When poets go to war

It's time for the Poetry Society to reconnect with the grassroots.

Being a poet, or being interested in poetry, looks bad enough. It's the dowdy aunt or eccentric brother of the literary world: once the dominant form in terms of sales, exposure and cultural capital, until displaced by the novel starting in the 1840s, in the 21st century it's considered a strictly minority art form. Those who write it are either inappropriately emotive teenagers or spinsters whose efforts could better be turned towards ceramics or local history. But when poetry gets into the papers, it gets worse still. The debacle over the election for Oxford Professor of Poetry in 2009, with accusations of both sexism and foul play and its subsequent postponement, made the poetry world look like a small and fractious place.

And then things got even worse. There were increasingly obvious problems at the top of the Poetry Society, the main charitable organisation for poetry in the UK, visible in a series of high-profile resignations. But no explanation for these convulsions was forthcoming until a group of members, formed in an online campaign by the poet Kate Clanchy, pressed for an Emergency General Meeting at which they demanded answers. When said EGM occurred, what came out was a litany of mismanagement by the board and personal spats spiralling out of control - George Szirtes has a good summary here. The board agreed to step down, but only after a few seething months of controversy.

The coverage of the affair has, as poet Polly Clark has pointed out, been very one-sided, "a lazy kind of PR for the Board... with added parmesan shavings of insinuation about the ex-Director Judith Palmer". There are, as others have made clear, a great many dedicated, capable and enthusiastic members still participating in the Society at a local level, and in the Society's many activities (such as its education section). Nonetheless, the Society looks discredited.

The fact is that, as throughout the history of poetry in the 20th century, much - and much of the most interesting - activity in recent years has taken place outside the institutional parts of the poetry world. Small presses, live events and new magazines being set up by young poets have become the main loci of poetic innovation in this country (discounting, of course, the usual old bastions of neo-modernism). Increased access to print publishing and the web has fostered an expansion of outlets for young poets run on a DIY basis. Brash, irreverent, incorporating vast swathes of pop-culture forms and material - video-games, spam, chunks of sampled text - and frequently surreal, the work of poets like Simon Barraclough, James Wilkes, Kristen Irving and Rachael Allen has injected life into a scene that can sometimes seem to just be ticking over on the margins. It's come out through magazines and e-zines like Pomegranate, New Trespass and Fuselit, through presses like Sidekick Books, Penned in the Margins and Donut Press, run out of flats and, just occasionally, offices. And all this has happened without support, or even much attention, from the main institutions and organs of British poetry. Many of the poets in this new generation of writers have little in common with those who currently dominate the poetic mainstream, who are patronised by the big poetry publishers and control the main journals and funding bodies - they are, in fact, closer to the groups of experimental poets who, starting in the 1960s and '70s, produced a thriving poetic counter-culture and small-press scene in Britain. Regarding the goings-on at the Poetry Society, cynics might well say: "Who cares?" But what implications does they have for the poetry scene?

David Keenan's claim, in an essay published in The Wire in July, that the slashing of state support for the arts would foster small-scale and radical culture that refuses the "narcotic compromises" of an art world sponsored on the basis of economic impact, "social worth" and accessibility, isn't really borne out in the case of poetry. Arts Council money that kept alive mediocre work also gave a start to Stop Sharpening Your Knives and its associated Egg Box Press, and a host of small presses - those putting out more traditional and newer or more experimental work alike - depend on their annual infusion of cash to put out work for which there is a small market. Moreover, the role that the Poetry Society, in particular, plays in all of this is at a tangent to the problem.

For Tom Chivers, director of Penned in the Margins and a board member of the Poetry Book Society, there is little connection. On the one hand, there is "a lot of work to be done" in terms of the full representation of spectrum of poetry by these institutions, and the Society's role is "not really relevant" to Penned in the Margins. But the Poetry Society still plays a vital role in the "poetry ecosystem". They play "a very different role" from the indie organisations and the poets that support and constitute them - in terms of education programs, the National Poetry Competition, local work with Stanzas, the network of local poetry groups, and so on; the Society's performance shouldn't be understood in terms of how much newer poets are interacting with it. The press coverage of recent events at the Poetry Society, not to mention the mishandling of how it was dealt with publicly, he says, has made what was "a purely organisational problem" seem like a real crisis.

The poet, editor and novelist Jane Holland agrees to some extent, but feels there is definite room for improvement. "I would be glad to see a return to a more inclusive programme at the Poetry Society, and by that I don't necessarily mean 'anyone who writes poetry' but a better understanding and sympathy for the aims and achievements of the small presses, including smaller magazines." The vast extent and diversity of the poetry world - "we have many different schools of poetry, we have multiple cliques and ghettos, we have new and established alternative presses, we even have the looming possibilities of digital poetry" - do not "seem to make it into the consciousness of the Poetry Society". A re-engagement between the small presses and grassroots groups and the Society is necessary: "it's about time we returned to a position of cheerful amateurism".

Illustration by James Albon
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The life and times of the London cycle courier

Bike messengers no longer comprise the militia they resembled when the Tories were turning London into a city of finance. But they still trail a thrillingly reckless air of romance.

