Archive for February, 2011

The courier mind

February 23, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

How does it work then, my courier mind?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Occupational hazards

February 17, 2011

I had a bit of a tiff with a security guard this morning – or, to give him his official title, which I’m sure he’d appreciate, a Loading Bay Manager.

He had a go at me for riding my bike into the loading bay when a van was reversing, and told me to get off and walk it in in future. I pointed out that this would be much slower, and therefore expose me to the risk of reversing vans for far longer. He didn’t appreciate this logic.

“I don’t want to be the one who has to fill in all the paperwork when you get squashed.”

“You won’t – I spend my entire working day not getting hit by traffic. I’m quite good at it.”

“Well I might just have to ban you from this loading bay then.”

“Oooh – I’ve never been banned from anything before!”

I probably shouldn’t have been so cheeky, but I was a bit hyper, and actually quite amused that someone so normally well behaved as me might be at risk of a loading bay ASBO.

But my flippancy came back to bite me a couple of hours later. I may be very good at not getting hit by traffic, but it turns out I’m even more talented when it comes to breaking rear windscreens using only my head.

Ahem. Yes.

I’ve never caused such a scene before. There was broken glass everywhere. I didn’t realize my head was so hard.

Luckily, I was OK. Surprisingly OK, in fact. But that didn’t stop the terrified driver calling an ambulance, and fussing and fretting and wringing her hands over me until it arrived. I’m so glad it was a nice, posh, friendly woman, who said “gosh, it’s only a car!” when I apologized for the mess I’d made. If it had been a cabbie he’d probably have got out, kicked me, called me something unprintable, and then driven off, being careful to run over my bicycle, even if it wasn’t actually in his way.

And then two lovely paramedics turned up (both gay – what are the odds?), stuck a neck brace on me, gaffer-taped me onto a stretcher (yes, really), and took about an hour to drive me from St James’s Square to St Thomas’s (would have been so much quicker by bike), where I spent the afternoon alternately snoozing and being prodded by medical students.

And eventually they let me out, and I rode home.

I’ve been bloody lucky though. Just the other day I was remarking to someone that I’ve had absolutely no injuries of note – let alone hospital trips – in the two-and-a-half years I’ve been couriering. And it could easily have been much much worse. As it is, I have a bit of a headache and I have a dizzy spell every hour or so (there’s one going on now, so this post isn’t going to last much longer). It could have been a broken collarbone. Or neck.

Something to think about perhaps, when my head’s a little less fuzzy.

One in, one out.

February 13, 2011

Well, I’m sure you’ve all been on tenterhooks waiting to find out what I decided to do about the bike issue. New ride? Or replace £200 worth of bits on the Condor, only to have it go wrong again two months down the line?

In the end, I went for the former option. Meet Evelyn:

It just made sense. Condor quoted me £170+ to replace my forks, headset, brake and handlebars. (Not that I’d have got them to do it, but y’know.) So I got in touch with a friend, who sold me her old frame, along with forks, headset, bottom bracket and clip-n-flip bars, for £85. Chain and brake lever were £20. Stem, brake and bar tape came to £45. (All from Brixton Cycles.) I used the front wheel from the Condor, and the rear wheel from my beloved Surly Steamroller (2007-08, RIP). Seatpost and crankset were from the Surly; saddle and pedals swapped over from the Condor.

So, that’s effectively a completely new bike for less than it would have cost to repair the old one. Well, sort of.

What’s more, it’s the first bike I’ve built up all on my own. I’m feeling slightly proud of myself, but no more than slightly, because it turns out it’s actually quite easy to put a bike together when there aren’t any complicated bits like gears to worry about. You just have to know where everything goes, and how tight you’re supposed to screw it. (I’m going to learn to build wheels next though – now there’s a challenge.)

(I still felt dreadfully embarrassed asking all my stupid questions in Brixton Cycles though, when I went in to pick up the bits I’d forgotten, and had to admit I didn’t know how to use a torque wrench in front of all stony-faced men queuing up behind me. But then on my way out I came across the same stony-faced men asking each other how to use the track pump, and realized that they were probably far more embarrassed than I was. And decided that I’m just not going to bother being embarrassed in future. The only way to learn is by asking stupid questions, fucking things up, and then trying again and getting it right. And in fact, Lincoln may or may not remember my dropping in on my very first ride on my Dawes Giro, back in 2006, and asking him to explain how to change gear. Oh, how far I’ve come already!)

So. It looks like the Condor’s no longer with us. To my surprise, I think I’ll miss it. It’s been nearly three years. I never liked it much, but we’ve been through a lot together.

Here we go again…

February 7, 2011

I went to see a framebuilder the other day. (Well, it’s been almost a year since I had a new bike, and there’s a Big New Adventure in the pipeline.)

He took all sorts of measurements and photographs, and then we disassembled the Condor, to try me out in different riding positions, and see which set-up would work best. And in doing so, we discovered that:

1. My headset is on its way out, after less than a year.

2. My forks are also on their way out, after less than two years. The steering tube’s coming apart from the crown, which means at some point, when I least want them to, they’ll break (followed closely by my front teeth).

3. My front brake caliper has totally jammed. (Which means I’ve been riding round brakeless for the past few weeks – something I didn’t actually think I was capable of.)

4. My handlebars are bent (I haven’t got round to replacing them since I got knocked off in New York last year), and will probably snap at some point, in all likelihood when I’m putting the most power in, i.e. hammering it along Euston Road or the Highway. (Almost every mechanic who’s looked at my bike in the past year has told me this, and I’ve smiled and nodded and …done nothing.)

So what does this mean? It means the Condor is still trying to kill me. It means I’d be a fool to ride it till it’s fixed (I rode it home, and then out to Rotherhithe later that evening, so it looks like I’m a fool). It means the whole front end of the bike needs to be replaced. It means I won’t get much change from £200, which is what I originally spent on the bike itself. (Don’t ask me how much I’ve spent on it since then. I’d rather not think about it. And don’t ask me how this sum compares to what I’ll earn this week.)

It means I have to decide whether it’s really worth wasting any more money on this murderous, ugly, knackered, rusty pile of junk, or whether I should just cut my losses and get (another) new bike.

What do you think?

A toast to Graeme Obree

February 2, 2011

You probably haven’t heard of Graeme Obree, and this is one of sport’s greatest injustices. He’s a former cycle courier from Scotland, who broke the hour record twice in the early nineties, as an amateur, riding a bike he’d designed and built himself, without any support from coaches, doctors or drugs. It’s an almost unthinkable achievement.

I first discovered Obree when I saw the film The Flying Scotsman (it’s superb – go and watch it), which also shows his ongoing struggle with clinical depression, which has led to two suicide attempts and an eventual diagnosis with bipolar disorder. He’s one of my heroes, and I’ve always considered it particularly cruel that someone so brilliant and unique should also be so troubled.

Yesterday he revealed (in an interview with the Scottish Sun, to which I can’t find a link) that he’s gay, and that it was a decades-long effort to suppress this that lay behind his suicide attempts. He wasn’t even able to acknowledge it to himself until a conversation with his psychologist in 2005, by which time he was married, and had fathered two children.

I’m finding it hard to explain why this news had made me so emotional (wonderfully happy; at the same time close to tears), possibly because I don’t really know myself. Perhaps it’s because I’ve had similar enough experiences to Obree that I really can sympathize. Perhaps it’s because this gives me the perfect rebuttal to the nasty little kettle of homophobia that’s been bubbling away in the tabloids for the past week or two.

In case you don’t keep up with these things, the Daily Mail, the Daily Express et al are up in arms about plans to ‘bombard’ poor innocent children ‘as young as four’ with homosexual references in their maths, geography and science lessons. The charmless Melanie Phillips claims that “just about everything in Britain is now run according to the gay agenda”, and that this is “an abuse of childhood” and an “attempt to brainwash children with propaganda under the camouflage of education”.

