Population density: Escape the statistic

I’ve come to Cholsey, in South Oxfordshire. Very nice. Normally I live in New Cross, which is in the London borough of Lewisham. Different, but also very nice.

The population density of Lewisham is 7,441 people per square kilometre. It is the 12th most dense place to live in England. “People going down to the ground, buildings going up to the sky,” as Bob Dylan once put it. Indeed.

If one A4 piece of paper was one square kilometre, this is Lewisham – crowded. Click for bigger image.

I walk about a kilometre to get to New Cross Gate train station. The thought that I could have up to 14,882 eyes on me during that journey is positively terrifying. No wonder we walk with our heads bowed down.

By comparison, South Oxfordshire has a population density of 190 people per square kilometre. It is the 249th most densely populated area in England, out of 326.

The same idea for South Oxfordshire. You can see the blobs are smilies now!

In the towns and villages of South Oxfordshire, it doesn’t feel sparsely populated, but the surrounding countryside is accessible and near empty. A country walk might have you crossing paths with one or two other people and a few cows. But that’s it.

Lewisham, on the other hand, is surrounded by Southwark (9,635 people/sq.km), Tower Hamlets (11,154), Greenwich (4,708) and Bromley (2,015). Not too many opportunities for escape. Even the Thames in London is busy with pleasure cruises, police launches and boat-folk.

It is perhaps fitting that the least densely populated place in England is called Eden, in Cumbria. Here, you can expect to share your square kilometre with just 23 other people.

Look at all that lovely white paper – smilies never had it so good!

“I wandered lonely as a cloud,” Cumbria’s most famous poet William Wordsworth once wrote, “when all at once I saw a crowd…” The crowd Bill saw, though, was not New Cross Gate during rush-hour, but “a host of dancing daffodils.”

If Sartre was right and “Hell is other people”, then Eden is paradise indeed. Escape the statistics and get more of this:

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Cycling Home: London to Cholsey

Yesterday I cycled 39.5 miles from London to The Countryside in 4 hours 12 minutes, instead of taking the train.

What does that mean?

In economic terms: I saved the cost of the train fare, about £14, in exchange for about 3 hours of my life. And muscles that refuse to work quite the same the next day.

I didn’t use anything but the fuel of a nasty pizza and some chocolate raisins.

Cycling is slow enough to enjoy the view, quiet enough to hear the birds, hard enough to be a work-out, efficient enough to cover distances and fast enough, at times, to be exhilarating.

Other Things

The visceral power of a journey by bicycle is inestimable. Here are some other things.

I saw a badger, a cock and his hen, a hedgehog and several rabbits – all road-killed.

I flew like a wizard on vertiginous downs, and felt my thighs popping out my skin on the corresponding ups. But most of the time I plodded along at a steady 10 miles per hour.

I felt the sun on my neck. I crossed the river three times and cycled into the sunset.

I was overtaken a thousand times by cars, some passed me close, some gave me room, all choked me with their fumes. None of them understood me, I couldn’t understand them.

I went to Egypt.

I felt fine. I felt the joy of cycling on a smooth country road without a car or a care, sailing along, one hand on the tiller and one hand throwing chocolate in my mouth. I sang and cycled.

I wanted it to be over and I wanted it never to end.

View Larger Map

Another London: Stamford Hill and the West Bank

Yesterday, I went on a day-trip to Stamford Hill ↑, home to London’s largest community of orthodox Jews. I was an unashamed tourist: dawdling around in the sunshine, gawping at the sights, noshing my way through bagels – and, of course, taking tedious photographs to share with you today.

↑ I have no idea what this means, but it sure as hell tells me that I’m a tourist, that I’m an outsider looking in. I like this feeling. I like to be a tourist, it makes me see things.

↑ I do know what this means: this is called irony*! I really wanted to take a photo of an orthodox man who was hanging around near this sign.

This appositely named street is slap-bang in the orthodox heartland. Opposite is a bagel shop, a kosher meat shop and a kosher supermarket.

