A World Without Email? It took only a week to lose the potential productivity gains of email

I took far too many books away with me this week, including three about the people and places of Dartmoor—but I only read one: Cal Newport’s A World Without Email.

Newport’s provocation was supported, not only by numerous case studies of organisations that have eliminated email, but also by psychology research and, most interestingly for me, history.

I was startled, for example, by the discovery that email overwhelm and inbox bankruptcy wasn’t merely latent in the system, but already evident from the very beginning, as this anecdote from the book shows.

When Adrian Stone implemented the new email network at IBM in the 1980s, he carefully estimated the number of emails that the server would need to handle, based on the number of telephone and paper messages that were passed between IBM employees on a typical working day.

Email was seen as a significant leap in efficiency for the company, removing the logistical complications of both synchronous communication (pinning someone down for a phone call or meeting) and asynchronous communication (delivering a pen and paper message).

Unfortunately, as the cost of communication dropped to zero, the number of messages the employees exchanged shot up and, within a few days, they’d blown the email server with the superfluous cc’ing of colleagues into endless back-and-forth email threads. Sound familiar?

As Stone puts it:

Thus—in a mere week or so—was gained and blown the potential productivity gain of email.

When IBM discovered this fundamental flaw with email, of course, they abandoned the experiment and everyone went back to communicating face-to-face, person-to-person in the old, slow, productive fashion. Oh, no, wait…

Luckily, in the second half of A World Without Email, Newport suggests alternative workflows that don’t provoke the misery-inducing ‘hyperactive hive mind’ of email and instant messaging.

I’m conscious of the irony of recommending this book in an email newsletter, so—before you unsubscribe—it’s worth saying that the title of Newport’s book is, by his own admission, more marketing hype than practical proposal.

Email still has a (drastically limited) role to play as a versatile, snappy, cheap tool for asynchronous communication. Inspired by the Reach Out Party, if I could declare one inviolable rule for every email interaction, it would be this:

Make your recipient’s inbox a better place to hang out.

Broken in Finding suppleness of mind and body in post-lockdown Dartmoor

Here in the UK, this was the week that we unlocked a little more. As I write, a paraglider drifts past my eighth-floor window. On my run this morning, the promenade was spilling over onto the sand and the bucket and spade buccaneers were doing a fast trade.

I’m late coming to you this week because I spent the last five days getting sunburnt on Dartmoor. As some of you know, I’m slowly working my way towards my Hill and Moorland Leader Award, chipping away at the forty logged walks needed before my assessment.

But the weather was so good this week that I worried my four hikes weren’t particularly good practice for the ultimate examination that will doubtless be undertaken in the filthy conditions for which Dartmoor is famous. Nevertheless, I’ve got only sixteen more training walks to go!

All my Dartmoor hikes. Map created thanks to Jonathan O’Keefe’s amazing Strava integration. Incidentally, you can see the pros and cons of car ownership: helping me access more remote parts of the moor, but forcing circular routes.

What I really valued about this week, however, was the feeling of breaking myself in again after a winter of semi-enforced inactivity. The sun rising over the horizon every blue-sky morning took on metaphorical overtones as I stood out in the chill dawn with a mug of tea and the birdsong.

Day three was the one that really did it for me. On day one, a fifteen kilometre tramp to the rising of the Avon river, I was powered by first day enthusiasm. But my enthusiasm drained overnight and, on day two, my feet dragged. I only survived a tour of Bellever and Laughter thanks to the morning addition of a hearty walking companion.

Resting atop Bellever, we watch a young boy hopping around the enormous boulders of granite, chasing the family dog. Mother, leaning back after lunch and looking up to us for solidarity, says: ‘Be careful—remember he’s got four legs, not two.’ But boy scrambles after dog. ‘These are too easy,’ he complains. ‘Can we find harder ones?’

Out loud, I suggest Great Mis Tor and the Devil’s Frying Pan, but what I’m wondering inside is whether I’ll ever have that boy’s energy again.

I perked up later in the evening after lighting the wood burner, but I was concerned for day three: did I have the strength to hike alone for four or more hours? Especially as, for some unknown reason, I’d decided to hike up the steep face of the moor’s highest peak, Yes Tor. It was yes again to my friend’s sound advice: ‘Go slow and take plenty of breaks.’

Trundling up the slopes from Meldon Reservoir, I ran into packs of army recruits, themselves making the most of a lifting lockdown. But as I clumped down the other side of High Willhays, I had the moor to myself, with nary a sheep to be spotted.

Somewhere between the solitude and the sunshine, the air and the exercise, I noticed that I hadn’t felt better in months. The stiffness of my mind and body had given way to suppleness, broken in.

When I made it back to base, after five and a half hours, eighteen kilometres and over six hundred metres of climbing, I felt stronger than when I’d left that morning.

The next day, we stopped at Haytor Rocks and spent the heat haze of Friday afternoon clambering around a mini version of the Ten Tors. Five hours down the trail, number ten on the horizon: from my lookout post in the clear blue sky, I see myself leaping from granite to granite, forever young in springtime.

Thanks to G.C. and B.Q. for fine company and penguin packets.

The sun rising over Bellever, seen from Powdermills

Abnormalising, adulting and The Corollavirus Coming to terms with car ownership in an age of carbon crisis

The last three months have been.

And gone.

The last lockdown in England neatly followed the passing of the financial year, so I thought I would look back and share a little of what happened with Dave in the final quarter of 20/21.

WARNING: STATS AHEAD!

In the last three months, I spent about 50 hours less on my mobile phone than I did the preceding quarter. I also managed to read more, meditate more, do more yoga and a lot more press ups—3,049 more, to be precise.

I spoke to almost exactly the same number of friends at a rate of 2.7 per day. But I also visited 4,000 more unique web pages and spent 90 more hours staring at my computer screen: a whole hour per day more. Urgh.

Looking back over my diary, since the turn of the year, I have played (and lost) ten games of online poker and learned how to skateboard (badly). I also started a new job with Thighs of Steel and said goodbye to Foiled on BBC Radio Wales.

I made three new friends, one I met hula-hooping in the woods, another is the youngest woman to have cycled around the world. I have reached out to twenty-one people and have received some amazing responses.

I volunteered for half a dozen marshalling sessions at my local vaccination centre and am now waiting for my second jab. I learned how to drive a golf buggy.

I’ve been really tired. I got a load of blood tests. A lot of people I speak to have been really tired too. Something’s going around; something I hope will lift with the lifting of restrictions. I feel more alert when I can see over the horizon.

I put up some bunk beds and bought a secondhand car. It’s a Toyota Corolla: see if you can guess its name…

The Corollavirus

I feel bad about the car, actually.

(Side note: I’m not saying that you should feel bad about the car just because I do. We all make deals to get through life. Your deal is your business.)

Until this year, the balance for me was always against owning a car.

They are expensive to buy and expensive to maintain. They pollute the air we breathe and cause direct harm to landscapes around the world. They are bulky possessions and are an eyesore on the driveway. They can, and frequently do, kill and maim.

It’s ironic, then, that the balance was tipped this year in favour of car ownership by—of all things—my new job as an outdoor instructor.

This job involves getting around fairly remote places and depends on ninety percent of instructors having vehicles to shuttle between campsite and trailhead, or pursue errant schoolkids across the countryside.

(Side note: Even somewhere as suburban as Bracknell Forest counts as ‘fairly remote’—the quickest route by public transport from where I live takes 3 hours 47 minutes and involves two buses and three trains—plus an overnight stay if I want to get there for an 8am start. For comparison, from flat to forest, the drive takes less than 90 minutes by car.)

Depressingly, in this particular job, promoting the unpolluted wonders of nature is only possible with possession of a polluting car.

‘Possession’, really, Dave? Yeah. I borrowed my parents’ car for the expeditions I led last year—saving me from the burden of ownership, but fruitlessly adding a couple of train journeys to the carbon footprint of my work.

Abnormalisation

As a secondhand petrol car owner, I want to be the best secondhand petrol car owner imaginable.

I don’t want to normalise my car ownership. I don’t want to forget that every time I use a car I am striking a deal: my personal convenience (including valuable things like time, opportunity and money) on one side and the environment we share on the other.

(Side note: You might think I’m being unnecessarily severe on myself. As someone who doesn’t fly and who eats little to no dairy or meat, my carbon footprint is lower than the average EU citizen’s. But I can’t dodge the fact that my carbon footprint is rising at a time when everyone else’s is falling. Not a good look.)

To that end, I’m recording each of my car journeys, noting details like mileage and carbon emissions, and reviewing them every week, in the same way that I monitor my finances, my conversations with friends and the number of press ups I complete. These numbers tell me, unequivocally, whether I am the person I like to think I am.

So far, over the course of seven car journeys and 763 miles, I have racked up a 165kg carbon debt compared to taking the same journeys by public transport. (Yes, I exclude from the public transport carbon estimate those journeys I would never have made had I not owned a car.)

But what the heck is 165kg of carbon? Let’s make this real: it’s the average annual carbon sequestration of six or seven mature trees. Six or seven trees. I can picture them. In fact, I have pictured them:

Seven mature trees, West Cliff

(Side note: I’ve been surprised that public transport isn’t as expensive as I’d always assumed. The petrol cost of driving has so far hovered around 75-85 percent of the train fares I could have bought. Of course: that is still scandalous, but it’s not as extreme as I thought.)

