Last week I found a London street I’d never set foot on before. Not such an unusual experience, you might think — except that I’ve spent six years of my life working as a cycle courier in this city, and by rights should know its every crevice by now.
People often ask me what it is about being a cycle courier: why a bright young thing like myself, with two degrees to my name, ended up spending so long in what, on the face of it, is an incredibly monotonous job, its only apparent challenges being the vicious London traffic and those freezing winter afternoons when your hands are so numb you can barely grip the handlebars.
I ask myself the same question. In all the other careers I’ve tried, I was bored within six months. What was it that kept me on the courier circuit for six years, and which constantly threatens to drag me back now that I’ve finally, reluctantly, moved on to other things?
As well as the endorphins, the muscles and the camaraderie of my fellow couriers, I think it was the constant sense of discovery that kept me hooked. No matter how well you think you’ve learned it, London still has a few secrets in store, and even the streets I know well still hold numerous surprises — the crooked twig that bursts into blossom in May; the little coffee shop whose staff know my order off by heart, though not my name; the ranks of anonymous doors that, over the years, I’d gradually penetrate, finding out what worlds lie behind them.
Sandwich Street, my new discovery, is in Bloomsbury, just south of St Pancras and the British Library, leading north off Leigh Street, which I did know existed, though I’d barely ever found cause to go there. I’d often ride past its eastern end on my way down Judd Street, after a pick-up in Camden or on my way to one in Holborn, and note the street name, remembering that Dylan Moran’s Black Books was filmed in a small bookshop halfway along it, which in real life purveys an arcane stock of rare books on typography and design; one of those trades where, doubtless, traffic is slow, but the high value of its occasional transactions will somehow keep the business afloat and wedged in its tiny niche among the skyrocketing rents of central London.
I’ll remember that, just a couple of blocks away, at 66 Marchmont Street, lies a different, but similarly improbable bookshop — Gay’s The Word, recently featured in the movie Pride, and which 10 years ago almost lost its foothold in Bloomsbury, thanks to rent increases and the rise of Amazon. To everyone’s delight, a campaign to keep the shop open was a roaring success. Authors like Sarah Waters and Philip Hensher lent Gay’s The Word their vocal support, and the gay community and its allies realised just in time what an invaluable (and irreplaceable) resource they were about to lose. Today Gay’s The Word is going strong in a world very different from that in which it launched 37 years ago, and stocks everything from cultural history to pulp fiction, browsed by nervous teenagers rubbing shoulders with famous writers, and me, popping in to shelter from the rain and chew the fat with Jim and Uli, who have seen me metamorphose from student to courier to world traveller — and now to published author.
As I ride past the corner of Judd Street and Leigh Street, I’ll notice the eight-storey council block that overlooks the junction and nearby Judd Street gardens, and feel curiously thankful that, at least for now, there are ordinary people still living their ordinary lives, while all around them the developers and estate agents make their unseemly grabs for the heart of London’s literary district. Just around the corner is Argyle Primary School, and I’ll listen to the children playing as I lock up my bike next to the council offices next door, wondering if the planning application I’m delivering will be the one to finally displace them, or the down-at-heel Irish pub on Whidborne Street that I’ve come to love, or the council tenants who live in the handsome red brick tenements that line Cromer Street.
London is changing very fast these days, and it’s easy — and perfectly reasonable — to mourn the lives that are disrupted and the landmarks that are lost. Every now and again, when I return to the city, I’ll stumble across a brand new Starbucks where once there was a well-loved bookshop or cafe. But there’s always more to change than just loss, and as I ride through the city’s streets — even today — I feel myself alive with a thrumming sense of discovery and possibility; the ever-present excitement of finding out what might be round the next corner.
What Goes Around: A London Cycle Courier’s Story by Emily Chappell, is published by Guardian Faber. RRP: £12.99. thatemilychappell.com
Published in the June 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)