Leader of the package
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.
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
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
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
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?
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