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Authors: Jon Day

Cyclogeography

BOOK: Cyclogeography
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‘Magically good. Jon Day conjures the secret city of the cyclist, revealing himself over the course of his swooping journeys as an astonishing writer, capable of dizzyingly elegant and thrilling flights of thought.’ – Olivia Laing

 

‘Armchair cycling turns out to be an exquisitely indolent sport – at least when one has in one’s hands a book as choice as
Cyclogeography
. His style is witty, clear – a delight …With this unmissable book, Jon Day makes his mark.’– Kate Kellaway,
Observer

 


Cyclogeography
’s magic lies in the quality of the prose and Day’s skill in looping together disparate threads in a way that feels natural … His many literary and philosophical detours make for an interesting ride.’ – John Sunyer,
Financial Times

 

‘Jon Day’s ode to the bicycle takes the reader pillion from petrol-choked city to rolling dale in eloquent prose, which at best pedals in beat to the accompanying landscape.’ – Nicholas Hogg,
Independent

 

‘There’s a gap in travel writing, and Jon Day has just zipped into it – like a bike courier between white van and black cab.’ – Michael Kerr,
Telegraph

 

Jon Day is a writer, academic and cyclist. He worked as a bicycle courier in London for several years, and now teaches English Literature at King’s College London. His essays and reviews have appeared in the
London Review of Books
, the
Times Literary Supplement, n+1
and the
Guardian
. He writes about art for
Apollo
, and is a regular book critic for the
Financial Times
and the
Telegraph
. He is a contributing editor of
The Junket
, and a 2016 Man Booker Prize judge.

© Clifford Harper. London, January 2013

Jon Day


CYCLOGEOGRAPHY

Journeys of a London
Bicycle Courier

for Dora

The bicycle is half way between the shoe and the car, and its hybrid nature sets its rider on the margins of all possible surveillance. Its lightness allows the rider to sail past pedestrian eyes and be overlooked by motorized travellers. The cyclist, thus, possesses an extraordinary freedom: invisibility.

– Valeria Luiselli, ‘Manifesto á Velo’

A
few years ago, after finishing a degree, I was looking for a new job. I’d tried many: private tutor, mercenary essay-writer for the rich and lazy, barman, gardener, marketing consultant. Three months as a runner at a TV production company were enough of a taste of office life. Days spent tea caddying, photocopying and washing up left me cold. I couldn’t drive, and my bosses told me I needed to learn if I wanted to get ahead in television. I arrived early and left late. Men carrying clipboards with radios strapped to their waists often shouted at me. I couldn’t work the telephone system. I spent my afternoons shredding endless scripts on a temperamental shredder.

The only part of the job I did enjoy was the daily run to the edit suites in Soho, over the river from where
I worked, carrying the day’s rushes – heavy blue tapes sheathed in their grey plastic wallets; volatile nitrate film adorned with ‘no smoking’ signs and warning skulls and crossbones; hard drives stuffed with data – which I did by bicycle. Soon I’d volunteer for any job taking me outside the office and across London, the further the better. Going to the archival warehouse to dig out old tapes or embarking on treks across the city for some specific prop became absurdly exhilarating. It was the solitude I valued, the freedom of the outside, the sounds and smells of the street. Soon I gave up my TV job and became a bicycle courier.

I’d grown up in London and had always loved to cycle. My Dutch mother and car-phobic father ensured I learned to ride a bike almost as soon as I could walk. They’d push me along the road by the scruff of my neck, riding beside me and steering me through gaps and around potholes with the delicate touch of puppeteers. The earliest bike I remember cycling under my own steam was a war-era, single speed machine with an iron frame and crumbling rubber grips. It was a faithful conspirator in my early explorations of the local territory. Together we built up our own map of the area – noting the location of a chipped kerbstone that allowed us effortlessly to ramp up onto the pavement; the green car, always parked in the same spot, which shielded our turn from oncoming traffic – charting features that felt as permanent as the roads we travelled over and the buildings we passed on our rounds.

When I became a bicycle courier I found that I loved cycling for my living. I loved the exhilaration of pedalling quickly through the city, flowing between stationary cars or weaving through the lines of moving traffic. I loved the mindlessness of the job, the absolute focus on the body in movement, the absence of office politics and cubicle-induced anxiety. I loved the blissful, annihilating exhaustion at the end of a day’s work, the dead sleep haunted only by memories of the bicycle. By night I dreamt of half-remembered topographies, each point-to-point run connecting in an ever-expanding series. Sensations of falling were transformed into forward motion. Hypnogogic jerks, those juddery twitches that occur on the edges of deep sleep, were smoothed out into circular pedal-strokes of the legs.

