My Reading: Summer/Autumn Edition

This week I came across an excellent long read written by Craig Mod and bearing the superb title, Stab a Book, the Book Won’t Die: On the resilience of books in the face of apps, attention monsters, and an ad-driven online economy.

In this entertainingly comprehensive examination of why books still exist, Craig quotes Philip Roth, speaking in 2009:

To read a novel requires a certain amount of concentration, focus, devotion to the reading. If you read a novel in more than two weeks you don’t read the novel really.

As someone currently pootling through Jane Eyre, this struck a chord with me. Two weeks? I’m currently on Week 5 and I still have fifty pages to go.

I do see what he means, though. The faster you read a book, the more ‘into it’ you become, and the more, perhaps, you get out of it. Certainly, a little more speed might make it easier for me to recall beside which hearth poor Jane is once again warming her ice-crusted fingers…

Reading 20-30 pages a day would be enough to get through most books in a fortnight. That seems doable – surely I could find 25 to 35 minutes for reading in a day?

In 2019 so far, I have finished eight novels at an average reading speed of 18 days per book. Six of them I finished inside Roth’s two week deadline, but three (if we also include Miss Eyre) took me more than five weeks each.

Dear reader, you are my witness to a solemn vow: I shall add to my evening bedtime reading a morning session. What better way to start the day than with ten pages of invigorating fiction?

The Pick of My Summer/Autumn Reading

  • A Passage to India (1924, fiction) by EM Forster. A splendid novel that dances wittily around the social politics of British rule in India, before exploding in your face. A Passage to India frequently makes ‘all-time best novel’ lists and I can make no accusation of false advertising.
  • Bitter Lemons (1957, non-fiction) by Lawrence Durrell. An autobiographical account of the three years (1953-1956) Durrell spent on Cyprus, as British rule disintegrated. A wise companion for any journey east; alternatively, ideal for those seeking literary sunshine during our dull northern winter.

My Current Autumn/Winter Reading…

  • Jane Eyre (1847, fiction) by Charlotte Brontë.
  • Underlands (2019, non-fiction) by Robert MacFarlane – a gift, thanks T.
  • Neurotransmissions: Essays on Psychedelics from Breaking Convention (2015, non-fiction) – also a gift, thanks B.

What have you been reading – anything good? Share with us!

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The Next Challenge Grant: Applications for Adventure Now Open

For the past two years, I’ve supported The Next Challenge Grant, a wonderfully simple idea to crowdsource donations from people like me so that impecunious adventure-newbies can take on the kind of challenges that I’ve been so lucky to enjoy over the years.

My £200 donation – enough to fund one adventurous grantee – is dedicated to my nan. This is the dedication I wrote on the grant’s donor page:

My first big adventure, cycling 4,000 miles around the coast of Great Britain, was only possible thanks to support from my nan. She’d absolutely love The Next Challenge Expedition Grant so now it’s my turn to help you find your own awesome adventure. As nan used to say: Do it while you can!

This rest of this post was written by Tim Moss, the founder of the grant. Read on for the incredible stories of some astonishingly imaginative adventures made possible thanks to donations from the general public, people like you and me.

5 years, 60 adventures funded

Here’s a look back over five years of the Next Challenge Grant and the 60 adventurers that have won it…

We’ve had plenty of running expeditions like George Shelton running the Isle of Man ‘TT’ route, Dan Keeley running a thousand miles from Italy to England, Tina Page running the UK Three Peaks and Amanda McDonnell running across the Channel Islands.

Mike Creighton is running between all of the UK’s national parks as I write, while Ruth Thomas is preparing to run the Thames Path and Valerie Rachel is preparing to run the Trans-Labrador Highway.

Cycling’s been just as popular. Mikey Bartley rode up the legendary Alpe d’Huez eight times in a row, Dylan Haskin went round Costa Rica on a beach cruiser (sounds cool, looked brutal), Megan Cumberlidge bikepacked the GR247 and Geraint Hill explored “Everyman’s rights” in Scandinavia.

Karl Booth pedalled 2,500 miles to the top of Europe, off-road and then declined to accept any money from the grant. He said that he got so much sponsorship after telling people he’d won a Next Challenge Grant that he didn’t need the cash and I should give it to someone else. Legend.

Paddle sports have featured too. Graham Clarke tackled the Shannon on a home-made raft, Val Ismaili kayaked through Kosovo and Albania on the Drin, Anna Blackwell kayaked from the UK to the Black Sea, Jo Laird paddled the longest lakes in England, Scotland and Wales, Joanne McCallum paddled the longest lake in North Ireland, and Emily Fitzherbert and her daughter Lua paddle-boarding every lake in the Lake District.

There have been a few trips that combine sports too, like Heather Jones’ Welsh Three Peaks by bike (which ended in a snow-covered bivouac), Hajo Spathe’s home-made IronMan triathlon in the Rockie Mountains and Ed March-Shawcross’s triathlon around Arran.

We’ve let youth do it, with teenagers walking the Tour du Mont Blanc, canoeing the Rivey Spey, cycling across Europe, cycling across Jamaica, walking all of the UK’s National Trails, hiking from the Lakes to the Dales, and crossing a desert island.

We’ve had some really creative ideas, like Carmen Bran camping out for 100 nights in a year (around finishing a PhD), Oli Warlow climbing up and cycling between every route in the Classic Rock guide book, Nick Stanton cycling the length of the Berlin Wall on a hired bike, Joshua Powell running a marathon at Marathon (in ancient Greek armour) and Kate Symonds-Joy cycling to the northernmost point in the UK to perform a one woman opera in a lighthouse (!).

There are also plans to cycle the Netherlands in search of new food technologies, explore the worst-selling Ordnance Survey map, trek around Scotland with a pony and complete swimming escapes from the UK’s three prison islands.

Despite the grant being aimed primarily at smaller challenges, some expeditions have just been straight-up epic, like Jenny Tough running across the Kyrgyz Tien-Shan mountain range, Thommo Hart walking the length of South Africa barefoot and Elise Downing running five thousand miles around the UK (five thousand!). Plus, Sam Hewings is walking a couple of thousand miles along Britain’s watershed right now.

We’ve had expeditions all across the world too, with bikepacking in the Philippines, a circumnavigation of Gotland, a planned walk up Mount Cameroon, a father and young daughters walking in the Indian Western Ghats, a winter hike along the Great Wall, a trek along Ukraine’s Tendrivska Spit, Robin Lewis walking Japan’s tsunami-affected coastline, walking the length of New Zealand and a crossing of the Kolyma mountain range in the Russian Far East.

But we’ve also had plenty of trips closer to home, like Nate Freeman’s wonderfully simple walk to work (25 miles each way), Kerry Anne Mairs’ five bothies with a five year old, Bex Band taking a kick-scooter around the London Loop, Ben & Jude tackling the Caledonian canal in an inflatable boat, and Emily Woodhouse battling up every tor in Dartmoor.

The stories from these adventures would be enough on their own but the fact that they come from “normal people” who have been part-funded by “normal people” somehow makes them feel even better.

2020 grant applications now open

Applications for the 2020 Next Challenge Grant are now open. The deadline is Sunday 5th January. Read more and apply here.

It is open to people all over the world, of any age, nationality or background. Expedition experience is not necessary and, in fact, the grant is aimed squarely at those who are new to the adventure world and “don’t normally do this sort of thing”.

So if you’ve had a look at trips above and thought “I’m not the kind of person that does stuff like that”, then you need to apply.

The application only takes five minutes and – because Tim only has a small readership and typically makes 10 or more awards – the odds of success are high.

What are you waiting for? What is the worst that could happen?

Click here to apply

Click here to donate

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‘Here is no work; there is war’: Refugees in İzmir

In Europe, we think we have a refugee crisis.

According to Full Fact, 17,205 people were granted asylum in the UK in 2018. Over the same period, Germany granted asylum to 139,555 people.

Meanwhile, there are nearly 100,000 refugees living in Greece, including over 35,000 on the Greek islands, in conditions that have been described as a humanitarian disaster.

But let’s have a little perspective, shall we? In Turkey, there are over 3,600,000 Syrian refugees, living with the limited legal rights granted under ‘temporary protection’, in the shadow of a war zone.

So, while on Samos, I had to take a couple of days out to visit İzmir, one of the most important transit cities for refugees crossing from Turkey to Greece.

İzmir is positioned with easy access to the strip of coastline that faces Lesvos, Chios and Samos, three of the Greek island ‘hotspots’ where refugees can register for asylum in Europe.

Syrians have been coming to İzmir for decades: easily evidenced by the dozens of established cafes and restaurants doing quick business around Basmane railway station in the city centre.

After a hearty lunch of fuul and khubz in a canteen overflowing with Syrians – young and old, male and female, refugee and resident – I asked around for someone who spoke English and was directed to a young guy we’ll call Ahmed.

Ahmed told me that he’d only been in Turkey for 20 days – and had spent 15 of those in prison. He’d already tried to cross to Samos twice and both times he’d been picked up by the Turkish coastguard after helicopters spotted his boat.

According to Aegean Boat Report, the Turkish coastguard have stopped 2,699 boats like Ahmed’s from crossing to Europe this year. Only about a third of the refugees who leave Turkey on boats arrive in Greece.

~

Ahmed tells me that he’s got a brother in Athens who crossed the Aegean to Greece before the 2016 EU-Turkey refugee agreement that has made the coastguard so vigilant.

In the 2016 deal, the EU promised Turkey €6 billion in financial aid as well as visa-free travel through Europe for Turkish citizens. In return, Turkey would better patrol the European border and re-admit refugees who reached Greece illegally.

In reality, the Greek leftist Syriza government, in power until this summer, proved reluctant to send refugees back to conditions where their human rights would not be respected.

The new Greek conservative government has promised to make far greater use of the returns agreement, but it is yet to be seen whether such a course of action is feasible, let alone defensible.

~

After being picked up by the coastguard, Ahmed and the others in his boat were taken to a detention centre. He told me that he was beaten up by the police and that the detainees shared living quarters the size of a basketball court with as many as 1,500 others.

Ahmed spent five days in detention before being deported back to the border with Syria. But he – and all the friends he made in the detention centre – came straight back to İzmir to try to cross again. ‘Here is no work; there is war,’ he says. ‘What can we do?’

~

Ahmed isn’t even supposed to be in İzmir: he doesn’t have the right papers. He’s supposed to stay in the province bordering Syria where he first arrived in Turkey.

Throughout our conversation, Ahmed’s eyes were darting around, looking over my shoulder for the police who often sweep through Basmane checking people’s papers.

Earlier that day, I’d spoken to Onur, the head of an official refugee support NGO in the city. Over a glass of tea in his office, Onur politely apologised. He was sorry, but he couldn’t tell me much about the situation for refugees in Turkey without getting the approval of the Directorate General of Migration Management.

But Onur was able to tell me that there were around 180,000 Syrians in İzmir – significantly more than the official figure because of irregular migration between provinces by refugees like Ahmed.

Onur told me that refugees can change their papers when they move to a different province, but Ahmed explains that this is not the case for İzmir, Istanbul, Ankara or any of the other few places where you might be able to live – or escape to Greece.

~

Here in İzmir, Ahmed shares a room in a hotel with his new friends. Despite splitting the single room between five people, one of their jobs today is to find somewhere cheaper.

The whole area around Basmane is a maze of cheap hotels, fast food joints, shoe sellers and cigarette pushers. The hotels are mostly full of Africans, who stay for one or two nights and then move on. Syrian refugees tend to stay in run-down houses, scarcely fit for human habitation, infested with mice and cockroaches – but at least they’re cheap.

Life here is hard. Ahmed has only one friend who can speak Turkish and he has to do all the translating for the group. Ahmed speaks great English, but that’s not much use here. He studied English in school for eight years, but since then he’s lived through seven years of war.

‘I’m 25,’ he tells me. ‘If I don’t go to Europe, I have no future anywhere.’

~

Samos Update: There are now 400 more refugees on Samos than there were when I arrived – up to 6,492 according to Aegean Boat Report. That’s despite the transfer of more than 700 people to the mainland a couple of weeks ago.

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‘Here is nothing special’: Snippets from Samos

Two weeks is a long time on such a fevered island as Samos. The sights, sounds and stories could each fill a book, I’m sure, but I’ll have to content myself with reporting these snippets that I don’t have time to do justice to.

~

After I left Samos, a friend sent me a short text message concerning the distribution of open cards that saw 700 people transferred to the mainland. ‘Did you know that during the big transfer they actually broke up families?’ she asked me, rhetorically. ‘Half the family would be on the list and have five minutes to pack. If the dad was on the list and he wasn’t there, they just left him.’

~

I met a young man – let’s call him Aarash – a 17 year-old from Afghanistan who grew up in Iran. He came to Samos alone and was excited to show me the ‘house’ that he had just finished building with the help of resourceful friends made at the camp. It was a wood-frame shelter stapled with tarpaulins.

Minors aren’t given any money to survive, so rely on kindness and solidarity. He was given a sleeping bag by an NGO and a mattress by the camp. Older refugees who’d taken care of him used some of their money to buy tarpaulins and wood.

Four people will sleep on that mattress, but it’s a significant upgrade from the flimsy tent they had been living in for the past few weeks.

Aarash goes to an NGO-run school in the town and learns English, Greek and German. They feed him breakfast and lunch, so he doesn’t need to rely too much on the revolting food handed out at the end of a long queue by the camp authorities.

~

There is one doctor for 6000 refugees on Samos – medical, not psychological. Not everyone has flesh wounds; most of the scarring is on the inside.

~

One founder of an NGO on Samos told me that, while grassroots organisations like his ‘want to go out of business’, the big, transnational NGOs are already planning their budget for 2021 – ‘they need to stay in business’, he says with disgust.

~

I met a 27 year-old man whose ‘Greek age’ is 17. It’s a calculated gamble on his part: if at his interview they accept that he is indeed only 17, then he is will be classified as an unaccompanied minor and put on the priority list for transfer to Athens.

Without giving away too many details, this man’s home country is in Africa; he stands little chance of getting refugee status if the authorities discover his real age.

In the meantime, however, as a 17 year-old, this man does not get the financial support that older asylum-seekers receive; he lives by volunteering for the Samos NGOs and gets food in return. He has chosen short-term penury in the hope of longer-term advantage.

He looks 27.

~

‘Here is nothing special’ – the words of an Ethiopian woman, looking around at the disgusting camp and reflecting on why she bothered coming to Europe.

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The Oldest Warzone

The two most shocking stories I heard while travelling came as a pair, one from each side of the Aegean border.

The first I heard from a Turkish volunteer in Izmir. This was her friend’s story and she prefaced the whole by saying that she was only repeating the otherwise unbelievable – and barbaric – tale because she trusts her friend absolutely.

The two friends volunteer for a small organisation in Izmir that tries to help refugees integrate into Turkish society. It started as a place where refugees and locals could come together to cook and eat a meal. Now they also distribute warm clothes during winter and help refugees navigate Turkish bureaucracy. Just last week, for example, the volunteers helped a Syrian boy enrol in a local schools, something that his parents couldn’t have done alone.

Recently, the friend accompanied a pregnant Syrian woman when she went to hospital to give birth. The birth was a success, but afterwards she was presented with a piece of paper to sign. The new mother couldn’t read the paper written in Turkish, of course, but she was pressured to sign anyway.

It was a medical consent form for the surgeons to strip her ovaries and render her infertile.

After repeating this story, and repeating her incredulity that it could possibly be true, my Turkish friend averred that the hospital’s reported behaviour was totally unethical. But she also said that it was understandable, from both a financial and moral stand point.

Turkey isn’t a rich country and childbirth costs a lot of money that the government cannot recoup from penniless refugees. But my friend also told me that many refugees in Izmir live on the streets, or in hotels and apartments that are barely inhabitable. There is little enough money to feed themselves, let alone extra mouths. It’s irresponsible to have kids in this situation, my friend cried. It is not right.

It was my time to repeat a story I’d heard a few days before in Samos. There might be other reasons that a refugee needs pregnancy and childbirth.

Two months pregnant and travelling alone, a Syrian woman arrived on Samos and was taken to the hospital for a check up. At the hospital, it was discovered that this woman had been raped during her journey to Europe. The doctor told her that, because of the rape, she was entitled to have an abortion.

The woman refused. Thanks to her pregnancy, she explained, she would be placed on the ‘vulnerable persons’ list and given priority for transfer away from Samos to the mainland. No one wants to stay for long in the filth of Samos. Pregnancy is the closest a human being here can get to a free ticket out of the camp.

These rules are made with the noblest of intentions, I’m sure, but their side effects are barbaric.

As a topper to this story, I was told a third by an Ethiopian woman in the Samos camp. She had a friend who had been transferred to Athens because she was pregnant. Tragically, after she arrived in Athens, she had a miscarriage. With no baby, the authorities tried to transfer her back to Samos.

I should say that these stories are uncorroborated, but they raised little more than an eyebrow when retold to local volunteers who have heard too many, too similar.

Women’s bodies are history’s oldest warzone: a millennia-old war fought between state and self over who has the right to new life – in all senses.

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Paris: Love Letter Hunting

As some of you will recall, back in August (not July as in the audio) I left a love letter, hidden in the crack in a wall in Paris, for someone I’d barely met.

You can read the first part of the story here.

Then I found out that she’d left me a letter in return. But my attempt to recover said letter back in August was frustrated by police.

You can read the second part of the story here.

Now, my friends, we arrive at the denouement! I am once again in Paris, footloose and fancy free (well, assuming I skip dinner).

But what will I find hidden away on the banks of the Seine?

Listen to the love letter hunting audio on Substack…

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From the English Channel

Who would spend 86 hours and about £300 travelling from Athens to the UK when a four hour flight costs a third of the price?

The answer is, of course, me – but I was rebuking myself with this question yesterday afternoon when I found out that my ferry crossing from Cherbourg to Poole had been summarily cancelled because of what can only be described as British weather.

As I scrabbled to find an alternative route that wasn’t disgustingly expensive (Eurostar topped £200, the train from Dover was nearly £90), unhappily time-tabled, or, indeed, already fully booked, I was annoyed at myself for choosing the slow road home, horrified at the mounting expense of two extra train fares, and disgraced by the choices we’ve made as a species that put such a high premium on terrestrial transport.

Then I remembered the people I left behind in Izmir, Samos and Athens: the Afghan students I’d taught the days of the week, the Syrian, Yemeni and Iraqi chefs who’d cooked for me, the friends of many nations with whom I’d hiked to the beach – the thousands of people who would give anything (their life savings, their youth, their life) for the chance to travel across the continent so charmlessly.