Adulting

Perhaps one definition of adulthood is taking responsibility for tough decisions and living with the consequential reality.

As a lapsed historian, I’m well aware that, in my part of the world, my generation has had it easy with tough decisions up to now. Go back a generation or twelve and adults like us were expected to make properly tough decisions:

  • Hey honey, wanna try for another kiddo and risk killing you in childbirth?
  • I’m rather parched from a long day slopping out chamberpots for my lord and master, but I’m also not totally convinced that this Medieval water supply is safe.
  • In Napoleonic warfare, it’s very much blunderbuss or be blunderbussed and—I do declare!—this handsome young French soldier is raising his weapon…

(Side note: I feel like the pandemic has been an exercise in tough decisions: at what point is the risk of transmitting the disease to others outweighed by our personal desire for toilet roll? Many of us haven’t had much practice with such properly tough decisions and the heaviness of day-to-day life has taken its toll.)

But what excites me about adulthood is what comes immediately before we take our tough decision: our imagination. Every tough decision is an act of imagination. Right before we decide, we visualise based our past experience (and usually a huge dollop of misguided optimism). What might our future be like under Scenarios A, B and C?

Owning a car enables a future where I can work as an outdoor leader and help introduce others to the natural world I cherish. But it’s not the only future I can imagine. It’s just Scenario A. Imagining Scenarios B and C are the exciting part.

The onus is on me to imagine a carbon-free scenario for my outdoor work, to take responsibility for making that future a reality—and to acknowledge with grace the incongruous unease I feel during this intermediate transition.

This has been quite a serious article so I’d like to end with some optimistic news.

Between 2005 and 2019, the United Kingdom reduced its territorial emissions by 37 percent, while increasing its GDP by 21 percent.

From Absolute Decoupling of Economic Growth and Emissions in 32 Countries on Breakthrough.org.

You can argue about whether this counts as ‘decoupling’—where are China and India on that chart?—but you can’t argue that it looks optimistic.

p.s.: If you enjoyed seeing the UK performing well on a chart for once, then you’ll also enjoy the latest Greenness of Stimulus Index.

Reach Out Party! Adventures in networking

Yesterday, at exactly 14:27, I sent an email to Alee Denham at CyclingAbout to say thank you for his articles about bicycle aerodynamics and touring weight. The internet is ram-packed with incredible writing that helps me make thousands of daily decisions and occasionally changes the course of my life. It felt good to say thank you.

For the past three weeks, at exactly 14:27 every work day, I have been privileged to be a part of the Reach Out Party, a Zoom room of people encouraging each other to send little gifts to friends, colleagues and total strangers. Total strangers like Alee Denham.

It might not sound particularly exciting, but there is real magic in knowing that almost everyone on planet earth—from your auntie Jean to your head of state—is only an email away.

  • What one question would you ask your first primary school teacher?
  • What is the greatest piece of advice football megastar Megan Rapinoe ever heard?
  • What is the one book that David Attenborough would bury in a time capsule for future generations?

Thanks to email (and social media, the telephone, postal service, etc.), we can—we really can—ask burning questions of the people we most admire. They might not reply, but that’s why the Reach Out Party is based primarily around the idea of giving gifts.

Our email inboxes are frequently little more than ‘a to do list that anyone can add to’, so Molly Beck and Carly Valancy, founders of the Reach Out Party, suggest we premise our reach outs on the following question:

How can I make so-and-so’s inbox a better place?

We have the power to make each other’s inboxes healthier, happier places: let’s use that power.

Over the past three weeks, I’ve sent emails to all kinds of people. As well as thanking Alee Denham, George Monbiot, Lisa Feldman Barrett and Andy Zaltzman, I’ve also emailed and messaged friends, particularly friends I haven’t heard from in a while.

My favourite response so far was actually my first ever reach out. I emailed Florence Williams, author of The Nature Fix, thanking her for the influence her book had on my career swerve towards outdoor work.

A few hours after sending the email, Florence replied—she replied!—saying that my email had made her day—had made her day!

Although most of these ‘cool reach outs’ to strangers haven’t had a reply (yet!), the past few weeks have shown me that a day with a reach out is better than a day without a reach out. It’s as simple as that.

Rather than typing words with my fingers, I made this video about my reach out experiences during week one of the Party. Enjoy!

The Art of Skateboarding Mild cognitive impairment and the beginner’s mind

Last weekend, I did a marathon. Not all in one go—that would be such hard work—but I did cover 46 kilometers in the 48 hours I granted myself as time off. (Don’t ask me off what?)

There wasn’t any good reason for the Weekend Marathon, aside from a desperate need to spend some time outside the box, doing something active, something new that stands half a chance of standing out in the time swamp.

That’s the same reason why I’m going to cut my own hair later tonight: something needs to change around here and I’ve already reorganised my spice rack.

You see, yesterday marked a year since a remarkable night on Merseyside, when Liverpool were knocked out of the Champions League by Athletico Madrid.

It was remarkable not because of the astonishing number of shots missed by the Reds (32), but because of the 52,267 people crammed into Anfield, including thousands from Madrid only two days before the Spanish government declared a national State of Alarm over this thing we rather quaintly called Wuhan Novel Coronavirus.

The UK government would fatally wait ten days longer to annouce our own lockdown, but I’m not concerned here with their incompetence. I’m concerned with the state of your brain. In the UK, for most of us, it’s a year since our brains were challenged with the everyday normality of negotiating the world.

A year of ‘mild cognitive impairment’

It’s easy to forget how much our brains need normality. It’s easy to forget how much our brains get out of navigating street traffic on the walk to work. It’s easy to forget how much exercise our brains get in awkward social situations. Heck—it’s straight-up easy to forget.

A year on, don’t you feel like you’re ‘walking around with mild cognitive impairment’?

I know I do.

That’s why we’ve spent lockdown frantically picking up new hobbies and hurling ourselves into pointless challenges like my weekend marathon, right? As neuroscientist Mike Yassa says:

Based on everything we know about the brain, two of the things that are really good for it are physical activity and novelty.

Everyone’s a runner now and everyone’s got their lockdown thing: knitting, veganism, family history, ukelele, cryptocurrency, kimchi, drawing, baby-making, gardening, podcasting, online poker, online yoga, online dating, online anything, please god, no more online anything.

Whatever you’ve got into over the past year, it’s given you a chance to tap into the beginner’s mind: that healthy headspace where you give yourself permission to fail hard and learn hasty.

And there is no hastier fail curve than slamming your body onto concrete and taking pratfalls in public. I’m talking, of course, about the art of skateboarding.

Skate at 38

You may say that 38 is too old to learn how to skateboard. You may say that my sense of equilibrium is shot, that my bones are too fragile and my courage too frail. And you would be right. But no one forgets a bruise: they are an excellent way of marking the time to unlockdown.

My skateboard came from the back of a cupboard in Dulwich, a relic of flatmates long-gone. When I took it to a skateshop in Boscombe last weekend, the shopkeeper nodded: whoever had owned the board knew how to skate. The nose, the tail beat up in memory of far-off skateparks, the trucks scarred from years of railing.

Time hadn’t been good to the bearings: the wheels barely turned. That wasn’t a bad thing for a beginner, who could never build up enough speed to fall too hard. But I got them replaced anyway, and bought some fatter wheels to give much-needed stability.

Since then, I’ve been skating most days, including a fair few kilometers of that weekend marathon. The slips and falls have become notably less frequent and I’ve started learning to ollie in my kitchen, as I wait for the kettle to boil. (Progress so far: I can almost balance with both feet and all four wheels on the floor.)

Learning in public

Skating is perhaps unique in its possibilities for public embarrassment. Thanks to its well-known California-inspired subculture, people expect skaters to look cool. The British, however, have a highly developed sense of hubris and I suspect most people secretly hope to see something spectacular and exceedingly uncool.

I am usually happy to oblige. It’s okay, I tell myself as I admire once again the sheer speed at which my board can disappear from beneath me, I am Learning In Public.

As well as publicly learning how to fall spectacularly (tip: buy wrist guards), I have also learned how to get the board moving, how to ‘carve’ around gentle corners and obvious obstacles, how to stop without always throwing myself into the undergrowth and how to annoy dogs (that one’s easy: skate). I am yet to learn how to stop crapping myself on even the gentlest of downhills.

Why am I telling you all this? Simply in the hope that it encourages you with the small idea that, even in these slumbrous hours of late-stage pandemic survival, the beginner’s mind can lift our spirits, make our days stand out on stalks, and help lockdown leave its mark in a good way. And also in a bruises way. Rad!

What me and my body learned from 324 days of isolation veganism—including blood tests

Does veganism make you anaemic? Boost your testosterone? Make you B12 deficient? Lower your cholesterol?

It’s been almost a year since I decided to give veganism a try, so last week I bought myself a late Christmas present: a battery of blood tests covering 58 different biomarkers. Not everyone’s idea of fun, but, as a self-confessed data freak, definitely one of mine.

If you’ve ever been curious about what veganism does to an otherwise healthy 38 year old male with Hashimoto’s hypothyroidism, then, boy, are you in for a treat!

