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Annalisa Brambilla

Don’t Shoot The Messenger

“But instead of losing quietly, one by one, they have banded together with a mindless kind of loyality and moved outside the framework, for good or ill. They may not have an answer, but at least they are still on their feet”. Hunter S. Thompson, Hell’s Angels


The courier job sounds simple; pick up a package on one side of town and drop it off on the other. A great value advantage for busy companies, messengers navigate the city traffic more efficiently than any motorbike or car, with the controller back in the office juggling each of them like pawns on an urban chessboard; their radio and PDA always on. Couriers get paid an average of £3 per delivery, riding sixty to eighty miles per day and making an average of around £65 per day. They perform a peripheral and dangerous job that is lonely when it is busy, and frustrating, if not boring, when it is slow. Self employed on a sub-contractor basis, they absolve their employers from any responsibility, financially or otherwise. Cash-in-hand at the end of the week with no questions asked makes them free, but on the other hand it means no insurance, no reimbursements for bikes, clothing, communications, accidents, no sick pay, no holiday pay and tax. Nothing, apart from a payment system that promotes a subtle atmosphere of jealousy and competition when the bottom line becomes money. However, despite and because of this, a sense of camaraderie is common within the messenger scene. So common and pervasive that it creates in fact a real community, a “bunch of random people” (as they describe themselves) bonded together because of two loves: the bike and the beer. They work together, they party together, they do things together, they even look a bit alike, they moan at each other and fight and then look after each other again. It is Thursday, late afternoon, after work, I stop at the Duke on Clerkenwell Road. Standing outside, I cannot help but stare at the fast, sexy cyclist heading east from the center of town. The road goes slightly downhill, quite wide with no traffic lights. At that time of day, when the sun is out, giving warm light and long shadows, cycling is a real treat. One after another, young men and women on sleek bikes, clearly not amateurs on their two wheels, or commuters, make their ride back home in a smooth flow.

Friday evening, another pub, the Foundry in Old Street. An anarchy of frames and wheels locked to one another, colorful and funky, rather impressive. Everybody’s hats and gloves, wearing cyclist shoes, big oneshoulder bags with radios, talking loudly. “It’s Friday night, couriers always come here after work”. I talk with Scott and Wookie, Earl, Ray and Wayne and I start spending time with them. The more I do it the more I see a family displaying its dynamics in front of me, like in a real extended and somehow dysfunctional family. Different people play different roles, the crotchety uncles and mouthy youngsters, the lonesome and the couples, the parents and the kids. Like different characters are part of the same plot, each one with his or her own history but also a role in the story of the community. Small or large it doesn’t matter, these people look to me like a solid group. All different and all somehow the same, and all, for some reason, caught up in this job, messengers share a lust for freedom and slices of life that run deep into brotherhood and anxiety. “Easy to get in, difficult to get out, you become addicted to it…. at the moment I hate it, but I know that if I ever quit it I will miss it. The job itself is crap, but the people are lovely!” This book wants to represent both the story of the people who work as bicycle couriers in London today and the community that they are part of. Annalisa Brambilla


“Cycle Messengers have a richly deserved reputation for being a few spokes short of a wheel; even other cyclists think they’re crazy. Green Top Knob Jonathan Porritt once said that they were a disgrace to the cycling community because they get ordinary, lawabiding cyclists a bad reputation. They do all the things that the self-righteously woollyjumpered don’t: run red lights, cut up cars, get drunk and ride their bikes and hang around town looking cool in their wrap shades and baggies. Vagabonds on the information superhighways, cycle couriers play an essentially solitary trade. They spend their days alone with their bikes with only two-way radios squawking laconic instructions for company. They may pass the whole day without seeing another courier, without seeing a face that understands their experiences. Snotty receptionists unwilling to allow the briefest of phone-calls or even a visit to their oh, so pristine lavatory, bolshy security guards enforcing stupid rules “ ‘cos it’s more than me jobsworth”, monosyllabic postroom boys pasting up yet another pin-up, carelessly opened car-doors, startled deer and funky chickens on shopping trips too absorbed in the window displays to realise that their path will cross in front of a rapidly approaching front wheel until it’s too late, taxi-drivers intent on their next fare and uncaring about the fate of mere cycle couriers and most deadly of all, articulated trucks driven into the heart of the city, insensitive to soft vehicles, hardly noticing anything beneath them at all, wheels rolling remorselessly onwards messengering is the last great untold tale of urban life [sic!]...” Buffalo Bill (on the road for 14 years, now ex-messenger and editor of Moving Target, the online messenger fanzine)

