So here I am, seven years later, standing in the same airport I swore I would never see again, this time wanting in rather than fleeing. I am 35. Everything I have in the world is in a suitcase at my side and I have the grand total of £800 in a bank account. It’s October, the skies are already grey and will stay that way for six long months. Someone described living in London through winter as like living inside a Tupperware box. It’s true, but I don’t know that yet.
I am an immigrant, but a first-world immigrant, lucky enough to be able to pursue a new country and life purely on the grounds of romance. And I am doing that foolhardy thing that you should never do, I am chasing a woman half way around the world in the hope it might work.
It’s not just any woman of course, it’s Steph. She’s invited me over, with romantic intent. It’s brave of me to cross the world, yes, but even braver of her. She has seen me on the floor with anxiety, shared the stage with me, weathered my worst character traits and somehow still likes me.
She’s been in the UK for a good few years by now, drawn by theatre and making a new life for herself in the very epicentre of commercial theatre, working in West end Theatre companies, lapping up London in the way that only outsiders can and generally having a fabulous time exploring Europe and hanging out with her large circle of friends.
We bumped together again attending mutual friends weddings back in New Zealand, lovely people making good and not so good choices, but making choices and committing to them.
The thing that had galvanised me was that Steph had been ill. And the kind of ill that is meant to come back at some time, resolutely and without pity. So there was no time for my habitual dithering and prevarication, it was now or never, and I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if it was never.
But Steph was treasured ground, a much loved friend of many. As someone said to me (drunk, at one of those weddings) “If you hurt her I’ll fucking kill you.”
No pressure then.
Steph was one of exactly two people I knew in London. Dave, the other one, I had met as a bike courier, and together we had run NZ’s first Rollerblade hire van, way back in 1991. He had just started an online gift company with a couple of mates. He took me under his wing, got me into the company packing boxes out of their garage in Brixton when there were less than ten people working there. These days it would be called a start-up, back then it was four friends with an idea willing to not pay themselves for a year in the hope it would get big and they would get rich.
I wasn’t officially allowed to work at the time, I was on a holiday visa, so Dave paid me cash. I suspect from his own pocket. Dave is that kind of guy – generous and loyal – and without his early help I would have been totally lost. He looked at my CV and told me I stood no chance at all in London without solid job experience, and then gave me a job as web manager to get that experience - awesome!
Which brings me to the first bike. In a familiar pattern I needed a bike to get to my first job in a new country, and I had no money at all.
The boys I was working with in the Brixton lock-up knew a few things about life and about London and over the sounds of packing tape being wrapped around boxes of novelty gifts like the ghastly singing ninja hampsters, I got a fast education about the way that ‘Cash London’ worked. There was (and remains) a huge array of loose networks of people in London who generally use cash for everything. Some of these are tradies (cash to escape the VAT) but mostly it’s all about that low-level criminal activity which is illegal but is common enough to barely warrant notice in London – small consumer goods and recreational drugs.
Take bike thieves. Obviously it’s pretty easy to take a bike and clearly wrong. However it pretty hard to get arrested for buying a stolen bike. You could theoretically be charged with handling stolen goods but if you can claim that you thought the bike was the property of the person who sold it to you then you’re clear. And really, do police have the time to be bothered with all this? No.
In various markets, in certain shops (looking at you Cash Convertors) and on Gumtree it was – and remains - easy to buy a stolen bike without fear of actually getting caught out.
So, after a week or two of using the tube to get to Brixton from Finsbury Park I couldn’t really take it anymore (tube, yuk) on the advice of the London boys at work I went down to a hot spot for the trading of hot bikes, the arches at the north end of Brick Lane. The arches are long gone, the mini-alt-hipster container mall at the new Hoxton Station covers the ground now, but they were the most Dickensian scene of any in London I had seen, then or since.
I ducked inside and stepped back a hundred and fifty years, right into the pages of Mayhew’s ‘London Underworld’ . There was no electricity in the arches, it was lit by candles and torch light. The destitute and desperate had laid blankets on the damp earth and displayed a few meagre goods on them - an old pair of shoes, a comb, maybe a transistor radio – the kinds of things you could just pick up off the streets in front of people’s houses. There was no organisation in here, I imagine the sellers slept there as well and everyone just jammed their pitches together as their allegiances dictated. It was also unaccountably rammed with shoppers looking down at the discards for sale and getting from one end to the other meant pushing your way through a fog of damp woolen coats, intent on what lay at the other end.