At the port, as police swept the underside of lorries for desperate stowaways, all I had to do was dangle my passport and cycle aboard. For me, there’s only the merest whiff of a border, and a delay of an hour or two is no delay at all.

~

As it happens, I feel very lucky to be on board – and not only because I’m winning the passport lottery.

Yesterday, after frantic re-routing analysis, I finally settled on the Caen to Portsmouth ferry as the least painful option. I booked the same, swiftly followed (naturally enough, I thought) by the booking of a train from Paris to Caen.

I agonised over the timings: should I book the languorous early train which would leave me a yawning two and a half hours of footling around in Caen, or should I book the dynamic later train, with time for a leisurely lunch in Paris and a snappy arrival 45 minutes before departure?

Eventually, my cautious nature won out and I booked the early train.

Good thing too – because the Caen and ‘Caen’ of my tickets are two completely different places. In fact, one of them isn’t called ‘Caen’ at all.

Caen, the actual Caen where my train arrived, is a landlocked town some 16 kilometres from the English Channel.

The spurious ‘Caen’ of my ferry booking is actually a place called Ouistrehem, which might look less catchy on the brochure, but has the singular advantage of being geographically accurate.

Good thing I had that spare hour for a rapid bike ride through the misting Calvados rain.

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Fire on Samos: Engineered Catastrophe (AYS Special)

It’s said that the Greek islands are where time stands still. The waves and the shore, the sun in the sky, old men in the plateía, the stars. Well, time certainly doesn’t stand still on Samos any longer.

Over the past two weeks, refugees, activists, volunteers and townsfolk alike have been rocked by a series of convulsions that have created what one long-term volunteer described to me as, “the toughest conditions I’ve ever seen on Samos”.

Samos is one of five designated refugee ‘hotspots’ across the East Aegean, the liquid border between Turkey and the European Union. These hotspots, which also include the islands of Lesvos, Chios, Kos and Leros, were created in 2016 as holding pens for people wishing to claim asylum in Europe.

The hotspot system means that refugees arriving on Samos are stuck here until their claims have been assessed — a process that often takes a couple of years. But, with more people arriving on the island than leaving, the system is heading inexorably for failure.

The official 2011 census put the population of Samos Town at 6,251. The most recent figures from Aegean Boat Report for the town’s refugee population is 6,458 — with 599 arriving in the last week alone. Meanwhile, the official capacity for the refugee camp is just 648 (yes, that’s not a typo — six hundred and forty-eight).

With a camp almost ten times overcapacity and a refugee population to match the town itself, life in Samos is tense. Everyone is fed up.

The Camp

The official refugee camp and the informal ‘jungle’ shelters that surround it are pitched precariously on the steep slopes above the town. Conditions are predictably awful; a pattern for refugee accommodation repeated so often across Europe that it’s at risk of sounding ‘normal’.

There aren’t enough tents to go around, there aren’t sufficient toilets, showers and sanitation, there isn’t electricity or lighting, there are no kitchens or cooking facilities, and nowhere near enough drinking water taps. Normal.

Over winter, Samos gets more than twice the rainfall that London does. The downpour turns the hillside camp into a mudslide. Worse. Outside of the official camp, there are few (if any) toilets: 6,000 people with little choice but to shit and piss wherever they can. Every winter, the refugees’ cheap tents are washed away on a tide of mud and piss and shit.

The recently elected mayor of Eastern Samos, Giorgos Stantzos well knows these problems. But the people I spoke to in the town were far from certain that their leader was helping to solve them. In fact, some thought he was creating conditions that would lead to catastrophe.

The Attack on NGOs

On Samos, there are a dozen or so refugee support organisations who do almost all the work necessary to give refugees some hope of a future on planet earth, let alone in Europe.

There are organisations that offer legal advice, others that hold language classes in Greek, English, German, French, Farsi and Arabic; some that cook and serve food (the less said about the food provided by the camp the better), others that put on fitness classes for kids and adults.

These solo volunteers, grassroots organisations and larger NGOs exist only so long as the local Greek authorities, led by Mayor Stantzos, turn a blind eye.

At 9.30am on Friday 11 October, representatives of every branch of local government — the mayor’s office, the police, the health service, the fire department, building regulators and the tax office — marched en masse into the offices, kitchens, warehouses and schoolrooms of the various refugee support organisations on the island.

Do you have this certificate? Do you have that invoice? Where are this man’s papers?

These organisations, funded by hundreds of small-time donors like you and me, face the threat of gargantuan fines upwards of €10,000 for the slightest infraction — a missing invoice for tomatoes or a building certificate they didn’t realise was (or has mysteriously become) necessary.

Needless to say, the cost of such fines would be unbearable. Then who will teach Greek, English or German? Who will show a path through the asylum labyrinth? Who will feed the hungry?

It was an overwhelming display of power. Not, you’d have thought, the actions of an administration that wants the best possible care for the refugees in their fiefdom.

The Catastrophe

Then, last Monday 14 October, a fight broke out in the queue for food at the camp. The usual story: frustration exploding into violence over long waits and crappy meals. Three Syrian men were stabbed in the fight and taken to hospital.

That night, Afghan and Arab refugees started throwing improvised ‘gas bombs’ at each other. The fire department were called, but, according to eyewitnesses, stood idly by as the fire ripped through the camp, turning tents and shelters into ash and making hundreds homeless — even more homeless, if it is possible, than they were before.

The police told refugees to abandon the camp and go down into the town, where they were looked after by — who else? — the NGOs who’d been the subject of such official hostility only days before.

And the Mayor? His response was to close the schools in the town. One Samos resident I spoke to was furious at his actions: ‘What message does that send to people? “Be scared!”’

Mayor Stantzos didn’t start the fight and he didn’t start the fire. He only inherited this Herculean, Sisyphean and certainly thankless task in June, just as refugee arrivals were rising again.

The Mayor is very careful to point the finger of blame for the disaster at the Greek government and the European Union. But by shutting down the schools and launching a bureaucratic assault on grassroots refugee support NGOs, he is at least contributing to an atmosphere of catastrophe.

And perhaps, when neither Athens nor Brussels will listen to anything but the most lurid headlines, a catastrophe was exactly what the island needed.

Everyone saw how last month’s deadly fire on Lesvos resulted in quick transfers to the mainland. Is it any surprise that some might see chaos as their only chance for peace?

The Hunger Strike — and Open Cards

In the days after the fire, refugees from Africa started blockading the food distribution in the camp in protest at — well, in protest at just about everything.

On Saturday, the blockade was broken when the camp authorities started handing out the precious ‘open cards’ that would allow some refugees — mainly single women and families — to leave Samos and travel to Athens and the mainland.

Grimly, the catastrophe has ‘worked’.

The distribution of ‘open cards’ — they’re actually just stamps on refugee documents — is a step forward. Migration ministry secretary Manos Logothetis has said that, by the end of this week, 1,000 people will have been transferred off the island. On Monday, 700 refugees did indeed leave Samos — but on the same day 200 arrived on boats from Turkey.

This is what passes for good news on Samos. The reality is that even the transfer of as many as 1,000 people only rolls conditions back to how they were in March, beyond the point when aid groups were already warning of a “humanitarian disaster”.

The reality is that life on the mainland is rarely much of an improvement for most.

Every time I visit the margins of the union we’ve created, my opinion becomes ever more certain: there can be no resolution to this crisis until Europe implements a sensible policy of open borders and freedom for all to work.

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Samos: Open Cards and Protests

Listen on Substack.

It used to be said that the Greek islands were a place where time stands still.

The waves and the shore, the sun in the sky, old men in the plateía, the stars.

Well, time certainly doesn’t stand still on Samos any more. It’s only 24 hours since my last audio from the island, and already I have news.

After a food blockade that lasted since the fire on Monday night, this afternoon the authorities started handing out the precious ‘open cards’ that would allow some refugees – mainly single women and families, mainly African by all accounts – to leave Samos and travel to Athens and the mainland.

Meanwhile, at the seafront, a group of Arabs are now protesting: where are their ‘open cards’?

An hour ago, I went down to have a look. A thin line of police stood in front of a banner the Arabs had unfurled.

We demand the European Union and the United Nations save our children.

The sun sank into the sea. I took some photos and started to record audio.

Then I was pulled away by police. They asked for my passport and told me to delete the photos, not only from the photo gallery, but also from the ‘recycle bin’.

(Luckily, my phone is old and slow so I was able to restore them minutes later.)

The distribution of ‘open cards’ – they’re actually just stamps on refugee documents – is a step forward. The news is going around that by next week 2,000 people will have been transferred off the island.

And this is what passes for good news on Samos. The reality is that even the transfer of as many as 2,000 people only rolls conditions back to how they were in February when aid groups were already warning of a “humanitarian disaster”.

Weirdly, the photos that I later took of the Frontex banner were self-censored by my phone. Who knew Sony were so left-leaning?

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Audio: Samos Refugee Protest

You can now listen to my first audio update on Substack.

I wish this first edition could be more fun, but this morning I was at a demonstration led by hundreds of refugees from Africa and Afghanistan.

They were protesting the deplorable conditions at the Samos Vathí refugee ‘camp’ and in particular at the injustice of being trapped on the island.

All everyone wants to do is leave. But instead we have politics.

Thank you for listening – please do let me know what you think. Do you like audio? Would you like more? Should I stop saying ‘and, erm’ all the time?

Much love,
dc:

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As Predicted: Fire on Samos

A week is a long time in politics, especially when that politics is throwing gas bombs at your tent in a refugee camp.

On Monday morning, I wrote an email to The Guardian.

I thought they might be interested in the news that I shared with you last Friday: that the mayor of Samos seemed to be engineering the conditions for a catastrophe by putting unbearable pressure on the international organisations who are supporting refugees with food, shelter, clothes, education, entertainment and legal advice.

The final line of my email to the International Desk was:

While refugees on Lesvos have at least the sympathy and support of the island, on Samos the mayor is bent on pushing the situation to catastrophe: a riot, a fire – anything to make Athens and the EU take notice and do something.

That night, after an earlier dispute in the long queue for food, Afghan and Arab refugees started chucking gas bombs at each other. A huge fire ripped through the camp, turning tents and shelters into ash and making hundreds homeless – even more homeless, if it is possible, than they were before.

I couldn’t help but send what was admittedly a pretty snarky follow-up email to the heretofore silent International Desk:

Huge fire in Samos refugee ‘jungle’ tonight, hundreds evacuated and homeless. Maybe someone will take notice now!

Silence at the International Desk. Well, I guess no one died and something kind of similar happened a few weeks ago on Lesvos, so…

~

Correction: On Wednesday, The Guardian published this piece about the Turkish military ‘push’ into Syria, which contained the following brief mention of the fire on Samos:

On Monday a fire broke out at an overcrowded camp above Vathy, the port town of Samos, after inter-ethnic clashes.

‘Inter-ethnic clashes’. Really?

Factually not inaccurate, but this throw-away line does no justice to the events of the past two weeks.

Worse, this kind of journalism perpetuates the narrative that political decisions – international, national, local – have no effect on how human beings like you and I behave.

This ‘no effect’ narrative is easy. It’s easy to simply put the fire down to ‘inter-ethnic clashes’. Far too easy. Lazy you could almost say.

~

In October 1963, Bob Dylan wrote a song about a boxer who died as a result of injuries sustained during a bout earlier that year.

‘Who killed Davey Moore? Why and what’s the reason for?’ Dylan asks, as the referee, the angry crowd, his manager and the gambling man shrug their shoulders and pass the blame.

The last to pass the blame is ‘the boxing writer’, who points the finger squarely at Davey Moore’s opponent.

An easy narrative. It’s easy to simply pin the blame on a foreign boxer who ‘came here from Cuba’s door’. Far too easy. Lazy you could almost say.

~

What is my narrative, then?

Who can blame refugees for fighting over food when the food always runs out before the whole of the two-hour queue has been served?

Who can even blame the mayor for cooking up the conditions for catastrophe, when nothing else has convinced the EU to put an end to this barbarism?

There is only one practical solution to this crisis: open the borders and let these people work.

In 2015, German Chancellor Angela Merkel saw that this was the only practical solution. She was not supported by the rest of the EU, and now has been compelled to fall in line with our other so-called ‘leaders’ and join them in refusing these people justice.

Which is all a bit of a shame because a recent report found that the million or so refugees who came to Germany in 2015 have been ‘integrating’ into society faster than expected: around 400,000 are already employed. This is better than past migrations, such as after the Balkan conflict in the early 90s, and particularly impressive given how difficult it is for Arabic speakers to learn German, let alone start a new life in the country.

But the ‘open borders’ narrative is not so easy. It makes it hard to answer the question I’m often asked: ‘What can we do?’

In short: we can give our time and/or money, either directly to the grassroots refugee organisations who are supporting people on the ground, like those here in Samos; or we can use our elevated European status to advocate for the only just political solution: open borders.

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Samos: Tales of Shutdown

ABOUT SAMOS: Samos is an island ruled by legend and beauty. Everything around the virgin landscape is made of colour and light. Each step one takes is a revelation. [Visit Greece]

ALSO: Samos is one of five designated refugee ‘hotspots’ across the East Aegean, the liquid border between the Middle East and the European Union.

These ‘hotspots’, which also include the islands of Lesvos, Chios, Kos and Leros, were created in 2016 as holding pens for people wishing to claim asylum in Europe. This means that refugees arriving in Samos are stuck here until their claims have been assessed – a process that often takes a couple of years.

RESIDENT POPULATION OF SAMOS TOWN: 6,251 (2011 Census)
REFUGEE POPULATION OF SAMOS: 6,085 (Aegean Boat Report, 11 October 2019)

Refugee population numbers are always difficult to get right: the Aegean Boat Report figures are slightly higher than the official UNHCR count. Local NGOs estimate the figure to be even higher, with perhaps as many as 7,000 refugees on the island.

The difficulty comes because, when refugees receive a second refusal to their asylum application, they dare not renew their protection documents in case they are picked up by the police, and so they are missed in official counts.

But they are still here. And still they arrive.

Last month alone, 2,124 more people arrived on Samos from Turkey. The numbers of new arrivals have more than doubled compared to September last year. [UNHCR]

MAXIMUM CAPACITY OF SAMOS REFUGEE CAMP: 648 (six hundred and forty-eight, IOM)

~

The refugees on Samos predominantly live in and around the refugee camp, on the hillside that overlooks the island’s main town. A few are able to rent accommodation in the town, but most live in shelters and tents pitched on the steep slopes.

The steep slopes.

As I write this email to you, the sun is shining on another bright October day. Like me, you probably have a strong image in your mind of the Greek islands in summer: vast blue skies and a sun that bakes. In summer.

The Samian winter – which runs from the end of October until mid-April – is perhaps mild by British standards (although British standards do tend to assume a house and central heating).

But the rain.

We had the first sighting last Friday. A storm broke while I was leaving Ikaría. The wind blew, the rain gushed, local Greeks ran for cover, children screamed, and the power cut out for several hours.

Over winter, Samos gets more than twice the rainfall that London does. The downpour turns the panoramic refugee camp into a mudslide. Worse. Outside of the official camp (population 700), there are few (if any) toilets: 6,000 people with little choice but to shit and piss wherever they can.

Their cheap tents are washed away every winter on a tidal wave of mud and piss and shit.

~

On Samos, there are a dozen or so refugee support organisations who do almost all the work necessary to give these people some hope of a future on planet earth, let alone in Europe.

There are organisations that offer legal advice; others that hold language classes in Greek, English, German, French, Farsi and Arabic; some that cook and serve food (the less said about the food provided by the camp the better); others that put on fitness classes for kids and adults.

These solo volunteers, grassroots organisations and larger NGOs exist only so long as the Greek authorities, including the camp administration, shrug their shoulders or turn a blind eye.

I won’t repeat what has been said to me, but I haven’t yet heard a single good word said about the leader of the camp administration. It is fair to say that none of the grassroots organisations have any kind of a relationship with the people that run the camp.

When I arrived last week, all the volunteers I spoke to told me that the local authorities were trying to shut down all the refugee support NGOs, harassing them with spot-checks from the mayor’s office, the police, the health service, the fire department, the building regulators and the tax office.

Today it happened.

Starting at 9.30am this morning, representatives of every branch of local government marched en masse into the offices, kitchens, warehouses and schoolrooms of all the refugee support organisations on the island. It was an overwhelming display of power.

Do you have this certificate? Do you have that invoice? Where are this man’s papers?

~

I will have to leave you on a cliff-hanger, I’m afraid. As I write, an emergency meeting of NGO coordinators is taking place. Right now, people who are only trying their best to help are licking their wounds and comparing the size of their fines.

These tiny organisations, funded by dozens – hundreds – of small-time donors like you and me, are under threat of gargantuan fines up to €10,000 for the slightest infraction – a missing invoice for tomatoes or a building certificate they didn’t realise was (or has mysteriously become) necessary.

Needless to say, the cost of such fines would be unbearable. Then who will teach Greek, English or German? Who will show a path through the asylum labyrinth? Who will feed the hungry?

For the past two months, volunteers at one community restaurant have fed around 550 refugees every day, serving a free lunch to the camp’s most vulnerable residents, including the elderly, disabled, and pregnant and breast-feeding women.

But with the authorities seemingly determined to shut these NGOs down, how long can this restaurant survive? The restaurant founders spent four months getting all the right certificates and licenses to run a kitchen above board. But if the shut-down is not successful today, then what about tomorrow? Tomorrow’s tomorrow?

Then everyone will have to go back to standing in line from two in the morning to get a breakfast of one plastic-coated croissant and a carton of juice.

After today’s assault, perhaps some of the NGOs here on Samos will have to end their operations. Perhaps the crack-down was also intimidation, a message to the EU from a Greek government that has had enough. Perhaps, to some extent, life will go on as before.

This is Greece; we don’t know.

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Cycling around Ikaría

I have circumnavigated both Britain and Tunisia on my bicycle (he has a name, Martin). Now I can add the mythological island of Ikaría to that illustrious list.

There are many myths attached to Ikaría, starting with the island’s very name – does it derive from an ancient word for ‘fish’, or was it here that the ill-starred Icarus crashed to earth?

There is the myth of the ‘long-lived’ population (a myth that goes back at least as far as 1677). It might be the calorie-restricted diet, it might be hard-working lives and no retirement, it might be close family, or the radioactive hot springs.

There is the myth of ‘Red Rock’, the island where 13,000 communists were exiled – quite possibly all of them ribetiko players (in spite of the disapproval of the Communist Party).

There is the myth of the Free State of Ikaría, with its own government, armed forces, stamps and, most importantly, flag. The state lasted 5 months in 1912; you can still see the flag flying.

Then there is the myth that Ikaría can make for a relaxing cycle tour, even in the dying embers of summer.

Ikaría doesn’t give up its myths easily.

~

The first warning landed on my deaf ears even before I’d booked my ferry ticket: ‘It is very hilly,’ my friend told me, ‘and the road isn’t too good in places.’

The second warning came moments after disembarking, met in a port-side cafe by an Ikarían friend of my friend. ‘It is very hilly,’ he said. ‘Mountains. And there is no road in some places.’

The third warning arrived at the end of an afternoon that had fair zipped along, fuelled by Popis’s aubergine in red wine, on rollercoaster contours where descents powered the climbs. ‘The road goes straight up from here,’ the painter under the tree said. ‘And, from Karkinagri, the road is impassable. You might be able to get through, but you’ll have to carry your bike.’

The fourth warning was a map. If it’s possible to have deaf eyes, then I had them. A circumnavigation of the whole island was less than 140km – a day’s work on Thighs of Steel – how hard could Ikaría be?

Turns out: really fucking hard.

There were plenty of moments, perched high up on a wheel-spinning gravel track, bike in hand, where I fancied an Icarus-like plunge into the sea rather than take another heave on the pedals.

It’s amazing how fast your body forgets the sweat-earned hills when you’re racing to sea-level at 50kph. Every day is showtime here: the sun playing in the waves, the clouds decorating the Amazonian canopy, the Ikarían rock, polished or volcanic, changing colour from bleach to blush to black.

Yesterday I took rest in the far east of the island. I walked over the headland to a cove where stone held the sea close, and the sand paddled underfoot. I dived from a boulder and let the current drift me out to the sunset.

I hiked up to the Cave of Dionysus, startling two bull-like goats into the thickets of gorse. The maw of the cave hung open, the walls melting with the crushed skulls and bones of thousands of years. A bottomless fear stalked me.

I climbed up along a trail marked with scarlet splashes of paint, chasing the falling light, cresting the hilltop as the sun bent itself into the western mountains I’d climbed two days before. The stars flicked on.

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Athens: Where the baby never stopped crying

There is an organisation here in Athens called Kids Klub who – among other things – help construct playgrounds in the squats that house refugees.

SIDE BAR: Why are refugees still living in squats? Indeed – why are they still living on the streets? That’s a question you’d have to ask the Athenian municipality.

Constructing playgrounds for refugee children seems like a marvellous idea, and when I found out about the project I was delighted. But not everyone – not even everyone who supports a state-free world and No Borders – sees it quite that way.

The disagreement orbits the essential question faced at some point or another by everyone who comes here wanting to support refugees:

Should we try to satisfy the immediate material needs of people in a shitty situation; or should we instead focus on the massive, long-term, systemic political or bureaucratic action that might just lift people out of their shitty situation, permanently?

~

Over the past few weeks, at least five squats in the Exarchia area of Athens have been evicted, the playgrounds torn up, destroyed.

Understandably, the volunteers who’d helped build the playgrounds were utterly distraught at seeing their work undone and hundreds of their friends rounded up, loaded onto buses and driven to a detention centre in Corinth that doesn’t even have beds, let alone toilets.

But this wanton act of violence – when viewed from the other side of Alice’s looking glass – was entirely predictable.

~

I had a conversation with a friend grown tired of the whole unhappy cycle of emergency aid and eviction. Their fatigued conclusion was that perhaps the last few years of volunteer efforts (including their own) have been misplaced and that the current complaints about the government and police action are more self-righteous than justified.

Clearly the police response was (and continues to be) barbaric – no one on earth deserves to have all their worldly possessions thrown into a rubbish truck and driven out of the city to be incinerated – but it was not unforeseeable. As a permanent living situation, the squats were completely unsustainable: a humanitarian, but illegal response to an emergency without end.

It is an unfortunate circumstance that we live in a world where one can’t simply appropriate an empty building to house destitute people. This is bullshit, of course, but it’s the bullshit in which we haplessly wallow. The squats were always going to be evicted, if not yesterday, then today.

My friend, a staunch supporter of refugee freedom who lives as they preach, couldn’t help but wonder whether the majority of the last four years of tireless volunteer action, spent on slightly improving the day-to-day lives of refugees in unsustainable accommodation, had in fact been squandered.

The squats have now been evicted and what do the refugees have to show for all their work? Almost nothing.

Yet what might have been possible if all those volunteers had thrown themselves with equal vigour into political advocacy?

Perhaps the painful sacrifice of day-to-day humanitarian support (and playgrounds) would have been offset by a significant concession from the government to make refugees’ lives in Greece more sustainable in the long term (or at least got them out of the country).

Perhaps more work on refugee integration might have reduced rather than exacerbated the local Greek resentment that has proven fertile ground for the new right-wing government.

These remarks are enough to earn you plenty of cold shoulders, by the way. They represent a voice not often heard among the volunteers of Athens.

~

Chatting to another friend on one of the regular protest marches through the city, I heard the other, blunter, side of the argument.

‘It’s all very well saying that political action should take precedence over humanitarian action, but a lot of the people in the squats are friends or relatives of people outside.

‘What would you do if a friend of yours couldn’t afford food and has a crying baby? Tell them that first we need to talk politics? No. You say, okay let’s get you some food, and then we’ll talk politics after your baby has stopped crying.’

The problem is that, in Greece, the baby has never stopped crying. You may not be hearing so much in the news, but last week around 1,600 refugees arrived on the Greek island of Lesvos alone.

~

Of course, I’ve only been in Athens for two weeks. Emma Musty, a long term volunteer with Khora, has written about the recent squat evictions on her blog: Athens Evictions: How many homes can one person lose?

There will be no resolution to the problem posed in this article. Sorry. There is, of course, urgent need for both emergency humanitarian support and long-term political change.

One organisation that at least tries to balance the two is Khora – one of the projects funded by Thighs of Steel. They run both a Free Shop that provides refugees’ immediate needs and an asylum support team that aims to lift refugees out of their shitty situation for good.

I have spent today interviewing the unheard voices of long term Khora volunteers. It’s been a fascinating day and I hope to share some of those conversations with you next week.

In the meantime, if you want to do something today to remind a refugee that they are not alone in this nasty world, then you could do a lot worse than to record a charity record with some really famous people, film a video of you and your buddies wandering around some desolate sand dunes, pump loads of money into promo, get it to Christmas number one, hit Top of the Pops, give a speech at the BAFTAS in which you cry (mainly because you accidentally poked yourself in the eye with the wrong end of a cocktail umbrella), before FINALLY transferring the proceeds (after agent fees) to a massive international charity who promptly misappropriate the funds on schmoozing pop stars for next year’s charity record…

OR you could just donate to Thighs of Steel. 😀

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Thighs of Steel arrives in Athens, all together

After more than 6,000km and 90,000m of climbing, Thighs of Steel is done and dusted for another year.

Over the past 9 weeks, more than 90 cyclists have covered every single inch of asphalt between here and London. As part of the core team for 4 weeks this year, I have cycled 1,670 of those kilometres (8.9 laps of the M25) and climbed 18,600m (2.1 ascents of Everest).

I also shared 7 van days, supporting the incredible sweat-work of the fundraising cyclists, finding wild camp spots, fixing broken bikes, cooking hearty dinners and generally trying to make everything run as smoothly as a transcontinental bike ride can be.

After the glorious hospitality of Albania last week, the final ride from Igoumenitsa to Athens was littered with unforeseen crises.

  • Two bikes arrived destroyed by airlines. On day one, another bike fell apart on the road. On day three, a fourth bike succumbed.
  • On the first night, the police broke up our beachside camp with hard stares and unveiled threats.
  • The starter motor on Calypso (the van) broke, leaving the van team stranded on a beach with hungry, tired cyclists rushing ahead expecting food and shelter.
  • At the tunnel under the Ambracian Gulf, the whole team were told that the shuttle service for cyclists had been terminated, they couldn’t cross, and should instead make a 100km detour.
  • We had our first serious accident: a gravel slip on a fast descent that left a bruising dent in an elbow.
  • After fixing precisely zero punctures in the past 3 weeks, this week I personally replaced three exploded inner tubes – other teams copped yet more.
  • On the final morning of the ride, a thunderstorm broke. Sheet lightning, thunder claps and hard rain laying waste to the camp we’d pitched among the stones of an ancient archaeological site.

But of all the weeks I have taken part in, this was the one I enjoyed the most.

Albania was the country I most loved cycling through, but this week gave me the sense – nay, the strong belief that no challenge was insurmountable for this motley collection of strangers that had come together to ride and raise money for refugees.

This disaster-filled ride most encapsulated the Thighs of Steel ethos: whatever troubles we face, we face together and we solve together.

It is testament to the resilience and generosity of the human spirit that, when we come together in common cause, anything is possible. I feel like the past few weeks, in the company of so many committed people, have filled me up with good faith in our shared humanity.

On Thighs of Steel we usually ride in two or three groups so that we’re staggered across the roads. It’s easier to manage smaller teams and groups of four or five dodge much of the ire of other road users.

But it was fitting that, after weathering the morning’s tempestuous thunderstorm, Thighs of Steel 2019 ended with the 16 cyclists gathering in a restaurant just outside Athens and riding into the city to meet the van team at the summit of Lycabettus, so that we could celebrate our ride all together.

~

Thighs of Steel 2019 Fundraising Update: £67,736

£10,000 of your generous donations will help fund Pedal Power, a cycle training programme for female refugees in Birmingham. I’ve written a bit about Pedal Power and Thighs of Steel on The Bike Project blog if you’d like to read more.

Thanks everyone!

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The kindest country in the world?

There is a word in Greek, xenia, which translates (badly) as ‘guest friendship’. It manifests as generous hospitality to strangers and travellers and is a common theme in Ancient Greek mythology.

I remember studying xenia as a central theme of The Odyssey. As Odysseus is battered and blown from port to port across the Mediterranean Sea, his return to Ithaka is made possible thanks only to extravagant displays of xenia by the people upon whose shores he washes up. (With the exception of witches who turn his crew into pigs and the like.)

One of those to help him (after a seven year delay…) with wine, bread and a raft was a nymph who gave her name to the the Thighs of Steel support van – Calypso.

Thighs of Steel, like the famous Odyssey, is a journey entirely dependent on the extraordinary xenia of those we meet, those who fill our water bottles, find us camping spots, give directions and food and welcoming smiles.

Xenia may be a Greek concept, but there must surely be a similar word in Albanian. Everywhere we went this week we have been almost assaulted with outrageous generosity.

Three cafe owners refused to let us pay for our coffees or cold drinks, and one gave us chocolate bars when we asked if we could use his toilet.

A car wash owner (Albania is full of lavazh car washes) broke off his siesta and fixed my bike while his black-clad mother brought out a watermelon and ice water for the rest of the group.

It seemed that whenever we went to pay, we were met with a touch of the heart and a smile. Such was the hospitality that it became almost an embarrassment.

One afternoon, as the sun crushed us like bugs into the asphalt, we spotted what we thought was a bar where we might be able to buy drinks and eat our leftover lunches from last night’s dinner.

But when we rolled up to the establishment, the bar turned out to be a restaurant. Quite a fine restaurant, with white cloths on busy tables that were piled up with plates of salad and grilled fish.

‘Maybe they’ll let us eat our lunch here anyway?’

At this suggestion, two thoughts surfaced:

  1. This is Albania: of course the proprietor will let us eat our pots of chilli and bread rolls at his restaurant, use his toilet, fill up our water bottles and cool off in the shade of his veranda. He would touch his heart and smile.
  2. If this Albanian man showed up at any restaurant in the UK and asked to eat his packed lunch, use the toilet and fill his water bottles under the shade of the veranda, there is no way in hell he’d be given anything other than an angry clip round the ear.

I felt ashamed and walked off down the road, looking for any corner of unbleached stone where we could sit and picnic. By the time I came back, the rest of the group was pulling out our food as the restaurant owner welcomed them with a fresh table cloth. A neighbouring table of soldiers clinked beer bottles and translated.

As it happened, we ended up buying quite a lot of extra food, so I think it worked out pretty well for the kind restauranteur, but that’s not the point. I have never known such unrelenting generous hospitality from an entire citizenry on my travels before.

Chapeau Albania!

Thighs of Steel 2019 Fundraising Update: £65,587 which puts the total raised over the past four years at more than £300,000. Frankly ridiculous.

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Why Mahmoud wears cologne

The incidental benefits of cycle touring are well known: fitness, tan-lines, an insatiable appetite. But I think I can say without fear of contradiction that cycle touring isn’t particularly famous for its promotion of good personal hygiene.

This year, I am proud to be a part of the Thighs of Steel core team for the glory run to Athens. During those last three weeks of riding, I’ll probably have only 8 showers and wash my clothes twice. Most days, I’ll wake up in the sweat I accumulated the day before, and step into the clothes still encrusted with grime from yesterday’s riding.

Most days, our only chance to scrub will be in rivers, lakes and perhaps under a bucket. Shampoo, perfume and pomade are, for most of us, redundant.

But not for all of us.

~

Mahmoud couldn’t actually cycle, but joined the van team for two weeks from Paris to the Pyrenees. He couldn’t ride because of a long-term knee injury sustained during the Syrian war. He now lives in Germany.

One thing you should know about Mahmoud is that he is very particular about his personal hygiene. Every morning, he combs wax through his styled hair. He applies perfume to neck and wrists, and coats himself in a layer of antiperspirant.

Where most of us have perhaps one change, Mahmoud seems to have a bottomless wardrobe of crisp, clean clothes. He refuses to swim in our wonderfully wild rivers and lakes because the water is dirty. It’s a fair point, and one that he emphasises with good old soap and tap water.

He does everything he can to hold back the inevitable tides of sweat and grime that two weeks’ camping set down. His careful preening is a good-humoured joke. Good-humoured because he wears his fashion lightly; a joke because, standing next to us cyclists, he looks superb.

~

‘I had days where I slept with the blood of other people on my body,’ Mahmoud says. ‘Because you sleep when you are tired, you don’t care about yourself. You can’t imagine the dirt – sometimes I slept in some shit.’

We’re sitting on an artful block of concrete on the banks of the Garonne in Bordeaux and Mahmoud is explaining why he is such a stickler for cleanliness.

‘Because of this trauma – why do I have to be dirty? Why do I have to smell?’ His voice rises in incredulity that anyone would choose dirt.

‘Everything is in my hands now. I don’t want to go back to those days. I have a developed nose and any smell could bring me flashback – I don’t want any flashback.’

~

‘I feel like cleanliness makes me trust myself more,’ Mahmoud explains. ‘If somebody smells in front of me, I take a step back.’

As a refugee, Mahmoud feels like ‘the whole society has taken a step back from me already.’ He doesn’t need to add bad hygiene to the repulsion.

Mahmoud met Harri and Annie, two of the brains behind Thighs of Steel, at a grassroots community centre in Athens. ‘At Khora, everyone was lovely,’ Mahmoud says. ‘Fucking amazing lovely people. But Khora was a small world, really.’

The small world of fucking amazing lovely people doesn’t care whether you’re a refugee, whether you’re dirty or smell bad, or are dressed in cheap clothes. But the big world does.

~

‘The big world really doesn’t like you, really doesn’t want you, and doesn’t accept you,’ Mahmoud says. ‘So I have to do what other Syrians do. They spend money to wear Adidas, to wear Gucci – why? To fit into the society, so people know they have money, so people stop judging them. You cannot afford Gucci if you are not working.’

‘I could lie to myself and say everyone is nice – no. People smile in front of your face, but they don’t like you. They smile in front of your face for the society. Do you think that everyone talks to me nicely?’

‘For me, to look good and to be clean could help me in front of society. People might accept me.’

~

Thighs of Steel is Europe’s biggest charity relay bike ride, taking 9 weeks to cover the 6,000km from London to Athens, with a frankly silly detour via the Pyrenees to make it more than 90,000m climbing over three of the continent’s toughest mountain ranges.

Over the past four years, Thighs of Steel supporters have raised more than a quarter of a million pounds for grassroots refugee organisations like Khora. Already this year we’ve raised more than £50,000.

If you want to help…

If you have any trouble donating, let me know – the website isn’t always the friendliest. Thanks!

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Leave love letters

What, if anything, makes you fall in love with a person?

I reckon we can climb that fence. Yes!
Here, try this. She hands me a forkful of mozzarella.
At 2 a.m. we are still sitting out on the rocks overlooking the Bay of Naples.

Kindness where kindness is unexpected. What’s mine is yours. Sharing private moments together, even in public. Saying yes. Eye contact, smiles, easy laughter, a light touch. Conversation that burrows deep. Lingering.

There is magic in play and even more in secrets.

My companion on last week’s Neapolitan food tour was a woman from Texas. For the sake of this email, let’s call her Sylia because, quite frankly, that’s her name and it becomes impossible to conceal later on in the story…

I only knew Sylia for the 64 hours it took us to eat our way around Napoli. After our final espresso breakfast, I was travelling back to England via Milan and Paris, and she was flying to Dubrovnik before flipping over the pond back to California.

She told me that she had a layover in Paris too. In fact, less than a week separated my overnight sojourn in the City of Light and hers. We parted.

~

I walked down to the Seine to watch the sunset. I’ve been here before. Crowds milled around Notre Dame, taking selfies in the golden hour.

Below the busy streets, nowhere-steps led down to the river’s edge where a few of us enjoyed a private showing of the day’s final rites.

I sat on a polished stone wall and let the sun soothe my travel-tired face.

Then I had a thought.

Sylia felt like more than a fleeting acquaintance. For 64 hours, we behaved as if destiny played our hand and, as ever when destiny gets involved, much had gone unsaid.

For 64 hours, we had sailed that soft shoreline between the moment now and the future then, saying nothing that might come too close to broaching our pleasure.

But now I wanted to feel my feet on solid ground; and I wanted her to see me standing there too.

So what if I wrote a letter and left it for her, here, in Paris?

~

I had a notebook in my bag, but no pen. I heard an Australian voice a couple of steps down: a middle-aged woman and her Belgian lover sharing a dusky pique-nique of ham and torn bread.

‘Excuse me, do you have a pen I could borrow?

I sit back down and tear a single sheet from my notebook. I promise myself no more than one side of A5. That is surely enough for me to say what I need to say. I’m not a schoolboy any longer.

So I begin, sure that I will find the right words as a rhythm starts to flow.

Sylia – Did you know that your name means ‘If there is…’ in French? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself since I met you…

I fill one side of A5, but it’s half baked, scatter-brained. I promise myself the second side and turn over.

There are so many things I haven’t said here – and the ones I have, so poorly expressed…

It doesn’t quite happen on this side either. I say some things, I fill the space, but it’s not right. Oh well. My promised time is up.

I origami myself an envelope, write her name on the outside, and fold the whole into a dart of paper. Then I feel the stone walls for a crack that might hide my letter until she arrives.

I look around. Everyone is either on their phone or with their back to me. I slip the letter into the wall and smile.

I return the pen and share a few words of thanks before sitting back down on my wall.

Fuck.

It’s not right. A writer and I never found the words.

‘Sorry, I don’t suppose I could borrow your pen again, could I?’ Mild surprise, mid-mouthful. ‘I’m writing to a friend, and you know when you realise that you haven’t said a word of what you meant to…?’

I unfold the origami envelope. The inside of the envelope is blank: enough room for a dozen lines, no more. The mind is focussed and I write.

p.s…

~

I fold the envelope back over the letter and squeeze it back into the letter box, certain now that someone has seen me and is only waiting for me to leave before tearing open the letter for a laugh. I hope they return it instead of chucking the feeble paper into the softly infinite river.

But I have said almost exactly what I wanted to say to Sylia and the rest is now in the hands of fate.

I brush my hand over the wall where the secret is hidden, casting a spell. We can turn the city into a place of magic so easily. A place of games and play, of secrets and love, that stretch across time and space.

I walk back up the steps and into the gloaming night. The streets are still busy, but now everyone’s clutching at home.

As I walked, Sylia, the person at the heart of the story, became almost irrelevant. I sent her a few photos that I hoped might lead her to the location. Notre Dame in the background. A distinctive piece of graffiti. The crack in the wall. Enough that, if she wanted to find the letter, she could.

I returned to London, and then Wales for a week of writing with friends.

In among the laughter, the work and the dog walks, of course, I didn’t entirely forget about the letter, or the woman; but as time passed, the immediate sensation that we were close enough to touch faded.

I sent her a message on Saturday: Are you in Paris?

She didn’t reply.

But, then, a few days later…

I’ve just landed in LA.

Followed by a photograph…

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The 64 Hour Neapolitan Food Tour

Some people might like to go for a drink or something afterwards. Who knows.

Those were the last words I wrote in my diary before heading out for an evening food tour in Napoli.

64 hours later, my Neapolitan food tour finally ended in an orgy of pastries and coffee – my companion and I fervently insisting with each successive bite that we were quite replete and couldn’t possibly finish it all.

Reader: we finished it all. Not just that morning, but the whole long weekend. All of it. There was not a corner of Napoli that went unsampled by our insatiable taste buds.

The official tour started from the shadow of Dante’s statue and led us around the street food of Napoli.

Buffala mozzerella fresh that morning – quite unlike the mozzerella palmed off on us in Great Britain. Served with carralo biscuits made with almonds dry as dustpaper, best suited to mopping up the olive oil dripping from your antipasti.

Limoncello, of course, made with lemons from Sorrento and alcohol from Dante’s Inferno. Aperol spritz in cheap plastic cups, served from windows open straight onto the street.

Two species of pizza, from Sorbillo’s – the finest pizzeria in Napoli and thus the world. First pizza a portafoglio – a simple wallet pizza that’s eaten folded and on the run, then pizza fritta – a deep fried specimen that wouldn’t be out of place on a night out in Glasgow.

Frittatine di pasta is a depth charge of carbohydrates, macaroni, bechamel and pork weighted with enough oil to power a medium-sized caravan. One to be halved, quartered, and shared to soak up the limoncello.

Sfogliatelle, rhum babá and gelato to finish. Or so I thought.

‘You guys wanna come for a drink?’ asked a voice I would come to know well from the late night, early morning menu inspections that would plaster our weekend.

She’d come for the coastline, Capri and Amalfi. But the storm we watched roll in one night – sea spray dousing our wine – put paid to that. So we sacrificed ourselves instead to tracking down the city’s gourmet offerings of seafood and pasta.

I don’t have the heart to ruin your Friday lunch (nor mine) with any more distant dishes. Suffice to say that, were I still wandering the alleyways of Napoli, I suspect I would already have Type 2 diabetes and a drinking problem.

Smooth stone slabs and close houses make for a furnace. Narrow alleys burst open onto ornate cathedrals. Religious niches behind glass. A white dog with a pink tongue. Songbirds. The street spills into houses, households tumble onto the street. Families in states of undress around a floral tablecloth, bunk beds in the corner. Impromptu greengrocers and fruit-sellers. Washing lines decorate the walls. Courtyards hidden behind doorways and pillars. Cigarette vending machines. And, above all, mopeds.

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Croissants for breakfast: Remagicking the world

The other day, I did something described as ‘so silly’.

I was passing through Paris, arriving in the afternoon, and leaving the next morning on an early Eurostar.

The train was due to leave Paris around about the time boulangeries open, and get into London around the time people have breakfast at their office desk.

So I messaged a friend I knew would be working in central London: ‘Fancy croissants for breakfast tomorrow?’

~

‘You’re so silly for doing this.’

~

The world can be a very prosaic place. It is full of offices and commutes and the tiresome effort of staying alive: breathing, eating, sleeping.

There is very little magic, it seems, in day-to-day life. We don’t expect it, so it never comes.

What do I mean by ‘magic’? I mean those moments when the world seems bigger and more connected than it ordinarily does.

Magic imbues the world with meaning where before there was none. And who doesn’t want to live in a world suffused with magic and meaning?

When you notice the size of the moon, when you write someone a letter, when you hand-deliver croissants from Paris.

This is magic.

It’s different for everyone, but you know magic when you feel it. There are other words we could use: ‘romantic’ is another good one, but that gets confused in our heads with sexual objectives.

Young children rarely see much that is unmagical, but for us adults, the world is often stripped bare like the lighting in our most ghastly supermarkets.

The world has been unmagicked. And by whom? All by ourselves.

~

It’s a shame because magic costs so little. As any child will tell you, the only obstacle to magic and the only limitation on your spell-casting is in the vigour of your imagination.

We get out of the habit of casting spells, so our imagination dullens, and we miss the opportunities for magic that are all around us.

What did it cost me to cast the spell of croissants for breakfast? Almost nothing; only the exercise of a little imagination.

The boulangerie was on my way to the train station. I was second in line after it opened. Not knowing how many people my friend worked with, I bought five croissants and paid an extra ten centimes for a sturdier paper bag to protect them on the journey.

Then I caught the Eurostar and fell asleep. I woke up two hours later in London. I picked up my bags and took the Underground two stops.

As I walked the eight minutes to my friend’s office, the rain fell in a drizzle. It was refreshing after a month of continental baking. I arrived at 8.50, ten minutes before my friend was due. I read the last pages of my book.

Life never gives us what we want at the moment that we consider appropriate. Adventures do occur, but not punctually.
― E.M. Forster, A Passage to India

She arrived. I handed over the croissants. She smiled. I walked to catch another train, to catch another few hours’ sleep.

The world desperately needs remagicking, but we forget that we are the magi.

~

Ingredients for spell-casting:

  • It takes practice and a little imagination to spot opportunities for magic, but they are all around, all the time.
  • We need audacity and courage to step outside of the limitations of self-imposed adulthood.
  • Magic is founded on delighted surprise and the joyful unexpected. Or silliness.
  • You’ll need empathy and thoughtfulness so your spell makes the kind of magical connection you want.

~

‘You’re a legend in my office now.’

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Always take the swim

It seems hard to believe it today, as I dry myself off in the sun after a swim in the Bay of Naples, but in 2011 I managed to cycle around the whole coast of Britain without once going for a swim in the sea, or in any of the dozens of rivers, lakes and streams that I passed.*

It was this realisation that led me to the maxim that I carry around the world’s waters with me: Always take the swim.

Myriad are the times that I have really hated the idea of jumping into a river or lake, but zero are the number of times that I’ve regretted doing so.

When faced with a wild swimming opportunity, my brain does something silly and the combined efforts of willpower and desire are not enough to get me into the water.

I need automatic thinking – and I’ve come across enough other people in the same metaphorical boat to believe that many could benefit from this humble maxim.

Always take the swim.

Whenever there is an opportunity to swim, you should take that opportunity. And you’d be amazed how many opportunities there are in your day-to-day life.

Seas, oceans, rivers, streams, burns, fountains, lakes, ponds. The water is waiting.

Don’t let excuses get in the way. Your brain, for some reptilian reason, will furnish you with dozens of excuses ripe to fit any occasion. You must ignore them and instead trust and follow the maxim.

Always take the swim.

Not having your bathers is no excuse. I have taken swims naked and in my boxer shorts when nakedness is scorned.

Not having a towel is no excuse. On days like today, I dry in the sun, on less clement days I have dried myself with a t-shirt – or simply shaken myself down and put on my clothes still wet. It’s never that long before I have the chance to find a towel or a change of clothes. And I have still never regretted taking a swim.

Cold water is no excuse – although it is a very good reason to be cautious. Cold water makes for the most invigorating swims. Cold water should make your maxim yet more urgent.

But beware: enter the water slowly, and make sure you are confident about warming up again afterwards. It doesn’t take much (and you still don’t need a towel) – just run up and down on the shore until you’re warm again. Then put your layers back on.

Poor weather is no excuse. This overlaps with cold water, but I would hasten to add that there is no more joyful swim than that taken in pouring rain. How perverse, how apt!

Even better: high winds equal high surf and vastly more pleasurable sea swimming. Although, please be careful and watch out for rip tides.

Not having time is no excuse. Whoever said a swim has to take a long time? There aren’t many places in the world that are a long way from a water course – almost by definition. Humans need water, so settlements rise up along their route.

When I am in Bournemouth, blessed with a 10km shoreline, I calculate that the minimum viable swim (out to beyond my depth, plus three head dunking dives) takes exactly 13 minutes, from fully dressed at my desk, into the sea, and back. I defy anyone unable to find 13 minutes in their day for a swim.

Not being near the sea is no excuse. For some reason, rivers and streams are usually excluded from most people’s acceptable notions of outdoor swimming. This is madness for I find that they are the most rewarding.

The sea is relentless and – dare I say – a little dull sometimes. The river is never short of interest, from the sludgy coolness of the mud shore, to the abundant wildlife that coos and chuckles from the treeline. Plus there is the eternal pleasure of striking out upstream until exhaustion, before drifting back to base on the current.

If you have never thought of taking a river swim, I urge you to take one today. Be not afeared of cleanliness. If you are worried (and in the UK), check the government’s designated bathing water website or the Environment Agency Water Quality Archive for wilder swims.

I have swum now in rivers all over Europe and never once contracted ringworm.

I dread to think how many swims I missed out on during my round Britain cycle, but I am glad in a way that it has brought me to my fool-proof maxim. I cannot turn back the clock, but I can try to convince you to always take the swim.

May the tides be with you!


* Full disclosure: I washed myself once at a friend’s local watering hole in a river near Bath, and I also got my feet wet in the North Sea at John O’Groats. Up to my ankles. Doesn’t count.

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The Trials and Tribulations of Van Days Thighs of Steel 2019

Being part of the core team for Thighs of Steel this year is a very different experience to riding the full week as a fundraiser. Mainly because I spent two of the six days driving Calypso, the team’s support van.

That’s not to say that van days are easy. There’s an intimidating list of jobs that need to be done:

  • Pack up the campsite
  • Plan a meal and buy food for dinner
  • Drive ~120km (on the wrong side of the road)
  • Find the perfect wild camping spot for ~15 cyclists, not too far from the pre-planned route, but quiet, secluded, flat enough for tent-pitching, and ideally close to a river or lake for swimming
  • Cook the perfect camp dinner

A dozen hot and hungry cyclists depend on the van team getting this right. Oh – and you have to do all of this while feeling like absolute crap.

It is an unfortunate side effect of long distance cycling that your body mistakenly believes that van days are rest days. The body shuts down, the mind follows suit.

I felt like an extremely hot zombie. This was not great news, especially as I was driving and my French was in high demand to help secure us a wild camp site.

But on Thighs of Steel miracles happen. Indeed, the ride depends on miracles, almost every single day.

I’d been warned that finding wild camping for a dozen cyclists and a humungous van is the hardest part of the job. The plan is completely reliant on some kindly farmer, landowner or mayor taking pity on our ridiculous endeavour and letting us camp on their land.

After all, what would you do if you saw a circle of chairs, filled by dirty-faced foreigners, set up in your orchard?

But, in more than 20 weeks of touring, only once have Thighs of Steel been asked to move on. It is a daily miracle. Thank you, kind-hearted people of Europe.

With the help of my co-driver, I rang the doorbell of a likely-looking landowner, not far off route. We’d spotted a campervan parked in a closely-mown field behind his house.

With the help of his excitable dog, the owner was roused. He opened the door, and the dog bolted for freedom.

The man apologised, but couldn’t help: the owner of the field was in Belgium. He suggested that we ask the mayor, gave us directions to the town hall, and started calling for his lost dog.

We drove Calypso up to the quaint village Mairie. It felt like we were parking our tank on their lawn.

I began in faltering French: ‘We are 12 cyclists looking for wild camping…’ And, hallelujah, it was as if he’d been expecting us. ‘I have the perfect place,’ he smiled.

What followed felt like the oral part of my GCSE French exam: ‘At the crossroads go straight on and follow the road for 3km. You’ll see a low, white wall, with a gap in the middle. Go down this track, over a disused railway line through a wood, and then over a small bridge into a field.’

I follow the directions with apprehensive nodding. The mayor finishes by kisses his fingers: ‘And the river is perfect for bathing!’

We took his address to send a thank you card from Athens, and then drive out – slightly nervous – to our campsite.

To my astonishment, I’d understood his flawless directions and we found the field atop a tiny island, split by lazy turns of the river. Fishermen dabbled in the shallows and a paddleboard drifted past.

It was perfect (especially when the insects clear off).

We set up chairs in a circle, looking out at the sun dunking itself into the stream away to the west. We set the pot boiling with a vegetable curry.

Half an hour later, the cyclists arrive, stinking of joy, bells a-ringing. It’s only then that we notice the chairs are arranged in a perfect ring around a single, plump dog turd.


Thighs of Steel is Europe’s biggest charity relay bike ride, taking 9 weeks to cover the 6,000km from London to Athens, with a frankly silly detour via the Pyrenees to make it more than 90,000m climbing over three of the continent’s toughest mountain ranges.

So far, the cyclists and supporters of Thighs of Steel 2019 have raised over £38,000 £50,000 for Help Refugees.

If you want to help keep the lights on at grassroots refugee organisations across Europe, you could do a lot worse than contribute to my page here.

THANK YOU. I promise all donors something delightful by the end of the year…

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Foiled is finished

Foiled: Beth Granville, David Oakes, Richard Clifford and Derek Jacobi

Foiled is over for another year.

It’s odd because, of course, Foiled has yet to begin for most of you. The broadcast dates are lined up in August, but all our work is done and we’re already looking ahead to what’s next.

Tom and Dave have finished editing episode one and say that it sounds like the best thing they’ve ever produced. Certainly from the writing side, I feel like – somehow – Beth and I have delivered on our grandiose ambition of writing our own (more modest) version of Radiohead’s OK Computer.

Which brings us to the cheerful faces of those sprightly actors in the photo above. Our guests for this last episode were Sir Derek Jacobi – so good they knighted him twice – and his partner Richard Clifford.

Sitting in the rehearsal room with these two grandees of British stage and screen was a pinch-yourself moment. All the actors were stealing glances at Sir Derek as if they couldn’t believe what was happening – but also to learn from a master of their craft.

Every single one of Derek’s choices was spot on. He took the lines and lifted them beyond wherever they deserved to be.

In all the knight-of-the-realm kerfuffle, Richard Clifford could be overlooked. But that would be a serious mistake. An equally fine actor, although undecorated, Richard brought relish and gravitas to his role as Professor of Celtic Studies from the University of Monmouth.

And, so I’m told, the actors we know and love from Foileds past, raised their game to match theirs. I can’t wait to hear the finished audio.

This episode was written inside three weeks – only 30 hours of scriptwriting compared to the 50 or so for the other three episodes.

With no writers rooms, we had only ourselves and a little assistance from producer Tom Price on story, and from comedian Ed Easton for a few lovely gags here and there.

Everyone has said maybe we should write all our episodes with a three week deadline. Maybe they’d be right, but that method leaves no leeway for mistakes.

In three weeks, we could afford course correction, but no full rewrites. If we’d fucked up too badly, then who knows what would’ve happened. Maybe it would’ve ben fine; maybe Sir Derek might have politely declined. Who knows?

People like Sir Derek get fifty offers a day. He has no need for a job on Radio Wales. No need whatsoever. This is a man who has played Hamlet at Elsinor Castle.

Derek and Richard only do passion plays now and it’s down to my wonderful writing partner that they felt this project was worth their time and creativity.

As they rushed off home to get back to their dog, Derek chortled: ‘Let’s get this on TV, shall we?’

What a day.

Foiled Series 3 Episode 3 Cast
L-R: David Charles, Beth Granville, Richard Clifford, Derek Jacobi, Tom Price, David Oakes, Garnon Davies, Dave Cribb, Stephanie Siadatan

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Of The Lime

On Monday, I was given this ridiculously good-looking book as a birthday present. On Tuesday, I spotted a line of limes politely shielding All Saints graveyard from the impertinence of neighbours.

And so I began to turn the pages…

The book is a twenty-first century update of John Evelyn’s Sylva, a comprehensive ledger of Britain’s trees published in 1664.

Evelyn had this to say about the lime tree:

the carvers in wood use it … for the trophies, festoons, fruitages, encarpia, and other sculptures in the frontoons, friezes, capitals, pedestals, and other ornaments and decorations, of admirable invention and performance, to be seen about the choir of St Paul’s

Four words that I don’t understand, and one not even known by the Oxford English Dictionary.

The New Sylva adds the following:

Limes are among the few insect-pollinated trees in Britain and do not flower until June or July. … Planting of small-leaved lime is greatly encouraged by those seeking to increase biodiversity in woodlands. Lime seeds have no invertebrate predators, and the ripe fruits are eaten by birds, mice and voles.

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What can actors can teach us about the good life?

Those of you who follow my thoughts to a frankly intrusive degree, will know of my fondness for Albert Camus.

Not only was he a goalkeeper of some repute (see Monty Python), but as a philosopher he had the flair of a novelist. Or as a novelist he had the flair of a philosopher. I’m not sure which. I’ve asked Jeeves and he doesn’t know either.

In ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’, Camus lays out the logic of his practical philosophy. The argument (as pertains this newsletter) goes as follows:

  1. There is no god.
  2. So there is no ultimate arbiter of right and wrong, good and bad.
  3. Therefore the old philosophers’ hunt for ‘the good life’ has been a wild goose chase. It’s impossible to live a good life because there is no good if there is no bad.
  4. So are there no suggestions a jobbing philosopher can offer on how to live? Yes, there are – Camus proposes. To live not better, but more.

By aiming to get the most out of life we are not dependent on outcomes of subjective good and bad. Camus offers up three avenues for most living.

The actor gets the most out of life by playing hundreds of different roles, sometimes covering the entire span of a life from birth to death in a single day – twice if there’s a matinee. This is the archetype of freedom.

The conqueror – whom Camus imagines a kind of soldier – lives constantly in the shadow of death. When you deal in death, life tastes moreish. This the archetype of revolt.

The Don Juan uses romance as the road to most living. Rarely do humans feel more alive than when indulging the fiery emotions of love. This is the archetype of passion.

These are the three archetypes that Camus sketches for us, but it’s easy to imagine myriad sub-types – the paramedic and the mountaineer are sub-types of the conqueror, for example.

The Actor

My primary interest here, of course, is the actor. In fact, most of us are actors already – but perhaps we’re not getting the most out of the masks we wear. Perhaps we try our hardest to apply the same make-up and costume every day.

There are good reasons why we might want to do that. But if there is no good… What harm can come of trying another role today? It’s not forever – the actor melts into another role as easily as night follows day.

So what harm can come of trying another role for ten minutes, in the time it takes you to ride the train two stops?

Expression and Suppression

We seem to have two modes of living (here I deviate from Camus): expression and suppression. I am either expressing something or I am suppressing something.

There are good reasons, again, why I might want to suppress some impulse. And, besides, we can’t express everything all at once: that way mania lies. But the basic distinction is there: either I express or I suppress.

But if there is no good or bad, and our only philosophical position is most living, then there is nothing to be lost from expression.

So why then do we suppress? Personally, it comes down to a fear of rejection by other people. Even when there is no one in earshot, I can feel a weighty oppression from social norms.

Rejection challenges are a great way to turn such obstacles into opportunity. An obstacle isn’t a roadblock if it’s a game.

Games are areas of life around which we draw a boundary of rules. Inside, we play; outside we work. But those boundaries are arbitrary.

There is no reason why – again, given that there is no objective good or bad – that we can’t as individuals draw our boundaries in a wide compass around all of life, and play as the actor plays.

Permissive Characters

Can I give you an example?

In Foiled, Sabrina is a god-awful hairdresser with a penchant for chucking customers out of her salon. One of her favourite lines is ‘No, absolutely no way, come you – out!’ I think Camus would have approved: she says exactly what she wants to say.

It’s a role, of course. But it’s an extraordinary useful role for us in day-to-day life. Sabrina speaks the unspeakable. And she speaks in such heightened language that, with a smile, she helps us say things we could never say.

We put the words into her mouth that we dream of saying to others. And little by little we build our courage until one day some outrage is visited upon me, like I’m served a dodgy cup of tea, and I say those words: ‘No, absolutely no way…’

Sometimes we need permission to express ourselves and, in a world with no good or bad, fictional characters give us that permission. Roles like Sabrina are stepping stones that pick a path through our comfort zone.

We can try a new character on for size, change the cut of our clothes, use new language and tone of voice, take on different mannerisms. Take a peek over the other side of the wall. Try out the priest or the predator.

We have a choice. Expression or suppression, action or inaction, attraction or rejection, stasis or growth, sensitive or resistant, yang or yin.

Empathy

Acting begins with empathy. On stage, you know very quickly whether an actor is engaged empathically with the character and with you, the audience.

If all the world’s a stage, then we players must find the empathy in our roles and with each other. For empathy is the conduit that connects us and allows the plurality of experience that Camus prescribes.

To two men living the same number of years, the world always provides the same sum of experiences. It is up to us to be conscious of them. Being aware of one’s life, one’s revolt, one’s freedom, and to the maximum, is living, and to the maximum.

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What does it take to write a BBC radio sitcom?

The scripts are in! We record tomorrow!

In our third year of Foiled, I feel like I can say something about the rhythms of writing a radio sitcom. Settle in, this is a long read.

Writing a sitcom episode is like building a house. Kinda.

In reality, Beth and I usually start laying bricks before we’ve got any blueprints. If you hired us as builders, you’d probably want your money back.

Whether any of those early bricks make it into the final building is a matter of luck. The risk is that we’ll fall in love with some clever brickwork, which makes it all the harder to tear the folly down later.

But it feels good to write ourselves into the series, reacquaint ourselves with the world and the characters. Unlike in construction, in writing nothing is ever really wasted.

Typing through a script, once the plans are finally in place, is pretty easy now we’re in our third year – a matter of placing one brick alongside another and remembering cement. By this point, we know the returning characters back-to-front; and the hardest part is always putting together the episode’s new characters.

Once a story is written out from start to finish, it’s clear where the problems are. We can start the heavy manual labour of ripping walls down, moving the bathroom into the kitchen, and adding a loft conversion. This part of the process feels very physical – huge swathes of script cut and, sometimes, pasted.

As the story sorts itself out, we move onto the fine work of painting and decorating, sanding and polishing. At this point, we can stand back and admire our handiwork, or – as so often happens – realise that the whole edifice is about to collapse and we need to buttress our walls or tear them out.

The timeline of construction

Foiled was re-commissioned at the end of 2018. The first mention in my diary of any writing comes in mid-February. We were slow to get started, basking in the glory of a commission, putting off the actual labour.

By this point we’d already got the broad ideas for stories: something about a work exchange, something about hedgehogs, and something about a cash and carry. It’s not a lot to go on.

We really started working on the scripts from the beginning of March, with ten days together in London. By the end of this spell, we’d pulled together the ‘beats’ of each of the episodes, and run them past the producer with mixed results.

The ten weeks through the rest of March, April and May were mostly spent working separately, with increasing dedication.

By the end of April, we’d sent the producer first drafts of two of the episodes. The third episode follows in early May. The producer sends us notes. We tear our hair out in gratitude.

The week before the writers rooms, we send the producer what we think will be approximate working drafts. We’re wrong, for two of the episodes at least. Frantic re-writes ensue.

The two days of writers rooms at the end of May give a burst of energy to all three scripts. Which is handy because we only have 9 days before the recording.

Luckily, by this point I’m in London and Beth and I can work together more closely, in the high-rise, riverside solitude of my friend’s flat in Woolwich (thanks Tim!).

A hangover the day after the final writers room doesn’t help, but long days mean that by Monday lunchtime we can send the producer what we think are two finished, record-worthy scripts – Episodes 1 and 4.

Again, we’re wrong about one of them – something we realised only yesterday.

In the meantime, we go over the final script – Episode 2 – with a fine tooth-comb, tightening the nuts and bolts of the story and turning place-markers into zingers. We send it off on Wednesday morning in a blaze of emotion.

Why are we doing this, again?

That night, I re-read Episode 4. After two days’ creative distance, and having raised the bar with our work on Episode 2, we decide that the mid-section is completely wrong. One of the characters is just floating along and a pair of titanium toaster tongs appear at the episode climax for no discernible reason.

It’s not just the amount of work needed that’s a concern. The scripts have already been sent to the actors and the sound engineers have already done the work needed to make sure all the SFX are in place. A new script for Episode 4 is completely out of the question.

So yesterday morning, I start working on the re-working, and Beth starts working on the producer. She jokes that she’ll pull out of the project if he doesn’t accept the new script. At 2pm, with the ‘new’ script almost finished, I go for a swim in the Thames to await his answer.

None of us do this for the money. I don’t think the producers have made more than a few pennies from Foiled. Beth and I get paid, of course, but it’s not much more than minimum wage.

The only real reason for writing and recording Foiled is for the sake of the work itself. This is our creative reputation. Tomorrow’s recording will almost certainly outlive all of us. The oldest recording in the BBC archives is dated to 1890. The scripts that go into St David’s Hall tomorrow will be humbly printed on eternity.

So it’s fair to say that my leisurely swim yesterday was quite stressful. Could I even bear to sit in the room as the old script was being recorded?

The good news is that our producer gave the new script the green light. And we worked into the summer dusk sanding and polishing Episode 4. It’s now a piece of writing that I’m proud of and I reckon it might make you laugh.

So the writing is done. All that remains, for me at least, is to send one of the actor’s a recording of my sister’s partner speaking Danish, and to get myself to Cardiff tomorrow.

Oh – and then start work on Episode 3, which we’ll record in a studio in London at some point over the next month. The cycle continues!

~

For those of you interested in a more detailed breakdown, the first two weeks of March involved about 8 hours per week of script-writing. We stepped up script-writing to about 11 hours a week for the seven weeks from the beginning of April up until the week before the writers rooms at the end of May. For the last three weeks I have done almost nothing other than work on Foiled: more than 20 hours a week on script-writing alone.

I write this not to show off, but to show you honestly the work it takes to write three episodes of a radio sitcom: about 150 hours of pure script-writing, plus plenty of other work behind the scenes on story-writing and talking things over with Beth and the producers.


By complete coincidence, I got an email this morning from a man who saw Foiled at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2016.

We met you in George Square gardens in 2016 when you talked us into coming to see Foiled that afternoon. Brilliant!! We’ve raved about it ever since and watched its success since then.

It blows my mind to think that there are people out there who, years later, are still thinking about the work that we’ve done. This is what I mean when I say that we don’t do this for the money.

Series 3 of Foiled – indeed all of Foiled since 2013 – has been a wonderful experience; thank you for your support and I really hope you enjoy listening as much as I’ve enjoyed writing.


UPDATE: After writing this, a fellow writer of radio sitcoms got in touch to share his data. In terms of hours, I was reassured how similar they were: he takes 55-65 hours per episode.

Where we differ is on how spread out those hours are. Beth and I spent about 74 days working on Foiled since the beginning of March; my correspondent and his writing partner cover similar ground in only 40-50 working days.

But they do have 30 years’ writing experience on us!

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Willow the Wisp

There is a willow grows aslant a brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream

The path under our feet was springy with the litter of fluff-ball catkins blown from the branches above.

The leaves are shaped like cats’ paws, glossy on the recto, gentle silver hairs on the verso.

Aspirin bark is cleft with character, shimmering on the surface, lichen in the crevices.

The pussy willow, common sallow, broadleaf grey willow, is native to Britain.

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Comedinsanity

We’ve been in the writers rooms for Foiled and we record next Saturday so I’ve spent most of the week staring at a computer screen and laughing.

To the untrained eye, there really is very little discernable difference between writing comedy and insanity.

It’s hard to explain what’s so great about the Foiled writers rooms, but I’m not exaggerating when I say they are my favourite two days of the year.

I suppose, imagine that you’re buckles deep in the hardest part of your job, with only two weeks until the deadest of deadlines. Then imagine that your supervisor pays for six specialists to come in and work on your project with you for two days.

There’s no element of competition, everyone wants the best for the project and, ultimately, it’s still your name on the project.

Wouldn’t that be cool?

So the next 8 days will be spent trying to sift what was just funny in the room from what might actually be funny on the radio.

I’m sure these last 8 days will still get stressful, but it’s a whole lot less stressful for us now, knowing exactly what needs to change, and with a carnival of suggestions on how.

There’s also not much better feeling than having a roomful of professional comedians laugh at something you wrote. Imposter syndrome is fading…

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The Beech Boys

Nothing quickens the blood like a beech forest in May.

Perhaps it’s just me, but something about the beechy shade of green pairs particularly well with the limpid May sunshine.

Beech is a gregarious sort of a tree and the avenues are sprinkled with holly and oak, as well as the last of the bluebells.

Up above, caterbugs put on aerial acrobatics from fine strands of trapeze webbing anchored to the leaves.

Down below, the ground is crunchily paved with last year’s fallen beechnuts, every one industriously cracked by the squirrels who are always darting out of sight.

You get the feeling that the beech, queen of the forests, enjoys life with a lightness of touch.

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What I learned from shadow walking

The weekend was spent ‘shadowing’ a Duke of Edinburgh Bronze practice expedition. Not in preparation for my own attempt – they tell me I’m too old – but as something of a ‘trial shift’ for future employment as an instructor on said expeditions.

What I learned from my shadow

1. Even the bronze expeditions are hard work.
These little guys (they were 13-14) have to carry 65 litre packs across two days of 8-12km hiking. Some of them were lugging 85 litre packs stuffed to the hoods. Lucky fools.

2. Why can’t most people get camp cooking right?
For millennia, humans just like us cooked out of doors. So why did even the instructors (at least those who didn’t drive back to their warm home, or slide open their luxury camper vans) make do with rehydrating packet noodles, or reheating leftovers?

For the kids, camp cooking is part of the syllabus and, for fear of getting it badly wrong, they exclusively plumped for easy cook pasta and ready-made stir-in sauce. The most accidentally ambitious of the kids brought along bacon lardons to add to his pasta – but only because he thought they were pre-cooked.

I have perused (in a scoffing sort of way) campfire cookbooks in the past, but if I am to commit to broad enjoyment of the great outdoors, then it’s time to take campfire cooking seriously.

On a continental bike tour in 2016, we took a humungous Camping Gaz hob burner. Nothing in our packs brought greater ridicule from other tourers; nothing brought greater pleasure to us.

3. I still can’t sleep in a tent.
I could blame the mummified claustrophobia of the sleeping bag, or the pattering of rain on canvas, or the rowdy teachers up late, or the ironic anxiety that I would oversleep, but where does that get me?

4. Kit is crucial.
Between the 50 or so kids and the half dozen instructors, we showed off the full range of hiking kit.

Within 10 minutes of leaving, we knew who had the right rucksack and who didn’t. By the end of the second day, you could easily see (or hear) who had decent walking boots.

It’s easy to be smug when you recently dropped £100 on boots and another £50 on a rucksack, but these two make such a difference to your enjoyment of an expedition that they have to be worth the investment.

If it’s going to rain more than a little, you can add waterproofs to that list.

5. There will be moments when it’s all worthwhile.
Walking and talking with people more than two decades younger than me; watching the sun rise through the morning mist; strolling alone through a dappled beech forest as I waited for the expedition teams to come past their final checkpoint.

6. I’d like to do more of this.
For too long I have equated ‘typing at a computer’ with ‘making a living’. This new outdoor office is a whole new liberation.

Computers are all well and good, and I am lucky to be able to write for a living, and join people up with words. But perhaps the most valuable thing I can do right now is help kids enjoy the outdoors.

As the lead instructor said: ‘our interventions make a difference to the lives of these young people’.

~

A friend was recently featured in a BBC photostory about escaping the city into the mountains. It’s a beautiful reminder of why we go outdoors, and why we share our skills and enthusiasms with others.

After all…

There’s nothing quite like the feeling of sipping a hot cup of tea after six hours of freezing rain hitting you in the face.

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What am I bringing into being that will outlast me?

What am I bringing into being that will outlast me?

Of course, it’s impossible to know, but it’s a reasonable bet that my writing will outlast me. Certainly the writing that’s kept in the BBC archives and (still can’t believe this) in the British Library.

My notebooks will probably outlast me. And any of my other digital writing stored on servers with a life-expectancy of greater than 50 or 60 years. That’ll all outlast me.

To a certain degree, my reputation and memories of my existence will outlast me, but probably not for long. My birth certificate will outlast me.

I work for a few organisations that will probably outlast me. Every morning I wake up and do my bit to perpetuate systems of control that will probably outlast me: capitalism, democracy, the British legal system.

I’m contributing my fair share of carbon emissions: their effect will outlast me.

It’s odd to remember that what is mine will outlast me – what does it mean to be ‘mine’ long after the referent has passed away?

In what sense are any possessions ‘mine’? What we call possession can only ever be temporary. To the survivor, the spoils. So too with the planet.

Abstract concepts have a habit of outlasting individuals of course – that’s how we have somehow conspired to cede ownership of Britain to the Forestry Commission, pension funds and the Crown Estate. But these fictions are held together only by a collective delusion.

For the same reason, I find it hard to credit the land to similar fictions like ‘God’ or even ‘Mother Earth’. Are there no corporeal entities who will outlast us in possession of this soil?

But of course there are: the trees.

In this country, there are more specimens of a single tree species – the ash – than there are specimens of homo sapiens. We are short-term tenants on this land and the landlords – in the most literal sense of the word – are our arboreal lessors.

Even the most flippant of trees lives their life on a time scale almost inconceivable to humans. The horse chestnut is considered flighty with a life expectancy of only 300 years. There are yew specimens that were sinking their roots into the soil when the Romans first arrived.

And yet deforestation is ‘the second largest anthropogenic source of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, after fossil fuel combustion’. Seems rough treatment for the terrestrial biosphere that absorbs about a quarter of all our profligate carbon emissions.

Tree cover in Britain stands at 13%, rising, but still far below the European average of 37%. Last year, the government committed to increase woodland cover by a further 2%; its own Committee on Climate Change called for a 9% increase.

Britain is on loan and the debt is coming due. We would do well to get to know our landlords and call them by their names. Be good tenants.

There is a tree in a cow pasture near where I grew up (W3W: plotted.brain.forgotten) whose roots make a sublimely relaxing sun lounger.

Until last week, I never knew it’s name. Now I know: it’s an oak, one of a family strung out along the hedgerows, but its siblings don’t make such fine company.

In some ways, it makes complete sense that it took us 10 years to be properly introduced. That’s tree-time. But now I have a dependable friend to share the sunset with. And I know from the calls of half a dozen different birds that I’m not alone.

Whosoever plants a tree
Winks at immortality!
Felix Dennis, poet and planter of trees

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tl;dr: Your Questions About Food and Climate Change, Answered (NYT) How to shop, cook and eat in a warming world

tl;dr is internet speak for ‘too long; didn’t read’. It’s probably my favourite semi-colon-based acronym.

I am a huge supporter of thoroughly researched articles, but sometimes you don’t have time to wade through pages of text – no matter how beautifully laid out.

So this post takes the gargantuan Your Questions About Food and Climate Change, Answered: How to shop, cook and eat in a warming world by Julia Moskin, Brad Plumer, Rebecca Lieberman and Eden Weingart (NYT, April 30, 2019) and boils its 3,300 vital words down to less than 1,000.

You’re welcome.


Does what I eat have an effect on climate change?

Yes. Food is responsible for about one-quarter of greenhouse gases we generate.

How exactly does food contribute to global warming?

  1. Deforestation, to make room for farms and livestock, releases huge amounts of carbon.
  2. When cows, sheep and goats digest their food, they burp up methane, another potent greenhouse gas.
  3. Animal manure and rice paddies are also big methane sources.
  4. Fossil fuels used in the industry.

Which foods have the largest impact?

Meat and dairy, particularly from cows.

Emissions from livestock account for roughly the same as all forms of transportation – including aeroplanes.

Is there a simple food choice I can make that would reduce my climate footprint?

  • Eat less beef, lamb and cheese.
  • Substitute with pork, chicken, eggs and molluscs.
  • Replace with beans, pulses, grains and soy.

How much would changing my diet actually help?

People on a meat-heavy diet could shrink their food-related footprint by at least 33% by becoming vegetarian.

If the average American replaced a third of the beef he or she eats with pork, poultry or legumes, his or her food-related emissions would fall by around 13%.

Dietary changes are often one of the quickest ways to lighten your impact on the planet.

I’m just one person! Can I really make a difference all by myself?

Yes.


Why does meat have such a big climate impact?

It takes more land, energy and water to produce 1kg of animal protein than it does to produce 1kg of plant protein.

Bacteria in cow and sheep stomachs create methane, a potent greenhouse gas, that is released through burps and flatulence.

Does it matter how the cows are raised?

Yes. If the Amazon is being cut down, that’s really bad.

What about grass-fed beef?

The jury’s out.

What about chicken?

Chicken usually produces far fewer emissions than beef and a bit fewer than pork.

Should humans stop eating meat altogether?

Not necessarily.

What about ‘fake meat’?

The jury’s still out. Looks promising, though.

Are there other ways meat could become more climate-friendly?

Yes, and there’s a lot of room for further improvement.


What kinds of seafood should I eat?

  • Wild fish: anchovies, sardines, herring, tuna, pollock, cod, haddock.
  • Mollusks: clams, oysters and scallops.

Warning: wild shrimp and lobster can have a larger climate impact than chicken or pork.

Huge caveat: most fisheries are being fished at their maximum sustainable level, while others are being overexploited.

Is farmed seafood a good long-term plan?

Depends. With tight environmental regulation (e.g. Norway), farmed fish can have relatively low impact. But that’s not what’s happening everywhere (e.g. Southeast Asia, China).

How do I know whether a farmed fish is good or bad?

It’s tough. There is a lot of variation from farm to farm.

So what’s the single best choice I can make about seafood?

  • Eat more mollusks.
  • Check your fish is certified sustainable.

[That’s two choices, ed.]


How much impact do milk and cheese have on climate change?

Milk (including yoghurt, and cottage or cream cheese) typically has a smaller climate footprint than chicken, eggs or pork per kilo.

Many other types of cheese (Cheddar, mozzarella) can have a significantly bigger footprint than chicken or pork, since it typically takes about 10 kilos of milk to make one kilo of cheese.

Wait – cheese might be worse than chicken?

Depends on the cheese, but yes.

Are some kinds of milk better than others? I pay a lot more for organic milk.

The jury’s still out.

Which nondairy milk is best?

Almond, rice, oat and soy milk all have a smaller greenhouse gas footprint than cow’s.


So are you saying I should become a vegan?

A vegan diet does have the smallest climate footprint around.

I don’t like vegan food. What should I eat?

Look again at your definition of ‘vegan food’.

I don’t think I can go completely vegan. What else can I try?

  • Eat less meat and dairy, and more protein-rich plants like beans, legumes, nuts and grains.
  • Go vegetarian: no meat, poultry and fish, but dairy and eggs are allowed.
  • Go pescatarian: add seafood to a vegetarian diet.
  • Partly replace meat and dairy with plants.
  • Replace beef and lamb with other meat.

Is organic produce really better than conventionally grown produce?

Jury’s out, in terms of climate impact.

Should I worry about whether my produce is local and seasonal?

Transportation is only about 6% of food’s total climate footprint, so don’t over worry. Avoid produce that’s perishable and needs to be flown between distant places.


Is food waste a big part of the climate change problem?

Yes.

How can I reduce my food waste?

  • Plan your meals.
  • Don’t order more food than you can eat at restaurants.
  • Use a freezer.
  • Ignore ‘sell by’ dates.

Should I be composting?

Ideally, yes – it cuts methane emissions.

Should I use paper or plastic bags?

Don’t freak out. Packaging makes up only about 5% of global food-related emissions.

Does recycling really do anything?

It can help, though it’s not as effective as reducing waste in the first place.

Why aren’t there labels in the grocery store explaining the carbon footprint of different foods?

It’d take a fair bit of effort.


Takeaways

  1. Beef, lamb and cheese tend to do the most climate damage. Pork, chicken and eggs are in the middle. Plants of all kinds typically have the lowest impact.
  2. What you eat matters a lot more than whether it’s local or organic, or what kind of bag you use to carry it home.
  3. Small shifts help too. Eat less meat and more plants, or switch from beef to chicken.
  4. Waste less.

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Lime Leaves Loves

Lime trees wrap their greenery in a metaphor. The buds, with one small and one large scale, look like mini boxing gloves, spoiling for a fight. But they unfurl with the light into perfect heart-shaped leaves for loving.

The flowers are hermaphrodite so, perhaps understandably, the lime tree is well-known to aid fertility. And, like the toughest love, lime wood doesn’t warp. It’s still used to make piano keys.

Pick the leaves for a summer salad, particularly when covered in aphid poo, which makes them all the sweeter.

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Horse (Chestnut) Play!

It’s a great time of year to be a Horse Chestnut. Many other trees are yet to don their leafy cover, and you are already bustling with green, and holding your blushing flower-candles high.

The Horse Chestnut is generous, offering not one but five or seven leaflets to a stalk. By Autumn, those pink-white flowers have been pollinated into the back to school bounty of those famous conkers. Don’t try eating them.

Introduced to these lands from Turkey in the 1600s, the Horse Chestnut is unlikely to be confused with anything else in our garden. The Sweet Chestnut sounds like a younger cousin, but isn’t even distantly related, and is more likely to be the older.

The three largest Horse Chestnuts are all to be found in Great Britain, proving once and for all that migrants can flourish wherever they land.

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Talk Migration: Help Refugees

Last Sunday morning, more than 40 people crammed into a wide circle to ‘talk migration’ under the wooden beams of Impact Hub in Kings Cross.

Talk Migration was a day of talks and discussion around the topics of migration, borders and refugee rights, organised by Thighs of Steel.

Every year, Thighs of Steel cyclists come together to fundraise for grassroots refugee organisations around Europe. In 2019 they are aiming to raise £100,000 with their legendary London to Athens relay ride.

A bicycle bell called us to order and the smiles rang out…


We started the day with a talk by Philly, one of the founders of refugee support charity Help Refugees.

Help Refugees started as nothing more than a heartfelt response to the growing humanitarian crisis in Calais in the summer of 2015. A few friends and a crowdfunder aiming to raise £1000.

A week later, they’d raised over £50,000, and were receiving 7,000 donations a day – tents, sleeping bags, clothes, toiletries. They rented a warehouse in London, another in Calais, and Help Refugees was born.

Almost 4 years later, Help Refugees are now supporting more than 80 grassroots projects in 12 countries.

This year, 120 Thighs of Steel cyclists are aiming to raise £100,000 for Help Refugees. The funds will be split between grassroots organisations along the Thighs of Steel London to Athens cycle route.

Campaigns Help Refugees support in the UK


Thank you to Thighs of Steel for putting on Talk Migration, a day of talks and discussion around the topics of migration, borders and refugee rights.

If you want to support Help Refugees, then you could do a lot worse than donate to my Thighs of Steel fundraising page 😀

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Talk Migration: The 21st Century Slaves of Indefinite Detention

Last Sunday morning, more than 40 people crammed into a wide circle to ‘talk migration’ under the wooden beams of Impact Hub in Kings Cross.

Talk Migration was a day of talks and discussion around the topics of migration, borders and refugee rights, organised by Thighs of Steel.

Every year, Thighs of Steel cyclists come together to fundraise for grassroots refugee organisations around Europe. In 2019 they are aiming to raise £100,000 with their legendary London to Athens relay ride.

A bicycle bell called us to order and the smiles rang out…


Our second speaker was Michael Darko, part of Detention Action’s out-reach programme Freed Voices.

Freed Voices are a group of ‘experts-by-experience’ whose mission is to increase awareness of the grim day-to-day reality of life in detention.

Michael’s story

Michael Darko was born ‘on his grandmother’s lap’ in Ghana. He spent just 4 years in Ghana, before travelling with his family to Nigeria and the Ivory Coast, finally settling in London when Michael was 12.

At no stage in the journey did Michael have any identity papers – no birth certificate, no passport, no visas, nothing.

When Michael was 15 his father abandoned the family, leaving them to fend for themselves. As the oldest, Michael dropped out of school to look for a job. Because he had no papers, Michael could only pick up casual work in Hackney Market, but at least it was enough to support him and his 4 siblings.

A year later, however, social services found out about the unusual family structure. Michael was still just a kid and, with bills piling up, the family lost their home.

Forced into a corner, and still head of the household, Michael fell in with a gang on the streets of Hackney. Unable to stomach the violence, he ran away and ended up in Northampton. There, he got a legitimate job at a logistics company – but only by using another man’s identity.

Being a smart guy, Michael rose through the ranks until he was earning £40,000 a year as a team manager. Then his luck ran out.

The man whose identity Michael had stolen made a claim for benefits – the computer threw up an error, and Michael was tracked down, prosecuted for fraud, and sentenced to 20 months imprisonment.

Michael accepts the punishment for his crime: he stole another man’s identity and deserved his sentence.

But what happened next was out of order.

Into detention

The day before he was due to be released from prison, Michael’s immigration status was investigated. Having no papers, he was told that he wasn’t going to be released after all.

Not only that, but because he was uncooperative with the investigation, Michael was transferred immediately to a high security prison. He languished there for another 12 months until his sentence was completed.

At this point, Michael had paid his debt to society and, if he’d been a British citizen, he would have been justly released. Instead, the Home Office transferred him to a detention centre – for an indefinite length of time.

Michael ended up staying there for another two and a half years.

Inside detention

During those years, Michael had plenty of time to study and he became an expert on immigration law. He helped 48 fellow detainees avoid deportation by writing their judicial review applications. In response, he was threatened with prosecution.

The irony is that Michael only ever wanted to work to earn a living. This right was denied to him in free society, but inside detention, compliant asylum seekers are allowed to work – for the princely wage of £1 per hour.

Almost all detention centres in the UK are now run by private companies, who run their business for a profit.

Over the past few years, the Home Office has reduced the amount they pay these businesses to £86 per detainee – and now these private companies need to find alternative streams of income to keep up their 20-30% profit margin.

One way they can do this, of course, is by exploiting these 21st century slaves.

Released

Michael appealed for bail 15 times and was finally released in December 2014 after taking charge of his own legal defence and making a request for his Home Office file.

In those papers, Michael found out that the Home Office knew that the Ghanaian authorities had no record of his existence and would not accept his return.

Rather than dropping the deportation, the Home Office was keeping Michael in detention, waiting for… What?

The day before his arrest for fraud, Michael was a high-earning, tax-paying member of British society. By the time he became a free man once again, his detention had cost the tax-payer around £100,000.

And for what?

‘My story is not an isolated case,’ Michael says, ‘and it shouldn’t shock you. It is a fraction, a fraction.’

The system

Michael doesn’t disagree that immigrants who have committed a crime should be deported. It’s the interminable wait that he feels is unjust.

Why does the deportation process only begin at the end of a custodial sentence? ‘The wait is mental torture,’ Michael says.

In fact, the whole asylum system is designed to work against the people it is supposed to protect. During Talk Migration, we discussed two such ways: the denial of the right to work and the denial of the right to healthcare.

Since the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act of 2013, access to legal aid has been made increasingly difficult. This means asylum seekers are often faced with expensive legal fees that they can’t pay without looking for paid work – in contravention of the limited rights granted to them.

If they are caught, their asylum application can be rejected out-of-hand and they can be sent into detention. A vicious cycle.

That’s not the only way that the deck is stacked against asylum seekers.

Until they are granted indefinite leave to remain, asylum seekers have no recourse to public funds. This means that they can’t use the NHS for anything other than emergency care – and even then they will be expected to foot the bill.

One very common reason why an asylum seeker might need to use the NHS is during childbirth. On their journey, it’s not uncommon for female asylum seekers to be the victims of rape. The pregnancy comes to term in the UK – so what can they do?

Childbirth is primary care, but any pre-natal check-ups are not. This means that female asylum seekers come to hospital (if at all) at the last minute. This, of course, leads to poorer health outcomes for mother and baby.

But there is worse to come. A routine birth costs the NHS around £6,000, and asylum seekers are expected to pay 150% of the costs, so are hit with a bill for about £9,000.

Of course, there is no way that most asylum seekers can afford to pay these bills. You might be wondering why the NHS bothers to chase them at all. Well, it’s got nothing to do with covering their costs.

If a person makes a claim for asylum and they owe more than £500 to the NHS, then their claim can be thrown out without further consideration. These bills are an easy way for the Home Office to strip people of their refugee convention rights and deport them back to the country they fled from.

Our health service is being used for political ends to punish vulnerable refugees. Hats off to the healthcare professionals who do what they can to push back against the system and end the sharing of patient data between hospitals and the Home Office. You know who you are!

What happens after detention?

The strange thing is that most detainees are never deported: more than half are eventually released back into the community. Back to where they started, but with one crucial difference – they are traumatised through their detention ordeal.

Up until the moment of their incarceration, most detainees are simply trying to make a new life under extremely difficult circumstances. But if anything is going to traumatise, criminalise and radicalise, it’s the dehumanising conditions of detention.

This psychological trauma is not treated by the Home Office, of course. It falls on the community to absorb the damage. So if you think that you aren’t doing enough, take heart from Michael’s assertion that, ‘any little thing you do makes a big difference’.

How can that possibly be true?

The perception of detainees from the inside of a detention centre is that the whole country hates you. This is desperate.

Remember when you felt like everyone in your class hated you for letting in a goal on sports day? Now imagine that, but it’s not just 30 classmates, but 66 million.

This makes even the smallest gesture of support incredibly powerful to a detainee because it shows them at a single stroke that not everyone hates them. And if one person doesn’t hate them, then perhaps there are dozens, hundreds, millions of people out there who, in fact, support them.

Detention Action are currently recruiting for volunteers, particularly listeners with language skills. They are also fighting for a 28-day time limit on detention.

This limit would end the uncertainty, and reduce the trauma caused by detention. So far the campaign has the support of around 70 MPs.

Find out more

Watch and read Michael’s story on Detention Action, on The Guardian.

On life in detention: Working Illegally (28 minutes, 2015)

On life in Brooks House detention centre: BBC Panorama Undercover: Britain’s Immigration Secrets (60 minutes, 2017) on BBC iPlayer [Not currently available], or HDDocumentary.com


Thank you to Thighs of Steel for putting on Talk Migration, a day of talks and discussion around the topics of migration, borders and refugee rights.

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No Place Like Holm (Oaks)

I left it late to climb a tree in April, but here I am, high up in a holm oak, with what appears to be a dislocated jaw.

The holm oak is an evergreen, native to the Eastern Mediterranean. It was brought over here in the late 1500s and isn’t fussed about sea spray, which explains why there are a number scattered along the clifftops here in Bournemouth.

The leaves are glossy dark green, and the younger ones are spiny like the leaves of the holly – which explains why this oak is called ‘holm’, an old form of ‘holly’.

As a climber, this tree is a safe bet, with thick branches and helpful forks to wedge in. Snapped upper branches are evidence of recent high winds. The dense leaves make the holm oak a perfect hideaway for miscreants and ne’er-do-wells. After all, an Englishman’s holm is his castle.

I’ll leave it to the Woodland Trust to explain why you might want to explore this pleasing oak for yourself:

In ancient Greece the leaves of the holm oak were used to tell the future and they were also used to make crowns to honour people. The acorn was seen as a sign of fertility and wearing acorn jewellery was believed to increase fertility.

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Foiled Diaries: On First Drafts and Producer Notes

And, just like that, it’s May and we’ve only got 5 weeks to finish Foiled. So far, we’ve delivered the first drafts of 3 of the 4 episodes, and got notes from the producer on 2 of them.

First drafts are funny beasts. Every time we finish a first draft, we think that it’s more or less great. In spite of all experience, we hope that this time will be different and the producer’s only note will come back: ‘This is so good, would you mind turning it into a Netflix series?’

Strangely, this is yet to happen.

All first drafts have problems. Some bigger than others. But those producer’s notes land in our inbox like a letterbox turd, stinking the place out with their effortless skewering of the plot holes, character motivations, and the Purple Line of Doom that strides over pages of boredom.

Made all the worse by the fact that, deep down, we knew these problems were there all along, and all we can say is daaaaaaaaaaaaaaaamn.

The only remedy to producer’s notes is, of course, panic. Swiftly pursued by exactly the same attitude that got us into this mess: sitting down and writing a lot more words.

Nothing ever came out right first time, and this series won’t either. But it’ll get written the same way it did last year: patient hours in front of a computer screen. Putting the time in. Sitting there and writing until eventually something good pops up.

The skill, if there is one, is in spotting the good when it pops, grabbing hold of it, pinning it to the page and not letting go until it’s been bled dry.


This episode of Rule of Three with Miles Jupp analysing his favourite episode of Frasier has given us good writing energy. Now all we’ve got to do is avoid plagiarising!

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oh merde it’s a FUNDRAISING LAUNCH!!

Click here to cut the crap and go straight to my Help Refugees donation page…

This summer I’ll be cycling ~1,800km from Rome to Athens because I vehemently believe that borders are really dumb.

Everyone should be able to roam the earth freely and that’s why I support the work that Help Refugees are doing to help stateless human beings get a foothold in life.

As one of the lucky, lucky people on earth who haven’t had their home village bombed to pieces, I like to do what I can to support those who aren’t so fortunate. If that involves cycling an awfully long way in 35 degree heat, then so be it.

If you think that helping refugees is a generally good idea, then I’d be super grateful if you could donate whatever you can afford.

Click this link to make that happen.

Having visited projects supported by Help Refugees all over Europe, I can reassure you that the work they do is of immense practical support to actual human beings every day. (I’ve published a lot of these stories on my blog – drop me a line if you want a direct link.)

Thank you in advance for being so generous! And stay tuned because your donation will get you free entry to a very exciting thingy that we’re planning for the start of July….

Oh now you’re interested! (Donate by card or Paypal…)


+++ There’s still time to join this year’s ride. Maybe London to Paris, or Milan to Venice? If you want to ride with yours truly, then sign up for Rome-Bari or Corfu-Athens!

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Audacity is our only option

My last blog post on audacity got a great response. I particularly enjoyed conversations with Documentally and Beth Granville, both of whom are models of mine for more audacious living.

My call with Documentally was interesting because, as someone often audacious, he was anxious that his audacity could be draining the world of generosity.

What if his asking meant other, more needy people would miss out? And what if everyone went around acting audacious and asking for free cups of tea? What would happen then? Wouldn’t all the tea sellers go bankrupt and leave us bereft of warming beverages?

Documentally also said that he always feels an obligation to reply his debt of gratitude to the people who help him. He’d been expecting me to share the location of the beachside kiosk where I got my free tea last week.

It didn’t even cross my mind. Why not? I have no good answer to that question, and now feel like an ungrateful little swine. 🙂

still.slave.status

In my defence, the thesis of my writing was not about the kiosk – or even about generosity. Generosity is the flip side to audacity, and a story for another day.

I also never imagined that you lovely readers would ever be interested in visiting that particular kiosk, so why would I share its address?

But why ever not? Embedded in my somewhat solipsistic writing was an endorsement of a generous hearted kiosk operator. Why wouldn’t other people want to visit this kindly young man and exploit – sorry, reward his generosity? Especially as I know at least 7 people who visit Bournemouth on the regular.

So, without further analysis, if you ever find yourself in Bournemouth, then the kiosk you absolutely must visit is attached to the Versuvio restaurant on the seafront at Alum Chine. If you’re looking for What3Words, it’s still.slave.status, which is heartbreaking.

The karmic torpedo

We could enjoy an hour or two addressing Documentally’s other concerns, throwing around arguments for and against the karmic repercussions of audacity. But a story Beth told me pretty much torpedoes the whole argument.

You see, something similar happened to Beth the other day – except she really had forgotten her wallet, and really was gasping for a tea.

She was out with a friend, walking the dog, so went into the park cafe and asked if she could have a free cup of tea. The woman behind the counter said yes.

So, while she was there, Beth asked if her friend could have a tea as well – oh and these wafers look good – and how about a doggy treat for Jilly?

Think that’s taking the piss? I shouldn’t be so quick to judge. Firstly because Beth offered to come back and pay – and actually did. But secondly, and I think more importantly, because of this story’s torpedo effect on Documentally’s karmic concerns.

What is normal? This is normal

Everyone has a totally different take on what defines normal behaviour. Did Beth think her ask was audacious? Maybe a little, but clearly not to the extent that I did when, knees a-knocking, I asked for my free cuppa.

For Beth this behaviour was, although not an everyday occurrence, at least within the boundaries of normal. And why ever not? She wasn’t coercing the cafe server. She didn’t act entitled (although it has been said that no one is more ready to be famous), she asked.

As long as you stay on the right side of audacity, you should have no worries over the karmic repercussions of asking.

Indeed, I’d go much, much further. I think it is vitally important – for all of us, people and planet – that you act with audacity.

Would the world be a better place if everyone were so audacious? Yes, without question, it would.

Why we need an audacious world

Audacity puts an end to all regrets (and crimes) of omission. It wouldn’t put an end to regret itself – it’s perfectly possible to do something audacious that you later regret. But we regret the things we do far less and far less frequently than we regret the things we never did.

In an audacious world, there would be zero elderly men, nodding by the fire, dreaming what might have been if only they’d asked Mary to the ball in 1953 – zero!

There would be zero working women wondering what might have been if only they’d asked for a raise ten years earlier – zero!

And there would be zero activists wondering what might have been if they’d only done something more than sign a petition – zero!

Because, in an audacious world, they would have asked. It is in our acts of audacity that we improve our lives and the lives of others. In audacity, we don’t hold back; we leave it all out there; we do our best.

Anxiety is the opposite of audacity

I’m not saying that if you ask audaciously you will always receive bounty, of course not.

But the energy we channel into our anxiety over whether we’ll be rejected would be far better spent on dealing with the rejection (if and when it comes) and then asking someone else on a date, looking for a new job, or starting a more ambitious campaign.

The opposite of audacity is not, as you might think, conventional behaviour. The opposite of audacity is anxiety.

No one goes through life thinking purely conventional thoughts. No matter how straight-laced that man you see on his office commute every morning, you can bet your life that he’s fantasised about some pretty audacious behaviour in his time.

And you can bet your afterlife that he beats himself up about his conventional existence every single day. Instead of audacity, he feels anxiety.

Why practise audacity?

Breaking our habits of convention is not easy. We focus on the pain of failure far more often than we dare to imagine success.

Some people, like Beth, are pretty well practised at asking for what they want, but the rest of us can improve by taking on low-stakes audacity challenges where our future (not to mention our fragile pride) doesn’t depend on the outcome.

These training challenges will be different for each of us. For me, it might be taking a guitar out to the beach and playing for passers-by.

For you, it might be sitting down on a park bench and talking to a stranger (wait – that one’s for me too).

For someone else, it might be leaving work unfinished and goofing off for an hour to listen to birdsong (wait – that one’s also for me).

If nothing too bad happens, then screw your courage to the sticking place and try something even more audacious.

Audacity today; audacity tomorrow

Slowly, through this practice, we hope to learn that no matter how audacious, neither our future nor our foolish pride will ever depend on the outcome of one act.

Yes, our actions today will go some way to moulding our tomorrow, but tomorrow will be as ripe for audacity as today ever was. Even if you totally mess up, you have the chance to choose again, and right your course.

So meet tomorrow’s audacious opportunities tomorrow, without looking past those coming ripe today.

The risk is that the alternative to audacity – anxiety – will keep us frozen in place. Do you want to keep on making the same mistakes tomorrow as you did today? That’s one definition of hell.

Far better to take an audacious step – in any direction – than to fall where you stand. Which reminds me of this maxim from psychiatrist Viktor Frankl:

Live as if you were living for the second time and had acted as wrongly the first time as you are about to act now.

Documentally made some excellent points, and it’s always helpful to stress-test any theory against the pangs of your conscience. But, in truth, we have no worthwhile alternative to audacity.


Before you ask: the cafe Beth audaciously plundered was in Grovelands Park in Winchmore Hill, Enfield. W3W: universally.wisely.woven.

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Subvertisers for London

This short film from Dog Section Films tells the behind-the-scenes story of subvertising, past and present.

Subvertising is the subversion of advertising, in which artists and activists take over public advertising spaces, usually to make political counter-arguments to the consumerist message.

Needless to say, it’s required viewing.

If you’re into the ideas behind the film, check out the companion book Advertising Shits In Your Head. (Which, incidentally, I helped proof.)

Subvertisers for London (21 mins)

Featuring: Jonathan Barnbrook, Darren Cullen, Dr. D, Hogre, Double Why, Lydia Dagostino, Protest Stencil, Sila Yucel and Special Patrol Group.

Music: Algiers, Biege Thickness, Jonny Drop.

Additional photography: Nekane Requejo De Ozamiz.

Dog Section Press is a not-for-profit publisher and distributor of seditious literature.

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The best things in life are audacious

The best thing that has ever happened to me, has just happened to me.

In the spirit of rejection therapy, I left the house with the intention of sitting out on the clifftops and writing my newsletter with a nice cup of tea.

What’s this got to do with rejection therapy? Well, I didn’t take any money with me.

And yet, here I am, sitting out on the clifftops, writing my newsletter with a nice cup of tea.

There was no queue at the beach kiosk, but I still had to stand and wait while the kiosk guy faffed with the bins, head down. Pop music was playing loudly from an old speaker.

I was just wondering whether I should make some customer-like noise or take this golden opportunity to run away and save my embarrassment, when the kiosk guy lifted his head.

‘What can I do for you, buddy?’

Here we go: ‘This is an absolutely outrageous request, but I’ve come out with no money – I couldn’t have a tea, could I?’

He didn’t answer, just smiled a wry smile, and went to the machine.

‘That’s so kind, thank you. If you give me a receipt, I’ll come back and pay another time.’

‘No, no. I’m not going to make a fuss over a bit of hot water and a teabag – it’s nothing.’

What a legend. I mean, he’s not wrong: a bit of hot water and a teabag is nothing. But still! He didn’t have to do that.

As I walked away, I thought to myself – actually, I said out loud to no one but the gulls, ‘This is the best thing that’s ever happened to me.’

Then I sat down on the clifftops and took a satisfied sip.

Do you think kiosk guy would mind if I went back and asked for one with no milk? No, no – forget it.

On audacity and entitlement

There is a fine line between audacity and entitlement. The distinction, I think, is in the emotions attached.

An audacious move expects rejection. As a result, rejection doesn’t lead to resentment, and acceptance gives you such a buzz of gratitude.

Audacity, somehow, brings people closer together. If you asked me right now, I’d probably give that kiosk guy my spare kidney.

Entitlement, by contrast, leaves both sides cold. Entitlement expects acceptance – or at least acquiescence. The entitled feel no such buzz of gratitude – because they’re only getting the bare minimum they reckon they’re owed by the universe.

Meanwhile, the victim of entitlement can only feel resentment that they have been plonked onto a lower station in the social hierarchy, and exploited. Were the victim to stand up against entitlement, they will face aggression, passive or explicit.

Audacity is the world as an open game of negotiation, engagement, and possibility. Entitlement, by contrast, is the world as a closed system of rules, privacy and hierarchy.

Do you dare to eat a peach?

Hot last weekend, wasn’t it?

Families were streaming to the beach in their thousands. As we pulled up to the cliffs car park, a family were relaxing in deck chairs around their camper, polishing off a barbecue lunch.

Hanging from the night before, one of our party made an audacious move: ‘Smells great, guys. Any chance you’ve got a burger going spare?’

Of course they have. The materfamilias takes delight in splitting a roll and filling it with charred meat and oleaginous relish: but who would dare ask? Who would squeeze the universe into a ball, to roll it toward some overwhelming question?

Do you dare to eat a peach?

Rebellion begins with audacity

Clearly, a burger and a cup of tea are pretty small fry. But you can’t begin by asking for the earth. Not even when you are asking for the earth.

Extinction Rebellion didn’t begin with a blockade of London. I imagine it began the same way as the US civil rights movement, the South African rebellion against Apartheid, the revolution in Egypt, and the English Civil War: with an invitation to a meeting in a small room in a flat.

But the modesty of that first meeting doesn’t mask the audacity of the agenda.

Rebellions begin with audacity. In fact, all change – large and small, public and personal – begins with audacity: the audacity to imagine an alternative.

Asking your future partner out for a coffee for the first time. Negotiating for a job, or a raise. Dropping everything to travel overland to Australia – or buying a £550 Nissan Micra to drive to Siberia (never mind that the interior is carpeted entirely in greengrocer’s astroturf). Replacing commercial advertising billboards with more honest messages. Typing the first words into an empty script.

They say that the best things in life are free; I wouldn’t argue with that. But I think it’s more accurate to say that the best things in life are audacious.

Training audacity

My audacity at the kiosk was contrived: I knew before I left the flat that I was going to ask for a free tea. I could instead have come out with my wallet and paid for a tea that I can easily afford.

Other people don’t have it so easy. Do you think the kiosk guy would’ve been so generous to a dishevelled man who carries all his worldly goods in two stuffed plastic bags? Maybe, maybe not.

But this was never a test of my privilege. This was a test of my mettle, training my audacity for greater challenges ahead.

By asking for a tea that I didn’t really need, I tested my courage to engage and negotiate so that when I do really need audacity, I have reserves of confidence to call upon.

There are three stages to a rejection therapy challenge:

  1. Aim for rejection. Expect the answer ‘no’, but ask anyway. Don’t worry that the challenge isn’t big or clever enough – if you think you’ll be rejected, that’s plenty big and clever.
  2. Failure is success. You’ve found your limits – for now. Try the same challenge again, with different people, and different approaches.
  3. Success is failure. A cup of tea – as the kiosk guy pointed out – is nothing. Next time, be bolder, push yourself further.

Above all, if other people are involved, be charming. Smile. Be frank about the fact you’re asking something ridiculous and weird. Have a laugh about it and you might just find yourself a co-conspirator.

And when you are rejected – congratulations! – smile again, say thank you, and walk away with the deep satisfaction that you’ve pushed against your horizon of audacity, and – for now – found its limit.

What about you? Is this concept of audacity useful? How could you be more audacious right now?


By the way, the smug photo of me with my free tea was taken by an Iranian MBA student I met on the clifftops.

As well as my wallet, I came out without my camera, so I walked up to this woman and asked if she could take one on her phone and email it to me.

She took four.

She was the third person I asked.

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Get shit for free

Something remarkable happened to me a few weeks ago. Thanks to the resourcefulness and generosity of my friend and spirit guide Documentally, a rather exclusive, high-end and indeed Swiss tech company sent me their new Punkt MP02 phone. For free. No strings attached.

I’ve written elsewhere about how everything is free, but I’ve never had the gumption to straight up ask people to send me stuff. But The Swiss Phone Incident has inspired me: never again will I spend significant sums of moolah, until I’ve first tried to get it (or do it) for nothing.

Of course, nothing is for nothing. I doubt Punkt would have sent me a free phone if I didn’t have some record (however modest) of writing about stuff on the internet.

The Swiss Phone Incident has made me realise that, although writing isn’t a terribly well-paid job, it does open up opportunities to supplement one’s income.

For example, some friends recently invited me to Love Trails, a running festival in Wales that sounded right up my alley – if it wasn’t for the £130+ price tag. So, in the after-glow of The Swiss Phone Incident, I emailed the organisers suggesting that I give a talk in exchange for a free ticket and travel expenses.

To my enduring surprise (I still think it was all a dream), they said yes. What’s great about this – aside from saving well over £130 – is that instead of merely going to the festival, I am the festival – or part of it, at least. My experience of Love Trails will be all the greater for not spending money on a ticket.

I have found this again and again: spending money is the simplest, but also the lowest impact way of acquiring a thing or an experience.

Hitch-hiking will always be more latent with possibility than buying a plane ticket. Skipping food from bins is so much more fraught with surprise and reward than is shopping at Lidl. Sharing tools and swapping skills with your neighbours opens up futures that are sullied by contracts and cash.

By spending a little time figuring out how we might get shit for free, we not only save money, but also become more engaged with the people and planet around us, learn new skills or practise old ones, and – above all – have more interesting stories to tell of our lives.

Digital minimalism is a niche topic, and I doubt many people can afford to spend £300 for a phone that doesn’t even take photos – but I hope that The Swiss Phone Incident inspires you to look for opportunities where you can spend a little less and live a little more.


For those of you who are interested in what I think of the Punkt MP02, the review is here.

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Punkt MP02 First Look Review

Technology is a funny old bird.

We get sold on a particular feature – like the ability to make social phone calls to friends and family – but find ourselves quickly overwhelmed by myriad extraneous features that distract us from our intentions.

This is where the Punkt MP02 feature phone intervenes: adding a step between my sociable intentions and the pernicious distractions of my ‘smart’ devices.

Note: Punkt sent me this MP02 gratis. Of course, it’s lovely to receive such a kind gift, and you would be forgiven for being suspicious about this the honesty of this review. But please suspend your doubt – as you will see, I’m far too reliant on connectivity to tolerate a device that doesn’t work properly!

The Punkt MP02 as a minimum viable technology

I’ve written before about using the minimum viable technology for a task, and the Punkt MP02 fits perfectly into my buffet of devices.

The MP02 does only two things really well:

  1. Phone calls.
  2. 4G tethering.

It does a few other things, like messaging and note-taking, but it doesn’t do them very well. These features are more for emergencies than day-to-day use.

Using the Punkt MP02 in combination with my laptop and my smartphone, I can still take part in extraneous ‘connected’ activities, without turning them into reflex habits.

But, best of all, the Punkt and I now prioritise phone calls.

Has the Punkt changed my behaviour?

Of course, the proof is in the pudding, or, as the saying goes, in the device use statistics.

With the Punkt in my digital arsenal, I’ve averaged only 15 minutes a day on my smartphone. For comparison, my average smartphone use – excluding phone calls – in the week immediately pre-Punkt was around 60 minutes per day.

Looking back over the longer term, my average smartphone use – excluding phone calls – in the last two months has been about 45 minutes a day – and that’s with a conscious effort to reduce my smartphone usage after reading Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism.

It seems that, with the Punkt, I could be saving 30-45 minutes a day, a remarkable return for the device thus far.

I have also made more phone calls to friends and family with the Punkt than I used to with the smartphone. In my first week with the Punkt, I made 5 ‘social’ phone calls for a total duration of 110 minutes, averaging about 22 minutes each.

In comparison, over the preceding six weeks, I made 9 similarly social calls on my smartphone, lasting a total of 180 minutes. On average, that makes only 2 calls every week.

These smartphone calls were still around 20 minutes each, which reassures me that I’m comparing apples with apples, but with the Punkt, it seems as if I’m more than twice as likely to pick up the phone and call friends and family. Brilliant.

This might, of course, be down to novelty. It’ll be interesting to see whether I continue to spend significantly less time on my smartphone, as the unnecessary habit degrades, or whether instead I begin to crave the convenience of the ‘smart’ features I do use.

Which brings me on to…

Do I still need a smartphone?

There are several features for which I know I will still use my smartphone.

  1. Maps. Connectivity is not necessary: I have downloaded maps for offline use.
  2. Camera. Wifi will be needed to transfer these from phone to computer.
  3. Whatsapp messaging. I prefer to use my computer for the actual sending of messages, but this is only possible with a ‘smart’ connection as well.
  4. Strava tracking for bike rides.
  5. Banking apps. Not strictly necessary, but I can’t be the only person who finds the mobile apps easier to use than the web equivalents.

As you can tell, none of these activities are urgent. I could survive without any of them. Does that mean I will get rid of my smartphone? No.

My smartphone is still, for better or worse, the minimum viable technology for that grab bag of low-priority, but still useful features.

I’m not going to buy a dedicated camera because I hardly ever take photos. Photography isn’t a priority for me. Likewise, I’m unlikely to buy a Garmin GPS for my bike: they’re expensive and I’m not massively into following pre-planned routes.

