According to the Mindfulness charity Mind With Heart, when the mind wanders, 42% of people find it a negative experience. Weirdly though, the wandering mind is what many people report is one of most positive benefits of cycling – the chance to think through your problems, clear your head of clutter and have some ‘me’ time. Cyclists probably make up a large proportion of the 58% in that statistic. But not all cyclists.
What’s this got to do with the book ‘Messengers” by Julian Sayarer? “City Tales From A London Bicycle Courier” states the book cover. The blurb promises: ”With a bicycle the one constant that seems to make sense of everything else, Messengers is a two-wheeled portrait of everyday life in a modern city at the start of the twenty-first century.”
Well, yes, Messengers is all these things, but for me this book is actually a window into the world of a young man suffering from depression - before he’s even realised it himself. But please don’t let that put you off!
Sayarer’s writing is at times poetic and his descriptions of London post financial crisis in 2010 are acutely observed. His fascination with the city’s history results in one of the most enjoyable chapters in the book. He captures the layers of London life where each century made its own imprint on our capital – and great men and women of yore linger like ghosts on the street corners of today.
“On a daily basis I’d find the ghosts, the phantoms from bygone ages, those who’d dared challenge the system as they’d found it… Some figures I held closer than others. Riding by the benches along Embankment I would see Orwell’s ghost, down and out and sleeping on cold nights and foggy mornings. It gave me heart, comforted me so much to know that Orwell would’ve once been there in flesh and bone … that he would’ve agreed, would’ve told me I was right and to keep on believing the things that I believed.”
Ride Velo met Julian Sayarer briefly at Bespoked earlier this year. He was discussing courier life alongside fellow author, courier and cycle traveller, Emily Chappell. His nonchalant manner and easy going responses to questions about enemy cab drivers did nothing to prepare me for the angst ridden diary that you plunge into in Messengers.
The book (labeled fiction, but in many ways an autobiography) begins after Sayarer returns from his record-breaking, round the world bike ride, which he completed in just 92 days. The reader knows that Messengers is his second book, the book of his travels, Life Cycles, being published in 2014. He’s already set himself up as a cycling semi-celebrity, with two book deals to boot. So his obvious lack of self-worth throughout Messengers is hard to digest, as are his failed attempts to achieve any job other than couriering.
Sometimes Sayarer’s unremitting negativity is annoying, at other times it’s just plain depressing. It’s clear that his political rants are preaching to the converted (I mean – how many Sun-reading white van men are going to buy this book?). You’re either with him or against him.
In one chapter the tone looked more positive – he meets a female courier - but the gentler note is short-lived. A couple of paragraphs later Sayarer comes across a march in front of Trade Union House. Naively, I assumed he would be favourable to these public servants, “I see plain-dressed teachers, see sailors, rail workers and nurses, I see firemen in the shining buttons of their uniforms.” But all too soon, “Goosebumps turned to something else, for rousing though it seemed … surely they were all living in the past? … very soon would come a day when the workers could be replaced by either a robot or a faraway worker who didn’t speak their language and could be made to work for fewer rights and less money.”
Sayarer doesn’t even really feel kinship with his fellow couriers. He looks out for them, cares for them and respects them – but he doesn’t want to party with them. There’s never any suggestion that he’s one of them. He’s an observer, an outsider but clearly also totally respected by the community. Clearly, he’s too intelligent, too thoughtful, too sensitive to ever really be a part of their world.
I’m not going to tell you how Sayarer goes from hopeless, depressive and broke to being a self-possessed young author with a bright future. In actual fact I don’t entirely know. But I can tell you that he is a person on a journey, and his two stints as a courier, along with his round the world record and two excellent books are all part of that journey. Messengers is a snapshot into the lives of couriers, into post banking crisis London, but more than those, it’s a voyage into the soul of a sensitive young man. For that alone, it’s worth reading. A beautiful book – but not one for the airport lounge!