Artful Dodgers

"The sole places that seemed to prosper amid the general blight of the place, were the public-houses; and in them, the lowest orders of Irish were wrangling with might and main. Covered ways and yards, which here and there diverged from the main street, disclosed little knots of houses, where drunken men and women were positively wallowing in filth; and from several of the doorways, great ill-looking fellows were cautiously emerging, bound, to all appearance, on no very well-disposed or harmless errands."
--Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist

Charles Dickens set his 1837 novel, Oliver Twist in the Southwark district of London. Locals pronounce the neighborhood "Suvurk." It's across the Thames river from "The City," which is London's financial and legal center. In Dickens' time, pubs, theaters, entertainment and prostitution were banned from the highbrow financial district, but they flourished here, just south of the river.

I found myself in Southwark earlier this spring in search of "Chasbikes," a repair shop that could easily have been described in a Dickens novel itself had motorcycles been invented a few years earlier. It's a dingy shop, jammed under a couple of soot-blackened brick arches supporting a 19th-century railway bridge.

"Chas" is Charles Holt. When he shrugs, a droopy moustache and bags under his eyes combine to create the vague impression of a basset hound. His shop is what London's motorcycle couriers call a "roll-on/roll-off" shop. No appointments necessary. A half-dozen mechanics work while customers wait. Even Chas admits his shop's specialty is "vinegar and brown paper"--Cockney slang for makeshift repairs. But if you're a courier with a flat, every minute costs you, so you'll be happy with a quick patch job at Chasbikes, even though the mechanics'd laugh out loud if you asked them to balance your wheel.

For a while, Chasbikes only worked on Honda's workhorse CX500 V-twin, which London's couriers affectionately call "maggots." Nowadays, however, the shop is crammed with slightly newer models also favored by working riders. Hanging around in here you quickly realize that most couriers care not a whit for style. What they want is bulletproof reliability first and foremost, preferably with a shaft drive. So would you if you rode 50,000 miles a year, in all weather, in one of the world's most congested cities.

In Dickens' time, the population of New York was about 800,000. London was already a sprawling metropolis of nearly three million. Virtually all of central London was built up before the invention of the automobile. Its streets, to this day, are much too narrow and winding to adequately handle car traffic. Now that the Greater London's population has reached about 14 million, rush hour lasts from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. With traffic too congested for cars, and distances too great for bicycles, London's 2000 or so motorcycle couriers play a key role in keeping business moving.

There are always ads in Motor Cycle News looking for riders. Companies lure employees with guarantees of up to 500 pounds (more than $1000) a week, and promises of affordable company bikes and insurance. Britain has triple the U.S. rate of unemployment, so that kind of money talks.

It's not an easy job. British weather is often wet and cold. Cobblestones are still a common road surface. Diesel spills are everywhere. London is a maze of narrow, winding streets that rarely meet at right angles. Most streets are only a few blocks long, and street names seem to change in the middle of blocks. Even people born here don't try to find a new address without bringing their copy of London A-Z, the thick book of neighborhood maps that is the courier's bible.

All in all, it's not for the faint of heart. Whether it's true or not, several couriers told me the same story: "A few years ago, they did a survey of the most dangerous jobs in Britain, mate, and the three most dangerous jobs were bomb disposal, deep-sea diving--and being a courier!" That has the ring of an urban myth, but the reality is bad enough that there's no need to exaggerate the risks. When I asked a group of couriers how often they actually made physical contact with other vehicles in traffic--banging mirrors, booting cars in frustration--they looked at me curiously; "Every day, of course." The average courier lasts less than two years, but the lifers I interviewed, with from six to 20 years' experience, almost all had stories of broken bones. There are one or two fatalities a year.

The hazards are everywhere. Most couriers cite taxicabs first, though it's the empty ones that are dangerous. They'll slam on the brakes or make sudden U-turns to pick up fares. When they're carrying passengers, most London cabbies--imagine this-- drive like chauffeurs, taking care not to throw their passengers around. If you're going to survive as a courier, you learn to check the back seat for a passenger. But the worst complaints were reserved for drivers of Royal Mail vans. If you can believe the couriers, the drivers of these vans are allowed three accidents a year before being disciplined, and they all use up all three free passes.

Street survival skills become second nature to long-term couriers. Most told me that they'd had their serious accidents early on. They learned quickly to assume other drivers can't see them until eye contact has been made--and once eye contact has been made, to assume the driver will purposely attempt to run them down. Veterans notice even the subtlest body language from drivers; things like the slight upward hunching of drivers' shoulders when they tense up before a desperate lane change.

Even the most skilled rider can be had. Dan Walsh, an ex-courier who now writes for the British magazine Bike, told me some crashes are inevitable. "There are two times a year when everyone crashes. The first is in February, when London always gets a day or two of snow. The second is the first really hot day in June, when the secretaries are out in their miniskirts; bang! you ride into the back of a van."