Step One: Finding dietary deficiencies

For the two weeks leading up to my blood tests, I also tracked my diet using a web app called Cronometer. It’s got a huge database of different foodstuffs—yes, including maca powder and pea protein—and you can create your own recipes. As easy as it is to use, however, I really can’t be bothered to do it for more than two weeks.

This is what I learned about my current vegan diet.

Don’t be shy to add protein

Without the meat-eaters carnal reflex, vegans can get distracted by the delicious rainbow of vegetables and end up eating less protein than they need. This was something a perspicacious friend noticed after my diet swerved to consist of nothing but incredible curries from Meera Sodha’s Fresh India.

In response to the data, I’m now drinking the odd protein smoothie for breakfast, particularly on days when I do press ups and kettlebell swings. Depending on the exact recipe, that gives me at least 45g of protein before I’ve even started the day.

Tofu and tempeh, beans and lentils are other popular vegan sources of protein and easily added to any recipe that’s otherwise missing that particular macronutrient. Other easy tweaks include exchanging white rice for British quinoa and preparing a 100g bowl of nuts and seeds to graze on through the day.

It’s worth noting that these vegan sources of protein cost 2-5p per gram of protein, a similar range as meat proteins (beef mince costs 2p/g; chicken breast 3p/g; beef steak 5p/g). Tempeh can cost a little more—my source is 7p per gram—but it’s delicious so I’m happy with that.

I have also dabbled with textured vegetable protein (TVP) and even defatted peanut flour—both much tastier than they sound and both excellent value for money at only 1p per gram of protein.

Eat these superfoods every day

One very cool thing about Cronometer is that it gives you a breakdown of where you’re getting your various nutrients from. That means you can easily discover your own personal superfoods: those foods that you should eat every day to make sure you’re getting the full spectrum of vitamins and minerals without having to resort to supplements.

For me, tahina is a superfood. It’s high in Omega-6, iron, saturated fats, vitamin B1, calcium, selenium, manganese and zinc, as well as protein. Plus it’s easy to hide in a meal or spread on toast or tortillas.

Flax, chia and hemp seeds are also superfoods for me. They’re high in Omega-3, vitamin K, manganese, zinc, selenium, magnesium, iron, vitamin B1, as well as protein. I can mix 15-20g of each into my morning oats or into a protein smoothie. Seeds are also a big part of my Bread of Life recipe.

A colourful daily salad is also a superfood, made up of vitamin-rich yellow, red and green leafy vegetables (kale, spinach, okra). However: a daily salad is also a bit of a faff. If it’s too much of a faff (and recently I confess it has been) then I can downgrade this to an emergency carrot, which makes sure I get enough vitamin A so that I can see in the dark.

Another red flag in my Cronometer data is calcium. On only one day in the past fortnight have I managed to hit 100 percent of my recommended daily allowance. That was Pancake Day because I used a fortified oat milk to fuel my flipping overdose. I really should be eating green leafy vegetables like kale, spinach and okra every day. Or, when I’m thrill-seeking, dried figs.

Dr Greger’s savoury blend of ten different spices is also worth a mention in the superfoods column. One teaspoon offers a neat little dose of B vitamins, vitamin K and zinc—and will bring the zing to any lifeless snack.

Finally: nuts. A wee bowl of mixed nuts is fabulous for B vitamins, vitamin E, iron, magnesium, manganese, zinc and the full spread of amino acids. Brazil nuts deserve a special shout out for giving me all the selenium I could ever dream of, as well as a dose of that easily-overlooked calcium.

Vitamin supplements

As a vegan, the Cronometer data confirmed that I must supplement with Vitamin B12 and Vitamin D. Simple as that. I also take a daily multivitamin, which covers all bases, just in case.

More interestingly, I have also been taking a creatine supplement of about 3-5g per day. Creatine is an amino acid found only in meat muscle and is great for intense exercise and building testosterone.

Step Two: What does the blood say?

Now comes the part you’ve all been waiting for: the results of those 58 blood tests.

Drum roll, please… Ta-dah!

No diabetes, no gout!

I don’t want to blind you with data, so here’s a very brief summary of what the blood told me:

  1. I’ve been ill recently: my immune system was stressed.
  2. I have a thyroid autoimmune disease. Nice to know that the NHS hasn’t been gaslighting me all these years.
  3. Otherwise: all good! That is to say: the remaining 56 biomarkers were all within the normal range.

It turns out that, after almost a year of veganism, I have a healthy liver and kidneys, healthy levels of inflammation, protein and vitamin D. My cholesterol profile is ‘excellent’ and I don’t have diabetes or gout. My homones, including testosterone, are also completely fine.

Side story: Normal testosterone reference levels are different between the UK and the US. Apparently, testosterone has been falling in men for decades and, rather than untangle the environmental factors that may be behind this—stress, noise, pollution, antibiotics—medical scientists have instead been revising down their definition of ‘normal’. This is called shifting baseline syndrome and is also the reason why, as generation cedes to generation, we have been gradually downgrading our expectation of the number of songbirds in our garden. For example.

However: the doctor who interpreted the tests for me did mention that my B12 levels were on the low side. He recommended that I take a further test to check for any underlying problems, such as pernicious anaemia, which is fairly common in patients with Hashimoto’s hypothyroidism.

Then, when I shared my results on a semi-reputable Hashimoto’s internet forum, someone stepped in to tell me that my iron levels were also pretty low for a man. Apparently, people with autoimmune conditions like Hashimoto’s can have trouble absorbing nutrients like B12 and iron. All the more reason to stuff down that kale.

Step Three: What about my day-to-day feels?

It’s all very well analysing dietary and blood data, but what about my day-to-day feels?

Obviously, the past year has been WEIRD. Pandemic isolation was one of the main logistical reasons why I was able to make the leap to veganism in the first place, but the accompanying onslaught of weirdness is also a confounding factor when trying to decide whether I’ve felt stronger in mind and body since changing my diet.

Bearing that in mind, in short, I don’t think I feel any different. I don’t feel awful, but nor do I feel superhuman. And I think I’m still just as much of a hypochondriac as I was before—you can imagine my delight when I saw that the blood tests supported my assertion that I’ve been feeling run down over the past few months.

One thing that has definitely been a huge improvement since going vegan is how much more fun I’m having in the kitchen. As I mentioned earlier, the gift of recipe book Fresh India pretty much changed my eating life. I’ve also really got into baking bread, including tortillas and naans. Veganism has helped me enjoy making an effort—even when that effort is waiting three weeks for kimchi that would last only a weekend.

However, I’m not the only person in the world who has, over the past year, been forced to familiarise themselves with the interior life of hearth and home. If it wasn’t for my whimsical experiment with isolation veganism, would I perhaps be writing to you today about the wonders of knitting? We will never know. But it’s lunchtime now and I’ve got a loaf in the oven—bon appétit!

BREAKING NEWS

I have decided to experiment with a dietary change even more radical than eating more kale. Yesterday, I bought and ate 90g of Dorset lamb liver. Yes, I know what you’re thinking: yuck. Also: that’s not vegan. Both excellent observations.

The problem is that there are no wholefood vegan sources of B12. All vegans can do is eat supplements, either in pill-form or in fortified processed food. Even then, I’d need to eat 31 teaspoons of B12-enriched yeast flakes or an entire jar of Marmite to match what I’d get from one serving of liver.

Lamb liver is extraordinarily high in B12 and iron. According to Cronometer, that one portion of lamb liver gave me 2,868 percent of my daily allowance of B12, as well as 93 percent of my iron. Take that, poor absorption!

B12 with a side of iron: lamb liver, kale and spinach with a lemon dressing—the vitamin C helps with iron absorption, apparently

After reading Spoon-Fed, epidemiologist Tim Spector’s most recent book, I am prepared to at least entertain the idea that eating meat might be better for my body than eating pills.

Side note: I’m pretty sure that eating meat will be worse for the environment, but I am slightly comforted by the thought that the lambs lived very locally and that no one else will eat the liver anyway. Maybe?

B12 is water-soluble and the body doesn’t store much in reserve, which means that I need to get enough B12 in my diet every single day. My liver-vegan experiment will run for the next two months and I intend to eat one portion of lamb liver every week, split over three meals, take high strength B vitamin supplements every day, and continue to add a teaspoon of B12-enriched yeast flakes to my food.

At the beginning of May, I’ll test my levels of B12 and iron again and see what, if anything, has changed.

Rumours circulating on the Hashimoto’s forums indicate that this all-guns-blazing intervention might raise my B12 and iron to the point where I can drop the liver and return to a normal vegan diet. We shall see.

~

If you’re curious, I got the Ultimate Performance blood test from Medichecks. It’s usually £200, but often discounted. I got mine for £180, including an appointment with a nurse to take the blood.

Word of the day: Waldumrauscht

The word of the day is Waldumrauscht, a rare German word found in the 1854 dictionary of the Brothers Grimm. Appropriately enough for lexicologists famous for their collection of fairy tales, Waldumrauscht means to be surrounded by a rustling forest.

I learned this word from Heimat by Nora Krug, a graphic memoir about a German family coming to terms with the shame of World War Two. I was surprised to read that the author, now living in New York, still encounters mistrust and prejudice and still feels a strong sense of personal shame.

Whenever I travelled abroad as a teenager, my guilt travelled with me. ‘Just say you’re from the Netherlands,’ my aunt Karin told me before each trip. I should have taken her advice. […] It doesn’t help that […] I am spat at while speaking German with a friend in a Russian neighbourhood in Brooklyn, or that an American fellow student at the school where I study refers to another as a ‘Jewish pig’ behind her back, hoping for my German sympathy.

I was surprised because, when I searched my soul, whatever vestiges of blood guilt that run through the decades have been washed away by more recent history: the compassion shown by German politicians towards refugees since 2015, the drive towards decarbonisation of the world’s fourth largest economy, and of course the overwhelming kindness that I have always received while travelling through the forests of Germany.

Recounting the history of the tragic past is important because it gives us the determination to write happier histories for now, for the future.

BBC Radio Foiled: 2017-2021

In a year of tumult, it’s been a tumultuous week, all commotion and confusion. Everyone is dealing with their own personal bucket of uncertainty at the moment: for me, that bucket was dumped pretty much all on one day. A fingers-crossed job interview, a month in Bristol cancelled, an injection flooding my bloodstream.

But, like the little story I’m about to tell you, I’m hopeful that this week of tumult will end on optimism and action.

Foiled is over! No, like, over over

Last Monday, the final episode of this series of Foiled was aired. It was a nerve-wracking moment. We had a lot of problems with the sound while we were recording back in December and I was worried that the episode wouldn’t do itself justice. But the producers pulled a rabbit out of the hutch and one listener even said that it ran episode two a close second for her favourite show this series (thanks, mum).

Phew.

Then, on Friday afternoon, I got a phone call from co-writer Beth Granville. In the afterglow of another successful series, the news came that, after eight hours of comedy content, Foiled would not be recommissioned by BBC Radio Wales.

Every year we gird our loins for this kind of news. The reality is that radio sitcoms rarely get commissioned for two series, let alone four. As the commissioners explained in their Dear John letter, as fantastic as Foiled has been, they have to make space for new writers.

Nevertheless, despite our tightly girdled loins, the news came as a shock to me. Why? Maybe because, after four years, I had been lulled into a sense of false confidence. Maybe because this past year has been so filled to the brim with shock that, our brims overflowing, every bump in the road hits us hard in the feelies.

But maybe it’s also because of the way we’ve had to write and record Foiled this year: in a remote state of dreamlike disconnection.

From room to remote

Beth and I write Foiled as a team and, although we no longer live in the same city, we have always made time to write together in the same room. Sometimes, we’re lucky enough to run away to a deserted beach house where no one can distract us from the important work of long walks, cooking and sandart.

But, of course, in 2020, we could snatch only moments together, in between lockdowns. And that shift from room to remote had a deleterious effect on both our writing process and—speaking for myself at least—my mental health.

Side note: I spent some of this week writing a commissioned article about how many hours it takes to write a sitcom. So I know exactly what the data says about working remotely during a pandemic: it won’t take you longer to do your job, but it will feel more like hard work.

There is something ineffable about creative writing. The hours Beth and I spend together on long walks, cooking and sandart is unstructured playtime, and often the source of our best ideas—not because we are thinking or talking about Foiled, but precisely because we’re not.

Mourning the ghosts of ideas we never had

I’m sure you’ve all had brainwaves while you’re in the shower or doing the washing up: unplanned, often inconvenient, bubbles of creativity that quickly pop unless you jot them down. These are the moments that are critical to the writing process. They are what transform the march of letters and punctuation into a cavalcade of light entertainment.

Although this kind of inspiration does still happen when we’re working alone, the company of another writer amplifies the effect. Rarely does a sandart idea arrive fully formed: it comes rather as an ephemeral ghost. If you’re with another writer, holding a shell or some other beach flotsam, you can tentatively voice the ghost.

Your co-writer will jump on the idea (probably grateful that somebody’s finally said something useful) and together you’ll spin the ghost into something real and manifest. Often, these fleshed-out ghosts make it directly onto the page, even if the sandart scaffolding is eventually cut down.

In 2020, because of the way we had to work, we manifested few of those spirits. Unstructured playtime simply doesn’t happen on video calls. After we finished recording, Beth told me that she ‘mourned’ for all the ideas that we never had this series. It was a poetic way of saying that, although this was probably our best series, who knows what it could have been if we’d written together in the same room.

Next time will be different

Many of you know that we usually record Foiled in front of a live audience. The two days of recording are always the two best days of my year. Naturally, this series we couldn’t do that. We couldn’t even be with the other actors this year.

I’d like to make it very clear that I’m not complaining. At a time when many people lost their jobs, I was incredibly lucky to have any work at all last year.

I was grateful that the producers found a role for me so that I could at least listen into the recording and help Beth set up her home studio (think wardrobe, think duvets, think lamps dangerously close to duvets). But helping to produce the show in a borrowed house was also pretty stressful: Would the microphone arrive in time? Would the recording save properly? Would the duvets catch fire?

And there was none of the usual sense of celebration when we finished. No after party dinner and drinks. None of the release of tension that everybody needs after the completion of a stressful, year-long project. Just the remains of a falafel and a sprint for the train.

The pandemic has reminded us all that we must never again take anything for granted. The day the pubs closed, we all started dreaming of how next time would be different, how we would embrace our friends harder, laugh louder and drink it all in (literally and figuratively).

It was the same throughout the Foiled writing process in 2020. Every time we found ourselves struggling, Beth and I would comfort each other by saying that next time would be different. Next time we’d write together, next time we’d record together, next time we’d celebrate together.

And this is the real reason why I think the news that Foiled wouldn’t be returning for a fifth series came as a shock.

We will never have a next time.

Or will we?

No.

I said (through gritted teeth): ‘Or will we?’

Actually, do you know what? There was a Foiled before the BBC. Why can’t there be a Foiled after the BBC?

At the very least, we should celebrate the remarkable ride we’ve had on the good ship Foiled over the past five years. At the very least, we should scoop up all the friends and fans of the show, everyone who has supported us and laughed and cheered, and say a huge thank you.

Oddly enough, the Prime Minister’s psychotic roadmap might offer us a donkey on which to pin a tail. Whisper it quietly, but, this summer, couldn’t we get hold of a hair salon for an evening? Couldn’t we fill it with friends and Welsh cakes and invite the actors we’ve worked alongside to come and perform a staged reading of Foiled?

Just one last time.

And, if that’s a success, well then…

~

You can catch up on the last EVER BBC Radio series of Foiled on BBC Sounds.

The thing is dead, long live the thing!

ps: Tom O’Brien, director of the 2016 Edinburgh Fringe edition of Foiled, recently launched himself into the world of online acting and performance coaching. As a ridiculously talented director and dramaturge, Tom’s work remains a huge part of the characters and world of Foiled. If you know anyone looking to massively upgrade their creative work, I recommend Tom in the strongest possible terms.

Drawing on the power of nature How art outdoors can help enhance gains in positive wellbeing

Last week I mentioned the research of Miles Richardson and the Nature Connectedness Research Group at the University of Derby. Specifically, I was intrigued by their recent study, which suggests that it’s ‘moments, not minutes’ that influence how we feel after our encounters with nature. It’s quality, not quantity.

Richardson et al. suggest that ‘simple everyday activities’ that help us notice nature, like birdwatching or smelling flowers, are what drive down our scores of stress, anxiety and depression. So, this week, I decided to take them seriously.

On Tuesday afternoon, I dug out a blank notebook, grabbed an HB pencil and stomped up to Branksome Gardens (one of my recent nearby nature discoveries). I wandered around a bit, scoping out a quiet place where I could do my dirty work in peace.

I sat down on a bench. But it only offered an open vista: churned mud, a chain link fence, a stand of denuded birch around a foetid pond. I needed something I could get lost in. So I stood up again, stomped over the mud and squelched down to the pond.

I rested my notebook on the rotting timber of the fence and scrutinised the bark of a silver birch. After a few seconds, my eyes adjusted around the curves of ivy against the peeling ash of the shadowy scrolls of bark. And I began to draw. Badly.

Left: Ivy on birch, Branksome Gardens. Right: Two angles on a holly leaf.

It’s worth confessing right away: yes, I can see that these are pretty crap. But that’s not the point. For the thirty minutes they each took to draw, I could forget everything that’s happened in the past year and suspend judgement over everything that is yet to come.

Art has been shown, independently of nature, to be strongly associated with, not only positive mental wellbeing, but healthy eating and physical activity. Drawing has also been used to stave off burnout in medical students. So, even if my crap drawing doesn’t enhance my experience of the natural world, hopefully the creativity has its own rewards.

But how did I feel as I tramped back down along the prom, wind in my hair, notebook in my pocket? I’m not sure. It’s hard to separate out the effects of nature, the effects of a half hour break and the effects of the so-called artwork. But I definitely felt lighter—elevated, somehow.

I’ve been out drawing every day this week and I already look forward to the creative hiatus in the merciless pings of the workday. Drawing is a convenient excuse for a freelancer always looking for productive value. I’m not aimlessly gawping up into a tree (although that is always worthwhile), I’m creating something real and I’m learning something new.

And, boy, have I got a lot to learn. I have deliberately started with nothing more complicated than a very small notebook and an HB pencil. With these two tools, I hope to grasp the fundamental skills of drawing before I ever contemplate anything more ambitious.

