Messenger heroes, number 6 - Emily Chappell
14.03.13 by Dazzler
I’d met Emily some time ago now in the post-fakenger years around the time the term bakenger was first coined. Courier appreciation day was being celebrated in London and riders were being waved in and tempted off the street for some feel-good solidarity hugs by the offer of free coffee and cakes.
To complement the huge piles of flapjacks that had been donated by plenty kitchen-busy couriers that day, Emily arrived with arms full of rich, home-cooked chocolate cake and some other exotic, carefully prepared puddings that turned the otherwise pedestrian offerings on show that day into something else completely. Just goes to show how the application of a little specialist knowledge, a modicum of effort and some close attention to the details makes all the difference.
And so it is with Emily’s writing. As readers of Moving Target over the years will no doubt agree, If there’s one thing that can make couriering in London infinitely more interesting then that’s reading about couriering in London, especially when it’s written by someone lucid, conscientious and sane and who cares enough to try and string a couple of sentences together – but enough about Bill.
Emily will very possibly deny this but in her That Messenger Chick blog she kept up to record the three years she worked on circuit, she managed to pretty much capture first-hand the essence of the experience of what it is to work as a bike messenger in London. You could start here if you missed it…
But anyone who was following the messenger blog will know that it was the precursor to much, much bigger things. A bigger blog and a bigger challenge. So it was fantastic to see Emily fit and well when I managed to catch up with her on the South Bank for a natter about the recently completed first half of her amazing solo cycle-round-the-world trip.
I imagined her to be waif-like and wiry after months of sweating it out climbing numerous mountain passes and across barren deserts but she was stocky, sturdy and strong. When we arrived after a short walk to Oak Cycles and I tried to pick up her fully loaded touring bike I could see why superior strength was needed – I could hardly lift it.
A lot of people are obviously interested in what it’s like to be a sole woman travelling through countries like Iran and Pakistan but when meeting people did you find that people reacted to your Britishness in any particular way?
There was no hostility, at all. Sometimes people would ask me if I was American and then when I said I was English they would seem even more interested. I don’t even think there would have been any hostility if I were American. But in Iran, people would always be very interested that I was English because they’re all obsessed with learning English which was an enormous surprise to me because I really thought no one would speak English there because they’re a country that doesn’t like us, but the opposite was the case.
Everybody was desperate to speak English and so that meant I went down a real treat and people were really interested in talking to me. In Pakistan they are still even more anglophile than India. I do have a lot of post-colonial guilt, like ‘I’m sorry we invaded and colonised your country!’ but in both India and Pakistan they seem largely to have gotten over it and happy with certain things they got from the British and they’re very, very proud of their own national identity and those two things can co-exist.
But no hostility?
No, none at all. I once had a stone thrown at me by a boy on the Karakoram highway because I had refused to give him a pen, but that was about it. We are completely wrong about those areas. I really think we are really wrong.
Towards the beginning of your trip I read how you fell in love with the Turkish people, then the Iranian people and then the Pakistanis. How did you find China?
Well China’s an interesting one. For one thing I had no familiarity at all with Chinese culture or language and hadn’t really had much interest with it in the past either which meant it was much more unknown to me. To be honest I had no interest in going there, I only had to go through it because it was in the way basically.
I keep wanting to say I didn’t like China because my feeling is I disliked it but when I think about it more carefully an awful lot of wonderful things happened there and I met as many kind, friendly people there as I did in any other place and I think I got more help in China than anywhere else because I needed more help. It was just a difficult country – because of the language, because of the culture.
It’s funny because in terms of development the Chinese are way ahead in some ways and way behind in others. Coming there from Pakistan, Pakistan is some ways like it’s stuck in the 1970’s. It’s really endearingly kind of shambling, a bit run down and everyone just fixes things with bits of string when they break and that’s great and it’s a really nice place to be and no matter what goes wrong, someone will have some string.
And then I got to China and China has beautiful roads, really, really nice roads, gorgeous tarmac and the electricity doesn’t go off – in Pakistan you get power cuts all the time. So first thing you notice in China is like ‘Wow! Amazing roads! And the power doesn’t go off! And there are women in hot pants, Oh my God!’ Because I’d been in Islamic countries for the last six months or so I was actually quite shocked to see women’s limbs again. It took me a long time to go out of the house without a scarf on my head.
You write in your blog about the ‘spaces in between’ – where you sometimes have no contact with people during the long distances between towns and cities and where you have an incredible amount of time to yourself to think – do you think there is a correlation between your experiences on this trip and those of being a courier where there is also lots of time in the saddle to think?
This was something that someone once pointed out about couriering, that we exist in the margins, we exist in the spaces between the traffic… I think if nothing else, the similarity for me is I’ve had a lot of space and a lot of time in couriering and in touring where I get to think and be myself and come up with ideas – but more than that I think it’s the closest thing I get to meditation, being in motion. I’m sure we’re all familiar with it – at times you’re just floating at your minds own pace and that’s where all the good stuff comes from.
It wasn’t until I started couriering that I really came of age as a writer and felt like I had interesting things to say and became engaged in the world because I had that kind of time. When I was studying I was always actively trying to think about things and argue about things and read and write them and understand them and I never had time to kind of switch everything off and let my brain do its processing. Once you’ve chewed the days thoughts over and woken up the next day and chewed over some more – well, after a couple of weeks of being on that long highway – do you ever run out of things to think of?
When I was riding across the first part of the Taklimakan desert towards Urumqi, I was riding for two weeks and I was suffering; I was tired, I was in the saddle for a long time and was suffering from saddle sores – but I completely ran out of things to think of to distract myself from the pain. So all I could really think about was ‘I wish this would be over – how can I stop my arse hurting!’
