Some courier jobs pay more than others. ‘Wait and returns’ are sometimes the best rewarded, especially if you can wangle a lot of waiting time. The vast majority of these jobs are embassy runs, collecting visa documents and waiting in line to have them processed and stamped.
The new design for the American embassy in Nine Elms may look like ‘a non-turreted Norman keep’, but even with the addition of a moat it will be difficult to increase the fortress-like security of the current set-up in Grosvenor Square. Deliveries there have to be checked in by the client in advance. Queues are long and supervised by armed police, who don’t take kindly to anyone cycling on the bollarded road at the front of the building. Once you’re inside, a rigorous search ensures you’ll clock up plenty of waiting time.
It’s all very different from the relatively homely security procedures in place at Downing Street, where a cursory X-ray of your bag is all that’s needed before you’re waved through to go and knock on the PM’s front door. They don’t seem particularly worried about bicycle bombs; you can take your bike with you.
The Congolese embassy, a shabby unassuming building at the insalubrious end of Gray’s Inn Road, is very different again. I used to go there regularly, on jobs from mining companies asking permission to get digging. Occasionally, I’d share the waiting-room with immaculately dressed Sapeurs, flamboyantly suited and booted fashionistas who’d wait in line clasping ornate canes and wearing Davey Crocket hats. More often than not, I’d be alone. But I’d often clock up an hour’s waiting while the correct stamp was being located, or the right person came back from lunch. I don’t know if any of the visas I subsequently delivered turned out to be fakes.
The embassy was set alight in 2007, in an arson attack allegedly perpetrated by supporters of Combattants de Londres, a group dedicated to preventing Congolese musicians who support Joseph Kabila from performing in Europe. Embassy staff were evicted from their homes in 2008 as no one had paid the rent. Ovens, clothing and furniture filled the embassy’s waiting room for months. The hallway leading into the building remains blackened by fire, and the burnt smell still lingered in the air the last time I was there.