It was as if I’d accidentally stumbled into some secret cell from which an insurrection was being planned. The four or five mechanics and cycle couriers loosely clustered around the counter, costumed in black clothes that seemed, impossibly, to be skinny and baggy at the same time, had an arachnid quality to them. Static crackled from the radios clipped to their shoulders on the tarpaulin courier bags that arced over their backs like a carapace. They looked like the conspirators of an anarchist revolution, rebuilding bikes from greasy cogs and oil-stained bits of metal as if they were bombs. I was almost disappointed when the one standing behind the counter proved to be cheerfully friendly. Suddenly, they looked endearingly like twentysomething Mutant Ninja Turtles.

The late 1980s and early 1990s were the heroic phase in the history of the bicycle courier. London’s roads were arteriosclerotic with traffic, so courier firms that had once despatched vans, motorbikes and scooters across the city increasingly resorted to bike messengers, who were as nimble as they were cheap. The internet hadn’t yet made them half redundant, relegating them to the role of delivering documents that ­require a signature from Soho to the City, or  conveying portable corporate gifts from the City to Mayfair.

In these years the messengers visibly became a tribe. They acquired a more uniform appearance, albeit one that accommodated individual eccentricities; they devised a dialect to lubricate radio communication between couriers and controllers; identified an unofficial headquarters, a bar in Shoreditch called the Foundry; and developed their own rituals of belonging, including the Cycle Messenger World Championships. This annual event, inaugurated in Berlin in 1993, was hosted in London in 1994, when approximately 500 couriers from Europe and the US as well as the UK attended. This is roughly the number of couriers who still fling themselves along the streets of London today, in far more embattled conditions.

It was in 1993, at the acme of the profession and its associated subculture, that the then prime minister, John Major, speaking to the Conservative Group for Europe, made an infamous prognostication about the future of Britain, in which he misused George Orwell’s reference to “hiking” from his essay “The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius” (1941). “Fifty years on from now,” Major prophesied, “Britain will still be the country of long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and Pools fillers and – as George Orwell said – ‘old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist’ . . .” In contrast to this pastoral fantasy, bike messengers seemed to herald a feral future in which, at evening rush hour, as traffic fumes thicken, the congested lanes and streets of cities are convulsed with semi-vagrant, rodent cyclists, all of them addicted to danger, competing with suicidal energy in so-called “alleycat” races.

Major’s imaginary old maids, ideologically speaking, were the sisters of those honest, industrious Englishmen whom Norman Tebbit invoked in 1981 when, as Margaret Thatcher’s employment secretary, he made his notorious claim that, instead of rioting like the current generation of unemployed, his father had “got on his bike and looked for work”. When a cycle courier got on his bike, he wasn’t looking for work, he was working. In this sense, the bike messengers out-tebbited Tebbit. Yet their untamed appearance and their countercultural attitudes aligned them with the sorts of people who relished a riot – the New Age travellers and class warriors who, in the pages of the tabloid press, threatened to stain Thatcher, Tebbit and Major’s pristine vision for Britain. At a time when cycling, in Britain’s political imagination, seemed in danger of becoming an emblematically Conservative activity, cycle couriers were fifth columnists.

Bike messengers no longer comprise the ragged but glorious militia they resembled when the Tories were assaulting London and reconstructing it as a centre of finance. They no longer look like desperadoes or mercenaries among the armies of conventional commuters that traverse the city. But they still trail a derelict charm and a thrillingly reckless air of romance as they hurtle through the streets. Indeed, in some respects, their piratical appeal has grown.

Cycle couriers have managed to survive in the city’s increasingly competitive ecology, subsisting even though a deadly combination of emails and Uber cabs threatens to render them extinct. Such is the persistent value of the autograph (as opposed to some kind of electronic fingerprint, say) that signed documents still need to be ferried from door to door; such is the capital’s ongoing road congestion (and the congestion charge) that it is still quicker to cross it on two wheels than four. Their heightened appeal, though, can perhaps be explained by the fact that they look so attractively fierce and undomesticated beside more rarefied species of cyclists that have evolved in London over the past couple of decades. Among these, the most prominent are middle-aged men in Lycra shorts on racing bikes; commuters in suits on fold-up bikes; and tourists, foreign and domestic, in chinos on bank-branded public hire bikes. (A recent addition to this list is the newest subspecies of courier, employed by the food delivery service Deliveroo. With the only job requirements being to own a bicycle and a smartphone, they can be seen in increasing numbers, huffing and puffing up mild inclines and wobbling under the weight of their giant backpack-boxes full of chow.)

