Interview with Ingrid Wassenaar (Wednesday 3 June 2015)
The other day, my son donned a backpack and wobbled off down our garden path on his small two-wheeler, all by himself, to school.
He is not yet nine. No one else I know would allow their child to cycle to school so young. Wild thoughts of neglect and accidents flooded my brain. But I let him go. I knew he’d be OK.
I found an excuse to drive to the school just after him. I held my breath as I approached the cycle rack. There it was, the purple and silver bike he had pronounced too girly when he first saw it. But all that was forgotten the second he perched on the saddle, pushed down on the pedal, and realised he could find his balance.
I met the author of Cyclogeography, Jon Day, at Somerset House, just along the Strand from where he now works as an academic in English Literature. Jon’s essay is about his time as a cycle courier. Almost inevitably my first question about his essay was the biographical question — why?
Why did you become a courier, a notoriously dangerous and dirty job, with very poor pay, and a very high chance of injury or even fatality?
I just knew when I graduated that I didn’t want to do an office job. I tried a few, and they weren’t for me. What I loved with couriering was the time on your own, the time to read and write and think. It was one of the only jobs that seemed to me compatible with thinking. I did it alongside book reviews and other freelance writing, and around getting other qualifications.
Cycling was always a stopgap for me, I went back to it when I didn’t get funding for my phd first time round. I was always conscious it wouldn’t be a career. But it offered me this parallel freedom — you are not on the clock — you’re only paid for the jobs you do — so there’s a lot of sitting around in parks —you’re free to write.
How did you write the book?
I wrote most of the book in those snatched moments in parks between jobs. The final two chapters were a bit different. They describe two long rides I did out of the city, and I’d already started writing the book when I did them. Those rides were about breaking away from being a courier and also breaking away from urban life for a while. Everything had been about London, but I knew I couldn’t carry on as a courier.
There’s always this hybridity in anything to do with cycling — a bicycle is always part aggressive Futurist machinery, part pastoral idyll. I needed to find a kind of balance in order to be able to leave couriering. Cycling itself is all about wobbling along, finding an impossible balance.
You seem to think that the bicycle is a kind of hybrid, something between a paradox and a metaphor?
Well, I guess there is a paradox, in that it’s not clear how cycling works. There’s also this strange hybridity between man and machine — which one dominates? Is the bike a prosthesis or is the rider effortlessly in control? And between man on bike and road surface. The road becomes part of you — quite literally, your body absorbs the particles that are coming off the road as it’s used.
There is this sense that cycling lends itself to poetry and creativity, it does function as a metaphor for all kinds of things. It’s a proof of the irreducibility of experience: I can describe the sensations of knees creaking, being exhausted and numb at the end of the day, but it’s hard to say whether writing about it truly captures that, or what kind of experience it actually transmits to the reader. So that’s another paradox. But at the same time, it’s a kind of universal: most people can ride a bike, people know what they are, there’s a whole canon of literature about cycling: Flann O’Brien and Samuel Beckett, Tim Krabbé, Paul Fournel, Iain Sinclair… a lot of writers, artists, philosophers have talked about cycling. It’s odd, there’s a strange axis between Ireland and France, but England doesn’t have much of a cycling literature.
Why doesn’t Britain love the bicycle as much as France?
Well, I have this theory, it’s not all that well worked out, really, that the bike gives structure to the idea of nationhood in some European countries. It’s most obvious in the Tour de France — it’s all about geography — France and Italy were slightly nebulous, they needed to establish clear boundaries to create the idea of a cohesive whole. Whereas the UK is an island nation, the sea creates its boundaries, it doesn’t need to work so hard. There is no great British cycling race — perhaps it’s just because we don’t have the mountains for it.
In France there was also this idea that you needed a sport that came to you, in order to create community and integration. Christopher Thompson, who wrote a wonderful cultural history of the Tour, argues that it’s all about Industrialisation. England, a more industrialised country with a denser population, seized on sports which happened in stadia. In England, you have football, and everybody gathers in one place, they go to the sport, they go to each other’s games. France needed a sport that would link the regions into a whole, and in which the action could visit these strung out, quite isolated urban centres. Actually the Tour was just invented to boost newspaper sales. It came out of the Dreyfus affair — an anti-Dreyfusard paper, L’Auto, needed to attract readers back, so it came up with this regional tour.
Do you think that the British are more in love with walking than cycling?
They are different things, I think. There are wonderful writers on walking, like Macfarlane and Solnit. They set walking into its historical context. Walking in Britain has a more mixed heritage — it’s often been linked to acts of political disobedience. It’s about protesting against owned and enclosed land, and asserting that the road, the path, the land is public, is for everyone. Walking is about the right to roam freely, and have access. This isn’t really in play with cycling, partly because cycling is dependent on a centralised and maintained road network. It doesn’t have quite the same relationship with the landscape that walking does. Which is not to say it isn’t a subversive activity.
Is cycling an act of protest or an act of subversion?