It remains to be seen whether the Punkt MP02 has turned the smartphone into one useful tool among many, rather than one dominant tool to rule them all (and me) – but that is the hope.

Pros, Not bothereds, Cons and a Wishlist

With the psychological and practical aspects of the review dealt with, let’s look at the phone in more detail. What works, what I don’t care about, what doesn’t work, and what could work.

Pros (for me)

  • The phone works as a phone – hallelujah! This is huge.
  • Tethering works as well as with my old smartphone (after help from the excellent customer support team). This is also huge.
  • Excellent customer support, fortunately, because the phone needs it. It can’t be easy designing and launching an entirely new genus of phone, and early adopters need support.
  • Beautifully designed and feels good in my hand. I’ve dropped it a couple of times already and it seems robust.
  • BlackBerry security. Hopefully this means that my phone can’t be hacked. To be honest, I’m not exactly sure what this means in practice: presumably the protection doesn’t extend to tethered devices. I’ve written before about the leaky nature of mobile phones, and how this data is big business. It feels good to own a device that, for once, puts my privacy first.

Not bothereds (for me)

  • For a simple phone, there’s quite a going on. I can connect to other devices using Bluetooth, WiFi and a USB connection. I genuinely have no idea why the phone has GPS.
  • There are a panoply of other unobtrusive features, including messaging, calculator, calendar, alarm, world clock, stopwatch, timer, and notes with timed reminders (including recurring reminders). They all seem to work well, but I doubt I’ll use any of them much.
  • The messaging system can display emoticons and QR codes. Wowzas.

Cons (for me)

UPDATE: Punkt are currently manufacturing an update to the MP02 which will be available in July 2019. Hopefully many of the bugs listed below will be fixed – and they have kindly offered me an exchange. As I said earlier, the customer service is excellent.

This is quite a long list, so I’ve bolded the cons that have a significant negative impact on my day-to-day use.

  • Limited battery life. The Punkt’s battery life is currently only about a day of light to moderate use. A couple of phone calls, a couple of hours’ hotspotting, and it’s dead. Even on standby, the battery drains remarkably quickly. Overnight, on aeroplane mode, I lost 15%. Frankly, compared to other feature phones, it’s feeble – and very nearly a deal breaker. Luckily, Punkt’s engineers are working on a solution and hope to release another firmware update in June. Watch this space…
  • I can’t have an audible ring tone without also turning on all the other annoying system noises (key-pad tones, lock and unlock tones, etc.). For a phone that sells itself on discretion, this seems very odd. The excellent customer service people don’t appear to have a solution either. What this means is that, for the sake of my sanity, I have to have the phone on silent all the time. It does vibrate, however, so I usually hear something buzz when someone calls.
  • The ringtones might be ‘the work of respected Norwegian sound artist Kjetil Røst Nilsen’, but in my humble opinion, they are all a bit weird. It’s not possible to upload my own, although they do say this might be a feature for a future update.
  • Likewise, I can’t change the alarm noise, which is unfortunate because it sounds like I’m under attack from quite a raucous seagull. Not the most relaxing way to wake up.
  • The earphones aren’t very good quality and only come with one earpiece. They are USB-C, though, so I could buy a new set, I guess.
  • You can programme shortcuts, which is handy. This would be a pro, but isn’t very well done so becomes a con, I’m afraid. The options are fairly limited and the execution isn’t always as clear as it could be. I set a shortcut to turn on tethering, but there is no notification that the shortcut has executed successfully, and I can’t set a shortcut to turn tethering off.
  • The power source is USB-C, so I can’t share chargers with most of the rest of the world yet, and heaven help me if I lose this one cable before I get a chance to buy a backup. A bit harsh to make this a con, but there we go.
  • I’ve also run into quite a few glitches:
    • I’ve experienced a few (5) dropped calls. It’s hard to say whether these were down to the Punkt or the caller’s phone. I’ll keep an eye/ear on it.
    • I had to restart after the home screen stopped working.
    • The notifications don’t always behave as they should.
    • The home screen clock takes a few seconds to update. (This bug seems to come and go.)
    • USB tethering only worked once and never again. Shame, because it could be a useful feature to keep the phone charged while using the battery-intensive hotspot.

Wishlist (for me)

  • I would love a voice note feature so that I could record notes to myself, rather than type them out, tortuously, on the predictive keypad.
  • A torch would be handy.

The Bottom Line

For me, at the moment, the Punkt MP02 just about crosses the line. After a week’s testing, I will definitely keep the Punkt in my pocket.

The annoying ring tones, the various glitches, and the more significant issue with the battery life, are still not enough to outweigh the importance of untethering myself from my smartphone.

I need a phone that keeps me in contact with friends and family, without distracting me from the way I want to spend my time. The miraculous little Punkt MP02 helps me do that.

If I were grading the phone as a whole, however, I couldn’t give it more than a B-Minus. Everything about the Punkt screams Premium – but I’d be a bit gutted if I’d shelled out the £300 asking price for a dumbphone that scarcely lasts a day, and does some pretty annoying things.

If they can sort out the myriad glitches, and significantly improve the battery life with the next firmware update, then we’ll be talking about a phone that delivers not only on the promise of digital minimalism, but also on the premium price point.

But the real test for me will be whether I decide to take the Punkt MP02 when I go travelling this summer.

When I’m out of the country, my reliance on the web increases. I’m much more likely to want to connect to look up places to go. I’m much more likely to stay in communication with friends and family over email and Whatsapp, and I’m much more likely to be away from my computer and a fixed WiFi connection.

Finally, space and weight are a consideration and, although the Punkt is small and light, every inch and every gramme counts when I’m travelling. The fact that I have no other devices that charge from a USB-C is another slight point against the Punkt.

So the Punkt has 3 months to prove itself indispensable!


Thanks a mill to Punkt for sending me this MP02, and thanks to their customer service team for helping me get it up and running. Thanks also to @documentally for putting me in touch with Punkt in the first place.

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Happy Bicycle Day!

Today might be Good Friday, but it’s also Bicycle Day – the celebration of the first deliberate acid trip.

On 19 April 1943, intrigued by ‘a peculiar presentiment’ and ‘excercising extreme caution’, chemist Albert Hofmann ingested 0.25 mg of lysergic acid diethylamide tartrate – ‘the smallest quantity that could be expected to produce some effect’. Or so he thought.

Hofmann recorded the details of his experiment in that day’s lab journal:

4/19/43
16:20: 0.5 cc of 1/2 promil aqueous solution of diethylamide tartrate orally = 0.25 mg tartrate. Taken diluted with about 10 cc water. Tasteless.
17:00: Beginning dizziness, feeling of anxiety, visual distortions, symptoms of paralysis, desire to laugh. Supplement of 4/21: Home by bicycle.

What followed was a remarkable descent into horror and beauty, confronting demons and angels, and finally an experience of death and rebirth. 0.25mg of LSD, it turned out, was a pretty big dose.

The next day, Hofmann writes:

A sensation of well-being and renewed life flowed through me. Breakfast tasted delicious and gave me extraordinary pleasure. When I later walked out into the garden, in which the sun shone now after a spring rain, everything glistened and sparkled in a fresh light. The world was as if newly created.

For more about the discovery of this remarkable compound, read Hofmann’s autobiography, LSD – My Problem Child, available online, for free. The story of his first self-experiment begins on page 11.

Happy Bicycle Day!

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Thoreau on Walking

I recently read The Atlantic essay Walking by Henry David Thoreau, published in June 1862. Firstly, how thrilling it is to read that by-line set in the 21st century medium of the Internet. Praise The Atlantic for doing such a beautiful job – imagine Punch or The Times delving so deep into their archives.

Walking touches upon an almost scatter-brained variety of tangentially related topics. I’m never sure whether the 19th century mind was more nimble, or simply that writers of yore lacked the affection of competent editors.

The essay is worth reading in its entirety – if only for his enthusiastic side-swipes at the small-minded European mentality (even the moon looks smaller there!) – but I wanted to pick out three themes that particularly caught my eye.

The Value of Time Spent in Nature

I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.

The Inexhaustibility of Local Walks

My vicinity affords many good walks; and though for so many years I have walked almost every day, and sometimes for several days together, I have not yet exhausted them. … Two or three hours’ walking will carry me to as strange a country as I expect ever to see. A single farmhouse which I had not seen before is sometimes as good as the dominions of the King of Dahomey.

The Re-Wilding of Humankind

I saw one day a herd of a dozen bullocks and cows running about and frisking in unwieldy sport, like huge rats, even like kittens. They shook their heads, raised their tails, and rushed up and down a hill, and I perceived by their horns, as well as by their activity, their relation to the deer tribe.

But, alas! a sudden loud Whoa! would have damped their ardor at once, reduced them from venison to beef, and stiffened their sides and sinews like the locomotive. Who but the Evil One has cried “Whoa!” to mankind?

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The Meteorological Secret of Comedy

The secret of comedy, they say, is timing. This is such a well-known truism, that it has, in its fame, become false.

The only remaining secret of comedy is the weather.

Like a meteorologist, comedians (by which I mean anyone attempting to make another person laugh, whether professionally or not) see the world around them in topographies of pressure.

They are constantly monitoring the world around them for areas of rising pressure that they can lance like cloudbursts with their wit.

The well-timed release of such pressure is what makes people laugh.

Ah – timing!

Yes, timing, although no longer much of a secret, is still important to comedy.

Lance too early and there is no pressure to release; lance too late and all kinds of things might go wrong. In stand-up, the audience might have got bored with the preamble; in conversation, they might have moved on to a different subject; in conflict, they might have got too wound up and become closed off to a comic intervention.

Say the wrong thing at the wrong time and the atmosphere can turn pretty sour.

That’s why the BBC won’t let us have a plot-line about a missing stylist – even though she wasn’t missing at all, but on holiday. They don’t want to risk the atmosphere turning sour.

Part of reading the meteorological chart of conversation is knowing not only when and where pressure is building, but also whether to lance that pressure at all.

Not all human interaction is served by comedy. There is a reason why lawyer and stand-up are separate professions. It’s not that the lawyer can’t use comedy, nor the stand-up evidence and argument, but each will favour the discourse style of their field.

You may spot the perfect moment to lance the pressure in a tense negotiation over the custody of your children during divorce proceedings; that does not mean that the judge will look favourably upon a hilarious reference to his wig.

On the plus side, you will know almost instantaneously that you have misread the comic moment. If you are sensitive without being precious, you use this failure to calibrate your instruments.

What are your instruments? Simply: your eyes and your ears. But more on that next week.

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The Next Challenge Grant Winners Announced!

When it comes to awards, I’m not just a taker (Hold on, we really still haven’t won?) – I’m a giver too.

I help fund The Next Challenge Grant, an annual bursary for adventures chosen and administered by adventurer (and accountant) Tim Moss.

This year’s grant winners have just been announced and they’re a terrific bunch of adventurers who I’m proud to help out.

My personal favourites: Mark Holmes who’s making swimming escapes from the UK’s three prison islands, and Sue Manning who’s walking around Scotland with a pack pony.

I particularly wanted to help The Next Challenge Grant because my first big adventure, cycling 4,000 miles around the coast of Great Britain, was only possible thanks to support from my nan.

One of the last things she said to me before she died was ‘Do it while you can!’ She’d have loved to help out these intrepid adventurers.

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Foiled nominated for Celtic Media Award!

SABRINA
Pay attention team because I’ve got some very important newses. We are salon of the year!

TANISHA
Wales’ least active salon of the year?

SABRINA
No, awards-wise: we are Clipadvisor’s Salon of the Year.

TANISHA
Really?! Us? How exciting! How?!

SABRINA
Oi! What do you mean how?

So we wrote way back in 2016 and now, just 3 short years later, Foiled has been nominated (Hold on, we haven’t won?) for best radio comedy at the highly prestigious Celtic Media Awards.

Proof.

Compared to theatre, writing for the radio is a strange experience. We write the scripts, have a laugh recording them, listen to the broadcast with butterflies in our stomachs and then – nothing.

No one reviews radio comedy. No one gives us the listener figures. We have no idea how the show’s gone down with our audience – or even if there was an audience. We have no idea which episodes – or even jokes – worked for our listeners, which didn’t, and why.

In Bird By Bird, Anne Lamott paints a pretty picture of this eternal, gaping, yawning silence. She’s writing about book publishing, but it seems to me that the sense of emptiness and craving is the same for radio.

There will be a few book-signing parties and maybe some readings, at one of which your publisher will spring for a twenty-pound wheel of runny Brie, and the only person who will show has lived on the street since he was twelve and even he will leave, because he hates Brie.

So it’s wonderful for something, some acknowledgement and approbation, to come crawling out of the ether and say: YOU DID A THING AND WE LIKED IT.

The nomination cites my personal favourite episode from the last series, starring Miles Jupp as Richie’s dad. Sitting across from Miles as he read out words that I’d written was one of the most thrilling events of my life last year.

There is nothing more rewarding for a writer than to watch a talented actor rub your words together and make sparks fly until the whole thing catches fire.

But where do we go now, now we’ve been nommed by the Celtic Media Awards? Will the Celtic imprimatur spur us to write ever funnier scripts – or will we become complacent, crippled by our glory like Wet Wet Wet after Four Weddings came out?

I guess I can turn to Anne Lamott again:

The fact of publication is the acknowledgement from the community that you did your writing right. You acquire a rank that you never lose. Now you’re a published writer, and you are in that rare position of getting to make a living, such as it is, doing what you love best. That knowledge does bring you a quiet joy. But eventually you have to sit down like every other writer and face the blank page.

Series 3.

For now, big love to everyone for supporting Foiled. I’ll get Beth to give you a shout out in her acceptance speech. (Hold on, we still haven’t won?)

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Empathy, society, and a nice cup of tea…

I never drank tea until I went to China when I was 18. There, I had no option. Green tea was served by default at all meals, and there was always a flask by your bedside in guesthouses and hotels.

Ubiquitous doesn’t really do full justice to the omnipresence of tea in China. Although the Chinese only drink something more than a quarter of the quantity that we do in Britain, they are by far and away the largest producers of the precious plant, responsible for a third of global production.

Only after my visit did I fully comprehend the staggering contempt implied by the saying, ‘Not for all the tea in China’.

Clearly not tea, but some sort of paddy field in Yangshuo County, China. As seen from behind a Fujifilm camera in 2001.

My Chinese education explains why I take my tea with neither milk nor sugar.

I dread to imagine the state of my teeth had I starting drinking tea just a few weeks before, when I was in Egypt. In the Nile Valley, the default is tiny glasses of black tea filled halfway with white sugar and, perhaps, a sprig of mint.

It’s got more in common with a Magnum ice cream than the restorative brew I found in China.

I digress.

The point is that, since 2001, I have rarely been without tea. Often green, occasionally black if I need the astringent caffeine hit.

Just as often, though, I’ll have what the French would call a tisane, or what the more pretentious English would call a herbal infusion – a redbush, a chamomile, a peppermint, or some other preparation of dried organic matter.

For me, the point is not the caffeine or even the flavour, but the psychological comfort of having something to do with my hands (behave yourself) between essays at the keyboard.

In days past, writers smoked cigarettes, cigars or cigarillos; many still use alcohol. I used to chew gum and eat biscuits. But tea, I find, offers something else.

Bob Dylan: listlessly creative with a pot of tea (milk, sugar). SOURCE: Famous People Drinking Tea

I’m preaching to the choir, of course. All of my friends, bar one, drink tea in copious quantities. So why bring this up today?

Last weekend, after a day spent working on Foiled, Beth and I went dancing. On the way home, I can’t remember why, Beth was holding forth on the subject of morning tea.

She told me that, whenever she stays over at her parents’ place, her mum creeps up to her room in the morning with a fresh brew. She knocks softly on Beth’s door, lays the tea (milk, no sugar) down on her bedside table, and gently whispers: ‘There’s a tea there if you want it.’

Her mum does this all so lightly that there’s no chance of Beth waking from a deep sleep, but if she’s already drifting to the surface of consciousness, then – lo and behold – the greatest start to a morning imaginable.

How to prepare the perfect morning cuppa, according to the first page, no less, of The Inimitable Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse.

This vignette led to a discussion on the role of empathy in relationships.

The Golden Rule exhorts us to treat others as we would wish ourselves to be treated. It’s good enough so far as it goes, but in my opinion the Golden Rule does not go even nearly far enough.

Most of us, let’s be honest, treat ourselves like shit. We have such a low opinion of ourselves, that we would never in our wildest dreams imagine anyone else would ever make us a cup of tea in the morning.

If we were to follow the mere Golden Rule for our behaviour, we would likewise never think of making a morning tea for anyone else. And – lo and behold – this is how many relationships pan out.

Yesterday, the same topic came up with another friend – let’s call her Ariadne for no reason whatsoever – who lives with a couple. Ariadne told me how annoyed she was that the boyfriend would never make a morning cuppa for his girlfriend.

‘He’s up at the same time as me. I’m always in a rush; he never is. And yet he never makes her a cup of tea; I do.’

Sometimes Ariadne brings the girlfriend tea when the boyfriend is in bed kissing her goodbye. ‘You’re just shit-stirring now,’ he says.

And of course she is. But if he swallowed his pride for one second and saw how happy that morning tea made his girlfriend, then he’d see that the cognitive cost of doing something for someone else is, quelle horreur!, outweighed a hundred times over by the closer relationships we earn.

Science has shown this. Give someone a warm drink and they feel more warmly towards you – and not just metaphorically:

participants who briefly held a cup of hot (versus iced) coffee judged a target person as having a “warmer” personality (generous, caring)
Source // Guardian write-up

We need a new rule. Perhaps we can baptise it the Astatine Rule, after the rarest naturally-occurring element on earth.

The Astatine Rule says that we should treat others as we would ourselves wish to be treated in our wildest fantasies of existence (behave yourself!).

This second part is crucial: unless your life has been an endless waterfall of rainbows and unicorns then there is no point merely repeating the behaviour you’ve learnt thus far.

Imagining a peak existence (or anything) greater than you’ve ever experienced is really hard; that’s why relationships all too often settle down to baseline.

We need inspiration more extraordinarily creative to set our empathic imaginations free and kick start a virtuous cycle of kindness (and cups of tea). Stories help.

The morning after our dance, I woke up before Beth. I crept into the kitchen, past where she was sleeping in the living room, and put the kettle on the hob. I caught the boil just before it whistled, loaded up her mug with black tea and milk, and stirred until it was the colour of caramel chocolate.

Then I tiptoed into the living room and laid the mug down by her bedside. ‘There’s a tea there if you want it,’ I whispered.

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