’t that scare you? It fucking scares me.

What’s also been scaring me lately is how we just seem to accept that thousands of people will be killed and maimed by cars every year. Road accidents are treated like a force of nature, or fate – something that might suddenly happen to you at any moment, but that you can’t do anything to predict or prevent. And this perceived ‘inevitability’ means that far too little blame is attached to deaths or injuries caused by (oxymoronic?) dangerous driving.

To illustrate this: in the past week or so I’ve read of people being arrested, and even jailed, for putting cats in dustbins, hamsters in microwaves, and goldfish down their throat. Fair enough. But what about the thousands and thousands of animals killed on the roads every year? All the flat pigeons and squirrels I ride past on a daily basis? All the dead rabbits and foxes and badgers and pheasants – and even deer – you’ll find cluttering up our country lanes? Why aren’t the animal-loving British public up in arms about this? Has anyone ever been arrested over roadkill? Or is it just a necessary by-product of a completely essential pastime? And let’s not get started on the laughably light penalties for killing a human being with your car. The man who drunkenly microwaved his hamster was sent to prison for nine weeks. Cause death by dangerous driving and you might well get off with disqualification and a fine.

And here’s another illustration. Recently Lawrence got back from supporting his friend Ashley through part of the Race Across America – the toughest bicycle race in the world. 3,000 miles in three weeks, riding non-stop at high speed until you fall off your bike with exhaustion. Lawrence did a third of it, and hasn’t been quite himself since. Ashley finally pulled out, with sunstroke and dehydration, somewhere in Missouri.

The race was won by a superhuman individual called Jure Robič. It was his fifth victory, and he also holds the 24-hour cycling endurance record (518.70 miles). Read this 2006 article about him, and his body, and his mind – it’s fascinating, and he sounds like an utterly extraordinary human being, and indisputably one of the world’s greatest athletes.

He died on Friday, killed by a car whilst out on a training ride near his home in Slovenia. He was 45, and leaves a wife and a young son.

Are we really OK with this?


Wilderness as metaphor

September 26, 2010

I didn’t mean that inner-city London is actually a wilderness.

I’ve started worrying that Jay Griffiths and Robert Macfarlane are going to come storming into this blog, and start telling me off for missing their point entirely. The streets of London might have one or two things in common with the wilds of Scotland and the Amazon Basin, but they’re not the same thing at all. You won’t starve to death, or be eaten by bears if you lose your way between Holborn and Soho, and there are maps and signposts everywhere, and so many people that someone will speak the same language as you. A friend of mine from Delhi actually commented on how easy London is to navigate, when she visited last year.

What I meant was that the fear and bewilderment I experienced – and everyone else probably still experiences – when chucked into an unfamiliar city with no recognizable landmarks to navigate by perhaps has something in common with the disorientation of being stranded in the middle of Siberia, and not even knowing which compass point is which, let alone which way to head for food and shelter. Zero’s metaphor of learning a new city as you would a new language is equally apt.

I’m still enjoying Griffiths’ book. She’s made the point that

“City walls were built as a physical boundary for the inhabitants, to protect them from the vile hordes outside, but they were also a kind of moral boundary, dividing the city dwellers from the devilish chaos of nature beyond, which was, quite literally, uncivilized. (Civilized comes from civis, a town dweller.)” (p. 41)

But she also repeatedly reminds us that human beings are essentially wild animals; that the wilderness exists just as much in us as it does beyond the city walls. And anyway, we don’t have city walls any more. So human civilization – and urbanity – are constantly undermined, subverted and ridiculed by the wildness that exists at their core, constantly reaching its tendrils through the flimsy barriers we put up to try and keep it away. Even in the most orderly city there will be chaos. The wilderness is everywhere.

And if London is part-wilderness, does that make us part-savages?


September 20, 2010

Yesterday I found myself in the travel section of the London Review Bookshop, and noticed that I was particularly drawn to books about the wilderness, and ‘the wild’.  Especially Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places, and this one, which I bought, and which is now sitting on the chair next to me, hoping as fervently as I am that I’ll get all my work done and be able to pay it some attention.

So far I’ve only read the first few pages of Griffiths’ book, and reviews of Macfarlane’s, especially Kathleen Jamie’s in the London Review of Books (only available to subscribers, I’m afraid). What I’ve learned from him is that the areas we consider ‘wilderness’ are often just as artificially manipulated as the rest of our habitat – even those massive expanses of land in northern Scotland, on which you could walk for a day and not see any trace of human civilization, have been documented and designated and preserved and protected by entities like the National Trust. And if wilderness is meant to be land free of the traces of human intervention, does it really remain wilderness when humans have intervened to keep it exactly as they believe it should be? (Not that this benign intervention is a bad thing – it just calls into question the very idea of ‘untouched wilderness’.)

And with Griffiths I’ve discovered an exasperation with “so many writers in the Euro-American tradition [who] would write reams on wilderness without asking the opinion of those who lived there, the native or indigenous people who have a different world for wilderness: home.”

Wilderness, it would appear, is highly subjective. Griffiths describes Igloolik hunters communicating the exact whereabouts of their prey by “describing all the rocks coupled with the wind direction”. In a landscape of ice, that you and I would consider effectively featureless, they are perfectly at home, and know where they are, where to go, and how to get there. Perhaps what anyone considers wilderness is really just the unfamiliar, der unheimlich, the strange. One person’s home; another person’s foreign country.

And although I feel slightly ridiculous even thinking it – maybe the big city has something in common with the wilderness. I felt completely lost when I first arrived here in 2005, and didn’t recognize any landmarks, or know which direction to go in. Now I know it as intimately as the Igloolik hunter knows the icecap, or as the native Australians know the songlines. Places and spaces change with knowledge. They shrink, and become habitable and negotiable.

After I’d bought the book I got on a bus with some of my friends, who were in town for the weekend and wanted to go down to the Mall to look at the Pope. And then I promptly got off again, because my Oyster card was out of money, and told them to get down at Piccadilly Circus and that I’d meet them there. Then I worried that they’d be bewildered by all the chaos around them, and not get off at the right stop, or get lost or scared when they did, and not know where to go, and miss the parade. And I thought how alarming London must seem to them. All these roads, and junctions, and shops, and people, and buses, and traffic lights – how can one possibly find one’s way when there are so many endless possibilities? I expected to find them large-eyed and lost when I finally made it to SW1, but happily they’d managed to stumble upon the parade just as the man himself was passing, so all was well.

Maybe the city isn’t so much of a wilderness. Or maybe there are just far fewer wildernesses than we think there are. And maybe I’m in need of a new one.

Cock-tale dress

September 18, 2010

Remember that black-tie event I mentioned? It was last Tuesday.

I wore a dress, heels and make-up, and when he saw me, one of my colleagues said

“Phwoar, they’d better not sit me next to you! I’ll be perving over you all night – won’t be able to face you in the morning.”

Oh god. Worse than I could possibly have imagined. I’m never wearing a dress in public again.

The only good thing to come out of this is that I’ve realized that a lot of the sexism I deal with on a daily basis isn’t really that bad. True, postroom guys persist in calling me ‘love’ and ‘sweetie’, which I dislike, but they do it with a lot more respect and friendliness than the guy above (well, that wouldn’t be difficult), and quite a few of them actually call me ‘mate’. And most of them are far too decent to openly inform a girl that she’ll be featuring in tonight’s sexual fantasies, which is effectively what he did.

I’m still outraged. I didn’t think people could get away with saying things like that in this day and age. Especially not in a professional context. If I wasn’t a self-employed subcontractor, with no rights or status to speak of, I might consider doing something about it.

On a day like today…

September 17, 2010

…don’t you feel like you could just go on forever?

We’re having the most glorious Indian Summer, the air’s clear and fresh, and the sunlight’s bright and sparkling, making the whole city gleam and glitter and glisten. It’s still just warm enough for short sleeves. There’s a slight breeze, and it feels as though everything’s in motion – the leaves, the clouds, the seasons, and of course me, having a typically wonderful Friday, flying and swinging and dancing along, whipping in and out of the traffic, singing loudly to myself, waving at everyone I know, and some people I don’t.

One of my pick-ups this afternoon was actually a van job – a box the size of a small fridge – but I was feeling energetic, and in the mood for a challenge, so I managed to stuff one end of it into my bag, somehow lashed the rest of it down, and didn’t bother telling my controller. And I found out that everyone will smile at you when you’re riding along with a box the size of a fridge strapped to your back. Even black cab drivers. Even lorry drivers whose wing mirror you crash into as you hurtle along between two lanes of stationary traffic on the Strand, remembering that you’re slightly wider than usual, but forgetting that you’re also slightly taller.

And all along, I was thinking these are probably the best days of our lives.

