The New York Review Abroad: A breathless journey around disparate worlds

Tara Isabella Burton reviews a a hefty and often harrowing compendium of The New York Review’s foreign reportage over the past fifty years.

The New York Review Abroad
Edited by Robert B Silvers; introductory updates by Ian Buruma
New York Review of Books, 513pp, £16.30

The greatest challenge in reading The New York Review Abroad, a hefty and often harrowing compendium of The New York Review’s foreign reportage over the past fifty years, is knowing when to stop for breath. Arranged chronologically, with minimal editorial context, the twenty-seven essays that comprise the anthology form a relentless march through the worst of recent history: rape in South Africa, extermination camps in Cambodia, suicide bombers in the West Bank. Characters – an elderly man attempting to make sense of the cult of youth in 1968 Paris, a Turkish provincial official who announces “we have no minorities” – appear, make their mark, and vanish just as quickly, subsumed into the wider narrative. At first, such rapid-fire shifts in focus induce a strange combination of vertigo and numbness – how can we invest, as readers, in so many disparate worlds?

Yet, as the book progresses, the strands of narrative start to weave together. Figures that appear in one essay as hopeful revolutionaries – Winnie Mandela, for example, in Nadine Gordimer’s 1976 “Letter from South Africa” – re-appear as more ambiguous figures: Mandela’s infamous 1986 “necklacing” speech, implicitly condoning a particularly inhumane form of vigilante violence, serves as the occasion for Ryszard Kapuscinski’s “Fire on the Road”: an account of the author’s near-death experience at hands of UPGA activists in 1966 Nigeria. Recurring questions – of collective memory, of atrocities enacted, re-imagined, forgotten or suppressed – become all the more powerful in their repetition. The story that takes shape is undeniably a brutal one, but it is, in the absence of unnecessary editorialising, also brutally honest.

Standing out most prominently against this backdrop of often-unremitting desolation are the collection’s quieter moments. Caroline Blackwood’s 1979 account of the Liverpool gravediggers’ strike, for example – its smaller scale brought into relief by the macrocosmic perspective of the essays surrounding it – is easily one of the most memorable essays in the collection, transforming a personal attempt to make sense of the culture of fifty-six gravediggers into an incisive study of the intersection of class, region, money, and identity in 1970’s Liverpool. Tiny details – the presence of a single black gravedigger in a largely inherited profession; one gravedigger’s inability to let an amateur perform a burial – become all the more compelling in the light of their seeming insignificance.

So too Susan Sontag’s 1993 “Godot Comes to Sarajevo” – another highlight of the collection – which examines the Balkans conflict through the lens of the author’s attempt to stage a production of Waiting for Godot in a Sarajevo theatre. Day-to-day concerns – rivalry among various Sarajevo theatre companies; the actors’ attempts to read their scripts in the absence of available light sources; the scrounging through leftovers at the Holiday Inn to find suitable props to replace the carrot Estragon is meant to chew on throughout the play – become far more revealing, and certainly far more memorable, than more programmatic analysis found in the anthology’s weaker essays.

Yet, at times, this personal perspective can prove problematic. While Sontag’s treatment of herself as a character, desperate to “be [more than] just a witness: that is, meet and visit…feel depressed, have heart-breaking conversations, grow ever more indignant, lose weight” is intensely compelling, other examples of authorial presence are less successful. In Ryszard Kapuscinski’s otherwise finely-crafted “Fire on the Road”, for example, the authorial voice becomes intrusive, silencing his subjects: “They do not know that I am not their enemy. They know that I am white, and the only white they have ever known is the colonizer who abased them…I am to die because Lady Lugard ordered them to carry her in a litter.”

More compelling are those details allowed to stand on their own, without the buffer of the authorial voice: few sentences in the book are as striking as the awkwardly-translated rule William Shawcross finds written on the blackboard in a former Khmer Rouge extermination camp: “You must answer in conformity with the questions I ask you. Don’t try to turn away my questions.”

One exception, however, is VS Naipaul’s 1972 “The Corpse at the Iron Gate”, a highly stylised account of the cult surrounding the corpse of Eva Peron, deceased wife of Argentinian President Juan Peron. Embracing the authorial presence – Naipaul begins by outlining the political situation in fairy-tale language, “like a story by Borges” – the essay melds the mythic and the prosaic (Eva Peron’s “thickish” ankles and “country girl’s taste in clothes”) to tell the story of a figure who likewise existed at the intersection of fantasy and reality, in a world “made deficient and bogus by its myths”, Naipaul’s essay is distinctive in its flair.

The book loses some momentum as it reaches the twenty-first century; the pace slows as history transforms into current events. Yet here, too, it is the stark and uncompromising commitment to presenting these stories on their terms that gives the narrative its strength: editorial minimalism takes on a character of its own. Thus does contributor Ian Buruma introduce Mark Danner’s account of Operation Iraqi Freedom, “Delusions in Baghdad”: “Mark Danner wrote his report in December 2003. The mission was not accomplished then. It still isn’t.”

Winnie Mandela in 1995. Photo: Getty

Tara Isabella Burton's work has appeared in The Spectator, Guernica Daily, Lady Adventurer, and more. In 2012 she won The Spectator's Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize. She is represented by the Philip G. Spitzer Literary Agency; her first novel is currently on submission.

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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