Archive for June, 2011
I’ve been interviewed for a documentary about female messengers recently, and I have mixed feelings about this. My main reservation about messenger documentaries is that they tend to depict messengers as dangerous, sexy and very very fast – because of course, this makes great television. What they tend to miss out is the other half of the job – the slow, boring, unsexy side of it. The stupid mistakes we all make, the tedious hours spent waiting for goods lifts and arguing with security guards, the horrible days where you haven’t had enough sleep and crawl along into a headwind, with bits of plane tree blowing into your eyes. The punctures and blisters and hangovers. Yes, some days we feel like superheroes. But there are many other days when we just feel like losers.
So I’ve been trying to emphasize to the documentary makers that there are two sides to the job. There are those wonderful days when it all comes together – but there are also the days when it all falls apart.
Today was such a day.
It’s been horribly, stickily, sweatily hot for the past couple of days, which means work is far more exhausting than usual, and I’m more prone to spots and saddlesore and bad smells. I finished yesterday dizzy and headachy and covered in sweat – and then went and played on the velodrome until 9pm. This made me even more knackered, and meant I didn’t get anywhere near enough sleep, so as I left the house this morning my skin had that sweaty itchy feeling (only exacerbated by the temperature of the air) and my legs felt weak and sluggish as I struggled through the 25-minute ride into Vauxhall.
The bike felt weak and sluggish too, and over the course of the journey I noticed that
- the chain had somehow come loose (unexpected, as my stupid Goldtec hubs are wedged so tightly into the drop-outs that normally I can’t get the wheel to move even when I want it to)
- the back wheel was ridiculous out of true and several of the spokes were so loose they rattled (having been tightened by several mechanics over the past few months, all of whom tell me that it needs to be rebuilt, otherwise it’ll just keep on losing its true)
- my right-hand cleat had come loose
- my tyres had suddenly gone all squashy
The latter was fairly easily remedied, as was the penultimate, although it did involve a few minutes of swearing over a multitool as I attempted to pick out all the little bits of rock that had wedged themselves into the screw heads. And I can’t work out why the cleat suddenly came loose, after all these months.
The chain and the wonky wheel waited until I was safely (and lengthily) ensconced on Broadwick Street. I’ve only recently learned how to true wheels, and still don’t entirely trust my own ability, particularly because I’ve been informed by those who claim to know that wheelbuilding is more of an art than a science, and involves skill, talent and sensitivity that I almost certainly don’t possess. But I think I made a reasonable job of it. It’s by no means perfectly true, but it no longer actually ripples as you spin it, and it’s a lot nicer to ride on.
To my surprise, and not inconsiderable delight, very little has gone wrong with Evelyn since I built him. Today was clearly the day he got his own back.
Later on that morning, I was legging it down Kingsway and my brake cable snapped. This has never happened to me before, and it was a little disconcerting.
And I couldn’t be bothered to go to a shop and fix it, so I just went brakeless for the rest of the day. It’s amazing the extent to which my cycling habits are dictated by laziness. People often point out that one of the advantages of riding fixed is that there are far fewer components to go wrong. Absolutely. Ideal for laissez-faire bike mechanics such as myself. The trouble is, because there are no superfluous components, when something does go wrong, it tends to be something fairly vital. You can do without a mudguard or a few of the chainrings on your road bike. You can’t do without your front wheel, or your drive side crank. But it appears you can do without a brake.
I’ve considered going brakeless in the past, but never actually done so. Actually, this is also down to laziness. When I use my brake, it’s because I can’t be bothered to exert the muscles in my legs. But I’m also a bit scared that I’m just not capable of controlling the bike without it.
To make matters worse, at this point the storm that had been brewing for the past 24 hours finally broke, and I found myself riding along Lower Thames Street, through heavy traffic, with no brake, in torrential rain. It really was one of those days.
Except the rain was actually rather nice. It cleared the air, cooled me down and washed the stickiness off my skin. And it meant that most of the pedestrians and civilian cyclists buggered off and let me have the road to myself. And to my surprise riding brakeless wasn’t nearly as scary as I thought it would be. I had half-thought I might have to admit defeat and make an unscheduled stop at a bike shop. Now I began to wonder whether I should actually just forget about brakes altogether in future. It would be another steep learning curve though. I noticed I was far less confident on the bike without brakes, and took fewer risks, and didn’t throw myself around quite so much.
I was passing Brixton Cycles on my way home, so I stopped and bought a new brake cable and fitted it then and there. Being as I’m such a lazy mechanic, completing a simple task like this gave me a massive surge of achievement and capability. And this joined the surge of achievement and capability I was already experiencing as a result of riding around brakeless all afternoon. I began to feel less like a loser, and more like a superhero. The day had turned around. By now I’d got my second wind (finally), and the strength had started to seep back into my legs. My skin felt clean and fresh and alive after the rain. With my brake reconnected I rode home swiftly and flamboyantly, fully in control of the bike and the road again, screeching in and out of the traffic just as I always have.
