On Yer Bike

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Posted on Jan 20 2014 - 1:04pm by
It was a little after 11 o’clock on Friday morning, when I pulled off the North Circ heading for the M1. I gave the GPZ1100 its head and we hit the main carriageway doing one ten and accelerating hard. 
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The grin that stretched across my teeth, made me look like a nonagenarian Hollywood starlet who’d had one tuck too many. But who could blame me? I’d already earned the best part of 50 quid, and I was carrying a Leicester, 2 Nottinghams (both going to Boots), a Sheffield, a Leeds and a Newcastle – and they were all on separate dockets. I didn’t even try to add up how much I was earning, I was content in the knowledge that it was going to be a phenomenal lump of wedge – and best of all, I’d be collecting it for riding a fantastic bike on a beautiful day.

Having travelled all the way to Tyneside in relatively light traffic under crystal blue skies, I came up empty in Newcastle at 5.20 and sat around chatting to the receptionist (imagine Jennifer Lopez with a Geordie accent) until she finished 10 minutes later, when I agreed that I’d love to give her a lift home. Back at her flat she opened a small wooden box on top of the TV and handed me a pre-rolled spliff, telling me to make myself comfortable while she got out of her work clothes and freshened up. I inhaled deeply, sank back into the sofa, and wondered what the hell I ever could have done to deserve such incredibly good fortune.

A tap on my head stirred me, “Are you going to pass that J?”

“Sorry darlin’.” I held my hand out in the direction of the voice, sighing contentedly.

A harder tap stirred me from my comfy cocoon. “Ooh you calling darlin’, you carnt!” The gruff answer was swiftly followed by a hard kick, which was obviously designed to remind me that the owner of the voice was a rufty-tufty camouflage clad motorbike courier, not some purple Lycra wrapped, pedal cyclist.

My eyes snapped open, but the overhead sun was so bright that it nearly seared my corneas. I reopened them gently, protecting them with a shading hand and squinted at a malicious looking black Alpine Star less than six inches from my nose – and the tenuous link to my Geordie daydream evaporated instantly in the midday heat.

shark

At the same moment a handheld radio crackled and offered the boot’s owner a JWT to NW8.

“Bollocks to that. That’s a bicycle job, why don’t you get one of the shirts that are sunning and preening themselves to do it?”

He waved a dismissive hand at the lean bronzed bodies that were dotted about the flat roof in the mews off Shepherd’s Market in Mayfair and a cyclist with a pink Mohican who was sitting in the lotus position, eating something vegi looking out of a Tupperware container, puckered up and blew him a kiss. Keef’s immediate response was to lash out with his boot in my direction, as if it was my fault for causing his sexuality to be called into question in the first place. But it was easy to dodge his lazy kick and I blew him another kiss as the radio crackled again.

“Because it’s a box of A4, which is too heavy to go on a bicycle.” Milky responded in a tone, which suggested that he was getting a bit pissed off with sweltering indoors and arguing with couriers who’d lost the will to work.

I spoke into the radio that was dangling over my left shoulder, “I’ll take it.”

Keef rose up onto an elbow, ready to protest that he was next out, but even that was more effort than he could readily manage in the suffocating heat, so he shut his eyes and sank back, waving me away dismissively.

As it turned out I picked up a Kilburn, a Harlesden and a Bushey to keep the St John’s Wood company, so the run doubled my job total for the day; but there was nothing coming into town and I rode all the way back to Mayfair without passing ‘Go’. I was back on the roof soaking up rays by 3 o’clock and then I only did one more job, an Ashford in Kent, but at least that meant I was back home in Walderslade just after half five, in time to catch some kiddie’s TV with my two toddlers.

Although the relatively few quid I’d earned, was a far cry from my rooftop fantasy, it was still a tidy sum of money for spending most of an August day sunbathing. The same went for my GT550, it might have been precisely half the volume of my despatch rider’s dream machine, but it was still a fine bike with a comfortable seat that would happily do a hundred and ten all day when required. As for the coffee skinned honey… Well I was a 31 year old married man with a couple of kids, so she was probably best confined to the rooftop anyway.

Flights of fancy aside, On Yer Bike was still an amazing place to work. Their media punters loved the company’s cyclists, and were all more than happy to pay a premium to have the kind of colourful characters that OYB specialised in bouncing in and out of their offices. Most of the cyclists seemed to work there because it allowed them the flexibility to explore their true career as an artist, poet, actor, musician, or trapeze artist (it’s a well known fact in OYB circles that half the extras in the battle scene in Full Metal Jacket, were riders who’d taken time off to go filming in the Royal Docks).

The motorcycle couriers however were a different breed. They were largely very experienced career pro’s, who’d got a job at OYB because they knew someone who already worked there and they were getting financially fat on the rich pickings the cyclists couldn’t handle. The cycle controllers would bung all the distance work – which was basically anything that ran off the edge of the Central London map – in the motorbike controller’s direction, who had slick riders just waiting to snap them up by the pannier full.

Outside of the depths of the mid-summer doldrums, it was possible for a hungry rider on a medium to large capacity bike who wasn’t afraid to use its power, to earn in excess of £800 week in week out. Monty would turn his nose up at any job that didn’t at least double up, but once he had enough on board he’d scream up and down a motorway or two at ludicrous speeds, before crackling back onto the airwaves, rudely demanding more work; and at the end of the week he’d pick up a cheque for somewhere around a grand. If that isn’t impressive enough in its own right, I should add that I’m talking about 1986 here – nearly three decades ago!

And it wasn’t just the money. When Keef described the cyclists as ‘shirts’ (which was an abbreviation of ‘shirt-lifters’) he was employing a euphemism for homosexual males that was almost PC by the prevailing industry standards of the day; but aside from being a tad homophobic, it was also a bit of a generalisation, because although there were definitely a disproportionate number gay men – and quite a few lesbians for that matter – riding bicycles for OYB, I don’t think anyone was ever refused a job or judged harshly for being an out hetro.

There were also quite a few black people working there, which again was unusual in the despatch trade in 1986, as was the number of women you’d see riding both powered and pedalled two wheelers, when elsewhere in the business at that time, they could only aspire to a job answering the phones. I’m not suggesting that there were no ‘minorities’ anywhere else in the industry, I guess it was just that if they worked for the funky Mayfair firm, they felt less like they were.

Enterprise

Even the large open plan control/telephone room was special. All sorts of strange and wonderful things were suspended from the ceiling including a Star Ship Enterprise and a shark (both inflatable), an aeroplane and a helicopter that ran on battery power and rotated on their strings (with painful consequences for at least one tall bastard) and various other inflatables and general nonsense. Rounding off the overhead entertainment, there were also a number missing tiles, which allowed office staff to play ceiling tennis whenever they had a quiet moment.

The motorbike controllers also had a rock garden. Of course there wasn’t any greenery, just a steadily growing pile of rocks and pebbles but every one of them had come from a beach or famous tourist area. Once upon a time, a controller demanded that a rider who had been given a coast job, should bring him back some rock. The rider duly returned with a pebble with Hastings written on it in felt tip and like so many things at OYB, something that started out as a toss away joke, ended up being stretched and extended to the nth degree, until it took on a life of its own.

For my money, On Yer Bike in 1986, was the high water mark of the despatch business. I find it difficult to imagine anywhere before or since, where it was possible to have so much fun, while earning so much money, alongside such an interesting and diverse group of people.

Dave Gurman

onyerbike

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11 Comments so far. Feel free to join this conversation.

  1. Andy Tribble January 20, 2014 at 2:06 pm - Reply

    I worked for Security Despatch in Covent Garden off and on from about 77 to 81. They were equally eccentric, as the place was full of public schoolboys. The owners had planned it together while still in the sixth form at Oundle, and I got in following a couple of other characters from Dulwich, one of whom was Mark Revelle who later on was the publisher of Bike magazine. In between the middle class boys there were one or two out and out cockney yobs who seemed unable to make it through the weekend without getting into fights or being arrested. We also has some even odd older character such as Captain Maurice Seddon (Gordonstoun) and a chap who had been a TV star in the early ’60’s and then spent the rest of his life in Hollywood until he ran out of money and came home. Their main weakness was that in 78 or so most of us had still not faced up to the fact that British bikes were now crap, and instead of running CX500s or GT550s or whatever, we were using the job as a support to keep some old Brit beast running. One of my old school mates was despatching on a Panther 600 single, there was a Norton Atlas, a Trident, a couple of BSA A65s, and of course the famous Maurice Seddon ex-WD BSA 500, a sidevalve I think. As a result a regular call-out would be to take over from some other rider who had dumped all his oil/snapped a cable/broken a chain. I did all those things at one time or another. I ran an AJS 250, and then for several years a BSAC15, during which time I rebuilt the entire engine about 3 times and ‘bobbed’ it, that is removed all the metalwork and replaced it with light stuff or nothing. I reckon on average I got a four day week and one day rebuilding the bike. Then one day I bought a new MZ TS250 and found out what it was like to own a bike that would actually run all day without breaking. If someone had said ‘no bikes over 15 years old’ there would have been howls of protest, but their reliability rate would have gone up a lot.

  2. Editor January 20, 2014 at 5:15 pm - Reply

    There were always plenty of posh boys passing through most of the courier companies I knew back in the day Andy. It seemed to be a kind of postgraduate tradition; take a year or two off having fun before the folks nagged them into getting a proper job (i.e. the big money earner their education was designed to achieve) and as one of the Cockney yobs, I was well aware that they predominated at Security and I didn’t think my grammar school tie would cut it, which is why I stuck to Mercury and their arch rivals Express.

    However, bringing it all back around to OYB – where I worked (part time) ten years after my debut as a messenger of the sods in 1978 – they were eventually bought by Security who then took the whole operation to Back Hill in Clerkenwell.

  3. Jonathan Edmund Lines January 21, 2014 at 9:16 am - Reply

    Where else would you find a van driver/ mercenary who fought for the South African defence force in the Angola civil war chatting to a rampant leather queen cycle courier ?

    But like most things, a stupid septic got hold it and fucked it up. A few within the company bought into their ideal but they ended up getting fucked themselves. Only Robin, the original owner saw through the veneer and fucked THEM for a cool £2,000,000. Cash.

    OYB worked because it ran itself, everyone knew what they were doing and were left to do it. But like Thatcher, coal mines and no internet, OYB was of its time and simply couldn’t survive progress with its own unique work ethos.

    I went on to work for creative in Berwick St, fantastic company that still manages to have some form of individuality, thanks to owner Lisa Byrne.

    • Editor January 21, 2014 at 11:53 am - Reply

      As a part timer, I couldn’t possibly lay claim the kind of insight that you so obviously possess Mr lines, suffice to say that I would draw the reader’s attention to the disclaimer that says that the views and opinions of contributors and correspondents don’t necessarily reflect those of the editor (particularly if said reader is both offended and of a litigious bent).

      Thanks for your opinion though because as we get older, we become the bearers of the kind of truth that only comes with personal experience. Obviously our truths will vary every bit as much as our personal experiences of recent (or increasingly not so recent) history but few will be as quite as distorted as the ‘official version’ the mainstream media serve up.

  4. Jonathan Edmund Lines January 21, 2014 at 11:37 pm - Reply

    Wild Bill ran a lucrative gun running operation supplying Serbian forces during the Balken war. Tex, Crusty’s flatmate, the bloke who killed a pitbull with his bare hands after a builder set it on him.

    All these tales may seem far fetched but I (we) can assure anyone they are true. Amazing doesn’t even begin to describe this totally unique workplace.

    • Jim MacDonald (Oily) February 11, 2016 at 8:50 pm - Reply

      It’s great to come across this. Where are all these guys these days? Be great to catch up and have an OYB reunion. I can confirm that all the tales above and more are true,-)

  5. Spoogie January 22, 2014 at 4:53 pm - Reply

    In my teens I was fortunate enough to come across a Motocycle Club called GG’s.(Greasy Garage). It was Located in the middle of Peckham and consisted of 2 old post war prefab houses. It was run by 2 of the coolest guys I ever met. Dave Newman and Tony FitZ.The first house was full of old bikes that they managed to aquire, the second was full of tools. Go in to the first house pick a bike take it to the second hut and Dave and Tony helped us to get them going again.Test them on the donut track they had carved out in back garden. then on a Sunday we load the trailer, take the bikes out to Swanley and ride the daylights out them till the sun went down. They were Dispatchers and my ticket to On Yer Bike and the lifestyle you discribe.

    30 years on I’m still at it,trying to hold on to the good old days. After working for various companies over the years I have ended up at Creative where remnants of OYB can still be found.Yes, there’s still a hint of old school there,but still overpowered by a corperate taste.
    The riders have also changed. It’s more about earning than the lifestyle and though there are some characters the scene ain’t as colorful. Back in the 90’s, after OYB’s takeover of Security Dispatch and Corperate types came sniffing for a piece of the Dispatch Industry riders,drivers and shirts alike started to revolt. things got a little nasty and management were forced to change tactics with reguard to their relationship with us. The Industry hasn’t been the same since. We had nicknames back then,now we’re just a number.

    I still see some of the hardcore from back in the day. Keef u-turned on me in his cab a couple of months ago and was unrepentant as ever(we didn’t kiss, but I was made up) Digger stops at Bruno’s on Wardour St. for a coffee and a chat sometimes. Monty’s got a proper job now and I see him now and again. Dave’s still doing good things running another youth m/c project and Tony makes the pilgrimage every year or so from his new home in the Carribean.

    Here’s a shout to some of the other characters that made the scene what it used to be. Colin Lowe, Kenny,Fozzy, Black Benny, Rosy, Milky,Wild Bill and all those who pulled up at GG’s wether it was to fix their bikes or just hang out.

    Cheers

  6. 106 May 24, 2014 at 5:49 pm - Reply

    “…I worked for Security Despatch … one day I bought a new MZ TS250…”

    Sounds like Mavis. I was just writing about the SD crowd from that era. Can’t recall the Essex boys being yobs, just not toffs.

    The TV star was Richard Wyler in full leathers on a Phil Read Rep. Came over to us as a part-timing flash harry but actually had quite an interesting life I’ve since learned. If you remember that TV ad for Imperial Leather soap – family all enjoying soapy baths together in a luxurious marbled hall (this was the 70s) then pulls back to be an airliner; RW was daddy bear.

    Interestingly, SD also had a tradition of bringing back a stick of seaside rock for the controller.

    By the end of the 80s I had the feeling the eccentrics had been squeezed out of the job, at least at SD.

  7. Jeff (Foster) Rowe March 16, 2016 at 4:01 pm - Reply

    This is an awesome and wholly accurate account. They were good times, largely.
    Remember the hats suspended from the ceiling, brought back like the rocks from various places the motorbikes went?
    And Spoogie! When we delivered inside No. 10, before there was a gate at the end of Downing Street, even, Spoogie keyed up his mic inside and said, “If any of you have anything to say about the poll tax, now would be a good time…”
    Solid gold.
    I hope you are all well –

  8. Minky August 26, 2017 at 8:46 pm - Reply

    Oily , great idea oyb reunion, Keef a cabby ? I was at oyb 88/90 , monty , crusty , tex , wild bill , milky , digger , lester , O.B , mark stringer , Marcus , dinsdale ,Tony Fitz was a great bloke , old mate of keef , that bike club he ran was great , did a lot of good work with youth projects , he’s in the Caribbean now ?? Tex killed that pit bull with a kick to the chest and then broke its neck with a stamping action , I remember him reinactiing it , I thought I was going to suffer the same fate , ex royal green jacket was tex ,
    I ended up as a security chauffeur working for ex Scotland Yard anti terrorist officer , I introduced Tex to the governor , he ended up as head of security for an international organisation, he married the polish girl from the sandwich shop in shepherds market , any news on crusty , I first worked with him early 80’s at Pegasus ,

  9. Minky August 26, 2017 at 8:49 pm - Reply

    Last I saw of keef was at worlds end couriers 94

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