In Dickens' time, Smithfield Market was London's live cattle market. While they no longer drive cattle into central London, it's still the city's major wholesale meat market. The building covers an entire city block. Like most London markets, it's only open one day a week--in this case, Monday. The rest of the week, traffic in and out of the building is minimal, so there's room to park bikes and loiter, out of the rain, under the awnings that cover the market's loading docks.

The cafe (pronounced caff, by the way, despite the way Microsoft Word obligingly inserts an accent over the "e") across the street makes what one courier told me was "...the best tea in London, mate, because they still use loose leaves, not bags." Shelter from the rain; cheap, plentiful, hot tea; quick access to the law and banking offices of The City. Smithfield is an ideal habitat for London's motorcycle couriers.

In general, motorcycle couriers are either long-haul or short-haul specialists. The dispatchers--called "controllers"--know what kind of bike each rider has, and try to match the trip with the bike and rider. If you're willing to pay the price (about $300) a courier will be happy to run an important contract from your office in London to Scotland, and deliver it later that same day.

There were a dozen bikes parked around the cafe when I arrived around mid-morning. I fell in with three long-haul boys, standing on the sidewalk by their bikes, Honda ST1100s and a BMW K100. At first they were wary; couriers do a fair bit of work for cash, and strangers are presumed to be Her Majesty's tax men until proven otherwise. When I walked up and started asking questions, they tended to drift away making a show of listening intently to the radios that link them to their controllers. However, once it was established that, despite my funny accent, I spoke pretty fluent motorcycle, they opened up a bit.

Like bikers everywhere, the bike they preferred was the one they had. I listened to a "ST vs. the K100" argument that I could tell these three guys had carried on for years. There were, however, lots of things they agreed on. These riders, who had covered about half a million miles each in the last decade, right through British winters, swore by ABS. Spending thousands of hours a year in the saddle, they deemed niceties like heated grips and full fairings absolutely essential. (You know the story about Eskimos, who have 50 words for "snow"? That's the way couriers talk about rain gear.)

The courier scene here really exploded about 20 years ago, about the time increasing car ownership made London traffic essentially impenetrable for cars. To hear veterans tell it, it's not like it used to be. "When oi stahtid," one lamented over his bacon sandwich and tea, "it was company against company, but now it's wroidah against wroidah. Loik, the company oi wuhk foah is on an open coal system--Roight?" He arched an eyebrow at me, to see if I grasped the significance of an "open call" system. What that means is that, as companies get calls, they put them out to all riders, and the riders nearest the pickup point radio in a sort of "dibs" on that trip. The controller then assigns it to whoever seems most available. Needless to say, it's a system that breeds discontent. "So weah in competition with each utha. There's no comradery any moah. Some of these guys, when they go home, they have cars. They're just riding to make a living."

Most riders work for a guarantee, which means the dispatch company guarantees a minimum gross income; but to earn the guarantee, riders must be available 10 hours a day, five days a week. Guarantees have elevated "skiving"--dodging work while creating the impression of working--to an art form. Couriers trade deliveries amongst each other for cash, passing off packages to other riders who are heading in the same general direction. Couriers have been known to lie at home in their beds, radio on, calling for the occasional delivery to create the impression they're on the job, all the while hoping they don't actually get assigned the delivery.

As a courier, if you need a day off, you can always quit. Experienced riders who know the city will be rehired whenever they want. I asked Trish, a CB500 rider who was one of the few women I saw on the job, if she was worried about getting paid the wages she was owed after quitting without notice. "See this radio?" She patted the two-way radio that connected her to her controller, "We just hang on to it until they pay us!"

The first thing couriers told me they liked about their jobs was the freedom. Virtually all of them were bikers first, who tried the job because they liked the idea of getting paid to ride around. After riding all day, most still ride for fun, too. For pleasure, they ride everything: lots of choppers and rat bikes, super-motards, a 350 AJS. I ran into one courier whose CX500 was out of commission, so he was dispatching on his play bike: a lowered, drag-tuned FZR1000 with a Spondon swingarm that let him extend the wheelbase by three inches at the dragstrip. Maybe not the most efficient tool for the job, but great at the traffic lights.

Up on Great Marlborough Street, there's another courier hangout, just outside the posh, west-end Liberty's department store. A tiny urban square is completely taken over by couriers, pretty much all day long. There's a place to park bikes off the street--commuters park their bikes here too, but in the designated spots, not right on the sidewalk. Nearby cafes and pubs tolerate--or at least don't actively discourage--couriers, and it's the site of one of London's all-too-rare public toilets. In decent weather, it's a good place to ogle upper-class birds doing the shops, most of whom when they walk past give the couriers the sort of looks that deer reserve for coyotes.

