14. We All Make Mistakes

TRD issue 49 – September 2001

The events of September 11th overshadowed anything and everything else that happened in 2001, casting a pall over the lives of people around the world and setting in motion a chain of events that continue to have profound repercussions today, both in terms of the wars in the Middle East and the rapid erosion of the human rights, individual freedoms and civil liberties of the population in this country and in the USA.

Anyone who’s been in the despatch business for any period of time will have their fair share of memories of jobs that have gone arse-up on them for one reason or another. We’ve all done it. No matter how professional we might think we are, we all have our bad days and occasional lapses. And if there are any smug bastards out there thinking “not me, mate” don’t forget it ain’t over till the fat bird trills.

Sometimes it can simply be that you’re so slick you get ahead of yourself. I remember picking up a seriously big cheque in Colnbrook, which needed to be taken to a bank in Northumberland Ave and paid in before close of business. I clocked the address and borrowed the customer’s phone to call in the details before heading back to town. However, when I arrived in WC2, I opened my pannier and discovered that the envelope was nowhere to be seen. After searching every inch of the bike and myself, I contacted base rather sheepishly. A quick phone call from them to the punter established that it was still sitting where I left it on a desk way out in cargo land. The controller had nobody out west, so I ended up repeating my journey at a ridiculous speed before delivering the goods with minutes to spare.

A category that is always ready to trap the unwary DR is the geographical error. A good example is the time I got all the way from the city, right down through Tooting on my way to a delivery in High Street Malden, before the controller called me to head back to Stratford for a Colchester! Ah, that’ll be Maldon in Essex then. (The worst bit was that when I asked him if he was on drugs, it made it obvious how far I had my head up my arse.)

Then there’s my mate who famously rode to Cobham in Kent instead of Surrey. I’m sure most of you, even if you haven’t done similar things yourself, will certainly have heard some stories.

One of the best (or should I say worst) cases I’ve heard of was a not particularly bright spark who was given a SW19 pick up going to Gosport in Hants. An hour or so later, when the account in Wimbledon started chasing the job and the rider couldn’t be raised on the radio, the controller sent another mobile and waited for a phone call from the police. However, almost an hour after the back up had got the job on board and headed south, the original rider phoned to say he was in Gosport, but he needed them to check the address, because he couldn’t find Plough Lane and even the local police had never heard of it!

Most balls-ups are nine-tenths inconvenience. Either you double back on yourself or someone else covers the job, but in the end everything usually works out hunky dory and the customer’s satisfied, albeit a little disgruntled. However, occasionally a parcel with a high intrinsic value leaps out of an un-bungied topbox and the manure really hits the air conditioning. In 1986, when I was working as the sales rep (plus customer service and general scream chaser) for a well-known courier company, I had to attempt to pacify an extremely unhappy client after a rider had managed to lose a set of slides that they were planning to publish in their magazine. What made this balls-up singularly catastrophic was the fact that the pictures had been taken on a white-water rafting expedition in South America, on a river that had never been successfully navigated before. One rider’s bad day resulted in the entire photographic record of the trip being lost forever; and a customer who wasn’t in the slightest bit interested in hearing any of the inadequate platitudes I had to offer.

Personally, my greatest faux pas happened pretty early on in my career. It wasn’t a big deal because the parcel was worth a great deal of money – it actually possessed no financial value to speak of – but it was certainly extremely important. One Wednesday I was buzzing around town doing my usual short hop stuff when I got a call on the radio asking what I’d done with the ‘blood n guts run’ I’d picked up the previous Thursday. This was a regular job going from the Royal Marsden Hospital in Fulham Road to the London School of Hygiene in WC1 and I’d done it loads of times. So I assured Smelly that I’d dropped it at the right place in Keppel Street and carried on with my work.

I knew that I must have delivered it because I hadn’t chucked it away and I definitely didn’t still have it; but as I rode along a nagging doubt began to develop. The more I thought about it, the less convinced I was that I’d dropped it. Then I remembered. I always worked from my right hand pannier as I kept my wellies, waterproofs, spare spark plugs, and various other bits and bobs in the nearside one. However, when I dragged my mind back a week, I remembered that on Thursday I’d had so much work on that the job from the School of Hygiene had, unusually, ended up in the nearside box along with my Hellys. I realised that I must have knocked out everything from the offside and completely forgotten about the polystyrene container tucked away with my rubberware. I quickly checked to make sure it hadn’t been hiding in the bottom all week, but it was conspicuous by its absence.

Then it clicked that the reason the parcel wasn’t still sitting there six days later was because I’d called in sick the next day and, as they were always short of roadworthy company bikes, a van had been sent to collect mine. Another rider had used my GT250 on Friday, so by the time I got it back after the weekend, although my waterproof gear was still there, all my other bits and pieces had been removed. I radioed back to base to own up, and suggested that if they could locate my personal stuff, there was a good chance the package would be with it.