Honestly. I thought we got rid of views like that along with Section 28. Of course schools should talk about homosexuality.

Graeme Obree’s the perfect example of why.

Obree was born in 1965, to a post-war generation for whom “being homosexual was so unthinkable you just wouldn’t be gay.” He was brought up “thinking you’d be better dead than gay”, and internalized these attitudes, becoming “the biggest homophobe on the planet”. He believes this is what led to his years of denial and depression, not to mention two suicide attempts. When he finally came to terms with his sexuality he had to break the news to his wife – from whom he is now divorced – and his children, which must have been almost unimaginably difficult for all of them. If Obree had been raised in a society where homosexuality was normal and boring, no big deal, even talked about in schools now and again, just imagine how different – and how much happier – his life would have been.

Forget all the right-wing anxiety about “teaching children to be gay”. As the ever-excellent Johann Hari points out, “You can no more teach a child homosexuality than you can lefthandedness”. Furthermore, we are bombarded with heterosexuality from every direction. Almost all of our parents and teachers are heterosexual, as are all the Disney characters, the Queen, the Prime Minister, Father Christmas and the woman in the Persil advert. If a child is straight, they’re given every opportunity and encouragement to realize this fact, even if they do have a gay parent or a gay teacher, or are read a book about gay penguins at story time. And if someone did try to convince a straight child they were gay, it would only be so long before that child caught wind of the Royal Wedding, or watched Love, Actually, and thought “no, hang on, that’s what I want to be!”

Why aren’t the Daily Mail lot equally worried about gay children being ‘taught’ to be straight? Statistically, at least one child in every class will be gay – but how is she supposed to realize this if she has absolutely no role models or reference points? Sure, she might work out that she’s a bit different. She might even admit to herself that she fancies girls instead of boys. But it would take impossible amounts of confidence and self-knowledge to put a name to this in a world where being gay is either unheardof, or overtly condemned. Most children won’t have this confidence and self-knowledge. Graeme Obree didn’t. Neither did I.

My own coming out process was a walk in the park compared to Obree’s, and I was also lucky enough not to get beaten up, lose my job, or be disowned by my family, as has happened to several people I know. But I still had to go through several years of awful and uncharacteristic depression as I worked it all out and, like Obree, didn’t even realize I was gay until I was safely free of the homophobic environment of my 1990s secondary schools.

If I had been born 10 or 20 years earlier, it’s very likely I would have ended up someone’s wife and mother before society loosened up enough for me to come out. And if I’d been born 10 years later – well, I might be like one of the happy, secure and well-adjusted gay teenagers that my brother goes to school with. You didn’t get any of those in my day.

A big reason I didn’t come out (to myself) much earlier was that there was simply no precedent for it. I’d never knowingly met a gay person, and had a vague, butch, stereotype of lesbians in mind, which I found both repulsive and frightening. And gay men were just the camp queeny types you saw on the telly. I have no doubt that if I had had a couple of gay teachers, gay family friends, gay work colleagues, and a school curriculum that treated homosexuality as normal, and fairly common, I would have come out at about 14, and not had to go through all those years of feeling miserable, and wishing I was dead, and messing my poor boyfriends around because I didn’t really want to be dating them.

Nor do I have any doubt that Graeme Obree’s life would have been a bit happier if he had had a few decent gay role models. Instead, it seems he’s destined to become one himself. And this, I think, is the key. How do we stop the next generation of gay children having the same miserable experiences we did?

Well, if we’re gay, we come out. All of us. Every last one of us. And then we shut up and get on with our lives. And show them that gay people aren’t some hideous menace intent on corrupting innocent youth; they’re actually teachers and dentists and footballers and train drivers and parents and politicians and farmers and police officers and cleaners and investment bankers and soldiers and taxi drivers and architects and builders and boring people who work in admin. And even cycle couriers.