My guide to Great Marlborough was a cheerful courier named Pete, who'd been fired the day I met him, and was hanging out with a lager in hand when I arrived at around 10 a.m. The scene here was mostly short-haul couriers. "Great Marlborough? They're a bunch of nutters up there," one of the Smithfield guys warned me,"whatever you do, don't let them take you for a ride!" Let's just say, by the looks of them, that if they were in a large group leaving a soccer game, I would have walked quickly in another direction. But maybe looks are deceiving. I heard one tale of a courier who, after being cut up by a cab, rode alongside him punching his window and yelling at him. He was so distracted, that he didn't notice a red light until too late, losing the front end and trapping his leg beneath his bike. Cab pulls up, driver gets out. "Great," the courier thinks, "I've had it now. The cabbie will stomp me while I'm trapped here." Instead the cab driver, rolling his eyes with a sort of "how do we find ourselves in these situations?" look, lifted the bike off him. Both apologized and went on their way.

Crashing, whether your fault or not, is part of being a courier. Short-haul riders normally don't want bodywork on their bikes, as it's just more stuff to get damaged. Shops that specialize in courier equipment install purposeful-looking crash bars to protect engine cases, gauges, and headlights. One thing most working riders won't skimp on is clothing. In good weather, they wear either two-piece leathers or high-quality nylon gear with body armor. Most wear full-on motocross boots, which work well in both offensive and defensive capacity. Flip-up full-face lids aren't much of a style statement, but when you take your helmet on and off 30 times a day, looks stop counting.

There's a light standard at the Great Marlborough hangout that's been turned into a memorial for Wayne Pettifer, a dispatch rider who was killed a year ago. Different versions of the story circulate, and depending on which is true, either Wayne or a truck driver drifted wide on a rain-slicked curve up near Manchester. Whoever was at fault, the result was predictably one-sided. The wake ran for days, and on the anniversary of his death, the Great Marlborough regulars--they call themselves the FFDRC, for "Filthy F*#ers Despatch Riders Club--went on a crawl of his favorite pubs.

While there is quite a bit of general hooliganism--wheelies, stoppies and intentional backfiring, for example it's mostly for the benefit of the other couriers. "City boys," commuters on R1s and the like, are fair game on the roundabouts. Couriers on filthy GT550s with wooden Conti Tour tires delight in leathering them at high speed. They refer to the virgin rubber on the edges of commuters' tires as "wanker strips." Still, London traffic is too congested and unpredictable most of the time to allow for much fooling around. Just surviving is enough sport.

As one courier told me, "I can tell if I'm going to have a good day or a bad day within a minute of leaving my driveway. Some days, you'll dive for a gap that's actually a bit too small, but you'll make it with ease anyway. Other days, your timing is just that little bit off.... I had one run a couple of years ago where I had an accident every Friday, for five consecutive weeks. And the fifth week, it was a Friday the 13th! The controller actually suggested I take the day off."

Back at Chasbikes it's Friday afternoon, and the lads are shutting it down for another week. Bikes awaiting service litter the sidewalk out front, and the employees have begun the process of squeezing them all, sardine-style, into the shop. One last customer comes in with an urgent need for a puncture repair. A mechanic roots through styrofoam teacups, dirty rags, and fast-food wrappers on his lift, and emerges with a missing wrench. He goes outside to pull the courier's rear wheel right in the street. Chas gives me the lowdown on courier bikes.

"What you want is a small bike, with a short wheelbase that you can squeeze between cars," he says. "For a long time the ultimate courier bike was the CX500. We had some go over 200,000 miles on the same engine. When they discontinued it, people switched to other Honda V-twins, like the Revere [basically a shaft-drive Hawk GT] but the problem with that bike was, while the motor was very reliable, the shaft drive was too hard on the gearbox. The chain-drive version, the Bros, is not officially imported into Britain, but there are hundreds in London that have been brought in to use as courier bikes.

The Kawasaki GT550 [shaft drive, four-cylinder] is probably the most popular bike now, and it's pretty reliable, though the carbs wear out, and are very expensive to replace." Replacing carbs has been good to Chas; his own bike is a Ducati 748. Just before the shop is locked down, several mechanics walk up to Chas, who pulls a wad of bills from his pocket, and pays them in cash. Sensing that this would not be a good time to snap another photo, I pack up and walk back to the Southwark tube station. On the way, I run into a courier I'd met earlier in the week; his name, or nickname, is Crudgie. His gray beard and hair tumbles out from beneath a 40-year-old Everoak cork-lined, leather-covered crash helmet. It turns out while British riders must wear helmets, any helmet that was ever approved is still considered legal headgear. Looking at him, you could imagine him delivering the tapes from the Rolling Stones' first big recording session to some East London record-pressing plant.

Crudgie rides an aging Honda 250 twin. It was (well) used when he bought it, but has since logged 125,000 miles. He'd fitted it with a massive fiberglass fairing off something like a Phelon & Moore Panther. We chatted for a minute. In fact, we talked about the merits of chain oilers. Crudgie volunteered that, really, his motor pretty effectively lubed the whole back of his motorcycle. When I bent down to look, I saw his point. He threw a delivery into his top box, and wished me a good weekend.

In my week with London couriers, more than one told me that they figured the Internet would eventually kill the courier business. People are adaptable, but it's hard to imagine this lot doing much else. As one told me, "This is the last rock 'n' roll job, mate."

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