Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Dawkins, Leigh Fermor, and King and Crewe.

An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist, by Richard Dawkins

He is the world’s most famous atheist and evolutionary biologist. Author of The Selfish Gene, responsible for popularising the gene-centered view of evolution, and more recently, The God Delusion; An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist is the first volume of Richard Dawkins's autobiography. The memoir explores both the emotional and intellectual influences that shaped Dawkins's upbringing and young adulthood. It is a journey that takes readers from childhood in colonial Africa, to teenage rebellion and finally, Oxford. Here is a narrative that blends a love of poetry with scientific skepticism, and the result is a mixed response from the critics.

Writing for the Guardian, Richard Fortley praises the authorial style of the scientist, culminating in an account that is “surprisingly intimate and moving”.  “Dawkins's mother is delightfully described,” writes Fortley, “Most geeks cannot write: it is a brutal fact of living symbiotically with machines. But then most geeks do not have a taste for poetry.” An Appetite for Wonder gives readers a window into the personal conflicts and chapters of Dawkins's life, including a memory of a particularly inspiring teacher, “who put the young scientist on the road to zoology and to Oxford, where he has spent more or less his whole life.”

Brandon Robshaw in the Independent is likewise pleased with Dawkins's readability. “The reason Richard Dawkins’s books are so successful is that they are both intellectually rigorous and refreshingly easy to read.” The first volume of his autobiography, we are told, is “no exception”. “The book simply bubbles with ideas,” continues Robshaw, relishing in observations and theories which pepper the memoir. But Robshaw is also pleased with Dawkins's biographical style: “Dawkins studied zoology at Balliol College, Oxford, and he beautifully conveys the tweedy, pipe-smoking atmosphere of intellectual camaraderie”.

Jenni Russell, writing for The Sunday Times, is at odds with the reviews of both Robshaw and Fortley. What Robshaw calls “delightfully described” narrative is reconsidered by Russell to be “jarring awkwardness.” The awkwardness is said to stem from an inability to write about the nuances of human beings. Robshaw notes: Dawkins “isn’t observant, has no gift for conjuring up characters or situations, and is unwilling to reveal anything other than the most superficial emotions in himself.” A “misjudging of tone”, Dawkins is reported to lack “the skills or characteristics of a good autobiographer” which results in a book that is ultimately “self-promotion without self-knowledge”. 

The Broken Road, by Patrick Leigh Fermor

Hailed as one of the greatest British travel writers, Patrick Leigh Fermor began his journey through Europe in 1933, shortly after Hitler came to power. But it was not until middle-age that he wrote up his travels, publishing A Time of Gifts in 1977 and Between the Woods and the Water in 1986. Despite ending the latter with “To be concluded”, his death in 2011 suggested that, sadly, the trilogy would never be completed. But since then, his biographer Artemis Cooper and travel writer Colin Thubron have edited a Leigh Fermor’s unpublished work into The Broken Road.

Writing in the Financial Times, Suzi Feay writes that despite the fact that Leigh Fermor never finished the work, “it’s a surprise to find that the book is so readable”. She hails above all Leigh Fermor’s well-known energy, saying that “The sheer zest with which he delineates each monastery, its history, setting and eccentric monks, is infectious.”

William Dalrymple, writing for the Guardian was also impressed by how polished the book was, despite having to be finished by editors. He writes that “few of us thought it likely that it would contain any material to equal its great predecessors. The wonderful surprise is that, while the book is certainly uneven, and contains some jottings and lists that are little more than raw, unworked data, overall it is every bit as masterly as Between the Woods and the Water”. He concludes that “by any standards, this is a major work. It confirms that Leigh Fermor was, along with Robert Byron, the greatest travel writer of his generation, and this final volume assures the place of the trilogy as one of the masterpieces of the genre, indeed one of the masterworks of postwar English non-fiction.”

The unfinished nature of the book is noted in the Scotsman as well, but the reviewer comments that, although this is effectively a draft, it is a “Patrick Leigh Fermor draft, which makes it superior to the finished work of most other writers. The youthful joy shines through, and the deep cultural learning that was superimposed in later years is there in sufficient quantity to lend wonder to this fragmented tale.” The reviewer concludes that “This will be the last full book by Patrick Leigh Fermor to appear in print. Anybody who loved its two preceding volumes will fall upon it hungrily. Anybody who has not read the two preceding volumes should do so without delay.”

In the New Statesman magazine, Jeremy Seal again acknowledges that "the text sometimes lacks the perfectionist gleam found in Leigh Fermor's earlier work", but overall judges that "these occasional slips barely show through the dazzle". He also hails the editors' "stroke of brilliance" in including Leigh Fermor's separate diary he kept during his exporation of Mount Athos which, Seal concludes, "finally brings the journey to its rightful end in the spiritual heart of the country that was to prove, though the young author did not know it yet, Leigh Fermor's 'real love and destination'". 

The Blunders of Our Governments, by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe

A historical catalogue focusing on the worse errors of governments from the last 30 years, The Blunders of Our Governments shows the British establishment in its worse hours. Authored by a former and current Professor of Government at the University of Essex, this book is probably not the best choice for someone who is deciding whether to embark on a career in British politics.

King and Crewe show where the accountability in our political system lies, as explained by Dominic Lawson in The Sunday Times. “Obviously a government can be punished for its blunders at a general election. But the top civil servants sail serenely on, to collect their knighthoods and fine pensions”.

A big theme of the book is the inability of civil servants and politicians to comprehend people’s lives outside the Westminster bubble. Peter Wilby, in The Guardian, sums it up fantastically concisely: “The causes of the blunders were numerous. In many cases, ministers and their senior officials were simply ignorant – King and Crewe politely call it 'cultural disconnect' – of how large sections of the population lived from day to day”.

Sonia Purnell, in The Independent, describes the cause for the appalling record of blunders. “Part of the problem is a dangerously common desire among politicians to be seen as action heroes whose innate good sense and dazzling cleverness preclude the need to pause to consult or bother with boring detail”.

Self-promotion without self-knowledge? Richard Dawkins. Photograph: Getty Images.

Book talk from the New Statesman culture desk.

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