Being a Despatch Rider

It was just another bad day for me in my life as a despatch rider, there hadn’t been many jobs, it was something to do with a strike. I hadn’t earned much and was stuck between Harrow and Wembley when my number was called. I went off to pick up the package and was told to wait as there would be another one. I was told where it was, started up my trusty BMW put it into gear, wound back the throttle and went off down the road. The next thing I knew I was lying under a stationary van. A woman approached me, handed me a card and said, “Call me and I’ll tell you what happened.”

“Thanks,” I replied in a daze and contacted my company saying, “I’ve had a crash.”

“Ok stay there, someone will be along to pick up the package.”

I was in a mess and so I went back into Harrow and called upon a girl I knew. She took one look at me and said, “You look awful, come in and I’ll make you a tea or coffee.”

Over the drink I explained my plight and was told, “I am going out, but I am not going until you are ok and please phone me tomorrow and let me know what happened.”

I left saying that I’d tell her how I got on and driving back home, I wondered how I ever got into this malarkey of being a despatch rider.

It started when I was an aspiring photographer and things were getting tough, as the only photographic work I’d done was a couple of shots for a woman’s magazine and I’d blown it, as I’d photographed Hurricane Higgins in black and white instead of colour. I’d approached two photographers that had been recommended to me by an art director of a large company, but neither of them needed an assistant.  I’d taken lots of test shots for model agencies and both the girls and the agencies liked my work, but I was paid nothing for this. My funds were running low and I badly needed to earn a regular income.

I didn’t want a 9-5 job hence it was down to two choices, mini cab driver or despatch rider. Both jobs would give me the flexibility I enjoyed, just in case a decent shoot came up. As far as mini cabbing goes a glance out of the window told me that I would need a new car. This of course would require me spending more money which, I didn’t have.

Despatch riders seemed to earn a good wage but then, I hadn’t ridden a motorcycle since I’d been a mod in the sixties and that was on a scooter. Quite frankly here I was at forty not knowing which handlebar lever was the clutch and which the front brake?

I thought the best option would be to ask a despatch rider and on the next sunny day I headed into town and seeing a despatch rider sat on his own, I approached him rather apprehensively. To be honest, despatch riders do not evoke a vision of friendliness.

I was pleasantly surprised for underneath that scruffy, dirty exterior was a considerate person. He put his book down and mentioned a few good companies to work for. He did not however, mention the company that was emblazoned upon his motorcycle. He added “My own motorbike is in for repair and the company has loaned me a motorcycle.” To this day I can see the name on that motorcycle, West 1.

I left him and he went back to reading his book. I then contemplated my next move, should I hire a motorcycle, or buy one? After a few false starts trying to purchase a motorcycle, I thought it wise to hire one.

Thereby I took the West 1 rider’s advice and bought a copy of Motorcycle News and searched for a job. Having perused the job pages I managed to arrange an interview with a company who would hire me a motorcycle. The interview went well and I was to start the following Monday.

That weekend I purchased a pair of motorcycle boots, helmet, and gloves. On Monday morning it felt quite odd, there I was a commuter on the underground, dressed in trousers, boots, a warm jacket and carrying a helmet.

After the initial introduction I was taken in a car to Streatham, whereby I hired a Honda VT500, which only had about five miles registered on the speedo.

It was early in October and being uncertain of the temperature I also wore long johns and a thermal sweatshirt as added insulation. Seated astride the Honda I started her up, pulled in the clutch, put the toe of my left boot under the gear lever and flicked it up into first gear. I gingerly released the clutch and the Honda pulled away. It was a fairly high revving motorcycle and my first stop was round the corner at the garage for petrol. After so many years of absence, riding back to the office gave me a chance to get the feel of riding a motorcycle again.

Back at the office I was given a radio and shown how to use it. I was given no bag in which to deposit the envelopes or packages I was to carry. Upon querying this I was told, “Go to a newspaper of your choice and purchase one of their bags. As long as you have a receipt, you will be reimbursed for the bag.”

That first day I realised I did not know London as well as I thought I did. My last job took me to Woolwich and I returned home to North London, tired and aching.

The next morning I sat in the seedy little office waiting for a job and then I was taken to one side and given a bollocking. Apparently I had lost a customer for the company as I’d taken too long to get to Woolwich, although oddly enough I was not sacked. I would add here that all despatch riders are self employed. I also discovered that the first company I worked for were rip off merchants. I would pick up a package for which I was paid £2.20 and if I picked up more packages whilst driving across town, my money diminished, thus I was paid £2.20, £2.10, £2.00, £1.70 per job. I have no doubt the customers were not charged any less but I didn’t discover this until the Friday of the second week, when I received my earnings. I had to work a week in hand.

