I have been following Emily Chappell’s exploits for a while now as she does a lot of things that I wish I would do (and be able to do). She started riding the streets of London as a courier nearly a decade ago and has also been cycling a lot further afield in that time. Not only that, but she has a pretty awesome blog documenting her escapades and is now publishing a book about being a courier, filling in the gaps before the blog started.
Ultimate cycle commuters
Couriers around London are pretty easy to spot. Usually they are kinda grubby, on well loved and fast bikes and will go past you when you stop at a red light. Most things about them and the way they ride is utilitarian and fit for purpose, much like you get everything laid out on your desk just right, and you have the perfect route to the coffee machine.
It has always been a job I’ve been curious about. It is appealing in its freedom. However, there are days when I am out on the road cycling between bike shops when I am glad that I get to go inside and stay inside. Couriers of course don’t have this luxury. All these ups and downs are made clear in What Goes Around.
What the book also makes clear is that cycle couriers are the epitome of every cycle commuter. They know all the routes around central London, how to get around road blockages and the best quiet routes betweens London’s more obvious thoroughfares. These are all things that I feel great about mastering when I am commuting and make me feel like I am more in tune with the city.
A lot of the time, starting something new is daunting. You can feel like an imposter for quite a while. It is always reassuring that others feel the same thing. In the book, Emily goes into this feeling in some detail, while also detailing how she settled into it. It is the sort of story that, while clearly specific to a woman trying to make it in a male dominated industry, could be applied to many peoples initial career forays.
Emily doesn’t hold back in sharing the upsides and downsides of a career as a cycle courier. There is mention of the poor salary and unpredictable work schedules. There is also some discussion of the massive discrepancy in companies and the fact that the industry is in decline.
The bottom line is this is a very well written, compelling read. If you like bikes and you like cycling in London, you don’t have to be harbouring courier fantasies to relate to this book. This book brings to life London cycling in a way that is relevant and interesting to anyone who gets on a bike. Of course, it is not just about riding bikes, but then what in life really is?
The life stories could come across as a little voyeuristic I guess. But personally I thing they mean this book straddles a line between being a book about a profession and about the person doing that profession. This, to me, is a good thing. I don’t want to read some macho account of zooming through traffic and nailing a job. Emily is clearly an excellent cyclist and really very good at her job, but she is honest about the problems she faces and the challenges and the times she has failed. We could all do with being a little honest like this at times I am sure.
I personally got more from What Goes Around than just being able to identify with a fellow cyclist, and I think you will too – it is an unpretentious, well woven story of self discovery that could be applicable to many regardless of age or station in life. It certainly appeals to me, maybe because I have also escaped academia and am still finding my way in life. Hopefully it will speak to you in some way as well.
What Goes Around by Emily Chappell (Guardian Faber) is available from the Guardian Bookshop and book stores January 7th 2016 – £12.99 in paperback, £8.99 as an e-book.
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As seen on The Guardian, BBC and The Independent.