Cyclogeography: Journeys of a London Bicycle Courier (Notting Hill Editions, 2015) is, in two ways, a book I’ve waited for for years. One because I know the author, in the perhaps distorting context of having supervised his M.St. dissertation and his D.Phil. thesis; neither work concerned bicycles, but he mentioned a long time ago that he was writing about the cyclist as flâneur, and my ears pricked up. The other reason I’ve been waiting for this book, and the reason for my interest, is simply that being a cyclist has been, at various stages in my life, very important to me. At an early stage in my love of bikes, when I was maybe thirteen or fourteen, I devoured the Penguin Book of the Bicycle by Roderick Watson and Martin Grey, which I recall (hazily) as being a mixture of history and technical detail; but on the whole cycling has been something I’ve done, but rarely read or talked about.
What’s revelatory about Cyclogeography — though much of this material is concentrated in the early chapters — is that it’s an account of the bodily, physical experience of cycling and the connection it gives you to the landscape — and not ‘landscape’ as it would be understood by painters, but landscape understood primarily as road surface, as the micro-contours of road cambers and curves, and only then as something involving the middle distance and the broad panorama; and, because of that immediacy of perception, it’s also about the heightened awareness you acquire when a significant part of that environment has the potential to maim or kill you; and about the heightened awareness of your body’s aches and frailties that you acquire when you’re doing sixty to a hundred miles a day. Cyclogeography starts from Jon’s experiences as London cycling courier, but it also takes in his experiences riding out into the country beyond London, and ends with his retracing the route of Edward Thomas’s 1913 cycling-travelogue, In Search of Spring. My cycling experiences are very different from Jon’s, being primarily rural; apart from a couple of journeys through Paris, the most dangerous place I’ve cycled in is Oxford. But there’s a lot in the book that articulates familiar feelings and muscle-memories. Some of this comes in vivid set-piece accounts:
I join the peloton, attacking when I see a gap until I’ve moved to the front of the bunch. I cast a wide loop around a pedestrian on a zebra-crossing, grabbing the side of a bus to pull myself through a gap. I weave between the taxis that are cruising the road in search of fares. Cycling in traffic like this is an opportunistic business, part instinct and part analysis. You have to move from gap to gap, navigating the flow of traffic with the detached concentration of a boulderer addressing a climbing problem.
At the lights the exhaust of a bus blasts my feet like the warm nuzzling of some enormous dog. The aerial of my radio sticks out form the strap of my bag at an angle and extends for a few inches beyond my shoulder, functioning like a cat’s whiskers, alerting me to the width of gaps as I squeeze through them. My shoulders are no wider than my handlebars, so I know that if I can fit them through the rest of my body will follow (pp.23-24).
But some of the particular and peculiar form of knowledge that comes from cycling is dropped in more casually, as when he mentions the awareness of the changing quality of the road surface with the changing seasons, or the awareness of the peculiar smells of different quarters of town. And his being able to articulate these sensations comes from a wider collective knowledge in the community of couriers: he describes how in slack time between jobs, they would ‘memorialise the city … discussing our favourite streets and the perfect runs we’d made along them, hymning serendipitous formations of tarmac, those sweet-spots of camber and incline we had discovered hidden in the grid.’
But as well as articulating things I’d wanted to see written down for years — without ever having fully realised it — Jon gives an insight into a subculture that I knew nothing of, that of the London courier: I knew nothing of who tends to do the job and why; nothing of their informally organised races (‘alleycat races’); had no idea how jobs are allocated or just how far a courier might ride in a day; nothing of how the preference for fixed wheels originated. He’s interesting too on the place the courier occupies in the employment pecking order, and there’s an interesting dissonance between his account of the immediate pleasures of cycling through the city, of owning the spaces as you make them, and his account of the informal and temporary nature of the work, on account of which the couriers own next to nothing. The tone is often elegiac, as the fax machine and the email have reduced the need for couriers; and because the working life of the courier is always shadowed by an awareness that most bodies can’t endure the kinds of pressure that the job places on them; and though the author doesn’t foreground it, there’s an awareness throughout of death and serious injury. With my supervisor’s hat on I found myself asking ‘what’s your argument’, but that’s the wrong question for this kind of work; Cyclogeography is exploratory and non-linear in its approach, and all the richer for it.