Most of all I loved learning what London taxi drivers call ‘the Knowledge’: the intimate litany of street-names and business addresses that constitutes a private map of the city, parallel to that contained within the
A–Z
but written on the brain, read by leg and eye. After a while the trade routes became entrenched. By bike a new and unfamiliar London unveiled itself, a London dominated by road surfaces and traffic, a London composed of loading bays and stand-by spots, characterised by a sense of movement and flow. As a cyclist you inhabit the gaps between traffic, and as a courier you profit from what Jonathan Raban calls, in
Soft City
, ‘the slack in the metropolitan economy’. The job allows you access to a subterranean world of
cavernous loading bays and car parks burrowed away underground. It’s the iceberg theory of architecture. Another city exists alongside the London most people know, and cycle couriers are privy to this backstage city, with its post rooms manned by neon-tabarded security guards, its goods lifts, its secret, parallel infrastructures.

Big commercial buildings can feel like miniature city-states, and to a cycle courier the conflict between public and private, between the rules of the road and those of corporate estates, is constantly apparent. The glee with which the police hunt down and fine couriers who jump red lights (while letting off their commuting counterparts) is well known. But the guardians of private land are just as intolerant. In the biggest developments access for couriers is restricted to the cargo bays. Hulking ramps and doors must be navigated, pictures are taken, ID cards printed off stating your name, company, purpose, and privileges.

Sometimes, proclamations of ownership are local and specific, as in the small ‘Polite Notices’, which read as anything but, informing you that ‘Bicycles locked to these railings will be removed’. Elsewhere the limits of ownership spill out beyond the railings. Representatives of the ‘West End Company’ patrol Oxford Street in red hats, giving tourists directions and admonishing cyclists who ride on the pavements. Some large commercial estates, such as Devonshire Square off Bishopsgate in EC2, have their own private
police force. Anyone who isn’t obviously an office worker, snatching a lunchtime sandwich in the open air, is moved on. Running is forbidden.

I worked as a bicycle courier for three years, on and off, as I bided my time in between stretches back at university and tried to work out what to do with my life. I loved every moment of it. Or perhaps love is the wrong word. For after a while on the bike, doing this work, you simply
need
to carry on to feel normal. You feel ill if you don’t work five days on the bike, anxious and twitchy when you take your feet off the pedals. You can’t sleep without the weariness provided by the miles.

 

A bicycle courier’s experience of London is formed by the demands and rhythms of capitalist circuits. Couriers occupy a contained space, the boundaries of which are fluid, established by the economic footprint of what our controllers – intermediaries between client and courier who take booked jobs and issue them over the radio to riders – contemptuously refer to as the ‘push-bike circuit’. The rough borders of the circuit run round practical limits described by the confluence of physical capacity and the post-code system. Wapping, populated by exiles from Fleet Street, forms the eastern hub; Knightsbridge marks the Western front. There’s usually not enough short-hop work to justify sending bicycles much further. The circuit doesn’t penetrate far south. Occasionally I’d dash over the river,
but, other than the odd outlying raid on Peckham or Stockwell, would never go much further south than Elephant and Castle. Mostly I’d skim along Southwark Street, working the edge of the river which was once the greatest trade route in London but is now lined only with the husks of trade: warehouses and docks repurposed as office blocks and yuppie housing. To the North, the foothills of Camden, Highgate and Hampstead are the outer limits. There isn’t much work above the economic tree line.

Cycling through the city everyday makes you learn not only its abstract properties – street names, business addresses, the locations in which policemen like to lurk and wait to catch you running red lights – but what it feels like to ride down a particular road in the wet (mapping the placement of slippery drain covers that wait to catch you out on sharp turns) or the dry; the specific sequence of lights at a much-crossed junction. As a courier you learn to inhabit the places in between the pickups and the drops. You learn the secret smells of the city: summer’s burnt metallic tang; the sweetness of petrol; the earthy comfort of freshly laid tarmac. Some parts of London have their own smells, like olfactory postcodes. The Shisha bars on Edgeware road haze the area with sweet smoke; the mineral tang of Billingsgate fish market wafts over the Isle of Dogs.

Riding a bike for a living means you learn to read the road too, calculating routes, anticipating snarl-ups, dancing round potholes almost unconsciously. It is
an activity that forces you to think of the city in literary terms. With its signs and painted hieroglyphics the road is an encyclopaedia of movement: drive here, walk here, park here, no stopping here. Look down and the tarmac tells you what to do. Traffic lights regulate the entire mechanism like enormous clocks, telling you when to move and when to stop. Textures too are important: kerbstones separate walkers from the flow of traffic; knobbled paving alerts the blind to a coming crossing. Very soon the rhythms of the street become internalised. Traffic lights and vehicle indicators, the wails of sirens and car alarms, warn you to get out of the way or lure you on. Eventually you come to feel part of the city’s secret networks, at one with its hidden rivers and its dead-letter drops, at one remove from its anonymous crowds of commuters.