Followers of irony will also be pleased to hear that the West Bank is separated from the East Bank by a “weak bridge”. The residents of the West Bank are also fighting a losing battle to preserve the West Bank nature reserve.

I kid you not. ↓ (Although these workers are undertaking important conservation work, I’m sure.)

Another highlight of my little holiday was bagel-based. And… ↓

Yes. ↑ Aubergine and chilli peppers. Very pink. Quite tasty with the application of bagel, reminded me of a similar Turkish pepper sos I ate during my No Supermarket days in January.

On the Street

Nothing screams Jewish orthodoxy like a pram. The women also have head scarves or hats (sometimes with charming flowers affixed) and black coats and these odd heavy shoes stitched in leather.

The men wear double-breasted dress coats and stylish wide-brimmed hats, with matching hair-cuts – and glasses. All the men wear glasses, even the kids. Comes from too much reading. I also wonder if it’s a fashion, in the same self-defeating way that kids in my neighbourhood wear their trousers halfway down their arses.

Nothing scares me quite like a large group of people in uniform.

Orthodox men hurry past with mobile phones pressed to their ears – in silence – carrying transparent plastic cases tucked under their arms, which hold (I guess) a book of the Talmud or the Torah and – a pillow?

Three kids walk past, shaved heads and hats and long coats and glasses all – they can’t be much more than twelve years old. They run across the road, chasing the flash of the green man, slightly awkward, like little boys tucked up in oppressive school uniforms.

A tired looking young woman rolls past with her pram.

Another London

I love the fact that I can travel eight miles in my city and find another place entirely. Stamford Hill isn’t all about orthodox Jews, it’s a diverse, fascinating area – like the rest of London.

I walked with swans, alongside the reservoir, admiring the community gardens. I choked on the dust of yet more ‘living space’ construction (19 minutes to Bank) – and was surprised that notices posted were inviting applications for jobs on the building site from local residents. And I took a stroll through the library, browsing the extensive Torah collection, with DVDs and CDs for children.

Hurrah for Stamford Hill.


* Yes it is. Or isn’t. Discuss. It is: orthodox Jews in the one place they shouldn’t be: the “West Bank”. Or it isn’t: orthodox Jews in the one place they should be: the “West Bank”, AKA Judea and Samaria. See: Israel to expand settlements after family killing – The Guardian

The Remarkable Productivity of Georges Simenon

Georges Simenon was the Belgian writer who created the detective Maigret. He was ridiculously successful: 550 million of his books have been printed. That’s just stupid numbers. It’s more than JK Rowling and Harry Potter. 150 million more. That’s one extra book for the entire population of Russia*.

What is interesting is that, while JK Rowling has written a decent 10 books in 11 years, Georges Simenon wrote 197 novels in his 59 year career. That’s an average of over 3 per year for over half a century.

Even more interestingly, he published another 15 in the 15 years after his death. That’s still a better strike rate than JK Rowling. Not bad for a dead man.

What’s plain ridiculous is that 148 of these books came in the 29 years from the age of 49 to 77. That’s an average of over 5 books a year.

Here’s a fancy little graph (or ‘worm’ as they’d call it in cricket), showing you Simenon’s strike rate from the publication of his first novel aged 28, to his last aged 86. Click on the thumbnail below for a bigger version (unless you have microscope eyes).

Admittedly, Simenon’s Maigret novels were quite short, but they make up less than half his output – and it is still a remarkable achievement. To be honest, I’m not sure I can match it – but it does inspire me to try.

Apparently, Simenon used to write a chapter a day for eleven days and then spend three days editing. A novel in a fortnight – forget NaNoWriMo, Simenon was hard-core!


*In fact, you could give the entire population of the USA, Brazil and the UK a copy of one of Simenon’s books. If you wanted to.

