Connecting the city - the essence of a London cycle courier
15.05.11 by Emily Chappell
If you ask a cycle courier what they like best about the job, most of them will say something about the freedom, and about how they love being outside in the fresh air all day. I say that myself too, but always with an uneasy feeling at the back of my mind that we’re not really free (after all, we don’t get to choose which packages we pick up, or where we deliver them), and the air in central London isn’t really all that fresh, is it?
Like the smallholder who gives up her accountancy job for self-sufficiency in a leaky croft, or the adventurer who takes off for the mountains with only a tent and a backpack, we have a certain smugness about having escaped from the dreary world of 9-5 office jobs, having to iron a shirt every morning and deal with performance targets, annual appraisals, and our boss’s halitosis. But really we all know we’re just as much part of the system as anyone else. You sit in your office and draft the contract; I’m the one who picks it up from your receptionist and takes it to the other end of town to be signed. A different cog in the same machine.
I’ve been a courier for three years now, and I still love it, and look forward to going to work every day. The novelty of the desk job wore off after the first week. And somehow I still do feel a freedom I never did when I was hurrying from the tube station to be at my desk by 8.30.
A cycle courier is part of the system, yes, but perhaps rather than being a cog in the machine, or even any of its components, she’s best described as the oil that keeps it moving, or even the electricity that sets it in motion in the first place. One of the most exciting parts of my job is learning how the city works. I carry legal files from City law firms to tiny winding staircases in the Inner Temple. I rush planning applications between architects, law firms and council offices. I pick up designer shoes from press offices and deliver them to photoshoots. I ferry tapes from post-production companies to TV channels. I do mail runs between different advertising companies, and discover they’re actually all part of the same parent company.
And I know how London’s roads and streets and lanes and alleys and parks and squares work, in intimate detail. I can plot a route between one address and another in seconds flat, taking into account one-way systems, roadworks, traffic jams, and anything else likely to hold me up. (Don’t ride past Buckingham Palace when they’re changing the guard, for example.) I can read the traffic the way a good surfer reads the waves. I know when it’s safe to plunge through a closing gap the width of my bars, and when to keep my distance. I know whether I need to sprint to overtake a bus, or tuck in behind it for speed, or hug the side of it for safety. I can tell, within a split second of seeing them, whether a pedestrian’s going to dart out into the road or stay safely on the pavement.
I get to see things no one else does – the loading bay underneath the Gherkin, the postroom with its reinforced glass window, where the package I deliver will be signed for, sorted into a pigeonhole, and eventually delivered to the desk of the addressee, who will have no idea of its journey across town, tucked in next to my sandwiches, or of its voyage up from the bowels of the building along with the rest of the day’s mail. I share goods elevators with builders, electricians, cleaners, clerks, waiting staff, security guards and window cleaners hung all over with abseiling equipment. It wasn’t until I did this job that I appreciated just how many people it takes to keep a city ticking over.
True, I can’t claim that working as a cycle courier gets me ‘back to nature’. But it has taught me a lot about life. Never before have I been so keenly aware of our interconnectedness – of how the world we live in is made up of so many different people and systems and journeys, all overlapping and clashing and converging and flowing along together.
In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig notes his travel companions’ hostility to technology – be it a dripping tap or a flooded engine – as “something undefined, but inhuman, mechanical, lifeless, a blind monster, a death force.” The “dehumanized world” of “valves and shafts and wrenches” is one they would rather avoid, even if it means being stranded miles from anywhere when their motorcycle breaks down. These are the people who want to downsize, to live off the land, to get back to nature.
Pirsig disagrees with them, and sees their flight from technology as “self-defeating.”
The Buddha, the Godhead, resides quite as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a cycle transmission as he does at the top of a mountain or in the petals of a flower. To think otherwise is to demean the Buddha – which is to demean oneself.
And really, when you think about it, isn’t it faintly ridiculous to reject so much of life in the search for meaning? True, you’ll come across a lot of inhumanity as you negotiate the labyrinthine HR regulations of a big company to book your annual leave, or spend ten minutes riding across town with a package and then 30 minutes arguing with security guards and waiting for goods elevators in order to get to the 20th floor to deliver it. But still, the city, with all its complexity and confusion, is a product of humanity. And we are part of it, whether we like it or not, no matter how much we yearn for the false purity of ‘nature’. The city is real; nature is often a fantasy.
You’ll discover no more about human life sitting in a yurt on a mountainside than you will studying it in a library or legislating it from your office. You need to get involved, get your hands dirty, let your guard down and let all the messiness in. The complex flow of the traffic is no different from that of a shoal of fish or a river in full flood. You can hide from it, or sit and watching as it passes by, but you’ll learn a lot more if you plunge into the thick of it.
[This article originally appeared on http://www.slowquest.co.uk/.]