The cycle courier also looks far tougher, far better adapted to the remorseless daily demands of urban life, than another, rather more populous metropolitan species: the hipster. The hipster may or may not be a cyclist: if he rides, it will most likely be a showy, courier-aping, customised “fixie” (fixed-gear) bike. But whether on wheels or on foot, with his spindly legs rigid in drainpipes instead of agile in tights and cut-off combat pants, his beard absurdly sculpted instead of attractively disordered by the force of the elements, the hipster is an ossified, etiolated, even decadent descendant of the cycle courier. In the contemporary capital’s mythological bestiary, bike messengers, their lower bodies inseparable from the sleek metal frames of the machines on which they balance, are the city’s centaurs; hipsters, its plodding satyrs. Messengers, as Emily Chappell explains in the glossary that concludes her new book about being a courier, have a portmanteau term of contempt for “urban cyclists who adopt the supposed style and attitude of cycle couriers without ever having worked as one”: “fakengers”.

Chappell’s book, What Goes Around: a London Cycle Courier’s Story (Guardian Faber), which is fascinating for offering a ­female courier’s memoir of a predominantly male culture, is one of no fewer than three to have been published by couriers or former couriers about the city’s cycle-life in the space of six months. The others are Jon Day’s Cyclogeography: Journeys of a London Bicycle Courier (Notting Hill Editions), a learned handbook on cycling that dignifies cyclists as psychogeographers; and Julian Sayarer’s Messengers: City Tales from a London Bicycle Courier (Arcadia), the most combatively political of the three.

Sayarer’s memoir drily characterises couriering as “the best of all the worst jobs in the world”. In his prologue, he describes a phone conversation in which his agent tries to persuade him to produce a manuscript “about bicycles, and the city”. When Sayarer expresses his reluctance to write another book about “punctures and brakepads” at a publisher’s insistence, the agent admonishes: “If you don’t, mark my words, they will find a name instead of yours to put on that spine!” It transpires that they could have put the names of at least three authors on the spine, all of them highly accomplished prose stylists and compelling narrators.

All three books read a little like threnodies; and it is tempting to see them as symptoms of a subculture that is becoming increasingly conscious of the need to memorialise itself precisely because it is under threat. Chappell, Day and Sayarer feel like anthropologists scrambling to record the language of a threatened tribe; they are compiling a semiotics of urban cycling in the face of its fatal transformation. As the appearance of boutique bike shops, cycle superhighways and bank-sponsored hire bikes implies, if bicycling in 21st-century London is being promoted by politicians, it is also being sanitised, rationalised and privatised.

Revealingly, in his “mayoral foreword” to a document published by Transport for London (TfL) in 2010, Boris Johnson underlined his determination to turn London into what, in a clumsy and faintly sinister portmanteau term, he called “a cyclised city” – “a civilised city where people can ride their bikes safely and easily in a pleasant environment”. Everyone wants to be able to ride their bike safely, and the vast majority of cyclists want Johnson to stop orating and instead introduce stringent legislation to prevent HGVs from killing them at traffic junctions. But not everyone who wants to cycle safely wants London to become a “pleasant environment”. I don’t; and it certainly wouldn’t still be London if it did.

***

In the civilised city of TfL’s “Cycling Revolution”, the commuters, fakengers and sightseers pedalling along the superhighways are inadvertently erasing the record of cycle couriers who pioneered them. The books by Chappell, Day and Sayarer restore the record. Each contains detailed, often vivid descriptions of, for example, the punitive physical discipline that the job demands, which quickly becomes an addiction; the jerry-rigging of equipment fatigued by the road; the encounters with blank-faced representatives of corporate offices; gatherings of the tribe at the likes of the Foundry; the run-ins with black-cab drivers; and, most gripping of all, the alleycat races.

Day recounts one particular race, designed by his brother, also a courier, to be “an urban steeplechase with a fox-hunt theme”. Attaching a fox’s tail to his belt loop and strapping a plastic container filled with liquid to his back, his brother set off through the traffic on his bike, sputtering a trail of white paint through his rear wheel. After a short time, Day himself signalled the beginning of the race with the blast of a horn. “We followed the paint that lay in a splattered line on the tarmac, competing with the other street markings and tracing a ghostly outline of my brother’s journey,” he writes with characteristic flourish.

Sayarer provides a second-hand account of the same alleycat race in his own book. Day’s brother makes an appearance under the identity used by controllers on the couriers’ radio system: “Two-Four brings me up to speed with his life and tells me about his last alleycat: the fox hunt.” Day also plays a cameo role in Chappell’s book, in the guise of the courier “who was now waiting for his DPhil viva to roll around before finally moving on to lecture in modernist fiction at King’s College”. At times it really is as if the names of all three of them appear on the spine of the same book.

Reading these absorbing accounts of bike messengers’ struggle to subsist on the roads of London, the only thing I felt was missing was a sense of the angry inner monologue that, surely, shapes their consciousness as they cycle through the relentlessly hostile traffic. For the most part, admirably, and aside from a few vituperative references to cabbies or cops, Chappell, Day and Sayarer seem “to float above the chaos and ­friction of the city with an unfailing smile” (as Chappell puts it, describing another female courier). When I cycle, I maintain a constant, resentful running commentary, at times all too audible, on the confrontational or careless drivers who threaten to knock me on to the road. It seems hard to believe that professional couriers don’t suffer from the same psychosis: cyclosis.

Matthew Beaumont is the author of “Nightwalking: a Nocturnal History of London” (Verso)

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle