31.08.06 by Buffalo Bill
When I became a cycle courier, around the time that Tofu was 6 years old, the parcels that I carried were cassette tapes, photographs, art-work and documents. Pre-digital, in other words
The client that I visited the most was a small advertising agency in Chenies Street. I can’t remember their name. They specialised in preparing display ads for Fleet Street. Their parcels were A4 card-backed envelopes, marked ‘DO NOT BEND’, and addressed to variously, the Evening Standard, the Daily Telegraph, and diverse regional publications, whose London offices were dotted along both sides of Fleet Street. It was a thrill to deliver to a big newspaper in Fleet Street. My favourite building was the old Associated Newspapers building, home to the Mail and the Standard, black and silver art-deco edific, with friendly uniformed door-men. Associated moved from that building to a faceless clad box in Kensington, and the friendly door-men have been replaced by card operated turnstiles and sullen sub-contractors in synthetic clothes, which echo police uniforms the way the nouveau-riche mansions of Bishop’s Avenue, North Ten echo Buckingham Palace, South West One.
I didn’t trouble my not-so-pretty head trying to work out what it was that I was carrying back then. I only started to become interested at all when I started working at On Yer Bike. One of our clients handled the Bernard Matthews account. Bernard Matthews is an industrial turkey farmer. At the time I wasn’t eating meat, and I refused all work that was addressed to Matthews, much to the consternation of my controller.
Another of OYB’s clients was MLRS. They had an office in Knightsbridge. I can’t remember, but I seem to recall that it was an even numbered building, and therefore stood on the Hyde Park side of the street. The acronym MLRS was short for ‘Multiple Launch Rocket Systems’, and you could find ballistic porn, pictures of penetrating rockets and lustful launchers in their reception area, much like the men’s magazines you find in private dentists’ waiting areas. I flatly refused ever to do any of their work.
Now I can see how futile that was, because one of our other clients, possibly the biggest, was a post-production house which handled commercials traffic, and despatched video tapes of adverts to the TV stations. Almost certainly, I would carried at least one Macdonald’s ad a month, not to mention BP, Coke or any of the transnational corporations you might care to think of. Bicycle messengers are literally the remorseless wheels of filthy commerce. Perhaps there is some merit in the fact that we aren’t emitting carbon dioxide, lead, benzene, nitrogen dioxide and all the rest. But bicycle messengers are as much a part of the system as the policemen that hand out the fixed-penalty notices and tap telephones.
But to me, the parcel was sacrosanct. It was a charge of honour, and though I might take liberties with a parcel, take it many miles away from its rightful direction of travel, delay its delivery unnecessarily for reasons of expediency, pile upon it other parcels, and compress it into the deepest reaches of my bag, I would never interfere with its contents, always make sure that it got to the right destination and get a clear POD for it.
Until SD got the contract for a company that specialized in printing and delivering Stock Exchange announcements. Each time that a listed company made a public announcement, each member of the Stock Exchange had to be informed in writing. A typical run was around 400 deliveries. We OYBers despised the work. We fancied ourselves elite out-riders of the media industry, rushing vital items to directors and editors, tapes for transmission, important stuff. This was grubby postal delivery, common-place and mundane.
We soon realized that it was junk, most of it. Not welcomed by the recipient. A delivery that I made to Forbes Magazine (a journal of the rich, for the rich) London office demonstrated how worthless this stuff was, how unworthy of space in our bags, how little it deserved even half a pedal stroke of effort by our sore and aching legs. Forbes’ London office was located in a small office buried in a large building on Berkeley Square. I knocked on the door, opened it and held out my little stack of envelopes. The only occupant of the office looked up, saw my delivery and rushed over to me. He snatched the envelopes out of my hand, turned and threw them directly in the bin by the door. I was stunned. I closed the door and left the building.
But I still got paid for the delivery.
I mentioned to the other riders what had happened, advising them to spare themselves the effort of trying to deliver to Forbes. Who wants to waste their time delivering something unwanted to someone unwelcoming?
But we still got paid for it.
Collectively, we began to work out which deliveries had to be made, and which could be… ok, I’ll say it: we threw them away. It was a simple matter of opening an envelope addressed to one of the addresses that was known to be unnecessary, either because the recipient was not interested, like the chap at Forbes, or was simply incorrect. If the announcement was that a director’s wife had been taken ill, and that the director would be taking a leave of absence, then you could safely bin almost the whole lot, delivering only to Reuters and the newspapers. If it was something more significant, an announcement of imminent issue of shares, or a profit forecast, or an acquisition, then you ought to deliver it, because it might be missed.
And you wouldn’t get paid for it.
I was more conscientious than most, never really succumbing to temptation of Bin Fever. But some guys gave in whole-heartedly. The worst were a pair of public school-boys called Angus and Cheddar Cheese. I can’t remember what Cheddar Cheese’s real name was. Perhaps it was Julian. They were dissolute and enthusiastic drinkers. They did the night runs. They would collect 50 – 200 drops in the evening and then work through the evening, normally finishing before midnight.
Or so it was thought by management. I am sure that they started off by doing all, or most of the deliveries. And then perhaps one night they met at the Duke of York and started drinking. And maybe opened one or two envelopes. And realized that it was mostly trash, and they need only deliver to the papers, the news agencies and the Stock Exchange itself. They got Bin Fever. And got paid for it.
That’s how it started, I think. I believe that if they had stuck to this regime, checking before binning they might have got away with it. But Bin Fever had them in its grip.
But one night when Angus was the designated night rider, after he had collected his run, he met Cheddar for a quick one in the Duke. I’ll give Angus credit for having at least said to himself that it was a ‘just a quick one’. One pint and then on his way. And then maybe Cheddar offered to get another one in, and then… The Road To Oblivion is sign-posted with the words: ‘just a quick one, then?’
The next day there was some sort of fuss. It probably started with a call from the client demanding a POD for the Reuters delivery. Angus was called. He didn’t have one. He said that Reuters, 85 Fleet Street, the best known news agency in the world, was shut when he made the delivery. Everyone knows that Reuters, 85 Fleet Street, LONDON EC4 never shuts.
He had binned the lot. It was a terminal case of Bin Fever. He was sacked and he didn’t get paid.