 

Alongside riding London I began to read it. I always kept a book in my bag for the slow days, and usually I sought out books that offered commentaries on my own working environment: anecdotal accounts of the city, or novels set in London, or histories of the city. Cycling itself felt like a form of interpretation – a mode of engaging with the urban text – and I also wanted to understand the strange and distinct attraction to place that I’d discovered by riding my bicycle, so I read about cycling too: biographies of the heroes of road racing, histories of the grand cycling Tours.

London is generally thought of as a walker’s city. It’s been written about from the perspective of the rambler and the stroller, but never much from the saddle. This lack represents a greater gap in travel writing, which is so often associated with shoe rather than saddle leather. Though there are ‘a lot of walker-poets’, as Paul Fournel – member of the avant-garde literary group Oulipo, keen cyclist and author of
Need for the Bike,
the best work of cyclophilosophy I know – has argued, the bicycle is less well represented as a literary vehicle. ‘Cyclist-poets are less numerous’ than walking poets, writes Fournel:

but that’s due to inattentiveness, since the bike is a good place to work for a writer. First, he can sit down; then he’s surrounded by windy silence, which airs out the brain and is favorable to meditation; finally, he produces with his legs a fair number of different rhythms, which are so much music to verse and prose.

I wondered if this oversight had something to do with the history of the bike. In
Wanderlust
, her wonderful history of pedestrianism, Rebecca Solnit argues that the act of walking for its own sake – and the tradition of writing about walking for its own sake – coincided with the rise of European Romanticism. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s idealised walk, in which leisured individuals could embark on journeys of their own volition, accompanied by bodies that were allies
rather than traitors or burdens, and over terrain they were allowed free access to, was, Solnit says, the first example of a kind of ideological or philosophical pedestrianism which coincided with the rise of the city. For Rousseau walking was a tool that could be used to measure yourself against the natural world, a world that was coming into keener focus as urban life began to dominate human experience. You found your place within it by beating its bounds.

For the Romantics walking was an act of authorship too, a way of writing yourself onto the landscape and thus claiming it anew. Walking was democratic. Wordsworth privileged the act of walking not only because, as he said, his mind ‘only worked’ with his legs, but because as an act it created the paths and rights-of-way that would eventually be etched onto maps or fossilised in tarmac.

With the formation of the modern city the Romantic walker was transformed into the urban
flâneur
, the solitary (and generally male) ‘stroller’ who haunted nineteenth-century Paris, getting lost amongst its boulevards and arcades and documenting his experiences as he went. Yet unlike the Romantic walker the
flâneur
was a decadent figure, a leisured dandy who, freed from the demands of the rat-race, was able to spend his days at one remove from the mob, losing himself in the crowds of the city as he travelled amongst them. For him the city became reconfigured as a spectacle: buildings could be as sublime as
mountains; streets were abstracted into riverine torrents. The rural walker became urbanised. In ‘The Painter of Modern Life’, an urtext of
flânerie
, Charles Baudelaire described ‘Monsieur G.’, a figure based on the artist Constantin Guys, the archetypal and original
flâneur
. As Baudelaire wrote:

He marvels at the eternal beauty and the amazing harmony of life in the capital cities, a harmony so providentially maintained amid the turmoil of human freedom. He gazes upon the landscapes of the great cities – landscapes of stone, caressed by the mist or buffeted by the sun.

The
flâneur
treated both the city and its inhabitants as inanimate objects to be viewed disinterestedly, as though through glass (Walter Benjamin would base his
Arcades Project
, a sacred text for contemporary
flâneurs
, on the idea that modern urban life was best exemplified by the figure of the window shopper). But the figure of the
flâneur
also celebrated the subversiveness of walking, politicising pedestrianism (especially in cities which were increasingly hostile to walkers) and celebrating the slow, the meandering, and the directionless over the concerted migrations of capitalism. The undirected walk challenged the timetable. The stroll was opposed to the commute. Flânerie represented a way of confronting the endless flow of people who thronged the city’s streets twice a day, regular as clockwork, on their ways to and from work. On foot, the
flâneur
avoided
the official channels of movement – the circulatory networks of tram and bus and train – choosing instead to inhabit the hinterlands and marginal areas of the city. For Benjamin the leisured status of the
flâneur
was a kind of political statement also. In
The Arcades Project
he argued that ‘the idleness of the
flâneur
is a demonstration against the division of labour’ and that ‘basic to flânerie is the idea that the fruits of idleness are more precious than the fruits of labour.’

BOOK: Cyclogeography
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