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Bike courier in London: the messenger is the medium

A review of Julian Sayarer's new book, "Messengers". A cog in the wheel of the global information economy, this courier allows the City to deliver its true message of redemption to him. 

Courier bike

My Workhorse, Surly Steamroller Photo CC by Nico Hogg

"Messengers" is a story of delivery in more than the obvious way that a book about bike couriers will be - its a journey of personal delivery. It traces the ark that stretches from angry alienation to ecstasy, self-discovery and more than anything, to a rediscovery of the spirit of love of one's fellow that infuses Sayarer's first book. That book, Life Cycles, saw Sayarer circumnavigating the globe, chasing a world record, pesting against injustice and enraptured by nature, beauty and good people. It was Sayarer-1, Globalisation-0. In that previous book, Sayarer becomes the nemesis of Mark Beaumont, the previous record-holder, all sponsored-up by big-Finance, emblazoned everywhere by rip-off brands. An angry passion for justice, truth and reality wins the world record back from anodyne fakes and profiteers.

Except, of course, that Sayarer didn't really beat corporatised globalisation, and there's a passage early in "Messengers" when he understands this. His original anger against the symbol that Beaumont had turned himself into involved Sayarer in a performance; a magnificent one; but his action was 90% symbol, 10% impact. And all the reality was crammed into the human connections he describes and the production of the book itself. The wheels may have turned, but there was no revolution.

The early part of "Messengers" reads as globalisation's revenge on the cycling-Sisyphus who thought the symbol could start a revolution that went beyond his two wheels, revolving over and over again until they'd covered 18,000 miles. Sayarer - the politics and economics graduate from Sussex - is back in London, hopes dashed, depressed, a record on his CV but no prospect of a wage-slaver's salary in the cushy information economy. So he goes back to what he knows: riding courier, playing messenger to the globalisation gods between their perches in Mayfair and Canary Wharf, Belgravia and Westminster ...

A cycle-courier transports information when the fibre still can't do it. Contracts, mainly. The blockchain'll  put an end to that work sooner or later, but the need for the symbolic to have a material existence allows a subculture of messengers to survive. Sayarer writes of that subculture with real attachment. The book opens with a joyful and breath-taking courier+amateur alley-cat race around London on a Friday night, after work. You've ridden all week to earn your rent, but still you come together to enjoy your bikes and your knowledge of the city in full freedom. But the sub-culture's pretty hermetic. Sayarer seems almost attracted to them because it is so easy to see them as wilfully separate from society. The radio-controllers at the head-quarters of the firms that employ them call them by number. Throughout, Sayarer is "two two". Their names are numbers; to the city's global economy, they are anonymous cogs. But they re-appropriate the apparent soullessness of those numbers to define themselves through their tough marginalisation. This is Two Two's first in-the-street meeting with the courier colleague who'll become his girlfriend:

"‘I’m Three-Four ... are you Two-Two?’ I blushed, though only a little. She knew my name."

The courier love itself is imprinted with the bikes they have become:

[...] she leant her bicycle against a wall ... put her radio on to charge as I lay my bicycle against hers. With a fumbling, the pedal of my bike dropped between the spokes of hers, slipped through the opening of metal with a sound of tension pinging free.  The frames collapsed against first one another, and then against the wall, tyres lifting briefly from the ground as they moved through the air. Coiling, the drops of the handlebars swept out, bound close, would not let go their grip ... the cable of her brake went looping outwards and up, falling down to catch clumsily around the lever of mine.

It's like the scene in Modern Times when Chaplin can't stop tightening everything that looks like a bolt because the production line has mechanised him. Two Two and Three Four's whole world revolves around the wheels, the spirit of battling the traffic, of being the most vulnerable link of the chain of transactions at the heart of info-capitalism; that vision of themselves as bikes suffuses even their love-making.

It's not only contracts that Two Two ends up delivering. Sometimes symbols of other sorts, like the blue and yellow flowers (representing the coalition colors) a well-wisher - presumably a lobbyist oiling wheels that'll see use soon - sends to Cameron and Clegg on their entry to Downing Street in May 2010. Sayarer adds a private message to the symbol: before delivering the bunch, we come to understand that he relieves himself amidst the petals. When the messenger is the medium, it can add its own droplet of meaning to the package. If the flowers were a contract between a lobbyist and a Prime Minister, then Sayarer's secret act establishes his own angry bond with the masters of the globe.

