From the archive
Iain Sinclair’s article on cycling in London reminded me of my short time working as a courier in the mid-1990s (LRB, 20 January). The semi-crazed feelings of megalomania that scything through the streets and pathways of the City of London gave me were intoxicating and frightening (and thankfully short-lived). The sense of invincibility and power was tempered by the guilt that roamed my thoughts in the evenings, after the adrenalin subsided and the dirt and sweat – sometimes blood – were washed away. Even today, when I see such freewheeling behaviour, I occasionally feel somewhat shamefaced at the memories. Frightened pedestrians, astonished motorists and dented cars were the collateral damage of work that relied on speed and aggression for its meaning, satisfaction and productivity: the quicker the jobs were completed, the more jobs done, the more money made. Your equipment mattered too. My Brick Lane-bought Raleigh road bike was woefully inadequate, but was soon painted (first kingfisher blue, then Marin fluorescent yellow) and modified. Derailleur gears were quickly removed and clothes and bag were adapted. I learned my lessons: about London, its geography, streets and how it fits together. Based at Slaughter and May’s car park near Moorgate, small gangs of us – novices, masters and legends – would smoke and eat and fidget with radios, keen to be on our way. Conversation was never very expansive. Stories of accidents and death were common. Some of the career couriers were cycling obsessives, had all the gear, and worked because it paid for their training. For others, like me, it was simply casual work, if somewhat in your face.
Wasn’t it Jarry, mentioned by Iain Sinclair, who used a revolver instead of a bicycle bell? And didn’t he reassure a pregnant woman who complained that he had so startled her that she might lose her baby: ‘In that eventuality, madame, I shall make you another’?
Holmfirth, West Yorkshire
At the risk of being anorakesque I’d like to point out that Dr Alex Moulton did not invent any outer ring to protect the rider from chain ring teeth, and while a clip-on plastic ring appeared on F-frame Moultons, there is no such thing on later space frame machines (Letters, 3 February). Guarding against the chain goes back into early cycling history, the full chain case appearing on Raleigh, Humber, Rudge etc any time from 1900, and on Dutch bikes still today, although nowadays plastic. Top of the range Sunbeam, made famous by Elgar, had its patent Small Oil Bath. Riding my Sunbeam wearing plus-fours (correct period costume), I don’t need to worry about the social implications of trouser clips. Later chain guards became the ‘hockey stick’, light steel bearing decals of the builder’s name in Britain, often aluminium pressed with the maker’s name in Europe. As for ladies’ protection, the skirt guard needed many small holes round the top of the rear mudguard and a web of string down to the chain stay to keep the skirt out of the spokes of the rear wheel.
Some are of the opinion that the trouser clip is very middle class, any working man cycling to work just sticking his turn-ups into his socks, or if wearing overalls being unworried by oil. Should a Marxist academic renounce that bourgeois badge of shame the trouser clip by sticking his trousers into his socks?
I recall the 1950s, when a group of cycle-clip unchallenged teenage friends would meet at Liverpool Pier Head on Sunday morning, cross on the ferry to Wallasey and cycle 30-odd miles on the New Chester Road (suicidal today) into the Clwyd Hills of North Wales, pack-lunch and back again; a prospect far less daunting than Iain Sinclair’s experience battling the Peletonistics of Boris’s Barclays branded bike battles on the towpaths of North London, where I imagine neither Moulton small-wheelers nor unbranded loose T-shirts are much in evidence (Letters, 3 February).