Tag Archives: London

Cyclogeography, by Jon Day

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.

Jon Day's Cyclogeography: beautifully printed and bound

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.



City spaces and popular music

The Guardian this week headlined a feature about London-band The Maccabees “bands can’t afford to live in London anymore“, and that connected with something I’ve been thinking about for a while: what material infrastructure do bands need to get off the ground?  The most obvious ones are places to live and venues to perform at, but for traditional rock with drums and amplification, somewhere to rehearse is also pretty crucial.

In their early years — 1977 and 1978 — the post-glam/ pre-punk/ new-wave band Ultravox often used publicity shots of themselves posing with shop-window mannequins, and this was a hidden clue as to how they had made a distinctive sound for themselves, though by 1977 it probably looked like a nod to Kraftwerk’s “Showroom Dummies.”

Ultravox Mannequins1

The band was put together by John Foxx in 1974, initially under the name Tiger Lily; Foxx at that time was a graduate student at the Royal College of Art.  They rehearsed initially in the dining room of the Royal College, but soon Foxx found a better space.  To supplement his grant, he had been painting faces on shop-window dummies, and through this learned of the warehouse space of the firm Modreno, at Albion Yard, Balfe Street, just round the corner from King’s Cross.  He persuaded the manager, Ronnie Kirkland, to allow the band to rehearse there in the evenings.  Having a free rehearsal space allowed the band to experiment with their songwriting and their sound without the financial pressure that comes with hiring a rehearsal space. Ronnie Kirkland was apparently the proprietor of Modreno, and was able to do what he liked with it; but if such a factory / warehouse exists at the present-day, would the manager be allowed to do what he liked with it, if he/she had to answer to property owners who were anxious about their investment and their insurance? Similarly, around 1976, when the band came to producing an early demo tape, they were able to do so cheaply because Steve Lilywhite, then a tape-op (a trainee engineer) allowed them to use a studio during down time.  Would it be possible to sneak a band into a high-end recording studio today?  The very idea of “down time” is becoming alien.

It’s also notable how squats enabled the popular music scene in the mid 1970s: in a recent interview with Martin Smith, Paul Simon — not the one who recorded with Art Garfunkel, but the brother of Ultravox guitarist Robin Simon — mentions the brothers’ move to London being simplified by the availability of a squat in Vauxhall [*]; Foxx himself was living in one, and some of the band’s early gigs were in one on Regent’s Parade.

What became of Modreno?  In 1985 there were notices in the London Gazette implying that it had ceased trading.  If you look up Albion Yard on the internet now, you find advertisements for one- and two-bed flats, leasehold.


A two-bed flat there will set you back £925,000.  Nice if you’re a property owner, but what happens to musicians when every last piece of space has a by-the-hour charge attached to it?  True, you can now make music on a laptop in a bedroom in a way that was scarcely imaginable in the mid-1970s, but one kind of musical creativity involves reacting to the unexpected things that other musicians throw into a piece; that kind of creativity needs live rehearsals, and rehearsals need spaces.