And I didn’t touch the brake once. It’s clearly only a placebo.
I’m back on the road. Thank god.
Back to legitimate binge eating.
And back to feeling like I’m part of the world again.
Working from home is a funny business. If you’re not careful, you can go the whole day without any human contact whatsoever, or at least without exercising your vocal chords. But then again, as I’ve been discussing with various people, working on the road doesn’t always give you all that much human contact either. Couriering is essentially a solitary occupation, punctuated by brief and repetitive encounters with receptionists and security guards.
“Am I in the right place with this?”
“Whereabouts is your postroom please?”
“And what’s your name?”
“How do I spell that?”
“Just sign in the box please.”
The difference is in your presence. You’re right there, in the middle of whatever’s going on. You’re not reading about it, or studying it, or looking out of the window at it. You’re part of it. You’re in amongst it. You may not be directly engaging with it, but if you wanted to, you could.
One day last December the magistrate’s court on Horseferry Road was surrounded by so many press photographers and satellite vans that I could barely get my bike through the crowd. I wondered what was going on, but not for longer than a couple of minutes, because as soon as I got to 89 Albert Embankment (my next pick-up), the big Sky News screens in the reception were showing exactly the same scene, and informed me that Julian Assange was being refused bail. Aha.
But of course, I don’t have my finger so much on the pulse that I don’t sometimes entirely miss something. On Tuesday a TV screen in a reception on Noel Street informed me that one of the buildings on Aldwych was on fire. I didn’t get any work going that way for the rest of the day, and had it not been for BBC news, I’d have had no idea.
Still, I’d noticed the traffic was a bit crazier than usual, and wondered whether something might be going on somewhere, and hoping it wasn’t another cyclist being hit by a lorry. A couple of years ago I was sitting in Cavendish Square when a warning came over the radio to avoid Oxford Street, because a pedestrian had been hit by a bus, and right at that moment I heard a helicopter above me, and looked up to see the air ambulance descending. Everyone else in the square noticed it the same moment, and legged it hilariously to the sidelines to watch the helicopter land right there on the grass, and the paramedics jump out and rush towards the site of the collision. And within minutes the traffic along all the neighbouring streets was gridlocked. It sometimes only takes one blockage to snarl up the whole of the West End.
I don’t just hear about these things on the news – I notice their effects on the street. They make a difference to my day, however tangentially. If I were still sitting at my desk writing about things I have no interest in, I’d hear about what was going on from the news, or from my friends, but it wouldn’t make anywhere near as much of an impression on me.
Here’s another example of how your presence in it immeasurably enriches your perception of the world.
I’m reading Edmund White’s The Farewell Symphony. I like reading books about places I’ve visited. I like it even better when I get to read them in the actual location where they were set or written. It lends a corporality to what is usually considered an entirely cerebral experience. This is why I think I’ll always read real books, even though everyone tells me to get a Kindle, and I admit that it would probably lighten my load. I like the physicality of books. I like rummaging my way through them, breaking their spines, turning down their corners and scribbling in their margins. So many of my books have coffee stains that it looks deliberate. Often they’ll take me back to particular coffee shop tables in Cambridge, Delhi and New York. I weave my life into books, leaving bookmarks like clues in a treasure hunt – I love picking up a book after several years and rediscovering old train tickets and receipts and other odds and ends from a long-past, half-forgotten chapter of my life. I like the size and weight and texture of books. I like the way I remember a certain passage just as much by whether it appears recto or verso, or near the top, middle or bottom of the page, as by where in the text it occurs.
As Paul Auster points out, reading and writing have a distinctly corporeal element, at least for some people.
Writing is physical for me. I always have the sense that the words are coming out of my body, not just my mind. I write in longhand, and the pen is scratching the words onto the page. I can even hear the words being written. … Not only do you write books physically, but you read books physically as well. There’s something about the rhythms of language that correspond to the rhythms of our own bodies. An attentive reader is finding meanings in the book that can’t be articulated, finding them in his or her body.
And the physicality goes beyond person, pen and paper. As we sit fingering the pages, the world is taking place around us. A book will mean something different to me if I read it tucked up in bed in the evening than it would if I read it somewhere out in the world. And if I read it in the particular milieu in which it was set, then my appreciation of the text will be heightened by the way in which it echoes – or contrasts or clashes with – what I see and feel around me.
Yesterday this passage from The Farewell Symphony was given a much greater resonance – and a hearty twinge of irony – by the fact that I was actually sitting on a park bench as I read it.
I do wish Edmund White had walked past and seen me.
I nearly won a blogging award last week.
But in the end I was pipped to the post by the excellent Bike Shop Girl.
I’m still happy. I was delighted even to make it into the nominations, and never expected that an amateur blog like mine would stand any chance against some of the big names I was competing against.
And given that the awards were based on a public vote, I suspect I have a lot of you to thank for my near-success.
So, thank you.