I watched a Kilroy show years ago all about ‘dangerous sports’. It featured your average dangerous sporter guy (in this case a B.A.S.E jumper), lots of family members and a bus load of audience filler.
The point of the show was, as far as I could see, to put dangerous sporter on the spot once and for all and get him either to explain exactly why he liked jumping off buildings and cliffs or to expose him as the reckless waste of human life that everyone really knew him to be. Poor DSG struggled to put across to a pretty sedentary audience (whose collective idea of excitement was a cliff-hanger episode of Dallas), just what the point of leaping off a bridge with a parachute was. “Afterwards you feel so alive,” he said. Kilroy did that special extra- smug smirk of his and turned to the plump lady sitting next to DSG. “Can I ask you Madam, if you feel alive right here, right now on Kilroy?” She giggled and replied that of course she was alive. She waggled a wobbly arm to prove it. Then Kilroy did that super-smug raised eyebrow thing and turned back to defeated DSG. (I missed the rest because I was shouting at the TV.)
We hear about stress every day and have done for the last 30 years. It’s the reason for everything from cancer to total allergy syndrome. These ailments are obviously totally unrelated to the fact we live in a desperately polluted society with all the spiritual depth of a small puddle of diesel. Stress is the cause of another new syndrome called General Adaptation Syndrome. I don’t know; this sounds like a 2lst century psychobabble description of ‘life’ to me, but apparently you can get signed off work for having it. (“S’cuse me doctor but I just keep on being alive.” “Oh dear, how distressing. Here’s some Prozac and a sick note for the next six months. Best of luck.”).
Stress is the bogeyman of our grown up world. Everyone is terrified of it. I was thinking about this as I finally headed towards home on Friday after12 hours (mostly spent running back and forwards across the A4 in the manner of a headless chicken, because plank here didn’t spot that while North Eyot Gardens is on the North side, plain old Eyot Gdns isn’t. Muppet.) I was thinking about the couriers I know who have got out of the game because they were losing their minds. I was thinking about whether I was losing mine. Surely this job is just a short cut through the decades. If stress is so bad for you then this job must be to longevity what the electric chair is to bladder control. The thing is though, that by the time I got home I was grinning peacefully from head to toe and kept long-suffering husband up to 2am with riveting tales of going really fast all the way to Bromley… and back again! Eventually I drifted off into a deep and healthy sleep. Saturday was spent bimbling around in a blissed out state of calm and tranquillity thinking about ‘Stress’ with a smile on my face. Stress, as a word is tricky. 99% of the world uses it as a negative. Stress is what gives you frown lines and high blood pressure and really ugly rows with your wife. The other 1%, made up of the scientific community, use the word to describe any change in ones environment which necessitates action by your body to compensate. So cold is a stress, as is hot. Anger is a stress, as is joy. The dictionary says it is ” a strain upon a bodily organ or mental power.” Stress, as far as I can make out, is actually anything and everything outside of you and a fair percentage of what’s going on inside of you too; especially in the grey soggy bit at the top of your neck. So stress is a bit like the air we breathe. Spending your life trying to avoid it seems to be as pointless as, well, not breathing.
Finally I found something positive. Certain kinds of stress (the I’m-going-to-die kind) the scientists say have a wonderful way of concentrating the mind. In fact, they say that stress gets your brain focused to such an extent that “concentration could become so total that it resembled a state of religious transcendence. “Wow. That explains why I feel like God on those rare days when the work aspect of our job fades out and all that’s left is me, the bike and an invisible crowd of people singing “Highway to Hell”. The evenings after days like these are suffused with calm and peace. I always thought this was a natural state of mind for a god anyway, but is, apparently, just a bio-chemical response to the storm of chemicals that stress releases.