I think it depends on the country. Acts of defiance in the UK have to have an instrumental purpose — you have to be wanting to change something, not just stick two fingers up at life itself. Yes, there was some radicalism associated with the bike in England — the ‘rational dress movement’, that was fought so that women could wear more practical clothing to ride bikes and be much freer, that was important. But it wasn’t the magical surrealist absurdity of the French. Cycling in Britain was associated more with pragmatic politics: with G.B. Shaw, muscular Christian socialism, self-improvement, the Romance of the Worker, and so on. We’re so po-faced in the UK. We have a strong resistance to writing about the body. People commented on the fact that I referred to my ‘arse’ in the book. For the British, as soon as you mention the body, it’s a Carry On moment. Flann O’Brien runs with that British prurience with a straight face and takes it to extreme, parodic lengths.
So what is going on in France and Ireland?
I think that that Franco-Irish love affair with the bicycle might come from somewhere else. English thinkers and writers don’t seem to have the French and Irish commitment to radical weirdness. O’Brien and Beckett, they’re outsiders. There’s this wonderful story that in Ireland pubs would only serve beer on a Sunday to ‘bona fide travellers’. Men would duly cycle off to each other’s villages, so that they could arrive as travellers, drink themselves silly, and then cycle back, and wave drunkenly to each other as they passed on the road. I love that image of them wobbling along, saluting each other’s political liberation.
In France there was a whole playful, performative dimension to their relationship with the bicycle. Cycling constituted a revolutionary act, and it was also just funny, absurd. The wheels revolve, the French revolt, you might say. It was more a kind of lens through which to view the overlooked, the bizarre, essential absurdity. That is allowed in French culture in a way that it isn’t in the UK. There’s a different relationship to time and movement in cycling, which the French get — think of Jules et Jim. It’s cinematic, like film it depends on a persistence of vision; it’s double, like the handcranking of cameras to make individual images run together fluidly. The experience of being on a bike itself translates into shots, close ups, pans. Walking doesn’t provide this cinematic experience. You are both cinematographer and camera when you’re cycling. Early bikes and cameras were linked, and cycling was also linked to flight: the Wright brothers were bicycle makers.
How come Holland doesn’t get much of a look-in?
Primarily this was a book about London. I’m not really interested in a sociology of cycling. There isn’t a lot of Dutch writing about cycling — although Tim Krabbé’s The Rider is brilliant. It’s a present tense evocation of a cycling race. It kind of captures that phenomenon of the middle-aged man who starts to compete, and uses the race as a narrative device: the race is a gift of a journey structure. Also, cycling in Holland just seems part of the status quo. The Dutch have a totally pragmatic relationship with the bike. Dutch bikes are all Protestant and upright and practical. My Dutch relatives couldn’t really understand why I wanted to write this book!
Although the Dutch relationship with bikes isn’t quite what it seems. Amsterdam had to centrally impose a cycling infrastructure, their urban environment had gone a long way down the road of car culture, and the authorities had to push back hard to reverse it.
There was a small Dutch Situationist movement, the Provos. They had a few madcap ideas, like forcing car drivers to carry small gardens round on the roofs of their cars to minimise their carbon footprint. They had a ‘white bike’ scheme in the 60s, and tried to get the authorities to release 20,000 bikes into Amsterdam, free of charge. In the end they managed to provide 50, and they were all stolen pretty quickly. But it’s interesting to realise that the Velib and the Boris Bike schemes had their precursors in Situationist idealism.
Much of your book seems to be about meeting your heroes, dead or alive. Can you say more about that?
It’s funny that a job I loved for its mindlessness was all bound up with a lot of literary resonances. Being a courier was a good excuse for meeting my heroes. I could sit and read Flann O’Brien between jobs. And I found ways to meet people like Richard Long, or followed in Edward Thomas’s tracks. It was liberating: working as a courier gave you access to places you wouldn’t normally be allowed into. Being a courier meant you had encounters of all kinds. I would courier someone a message saying I wanted to meet them, and turn up with that message. Most people were surprised and flattered that you’d go to so much trouble, and were sympathetic. It’s so unlikely, a sweaty cycle courier turning up on your doorstep, wanting to talk to you! It was the unlikeliness of it that helped me sneak my way into relationships, under the radar. I was opportunistic. It’s obvious really, the people who receive the fewest packages are the nicest about it. The people in big companies were appalling, just took you for granted.
What is couriering like as a profession?
It’s a grey area of labour. You have this alternative experience of the city. It’s a weird proprietorial relationship: “I can go faster than anyone else, I can bend the rules”. I knew that I was privileged in that I had the choice to leave couriering when I wanted to. A lot of other couriers love it as well, but they don’t have the choice to leave it if they want to, or they get injured or too old for it.
I’m really glad to see that there’s a concerted effort now to unionise one of the largest courier companies, City Sprint. Some very good organisers have become couriers, and are working hard to make this happen. It’s a job in which you are essentially loving being exploited. It’s piecework, patchwork. That’s another overlap with writing, I was doing book reviews, and they’re piecework too — with comparable pay. In both jobs you’re delivering somebody else’s message. It gave me a lot of writing discipline. I learnt to write quickly, between other jobs. In academia there can be an indulgence of time, an anxiety about finishing, it gets fostered in that culture. It did me a lot of good to have spent a few years outside that culture, not worrying about polishing my adverbs.
