The city is an onion

I was cycling over Blackfriars Bridge when I felt a tinge of anxiety. Am I being remade by my work? Is this who I am now? How do others perceive me, and how do I perceive myself?

I had recently started a new part time job as a cargo bike courier, to supplement my dog sitting, comedy promotion, and writing things no one will ever read based lifestyle.

In terms of status, pay, and likelihood of being trapped in a meeting with someone pretending to be an expert on a topic they only learnt about that morning, this job is inferior to working for a national newspaper.

In other regards – physical exertion, meeting a wide range of people, exposure to sunrises – it is better.

In more nebulous and philosophical categories, like “is this useful?” and “is this a good use of my education and talents?”, the answers are less clear cut.

On that first question, it must be said that the tasks vary wildly.

All involve lugging loads that, a few years ago, would likely have been shifted by van or lorry, with internal combustion engines doing infernal things to the air and the climate. So: an unalloyed “good”.

But within that, a day may involve, say, helping out at an east London food bank (good), delivering coffee to a bunch of independent retailers (probably fine), and bringing huge amounts of sushi to hungry, desk-bound venture capitalists (should have poisoned it).

But I am an artist and a writer, without means or property, and sometimes I must give up my time to do things I don’t agree with.

I suppose.

What all this means is my body is becoming fitter and stronger, and my lips blister even in the weak February sun. I have joined the huge ranks of London’s bringers, servicers, and facilitators.

Those I interact with are often designed to be invisible: the “dark kitchen” chefs in basements and under railway arches; the loading bay security men you deliver to far out of sight of the shiny corporate lobby; the catering staff financial analysts avoid eye contact with, as they wheel out packaged salads to the 15th floor chill-out area, with its sofas, snacks and occasional table tennis tables.

These people are invariably friendly, funny, and kind.

What I am learning about myself through this work remains unclear; but what I am learning about the city is legion.

As someone of peripatetic lifestyle, who has lived all over and cycled to get there, I thought I knew most of London.

I was wrong. The city is an onion, and its layers make me cry. From anonymous industrial estates in the marshes off the Lea valley, to ancient alleyways near Fenchurch Street station, I am seeing new bits of the city every single day.

I am extremely grateful for everything and anything I had never seen before.

And yet.

There is, inevitably, plenty of repetition and a great deal of passing through haunts ranging from the recent to the ancient. Like a lot of people, I have an extremely geographic memory, and so each shift is one of constant remembering sparked by cycling through the past.

Flats of ex-partners; cafes of regret. Picking up empty beer kegs from places where I fell in love. All are seen and vividly experienced daily, and the beauty and the curse of cycling is the focus, the clarity, and the constant motion.

Is this who I am now? How do others perceive me, and how do I perceive myself?

As ever, I’m trying to become less obsessed with the former and treat the latter with more understanding and kindness.

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