At the far end of the arches, where the grey light bloomed again, were the bicycle thieves. You wouldn’t know the bikes were for sale if you drove past in a car, they were just leaning against a fence. A random group of young men in trackies and caps were standing around smoking. Compared to those inside the arches they were positively respectable. They would be children of east end natives without much in the way of prospects beyond spraying the edges of their territory and dealing inside them. These were the kind of young men who ride round in groups on their stolen bikes, the kind that buzz you on stolen scooters, daring you to say something; the kind of young men you do not want to come across on your ride home across the Hackney Marshes.
I stood around looking at the bikes, trying to see how it worked. The men were, of course, far enough away from the bikes they could deny any ‘ownership’ and it seemed like you had to touch a bike to initiate a contact.
Most of the two dozen or so bikes there were pretty awful, and there were a few that were very good bikes, the kind of thing that would have been my pride and joy. I couldn’t go near them, that felt too personal. There was one bike that caught my eye, the kind of bike a courier would use. With my practised eye I knew it was the right size and worth a try.
I went over and touched it. As if by magic one of the men appeared by my side and whispered a price in my ear. Flushed and guilty I agreed and handed over the cash. From memory £80. The young man never touched the bike, just took my money and walked away again. The whole transaction took maybe 15 seconds.
So there it was - my first and last stolen bike. A rat bike.
A rat bike is something old and abused but heavily customised for the kind of riding that I wanted to do – sprinting across the city. The frame was a rigid but light large diameter alloy frame mountain bike frame by a company called Ribble. The forks were solid, non-suspension. It had V brakes and had had the number of gears reduced from mountain bike standard down to seven. Tough mountain bike wheels with slicks. A low and long stem ended with a set of narrow low-riser bars. I knew that whoever had done the work on this bike had real taste because the seat was a flite, a proper racing saddle favoured by racers in the early 90s. The whole thing looked, at first glance, like an utter pile of rubbish. Perhaps that’s how it’s owner had lost it, by assuming no one would bother to nick it.
Riding it back to Finsbury park I knew I had bought a winner – it was super aggressive, stopped on a dime and was very flickable – a perfect city bike.
And so began my adventure in commuting by bicycle in London.
For the first year in London I used to get horribly lost. The sun had always been in the North, and now it was in the south I would look at a map, know that I was meant to be going one way, but feel like that was totally wrong. In learning the London streets I would pull out of the traffic, pull out one of the old TFL London cycling maps, and spend a few confused minutes trying to work out where the fuck I was and where I was mean to be going, only to ride three hundred yards up the street to do the same again. It was, frankly, torture.
That, coupled with the reality of London Street layout and traffic, made my first few months of riding quite painful.
London has nothing like a grid. It’s a circus of angles and curves, a labyrinth made out of ancient alleys, roads built on the course of old riverbeds, droving routes and town planning ideas across the centuries. Add to that the curves in the mighty Thames, and the history of bridges that cross it, dictate a lot of how the road system works. It’s all made complicated by the fact that roads are looked after by the boroughs, so road marking and bike lanes can literally disappear in the middle of a street as you cross the boundary from one council to another.
You can’t plan a route, like you can in Melbourne, by memorising how many left and right turns to make. In London two left turns can bring you back on yourself and coming into an intersection with five or more possibilities is common, peaking in the infamous seven dials in Covent Garden.
And then there are the vehicles. There are just too many in not enough space. Unlike Melbourne, where you can comfortably get up to 40mph between lights on suburban streets, the average traffic speed in London was 12 mph when I arrived. Fifteen years later it is eight. So speed isn’t a problem when you are riding – it’s proximity and compression. With the constant variety of intersections, roads expanding and compressing, traffic furniture, all the taxis, buses and construction traffic you just have to be totally onto it all the time. A commute into London can be a total mental workout.
