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Leader of the package

Click here for link to original article published in the Guardian on 17 January 2009.

Series: A working life

The motorcycle courier Clive Tooby used early retirement to turn
his hobby into a full-time job. He tells Chris Arnot about life on the
open road - and delivering Cliff Richard's jacket.

Chris Arnot
The Guardian, Saturday 17 January 2009

Clive Tooby's mobile phone lies on the table between us like a potentially intrusive interloper ready to barge its way into the conversation. If it goes off then Tooby could be off too, climbing into his motorcycle waterproofs before straddling his KTM 990 Adventure and heading to heaven knows where.

Central London would be handy because we're there already, sitting in the Exmouth Market branch of Caffe Nero. But this is a man who has been known to travel nearly 50 miles to the Sky Sports studio, near the A4 in Isleworth, Middlesex, from his home in Billericay, Essex, and then set off to Newcastle to deliver a DVD before Alan Shearer's testimonial match at St James' Park. All in a day's work for a motorcycle courier.

When the mobile finally rings, he's had a chance to see off two leisurely cappuccinos and a turkey and cranberry panini while telling me his life story. The caller wants to know if he'll go to Lincoln to collect some documents and then take them on to Huntingdon. It's the first offer of work he's had all day and he's turning it down. Why?

"Because Lincoln's a long way from here while Huntingdon's quite close to Lincoln, and we only charge the customer for the miles carried, not the distance it takes to pick it up in the first place," he explains after politely suggesting alternative couriers in King's Lynn or Peterborough. This business is competitive, particularly among the big boys in London. But the smaller, provincial operators look after one another, it would seem. "We have a little network of half a dozen firms around the country," says Tooby, 60, who would obviously expect a courier in King's Lynn or Peterborough to do the same for him if it involved a pick up near Billericay and a short ride to, say, Ilford where he was brought up.

He has been in love with motorbikes since he first clambered aboard a 200cc James Captain on his 16th birthday. "Unlike a car, you feel connected to the machine," he says. "When you lean into a bend, you feel at one with the wheels and engine beneath you. It's still challenging and rewarding to ride well - to judge a gap between the traffic, for instance, and go through it."

Another 40 years would pass before he had the chance to fulfil his dream of turning his hobby into his job. He was 56 when he took early retirement from his post as a project supervisor at Ford's technical centre in Dunton. Tooby had worked his way up the company ladder after joining Ford straight from Aston University with a degree in mechanical engineering under his belt. "Aston wasn't my first choice," he admits. "But then my A-level grades weren't as good as expected." Why was that? "Because when I should have been studying, I was rebuilding a classic, pre-war Francis Barnett for a friend."

Tooby's father was a bank manager who built very complex model railways in his spare time. "I was never allowed to touch the engines," he recalls, "but some of his love of things mechanical must have been in the genes." As for his jeans, they must have absorbed their fair share of oil stains, such was the leaky quality of British-made motorcycles at the time. He was never happier than when dismantling a BSA and putting it back together again - unless, that is, he was opening its throttle on a clear road.

This was the mid-1960s and the mods and rockers rivalry was in full swing. Rockers wore black leather jackets with matching oil deposits under their fingernails. Tooby fitted naturally into this camp, except that he was more interesting in riding than fighting on the beaches of Brighton or Margate. "I was never hardnosed about it," he grins. Mind you, he was an occasional visitor to the legendary rockers' hangout, the Ace Cafe, after a "burn-up" on the North Circular Road. "I've been there a few times since it reopened," he says. But he's far more likely to be found in a McDonald's. "I'm a great fan," he adds, trenchantly. "Parking is so easy and they're always clean. Sometimes I just use them for a toilet break. I don't feel bad about that because I have a Big Mac about twice a week or sometimes I just have a coffee. It's not quite as good as this," he says, taking another sip of cappuccino, "but it's cheaper."

The courier also has a sneaking regard for motorway service stations. "If you've ridden 300 miles in cold and driving rain, they can seem pretty good," he assures me. The most he has ever travelled in one day is a 750-mile round trip to a seaside town in the far north west after first going to Surrey to pick up the package. "When I finally got to the coast," he remembers, "there was such a gale blowing off the sea that it took me ages to park the bike without it blowing over."

Occasions where the bike has gone over with him on it were far more common 40 years ago than they are today. Lorries, like motorcycles, tended to be leaky in those days. "Diesel spills were all over the place," he says. The only time he's come close to an accident in recent times was when a London taxi suddenly swung out to the right without warning. "I touched the side of the cab and he seemed to think it was my fault," he shrugs. But driver and rider didn't shout and shake their fists. Despite spending much of his life on the road, the amiable Tooby can't recall a single incident of road rage. "It's a running joke between Louise [his wife] and me that she drives a mile to the shops and takes 10 minutes to tell me how she's been cut up and cheated out of a parking place," he says, "while I've just done a 400-mile round trip and nothing much has happened."

Paradoxically, in the circumstances, he enjoys the unpredictability of the job. "I can be watching the telly one minute and on the way to London or Sheffield the next," he beams. And if he's had a drink? "I hardly touch the stuff." On those rare occasions when he goes out socialising, he redirects calls to any one of his three employees. "They're not all full-time," he stresses.

Couriers usually carry documents of one kind or another in a waterproof container behind the pillion. But sometimes there might be spare keys in there, lost laptops or even items of clothing. Tooby was once called upon to deliver a jacket to a studio where Cliff Richard was filming. "The lady at the tailor's house, where I picked it up, looked a bit anxious when I was rolling it up," he recalls. "So I said: 'Don't worry; his eyesight's probably not so clever these days.' Turned out that sequins were going to be sewn all over it anyway."

On another occasion, he rode 450-miles through France on a warm evening to deliver spare car keys to a motor racing fan who'd lost his trousers when robbers slashed their way into his tent while he was camping near the formula one circuit at Magny-Cours. "I had the call at midday and delivered by midnight," says Tooby, proudly. "Finding a hotel in the vicinity on grand prix weekend wasn't easy or cheap, mind you. But I enjoyed the job, even if I didn't make much money on it."

As he gets ready to clamber back aboard the KTM Adventure, I notice again the company name on his business card: 2b Transport. Dreaming that one up must have involved asking the time-honoured question that has echoed down the years from Elsinore to Billericay: Tooby or not Tooby?

Curriculum vitae
Pay: Nothing yet. "Our customer base is still expanding and we should make a small profit next year. Luckily I had a good pension from Ford." He charges approximately £1 a mile from pick-up point to delivery.

Hours: 60 a week. "Every job requires half an hour of paper work."

Work-life balance: "I don't see motorcycling as work. It's a hobby job."

Upside: "I like the buzz of waking up and not knowing where the day's going to take me."

Downside: "Riding through driving rain and feeling it beginning to seep through the collar of the waterproof kit."


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