To what extent was working as a courier an escape for you?
It wasn’t really an escape so much as an alternative. I went back to couriering after my phd. I started doing the book during the third year on the road. Then my girlfriend found out she was pregnant, and I could see that things were changing, that what had been an alternative would turn into avoidance. There was a sense of constraints beginning to impose. It’s true that delivering other people’s messages for a living was a kind of escape from having to deliver my own messages, having to be constrained into language and writing. But constraint is also linked to choice — you can choose what you put into your writing. You can decide that there is something worth recreating in language and telling others about. True escapism would have been just to ride and not tell anyone about it. Riding was a way of clearing my head, and it’s certainly true that exercise of any kind seems to be good for people’s mental health problems. Annihilating yourself physically is a good coping strategy. It’s on a par with drinking a lot, but better for you. That feeling of utter exhaustion — I’ve never slept as well as when I was a courier. You literally live your days in the present. It’s an odd present actually, because you live simultaneously against clock time — against the clock, and in the present moment of the revolving wheel. But the bigger anxieties of having a child trumped all that.
Do you think Cyclogeography is about detachment from the ego?
Partly. It is a story about the mental state of mindlessness, rather than mindfulness. It’s about encountering the city in a way that annihilates the self. Couriering was an experience that taught me a lot, not about feelings but about sensations. I have always thought there was a constructedness to feelings. Feelings are socially performative. Literature can make us feel emotions, but not sensations. We can gain mental not physical experiences from reading. This stands in a peculiar relationship to subjectivity, which I tend to think of as fleeting, glimpsed and anonymous. Achieving anonymity was definitely part of the attraction to the job of couriering. You have to be anonymous, you want to avoid police attention for jumping red lights, you need to fly below the radar and avoid scrutiny. It’s another way of experiencing being the man in the crowd. As an academic you are not anonymous, because you develop personal relationships with the students. There’s no anonymity in writing either. Something I encourage my students to do is to discover the people behind the words. When Richard Long made his comment, “Never meet your heroes”, I think he was worried he might have disappointed me, but it wasn’t like that for me, I was delighted.
And what’s it like to have moved into academic life?
I have found I really love teaching. Encountering different opinions on texts I know well is great. I teach on the Medical Humanities course at King’s, and urban writing courses. I also teach creative writing: giving students permission to come up with creative responses to critical questions is exciting in teaching. For the urban writing course, I get them to do their own dérive. It’s still properly academic, because they have to write an analytical account of their project, but it is a moment of liberation. Helping people find a grammar or a stylistics to support their creativity I think is completely appropriate to Humanities study.
Working as a courier wasn’t as separate from my academic work as it first seems. My phd was on modernist novels, reading those in relation to turn of the century philosophy of mind, and early neurology. So I was seeing how stream of consciousness narratives were influenced by metaphors of mind or different models of consciousness.
I was very interested in the ramifications of ‘qualia’ — a philosopher’s term of art that Thomas Nagel defines as the ‘what is it like-ness’ of all conscious experience. Neurologists and philosophers of mind are often at loggerheads, so to speak, because of the brain-mind, materialist-phenomenological conflict. The experience of pain can be neurologically described, but that doesn’t mean that another person understands what pain actually feels like in your body through acquaintance with that description. It turns out to be very difficult to define exactly what pain is — it seems to be irreducible, it’s not reducible to brain function, and it’s not translatable between minds through language, unlike, say the concept that 1+1=2.
I think there is a similar irreducibility between cycling a city, and mapping a city. A lot of my book is about the irreducibility of cycling to mapping and vice versa, the way the experience of cycling, certainly cycle couriering, is a kind of mapwork, but it’s not possible to reduce the experience to the A to Z of London. Cycling as mapping tells a different story about London from the story a map seems to tell. Writing itself seems to me to be less about ‘straight’ description than it is about invocation, a calling forth in the reader’s mind.
How do you feel now that you are no longer a courier?
Relief. I loved it, and I am relieved not to have to do it now. Had I not found a job, I would be very stressed about the future. We’ve just had a baby — Cyclogeography is dedicated to our daughter.
Nostalgia is what I feel. I know from talking to other ex-couriers that most people who give up will always have this nostalgia. They say it’s the best job they’ve ever had. I’m glad that I’m still living and working in London — life has moved forward from my phd days. I miss the exhaustion and the numbness, and being fit. It gave me a breathing space. But the unifying thread is writing.
Read also: Victoria’s review of Cyclogeogrpahy.
Ingrid Wassenaar is a writer and education consultant. She is currently writing a book encouraging mothers to seek their own pleasure, as an antidote to modern parenting.
Her website is available at: http://ingridwassenaar.weebly.com/index.html
Her blog can be found at: http://dutchcourage-kirkegaard.blogspot.co.uk
Jon Day, Cyclogeography: Journeys of a London Bicycle Courier (Notting Hill Editions: London, 2015. 978-1907903991, 168pp., hardback.
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