One of the main appeals of bicycle couriering is the freedom it seems to offer. Freedom from the inanities of office life, the freedom of the city. But there’s also the freedom to freeze on a slow day in the rain, the freedom to be injured on the job with no chance of sick pay, the freedom to die on the road. It’s a wild, unregulated business, which is part of its attraction. Cycle couriering is the modern equivalent of running away to sea, or joining the circus, without having to leave London.
Many couriers are economic migrants, eastern European or Brazilian, taking advantage of the relative ease with which jobs can be found (no qualifications necessary, except the ability to ride a bike) and the relatively lax fiscal scrutiny. They come and go largely unnoticed by their employers and clients. Occasionally one of them is deported and another silently inherits his equipment and identity.
I chose to do the job not so much for economic reasons as for the other things it seemed to offer: excitement, thinking time, blissful fatigue. I thought of myself as following Orwell’s lead, gaining an understanding of hard work at the coal face of capitalism to salve my conscience. It’s easy to see what, precisely, you are being paid to do: earnings are measured in miles – the distance theory of value.
The objects you deliver, of course, tend to be the property of big business, material things that can’t be emailed or urgent jobs that can’t wait for the Royal Mail. Much of the work I did in the West End came from a cosmetics company, sending samples to PR firms. Runs between the City and the Inns of Court were common, too. Then there were the strange one-off jobs, returning legal documents left in Stringfellow’s by an overworked solicitor, taking teabags from Fortnum’s to Buckingham Palace.
You don’t always know what you’re carrying: there was the occasional grubby envelope that I wouldn’t have wanted the police to stop and search me with. A job that has entered courier folklore sent one lucky cyclist to Barbados: a document needed a signature. Other jobs are less glamorous. I heard of one contract with a large bank that sent urine samples off for drug-testing every month. So much for the romantic allure: carrying bankers piss around must place you near the bottom of the employment scale.
The recession has dented profits considerably. For many small firms couriering has gone in-house, and hard-pressed runners or office skivvies now do the tape runs to Soho. It varies week by week, but I’m told the usual festive rush of work hasn’t materialised this year. A downturn hits an unsalaried courier in real time, just when, with an enforced holiday approaching (during which they will earn nothing), they need it most. Freed from the obligations of the nine to five, they are also free to become quickly poor.