As a courier in London for three years, Jon Day gained an intimacy with his bicycle, as well as with the city in which he rode to make a living. In Cyclogeography: Journeys of a London Bicycle Courier, he invites the reader to spin through the streets and see the sites from his saddle, to feel the freedom and exhilaration and exhaustion he experiences while pedaling to earn a living within the capitalistic framework of the push-bike circuit.
Although Cyclogeography is billed by its publisher, Notting Hill Editions, as one long essay, it reads like pure poetry. Take this passage:
By Friday of a working week, after cycling three hundred miles or so, I found my bicycle had bled into my being, infecting me with its surfaces of leather and steel. Its chromium forks thrummed in sympathy with my heart rate. The cadence of my pedal strokes corresponded with my breathing. I began to feel better on the bike than off it. When I stopped cycling, when I got off the bike at the end of a week’s work, the memory of the miles covered was registered in the stiffness of my legs, in the weariness of my arms, in the cramps which twitched and danced their way across my calves. The city itself persisted only as a series of brief snap-shots, stills from a film that lay inert until animated again by the flicker of pedal and wheel.
Such lyrical descriptions fly off the page again and again. And, throughout the work, Day delivers comprehensive and thoughtful explorations of all things related to his vocation—the social, historical, cultural, political, and economic influences and impacts of biking. His engaging insights and smart assessments leave no roads unexplored.
Once drawn instinctively to this lifestyle, the thirty-two-year-old London resident now teaches English literature at King’s College. He also serves as a contributing editor of The Junket, writes about art for Apollo, and critiques books for the Financial Times and the Telegraph. In 2016, he was a judge for the Man Booker Prize, which was awarded to Paul Beatty, an American author. (Day said he found the experience intense and pressure-filled, quite similar to that of a courier.)
During a transatlantic phone chat, he mused about how the bicycle has become a symbol of gentrification, the future of couriers in light of recent court cases, and how, these days, he tools around the British capital on his cargo bike with his two-year-old daughter.
The Rumpus: Throughout your book, I was moved by the beautiful way you describe the sheer joy of being a bicycle courier. Can you speak to this? Has anything else ever compared to it? Do you miss it?
Jon Day: [Laughs] I don’t think anything else has ever compared to it, partly because of that kind of single-mindedness or mindlessness that you get from doing exercise or working with your body in that way. I describe whistling through trees and cars, but also one thing that struck me the most about the job is that exhaustion, the feeling at the end of a day’s work that you’re just wiped out. You don’t have to think about what next day is going to bring. You’ve done your work and, to a great advantage, you can eat whatever you like. It’s brilliant. I miss that stuff.
Rumpus: Being a courier, you say, is a mild act of rebellion, and that most couriers are running away from something. What were you rebelling against and/or running away from?
Day: [Laughs] I wasn’t running from anything dramatic. There’s no tragedy underpinning this. I was running away from the horrors of a more regular way of living and earning money, from an office. I spent a lot of time in libraries when I was couriering. That’s a different kind of isolation, but at least with reading and writing and academic work, you’re the director of your own fortunes. I suppose I was running away from people. I’m not a misanthrope, but I don’t like the enforced camaraderie of office life and team work. Couriering provides both a real sense of community and solidarity.
In the book, I describe the relationship you have with both your controllers and other riders being mediated through radio, and this arm’s-length intimacy was attractive. I wasn’t running away from a past or towards any particular future, but others were forced to do the work for shady or bureaucratic reasons. A high proportion of couriers in my anecdotal sample have suffered all kinds of traumas. It seems to attract people who require physical exercise for therapeutic reasons. There’s a high instance of depression and suicide. Whether the job attracted those kinds of people because it’s therapeutic or whether it caused people to become depressed because of its endless grind, I couldn’t say. There’s some sort of correlation between mental turmoil and the physical annihilation the job provided. I was always, fortunately for me, more of an observer to those kinds of traumas than a victim of them.
Rumpus: How did being a courier make you a better writer?
Day: Yeah, well I guess when you’re writing a book, you think whatever you are doing makes you a better writer. [Laughs] I suppose there’s some lovely stuff by Paul Fournel, where he talks about the bike as this kind of rhythmic machine, and it’s true. There’s something about the relationship between these stop-start jerky actions—well, walkers and runners experience this—but the bicycle technology smoothes those out and turns it into something else. The emergent property of cycling, where it makes the experience continuous and smoothes out the edges of movements, is equivalent to writing a good sentence. I’m not saying there’s any real physical equivalent between the actions, but there’s a metaphor of the bike’s technology for flow. It connects things in a way that feels natural, pleasurable. Another way I learned to write from being courier: the big thing it gave me was time to read. For many writers, the idea of being a reader first is very important.
Rumpus: You became a bicycle courier at a time when you weren’t sure what you wanted to do with your life, between stints as a university student. “For a while, on the bike, doing this work, you simply need to carry on to feel normal,” you write. “You feel ill if you don’t work five days on the bike, anxious and twitchy when you take your feet off the pedals. You can’t sleep without the weariness provided by the miles.” What do you do now? Have you found something comparable to replace this experience with?
Day: Running. I’ve tried running and other things in my attempt to replicate those feelings. But the truth is I haven’t really managed to. I’m much more anxious now. I sleep less well, and suppose I just have to lump it a bit more than I did. The kind of exhaustion and physical experience you get doing that work is impossible to replicate when you have other commitments and work, which is a real shame. It’s difficult to duplicate in a western-developed economy. I could be a kind of Thoreau and get the nature cure and chop logs and go fishing and whatnot, but to have your whole life dedicated to the body is the only way to replicate it.
Rumpus: Unless you’re an elite athlete, I suppose.
Day: Yes, unfortunately, I have no talents or skills for that, and I’m getting a bit old for it now. That’s why people do triathlons and marathons, it seems to me. I’m also very lazy. Couriering allowed me to trick myself into doing that kind of labor, because when you have a job to do, you just get on with it. I’ve found willfully doing that is kind of tricky.
Rumpus: After three years on the job, what got you to stop? Was the impending birth of your daughter the crux of it?
Day: That was it. I finished the PhD I was writing in 2012 and went back on the road, convinced I hated academia. I spent a year or so writing book reviews and essays and being a courier. Those are very complementary activities, but like couriering, reviewing is paid as piece work, as you know. It’s similarly precarious. You’re self-employed, and all these kinds of bad things about couriering are also true about freelancing. Then a year into that my girlfriend became pregnant, and I realized this wasn’t a sustainable life for us. A job came up at King’s, the only academic job I could have gotten, and I fortunately did get it. I got out in time. I didn’t want to be a courier until I resented it. I’m still nostalgic for it and look back fondly on that period.
Rumpus: Not to mention the toll on your body, too.
Day: I like to think I had a few more years, but you never know. I know some forty- and fifty-year-old couriers, but by forty-five, you’re starting to slow down. It becomes difficult. There aren’t many exit routes, and if you do it for a decade, the only thing you can do in London is become a black cabby or Uber driver or go into the office and be a controller, which is almost the antithesis of why people become couriers in the first place, because they like cycling and like being exhausted. It’s a sad twilight job if you got into it for those reasons.
Rumpus: You speak about what London taxi drivers call “the knowledge,” the intricate network of street names and businesses. Cab drivers undergo extensive training to learn this. How did “the knowledge” come to you? Was it on-the-job training or was it gradual?
Day: I couldn’t claim to have anything like the kind of level of detail that the people who do “the knowledge” officially gain. It’s amazing, this medieval institution, organized a bit like a guild. Cabbies spend two to five years learning the runs, as they call them. There are about 350 point-to-point runs specified in a book, their bible, that cabbies call the blue book. Then they go to these things every few months called appearances, where some old cabbies give you two points of interest, say the British Museum to the National Portrait Gallery, and then you have to recite which journey you take, name every street you’d drive down, which direction you turn, and note any points of interest you pass along the way. I love the image of it. It feels brilliantly outmoded now in age of Google Maps and GPS. It’s potent symbolism, what the brain does when it maps a city. It’s an image lots of writers are intrigued by.
So being a courier gave me a slight sense of what it must be like to have that level of detail on your mental map. It was, however, slightly limited by the circuit of the push bike, which is smaller than that of a cab driver. A courier often ends up doing similar runs, especially if you work for one company, and you get to learn where their clients are and there are regular drops. A different kind of mapping goes on. I talk a lot about the physical revelations the job gave me, but the urban ones are equally important, like discovering that secret “back stage city.” You get access to post rooms at quite weirdly prominent addresses. I found all of that compelling.
Rumpus: You mention delivering a box of tea to Buckingham Palace; any other memorable deliveries?
Day: I talked earlier about access and, as a courier, you also get access to anonymity. There’s a wonderful short story by G.K. Chesterton, who wrote the Father Brown stories, about a bumbling detective who was a Catholic priest. In one story, a murder takes place and the body is removed from the house and no one could work out how. It turns out that the postman has come and taken the body away in bag. No one notices the postman because he’s an inanimate feature of everyday life. Couriering gave you something of that kind of anonymity. I had a few jobs at prominent locations, like Buckingham Palace and 10 Downing Street for the prime minister. Back then, you just got waved through this iconic door. Now security measures have been tightened up. One controller, Bill, talked about his weirdest job, delivering live lobsters. I took packages to some celebrities. More interesting were the backstage experiences where you found yourself in a post room on top of a skyscraper in the city that no one else gets to see or underground a big development. I got excited by these vast loading bays where the whole upper level was completely replicated. It felt like a subterranean city.
Rumpus: At times, your writing seems like a love letter to the city of London. Did you come to appreciate your surroundings more from the seat of a bicycle?
Day: Yeah, I really did. I grew up in London and felt I knew it quite well before I began my job, but that turned out not to be the case. The bike is a perfect vehicle with which to encounter urban space—there’s a feeling of connectedness you get through cycling that walking and driving don’t provide. I had this revelation after writing the book. There’s a historical specificity to it, maybe not in terms of London, but the notion of a modern city that has grown up and calcified or clarified alongside that of the bicycle technology. Maybe New York is a better manifestation of this idea than London, but the idea of a city as a technology for living. You see it in the grid systems of New York. It becomes an abstract navigable space. The topography is completely oriented around the human body and around notions of navigation. There’s something really powerful about the idea of cities built around bikes instead of cars. It’s the difference between New York and Los Angeles.
London, too, is a weird place where movements of the body are privileged above those of the car. In London, the Old Roman City, cars have a hard time navigating because of the roads. There’s something about the bike being a brilliant collaborator in urban explorations that allows you to cover more ground than when you are walking. You can notice things in cinematic ways. Only one problem I came across as cyclist-writer, as opposed to being a walking-writer, is that you can’t write while you’re riding. The flâneur can stop and scribble observations, but on a bike you have to get off and get your notebook out. I experimented with getting a Dictaphone and recording my musings, but I felt too pretentious.
Rumpus: You mention the central paradox of the labor of the courier is oppressive freedom. You call it “capitalism’s foot-soldiers, paid to pass the parcel around a massive financial district.” How did you feel such freedom within the confines of this structure and does it still exist today in the same way?
Day: It’s something that is changing quite a lot. There have been many important legal challenges in the last year in the status of the self-employed subcontractor. All courier companies employ riders as self-employed, so the pretense is that they’re not employees, and so the company is not responsible for sick or holiday pay. You just get paid for the work you do. The way companies manipulate that is by making you work as if you were fulltime employees working five days. Otherwise, you don’t get a bonus and you’re forced to rent your radio. And you can’t work for more than one company at once.
Uber has drawn a lot of political attention in Britain and around the world. There has been an important test case, one same-day food delivery service had huge funding, half a billion in startup capital and it recruited cyclists who had never been couriers, students and so on, who were paid an hourly rate. Then the delivery company tried to enforce new contract pay as “piece rate” and the couriers went on a wild cat strike that got them a lot of attention and seems to have halted that kind of enforcement. Similarly, it was recently decided by the courts that Uber drivers were misclassified as self-employed and self-contracted and should be workers.
So there has been a shift in employment regulations, which might lead to better working conditions for the riders. I’m all in favor of this, even though it would limit some of the freedoms which have been attractive to riders, the off-rate case work and the fact that lots of economic migrants and people who couldn’t get other jobs do this work. The tightening of regulations will lead to a decline in those people doing the work, but it’s probably for best. It’s massively exploitive because people aren’t earning enough, and they’re also putting their bodies on the line and being injured for it. I think it’s a good thing if riders are themselves at the forefront of making demands and articulating what they want and getting things done by old-school methods like organization. It proved that unionization is still important, increasingly so, as employees try to shift the onus of responsibility by using things like apps and declaring employees really aren’t employees at all. It’s happening in America, too, right?
Rumpus: Yes, with Uber drivers.
Day: Well, these kinds of conflicts will become more important. I’m not sure if I answered your question, but there’s a larger political one involved.
Rumpus: My next question also relates to economics, in a way. These days, the bike has become a symbol of sorts. When a bike shop opens in a depressed neighborhood, you say it’s a sign the area is on the edge of gentrification. Can you talk about this?
Day: One of the themes running through the book is the cultural history of the bicycle. I was struck when reading books about bikes that there was this transition from it being a symbol of left-wing solidarity. Originally it was this amazing democratic machine, much cheaper than a horse and then a car. It gave people a sense of self-propelled mobility of all different kinds, not just physical mobility, but social mobility. The bicycle was used to justify the rational dress movement for women in 19th century Britain. It allowed women for first time to wear trousers. Later, the bicycle became a symbol of Socialist politics of all different kinds, like the Clarion movement, a radical left-wing organization that still exists and started as a working man’s cycling club. In a lot of European countries, like Italy and France, professional bike races were a way for working class people to break away from their lives and earn money and become famous. This has almost completely reversed itself in London over the last decade. Cycling has replaced golf as the bankers bonding sport. It’s odd. Enormous amounts of money are spent on these carbon machines. One symbol of gentrification is the bike itself. When writing the book, I was struck by it, when I went to cycle up Box Hill, a famous road that’s a mecca for road cycling competitions in Surrey and was used in the Olympics for one of the climbs. You go there and see people turn up in their big cars with bikes strapped to the back. They get off and cycle up and down the hill a few times and drive back home. So the bike is completely divorced of utility or mobility. It’s become another extension of the gym aesthetic.
