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Two wheels

Matt Seaton
Thursday July 5, 2007
The Guardian

It used to be said that the largest political party anywhere was made up of former communists, as membership seemed at one time to have been a rite of passage for so many. No longer, of course. But the same could perhaps be said of couriers, for if you hang out in cycling circles, you will soon find yourself talking to a former bike messenger.

It is a trade with a high turnover. Not surprisingly since, for all the romance, it is a dirty, dangerous and ill-paid way to make a living. But - let's be honest - who among us after a particularly dreary day at work has not cast an envious eye over the implied lifestyle of those seemingly footloose riders.

The courier has always been cool. Sure, riding all day must be hard graft, but then there is all the hanging out in city squares, shooting the breeze with comrades. OK, they are slaves to their controllers, but still they have the freedom of the road. Riding the wrong way up one-way streets, fearless of cabs and vans, they are hip modern highwaymen.

In Boston, New York and London, they pioneered the art of riding fixed-wheel bicycles in city traffic. Trend-setters, they led where others have followed. Not only are single-speed bikes a booming sideline in bike shops, but a whole subculture of courier admiration has grown up - the "fakenger", or fake messenger. These are ride-alikes, dress-alikes, even go-to-the-same-pub-alikes - people who are not couriers, but have bought into the look.

Imitation may be flattery, but not in the eyes of many bona-fide couriers. The legendary "Buffalo" Bill Chidley has blogged angrily on his courier scene-zine Moving Target about the phony messenger phenomenon.

But the irony of all this may be, as my ex-messenger friend Paul was telling me is that "it's a dying industry". More and more of the stuff they used to deliver is now sent down cables digitally. What messengers remain are increasingly from eastern Europe, willing to work on the lower wages afforded by scarcer jobs.

So at the very moment courier culture reaches the apotheosis of its expression, its reality is swept away by the remorseless churn of technological and economic change. What was substance becomes mere style. It is just as Karl Marx wrote: "All that is solid melts into air." That would be the ex-communist talking.

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