Inspired by Bob Ross, a friend of mine has really got into painting over lockdown. For him, it’s a relaxing way to spend an hour or two away from laptops and smartphones. I got excited about the idea, watched a couple of wonderful little episodes, but was ultimately put off by all the kit I’d have to buy—easels, acrylics, brushes, canvasses, oils. I wanted art supplies that I could pick up, put in my pocket and take out into the wild.

(Side note: Bob Ross seems to exclusively paint bucolic landscapes of rivers, forests and mountains. Art and nature make a hell of a pair.)

Oil painting might be a step too far, but the crap landscape I drew on Wednesday, looking between a mess of pines out to the wave-washed sea, might have benefitted from a few coloured crayons. Once I’ve graduated through the shades of pencil, I might look into what I can learn about colour. And I’m lucky that I won’t have to search far for inspiration.

Earlier this week, a talented friend of mine kindly shared her ‘study of tree mentors’. Here is Naomi Pratt’s drawing of a pair of copper beeches that stand in the cemetery at the end of her garden:

A pair of copper beeches by Naomi Pratt

Now there’s something to aspire to! I feel like I could stare at this drawing all day—it’s almost as good as resting there among the quiet gravestones. Here’s what Naomi says about her friendly neighbourhood copper beeches:

Their height makes you feel very small in a comforting way and they have a tremendous foliage. I tried to capture this in a drawing last summer, but it is a challenge to draw a tree—there is so much going on!

You can admire more of Naomi’s wonderful drawings of the natural world on her website.

Perhaps one day I’ll be able to create drawings half as beautiful as hers. And, even if I can’t, I mean to persist with my scrawlings because, as Naomi wrote in the email that accompanied these images, drawing ‘is an activity which allows me to look more deeply at the world’.

And that’s exactly what Miles Richardson et al. were hoping for.

~

The Nature Connectedness Research Group at the University of Derby have created a pile of Covid-19 nature resources to help us ‘find a friend in nature’. Still want more? Join me on their free online course. (Thanks to G.C. for those links.)

How connection with nature beats time in nature for your happiness and wellbeing Unexpected adventures in the millionaire's jungle ravine

You’d have thought that, living alone for a year in a medium-sized town without access to powered transport, I would have explored every corner of greenspace within a five kilometre radius of where I live.

Not even close. This week, by opening my eyes and following my nose, I discovered pockets of unexplored nearby nature less than 1,500 metres from home.

My range of easy exploration: a 2km circle around home (via Map Developers)

It’s so easy to slip into patterns of movement, always taking exercise along the same well trodden paths. I don’t think this problem is exclusive to beachside locations, where it’s easy to feel penned in by the town and the ocean. This is going to sound ridiculous, but it took me three years living in New Cross, London before I discovered this river called the Thames—and that was only 1,100 metres from home.

Earlier this week, a friend took me on a nighttime ramble over the clifftops, ending up on a promontory overlooking the white noise breakers and distant cruise ships of Poole Bay. It was a contemplative spot for a new moon, the stars of Orion the rapist high above and the twinkling of brake lights in the car park far below.

There’s no reason for anyone to climb up to this lookout: the road has a gentler gradient to the town and the ocean acts as a magnet, drawing people down on the shortest electrical pathway. I have walked along the promenade here uncountable times in the past year. If you must have statistics, then, according to Strava, I have run past this spot on no fewer than 184 occasions, without once looking up and noticing.

There are two memorial benches here, dug into the sandy, salty soil among the steadfast pine trees. Better yet: someone has thrown a wooden rope swing over the lowest branches, still four metres overhead. We swing in the silence and I know that this discovery will become a part of my day-to-day.

Finding unexpected adventure in the millionaire’s jungle ravine

Yesterday I took a wrong turn, taking a right when all historical data indicates I should have carried straight on along the sea front. But the arctic wind was blowing at my back and I didn’t want to become one of those I saw on the return journey, walking into the gale with face masks pulled down to protect themselves from the spitting sand.

So I took a right turn, into what felt like a ravine, with sheer loamy walls underpinned by pines. The concrete path flowed gently upstream with Victorian ironwork overhead and rough cut steps laddering up to the hidden turrets of expensive villas.

The footpath coasted left and I could see two young mothers pushing prams down towards me—towards the wind-backed ocean. But I didn’t want to leave the pines yet and the canyon continued invitingly ahead, a quiet, ancient, grass-dried river, promising overgrown adventure and restoration.

As I walked on, the ravine closed in, the pedestrian pathways disappeared up beyond the canopy, the grassy floor gave way to thistle and thorn. Rhododendrons greedily clutched at scraps of sunlight. Black bin bags had been thrown down from on high and stood at the side of the path, waiting for collection. A supermarket shopping trolley sank into a thin layer of mud, a long way from home. The path—I think it was still a path—twisted over and around roots and stumps, leading me on into the darkening underworld.

Somehow, against all odds, I had found something that made me feel something. Senses on stalks. In the silence, I could hear my heart in my chest and my blood in my ears. The secret ravine had me gripped by the seat of my being.

I didn’t bring a phone on this walk so I can’t show you any photographs. And I’m glad. Not only because my smartphone can get in the way of my connection with nature, but also because, ducking under the out-thrust bough of a denuded beech, I realised that photography would be an invasion of privacy.

I was not alone. For here, at the butt-end of the ravine, overlooked by the views from million pound properties, was a clutch of six forgotten tents. I stood still, breath short, straining my senses for signs of strangers. Who lives in a place like this? But the camp was silent. Its occupants, presumably, out on business.

As I moved through the camp, the tents became more ambitious until I reached the premium pitches at the back of the canyon, where the goat track was finally choked out by thorny scrub.

Here, two large tents faced each other, guy ropes pulling the canvas taut against the branches of overgrown rhododendron. A table was folded out between them and two tarpaulins stretched over as a canopy to protect the patio space from rain. A bicycle was locked up against a pole of a tree. I could smell the tang of human sweat and the faintest memory of a campfire.

I thought about leaving my card, but had none to leave. Perhaps they’ll see my bootprints and wonder who dropped by. Perhaps they had been watching me all along, assessing friend or foe.

I tried to bushwhack my way past the tents, through to the ruins of Skerryvore, where Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Kidnapped, longing for escape from the ‘slow dissolution’ of England, ‘Land of Counterpane’. But, scrambling up the mud side walls, I was stopped short by a chain link fence and a line of garden sheds.

I slipped back down into the shelter of the ravine and retraced my steps, back through the undergrowth, past the shopping trolleys and the tents. The path widened and opened. I could hear the burbling of a water main, squirrels leapt from under my feet. A mother and her daughter pushed their bikes over the iron wrought bridge as I passed beneath.

How connection with nature beats time in nature for happiness and wellbeing

Earlier this year, Miles Richardson and a team from the University of Derby published a paper suggesting that the restorative benefits of nature come from ‘moments, not minutes’.

The study found that how long we spend in nature wasn’t sufficient to explain significant increases in our happiness and sense of living a worthwhile life or reductions in our feelings of ‘illbeing’—depression and anxiety.

According to Richardson, what really counts is how connected we feel to nature and whether or not we actually notice the natural environment around us. This noticing happens through ‘simple actions’: relaxing in a garden, watching bees and butterflies, smelling flowers, listening to birdsong, collecting shells or pebbles, drawing, painting or photographing a beautiful plant—or perhaps celebrating a new moon by climbing the clifftops.

I have been very lucky this week to enjoy a few of these moments, from swinging among the pines to beating through the ravine undergrowth. I find it immensely encouraging that we don’t all have to be like Henry David Thoreau, who couldn’t be content without at least ‘four hours a day … sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements’.

So when we’re out in nature this weekend, let’s all—pause—sit—notice—the green life growing around us.

How to notice nature: use this calming sensory meditation

A great way of noticing nature that I use is the classic 5-4-3-2-1 sensory meditation. Find a comfortable spot, ideally surrounded by nature, but allow whatever your environment allows.

  • Notice 5 things you can see.
  • Notice 4 things you can feel.
  • Notice 3 things you can hear.
  • Notice 2 things you can smell.
  • Notice 1 thing you can taste.

This meditation can take five minutes; it can take five hours. Completely up to you. Let me know how you get on!

~

Thanks to L.H. for the starry nighttime ramble along the clifftops.

Win Google PageSpeed: Score 99% with your WordPress blog in under 15 minutes

On Tuesday, I took the mobile version of my WordPress blog from a Google PageSpeed score of 65% (super slow) to an almost perfect 99% (super fast).

My 99% Google PageSpeed score after converting my WordPress blog to AMP and removing Google Fonts

The only thing that Google has left to suggest is that I upgrade my server. Awesome. What’s even more awesome, is that this leap in speed took me barely fifteen minutes and, by following this short guide, you can do it even faster.

    1. Why go faster?
    2. How to convert your slow WordPress site to superfast AMP
    3. How to remove pointless Google Fonts
    4. How to find unexpected speed gains within WordPress
    5. Finally: choose luxuries to treat your readers!

Before I dive in to show you exactly what I did to improve my blog speed, I want to quickly explain why I wanted to up my PageSpeed score.

Why go faster?

Quite simply: Google uses PageSpeed to decide where to rank your site on its search pages. Annoying, but totally fair enough: their business depends on giving users the best possible search results.

Most of that comes down to the quality of your content, but the user experience on your page is also important. How many times do you click away from a site because it takes forever to load? If your site is one of those, you will slink, slip and slump down the rankings.

