When I first commuted across London by bicycle in the early 1990s, cycle couriers were already cool. Daily, I rode through Soho, Covent Garden and Holborn – the heart of their territory. As a young cycling enthusiast new to the metropolis, I watched with awe as these couriers knifed through static traffic, gybed down alleyways and surfed the gaps between buses, often wild-eyed, high on car fumes and the expletives of seething pedestrians.
I desperately wanted to read a book about the “courierhood” then. Wait 25 years and three are printed at almost the same time. Jon Day’s lucid essay Cyclogeography came out last July. The long-distance cyclist and campaigner Julian Sayarer’s Messengers is published this January, as is Emily Chappell’s beautifully written debut.
What Goes Around is the story of the author’s years in the saddle, shifting packages back and forth through the capital’s streets for Pink Express. Chappell is a gifted storyteller. She deftly weaves in a potted history of couriering, from the explosion of the industry in the late 1980s when congestion brought traffic speeds down to a level that made the bicycle viable, through to its gentle decline at the hand of email attachments, file sharing software and electronic signatures. Occasionally prone to romanticising couriers and their battered, stickered, steel track bikes, Chappell does still manage to debunk some of the myths that have accreted over the decades.
There are diverse asides – on how tall buildings are constructed and her love life, for example – which take the reader away from the teeming streets and slow the pace: to use a cycling analogy, they felt like a rim rubbing on the brake. She is particularly sensitive to the solidarity that exists among the unlikely crew of mavericks, artists, economic migrants, PhD students, people between careers and incurable outsiders that make up what she calls the “courier cloud”.
In and out of all this, fine words flow on the simple but profound pleasure of floating through the city on a bicycle – of the “strange sense of stillness”, and “the energy of sheer motion itself”. On the repetitive nature of couriering, she writes: “much of the satisfaction of the job comes from the irrelevance of thought; the joy of watching your body develop its own intelligence; the satisfaction of subordinating reason to instinct”.
Chappell is very good at evoking the intimacy she achieves with London, a city so many find impersonal. She writes with delight about her favourite park benches and hot-air vents, the distinctive smell of certain streets and bridges, the moods of traffic at different times of day and the rarefied air of the stone-flagged quadrangles which she discovers, Alice-like, passing through hidden doors trying to deliver her packages.
After one alarming incident, Chappell describes how the roads, and even the traffic, offered her succour. Going round Marble Arch, she writes: “I was back in familiar waters, flowing along on the currents I knew of old, as contented as a sea otter, asleep on the waves.” Over the months and the miles, she notes how she leaves traces of her sentiments around the city, building up a sort of bespoke, emotional A-Z, so that “the unlikeliest street corners will have some tattered threads of memory fluttering from them like a flag”.
In the end, Chappell’s thirst for knowledge of the city is sated: she heads off to ride a bicycle round the world instead. Before departing, however, she devotes a chapter to the dangers of riding a bicycle in London. The full cast of cyclists’ nightmares are here – malevolent pedestrians, threatening white van drivers and sinister cabbies. Chappell sometimes felt that, as a cyclist, she was “in an abusive relationship with the rest of the city” and “a lightning rod for everyone else’s rage”.
Anyone who rides a bike in London will find this part of the book chilling. Cycle couriers, it seems, are still at the vanguard of road wars in the capital. In Chappell, they have at least now found an intelligent, compassionate voice.
- What Goes Around by Emily Chappell (Guardian Faber, £12.99). To order a copy for £8.99, go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.