Book review: What Goes Around by Emily Chappell

February 18, 2016
Faber, £12,99

Cycle couriers have accumulated glamour even as much of their work has vanished into fibre-optic cables; they have become models of style, of fitness and toughness, of freedom and independence within a city. Emily Chappell understands that perverse glamour well. It’s part of what drew her out of academia and into London traffic in the grim and recession-bitten winter of 2008 when she became a cycle courier.

This memoir evokes her initial starry-eyedness with style, while also providing chapter and verse on the job’s harsher side: the cold, the dirt, the body odour and exhaustion, the occasionally terrifying interactions with drivers, the petty humiliations in the receptions of grand buildings, the pay (clearing £500 a week is a dream from the distant days before PDF files).

The structure is a mixture of the thematic and the chronological, a romance with another neophyte female courier providing a narrative thread. Chappell took a break from courier work to complete a round-the-world cycle ride, largely omitted here, and the reader can occasionally hear the chain grind against the derailleur as she shifts between anecdotes from before and after that trip. But What Goes Around nonetheless feels like a coherent whole, rather than merely a collection of observations reconditioned from blogging.

It also moves along at an impressive clip, especially given the density of some of the descriptive passages. London cycle commuters, in particular, will find precise words put to sensations they had only half-registered­—as well as some useful tips on faster routes through Soho.