Book Review: Cyclogeography

Cyclogeography: Journeys of a London Bicycle Courier, by Jon Day

Book Review by Louise Williams

Some days it feels like you’re at war with cars in the hostile environment of Dublin’s streets; and yet we keep cycling, forging that unique connection between the bike and the urban landscape. Jon Day’s freewheeling reflection on his years as a courier reminds the reader of the sensory pleasures of cycling, even in a context like London: “the secret smells of the city: summer’s burnt metallic tang; the sweetness of petrol; the earthy comfort of freshly laid tarmac,” Day writes. “Cycling is instinctive, making you feel a landscape rather than merely see it. By bike your environment writes itself onto your body.”

This book makes for an entrancing read that meditates on the connection of both mind and body with the city: “Cycling itself felt like a form of interpretation – a mode of engaging with the urban text,” Day writes. He manages to make you want to be a courier: the romance of the call signals, the camaraderie of waiting for jobs, the connection to the city and its sounds; “the daily bombardment of sonic activity has honed my hearing, and I can recognise most generic types of vehicle through their aural signatures: the chugging tickover of a double-decker bus or the throaty hum of an aggressively driven white van.”

Day carries a “quiver” of spare spokes in his bag; the aerial of his walkie-talkie is a cat’s whiskers, “alerting me to the width of gaps as I squeeze through them.” He doesn’t take himself too seriously, pointing out that the health of the backside is of the utmost importance to the long-distance cyclist.

The title and some chapters of this book play on the concept of psychogeography, a way of exploring urban environments that emphasizes playfulness and “drifting” based on Baudelaire’s idea of the “flâneur”, a sort of urban explorer who drifts through the city. “As a courier, I’d found that cycling was a good way of resisting the tyranny of maps. Bikes, like water, want to flow downhill and cycling tends to uncover, almost unconsciously, the old waterways and trade routes of a landscape.”

The book includes some literary references to cycling; from the fact that writer Hilaire Belloc had been cycling correspondent for the Pall Mall Gazette, to analysis of Roland Barthes’s essay on bicycle racing, and, naturally, some Flann O’Brien along the way. “I found my bike had bled into my being, infecting me with its surfaces of leather and steel. Its chromium forks thrummed in sympathy with my heart rate. The cadence of my pedal strokes corresponded with my breathing. I began to feel better on the bike than off it.” The book also offers interviews with writers; when Day wanted to arrange appointments, he introduced himself by couriering them letters; a playful way to present himself on their doorstep.

As Day enters his third year as a courier, it starts to lose its appeal. London had become “an indifferent city”, he was ready to move into a different phase, becoming an academic whose commute to work is “a meditative one, dulled and deadened by repetition.”

Cyclogeography is a quick read, at just 150 pages long. It will inspire you with reminders of the sensory delights of cycling, as well as offering a reading list of cycling-related books that can last well into the winter.

Louise Williams is a writer and cycling campaigner, based in Dublin.

About the book:

Cyclogeography: Journeys of a London Bicycle Courier, by Jon Day | ISBN: 9781907903991 | Published by Notting Hill Editions Ltd

Cyclogeography is an essay about the bicycle in the cultural imagination and a portrait of London written from the saddle. Informed by his years spent as a bicycle courier, Jon Day reflects on the way bicycles connect people with places. Parasitic on the city, couriers have an intimate knowledge of London, and for those who survive the grinding toughness of the job the bicycle can become the only thing holding them together.

The book can be purchased directly from the Notting Hill Editions website.

About the author:

Jon Day is a writer, academic and cyclist. He worked as a bicycle courier in London for several years, and now teaches English Literature at King’s College London. He writes for the London Review of Books, n+1 and Apollo, and is a regular book critic for the Financial Times and the Telegraph. He is a contributing editor of The Junket.

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Wednesday, 31 October 2018 (All day)

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