It’s a bit like, if you can imagine someone watching TV and constantly changing the channel, I’m always trying to get any thought into my head to take away the pain. But after a couple of weeks on the road, the thoughts that you have are strengthening, but you kind of use them all up, so although I really love all that time, at some point you have to get back into civilisation and talk to people and replenish yourself to give yourself new things to think about.
One of the things I sometimes think about as a courier in relation to having all this time in the saddle to think is that it’s quite indulgent. Do you ever feel like you’re indulging yourself?
There are two answers to that really – the initial answer is, when I was an accountancy academic, I loved it very much and I was very, very comfortable in academia and good at it. I did always have this nagging doubt in the back of my mind that what I was planning to do [cycle round the world] wasn’t going to benefit humankind in any way and wasn’t going to be useful and was just a pure personal indulgence and I was happy to have this indulgence and pursue it if I could justify it in wider terms and I found I couldn’t.
And then when I became a courier, bizarrely, that feeling went away. And during this trip – although it is a complete indulgence in many ways – I do feel sufficiently connected with the world and that I have touched a number of other people’s lives that it’s valid. I have made some difference to people, doing what I’m doing, writing about it and sharing it with people and I have had people tell me, you know, ‘thanks to you I’m now going to…’, which is great.
But I think I could do more in that I’m unhappy with how self-centred this is… If you want to be a professional adventurer, you have to build a cult around your own personality and I’m just not happy with the egotism of doing that. So, I think that what I next do, whatever that is will have to be something that more directly benefits other people and is less about me. Whether that’s in the immediate future or not, we’ll see.
Was it couriering that inspired you to go on your round the world trip?
No, but it was what enabled me. I always wanted to do something like this. When I was a kid I was more aware of it but in my twenties I kind of buried it because I thought it’s what other people do. So falling into couriering and being good at it and being able to do it well made me realise I was capable and it gave me enough faith in my own ability to be able to try. Actually I should give more credit to couriering – the glorious sense of power and capability that you have when you are the fastest thing on the road and you are the most agile thing out there, riding in and out of the traffic and you’ve got really good at it because you’ve been doing it for years – it’s that I think that empowered me to do this.
Don’t you sometimes wish you had someone on the radio telling you where to go and making all your decisions for you?
God, yes. I hadn’t thought about it actually but I had breakfast with my old controller who I’m friends with the other day – his voice is obviously so very familiar because that voice was constantly in my ear for three years so it’s become part of my background psychological make-up now. I did sometimes – only sometimes, used to think that I used to cycle with a voice there and that I didn’t anymore but now I think of it, it would have been very nice. Yes, like I have no fucking clue how to get out of Taiwan, please tell me.
Keep going, Rog.
When I got to Tokyo it was the first time I’d seen cycle couriers for over a year and I actually had tears in my eyes. Seeing a courier stopped on a bike on a corner just talking into the radio… It’s like in London when you spot the shape, the bag, the bike, the radio and you think ‘Oh, someone I know’ and they are someone you know, even if you don’t know them. And I had that, you know, ‘you’re a courier, I’m a courier’ moment. But also, I know what it feels like to be that person on that bike, with that bag. You know, how many hundreds of times a week do you squeeze your button and call in on the radio? Doing that motion is so familiar from the inside and the outside and I hadn’t had that for so long.
Last time I interviewed you I asked you what you would do if you weren’t a courier and you said you’d be a fat mortgage slave wishing you were a courier. So in a variation of ‘what will you do when you finally get back?’ Where do you see yourself in ten years?
Well I’ve put on weight since I’ve been away so I might be fat… This all comes open to assault and I’m prepared to take all of this back – I don’t know what’s going to happen. Because I know how much a person can change, any plans or ambitions I have, I have to think, well, it might not happen; I might change my mind. With that caveat, I think I will come back to London because having come back I’ve realised that this is home.
Although I will always go to other places – I realise that there is so much of the world that I still haven’t seen and really must – and so much of the world that I want to go back to and see again. I will probably be making more money out of writing and writing more and writing better. I will hopefully have written a book – I doubt it will sell well but I’ll be proud of it. I would be less proud of it if it sold well, because I’m like that…
Do you feel like you are writing a book, then?
I’ve always wanted to write a book but I don’t know about what. When I was writing the courier blog everyone said I should turn it into a book and I said ‘No, no, no! I refuse to profit from someone else’s community and experiences, so I refuse.’ I’m not going to write the courier book. And now I’m saying ‘I don’t want to write the round-the-world’ book because everyone does! I’ve got all kinds of very good reasons as to why I don’t want to write this book and erm… at some point I am going to have to write a fucking book.
So a book is coming?
What would decide it is if some publisher says ‘Heh, we will give you this money to write the book.’ And not really for the money but that would be a sign that it was taken seriously. It would be more the fact that someone cared enough to put the money behind it. Or even if someone said ‘We’re not going to give you money but we’d like to publish it because we think it would sell well.’ But it would be very hard to write a book. It’s a difficult area to write in because there are so many books about this… It would be hard to be original.
It’s funny because you sometimes come across more of a writer than a cyclist.
Well, it’s very difficult to write about a simple, repetitive motion. I mean if I were to make the writing really accurate I would probably write something like ‘left pedal, right pedal, left pedal, right pedal’ for about 50 lines to give you an idea of what it’s like; it’s hard to write about but I do try. It’s hard to give it the central position it needs – but the reason I’m doing this among the many reasons is that I really love cycling. I really love being on my bike on the road. And more than just I love it, it makes me happy. If I’m sad and I go out on my bike it makes me happy. If everything’s going wrong and I’m stressed then being on the bike sorts me out. It always feels like the right thing to be doing.
My life is at its best when I’m cycling.
Follow Emily’s blog here.
Stuff that Emily has written for Moving Target: