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What Goes Around, by Emily Chappell

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A London cycle courier tells her story.

Emily Chappell (c) Selim Korycki
Emily Chappell (c) Selim Korycki

Emily Chappell - What Goes Around Title: What Goes Around - A London Cycle Courier's Story
Author: Emily Chappell
Publisher: Guardian Books / Faber & Faber
Year: 2016
Pages: 310
Order: Faber
What it is: A London cycle courier tells her story
Strengths: It's about a lot more than the bike
Weaknesses: If I read one more story about London cycle couriers in which the ubiquitous Bill Chidley is interviewed about what it was like in the way way back I may have to smack someone upside the head with a rolled up newspaper (it's nothing against Chidley, just his ubiquity)

London grew into something huge and contradictory.
It was a good place, and a fine city, but there is a price to pay
for all good places, and a price that all good places have to pay.
~ Neil Gaiman, Neverwhere

When What Goes Around opens we find the author, Emily Chappell, working part-time as a receptionist in Camden, wide-eyed and with a certain innocence having arrived in London from the Welsh hinterlands via Cambridge:

"I drank in all the different people who passed through reception, noticing what they wore, how they acted, how they expected to be treated; not yet knowing how I wanted to live my own life, and wondering if I'd want to live theirs.

"I watched the women in suits being escorted upstairs for a meeting; the van drivers who wheeled in boxes of stationery and cleaning products on trolleys; the cheerful young men who delivered sandwiches from bicycle trailers. And then a girl of about my own age appeared on a sleek black bicycle. She was blond and petite, and wearing frayed cut-off jeans over her cycling shorts. She leaned her bike against the plate-glass window without even locking it, strode through the revolving doors, briskly handed me an envelope, held out her clipboard for me to sign, and within seconds was back on the bike, standing tall on the pedals for a couple of strokes, and then swooping off towards Oval Road.

"I remember very clearly how I felt as I watched her disappear round the corner. If only I was the sort of person who could do that!"

Three years later, seduced by the romance of the cycle courier, Chappell was herself standing tall on the pedals and swooping off down various roads in London, trying to find out just what sort of person she really was.

* * * * *

What Goes Around is, in part, a book about cycle couriers and is, in part, a book about London. Mostly, though, it is a book about Emily Chappell. And that's one of the things that makes it better than most of the other cycling books I've had to read in the however many years it is now I've been writing these reviews. Cycling books by and large don't tend to tell stories of real people, they tend toward myth and legend and they view life solely from the seat of a bicycle, rarely venturing into the kitchen, hardly ever into the bedroom. Chappell, she pulls back the veil on her private life just enough for the reader to see how it impacted on her life in London as a courier, and just enough for the reader to see how her life in London as a courier impacted on it.

Chappell, when interviewed by Sarah Connolly, acknowledged that the personal story was something she had initially tried to avoid until her editor changed her mind, that initially she had written a series of unconnected stories - the quintessential series of loosely tied together anecdotes most publishers simply adore - about different aspects of a courier's life (rain, camaraderie etc) and it was her editor who encouraged her to thread them together by opening up more about herself and allowing the book to grow into being something else. For some, this personalising of the story is a flaw. Writing in the Guardian Rob Penn (of It's All About the Bike fame) likened this aspect of What Goes Around to "a rim rubbing on the brake", complaining that it takes the reader away from tales about London's "teeming streets" and slows the pace down. For me, it's what drives the book forward.

While books about couriers might seem few and far between - this may be one of three to have been published about life as a London courier within the last year (after Jon Day and ahead of Julian Sayarer) but apart from that there aren't many others to choose from - we are never all that far from a tale about the the romance of the cycle courier. Any book about cycling's tribes has to include couriers (along with their ersatz counterparts, the fad conscious fakengers). It feels like hardly a month goes by without some newspaper or magazine doing a feature on courier chic (for example, Emma Jacobs's recent FT feature). Even in the cinema they can't be avoided, from Quicksilver to Premium Rush. People just can't stop romanticising the life of the bicycle courier.

The romance, Chappell puts that down to couriers being "splendidly anachronistic figures" who offer "a constant reminder to disillusioned wage slaves [...] that there is another side to the desk, and a whole world outside the office." The anachronism of their existence is that they should by now have been superseded by the internet. Certainly this is the constant refrain you hear from those within the profession when they speak with fear of their imagined future and nostalgia for their equally imagined past. The fear of the future, though, seems somewhat misplaced in an age when Uber and Amazon - not to forget start-ups like the highly visible Deliveroo - are increasingly turning to cycle couriers, offering a future in which (as Mark Steel has pointed out) we'll soon have almost fully turned the clock back to the nineteenth century when you could phone up your local butcher for a pound of sausages and he'd send the lad round with them on the bike that afternoon. Couriers may seem anachronistic. But they are not yet out of time.

Given, then, that so much has already been said about couriers, any book about them needs to wrap itself around something else in order to stand out from the crowd. One way of doing this is to give couriers a sense of place. Jon Day did this with Cyclogeography and Chappell does it too with What Goes Around, both authors choosing to write about London as well as about couriers.

At first, Chappell is awed by "the maddening sprawl that was London":

"Once, I'd innocently decided to stroll into the city centre for the evening (I was living in Ealing at the time, and had noticed that if I followed the Uxbridge Road east for long enough it would turn into Oxford Street), and been shocked when it took me over three hours.

"If I tried walking in the opposite direction, I never managed to find the point at which the city met the fields, a line that in smaller towns is much more clearly demarcated - the final row of houses will overlook the countryside, and that's that."

Life as a courier acquainted her with another London, one that was made smaller by knowledge of how the different parts interconnect, but also enlarged by the realisation that there were parts of the city that many simply never saw or even imagined existed, such as the underground paths of London's new office parks:

"Once you've got past the security guards and rolled down the concrete ramp, you'll find yourself on a subterranean road, with speed bumps every few metres, signs warning you to keep to the 5 mph speed limit and a lofty ceiling with a tangle of pipes and ventilation ducts. Alongside the road is a series of caverns - the loading bays for each particular building - with raised platforms at one end, against which the lorries will reverse when they come to unload, and around the side a miscellaneous clutter of anonymous cardboard boxes, wooden packing crates, wheeled metal cages full of kitchen supplies and cleaning products, assorted skips and bins and trolleys, and stern signs warning that nothing is to be left in this area, which are ignored, because there is more available space here than anywhere else in this tightly packed building."

When it comes to the fading London that so many others are nostalgic for - the food markets torn down and turned into office blocks, the warehouses that became blocks of flats - Chappell manages to be cheerfully realistic:

"I doubt that the honest filth of the old riverbanks would have given me any more of a sense of belonging than the sheer walls and complicated security arrangements of the multinationals. And nor was the older London, just because of its obvious dirt, and the impression of having been thrown and held together by human beings who were just about making do, any more alive or real than what has replaced it. I should know better, I tell myself, since I'm the one who sees round the corners and into the crevices of these buildings."

Chappell's London is made to feel real simply by not being romanticised and turned into yet another Dickens theme-park. Something similar could be said of her portrait of the city's couriers. Here we don't don't get the pictures found elsewhere of "gentle, solitary alcoholics who pedal around with cans of Strongbow in their bidon holders" or "high-functioning smack-heads with their gap-toothed smiles and machine-gun badinage". Instead Chappell acknowledges that "couriers are, in fact, all mostly very different from each other, aside from the superficial stereotypes of muscles and sweat and attitude". Equally, she can be a realist when it comes to the past and couriering's glory days: "Everyone told me it was better five years ago. Of course, five years ago, they were saying the same thing. But it took me time to learn this."

That time it took Chappell to learn things - her transition from something of an ingénue "enthralled by the tales of titans past, of the legends that had gone before" to someone who has left her own mark on the history and mythology of London's couriering community and now moved on - is what gives What Goes Around its forward momentum. Chappell's life off the bike - a love story whose seed was planted on the Dunwich Dynamo and blossomed on a ride from London to Brighton - is inseparable from her life as one of London's couriers. Like Chappell, her partner - Ash - was a recent addition to the ranks of London's couriers. The two drove each other forward in their first months on the road as they each came to grips with navigating London and the unwritten rules of life as a courier. As they eased into life as couriers so too they eased into the kind of domestic bliss you might find in a Squeeze song ("We would take it in turns to shower while the potatoes cooked, and then, after eating, curl up together like kittens and fall asleep by ten o'clock.").

A little over halfway through the book Chappell has completed her first year on the road and, "as the days began to shorten, the year rolled downhill from the dazzling heights of summer, and I realised I would be spending another winter on the road, I started to feel that I was now treading on familiar ground - that I knew what lay ahead." Then the rug is pulled from under her. The romance with Ash comes to an end and it's almost as if it takes with it the romance of couriering and the romance of the big city: London, and couriering, begin to exact their price on her. It is almost as if love had inured Chappell to the harshness of riding a bike in London for a living but, once love has fled and done its thing on the mountains overhead, reality bites. And bites hard.

This could make for a depressing finale to What Goes Around, another litany of car-on-bike carnage along with post-breakup woe-is-me angst. We do get the carnage, but here Chappell emphasises that the real problem is the size of London: it's actually smaller than you think, you cross paths with the same people day after day, which can lead to you living in fear of scores being settled. But we also get humour, two tales to cheer the soul, one of London's gay ambulance and the other with another part of London's emergency services, a passionate moment of seduction with a firefighter in which absolutely nothing happens, save for a look. The humour of these two scenes themselves is enough, but you also have to acknowledge the way Chappell tells her tales: she has a certain cinematic quality about her writing, effortlessly creating vivid visual images in your head.

In a sense, this cinematic quality is true of What Goes Around overall: it almost has the feel of an independent film, an atmospheric tale that glides from an opening sequence showing Chappell as a wide-eyed commuter and office worker to an ending that could almost loop back on itself, Chappell as the road-toughened courier who fires the fuse of another to follow the romance of London's roads and become a courier. And while What Goes Around ends with Chappell (partly) turning her back on couriering and taking up long distance adventuring, this is a book to inspire you to want to ride. And there's not many that manage to do that.

* * * * *

You can find an interview with Emily Chappell on the Café Bookshelf.