I’ll keep an eye on my stats to see if I start to creep up Google’s search rankings now I’ve got world-beating site speed. But even if I don’t, all my readers (and me) benefit from a much, much improved experience.

Okay, so now on with the how-to.

How to convert your slow WordPress site to superfast AMP

  • Time: 5 minutes
  • Difficulty: (Ridiculously easy)
  • Potential PageSpeed Boost: +15

AMP is an open-source HTML framework that makes webpages load faster. Much faster. Especially on mobile devices.

If you want to understand more about AMP, then I can recommend this very readable paper by Jun et al. (2019). But the tl;dr is that AMP should reduce the time it takes to display one of your pages by at least 60 percent.

Converting my site to AMP resulted in a huge boost (+15) to my Google PageSpeed mobile score. It made no difference to how my site looked to readers, only that the pages were loading almost instantly. Best of all, the conversion to AMP was incredibly simple.

  1. Download, install and activate the official AMP WordPress plugin.
  2. Run the plugin’s AMP Settings Wizard.
  3. Check your site looks great.
  4. Test your site’s Google PageSpeed again.
  5. Cry tears of joy.

NOTE: I initially went for the ‘Reader’ template mode, which generates both AMP and non-AMP pages for your site. This was because the AMP Settings Wizard told me that my theme (TwentyFifteen) was incompatible with AMP. This turned out to be untrue, so I switched the template mode to Standard. My site is now 100% AMP.

How to remove pointless Google Fonts

  • Time: 5 minutes
  • Difficulty: (Ridiculously easy)
  • Potential PageSpeed Boost: +10

Most WordPress themes include a few Google Fonts by default. In theory, all this does is make your site look 0.5% prettier. In practice, because these fonts need to load before your site displays properly, your readers have to wait around for an extra second or so.

Annoyingly, there is no way to remove Google Fonts without getting very technical (trust me, I learned this the hard way). Luckily, clever people on the internet have created plugins to do the work for you. I used one called OMGF.

  1. Download, install and activate the OMGF plugin.
  2. Open the OMGF plugin settings.
  3. Click on the Detection Settings tab.
  4. Switch Google Fonts Processing to Remove Only.
  5. At the bottom of the page, click Save Changes.
  6. Check your site looks great.
  7. Test your site’s Google PageSpeed again.
  8. Cry tears of joy.

How to find unexpected speed gains within WordPress

  • Time: 5 minutes
  • Difficulty: (A tiny bit harder)
  • Potential PageSpeed Boost: +5

Hopefully by now your WordPress site is enjoying some pretty sensational speeds. I found another few Google PageSpeed points by sniffing around the ‘Opportunities’ section of my PageSpeed results.

Depending on your site, this might require a little ingenuity and detective work on your part. But here are two very easy things that anyone can do to speed up their site:

  1. Turn off Gravatars in your comments section by going to your WordPress Discussion Settings. Scroll down to the bottom and untick the box that says Show Avatars.
  2. Deactivate any plugins that you don’t use or could do without. I deactivated Easy Custom Auto Excerpt (no idea what I was using that for), Print My Blog (excellent, but not currently required), Simple Yearly Archive (cool, but unnecessary) and Worth The Read (very cool, but also unnecessary).

Whenever you make changes to your site, check back with Google PageSpeed to make sure things are going in the right direction. It’s worth saying, however, that your ‘initial server response time’ can vary so take that into account when tracking changes to your PageSpeed score.

Finally: choose luxuries to treat your readers

Once your site scores over 90% on Google PageSpeed, you can shift your focus away from speed to other features that might improve the reader experience.

For example, re-activating the Worth The Read plugin, which gives readers a useful heads up on how long an article takes to read, knocks my PageSpeed score down from 97% to 95%.

I’m not great at maths and I know that 95% isn’t quite as much as 97%, but it’s still pretty darned high. Hopefully by now you too have got the wiggle room to include a few luxuries for your readers.

You’ll find one of my luxuries right below this sentence – a signup form for my awesome weekly newsletter!

Meet your tree mentor

I think everyone can use a mentor. Someone to listen, support and guide you when times get rough or the way ahead is shrouded in confusion.

Mentors are usually human beings, older and wiser than you. But what being could be older or wiser than a tree that has stood firm through wind and rain, fortune and misfortune, for perhaps many decades in your local neighbourhood?

So here’s something a bit different: a practical exercise to meet your local tree mentor and start getting the nature feels that I wrote about last week.

Spoiler: this exercise is part of my free Rewild Your Job workshop later today (16h00 GMT, Friday 5 February 2021).

Prepare to meet your mentor

1. Identify a tree mentor (or likely candidate) in your nearby nature

Google Maps does an excellent job at showing you nearby nature, but switch to satellite view and turn off those ugly labels. Click the menu button (three ‘hamburger’ bars in the top left), select ‘Satellite’ and deselect ‘Labels on’.

These are both views on Google Maps. The one on the left is pretty much useless for finding nearby nature! Other online mapping tools are available.

Another great Google Maps integration is this circle drawing tool. Here you can plop a 3km circle around your house and find nearby nature within range. You can also throw down another circle around your friend’s house to find nature that’s nearby for both of you.

If you’re based in the UK, then check out the OS Maps ‘Greenspace’ layer. This overlay highlights all your local greenspace—and even shows you where the pedestrian and vehicle access points are. Also in the UK, you can plug your postcode into the Woodland Trust search bar to find your nearest tree party.

If you live in a famous city, then check out Treepedia, which uses Google Streetview data to show you where your greenest streets are. Note that this does not include parks.

See if you can find two or three clusters of greenspace that you haven’t visited before.

2. Choose a name for your tree mentor

Personaly, I think it’s a bit rude to go into your meeting without knowing what to call your mentor.

Taking my inspiration from Jack Cooke’s The Tree Climber’s Guide, here are some suggestions: The Peacock Roost, The Tree of Knowledge, The Royal Perch. Don’t overthink it. If you can’t come up with anything right now, call it Dave and see how you go.

3. Block out time in your calendar for your one to one

Seriously. Put it in your diary. You’ll want at least 20 minutes for this first session, excluding travel time.

All done? Great!

AGENDA: Get to know your mentor

When the time comes for your scheduled one to one, I’ve drafted an agenda for you and your mentor. Feel free to pick and choose elements and leave plenty of time for A.O.B.

  1. What species is your mentor tree? Bark, buds and (fallen) leaves, seeds or flowers can solve the mystery. The British Trees app by the Woodland Trust can help you if you’re based in the UK or northern Europe. Elsewhere, or if you need more help, give PictureThis a whirl—it includes tree ring analysis!Note: Using your phone while out in nature can undo its beneficial effects so don’t get sucked into this agenda item. You can also pick up a fallen leaf to help with your identification back at home.
  2. What does your tree feel like to touch, smell, admire? Try staring up into the branches for 60 seconds to enjoy the fractal patterns and develop ‘soft fascination’.
  3. How old is your wise mentor? Measure its girth at shoulder height and refer to this rule of thumb method of calculation—or this chart if your mentor is a grand old oak tree. (Note: obviously the PictureThis tree ring analysis is no good here—please don’t chop down your mentor, not now.)
  4. How healthy is your mentor? Does it have any cool scars?
  5. Who lives here—can you spot any birds or bugs? Fun fact: oak trees can support up to 2,300 other species, the most neighbourly of any tree in Britain.
  6. Are there any other trees nearby? Does your mentor have any friends to play with?
  7. Hypothetically speaking, how would you climb it?
  8. Practically speaking, and if you can—go ahead and climb your tree! Cling to its branches, sway on the boughs and feel its roots become your roots.

I hope you have some fun and make this a regular check in with the wise trees of your local neighbourhood. Did you feel any improvement in your stress levels? Or notice any bursts of creativity? I’d love to hear how you get on.

No more indoor species! Get outside and live longer, healthier lives

That first kiss of cold air on skin makes me whimper in pleasure. It’s not long before I’m galloping down the zig-zag to the beach and throwing myself into the waves.

After seven days of four walls and stale breath, the sensory wealth almost overwhelms me. Opening the windows, standing at the sill in the sun, and running shuttles the length of my hallway could never replace the 360 degree embrace of even the shortest walk in nature.

Don’t get me wrong: I know seven days is nothing. I tested negative for coronavirus and, after a few days of headaches and a sore throat, I felt absolutely fine. But still: seven days of isolation, going nowhere but inside, mentally and physically, showed me the paramount value to our health of nature and the outdoors.

An indoor species

It’s hard to get solid data on exactly how much time we spend in nature, but a 2018 study found that 894 office workers in the UK spent, on average, only an hour and ten minutes outdoors on work days. Monday to Friday, on average, these office workers spent 95 percent of their time indoors or commuting.

On Saturdays and Sundays, the office workers typically spent two and a half hours outside—much better, but that still means that 90 percent of their time was spent indoors. Here’s the kicker: this data was only collected on rain-free days in the warmest months between April and October. Taken over the whole year, 90 percent is surely a low estimate, even on a weekend.

If you’re thinking that this only applies to pasty-faced office workers, then I should point you in the direction of a two-year study that followed the daily acitivities of more than nine thousand randomly selected people in the United States. The study participants reported spending 93 percent of their time inside either enclosed buildings or enclosed vehicles.

