Pedal Power - Emily Chappell on Her Time as a London Courier

2016 is the year of bike delivery nostalgia.

Recently, the Financial Times wrote a piece about retired bike couriers. One of the people interviewed was Emily Chappell, former courier. Chappell wrote a memoir called “What Goes Around” that details the trials and joys of being a courier.

Courier Magazine recently interviewed Chappell. She told us about her experience writing her book, her life as a courier, and more.

Courier Magazine: Tell us about why you decided to write the book.

Emily Chappell: Quite prosaically, I was approached by a few agents and publishers who had read my blog, and the agent I eventually chose managed to overcome my reservations about portraying a scene I felt wasn't necessarily mine to write about.

Courier Magazine: How long were you a courier and where were your main routes?

Emily Chappell: I couriered from 2008 to 2014, with a few breaks for my more adventurous travels. I covered the whole of Central London, with occasional forays beyond, especially when work was slow and the controllers borrowed jobs from the motorbike circuit to keep us moving.

Courier Magazine: What were the goods/papers you typically delivered?

Emily Chappell: All sorts of things. The majority were just plain envelopes, but I also carried legal files and visa applications, model portfolios, CDs, USBs and hard drives, prints and plans and proofs, lenses and other camera equipment, occasional medical samples, tickets, stationery, corporate gifts, and all sorts of clothes and shoes, to all sorts of people and places.

Courier Magazine: Tell us about your most memorable experience as a courier, both positive and negative if you could.

Emily Chappell: There are a lot to choose from, but people are normally entertained by the story about my delivery to ‪10 Downing Street, within hours of David Cameron moving in when he became Prime Minister, walking nervously up to the front door in front of dozens of film crews, and appearing on news channels all around the world. The worst experiences were probably a few incidences of road rage, when I was threatened or attacked by drivers, and found myself suddenly afraid of the job I had previously loved.

Courier Magazine: Why did you decide to become a courier — what sparked the interest?

Emily Chappell: As soon as I started cycling in London, I dreamed about becoming a courier, but it wasn't until I finished my second degree amidst a gathering recession that I actually took up the job — mainly because it was the only one I could now get.

Courier Magazine: How did you handle the stress and physicality of the job?

Emily Chappell: In a way the physicality helps to relieve the stress. I'll always remember chatting to a van driver who worked for the same company as me. He'd had a terrible day, was in a rotten mood, and had just been given a drop that obliged him to sit in slow-moving traffic for the next hour, going the opposite direction from home. I realized that he had no escape — whereas, if anything upset me, I could always burn off the anger or fear or frustration by getting on my bike, finding a quiet road or a good line, and riding and riding and riding until I felt better. Cycling was my release valve.

Courier Magazine: What was your bike and gear of choice?

Emily Chappell: For most of the time I couriered I rode an old steel frame, converted into a fixed-gear. It didn't look like much, but it was a great ride, and I always used the best parts I could afford, because I wore them out so quickly. I carried a PAC bag (which was almost falling apart by the time I finished) and SIDI shoes, and usually wore Swrve clothing, which seemed to wear out slightly more slowly than anything else I tried.

Courier Magazine: Tell us about how the industry changed while you were in it — new technology that became available, regulations, how the people in the industry changed/the companies, etc.

Emily Chappell: Depressingly, the industry was unfair when I started and remains unfair now that I've finished. Couriers are expected to do a dangerous and demanding job without a minimum wage, sick days, or holiday pay, and without any protection or even recognition if they are injured in the course of their work. One thing that has begun to change, with the advent of accessible, open-source technology, is that more couriers are setting up co-operatives, or working independently, finding ways of making a better and more secure living without giving most of what they earn to managers and corporate systems.

Courier Magazine: Why did you eventually leave the courier world?

Emily Chappell: I had more and more reasons to leave — I was making most of my money from writing by the time I finally handed in my radio — but hung on because I loved the job, loved going to work every day. It was eventually other people's road rage that finally put me off. I thought it would get easier to deal with the constant aggression, but it actually got harder, and I found I was having to put more and more energy into letting go of the hurt and the fear. Eventually I noticed I was avoiding riding my bike on my days off, and I knew the time had come to move on — and to move out of London. (I now live in rural Wales.)

Courier Magazine: Can you tell us what you do now and how you still incorporate cycling in your daily life?

Emily Chappell: At the moment I am almost constantly on the road promoting my book, and I'm riding between most of my events — so yes, I do still cycle every day. Since I stopped couriering, I've also got more into adventurous cycling (last winter I fatbiked from Anchorage to Seattle), and taken up ultra-distance racing (last summer I competed in the Transcontinental). I thought that when I eventually had to stop couriering I'd end up becoming a fat wage-slave, trapped behind a desk, remembering my glory days on the bike — but as it turns out, I am cycling more than ever.