The Betrayal of All Humanity

I saw a woman walking down a footpath towards the sea. One woman of a group of three pedestrians, not yet elderly, certainly no longer young.

They carried between them the paunch of middle age, tucked neatly under a belt or a waistband. The woman wore sensible leggings stretched out underneath a summer shift, a pursebag between the stripe of a strap across her back, sandals slapping on the footpath.

“I’ll let you know the next time we get one and I’ll send it over,” her friend was saying, as they swung past me on the final zig of the sea-bound zig zag.

“That’d be great,” the woman replied, leaning to her partner by her side. “Last time we paid, what was it? Sixty? You can go by train, but…”

As she said these words, she veered to her left, reached out a hand, grasped a stray branch and, with the deft clench of an expert, stripped the branch of leaves. She walked on, without breaking her stride.

“Oh no, you’ll want to fly,” her friend said.

But it was too late. In that moment, the woman had betrayed all of humanity for the apes we are.

I hate crisps

I hate crisps.

There. I’ve said it.

I really do hate crisps. And I don’t say that lightly or with a cheeky twinkle in my eye. I loathe crisps. I abhor crisps. I detest crisps, crisp-eaters and every aspect and association of this most deplorable variety of snack.

Do you love crisps? Then, I guarantee, I hate you. (At least I do whenever you stuff your slobbering maw with fried potato.)

It never used to be like this. I used to eat crisps when I were a lad. They would be served up as a treat once a week, or poured into bowls at parties, and I would devour them with quick-fingered crunch. Because the addict doesn’t notice the madness of their addiction.

And that explains my hatred: there is no more acerbic anti-smoker than the former-smoker. There is no more hate-filled anti-crisper than the former-crisper. (Indeed, you will occasionally witness me, in a fit of self-loathing, suffer a relapse.)

But my hatred of crisps is founded on rational principles, just as the anti-smoker is medically justified in their high-minded disgust of smoking and smokers.

Forget for a moment your addiction and your long and fond history of crisp consumption and think about the characteristics of the snack. Then decide if you still want to be what you are eating.

Just 5 Disgusting Things About Crisps

Examine the crisp with a dispassionate eye and what do we find?

1. They are noisy to consume, from the constant rustling of the foil sealed for freshness packaging, the rummaging fingers for the right crisp, through to the crunching of the snack chew, the sucking of fingers and constant mastication as the unfortunate victim digs half chewed gobbets of potatoe from between their teeth. Not to mention the scrunching of the packet when finally, mercifully, the crisps are finished.

2. They have absolutely zero nutritional value, being largely a conveyance for salt. This is unforgiveable. If you really need a snack, even a noisy snack, why not just eat a bag of almonds or an apple? Or put a fistful of sand into your fat gob?

3. They stink. There is no smell quite as toxic as the breath fumes of E-numbered crisp “flavours”. Amazed that you can find crisps in flavours like Vanilla Ice Cream and Pecan Pie? How do they manage that?! By poisoning you, that’s how.

Not only will you not get the stench off your breath for hours, but the whole room into which you have just opened your mouth will suffer the olfactory fog of your idiocy.

4. They are addictive. They were invented for the sole reason of making you drink more, you fool. Somehow Pringles tried to make a virtue of this: “Once you pop, you can’t stop!” You could say the same for crack cocaine. Why allow a snack food to be your masochistic master?

5. They are ubiquitous. You can’t go anywhere these days without having crisps foisted upon you. Sit down on any train journey and within minutes you will hear a diabolical orchestra tuning up with rustlings, crunchings and suckings, closely followed by a noxious waft of stinging fumes that will persist like a cloud of pestilance until you get to your destination.

Even restaurants insist on spoiling their food with the addition of crisps – usually before you’ve even caught sight of the menu. Poppadoms: crisps. Prawn crackers: crisps. Tacos: crisps. Meal ruined.

Why oh why oh why?

Given this cursory examination of just five hideous features of the crisp (I could go on), it is clear that they are nothing more than a successful marketing campaign.

So why do people eat crisps? Because they actually enjoy the taste? That I can’t believe. You’ll hear smokers too, talking about the glory of that first cigarette of the morning, shortly after hacking up their guts.

No. We eat crisps because we’re childishly drawn by the garish packaging, by their ubiquity in every shop around the country, because we’re told to like them by our parents and the rest of our moronic nation.

We are cursed, a crisp-obsessed society that has deluded itself into believing fried potato is the optimal snack for every occasion: at meal times, in school packed lunches, on trains, with a drink in a pub.

The only reason we eat crisps is because we are a dogmatic crisp-eating society. You could no more imagine English society without crisps than you could without tea or cricket. It’s pathetic.

But perhaps a society gets the snacks they deserve. We deserve nothing better than a throwaway, antisocial, vacuous snack food. The crisp is garish, loud and ultimately empty. Our garish, loud and ultimately empty society deserves nothing more.

Image by Alex Kwong.

An Anatomy of Rambling, or Why Walk?

Yesterday, I arose before dawn and cycled to the New River Head in central London. From there, with my path companion Anna Hughes, we walked twenty-eight miles up river to Hertford, where I jumped into the water and finally let my swollen feet smolder. Then I came home.

Why? Why, oh why did I do this? Why, oh why, oh why did I do this again? In the last couple of years, I have walked from London to Canterbury and from London to Winchester: long, long rambles of dozens of destructive miles. It is now time to explain why I do this to myself.

But there are as many different explanations for my rambling as there are answers to the question, “Why do I breathe?” Anatomically-speaking, I breathe because my lungs expand and contract as I inhale and exhale air, because my blood cells demand a constant supply of oxygen, because breathing is a part of the process of respiration, because I must convert my food into energy, because I am alive and not dead.

Rambling is the same: explanations are buried from skin to spine, depending on where you look, but it’s all happening, it’s all true, all the time.

(I should warn you that I’m not a qualified anatomist, but that shouldn’t pose a serious danger to your health as you read my Anatomy of Rambling.)

The Central Nervous System of Rambling

A walk must have a destination. Please don’t take this literally. Yesterday, we walked to the source of the New River in Hertford, a clear geographical destination, but, in truth, this endpoint was arbitrary. “Getting there” was a sideshow in a destination that transcends geography; this was a destination of the mind. Journeys are not relocations, but transformations.

For that reason, journeys are popular in fiction: from The Odyssey, through Don Quixote to The Lord of the Rings. Odysseus is lost on the seas for ten years before reaching his home on Ithaka; Don Quixote rambles La Mancha as a knight errant, defending the honour of Dulcinea del Toboso; Frodo journeys across Middle Earth to cast the One Ring into the fiery Cracks of Doom.

But the ostensible “goal” of the story – home, honour, the Cracks of Doom – is never the true purpose of the story. Nobody reads The Lord of the Rings and wishes Tolkein had edited the story more concisely: “Hobbit walks to Morder, loses precious ring, saves Middle Earth.” That does not capture the essence of the story. (Although would make a reasonable stand first for the Daily Mirror.)

In the same way, I will not remember our New River walk as: “Walked to Hertford, went swimming, came home tired.”

A fictional story begins by breaking the stasis of the protagonist’s normal life. The characters then enter into a remarkable world, of blinding Cyclopes, tilting at windmills and fleeing Ring Wraiths. This is where the plot happens. Finally, their object achieved, the characters return to the real world to continue their lives.

But they, and the reader with them, have been fundamentally changed by the events of the plot.

A walk is the same. For the duration of the walk, Anna and I stepped outside of our everyday lives, into a fantasy world of coots and sunburn, until we reached promised land of Hertford. We collapsed to the ground and ate Nutella. Then we went home.

But the path and the journey had as transformative effect on my psyche as any journey by any fictional character.

The view over the reservoir at the beginning of the New River in Stoke Newington

The Skin of Rambing

These concepts of destination and transformative journey are the central nervous system of our anatomy of rambling. Now we’ll move more quickly through the skin and bones, starting with the skin, the superficial nicities of a good walk.

Maps. Maps, although not necessary, are beautiful. I make no apology for that.

Food. One of the untrammeled joys of taking physical exercise is the eating. As Anne from the Famous Five was wont to remark: “I always think food tastes so much nicer eaten out of doors.”

Walking companions. I’ve had the pleasure of many different companions on my walks, from friends to felines. Each one has shown me a part of themselves, and parts of myself, that I didn’t know existed.

Wildlife. This could be anything from watching two ponies groom each other to cuteness death on the bank of the canal, to spitting out an errant gnat; from the swish of tussock grass against your shins, to nettle rash.