It’s fair to say that statistician Wayne R. Ott’s comment in his 1989 review of activity patterns research holds up today:

We are basically an indoor species. […] In a modern society, total time outdoors is the most insignificant part of the day, often so small that it barely shows up in the total.
~ W.R. Ott quoted in Klepeis et al. (2001)

A pandemic-shaped mirror

What’s fascinating is that we don’t realise what we have become. A 2018 survey of 16,000 people across North America and Europe found that fewer than one in five of us can believe we spend so much time indoors. But we do—and no more so than now, during this thing that’s happening.

One study, published last August in the Journal of Urban Ecology, found that the pandemic has reduced the usual recreational activities of ‘outdoor enthusiasts’—particularly those living in urban areas. I can certainly vouch for that! But what about the rest of humanity?

By analysing Strava data in Oslo, Venter et al. estimated that the number of people enjoying the great outdoors shot up by 291 percent after lockdown in March, with walkers, runners and cyclists favouring routes with green views and tree cover.

Both studies are backed up by research from Pennsylvania State University, which found that, while ‘specialised recreationists’ found their outdoor playtime cut by half a day per week on average, everyone else was outdoors half a day more every week.

Lockdown is nothing like a free pass to go and play outside, however: a survey of 604 people in post-lockdown Ireland reported that, on average, participants spent only 8 percent of their time in the great outdoors.

It’s possible that the urge for the outdoors is simply because there’s bugger all else we can do. But it’s also possible that it’s an instinctive, therapeutic response to something bloody awful happening. And we’d be correct.

What has the outdoors ever done for us?

A comprehensive review published in January 2020 found that as little as ten to twenty minutes outdoors in nature can have significant positive effects on our mental wellbeing, reducing our heart rate, blood pressure and feelings of depression, anger, fatigue and anxiety, making us feel calm, refreshed and reinvigorated.

Because of these stress-busting effects, merely living in a greener neighbourhood makes you live a longer, healthier life—no matter what your socioeconomic status—and reduces the risk of preterm birth, type II diabetes, asthma, stroke and, er, ‘all-cause mortality’. That’s amazing.

As Mitchell et al. write in a badass follow up to the ‘longer, healthier life’ study referenced above:

If societies cannot, or will not, narrow socioeconomic inequality, research should explore the so-called equigenic environments—those that can disrupt the usual conversion of socioeconomic inequality to health inequality.

Nature is that disruption. Green space is a political ‘screw you’ to those who want a society of haves and have-nots.

But the miracles of nature don’t end there. The natural world can also make you feel more generous, more grateful and less selfish. Exercise in the outdoors can increase your creativity (both divergent and convergent, since you ask), your memory and your attention, as well as protect against cognitive decline as you age. Wordsworth was a neuroscientist when he wrote:

Books! ‘tis a dull and endless strife:
Come, hear the woodland linnet,
How sweet his music! on my life,
There’s more of wisdom in it.
~ From The Tables Turned (1798)

In Toronto, researchers discovered that living in a neighbourhood with just ten extra trees made people feel as good as if they were given $10,000 or magically made seven years younger. Spending time outdoors can even roll back the effects of myopia in school children.

In conclusion: we love going outside because that’s where miracles happen. As the grandmaster of nature research Qing Li writes in his 2018 book Into The Forest:

There is no medicine you can take that has such a direct influence on your health as a walk in a beautiful forest.

‘We’re all in the same boat (except your bit of the boat is on fire and our bit has caviar) (oh and we lied: they are entirely different boats)’

A popular catchphrase of the pandemic propagandists is ‘We’re all in this together, we’re all in the same boat.’ As a sworn relativist, the only time the phrase ‘We’re all in the same boat’ applies is when we are, indeed, all present in the same water-bourne vessel.

It’s certainly not a fair way to compare the lived experience during the pandemic of the wealthy billionaires who saw their assets increase by more than a quarter last summer and, shall we say, the ‘unwealthy’ immigrants unable to work during lockdown who are being discouraged from accessing welfare support and threatened with punishments by the Home Office if they do.

Likewise, we are not all in the same boat when it comes to green space. Evidence from Portugal and Germany found that the poorer a neighbourhood is, the further residents have to travel to access green space—and the fewer amenities (toilets, benches, cafes and so on) they find when they get there.

In the UK, nearly 34 percent of the wealthiest citizens live in the greenest and most pleasant of our land. The comparible figure for the country’s poorest citizens is less than 4 percent. Access to green space is directly correlated to wealth, amplifying the evils of health inequality, at a time when people can’t travel outside their local area.

Not the same boat.

Comfort from 226 CE

Hopefully that’s got you all fired up to go and fill your lungs up with ozone, plant some trees in deprived neighbourhoods and generally blast away at the great outdoors. But I’ll leave you with one last pandemic-shaped thought from the famous historian of The Three Kingdoms.

In Weilue, Yu Huan compares himself to a fish living in a small stream that cannot comprehend the vastness of the Yangtze, or to a mayfly, who, living so briefly, cannot know the changing of the four seasons. The superficiality of his understanding, Yu Huan writes, is like ‘living in the puddle left in the hoof print of an ox’.

As the Roman Empire was to Yu Huan, so, gradually, becomes the rest of the world to those of us living in confinement—especially those self-isolating or shielding, but also the rest of us who have found our horizons greatly foreshortened over the past year.

I exaggerate, of course, but I found in Yu Huan’s 1,800 year-old words an inspiring coda that encourages me to keep striving even though I feel like I too am living in a hoof print:

It has not been my fate to see things first hand, travelling with the rapid winds, or enlisting swift horses to view distant vistas. Alas, I have to strain to see the sun, the moon and the stars, but, oh, how my thoughts fly!
~ Yu Huan, Weilue

Rewild Your Job: Workshop on Nearby Nature for Knowledge Workers

I am degenerating into a machine for making money. I must break away and get out into the mountains to learn the news.
~ John Muir

Are you worried that you are ‘degenerating into a machine for making money’? Do you feel the urge to ‘break away’, but find all your plans blocked by the pandemic? Do you wish that you could somehow rewild your job?

At a time when we most need the restorative power of the natural world, I’m one of many who cannot ‘get out into the mountains to learn the news’. The solution is to go deeper into local pockets of nature and bring the outdoors indoors by rewilding our homes and work spaces.

This one hour workshop will show how nature can:

  • reduce your anxiety and work-related stress, while increasing your work performance (in as little as 40 seconds)
  • boost your immune system and help you sleep better
  • improve your creativity, the quality of your ideas and your memory
  • make you feel $10,000 richer and 7 years younger (really)

And, if you are in quarantine or self-isolating, we will learn five ways you can bring the power of nearby nature into your home.

During the session, I will introduce you to the scientific evidence and help you put your rewilding strategies into practice:

  • Locate your own nearby nature
  • Rewild your workstation
  • Schedule a one-to-one with a local tree mentor

If you or anyone you know might be interested in the Rewild Your Job workshop, whether individuals, businesses or WI groups, please leave a comment below or contact me.

Feedback from Rewild Your Job participants

I think we all know that nature is important, but I didn’t know that there was so many scientific studies to prove it. Thank you so much for opening our eyes!

I’m a nature photographer and I interact with nature pretty frequently, but even then I wasn’t aware of so many diverse aspects of nature that you have pointed out. So it was absolutely mind-blowing!

Note: This was my first workshop over Zoom so began with the customary technical faff. To skip all that, please fast forward to 4m50


Rewild Your Job was part of the 2021 Ness Labs Creator Spark Accelerator. Many thanks to Anne-Laure Le Cunff and the Ness Labs community for their support. Joining Ness Labs was the best £37.90 I’ve spent in a long time.

Foiled Series 4: On air


Episode 1 of Foiled, a radio sitcom written by me and Beth Granville, airs on Monday.

Bleach for the Stars is thriving under the guidance of local baguettes entrepreneur Tariq. But the baguette mogul’s new world order is seriously threatening Tanisha and Richie’s historically lax working life. Will they be able to oust Tariq and convince Sabrina to take her salon back, especially now she’s flourishing in her new role as Head of Baguettes?

I’m excited and nervous to listen to the show—excited because we think the scripts are brilliant; nervous because the poor actors had to record those scripts while hiding under their duvet and/or inside a wardrobe. Oh, 2020…

Veganaury: Two flash-in-the-pan breads

The Bread for Life that I shared a while ago is still my daily loaf, but here are two very entertaining breads that can be made in a few minutes using your hob.