Sometime in the afternoon I was sunning myself outside Fullcity, dipping custard creams in one of Liam’s lattes, and chatting to the man from the handbag stall, when I caught sight of someone who looked amusingly like Roger Ramjet in a suit. As he got closer, I realized that it was Roger Ramjet in a suit.

He’d just been for an interview for a Real Job, because – well, he’s been doing this for seven years now, and it’s time to move on.

“Yeah, this is the best job in the world man! You can spend all day smoking draw, check out the girls in the street, ride your bike around, hang out here – but then it’s winter, and it rains all day, and it gets really hard…”

He has a problem with his right forearm that gets worse in the cold, and his hamstrings haven’t been right for a couple of years. Remember how I told you that most couriers are riding around with some form of long-term chronic pain, and that as you get older it only gets harder? He’s not the first old-timer I know to give up for winter. Last year Aga was off the circuit for a few months and, as far as I know, it was just because she’d done enough winters that she knew how horrible they are, and didn’t feel she had anything to prove by doing another one. I guess that at some point the grim satisfaction you get from surviving each day in the rain and the snow and the sleet and the ice stops outweighing the pain, misery and exhaustion, and there’s no longer any point putting yourself through it all.

Perhaps it was for this reason that I found myself positively beaming when Ramjet told me he was getting out. He’s been hating the job for a while, and he’s actually doing something to get himself out of it, rather than letting it grind him down any further. Somehow, even though I was having one of the best days I’ve had for weeks, this was good news.

And, of course, yet another reminder that winter’s on its way, and that yes, it’ll be much harder than I remember. Today was possibly my last day of wearing short sleeves, and sunrise is getting later and later. But maybe this is partly why I was feeling so euphoric – because the knowledge of what’s to come makes me appreciate what I have now all the more keenly.

Apocalypse Now!

September 7, 2010

There was a tube strike today, and it had a lot in common with the Zombie Apocalypse – thousands upon thousands of pale, lurching creatures emerged from dark tunnels under the streets, all of them pissed-off and bloodthirsty, and chaos and carnage were unleashed upon the world.

There were so many pedestrians on the pavements that they could barely move. And they kept spilling over onto the road, with predictable results.

And there were twice as many cars on the road, most of them crawling along in long queues, or just backed up for miles, sitting with their engines running and getting all hot and bothered. This is actually quite fun if you like hurtling and twisting and turning and wriggling through gaps barely the width of your handlebars (which luckily I do).

And as if all this wasn’t enough, there was a celebration of the Battle of Britain going on in St Pauls, and at lunchtime about 2,500 war veterans marched very slowly from the cathedral to the Guildhall. All the traffic was stopped by police on motorbikes – and because there was twice as much traffic around as usual …well, I’m sure you can imagine.

And it rained. Briefly, but violently and impressively.

So of course, everyone was ridiculously wound up, and no one was prepared to give each other the tiniest leeway. And people took advantage of the chaos to start breaking all the rules. I’ve never seen so many cars, lorries, vans and motorbikes jumping red lights.

And this proves my theory – that the disaster movie trope of massive stationary tailbacks leading out of major cities is entirely and depressingly accurate. If everyone cooperated, stuck to the rules, stopped at the lights, and gave right of way where it was due, we’d all get out in time. But people aren’t like that – they panic, and once enough people have jumped the lights, the junctions get blocked, and there’s too much traffic in the way to unblock them. So you’re stuck.

And then the zombies get you.

Eh? Where did all these people come from?

Less than a thousand words

September 5, 2010

I’ve been far too verbose lately, so here’s some photos to make up for it.

Cycle couriers trying to touch their toes.

And failing.

Godwin pretends it’s an accident that his socks match his bike.

Gordon does not pretend it’s an accident that his tattoo matches his shorts.

Probably the most beautiful coffee I’ve ever drunk – made by Steph at the Fleet River Bakery in Lincoln’s Inn Fields.

Some more celebrity deliveries.

I was more excited by this one.

But I was much more excited by this woodlouse, in St James’s Square.

This is what Fullcity’s cellar used to look like.

Now it looks like this.

I love the incongruity of this shot (Orange Yard en rose).

And the symbolism of this one. (Whatever it could be said to symbolize. I don’t know. Make it up for yourself.)

This cake was far too sweet. Really. I thought it would pick me up out of my two o’clock slump, but it just gave me a five-minute sugar rush, followed by an even worse slump. Not recommended. (It’s the cupcake du jour (or semaine, or mois) from Lola’s on Lansdowne Row, in case you were wondering. Peanut butter and jam. But don’t try it.)