He's got a nose for stench, as well as legs for cycling, Two Two. There's brilliant writing on defacation on offer. Everyone in Sayarer's London is belching something out: taxis their noxious exhausts (and taxi drivers their urine-filled plastic bags); bankers their coffee-enriched flatulence in the cubicles of office lavatories; and Sayarer makes a point, at new locations, to ask to use the toilets. Because he wants to see - everywhere his bike takes him, he wants to decode the forces beating in the heart of darkness. Roll over McLuhan, the messenger's truly turned medium. The point about all the crap is that in the angry courier's eyes, everyone in the global city does everything to deny their link to it. The crap is the socially unacceptable by-product, that which keeps getting produced by the city and must be hidden; it's inadmissible. It's the externalities of the global market - the bits that you'd have to pay for in shame if anyone knew you had shat them out. As globalisation wreaks its revenge on the cyclist, Sayarer describes the city that keeps on feeding his almost adolescent anger. There are good couriers; there are wrecked humans, digested, discarded and distorted by the cruel city; and there is the anodyne swish of corporate globalism, all shiny, customer-facing, salesy, with its well-dressed receptionists and Stakhanovite corporate mission statements.

But Sayarer is too good not to leave this manichaean modern-day "The Jungle". His turning point comes after another lavatorial inspection. He finds himself in a Knightbridge penthouse, a private drop this one. He is begrudgingly allowed into the toilet where a painting by Egon Schiele (is it a reproduction? we are not told...), he who had "depicted cocks and labia and stares all in fearless glory" had been hung there to "kindle some sense of passion and scandal, framed politely amongst all the good form." It could be his own story: the record-breaking circumnavigation is there for the tame fantasy-adventure of others; it's not the fearless revolutionary act he wanted. He's an adjunct to the world of luxurious lavatories, a servant in it. We're reaching peak anger.

It's on the way out of this drop, all primed with the absurdities of the wealthy and iniquities of his meagre earnings, that he knocks over a coddled, small, school-uniformed boy; Sayarer feels no sympathy in his angry fog. That's when he knows he too is diseased: he's caught the dehumanising sickness of the city. 

What, though, will be his salvation? His professional pride is piqued into a stunning high-speed against-the-clock to an impossible delivery in Westminster. That's the crack when the light comes in:

And I bank right and then slightly left, and I suspect then that I’m perhaps going to make the deadline that was supposed to have been impossible ... but it’s more than that, more than just time. I peel into Victoria Street.

And at this time of the year, in this time of the late afternoon, the sun sits low in the sky, sits perfect at the far end of Victoria Street, with its offices high on each side of the road. And so it happens, the sun has set the wet road incandescent, and that sun has itself turned orange to mark the end of another day. It shines full down a blinding road: piling off high office windows, redoubling the intensity of that light into a solid, glowing corridor that hits me square in the face as I speed into Victoria Street, ride this road of pure gold, steaming through a silver corridor of late afternoon, all high on adrenaline and petty triumph. Senses explode inside the light. It’s ecstasy ... it’s as if God exists, and then a moment later ... it’s as if he doesn’t even have to, for everything is beautiful enough already. I’m smiling ... smiling big. I tell you, right now is a good moment to be a courier ... you don’t get this kind of euphoria in many jobs so close to the arsehole of society.

Final deliverance only comes at Christmas. A Quaker acquaintance persuades him to join a party of carol singers. He finds himself carrying a different kind of message to the city:

"We walked into pubs, exploding into song, jubilant to the last and the punters absolutely terrified. They thought we were after their wallets, collecting for charity! Either that or religious loons. A voice booms out, out of the choir: ‘We’re not Christians and we don’t want your money!’"

This is Sayarer whose circumnavigation effort was done under the banner of a website set up for a purpose simply stated: "This is not for charity". The songs are a pure gift - they are not "for" anything; the big cycle-ride had tried to be for saving the world from all the Beaumont's. But it had failed. And failed not least because logically you can't be both "just for the love of it" and also a protest against instrumentalisation: if you're a protest, a symbol, you are already an instrument.

It's in delivering that different message, the docket that came with no job or controller, the one that has nothing to do with the globalised city and its inhumanity, that Sayarer finds his own deliverance from indiscriminately angry hatred:

that night something changed in me, I’ve joked with them since, said that lot cured me of the class system. With their cheer and their indiscriminate love, there was no doubting it ... we were on the same side.





Buy the book:

From whoever the publisher, Arcadia, is linking towards

Or on Amazon, if you must

 

About the author

Tony Curzon Price was Editor-in-Chief of openDemocracy from 2007 to 2012, where he is now contributing editor and technical director. He blogs at tony.curzon.com

Read On

Buy the book:

From whoever the publisher, Arcadia, is linking towards

Or on Amazon, if you must

 


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