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Breakfast cereals are the glue that holds our civilisation together

Snap, crackle and pop is really this: the snap of our bones on the wheel of fate, the crackle of our skins in the fires of damnation, and the apoptosis that awaits our mortal cells.

Let us recast the riddle of the Sphinx: who snaps, crackles and pops in the morning; snaps, crackles and pops in the afternoon; and snaps, crackles and pops in the evening? Answer: me – and probably you, too, for if there’s one food that unites infancy and extreme old age, the toothless and those defanged by time-the-devourer, then it’s breakfast cereals. Indeed, to allocate these comestibles a given slot within the daily-go-round is just as spurious as confining them to any point in the human life cycle; cereals are . . . Well, there’s no other way of putting it: serial. Other foods may come and go but the great granular underlay of cereal remains. We are just as likely – arguably more so – to find ourselves standing at the kitchen counter in the middle of the night crunching down Golden Crunch as we are to be up with the lark and the iconic Kellogg’s rooster.

Yes, the snap, crackle and pop is really this: the snap of our bones on the wheel of fate, the crackle of our skins in the fires of damnation, and the apoptosis that awaits every single one of our mortal cells. (Memo to Self: must pitch Kellogg’s an ad campaign along these lines.) I started out eating Rice Krispies, savouring their delicious timpani as I plunged home my spoon and I dare say I shall exit this world with this same susurrus in my ears – and in between, bowl of cereal has followed bowl, as night succeeds day. Moreover, cereal being a food that comes with high sugar content, on to which you add still more, the eating of it is highly addictive, so it might be more appropriate to say bowl follows bowl as minute succeeds minute.

It’s fair enough, this serial cereal, because even more than bread, cereal returns us to the very roots of our civilisation, which lie in the amassing of food surpluses in the form of grain storage. If you like, one productive way of viewing the early despotisms of the Fertile Crescent, which arose from the domestication of einkorn and emmer wheat, hulled barley et cetera, is that these were in fact giant cereal boxes upon which the cultural plan of the future was incised in cuneiform. Archaeologists have actually discovered primitive cereal boxes at cave sites in the Zagros Mountains, although there’s considerable dispute over whether they fulfilled practical or merely ceremonial functions. For my part, I think the decipherment of an inscription on one of these rectilinear clay vessels – “Free Toy Inside!” – is pretty much a clincher.

If cereal is foundational (we have no difficulty envisioning Nebuchadnezzar tucking in to a bowl of Lucky Charms and asses’ milk), it is also ubiquitous: not simply in our diets, but also in our environment. What other foodstuff is so widespread in the domestic sphere? One moment we’re puncturing Coco Pops strewn across the lino, the next we’re crunching Cheerios into the carpet; indeed, the experience of having small children is essentially one of witnessing the merging of cereals and floor coverings into a single, semi-edible mass. But cereals don’t just lie underfoot; due to their high concentration of sugar and the addition of milk, they are the very mortar of disorder: entropy is held in check by them; a cornflake glues a mug to a table; a Golden Graham rivets a textbook to a desk; and such is the bonding strength of Weetabix that entire houses can be built using it in combination with courses of Shredded Wheat.

Then again, of what other foodstuff can it be said that its packaging really is of equal significance? When I was a child, the reading of the back of the cereal box was an integral bite of the whole munch. Frequently, in those days, new technological projects were blazoned on cereal boxes; it was from these that I first heard about the jumbo jet, the hovercraft, the Channel Tunnel and all sorts of other wonders. Cereal box copywriters were bold apostles of progress who nonetheless always managed to place their future wonders in credible time frames: as I recall, almost always in the next five to ten years. Imagine getting a box of Honey Loops from the pantry now and discovering from a screed printed on it that a high-speed railway connecting London with the northern cities will be built by 2020 – and then, lo and behold, this actually coming to pass! No wonder the 1960s and 1970s now appear a more optimistic era. Yes, there was racism, poverty and terrorism aplenty, but at least you could have faith in what was written on cereal boxes.

Some readers will no doubt be wondering when I’m going to get on to discussing the merits of individual cereals, but the answer to this is: never. Or, rather, the very supposition that one breakfast cereal can be better than another is to call attention to the elephant in the room that’s studded with raisins and dusted with whole grains and nuts. I refer, of course, to muesli – which surely deserves a column of its own. Besides, barring spurious flavourings, and shapes that are so evanescent they barely maintain their three-dimensional form long enough to make it from bowl to mouth, there is little to distinguish these slops. This is why I’ve returned to Rice Krispies time and again, although I still have absolutely no idea what riboflavin is.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double

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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.

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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