This one was just perfect. Blood orange and almond, from Mrs Marengo’s in Soho. But unfortunately it belonged to Liz, so I only got one bite.


September 4, 2010

I sometimes feel I’ve been a bit hard on Victoria Pendleton.

As I may have mentioned at some length, I very much disagree with how Pendleton’s constructed her public image, and the way in which she seems to spend every non-lycra moment shopping for designer dresses and posing for men in bikinis. I don’t think women should need to do things like that to get attention and approval, especially not when they happen to be a world leader in their field. And I hate the cookie-cutter conventionality of it all – the way she seamlessly joins the ranks of all the identical slim, coiffed, airbrushed women you see in Vogue et al, who basically just look the same. It’s boring, and it perpetuates unrealistic and unhealthy gender roles.


I’ve been invited to a black tie dinner with people who’ve only ever seen me wearing sweaty cycling clothes – and my first reaction was to push the boat out. Cocktail dress, I thought, proper make-up and pointy shoes, maybe even get someone to do my hair nicely.

But then, to my not inconsiderable surprise, I realized I was falling straight into the Pendleton trap, and wondered what on earth I was thinking. I’ve spent the last few days mulling it over, and tried to work out exactly what my reasons were for wanting to dress up as a girl (for once).

  • It’s a novelty. I spend almost every day of my life wearing cycling clothes. On the rare occasions when I wear skirts, I catch sight of myself in the mirror and am amazed and delighted by how different it’s possible for a person to look. I had the same feeling when I used to wear a full-on pinstripe suit for work, and also when I was very excited about starting secondary school, and used to try on the uniform in my room after bedtime, and marvel at how grown-up I looked.
  • It’s drag. It’s not really me. And neither is the cycling kit. Or anything else I’ve ever worn. It’s all just dressing up and playing a part. And the more different parts you play, the more you realize (and emphasize) just how ephemeral they all are. I’m still the same person – I just look different sometimes. I think this was one of the impulses behind International Messenger Suit Day.
  • It’s a disguise. When I was at uni, I was known for my long swooshy skirts and dangly earrings. Friends sometimes didn’t recognize me if they saw me in my lycra. Now people don’t recognize me if they see me in a dress. I was crossing Stoke Newington Church Street one Sunday afternoon (with my hair down, and a full-length skirt on) and my friend Will cycled past, only a couple of feet away from me. He looked at me; I looked at him. I smiled and yelled ‘do a skid!’; he blanked me and carried on his way. He has no memory of this, and insists it never happened.
  • It’s hilarious. I find myself in a dress easily as amusing as I would any of my male friends. It’s just absurd.
  • It’s adaptation. We change to suit our environments. For couriers this process is more overtly Darwinian – she who has the strongest legs, the biggest bag and the waterproofest socks will get the most work, stay out on the coldest rainiest days, and not get run over, or give up and become a management conslutant. There’s a distinct satisfaction in fine-tuning your body, bike and kit to improve your performance. And there’s a similar satisfaction in knowing that you can adapt just as well to other environments, when necessary. This time last year I wore a sari to a friend’s wedding in Delhi, and managed not to look out of place or embarrass myself. No one pointed and laughed at me when I used to wear a suit, so I reckon I pulled that one off too. And I’ll take great pleasure in swanning around in my LBD and heels in a couple of weeks, being equally convincing, and surprising people when they ask what I do for a living.

Or will I?

The problem is, the whole situation looks very different from other people’s point of view. If I wear a dress, I’ll be doing it for the above reasons – but the outside observer (i.e. the blokes who’ve only ever seen me in cycling kit) will probably just think ‘hmm, she cleans up alright’, or ‘phwoar, nice cleavage’. Or do that awful thing some people do, of applauding you for ‘dressing nicely for once’, as though the way you normally look doesn’t quite cut it.

“Isn’t it a shame she can’t always look like that?”

Well, that’s not the point at all. If I dress up like a film star, I don’t want people to think that that’s the ideal I’m always aspiring towards, and mostly missing. I want them to realize that this is just one of my many many disguises – and that so is the lycra.

But unfortunately you can’t control what people think.

So should I try and look like a film star? Or should I try and look as boring as possible, in the hope they’ll be disappointed? Neither seems ideal.

Is there any other way of subverting this?