name apryl bailey

favourite lobby cotton centre se1

lorries thundering

nickname granny smith(city sprint)

favourite bathroom international house

other cyclists clueless

age 30

favourite bike shop at london fields cycles they fixed my buckled wheel for me before work and for free one time and that was pretty cool

your fellow messengers warrior-like

place of origin philly usa years in the job 1yr 7months bike fixie best place to ride out to w11 or w14 worst road beech street ec2

favourite building 5 appold street favourite food during work dried mango, peanut butter on toast, biggles sausage a puncture every 12 days

dilikes wet feet loose chains

crash once i went to pass between a motorbike and a construction site sign somehow i missed and got my handlebar locked around the leg of the sign and i ended up suspended half way off my bike on one side and the other side was still clipped into my pedals i couldnt move and someone had to come lift me up

likes bikes. still. somehow

pedestrians indecisive

fastest street aldgate high st favourite place in london all of it

the job itself amazing best memory hanging out on wood street worst memory the time an old lady walked out in front of me and i plowed into her and sent her flying face down on the street

“You don’t know

what you can do until you do it. Life on the road is quite an adventure.�




Steve, 6 years on the road.

Xander, 10 years on the road.


Emilia, 1 year on the road.

Old man Chris, 16 years on the road.

name michael

dislikes the spread of time

pedestrians cattle

nickname sparrow

likes female bicycle groupies

lorries oxen

age 47

favourite lobby 30 fenchurch street

other cyclists cyclists

place of origin hackney

favourite bathroom 1 threadneedle

your fellow messengers postmen and women on acid

years in the job 10

favourite bike shop none

the job itself hardcore

bike foremost-racer

favourite building tower 42

best memory sunny days

best place to ride the parks

favourite food during work chicken and pasta

worst memory tottenham losing 5-1 to arsenal

worst road cobbled streets

a puncture every month

fastest street whitehall

crash smacked into a bmw in central london, stopstart-stop kind of smash

favourite place in london clink street

“Cycling is for you and get a brake! �

Michael at the steps, W1.

The Foundry EC2. Cheap and well located in Old Street, it is the Friday night hang out place.

Lenka and Oriol, met on the road 2 years ago.

Stephanie, 10 years on the road.

The Commander, 25 years on the road.

Gertie 21 years on the road

Julian, 3 years on the road.

Ricardo goes back to Brazil and couriers celebrate his departure.

name greg hall nickname g-reg age 28 place of origin hampshire years in the job 1 bike 1980’s red low profile time trial best place to ride scotland worst road oxford street fastest street marylebone/euston road favourite place in london london down by the river by the millenium bridge or london wall

dislikes unnessassary security protocol, materialistic people, the unelected goverment likes riding my bike favourite lobby none favourite bathroom any that i can use favourite bike shop brick lane (they always give me discount) favourite building natwest tower on leadenhall street favourite food during work chocolate or fresh cakes a puncture rarely crash i got hit by a pedestrian, flipped over the hadlebars and faceplanted in oxford street

pedestrians lemmings lorries bastards other cyclists bromptons your fellow messengers mates the job itself erratic best memory back in febuary after being hit by a van, was laying on the floor with a suspected broken neck and loads of couriers stopped to ask if i was ok worst memory getting hit by the van

“Live fast, die

young, ride safe! �


“A race will be held to determine who among us is London’s Manliest. Alleycat starts at four pm. Bike jousting and feats of manly strength will follow the race. No sponsors. Shit Prizes. All for the glory. All are welcome to race. Fake moustaches will be available for women and the unmanly. Four quid to race, proceeds go to Moustache Mikey cuz he’s broken.” Buffalo Bill (Moving Target, Jul 3rd 2009)

Ed and Little Wayne at the Mantathlon, the alleycat organized for raising money for Mikey’s broken shoulder. Alleycats are street races where messengers compete against each others.

