Accent Magazine is a global celebration of lives lived outside the ordinary
The majority of the couriers who congregate on Leather Lane fit the stereotypical description: young, good-looking, tattooed and pierced. Whilst courier ‘fashion’ has spilled over onto the high streets of Dalston and Williamsburg, manifesting itself in ubiquitous fixed-gear bikes, cycling caps and hefty shoulder bags, the vast majority of real couriers couldn’t care less. For them, the kids who appropriate courier culture are ‘fakengers’.
Most couriers are keen to point out that the work is unglamorous and tough. Mike, a courier of eight years, said: “The industry attracts the marginalised, people who have been declared bankrupt, people whose marriages have broken down and people who have just arrived in London and want to get to know the city and see the bright lights.
“There’s a high turnover of couriers because the people that it attracts tend to be between jobs or have another project on. Because there’s no shortage of people to take your job, you’re treated fairly shabbily. For instance, there’s the issue of businesses charging you for radio hire, or making you pay for a compulsory uniform. All of them are the same, they’ve all got ways of clawing money back from you.”
Sharing the same stressful working conditions generates a degree of respect and allegiance traditionally found among those working for the same company. “Seeing another courier on the street is kind of like passing a colleague in the office corridor, there’ll be a nod or a wink. A lot of the time you don’t even know each other’s names but there’s a solidarity there. You know that you’re all enduring the same industry bullshit,” confirmed Mike.
The couriers who hang out on Leather Lane talk passionately about cycling, bikes and the courier lifestyle. In their free time, some riders participate in events like the British and Irish Bicycle Courier Championship. However, as many are keen to point out, the courier lifestyle is not necessarily representative of the industry as a whole. Out of approximately five-hundred couriers currently operating in London, perhaps fifty will congregate on Leather Lane.
According to George, who has worked as a courier for four years, “there are people who use it like a travelling profession. They’ll go to different cities and stay with other couriers and work a few months abroad. These are the ones who live ‘the lifestyle’, getting pissed at work, doing loads of speed, squatting, raving, those type of things. Then there are the kids who do it for a hot minute because they like the idea of being a courier. The reality of long hours, mad stress, unpredictable money and being treated like an idiot by loading bay workers puts them off it within a few months.
“There are also those who have been doing it for years and have no savings and no pension so will ultimately keep going until they can’t any longer. That’s the group that scares me the most. People will say: ‘I only meant to do it for a year, and that was 12 years ago.’”
Although there is no one ‘type’ of courier, the most striking difference between professional couriers and other manual workers seems to be the social interaction and organisation which takes place outside working hours, a consequence of tough working conditions and the inability to change them by conventional means.
Around the bonfire in east London, the tired and happy faces waiting patiently for a second helping of goulash vividly express a community of shared experience and belief. A handful have already crashed out, through drunkenness or exhaustion, or both. Most will stay out until the pale sunrise, before cycling home to sleep in squats and flats. On Monday they will be back on the road, cycling fast and working hard to deliver letters, goods and parcels to businesses across the city.
Photographs Allegra Pacheco Words James Kingston London Courier Emergency Fund