The adrenal glands are 2 small bits of highly specialised burger that sit just on top of each kidney. The stuff they deal in gets your heart racing and makes your muscles swell. They, like most dealers, have the good stuff and the other stuff depending on how well they know you. Plain old adrenaline is not the good stuff. It does make your heart thump but it also gives you a headache and makes you feel a bit sick. It’s the drug of anxiety and fear. Anyone who gets addicted to this needs help. If you are not too familiar with Mr Adrenal-Gland then you always get Adrenaline. If however, you call Mr Adrenal-Gland ‘Addy’ and see him everyday, then you are the dude who gets the good stuff. It’s called Noradrenaline. It pumps you up while at the same time tickling all the hot spots in your brain: euphoria, well being and “near super-natural alertness”. Mmmm, baby, hit me one more time. When people talk about Adrenaline-junkies they are really talking about this stuff.
Another kick you can get from this still legal chemical is the expansion of time. That strange feeling of time slowing down that you get sometimes when you are screeching towards the cliff-like slab of Rolls Royce that has just stalled while turning right across you, is actually happening. Time is something we perceive. Our perception of time can change – it can slow down or speed up. Your average Joe who sits in his bent car going “I don’t know what happened – it all happened so fast” is still on adrenaline. Your average DR who talks about everything going into slow motion is on Noradrenalin – he can still talk because he found the time to take evasive action. So much for stress reducing your lifespan… do enough of it and it gets longer, though only in life-threatening situations.
The boffins who study human responses to stress and danger have also discovered that far from making you feel like you are losing it altogether, certain kinds of stress (again, the kind we DR’s get most of) have quite the opposite effect. Taking your life in your own hands means that you tend to think you are the master of your own destiny. This is a good thing. Out there on the bike you experience genuine bona fide Freedom. The only thing between you and the hard external stress of tarmac and car is you. If there is anything else at work like fate, God or astrology then you are going right up to it Him/mystic meg and introducing yourself. This sense of being in control of your life means that you have a positive attitude to your own life and “are less likely to have accidents, commit suicide…” It’s official; some guys in Russia have said so, but do we think the insurance companies are going to take a blind bit of notice?
There are pathways and through-routes in your head just as there are in the A-Z. The bio-chemical pathway that noradrenalin travels is exactly NOT the one that you go down if you’re depressed. So obviously this rumour that DR’s do nothing but moan in a negative manner is clearly bunkum. Despatch riding is a full on acceptance of life, its moment and our continued existence in it. The moaning is probably part of a big DA funded smoke screen with the purpose of playing down the joys of the job so everybody doesn’t want to do it.
This ‘sense of control’ over your own life is also the missing ingredient for all those stressed out nuts suffering from road/trolley/escalator-rage. They are constantly exposed to stress but, unlike DR’s, are completely unable to affect the situation in any way whatsoever… no foaming at the mouth ever got the traffic flowing. I have tried.
“Fear” says Coleridge the poet “gives sudden instincts of skill.” He may not have been a noted bungee-jumper but he spent a lot of time locked in a small room in a wet county with his demons and masses of opium. Getting to a certain state of bio-chemical ecstasy does wondrous things to your brain and it’s rocky relationship with your body.’ Your senses go bionic, your grey matter super-sonic – this is where imagination and creativity take off. Creativity isn’t just about poetry; being faced with a wall of steel and getting through it at 50mph without touching the sides is creativity at warp speed. This has the rather pleasing side effect as far as you the DR is concerned, of making it possible for you to go even faster. Every time you stretch yourself and the bike that little bit further you are stretching your fear tolerance and turning it into skill. (You are also becoming a DR with a habit. It’s a tricky habit to break because unlike most addictions, which leave you penniless, the more you do of this, the more money you make.) This fluid state of super-consciousness is extraordinary and ecstatic. It is not what most people think of when they think ‘stress’. As Bon Scot sang… “if this is hell, it’s heavenly”.
Facing danger is a life-affirming thing to do. However, it is anti-social because it tends to encourage strength of individuals and we all know that society exists on the weakness of masses. This is why Kilroy was looking so smug – he knew that people doing dangerous things because they wanted to, were already aliens in their own world and were destined for an unhappy life bereft of that immense sense of comfort one can get from feeling ‘just like everybody else’. What the smug prick obviously didn’t have a clue about though was that doing dangerous things could make life taste so sweet that you didn’t give a toss.
This article first appeared in issue 53 of The Rider’s Digest in January 2002