Pain. Pain is central to the reality of rambling. Its purpose is to remind you that you are mortal, but, with fortitude, you can learn to persevere and create the order of progress out of the chaos of blisters and windburn.

Equipment. I revel in wearing a walking raincoat with a multiplicity of useful pockets or discovering that my pocket knife does have a tool for doing that thing.

Poetry and songs. Every walk has a particular rhythm, so it’s no surprise that every walk I’ve been on has heard me singing poetry and reciting songs. This time, Anna and I swapped Eliot and Hardy for Shakespeare and Browning.

Wayfarer’s Angels. (Not to be confused with Hell’s Angels.) There are always wayfarer’s angels, the people without whom the walk would be either impossible or difficult. The guy with ear defenders mowing the grass along the river path; the two young men tinkering with their sports car, who gave us an ice cold bottle of water; and of course Sir Hugh Myddleton, who four hundred years ago conceived and carried through his absurd idea of bringing drinking water from the springs of Hertfordshire to the slums of central London. Thanks angels!

Terrain and landscape. Nodules bobbling the path underfoot, water balming the blisters on your sploshed feet, hills that come tumbling down towards you, only to turn aside at the last moment. Walks are about the nuance of terrain, as well as the grandeur of landscape.

Weather. The breeze picking up the air conditioning coolness of the canal, the sun bleaching the cotton of your clothes, clouds twisting petit pains patterns in the sky. We’ve all seen the weather, but a walk makes you live the weather.

The Universe. It’s always there, believe it or not, but very rarely does it make its presence felt. On a walk, though, you can’t help but notice that the sun is traversing the sky, burning your neck in the morning and your nose in the evening; while, on a night walk, you can’t help yourself navigating by the stars and dreaming of the moonlight.

Anna striding (hobbling) to the source of the New River

The Bones of Rambling

The bones of rambling might often go unnoticed in the flash and fawn of the superficial skin, but fear not: they are the structure over which the skin is stretched.

Smallness. A walk seems impossibly slow, particularly in these days of aerobatic travel. But that slowness means you cannot help but appreciate the smallest of noticings: a water boatman on the surface of the river, a buttercup blowing in the breeze, an orange ladybird on the back of your hand. Without these bones of smallness, the skin delights of wildlife and terrain would go unappreciated.

Vastness. A long walk covers such unbearably painful distances in such constantly observable detail that its very smallness, its very detail, becomes an astonishing vastness that brings awe to the cuffs of your heart.

Depth. Smallness and the vastness combine to bring depth to a walk that is unlike any other human experience. A walk grinds into your soul and brings forth an unexpected spring of introspection, inspiration and insight. You’ll find this in the conversations that bubble up between you and your companion, or that bounce around in your head alone.

The moment you never want the walk to end. There are always moments like this: lying in the grass on the edge of the canal, the botanical breath of canal zephyrs filling your lungs; or the clump of every inevitable bootstep on the yielding towpath grass, in smooth mechanical perfection, walking into the dipping sun. You realise that it can’t get better than this and any complaints are quibbles. Don’t forget to take this feeling back with you into real life.

The journey home, also known as “the great unravelling”. There is nothing more satisfying, more awe-inspiring and more nostalgic, than watching the landscape that you’ve toiled through all day unravel through the flicker of a train carriage window. The experience heals you and forms the foundation for encorporating your transformation into your everyday life.

Hot air balloons over Camden

The Soul of Rambling

Just as the sum of our human anatomy creates a being of more significance than blood, flesh and bone, so too the rambling anatomy, all told, transcends mere walking.

The path is the ultimate symbol of this transcendence because, as you tread each footstep along your muddy, downtrodden mistress, you cannot fail to realise that you and she are one. You become the path you walk.

Let me explain. Each step you take moves you one step closer to where you will end up. That much is obvious, but that step doesn’t take place in an inert geography: the landscape of the path exerts its influence on you too.

The New River Path leads to Hertford. Anna and I have now become People Who Walked To Hertford, with all that entails: the smell of coots pecking over sludgy river waste; the sight of balloons slinking over the dawn-lit skyline; the sound of the M25 snarling beneath, while our river sneaks into open country; the taste of brackish water when I dunk my head into the Lea. We can never forget those experiences, they have changed us.

