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Losing a parcel
3.08.06 by Buffalo Bill

Losing a parcel is something that happens to every messenger, sooner or later. Even to Andy Capp. One night in ’95, Andy, Boris and myself were blah-blah-ing about the job. Bikes we had ridden, short-cuts we had taken, fights we had fought, dockets we had earned.

The conversation turned to lost parcels. I mentioned that I had lost at least 3. Boris owned up to, oh, more than he could remember, in his off-hand, I’m-so-cool, I’m-not-even-cool-anymore, way.

“What?!!” Andy paused for effect. “I have never lost a parcel ever.”

Oh yeah, of course, I thought, Mr F&cking Perfect Messenger, of course you haven’t lost a parcel ever.


And I started to think of all the parcels that had been lost at companies that I had worked for. When you become a controller, the first time that one of your riders loses a parcel, you panic. What should you do? How are you going to tell your client? What will their reaction be? Of course, it’s straight-forward. As soon as it happens, you tell the rider (who is probably shaken up), not to worry, that it happens all the time. Then you ask them where they were, the last time that they can remember having the parcel and get them to retrace their steps. And sometimes they find the parcel. Left in the toilet, left on the Steps, still on the client’s desk, delivered with another parcel to the wrong place.

In the meantime, you phone the client, tell them what has happened, explain what you are doing to rectify the situation, and ask them what was in the parcel, is it valuable or irreplaceable? 98 times out of 100, it turns out to be replaceable, merely a question of running off another copy. A free bike provided to take the replacement to destination and the whole thing is forgotten as soon as the replacement is delivered.

But sometimes…

I was working as a pedal-bike controller at Security Despatch early in 93. SD had a split personality in those days. I was part of the On Yer Bike crew, the doyenne of pedal-bike companies, the original. We were all ‘individuals’ and our flair was part of the attraction to the clients in the early days. Then we were bought by venture capitalists. Despatch Services Development Capital, they were called. We were their first acquisition. After 18 or so months they moved us from our shabby boho nest in Shepherd’s Market to a characterless open-plan rectangle on the Clerkenwell Road (which is how SD pedal-bikes discovered and colonised the Duke, but that’s another story). And bought Security Despatch. SD was the opposite of OYB. For a start, they didn’t have pedal-bikes. Second, they were very conservative, a typical motor-cycle company. Of the 3 controllers, 2 were Blue Book boys, that is they had taken and passed the Knowledge. They were cabbies, in other words.

There was a clash of cultures. The OYB motor-bikes had always been an after-thought, an add-on. The pedal-bikes were the selling point of the company. Here, the motor-bikes were at the top.

We used nicknames for radio call-signs, they used numbers. They called us, the OYB pedal-bikes, “bone through the nosers”. We called them “ignorant w7nkers”.

They had some tasty city-side clients that pumped out separate docket runs that stayed local, and some of their motor-bikes stayed in the EC post-codes all day. To us, this was pedal-bike work, not motor-bike work. But we couldn’t get near it. These clients, so we were told, “didn’t take ‘pushies’”. I hated being called a ‘pushie’. Hated it. I don’t even like being referred to as a push-bike. The only people that push their bikes are motor-bike riders that have broken down.

But it was clear where the management wanted to take the company. They folded OYB into SD and the two companies traded collectively as Security Despatch. The managing director, James Greenbury (now boss of Special Mail Services), wanted the control room to look ‘like a bank’. The OYB spirit was gone. The only thing that remained was the call-signs. And, to this day, the City Sprint pedal-bike circuits, which is what SD eventually became, still use names as call-signs.

There were shouting matches bordering on fisticuffs in the control-room all the time. It’s not unusual for riders and controllers to get involved in shouting matches. The difference here that it was the controllers fighting each other. It was us against them, Jools, Daisy or me taking on Ray or Paul Hutch, normally with Bill Butler refereeing.

This tension was given a new twist one day when an SD motor-bike rider got to one of SD’s bigger clients by London Bridge to deliver a parcel that he had picked up in Hammersmith. And found that he had lost it. It’s a long way from Hammersmith to London Bridge, and while he was re-tracing his steps, the call was made to the client, a very big asset management company whose name I won’t mention because I don’t want to get sued. ‘Was it something replaceable?’ No, it most definitely wasn’t. A Certificate of Deposit for around £10 million. Like a Bearer Bond, a CD is negotiable, which means that, in theory, it represents cash. And cannot be replaced. It belonged to one of their clients, which was one of the big supermarket chains. And if it wasn’t found, our client would sue us for the loss, and put SD out of business. It occurs to me now that the client should have at least told SD when the job was booked what the item was, and that it was equivalent to cash. But no matter.

Panic. James was told, and the instruction from him was to direct as many mobiles as we could to the path that the motor-bike had taken from Hammersmith to London Bridge. And search for the envelope. I think I sent 2 or 3 guys initially, and Jools probably sent the same off his circuit. James was walking up and down the control-room, not saying anything, not able to do anything, but nonetheless agitated. £10 million! SD wasn’t worth a tenth of that, not then. It would be curtains for SD, and probably the end of his career in business. He walked up and down, up and down. Time passed. We sent more bikes.

I was secretly delighted that a motor-bike had f&cked up, and couldn’t help smirking as I gave out the instructions to the riders. ‘A motor-bike has lost a very very important parcel, and we have to try and find it for him.’

All along the Embankment, from Westminster Bridge to London Bridge, they searched. Birdcage Walk, Constitution Hill, Knightsbridge, Brompton Road and I guess the motorbikes must have been covering Cromwell Road down to Hammersmith.

And James paced up and down, up and down, wordless.

I think I must have sent nearly half of my circuit on the errand. Not on a docket, from what I remember, the riders did it for nothing. SD style.

Lambsie found it in the end. It was lying under Blackfriars Bridge, not 3 metres from the bench were all the winos used to sit. £10 million. And that was how the SD motor-bike department learned to love their pedal-bikes. Ignorant w7nkers.

And Andy Capp? The very next day, he lost a camera lense worth £750. Didn’t get sued, but he did eat a little humble pie.

  1. Hello , I’m one of the motorcyclists that you are slagging. I worked for On Yer Bike when SD took over. Milky (Paul) was my controller. I was given the call sign Alpha 55, I didn’t choose it.
    I had a driving licence, road tax,insurance, personal liability insurance and I paid my taxes. It is hardly surprising therefore that a corporate client would be reluctant to trust anything to a superannuated hippy who could disappear at any time.

    — Adrian Wyborn    28 September 2011, 18:38    #
  2. Licence, road tax (actually, it’s Vehicle Excise Duty, not a tax on road use), insurance & this guy still managed to lose the £10 million.

    — Bill    29 September 2011, 10:07    #
  3. I joined SD with the cars/vans, had great fun there and remember the controller fights. The motor-bikers thought they were hard but the pedle bikers had character and were so down to earth. Great to hear that you are still going strong.

    — Alvin Spencer    16 March 2012, 08:45    #
  4. fantastic story!

    — Apollo    5 June 2013, 14:38    #
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