I heard Smelly ask Kev what had happened to all two-three’s crap and Kev’s muffled reply, then a squelch as the transmit button was released. Smelly was hot on radio etiquette and he usually gave a “stand by one” before he went anywhere, but all I heard was silence, so I waited patiently. It was broken by the controller at the mini-cab firm we shared the frequency with. I waited again while he spelled out Oxford Street (including S-T-R-E-E-T) for one of his drivers. After he’d finished, I gave it another thirty seconds before trying a tentative two-three. Nothing. Two-three, two-three! More nothing. Mercury six-two-three, two-three! Two-three, two-three! Zero, zilch and a lot more nuffin. Then the car firm again with directions to Fleet Street.

I decided I’d knock out my next delivery and scrounge a phone when I got there; but as I shot down Walton Street the radio crackled in my ear: “OK, sorry about that folks, normal business has been resumed. Two-three, two-three.”


“Yeah two-three, knock out your SW3 and RTB.”

“Yeah roger… but you know I’ve still got three W1s and a couple of WCs on?”

“Yeah roger rog. Two-two is waiting for you in Beauchamp Place. Give him your work and get straight back here. Don’t stop in Mayfair, don’t pass go, and don’t collect £200… Which mobile called?”

When I met up with Spike and declined both a cuppa and a race up to Hyde Park Corner, it was obvious there was something seriously bothering me, so he wasn’t in the slightest bit interested and wheelied off with a wave, before pulling an illegal right at the Brompton Road. By contrast, I pulled away sedately and rode the same way all the way to back to Warwick Avenue. This was largely because my head was full of thoughts; but also, I think, because unconsciously I was trying to make the most of my remaining time on the orange Suzuki. I knew I’d screwed-up big time and I was probably about to get the bullet; and as I rode into the cobbled mews in W9 thinking it was for the last time, I could feel my stomach cramping with regret. However, as I pulled up outside the office I was met by a couple of creased-up mechanics, who couldn’t tell me what had happened for laughing. When I stepped inside it was the same story with the girls in the phone room; and as I stuck my head through the hatch into the control room, it was an enormous relief to discover that even Smelly was showing off his dodgy teeth. It would seem I was forgiven, he just thought I deserved to sweat a bit for being such a plonker.

I got the full story eventually. It turned out that the Professor at the School of Hygiene had rather belatedly began to worry about the Hepatitis B cultures, which he should have received some six days earlier — particularly as they really should have gone straight back into the fridge as soon as they were delivered. I was largely reliable, whereas the blood n guts run often involved a fair bit of confusion, so Smelly had naturally taken my word for it and accepted that the mistake was at the other end. But after I called back to say I wasn’t sure, all that changed. Kev’s answer, which had been unintelligible at the time, was: “Yeah, I told one-nine to bung any personal stuff of Dave’s in there.” Then apparently he swung around on his chair, flipped open the cupboard door he’d indicated, and was confronted by a paperback book, a pair of fur-lined suede gloves and a polystyrene container with “HAZARD” and “KEEP REFRIGERATED” stickers plastered all over it. The sudden silence had come about when Smelly dropped his mike before attempting to trample all over Kev as they both bolted for the door.

They were standing outside trying to decide what to do next when a brand new virgin rider marched up, saying that he’d been issued with a bike and was ready to go. Smelly had looked at Kev for a second before nonchalantly turning to the rider and asking if he had a pen and pad. When the newbie produced them enthusiastically, he was given the address in WC1 before being told, almost too casually, to go into the control room and pick up the parcel in the cupboard that had its door wide open. He was told it would have a Professor X’s name on it and that he was to take it directly to him at the London School of Hygiene, and then call in empty on the rider’s number.

He walked into the office and returned a matter of seconds later, holding the parcel aloft and waving innocently at the nice controllers, as they stood sniggering twenty feet away with Mark and Martin the mechanics. All four of them laughed and waved heartily as the new boy headed out of the mews on a buckled old pool bike. He probably rode all the way to Bloomsbury congratulating himself on getting a job at such a nice friendly company.

Apparently, he survived his debut delivery without any noticeable side effects and his naiveté intact – which was sweet. Obviously, Smelly had been confident that the container was well sealed and had expected no less; but even back then a good controller was hard to come by, so there was no point in taking unnecessary risks when new riders on shitty bikes were two-a-penny.

I guess if there are any lessons to be learnt from this story they are:

1) Never get ahead of yourself.

2) Always make certain you’re heading for the right county.

3) Always check your topbox and panniers before you knock off.

4) Never trust a smiling controller.

Be careful out there

Carin’ Sharin’

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