There is too an equal and opposite: the path becomes you who walk. Each step you take becomes part of the path, treading down the mud and leaves, marking out the track for the next generation of walkers.

Some paths are easy, well sign-posted, or even officially recognised by the asphalt of modernity; some paths are more difficult, sometimes impossible to distinguish from the wilderness that encroaches.

The path you choose will influence the paths that your successors will walk, just as the paths that your ancestors pioneered have influenced your walking.

I am obviously talking, not just literally, but metaphorically. Our choices about travel and life in general are profoundly affected by the choices of our ancestors and the rest of society; likewise our decisions consequently influence the options available to those yet to come. Our choices are not inert either; our choices are never means, they are always ends in themselves, whether we realise that fact or not.

The way that we do things becomes who we are.

Walk.

The Author and Sir Hugh Myddleton's Urn

Why are polyglots so damn nice?

The cognitive benefits of learning a foreign language are well studied and publicised. Learning a foreign language makes you smarter, better at multitasking, helps to delay Alzheimer’s and dementia, improves your memory and your decision-making and makes you more perceptive of your surroundings.

But what about the social benefits of learning a foreign language? Or, as a friend asked me the other day: “Why are polyglots so damn nice?”

We batted about a number of reasons that sprang to mind and I resolved to do further research on the subject. Unfortunately, there seems to be very little academic research into the niceness or otherwise of polyglots, speakers of multiple foreign languages.

The best I found was a study examining the relationship between empathy and achievement in foreign language learning. Excitedly, I clicked open the report, fully expecting to find hard scientific evidence for my friend’s complaint. Alas, the researchers found no such correlation.

This was rather disappointing, but I still strongly believe there is much more to this question than mere circumstantial evidence of all the nice polyglots we know.

So here are my introductory explorations of the matter. Why are polyglots so damn nice?

Empathy

Despite the one study I mentioned earlier, I’m sure there must be something in this. The researchers only tested students already studying a foreign language a university level: I’m talking about the difference between polyglots and ordinary mortals like me.

In order to become fluent in a foreign language, you must have spent a long time living and studying that language. Human beings learn by copying others and language learning in particular involves a high degree of mimicry. In order to copy others effectively (to the extent that you master a foreign language), you must be or become empathetic.

Far from being a trait fixed at birth, empathy can be practised and strengthened. Learning a foreign language to fluency is surely an excellent way of doing this. And, of course, empathy makes us nice.

Tolerance

Stepping into a foreign language is stepping into a foreign culture. The words we use affect the world the see and change the person we are. That’s why, when I studied Spanish in Sevilla, I became more expressive with my hands, more garrulous with my neighbours on the bus and more assertive in queues. That’s why, when I studied Arabic in Cairo, I became more adept at negotiation, more polite, more religious and even more assertive in queues.

When you have taken a foreign language to fluency, you cannot fail to realise that the way you do things at home is not the One True Way of doing things. Everything, from the words you use to the ethics of pig-eating is culturally relative. Even the etiquette of queueing.

This appreciation of cultural relativity makes you more flexible in your approach to others and more tolerant of strange and new things. This tolerance makes you nice.

Sociability

In order to learn any language to fluency, you must be sociable. When you’re a baby, that sociability is forced on you by family, school and roller skating club.

When you learn a foreign language as an adult, however, you often have to make a huge effort to use your new language, by seeking out conversational partners. In short, you must become highly sociable, otherwise your new language won’t get enough practise to reach fluency.

I found learning Spanish in Spain far easier than learning French in school precisely because the Spanish did not tolerate my quiet English reserve. They wouldn’t let me be unsociable, and I learnt more in two weeks of gallivanting than I had done in years of school-taught French.

Furthermore, if you’re a total dickwad, then your hard-won conversation partners won’t stick around and your language skills won’t improve. Learning a foreign language to fluency takes a special kind of sociability: the nice kind.

Humility

By the time you’re fluent in a foreign language, you’ve made more than six hundred thousand mistakes, from mere slips of the tongue to full on inadvertant insults. You’ve embarrassed yourself in front of greengrocers, taxi drivers, attractive would-be mates, teachers, work colleagues, politicians and even the neighbourhood dog.

You cannot learn a foreign language to fluency, therefore, without being humble. The only way to learn is by embracing every mistake, learning from it and jumping straight into the next one. There is surely no such thing as the arrogant learner, at least not one that has actually learnt anything.

