It’s Thursday 16th April and the lockdown has been extended for a further three weeks. It’s day 23 or something like that of the lockdown in Bristol and I’m trying to navigate the new reality on my bicycle, one pizza delivery at a time. I follow a little girl in a tiger onesie across Prince Street bridge because she looks like she should be in charge, and then I break off to get fish and chips. A guy is sat outside the fish shop on East street asking me how he can get his fish dinner delivered to his house. I tell him to download the app Deliveroo or Uber Eats to his phone and he interrupts, ‘no, nothing like that, I’ve only got a flip phone with the buttons.’ I ask him if he’s got a computer with the internet. ‘No, not that love, can you not do it on the phone?’ And he puts his hand to his face with two fingers stretched out to make sure I know he means the phone used in its proper way to make phone calls, not to use some app on a phone without buttons. I tell him that we’re only available to deliver his food via the internet. He says, ‘i only live round the corner’. I know, it doesn’t make much sense to me either, but I’m afraid it doesn’t work like that, you must go through your smartphone or laptop which was assembled by workers in 14 hour shifts in China using minerals mined by children in central Africa, using an app designed by a millionaire in London, then I’ll turn up on my bike and you can phone a call centre in Madagascar if your food doesn’t turn up.
Bristol cathedral is waving a flag from its tower and it looks like a St George’s cross but not quite. I wonder if it’s the flag of Bristol and so look it up, and find out that the real flag of Bristol has a castle and pirate ship on it. All they need to do is add a tractor and a sound system and it’ll be slightly more up to date. But it makes me think, why do we still have flags anyway? What’s the deal with the crusading George’s crosses plastered over everything, we’re not tramping round the world any more on ships claiming ownership of land, why do we need a flag? I think countries should follow Bristol’s example and do an 8 year old style drawing of three of their favourite things (pirate, tractor, dinosaur, whatever) and put in a frame in front of them in UN meetings and trade negotiations. It might just take the heat out of those things.
Sometimes I can forget how strange things feel outside. But then I cycle down East Street for the fifth time in a row and see that the only living creatures around are me, giant seagulls, rats, homeless people and the police, who are questioning two guys walking towards Redcliffe. Another two guys sat at a bus stop throw a lighter at seagull that’s got too close to them. I’ve been out delivering most days since the lockdown began and the only people I’ve seen the police questioning have been homeless or on Stapleton Road. Yet as this resource shows, homeless people are exempt from the Corona virus laws that ask people to stay at home, for the obvious reason that they don’t have one. From Bedminster to the waterfront to Clifton I’ve seen the police move on people for begging, and I’m not sure what the legal basis for this is. I’ve not seen a person begging who was coming too close to others, or breaking any guidelines on social distancing. In fact, the group of people I’ve seen most likely to break these guidelines are police officers. Take this on Thursday:
The police officer is standing within 2 metres of this guy, and speaks to him for five minutes or so. I went up afterwards to ask if he was ok, and he told me that they’d asked him to move and to stop begging. On Wednesday I followed some blue lights through Portland Square and watch three officers bundle a guy into a van:
I didn’t see the initial arrest so don’t know what he was arrested for or if it was corona law related. But I saw him being compliant getting out of the patrol car, and he was also handcuffed. The question is, is it necessary to use three officers to put him in the van? And in the process, risk his health and possible infection with three people so close to him. Also, why the blue lights? I presume by this point he was in cuffs in the patrol car, with another patrol car present. Why the urgency? There are reports that violent crime is down 40% in the corona lockdown. So why so many patrol cars? We also know that charities are reporting higher rates of domestic violence during the lockdown, and have we heard ways in which police forces are responding to that increase to protect or respond to victims of domestic abuse? I wonder if any police officers will be furloughed in order to save money and respond to a reduction in work load? Why is it that there are so many police out in the streets while most people seem to be following the restrictive corona laws? If they do have to be out, can they at least follow social distancing rules themselves and not put others at risk unnecessarily? When I’m waiting at a noodle place at the top of Park Street a patrol car is driving down the opposite side past the Wills Building and sees the number of mopeds stopped on the road to wait for orders at the restaurant and it puts the blue lights on and does a u-turn and stops in the road to tell the riders to move, not because they’re not distancing but because of the double-yellow lines. The police officer stands in the middle of the road hands on hips, blocking the traffic even as the moped riders had not been blocking the road, and were now leaving.