And if you’re straight? Stop being afraid to mention it, whether it’s to your children, your colleagues, or the bloke at the bus stop. If your son or brother or ex-husband has a boyfriend, don’t skirt around the issue when talking to your friends. You may not be gay, and they may not be gay, but the bloke at the next table is, and overhearing you talking about men with boyfriends like it’s no big deal will be one of the little things that eventually embolden him to come out, find his own boyfriend, and be happy.

And thank you. Thank you for all you’ve already done to make the world a better and better place, so that Graeme Obree could finally come out at 45, and I could come out at 20, and the next generation maybe won’t need to come out at all. Let’s all keep up the good work.

And let’s raise a heartfelt toast to Graeme Obree. I hope he now enjoys the long and happy life he so very much deserves.


February 1, 2011

I submitted my tax return the other day. Yes yes, you can stop clapping. And at some point I will stop bragging and boasting and feeling ridiculously proud of myself.

I think it’s because I honestly didn’t think I’d get it in on time, and assumed that I’d be among the miserable people who ignore it right up to the last minute and beyond – and now here I am, suddenly one of those smug bastards who got it in before the deadline. In the space of a few hours I metamorphosed from an incorrigible waster into an efficient, proactive adult. I’m not sure I like it.

But even though I now feel like a massive black cloud has lifted, and I can see the world in colour again, doing my tax return was still a rather depressing experience. For one thing I had to go through my bank statements and work out exactly how much I earned last year. Not much, in case you were wondering. And then I had to add up all the money I’d spent on new tyres and inner tubes and brake pads and bar tape and chains and pedals and cranks and forks and wheels and …well, you get the picture. And then there was the small matter of those £200+ Sidis. And the four-figure sum I spent on the Salsa. And when I subtracted this (my expenses) from what I’d earned, the final figure (my profits) was really embarrassingly, pathetically, frighteningly little. And I still had to pay tax on it.

One thing I noticed though, looking through my bank statements, is that they look a bit like this:

Brixton Cycles
Brixton Cycles

This demonstrates two facts: 1.) I am not a fan of Tesco; 2.) Almost all of my non-bike expenditure is on food.

But of course. My job means I have to eat twice, possibly three times as much as an average person. (If you don’t believe me, I’ll photograph everything I eat for a day and post it here. I might do this anyway.) Which, I suppose, means that I must spend twice as much as them too. I did once start saving up all my food receipts, out of curiosity, but when it came to the crunch, I was too scared to add them all up.

So surely food (i.e. fuel) should could as a business expense? According to this chap, “Canadian law allows couriers to deduct … up to $10 per day in food expenses”. I don’t know what the state of play is here in the UK, and I’m not currently inclined to start digging through the HMRC website to find out. Maybe I will in time for next year.

But how would I calculate my food expenses, if I did?

Perhaps work out how much more I spend on food than the average person? But then, if the ‘average’ person buys her lunch in Pret every day, and gets her groceries in Waitrose, she probably spends more than me anyway.

So perhaps it would be better to work out how many more calories I eat than the average person? Say the average woman is meant to consume c. 2000 calories per day. And say I consume c. 5000. That means I should be able to claim 60% of my Sainsbury’s bill as work expenses. But what if I’m eating more than I actually need to? Heaven forbid I should write off my ‘recreational’ eating as a business expense!

So, as my friend Jen suggested, by far the most sensible solution would be to calculate how many more calories I burn than the average person. She’s even offered to lend me a heart rate monitor. And then I just have to work out how much money I spend on food per calorie consumed. This could get very complicated. I probably won’t bother.

But one useful and enlightening thing that did come out of our conversation, is that I’ve started even more consciously to consider food in terms of calories per penny. For example, if I find myself hungry on Curzon Street, I could go to Lola’s, and buy of these, which contains about 300 calories, and will set me back £2.50.

Or I could go to Tesco and get a packet of these, which costs 40p, and contains 2000 calories.

I think this will be my new nutrition strategy.