The visibility of cycling in the pragmatic sense is a great thing and should be celebrated, but it has gone hand in hand in London with all sorts of corporate appropriations and bank sponsorships. You have Citi Bike in New York, and we have a similar bike rental scheme in London that’s sponsored originally by Barclays and now Santander, their two big banks. It struck me that these utopian schemes from the 60s movement in Amsterdam, which allowed you to take a bikes freely to use and dump it somewhere else, have been colonized by big capital and made homely. There’s something troubling about that. I suppose couriering is one of the last market fringes of the cycling culture, and for that it should be celebrated and immortalized and preserved. It’s striking that in China, people are starting to own cars now rather than bikes, and the idea of Beijing being a city of ten million bicycles is now being complexly eroded. There comes a stage in urban development when the bike, which we all should be using more, is seen as backward and nostalgic. Only now it’s reemerging in America and London as a tool for the rich, a plaything rather than a useful vehicle. It’s pretty sad.
Rumpus: As a courier, you write that your bike became like an extension of your body. Your radio stuck out of your bag like a cat’s whiskers and helped you navigate deftly. Was this instinctive or did it take a while to develop?
Day: It was definitely instinctive but also took a while to develop. You gain confidence when riding every day, especially as a courier when you have to survive and make money. You can’t replicate the process, other than by putting in hours. Since I stopped riding 10 hours a day, I’ve become a more timid cyclist. You don’t trust yourself and your abilities and neither do you trust your machine in the same way. It’s the little things. This is a tedious cul-de-sac, I’m afraid, but the front break on my bike was badly designed and recalled by the factory because it put pressure on a cable. Regularly, every six months if riding every day, it would snap. After a while, you get so intimately familiar with your bicycle that you know exactly when it will happen. You can ride with confidence. A lot of riders described the same thing. You develop a relationship with the feeling of the pedals so you know when the chain is too slack or when something will go wrong. That kind of intimacy is what you lose when not riding every day. You ride in a more gentle and defensive way. That freedom I describe in the book is a product of exposure.
Rumpus: I understand that your book is actually intended to be read as one long essay. Is that the case?
Day: In terms of publishing, Nottingham Hill represents the traditional essay. It’s not a description of length. We have a conception that the essay is this thing you have to do in school. It’s interesting to think of it as a genre, as a try, or a form that can contain different experiments and digressions, an attempt to circle an idea or thesis. In that sense, I do consider it an essay and more important than length is its form. The formal freedom of thinking about it as an essay is significant to me. It’s not a straight travelogue. It’s something of a hybrid, like the bicycle itself.
Rumpus: Is your brother still courier?
Day: No, he gave it up before me. Now he’s a carpenter.
Rumpus: Your parents taught you how to ride a bike early. Is that something you’re doing with your daughter?
Day: She’s quite keen on it. I bought huge cargo bike after I quit couriering and got proper job. I could suddenly afford all the bikes I wanted. [Laughs] The cargo bike is brilliant, with a huge box on the front. We cycle around with her on front or my girlfriend on the front. We also got a balance bike she pushes herself around on but hasn’t started pedaling. It’s only a matter of time.
Rumpus: Near the end of your book, you write, “Cycling stories are like fishing stories. They are not told to inform the listener but, as in the confessional, to unburden the teller.” I read that your next book is about fishing, and that seems fitting.
Day: I hadn’t seen that connection. The fishing book is in its early stages, and I want to do something similar. One way of talking about Cyclogeogrpahy is what in Britain is called “new nature writing.” There are a bunch of interesting hybrid books being written, Robert Macfarlane being the most prominent proponent of this, and some brilliant books by Olivia Laing and Amy Liptrot. These authors are interested in the relationship between place and psyche, which is what Cyclogeography was interested in, and I want to again engage in that tradition. I suppose I’m a hobbyist. I like mechanisms and objects that allow you to encounter space. I’m interested in fishing in the way it connects you with different places, like a bicycle does. I want to write about these different places. Activity writing, rather than place writing. How has the experience of fishing formed the literary sensibility that’s very strong in English literature?
I just moved to Leyton, a part of London that’s on the other side of London’s second river, the River Lea, which is part of the reason I am writing a fishing book. Izaak Walton, who wrote The Compleat Angler, invented a new genre in writing as an attempt to reconnect with a place via the divining world, the fishing world. I see my two books similarly, as both are about doing things in the world.
Author photograph © Ó Selim Korycki.