As I’m picking up an order of booze from a petrol station on York Road there’s a lone soldier in full camo sat outside drinking a bottle of lucozade. He doesn’t like the way I’m looking at him and when I’ve got the beer order and come back outside he’s gone, walking down York Road carrying his purple M&S bag for life. Another giant seagull is in the middle of the road trying to get into a clementine but eventually gets out of the way of a truck and I carry on. The beer goes to Parson Street and next is a kebab to Bedminster Down and there’s banter in the street about the customer getting other things delivered but that’s not my business and there’s a friendly mood in the air this evening as the sun is still high. I look north to the Suspension Bridge and the gorge and think about my day off cycle ride to Somerset, the first time I’d been out of Bristol since February.
As I cycle down Park Row towards St Pauls it’s 8pm and police cars and fire engines have blocked the road outside the BRI and there’s a cherry picker to take an aerial shot of people gathered to clap their appreciation for the NHS and for carers. In general I think this is a symbol of togetherness and solidarity with those on the frontlines of this health crisis and I take part in it in whichever suburb I’m in at that time. Tonight, after seeing the police continually harass homeless people and waste public funds to blue light across the city telling people off for minor infractions, I feel uncomfortable about the police involvement in what shouldn’t involve them, ie a show of public support for underpaid, over-worked and generally under-appreciated healthcare workers. I’m uncomfortable about a well-directed media spectacle that might make us feel good but also might be a convenient distraction from difficult questions that should be asked about whether healthcare workers are being adequately protected and not over-burdened with risk. Don’t nurses and hospital porters and anyone else working in hospitals want adequate protection, decent pay and conditions, and a properly funded NHS that is not bled dry by years of austerity, and not just clapping and rainbows?
Maybe I’m just being overly negative in the wake of news that Amazon has now been given an initial go ahead to swallow up Deliveroo, potentially creating a horrifying amalgam of delivery services and taking us a step closer the drone-operated algorithmically-optimised for mass surveillance delivery nightmare that’s keeping me awake lately. Amazon’s dream is to destroy all middle-men or gatekeepers, like publishing houses, to go straight from the writer to publication and delivery, cutting out all competitors by being able to fulfill all these elements. In terms of food delivery that might mean a gradual transition to more ‘dark kitchens’ that Deliveroo has been promoting as the ‘future of dining’ with the increase in demand for delivery services. Whether or not it is the beginning of the end for ‘real life’ dining experiences, I’m still sore about the idea that my burger-laden cycle trips are going to be lining Jeff Bezos’ $124 billion pockets so he can go to space, unless it means that he stays there. The excuse for allowing Amazon to buy Deliveroo is that otherwise they would go under, having taken a hit from the pandemic and lockdown. Deliveroo’s global sales increased last year to $476 million, yet their losses also increased to $232 million overall. Which got me thinking, how do Deliveroo bosses and shareholders make money if there company is running at such a huge loss? In that same tax year, director Will Shu gave himself a 57% pay rise and received $8.3 million in stock. Look, I’m no economics expert, in fact I struggle with basic politics sometimes despite having a PhD in politics, but how is it that a company can be losing millions of dollars overall, and yet some within that company are managing to extract millions of dollars in personal profit?
