Girl about town — on a bicycle

Emily Chappell’s vivid memoir, What Goes Around, is a welcome new take on London from a cycle courier’s perspective

23 January 2016

9:00 AM

23 January 2016

9:00 AM

What Goes Around: A London Cycle Courier’s Story Emily Chappell

Faber, pp.310, £12.99, ISBN: 9781783350537

The old ditty got it wrong: it should have been ‘Maybe it’s because I’m not a Londoner that I love London so’. The capital’s biggest fans, I tend to find, are those who weren’t born there, and Emily Chappell is yet another example. Originally from Wales, she has written more than just an engaging account of her work as a London cycle courier: she has chronicled the way in which the capital provides a home for those who don’t fit in elsewhere. The job itself is a perfect fit for a restless soul: Chappell describes the

sweet spot where my body became so attuned to the bike and road that all resistance seemed to melt away … experiencing a strange sense of stillness, as though I had gone so far into motion that I had reached its centre.

At Marble Arch, with cars on either side of her, she is ‘flowing along on the currents I knew of old, as contented as a sea otter’.

Not that she was a natural courier. A keen cyclist, yes, but her early months in the job involved living up to the ‘foolhardy proclamation’ that she could do it. Gradually the lessons came along. Thursday is the real killer (Friday is ‘infused with the adrenalin of everyone else’s last-minute deadlines’). To save fumbling for the key to your bike-lock you should keep it on an elasticated hair band around your wrist. A good place to warm up on cold days is the rotisserie oven in Sainsbury’s. Chappell learns that ‘a turning wheel is an earning wheel’, and perfects the little jump that settles the bag on her shoulders. The action of turning down her radio on entering a reception becomes so ingrained that she finds herself reaching for the dial even when she’s off duty and walking into a cinema.

She also discovers London itself, guided by her delivery routes but also by the locations in Iris Murdoch novels, which she makes a point of exploring. Blackfriars Bridge ends up as the victim of what Chappell admits is a ‘slightly irrational dislike’, although she treasures Mayfair’s Mount Street Gardens as a beautiful place to hide away. (I share this opinion, so strongly that I’m wary of revealing the secret here.) The value of a Harley Street address is so great that the first few buildings on the streets coming off it usually nick the label for themselves too. Chappell shares a Bedford Row bench with a tramp, only to realise he’s actually a barrister. She is tipped a fiver by Julian Assange’s assistant to deliver packages in a particular order. Her riding develops to the point where she can read a car driver’s intentions from the angle of his head on the headrest.

It’s obvious that Chappell takes pride in her work (she makes a point of typing in regular clients’ names without asking them, to show she’s remembered), and as a reader you take it personally when she is treated badly. Security guards make brushing away motions to indicate she must use the goods entrance. One office is famed for the quality of its sweets, ‘but the receptionist wasn’t the friendly type, so you had to wait until she was signing the docket before plunging your hand into the jar’. You wonder how Jennifer Aniston fared; the actress, Chappell reveals, was once a courier.

What Goes Around might be a few pages too long, but the writing is so good you can forgive it that. The statue of Commerce on Holborn Viaduct ‘reached out into the void above Farringdon, as if she had just cast a handful of coins down into the river of traffic below’. London Bridge is a ‘doleful conveyor belt shovelling commuters into the furnace of the city’. Chappell works hard to ‘scrape myself off the bottom of my overdraft’. Several years ago John McLaren wrote a novel called Black Cabs, in which London taxi drivers eavesdrop on their passengers to plan a corporate sting. The courier equivalent might be too obvious a next step for Chappell — but whatever she writes, I’m looking forward to reading it.

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  • hedgemagnet

    This is the second book to come out in a short space of time written by an ex-cycle courier. I’m pretty sure all of us who’ve done some flavour of delivery work in London over the years thought of writing about our experiences, but fair play to those who got off their backsides and actually did it.