The corallory of this is that you cannot learn a foreign language without relying on and accepting the niceness of other people, who patiently listen to your manglings of their beloved mother tongue, exert themselves to comprehend your garblings and then correct you, before listening to you regurgitate the now slightly less awful mess all over again.

Your learner’s humility makes you nice and your appreciation for the efforts of others to help you makes you even nicer.

Patience

You don’t become fluent in a foreign language without being a determined little bugger. According to the European Common Languages Framework, it takes about 890 classroom hours to go from zero to fluent (level C2) in French. That’s a year of concentrated study. Note, too, that this is only teaching hours; students must typically practise their language skills for two or three times this long outside class.

Looking at it this way, achieving fluency in a foreign language is an overwhelming feat of determination and patience. Rome wasn’t built in a day and Italian wasn’t learnt in an hour.

Not only is attaining fluency a monumental task, but, as soon as it is attained, your fluency degrades. You must practise your new language every day or, before long, you will find yourself back clutching a dictionary. Language learning is not for the impatient, who want fluency now, forever, without the effort.

But your practice of patient perseverence has another side benefit, I believe. Patience means you’re less likely to get frustrated with other people. Patience makes you nice.

Listening

Finally, for now, you can’t learn a foreign language without being a good listener. How else could you pick up the difference between “sheep” and “ship”, or “sheet and “shi…”?

But being a good listener isn’t just useful for avoiding strange bedroom mishaps; it’s also useful for making other people think you’re interested in what they’re saying. And other people LOVE that.

Yes, that’s right: being a good listener is directly correlated with being a complete bastard. Oh no, my mistake: it’s directly correlated with being damn nice.

You can be nice too!

That’s the end of my little examination of the (totally unscientifically proven) reasons why polyglots might be so damn nice. I shall leave you with one important note.

I am not saying that only nice people can become polyglots.

My argument is that the correlation works in the opposite direction: learning a foreign language makes you a nice person by making you more empathic, more tolerant, more sociable, more humble, more patient and a better listener.

There is hope for me still. Now sod off and let me get on with my conjugations.

End Notes

Anne Merritt (The Daily Telegraph, 2013) Why learn a foreign language? Benefits of bilingualism

Filiz Yalcin-Tilfarlioglu, Arda Arikan (Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 2012) Empathy Levels and Academic Achievement of Foreign Language Learners

Krakadorn Revisited

Every day, in every part of the world, a miracle rises in the east. This mundane miracle still has the power to inspire feelings of reverential awe, whether witnessed in Croydon or in the Kalahari, by truck drivers or by coyotes.

The power of this miracle isn’t diminished by its reliable regularity; the subtleties of light and reflection, and seasonal astrological variation, project a new show every day. This show costs nothing, only a brief moment of our time. This show starts every day: dawn.

Awe is readily provided by such mundane miracles of nature, but the abundant miracles of nature are rarely sought out. We spend more time snoring than sitting up and watching the sun rise over the river. We are more likely to squabble over the cereal or elbow each other for sparse train seats, than we are to shut our eyes and allow the morning sun to burn the inside of our eyelids crimson.

Such awe is good for you. According to a 2012 Stanford University study, an experience of awe makes us less impatient, more altruistic and less materialistic. By expanding our perception of time, and confronting us with infinity, awe brings us sharply into the present moment and that mindfulness makes life more satisfying.

The miracle of the dawn has been thrown into the shade by the invention of the electrical light. We have no need to revere the sun like our ancestors did. But, as practical as the electrical light is for those works of drudgery that define human life, it does not inspire awe like the dawn.

That is why, last night, I set my alarm for 4:46. That is why, when that alarm awoke me, I stumbled out into the glimmering half-waked world.

I walked for ten quiet minutes and found my awe.

On the banks of the Thames, I filled my lungs with this morning’s new air, cleaned and refreshed by the cool nighttime. I watched the river flow past on its journey from the beginning of time to the end of infinity, while a star ninety-three million miles away danced its dawn over the water’s peaks.

A fox snuck by and then I snuck to bed once more.

Krakadorn 6 June 2015 FOX!

End Notes:

My original 2008 Krakadorn experiment: 40 days of getting up at the crack o’ dawn.

Rudd, Vohs, Aaker (2012) Awe Expands People’s Perception of Time,  Alters Decision Making, and Enhances Well-Being