A Conversation With Over Drive (Part Two)

Read part one here.

“I overhear my friends talking about going to a pub where other couriers congregate every Friday night after work. I am not let in on the conversation and not invited along. I decide to turn up anyway. The pub is called the Duke of York and it’s on Clerkenwell road. I’m wearing walking boots,tracksuit bottoms and a baggy jacket. I have a luminous yellow vinyl art-bag slung over my shoulder. The place is rammed but all the couriers are standing outside drinking and smoking dope, chatting about the past week, exchanging anecdotes, taking the piss out of each other. I can’t stop looking at them. They are dressed in cargo shorts, lycra and cycling tops and sunglasses. Some of them are wearing sexy cycling shoes that lock onto the pedals on their bikes. They have walkie-talkies attached to their bags. Bags that look purpose made for the job. A job that they take seriously.
 Nobody talks to me. My shyness takes hold and I feel out of place. The atmosphere is boisterous, energetic, I’m a little intimidated by it all. I jump on the bike and bugger off home.”
Spring  1994

From being the new fool at the pub how long did it take you to feel like you were part of the gang?

Not very long. I got a job on circuit with A-Z couriers. I was now using a radio and could hear everybody else. I learned how to speak on the radio quickly. I was hanging out at the Duke and made some friends but I didn’t race or go to events ‘til much later.

Yeah the radios really made it an interesting community. It’s a pity they have been disappearing all over the world.

It made the day more bearable hearing other riders fucking up and then getting shit for it.

How has the pay compared over the years for you? Obviously the cost of living has sky-rocketed, how have your wages been in comparison?

In my first week on circuit in ’94 I made about 340 quid. Now I earn 413 every week. Considering I was a rookie that was a decent amount back then. Most companies in London have not raised their rates in 15 or 20 years. If anything they’ve lowered them.

The only good thing about our rates not going up is that more independent companies have sprung up. What’s going on in old London town in regards to that?

There are two indies here, one started by two exengers and another by a guy that worked alone. He has since sold the company to somebody and they are expanding. I admire anyone that works independently here. I tried it myself and it didn’t work out for me.

Did you try go it solo, or with a few fellow messengers?

I tried to go it alone which looking back was a mistake. I also had no money, I had a few clients that I’d known for years and they were kind enough to support me. My biggest problem was getting new clients though. I didn’t really know how to sell myself to them. I learned a lot and maybe I’ll give it another go with a cargo bike this time!

What do you think of food delivery? That seems to be working well for independents stateside.

Yeh, I spoke to Chas about that when he was in London last time. The thing is there’s no tipping culture in Britain like there is in The US which is where it’s worthwhile for those guys. There’s a company called Deliveroo here that dominates the food delivery market. They pay something like 8 pounds an hour plus 1 pound a delivery plus tips. You can imagine the type of riders they take on.

I’m riding through Piccadilly Circus dodging traffic. I go around a car when I get shouted at by another courier. He says I just pulled out on him and that I should learn how to ride. I’ve seen this guy around.He trackstands at red lights, never jumps ’em. We exchange pleasantries and I tell him to fuck off back to Australia. I’m riding up towards the lights and as I slow down I accidentally nudge the back wheel of a courier in front. It’s the same guy. He starts having a go at me again.
A couple of weeks later I’m locking up at the railings near the Duke of York pub. The guy turns up next to me doing the same. I tell him he has a mouth on him and he says I’m an idiot and other couriers think I am too. He is bending down as he puts his bag on the ground. I punch him hard in the side of the face. He doesn’t go over but straightens up as I kick him in the shin. He is taller than I thought and has a look of utter shock on his face which quickly turns to primal rage. He grabs my hair and headbutts me. He is stronger than I thought. Two couriers see what’s going on and run over to break it up. I am glad they did. The guys face swells up and I immediately feel ashamed of myself. He goes into the pub and through the window I can see him with a wet cloth held to his face.
I go in and try to apologise but he is having none of it. He never says anything to me again.”
Piccadilly Circus/Duke Of York 1995.

What was the city like for riding a bike back then?
Everywhere is pushing for more infrastructure and to get more people on bikes. I think for messengers it’s actually a pain in the arse, but on the whole it’s good.

It is a pain in the arse. I cannot trust anybody on a hire bike. Back in 94 motorists in the city didn’t know how to deal with us I think. I got hit a couple of times through no fault of my own and was blamed for it. The good thing about then was there was less traffic. I can’t remember if there were any cycle lanes though.

There was a kind of fending for yourself that banded the messengers together. These days there isn’t the same kind of camaraderie, any fool with a smartphone and candy coloured bike can be a messenger.

Yes and things are changing really quickly here. There is a food delivery company that are taking on any muppet, but that hasn’t affected us too much. I read recently that Uber are talking about coming here to get a piece of the package delivery game which definitely will.

Undercut everyone until you’re the only one. Been happening for ages but the obscene amounts of money these tech companies have behind them now is new.

We have to be fluid if we to want survive. Adapt and proceed that is what courierism is to me.

Has the way couriers interact with each other changed much since the 90s? I remember when I started there was much more of a macho vibe, quite competitive.

I remember it being like that. There was more money to be made which may have had something to do it. At Metro it was highly competitive and if you were a lazy bastard you didn’t last.

Maybe free call dispatching had something to do with it, which makes it more competitive

Yes that’s true. It was known as open call here and you are essentially in competition with the rest of the fleet.

The need for physical deliveries will certainly be around for some time, but do you think the messenger scene will hang on? Or will all deliveries be done by strangers using an app?

I think there will be room for the app deliveries. Some of these guys go on to become bona fide couriers also. Experienced couriers work off the app companies too. Maybe clients using these companies will insist on having decent riders. I don’t wanna sound like ol father time but I’ve been around long enough to know that the scene always survives.

OD Trash

OD sits proudly upon his trash pile.  Photo: Aga Brzezinska

Is it a big adjustment being back in London?

Yeh, I came back and found out  my job wasn’t there anymore so I’m trying to find work. I might go abroad, there’s a chance it could happen. I think I’m done with London for a while

You have to be one of the best messengers in London, it’s a shame people can’t see the value beyond just being on a bike you bring. And also that we need a proper break sometimes

Well we put our bodies through a lot in the job, I had a problem with my back from carrying the bag that disappeared in India. Also, I did some distance work today and I couldn’t get comfortable on the bike. The body needs to readjust more than anything.

And, I think the mind too. A day doesn’t go by when you aren’t put in danger by a vehicle that could easily end your life. That manifests in different ways in different people.

When I first got on the bike and rode in traffic again. It was pretty daunting. You forget that you are constantly looking out for yourself. All the little hazards and possible outcomes are running through your head. I guess it becomes normal and we actually enjoy that I think.

Do you ever think of doing something else?

I have no idea of what else to do. I think I’m in it for life, which is scary in a way but if I’m making good money and can travel I’ll be happy with that.

When you think about it the job is relatively new – as we know it now – I don’t really see it as a problem being 60 years old and still doing it. Also, there is nothing like it in terms of the people you meet. You or I can go almost anywhere in the world and have friends there that will put you up and be genuinely happy to see you. That is what I love about it. I like riding a bike too and that will never change.

Yes, few of us would stick at it without the community. I tried to keep moving to keep it interesting and refreshing.

This is something I’ve never done and I think it takes balls to do it. To turn up in a city with no idea of the layout and to throw yourself into it must be daunting. I’d hate to come to London and start couriering here. This place makes no sense.

It was the hardest city to navigate for me.
But it’s really not as hard as you would think, moving to a new place, because of the community you mentioned. They really help you out so much and get you feeling like a local in no time.

Yeh, I hope to take to that jump one day. I’m still under 50 years old so plenty of time!

Aren’t you disillusioned about being such an experienced worker in our trade and having a hard time to find good work when you came back?

To be honest I have become used to it. When I left Metro after 16 years it was like being thrust into the real world of couriering. I went from having one of the best jobs in town to having to prove myself to some shitty company. I did that and found a small outfit where the controller saw he had somebody that could clear the screen for him and I made very good money there. I try to be positive, the disillusionment doesn’t last too long. I have always found something decent but it gets a little harder each time I find myself in this situation.

Why did you leave Metro? Did you get a Rolex?

The rider’s room at Metro used to be a madhouse. It’s still the only place I’ve worked that had a rider’s room. We were all making good cash and it was competitive. We all had flash bikes and nobody liked us. But then as the digital revolution took hold we found ourselves getting less work. People left and there was no need to replace them. We ended going from 25 riders to 3. All the energy of the place was lost and I’d had enough. Funnily enough I worked there today, I was the only rider…

We definitely need to keep changing along with the industry, Metro seems like a good example of that not happening. Maybe there was no was to keep the courier side of it alive though.

Well,I made £100 there today. Mostly from delivering digital prints. That is where you make your money there now. We used to cart around bags of film!

Ps. What’s with the name, Ovar Dryve?

At Metro.One of the controllers gave me a W11 that I knocked out quickly, I think I didn’t actually stop for anything.When I got back he named me Overdrive O’Driscoll.


There are 10 comments

  1. Paddy

    Makes me feel homesick!
    Different city – same fam I guess
    From my limited experiences you’ve really improved in your attitude to Aussies! Actually saved my party in DF!
    Good luck John.


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