Thoughts on ‘What Goes Around’ by Emily Chappell

I’ve never attempted to write a book review and I’m not sure if that is what this is but I promised you I would let you know what I thought of Emily Chappell’s debut book, What Goes Around, so here goes.

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Great book, average carpet

I have to say that I approached the book with high expectations having read a couple of reviews and heard Emily being interviewed on Woman’s hour on Radio 4 and also on the BBC’s Meet the Author both of which refer to the quality of the writing in between asking crass questions like “why do cyclists jump red lights”. I freely admit that if I didn’t know Emily from her blog I probably would never have bought this book as the subject matter itself doesn’t really grab me. I will begrudgingly admit to a certain admiration for the combination of cool and skill that cycle couriers exude and having owned a ‘fixie’ (single speed fixed wheel bicycle) for a couple of years I do see the appeal but I am not a fan of London or cities in general and I wasn’t sure I wanted to know all the gritty details of a cycle courier’s daily grind. These things aside I still opened the book with a certain frisson of anticipation and excitement.

As I hoped and expected it didn’t take more than a few pages to realise that this was a book with layers. On the top there is the often exquisitely described feelings of triumph and terror when engulfed by the madness of London’s traffic whilst balancing on two skinny wheels and the sheer frustration of simply trying to find the destination belonging to the address written on the package for delivery. I loved the description of Soho coming alive in a morning and the refuse lorry that will  “shatter the silence, the ear-drums of passers-by and a thousand empty bottles as they pour from two upended dustbins into the open lorry’s mouth ” and many other lovingly crafted images of the sights and smells of the city. Constantly weaving through this graphic picture are the people and the relationships that are the real meat of the book for me. The tears and the laughter, camaraderie and friendship and most of all the love, the lovers and the heartbreak of loves lost. In parts the book is raw with emotion and Emily doesn’t hold back in laying bare her soul as she slaloms between battles with foul mouthed and sometimes violent van drivers, the unique pain that only a broken heart can bring and the sexual tension on meeting a potential new lover.

The final layer to this sweet, sweet cake is the writing. I freely admit that there were parts of the book where I had had enough of the minutiae of what it takes to get a parcel from A to B but the writing always carried me through via a turn of phrase or delightful analogy that brought a smile to my lips and, I confess, a certain envy of her craft. It’s a beautiful read.

Throughout this book about cycling and London there are subtle insights into the worlds of feminism and sexuality. Emily is refreshingly matter of fact about her own sexuality and gives us a sometimes painful and sometimes amusing glimpse of the subtle complications that being gay can add to the world of love and relationships. And a lot of men may find the book a subtle but firm reminder that there is still a long, long way to go before we can truly say that we have confined inequality of the sexes to the history books. I don’t mind admitting that I was taken aback several times by the word ‘she’ where I stereotypically expected to read ‘he’ and each time I was slightly embarrassed to be caught out again.

Finally, I want to mention passion. I recall very clearly during the early 80s watching David Bellamy on the television presenting programs about botany. I had no particular interest in the subject but his passion and enthusiasm were completely infectious. Whatever you might think of his more bizarre views on climate change, he taught me that passion for a subject was half the battle to making that subject interesting and he and other presenters and writers since have widened my perspectives on many topics I didn’t think I was interested in. Emily has that wonderful combination of passion and knowledge and an ability to communicate them through the written word and that is what makes the book as a whole a success for me. At no point reading it did I consider moving to London to pursue a career as a cycle courier but I did find myself desperately hoping that she will go on to write about her other cycling adventures around the world and whatever other escapades she gets up to. And if she suddenly develops a passion for crochet or macramé I’ll even give that a read too.

Excited about this book

I have pre-ordered a copy of this book and I am eagerly awaiting delivery in the next week or two. It’s a book about the life of a cycle courier in London and you might think it a strange choice because I am not really interested in cycle couriering and I don’t particularly like London. I am only excited because of who wrote the book. Emily Chappell, the author, has been writing an excellent blog for over five years now and I always look forward to her posts. I have met her a few times and she is a lovely engaging person who endlessly plays down her prodigious cycling achievements and award winning writing talent. On one level she is just another cyclist who is good company, easy to talk to and somebody I admire because she can cycle further and faster than I ever will. But she is also, that rare example of a writer who is able to engage me in her subject matter whatever that subject matter might be.

I admit to being biased because some of Emily’s writing has involved epic cycling adventures and the sheer audacity of her journeys would be worth reading about even if the writing was only average, which it isn’t. Cycling across deserts at break neck speed to beat visa deadlines or riding through Alaska in temperatures so low that even a simple puncture can lead to a life threatening situation are the kind of material that any writer ought to thrive on, and she does. What is remarkable about Emily’s writing though is that I wait eagerly for her next blog post and I really don’t mind whether it’s about riding through the night on a transcontinental bicycle race or a stripped bare account of how she dealt with depression after returning from the first stage of her round the world ride. It’s the writing that comes first and it brings the subject along with it kicking and screaming. When she is writing about solo cycle touring it also becomes clear very quickly that the subject isn’t cycling at all. Like all the best writers the apparent topic is merely a courier for something deeper and more meaningful and as such it really doesn’t matter whether you are a cyclist or not. You are a human being and the engagement comes from how a fellow human being opens up and exposes our basic motivations and desires. She has a way of drilling down into the core of what makes us tick and that is what appeals to me.

I am looking forward to finding out what it’s like to be a cycle courier and learning something about life in London but I am looking forward much more to the writing and to what lies beneath the surface subject. I’ll let you know what I think in due course. In the meantime, this is what it’s like to ride up a mountain in the dark.

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