To say I was browned off would be putting it mildly, plus out of the pittance I’d earned I had to pay for renting the motorcycle and petrol. There was one small consolation in that I was offered £200 per week if I did contract work for Wang, the computer company. I said I’d let them know Monday morning.

I arrived at the office on Monday morning and promptly quit. The rest of the day was spent looking for a job and I ended up working for Britannia. My initial impression of Britannia was good and the bikers were great. Thinking that I would be a despatch rider for a while I decided to buy my own motorcycle. I was not too keen on buying anything Japanese, so it was back to Motorcycle News to look for a BMW; after all at least they were reliable.

I travelled over to Romford to look at one and the test drive was superb, whereas the Honda had vibrated all the time. The faster I travelled on the Honda the more unbearable it became, unlike the BMW which I took for a spin along the Southend Arterial road. At 50 mph it was as if I was travelling at 30 mph. This I decided was the machine for me. I returned to the shop, paid the deposit by card and set up to pay the rest on terms. The shop assistant wasn’t very happy about me paying the deposit by card but, a sale’s a sale.

My first week at Britannia they were impressed with the speed of my delivery. The second week I was moaned at for taking too long on a double up job to Watford and Stevenage. Praised one week, moaned at the next. For the second week I turned up on the BMW.

What struck me was the beauty of some of the sights, for example one day I was going out to Crouch End on an overcast day. At the top of the hill just prior to the descent I caught a glimpse of Alexandra Palace, nothing special you might say but on this occasion you would be wrong. A shaft of light hit Alexandra Palace and this set against a dark sky made ‘Alley Palley’ glow ghostly white. I can recall on another occasion riding along Piccadilly and the sun for a brief moment, struck a multi-windowed building. The orange glow of the windows against the blue sky was spectacular.

Then there were the journeys. After three weeks I left Britannia and went to work for a small company called Waterfront who was based at Butlers Wharf on the south of Tower Bridge. I’d seen the job advertised and chatted to a seasoned despatch rider, who did multi drops and earned quite a lot. He said, “If the wage is guaranteed, take the job.”

Up until then I thought I would earn £500 per week as a despatch rider. With Waterfront as long as I was in town by 8.30am and left at 6.30pm then I would get the guaranteed wage of £300 per week, plus everyone at the company from the bosses to the riders seemed friendly.

It was my second week at Waterfront and I’d only been a despatch rider for six weeks and yet, this was my third company. I’d joined as I’ve already stated because I was told that I  would earn £300 per week and this was way back in the late 1980s.

I remember arriving at the office thinking to myself it would merely be a matter of sitting around and then I would be back in the warm, it was after all mid November. The controller said to me, “How’d you fancy going to Kidderminster tonight? The job can’t be picked up until after 6.30pm, so you’ll get van rates. You’ll get about £80.”
This was the company’s policy, and I agreed as I’d got Kidderminster confused with Southminster in Essex and thought it wouldn’t take me long to get there and back. I had a coffee and then left to pick up the package.

Upon entering the building I removed my helmet, unzipped my jacket and reported to the post room. “Hi I’ve come for the Kidderminster job.”

The fat slob-like post room attendant said, “Take a seat, it’s not ready yet.”
Prior to sitting down I peered over the counter to observe that his sloth like movements were due to having a broken leg.
He threw some packages on the counter saying; “Here, you may as well deliver these while you are waiting.”
I left thinking to myself, ‘Four parcels at £5 each plus the trip to Kidderminster will make £100 for a night’s work, not bad at all.’
It was whilst I delivered the parcels I discovered nooks and crannies, I never even knew existed in London.

Upon returning the sloth like slob of a post room attendant had a go at me saying, “Where the hell have you been, what has taken you so long, call yourself a despatch rider? I could’ve walked quicker!” He spat the words out with all the venom of a sadistic schoolmaster scalding a hapless schoolboy for not having done his homework.
I felt like breaking his other leg! Instead I said nothing sat down again and finally the package was ready and I was informed by the post room attendant, “We’ve called the AA and it’s foggy in Birmingham and it’s not actually being delivered in Kidderminster, but Yoxall. ”
I thought I’d enquire at Birmingham of the whereabouts of Yoxall. In the doorway of the post room appeared a really attractive woman, who made a stupid comment about me delivering the package adding, “There will be a light on outside the house.”
I thought to myself, “I would love to spend the night with her.” But I knew how futile this was as my only company that night would be the drone of my 800cc motorcycle.
It was 8pm when I left the City of London for Birmingham and filled up with petrol just before I reached the motorway. Once on the motorway the traffic was not too heavy and I stuck to the middle lane and just wound back the throttle. I panicked as I was unsure of how long it would take me to get to Birmingham. The speedo gently rose, 80, 85, 90, 100 mph. I could not keep up the speed up of 100mph as the jacket I was wearing pushed hard against my throat making it difficult to breathe. I cruised at 85-90mph as this would leave me something in reserve.
It was at this speed that a police car passed me. ‘Holy shit!’ I thought, that’s it, I’m gonna be nicked for speeding. I was wrong, as it vanished into the distance.

At Birmingham I said to the first driver in a rank of black cab drivers, “Do you know where Yoxall is?”
“Sorry no.” He replied.
Eventually one cab driver pulled out a map and said, “Here it is, north of Lichfield.”
“Thanks,” I replied and headed off for Lichfield, (which was a further 10-15 miles north of Birmingham) where I asked at a local dancehall for Yoxall. The doorman thought I wanted to go into the dance, but at least he gave me precise directions for Yoxall.

From Lichfield to Yoxall meant leaving the main roads and driving along country lanes for about ten miles, but so far there had been no fog. I drove along the road in Yoxall looking for the correct house and seeing one with lights on outside, even though I had no idea of the time, I decided to knock on the door.
The man who answered was friendly saying, “The house you want is about a mile or so down the road.” I thanked him and rode off in the direction he’d pointed out.
The road would’ve been great, if that is it had been summer and I was just merrily pedalling along on a push bike, but actually it was cold and dark with very few street lights. I had no sooner left the house when the road dipped and I rode down into fog.
At last I found the correct house, parked my motorcycle and knocked on the front door. When the door opened I said to the man, “Hi, this is your package from London.”
“Come in please,” the owner said.

Once in the warmth of the house I was shown through to the kitchen where I removed my helmet and jacket and was offered a bowl of soup.
The well dressed man said, “You are the first person to actually get here. We have had Red Star, they failed! We had a van; they turned back, bad weather or something.” He paused, “I used to be a biker, and I knew you would get here. What bike have you got?”
“I’ve got a BMW and it goes really well but I think I’ll have to buy some decent motorcycle gear, because once I reached the ton, I could hardly breathe. My jacket was forced upon my windpipe and I was cursing you! I dropped down to about 80-90mph and a police car pulled out, but it was odd as it never stopped me. I can tell you, I scared rigid!”
“Oh the police often do that, as long as they see you are okay and not exceeding a 100mph, they just drive off. By the way, what time would you like me to put on your timesheet?”
I looked up at the clock on the wall and noted that it was just past 11pm and I said, “Would you put 10pm please?”
“Whatever you say, in fact you can have this job any time you like. We have a big case on at the moment, so this job is yours any time.”
“Well thanks, but unfortunately the company that sent me only uses my courier company as a reserve, but if you like I can give you the name of my company and my number.” The man got a paper and pen and I said, “Okay the company I work for is called Waterfront and my number is 44.” I paused,  “I see you like the old Guinness.”
“You can have one of you like.” He replied.
“Thanks for the offer, but I’ve got to drive back to London and for now, I’d just like to warm up.”
“Have some more soup, my wife has made plenty.”
“Thank you very much.”
Having had plenty of soup and warmed up considerably I thanked the couple for their hospitality and departed at midnight. The ride back went really well, although it was rather odd passing trucks as I felt as though I was being pulled along in their slipstream, until I overtook them and then the full force of speed hit me.

Once I passed the sign for Milton Keynes I knew I was almost home and eventually arrived home at Stanmore at 2.15am. I was so cold that I went to bed still wearing my long johns and thermal sweatshirt.
Another long day as a despatch rider was over. As for two of the companies I worked for, Britannia was taken over by Federal Express and Waterfront merged into the West 1 conglomerate.

It was then that everything started to go wrong, I no longer earned a guaranteed wage and so I left West 1 and worked for a company near to me called Yellow Post. After a while the controller realised I knew my way round town and I got better jobs. One day I went into town and picked up packages and was told that I’d be seen all right. Later that week I was in town and my number was called, “Got one for you. Pick up a package to go to Swindon.”

The weather was good and all I wore were jeans and a sweater but as I headed out to Swindon I could see a big black cloud. I stopped and pulled out a jacket that I had with me and put it on. I drove into the cloud and the rain drenched me, my jacket was not waterproof. Once I’d delivered the package the rain had stopped, so I removed my jacket and rode home in my sweatshirt.

As for the crash I had, the forks on my motorbike were bent. Apparently, so the woman told me, I was riding down the road on the outside of the traffic and a car pulled out. I braked and ended up under the van. I got the forks repaired and was entered in the despatch rider of the year completion. All I got was a T-shirt and a dented petrol tank. What happened was that the company loaded all our bikes into the back of a lorry and a bar was clamped over them to stop them falling over, unfortunately my petrol tank got dented.

One day I was out near South Harrow I parked my bike and left my helmet on the bike whilst I went into a shop, but when I returned to my bike, someone had stolen my helmet. I zipped up the jacket I was wearing, put up my hood rode home, sold the bike and gave up being a despatch rider.

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