Iwantoneofthose.com moved from Brixton to West Norwood so my commute got longer – 12 miles each way. It included twisting through Clerkenwell, the horror of London Bridge, the death trap of Elephant and Castle and the always chaotic Camberwell High Street. One thing I was lucky not to contend with at the time were other bicycles. For the first five years I was riding in London there simply weren’t any cyclists. On my twelve miles to West Norwood I would see a half a dozen cyclists in that 45 minutes on a good day in summer. The downside of this was that cars didn’t expect to see bikes, the upside was that you didn’t have to watch for stupid cyclists.
So I rode the rat bike for three years straight, pretty much day in, day out. I made a single upgrade to the bike (a new back wheel when it died) and ‘single speeded’ it, replacing the chain and tyres when I needed to. I put some clipless pedals on it at some stage.
I didn’t really have time for any riding other than riding to work. Outside of that I was learning about London life, about the crazy English class system, about how people live on this side of the globe. Having lived here for over fifteen years now it seems very normal, but my first years here were full of moments of wonder and disgust in roughly equal measure.
The wonder comes from the strange juxtapositions of the old and the older, of attending lots of theatre, of meeting new types of people. One moment that sums it up is seeing on a map something called ‘The New River’ in Finsbury Park. Wondering what that was I went to look at it, thinking that because it was new it must date from the 1970s. But the New river was a commercial scheme to bring water into London from 1613 – I could feel my head recalibrating on that one. In NZ ‘old’ means something from the 1920s.
The horror comes from seeing the damage of the class system up close and having to deal with the hermetically sealed perspective of the English middle classes. Perhaps it’s not a great surprise that the English people I have liked and got on with the best over the years are artistically inclined, have travelled a lot - or are cyclists.
In the middle of this busy period of adjustment Steph’s illness returned. If we had been anywhere else in the world it would have meant an aggressive course of chemo and a poor long term prognosis. But we were lucky. Her consultant at St Barts Hospital (founded 1123), an aging pioneer complete with bow tie and nose that looked like it had its own port ration, slipped her onto a trial of something called a monoclonal antibody. At the time this was new territory and involved using modified mice protein to artificially do what the body does naturally – tag cancer cells for destruction. The treatment was four infusions of this over a month. Steph got a mild cold, that was the extent of her symptoms.
Six months after that she was given a tentative all clear. Being on a trial she had enough blood samples taken out of her to keep a colony of vampires alive, but aside from that it was about as close to a secular miracle as you can get.
When it became clear that Steph would be ok we took the unprecedented move of buying a flat out at the far end of the Victoria line, in the down at heel suburb of Walthamstow. This was back when you could get a 95% loan and, by using all of Steph’s savings (I didn’t have any) we could just afford something that needed a bit of work. Now suddenly, I co-owned a piece of a future. I am not sure I was expecting a future, or that I had had really looked much further out than simply being here with (and for) Steph.
So cycling and buying bikes wasn’t a priority, it was commuting only. But I absolutely loved it. Ripping through the traffic on my rat bike was a total joy. Crossing the Thames twice a day, seeing how the wind and tides were working, passing by the huge variety of shops, learning the streets to the point I could leave the A-Z behind, looking at the people and just being here was often fantastic.
The built environment of London is endlessly fascinating and because the riding was so demanding I really enjoyed it. The variety of roads and turns and traffic and views you get in 12 miles in London is extraordinary and, on a good day, bustling your bike down through the tight turns at the back of Clerkenwell, was utterly magic.
London has nothing like the epic weather-watching vistas of Wellington, but as an example of the variety here are four slices of London. They are all in the same 5 minutes of riding on my standard commute route into central London.
Occasionally I would take the bike down into the The City on the weekend and just loop around the back streets seeking out alleys and blue plaques, indulging in the pleasure of putting a map of complex city in your head and body – turning it from a series of lines on a map to an experience, making that bit of ‘London brain’ bigger.
Commuting had helped me go from being a skeptic to being a baby Londoner. It had taken a while, if I hadn’t had a reason to push through that first two years I would have been back to NZ in a shot, but now I had a mortgage and a life and, most importantly, a healthy not-wife.
What I didn’t have was an existence outside of London, but all that was about to change.