Things To Do When You Don’t Have A Computer #1: Get Chicken Pox

So you were wondering how my week without a computer went, right? Well, here’s a few ideas:

  • I enjoyed how I was able to relax. I wasn’t stressing over the constant clamour of the internet.
  • I wasn’t very productive. I didn’t do much writing. The computer is where I compose most of my short writing, or at least where I edit it.
  • I didn’t miss the computer’s power of entertainment. I had the radio and a hefty supply of good (and not good) books.

But this is all academic really because I’ve spent most of the last two weeks in bed, with grown up chicken pox.

Farcical.

I might as well make this post useful, so if you’ve got chicken pox, here’s what to expect:

Days -4 to 0

  • A developing fever and a sore throat. You’ll think you’re getting a cold. Little do you know what the universe has in store for you: two weeks of ugly.
  • You are now highly contagious, but you aren’t aware of that so you give it to all your mates. They’ll thank you in 10-20 days’ time.

Day 1

  • Discover funny little knobs behind head. Think that’s odd.
  • Feel feverish.
  • Feel sick.
  • Collapse on floor in a faint.
  • Wake up sweating, inside washing basket. Wonder how you got there.
  • Discover the first pustule.
  • Pustules multiply, popping up before your very eyes.
  • A strange weight on your chest makes you paranoid that you’ve also developed pneumonia. Keep an eye on that.
  • You indulge in lots and lots of sleeping.

Day 2

  • Pustules spread to legs, arms, back, face, and multiply on chest and everywhere.
  • A few spots are slightly itchy. Not compulsively itchy, just a slight throb, a feeling of bulge that is tempting to check out. Don’t.
  • Headaches persist through the day.
  • Hard to sleep at night due to discomfort of the pustules.

Day 3

  • The weight on the chest, the sore throat and the headaches might have eased a little.
  • Neck still aches though and you’ve lost your appetite.
  • Pustules are multiplying and itching at a low level, but just enough to make you constantly aware of them.
  • You try to have a shower to clean up a little, but can’t really do much actual cleaning because of vast number of pustules on your scalp. Your hair is matted. You consider dreadlocks.
  • Notice that some have burst and some are starting to scab.
  • Your face is burning and you think you might have accidentally burst a pustule in your ear. But it could just have been general grossness as you are now the ugliest you’ve been since you came out of your mother covered in blood.
  • No chance of sleep because your face is covered with exploding volcanoes. The night is the worst time for sleeping. Get some in the morning.
  • Fever seems to alternate with itching.

Day 4

  • Sleep in the day. Read. Twiddle thumbs. Listen to radio.
  • Get the shivers before going to bed.
  • Have heavy dreams, exhausting, fever and wake up with a headache and the sweats.
  • On the plus side: the itching is almost gone.

Day 5

  • Feel ill some of the day. 
  • Appetite definitely back as you eat a six-egg omelette with sauerkraut and ketchup (because that’s all you’ve got left in the cupboard).
  • Scared to believe that you have no new spots.
  • Try a bath with bicarbonate of soda – yeah!
  • Have best night’s sleep since Day 0. Still wake up three times for some sweats, but feel fine. Start enjoying the sweat.
  • You dare to hope that you’re over the worst.

Day 10

  • Tired with a headache all morning and afternoon. 
  • The pustules have mostly crusted over and are beginning to fall off, or get rubbed off.
  • You feel bored and lazy. This lassitude is now your biggest enemy.
  • You’re not contagious any more, but you still feel disinclined to go out in public in daylight.

Day 13

  • Worst of the scabs are falling off all over the place. Gross.
  • Your first day of full-on activity, like a normal person.
  • You’re still a bit ugly, though.
  • The worst of the scabs leaves a crater in your cheek.
  • The face ones seem to develop and fall off faster than the chest ones.

Day 16

  • Could pass for a slightly uglier version of yourself. People stop screaming when they see your face.
  • Just a few marks on your face that could be dry skin or normal spots.
  • Your chest still looks like leprosy. Don’t show anyone.
  • Still some itching against your clothes.

And still it goes on. Apparently chicken pox marks can take months to fully vanish – and, of course, some of them will scar you for life.

Enjoy!