“I’m on the verge of weeping and I’m almost 100% sure it’s not the painkillers talking. London has been so supportive to me this past week that I’m completely at a loss for words. Csaba spent the entire night in the hospital and dealt with the doctor’s and nurses whom were less than pleased with me. Something about not standing still during the x-rays or some shit, who knows. It wasn’t just any night either, it was his birthday. That’s seriously the biggest favor anyone’s done for me in recent memeory. Csaba, you have no idea how relieved I was to see you when they finally took the safety railing off the bed and let me go out for a smoke. You are a true friend and a real gentleman... Tom Crow and Vortex have been gracious enough to prepare economic stimulus for me. Before my ferry had even landed in Harwich, Tom, Clockwork’s #2 rider, had got the gears spinning on the event for tomorrow night. This messenger community is stronger than anything I’ve ever seen or heard of. I love this job, I love this town and I love all of you (fucking pain killers are making me sappy n’ shit). Finally, the LCEF is offering a hand when it’s clearly not required to. This crash was my fault and to be honest pretty much invitational with my lifestyle. Overdrive said it best when he said that I “was in a party mood at the time” so I realize that I’m not eligible for anything. This gesture is truly undeserved but completely appreciated. Thank you guys so much”. Mikey (Moving Target, Jun 4th 2009)

Csaba, waiting at the “ladies� checkpoint during the Mantathlon.

Mikey and Sarah. Jousting after the alleycat, they open the contest by playing handle bars as horns.

Max, first crash.

Vojtech lights the wheels for the final joust.

119 shadwell lane, E8. Five people officially living there, four of whom are bicycle couriers.

name alex story nickname sideshow age 24

likes offices with free sparkling water, unexpected kindness, flirtatious secretaries, transcending traffic and unecessary skidding

place of origin canada

favourite lobby bcd travel at greater london house, before we had to go round the back and use the goods lift. hop exchange, southwark st. se1.

years on the job 1.5

favourite bathroom broadwick st. (joke)

bike custom-built fixed-gear, harry hall frame

favourite bike shop cavendish cycles

best place to ride shaftesbury avenue, west-bound, as the sun’s falling low in the sky, with room to swing between lanes and golden shards of sun filtering through the trees

favourite building 72 broadwick. catch-ups with petra and free chocolate.

worst road the highway e1 fastest street regent street southbound favourite place in london waterloo bridge, regent’s park dislikes zombie pedestrians, slow cyclists, the goods lift of greater london house and security guards who have gone mad with the puny, pathetic bit of authority they command

favourite food during work salad bar, cookies and chocolate milk a puncture every 15 days crash a million blind pedestrians and juggernaut mercedes loser. amongst others. pedestrian blinkered lorries ominous other cyclists go faster

your fellow messengers cut your hair and get a job the job itself kick-ass best memory this one night at the foundry, when we... wait, i forget worst memory young kid running out on whitechapel road

“Don’t ever start this job, it’s like crack.”

Alex, E8. Monday morning, on his way to work.

Mohammad in his bedroom, Krakenhouse Squat, Crouch End, N11. 6 years on the road.

Titta at home, E2. 7 years on the road.

“I started couriering by chance in Dublin and it was the most fun ever. An old, withered courier told me to be careful not to get stuck doing the job – it wears you down and becomes a dead end, he said, somewhat sadly. I laughed. I did get stuck alright, but the job too changed. It used to be a job for tough, fit, able and street smart people. The worst enemies were time and traffic. You’d battle the weather, unreasonable dispatchers and bad drivers, swallowing your fear, anger, loneliness and excuses. You’d get your kicks from clearing impossible junctions at full speed. How the hell did I get away with that? You’d be exhausted to the point of breaking and still go on. One mistake on the road could be the last one you’ll ever make, your fragile limbs, skull, flesh and bones the only ones you’ll ever have. Together after hours on a Friday night, we’d flush out the stress in Hogans/ Duke/any old hole, race a bit, hopefully not have a fight or crash, and wake up Saturday to a brand new world where last week didn’t quite happen. We’d bond with our work mates, because nobody else would really understand – or tolerate – our sometimes outrageous humour and behaviour. A misfit, an outcast, and so what? Off you go, try doing what I do for living. It used to be so. The courier industry wasn’t able to cope with the volume of work. We can pick up in two hours’ time. The courier, scruffy, ugly, smelly and frightening as he/she may be, was appreciated for what he could do. Not so any longer. What makes the job hard now is sitting in the parks hour after hour, standing by, frustrated. Listening to ten people do the work that isn’t enough to feed five. Finally getting a job, like breadcrumbs falling off the table. But nobody wants to admit it or say it out loud. Because it’s so sad, really. We are not needed any longer. Our skill wasted. That is just depressing”. Titta

name ben hughes nickname rapattack age 27 place of origin barts hosptial london years on the job 9 i think, i try not to count bike fetish cycles-position (track/fixed) best place to ride cutting through the parks when you are not in the mood for traffic or hammering it through the west end when you are well and truly in the mood for it worst road lower thames st-the highway......dont stop pedaling, dont look back and dont fuck about!!! fastest street the one being watched by the god of traffic lights favourite place in london the barbican complex. its like marmite, you either love it or you hate it dislikes the stress of being in traffic all day, noise levels, commuter cyclists, cabs, dead miles,

rain, being tired, rookies that ‘just dont get it’ likes the community, the size of my office (london), watching the world go by, the flexiblity, going into town on a day off and bumping into friends all over the place. generally getting a bit more enjoyment out of my working life than a lot of people in this city. oh and meeting the love of my life and the mother of my child :) favourite lobby the ones with free sweets, drinks or anything i can take. its all about the perks favourite bathroom basment level in the barbican center. there is an enterance from the underground car park with not a staff member in site. huge toilets, nice stone floors and walls, brass metal work and always empty. i take detours to use them favourite bike shop i find condor cycles to be the most helpful for me during work hours. where other shops have turned me away in times of need, condor have always managed to find a moment to chuck that new sprocket on, tighten up a lock ring or just lend out some tools to get me rolling again favourite building the barbican towers favourite food during work: anything cheap will do

a puncture every 2/3 months ;) armadilos baby!!! they handle like a cow on ice but i hate punctures so nothing beats them crash 4 crashes. t-boned by a motorbike, 2 pedestrians steping out when they should try looking and one cab just being a cab pedestrian chaotic lorries deadly other cyclists un-trained your fellow messengers pic-n-mix the job itself restrictive freedom best memory the sun coming up as we rode through the night, on our way to camber sands. we left south london at 11pm and hit the beach at 7am. many many many hills, a few wrong turns, the odd puncture and pit stops. it was in my early days and for me was a life changing experience worst memory standing in the loading bay at embankment place with paperboy (josh) as he told me our friend sebastian lukomski had been killed by a lorry

“Nothing’s really changing out here, it’s just another year and it goes on and on and on and on...”

Delphina and Ben at home with Layla, N4. They met on the road.

name martin nickname gertie age 40 place of origin chepstow, wales years on the job 21. i will never stop, you’ll take my radio from my cold dead hand bike started in grandad’s johnny berry rouring bike. now ride connondales best place to ride up middle temple lane worst road down middle temple lane lane in the wet fastest street the one home after a couple of drinks favourite place in london the wardrobe dislikes heavy legs on a bike playing up likes days of a smooth running bike and good legs

favourite lobby anyone who doesn’t chase me out and send me around the back of the building favourite bathroom vccp favourite bike shop condor and tour de ville favourite building lloyds building and leadenhall market favourite food during work humus, marmite and cheese sarnies a puncture i don’t believe in god or fate, but i do believe in sods law so i’m not asnwering these ones pedestrian lemmings lorries dangerous other cyclists civilians your fellow messengers comrades the job itself hard best memory the duke when i was working for a-z worst memory seb’s death

“The power of common

sense and common decency outweights the power of the commons in dictating one’s behaviour. Doing this job means I’ve never profited from anyone elses labour, every penny I earnt has been through my own sweat not someone elses...with the caveat that any community is a clique from outside, once inside, the courier world is a wonderful, supporting, caring group of people.

Gertie and Galileo at home, N1.

Creative corner, W1.

Wood Street, EC2.

“At about 8.45am on Monday, February 23, a 32-tonne Scania tipper truck rumbled on to the streets of the City of London. It turned on to Upper Thames Street, a busy road that runs parallel to the northern bank of the river Thames, then it drove west towards a notoriously busy T-junction with Southwark Bridge. At about the same time, a young man on a pushbike left the offices of his courier company in Shoreditch, just north of the financial district, and peddled south past the City’s shops and office blocks. He was a bicycle messenger. He had a package to deliver near London Bridge and another in the West End. His route took him down to the river and into the maelstrom of traffic flowing west on Upper Thames Street.” The Financial Times, 24.02.04

To the people who lent me their time and space. No photographer can function without goodwill. A. B.

Copyright 2009 Annalisa Brambilla. All Rights Reserved. Printed and bound in London by Screaming Colour Ltd.


Don't Shoot The Messenger  

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