I’m not accusing Deliveroo of fraud, but I watched the documentary about Enron (The Smartest Guys in the Room) and it makes me think about confidence trick at the heart of so-called ‘free market’ capitalism. Enron managed to hype up its own profits by telling people it was worth a lot even when it was wasting money on costly projects that raised nothing, and then got caught in a spiral of hiding its losses in a series of complicated front companies. When a journalist asked COO Jeffrey Skilling, ‘how is Enron making its money?’ in an interview, he told her that it was unethical to ask that question, that he wasn’t an accountant and didn’t have the details at hand, then suggested he’d send some assistants from Enron to help her understand her own questions. She was in fact one of the few people who saw through the snake oil salesmen and helped expose them for what they were: tricksters, who didn’t just fool their staff but analysts, accountants and the whole of Wall Street who carried on pouring in money to Enron despite the fact that it was a giant fake and not generating any income. The share price was a lie, Enron wasn’t making any money. Skilling spent ten years in prison for fraud, in an unusual example of capitalist tricksters meeting their comeuppance, and the story of Enron demonstrates the toxic mix of excessive greed and bullish masculinity that fueled the economic boom of the 1990s and 2000s, and brought a few to their feet in the wake of the eventual crash. And who really suffered from the greed of Skilling, Madoff and the rest of the Wall Street set who fuelled their delusions? Those who lost their jobs and saw their retirement funds and savings wiped out overnight when the fraudsters were left exposed.
Deliveroo and tech giants like Facebook and Amazon are not criminal fraudsters in this sense. Deliveroo is posting its losses, and Amazon and Facebook are turning huge revenues based on their gigantic market shares and possession and monetisation of personal data. Amazon appears to be one of the winners of the pandemic economic collapse, currently enjoying soaring share prices, cementing Bezos’ position as the world’s richest man. Yet it still fails to protect workers and fired a union leader in the US for demanding fair conditions and protective equipment. And have Deliveroo given me any hand sanitiser yet? Not yet, but hey, they did offer me the chance to enter a prize draw to win an Easter craft kit worth £10.99! And if I know anything about crusty cycle couriers and moped riders it’s that they do love a seasonal handicraft. A craft session does take your mind off the fact you have no minimum wage or sick pay or protective equipment. Yet they must be worried about popularity of this craft kit because they only gave us a narrow 24hr window in which to enter.
Anyway, I didn’t win the craft kit and I didn’t get any hand sanitiser from anyone but I’m ok. in other news, Deliveroo offered £20 food vouchers to NHS workers, helping them through this difficult time. Then it accidentally gave out too many and had to retract its offer:
Shame your algorithm can’t count properly. Deliveroo’s inability to count seems to work in its favour most of the time. How many workers are there in its workforce? No-one knows! How much do they get paid and is it over the national minimum wage? Sorry, we don’t count that. Then the other day the app stole our tips: they would flash up on the initial order then once we’d finish the order the tips had disappeared. Riders often get paid incorrect amounts and have to file a claim to get paid the remainder, and so we have to keep a separate record to prove that the app is not adding up our wages correctly. And I’m no programmer but I believe that if computers can do one thing well then it’s add up. I realise there’s a lot of negativity in my post today and I think it’s because I didn’t win an Easter craft kit. The sky is reddening as I cycle up to St Andrews with a noodle dinner and the street is having a physically distanced street party and enjoying the dusk together but at a small distance and this small part of Bristol is making the best of the lockdown. We’re moving from civil twilight to nautical twilight and the last of the light is leaving the sky and it’s my favourite time of day although in name only astronomical dawn wins. The lyrid meteor shower is visible in the UK now for the next week, and the best time to see it will be around midnight on Wednesday night. The idea of it takes me back to a cycle trip across the south of France to Girona in Spain four years ago and I spent the evening in Cadeques with a French man and we had drinks in a bar run by an old woman with white hair and jumped on rocks in the sea and watched shooting stars jump across the sky. It must have been the Perseid meteor shower but we didn’t know this and we kept each other warm against the mistral wind blowing all night. Chew Valley lake is the furthest I’m cycling for the foreseeable future and I’m not sure camping is allowed but I will hold on until it is. I would have a tent and a bicycle and maybe a shooting star on my imaginary flag that I’ll take with me to meetings once all this is over.