1. Proper corn tortillas (with thanks to L.H.)

For this recipe you will need:

  • Masa harina (maize flour)
  • Warm water
  • Cling film or greaseproof paper
  • Chopping board or similar flat, bigger-than-tortilla-sized, weighty object
  • Rolling pin or similar rolling object—I use a measuring beaker
  • Frying pan
  • Optional: salt or other spices

Instructions:

  1. Get your frying pan ready on your hob: you want it nice and hot.
  2. Mix the masa harina with warm water in proportions of 4:3—i.e two cups of flour to one and a half cups of warm water. This recipe is so quick that it hardly matters if you make too much or too little. Chuck in your salt or other spices if you’re going down that road.
  3. Use your hands to mush the mixture into a doughy ball. Split the big dough ball into mini balls.
  4. Tear off two sheets of cling film. Lay one down flat on the counter top and put your first mini dough ball in the middle. Lay the other sheet of cling film over the top. You can also use greaseproof paper, but it’s slightly more sticky so I find I have to be extra careful on stage 6.
  5. Flatten your mini dough ball into a circular disc shape using a chopping board and your body weight. You can also use a tortilla press, but who has one of those? To get the tortilla really thin you can gently roll it out using a rolling pin or similar—but be careful because the masa harina is really fragile.
  6. Carefully peel off the top layer of cling film. Flip the tortilla over and use gravity to gently unpeel the tortilla from the other layer of cling film. If you use greaseproof paper, you can actually cook the exposed side of the tortilla while the second piece of paper still attached—it’s easier to peel off after the tortilla is cooked a little.
  7. Lay the tortilla onto the hot frying pan. Cook for 30 seconds and then carefully flip to the other side for another 30 seconds. Keep on flipping until the tortilla is cooked through. It should be soft enough to roll without falling apart. You’ll get the hang of it.

2. Vegan naan bread

I stole this recipe from Loving It Vegan. Naan bread takes a bit longer than tortilla because the dough needs to rise. I leave it for an hour in an airing cupboard. For that authentic naan flavour, I also add nigella seeds while the bread is cooking on the hob.

The Great Whatsapp Stink: Q&A

The Great Whatsapp Stink inspired many excellent questions from readers. As they roll in, I’ll post my responses here. Special thanks to F.R. for an inspiring email exchange.

My Whatsapp contacts already have my number and all my old messages, how does that affect my privacy after I leave?

On Whatsapp you have to trust that all your contacts don’t share your messages – just as you would have to on Signal. Neither Whatsapp nor Signal have access to the content of your messages.

In that regard, nothing changes and there is no difference between the apps – it’s only a difference in how they implement the security. (And all the research I’ve done says that Whatsapp’s implementation is fundamentally less secure.)

If you delete your account, then I believe that – yes – your Whatsapp contacts would still be able to download your messages, unless you delete them, either individually or: WhatsApp Settings > Chats > Delete All Chats.

I haven’t done this yet, so would have to check how much sender’s data remains on the device of the recipient. Hopefully nothing but downloaded media – photos, videos, voice notes, etc.

If I delete Whatsapp, but my contacts don’t or can’t, will I still suffer indirect surveillance? If so, is my leaving the system worthwhile when the system never leaves me?

You’re right: you can leave the system, but the system never leaves you. Unfortunately, this is true even of people who have never ever had a Whatsapp or Facebook account, but who are still touched by Facebook’s web surveillance: pages with like buttons, for example.

There is no escape from that level of data collection – except by using a technique like browser isolation, which makes the data functionally useless (you could even generate deliberately misleading data if you’ve got loads of time on your hands!).

Will we be vulnerable to indirect surveillance after we’ve left Whatsapp? I don’t know exactly. I would also guess, given that no one seems to be able to find a definitive answer online, that no one knows exactly!

It’s worth repeating that Whatsapp only collects our metadata (so far as we know). Furthermore, for those of us who live in the EU, UK or other territories with half-decent privacy laws, that metadata is not matched with our Facebook profile data.

Regardless of what happens to the data held by your contacts after you delete Whatsapp, the biggest benefit of deleting the platform is that you will no longer be adding to that data the corporation hold on you. I think this is an important point, perhaps overlooked.

For example: if you’ve been regularly messaging from a device located in Berlin, then Whatsapp could make a guess that you live in Berlin – and they will continue to hold that data even after you delete the platform. But if, one day, you move to Brussels, then that old data will become as good as useless. No (further) harm done.

My view is that taking even one conversation out of Whatsapp and over to Signal is worthwhile progress. A tiny chip in the wall, maybe, but still worthwhile.

What do I gain from leaving Whatsapp?

This depends whether you think your metadata is a fair exchange for a ‘free’ messaging app. Do you mind Whatsapp having access to your metadata and using that to sell stuff to you and your contacts? Especially bearing in mind that this is part of a long-term business plan for Whatsapp.

At the moment, Whatsapp is not profitable for Facebook: they simply have to earn more money from Whatsapp and they will do that by selling user data. Both the original founders of Whatsapp quit (in 2017 and 2018) because of concerns over privacy, security, advertising and the sale of user data by Facebook.

This is the direction Whatsapp is going and I don’t want to stay with it to find out what happens next. So my answer to this question is that our metadata is clearly not a fair exchange for a messaging app, given that an excellent alternative exists.

Signal was setup by one of the original Whatsapp founders as a direct repost to what he saw as a betrayal of the app’s values. Signal is a not-for-profit, open source organisation and can never be bought by a capitalist engine like Facebook.

Everyone is already on Whatsapp so shouldn’t we should concentrate on better privacy regulation?

I accept that there are many users on Whatsapp – 2 billion worldwide – but I don’t accept that this means we shouldn’t all install Signal (as well as Whatsapp if need be). That’s like arguing that, because there are over a billion fossil fuel cars worldwide, we shouldn’t install charging points for electric cars.

It’s not an either/or problem. Yes, we should legally prevent corporations from exploiting our data AND yes, we should install and use platforms that don’t (and can’t) exploit our data.

Aren’t you forgetting all the people who need Whatsapp for important, even life-saving, services?

Firstly, I have no problem with people keeping their Whatsapp accounts, whether that’s because they need it to communicate with their doctors or because they simply love the app. I’d just like to help more people understand the Facebook business model and, based on that understanding, install an alternative that opens up the space. Every conversation switched onto a secure platform is a win.

For many people, Whatsapp and Signal will work in tandem, exactly as Brian Acton, founder of both companies, himself imagines:

I have no desire to do all the things that WhatsApp does. My desire is to give people a choice. It’s not strictly a winner take-all scenario.

I also have no problem with installing and drifting between several messaging apps. I’ve got 89 apps installed on my smartphone; another one doesn’t make any difference to me. For some overwhelmed people, I’m sure, one more app feels like one too many. I’d still like to convince them otherwise, but they have every right to tell me to shut up!

I’m also lucky that I’m not tightly bound to Whatsapp. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve seen a lot of my contacts switching to Signal, enough to make me believe that, for me, leaving Whatsapp permanently is an option. I’m surprised, gratified – and certain that I’m far from typical.

Even with 80 percent of my contacts on Signal, I’m still not sure that I’ll delete Whatsapp. My life might not depend on Whatsapp, but some of my volunteering work does. Naturally, I see no reason why these volunteering groups shouldn’t also migrate, either to Signal or to some other more appropriate, non-surveillance tool, but I’m aware that the migration won’t be easy. It will depend on people like me making a strong case for privacy and that case may well fail. But it must be made.

These conversations and conversions might be uncomfortable, but they are impossible unless we take that first step to install Signal or other alternatives. The transition away from the surveillance economy will be a lengthy process, especially when we consider the legal fight for stronger privacy regulation, but I believe that we now have momentum.

Switching apps is egotistical!

This misses the point. My argument is that mass migration away from Whatsapp isn’t merely good for the individual (I’m not actually convinced that it makes a huge difference for most individuals, depending on how they use the app and which country they live in), but it is good for the entire user base and – given that the user base makes up a quarter of the planet – also good for our societies as a whole.

Quick aside: how it could all go horribly wrong

No one in China uses Whatsapp. Access is totally blocked. The popular equivalent is an app called WeChat. Where surveillance at Whatsapp is covert, WeChat is subject to overt censorship. Dan Wang, an expert on technology in China, recently wrote:

WeChat blocks sensitive keywords, which today includes ‘decoupling’ and ‘sanctions’. It’s now pretty inconvenient to use the app for professional conversations, and I’ve been pretty insistent to my contacts to use Signal instead.

I’m not saying that this is the direction that Whatsapp is going in, but why should we even leave that roadmap on the table?

Back to the question

Fundamentally, the question is: why wouldn’t you install Signal, if only to offer a non-capitalist, non-surveillance alternative to those of your friends and contacts who prefer – or need – that approach for their communication?

For those of us lucky enough to live in countries protected by decent (ish) privacy laws, we are (seemingly) safe from further exploitation of our Whatsapp metadata by the rest of the Facebook corporation. But, by not installing Signal, we are exposing our unprotected contacts in the rest of the world to an unsafe platform for their communication with us.

Or we are ignoring them altogether. China is not the only country where Whatsapp is banned: North Korea, Syria, Qatar, Iran and United Arab Emirates have also blocked access to the app. We need alternatives.

Sticking rigidly to one platform: now that sounds egotistical to me.

~

What do you think? Send me your questions or comments. Thank you for reading!

The Great Whatsapp Stink

If you’re one of the two billion people who use Whatsapp, then you have probably noticed the new terms of service. You might already have accepted them. You might also have heard that these new terms of service consolidate and extend Whatsapp’s surveillance of your behaviour. You might be worried.

I think you’re right to be.

This article is primarily focussed on Whatsapp and Facebook, but many of the observations apply equally to other tech corporations who profit from surveillance of our data, especially Google. This article is also pretty thorough and might take you a while to work through at 2,800 words. But it’s split into four parts so please feel free to skip around:

  1. What do these new terms of service mean for you?
  2. Understanding surveillance capitalism
  3. Is there any hope?
  4. Four things you can do now

Right, let’s go!

What do these new terms of service mean for you?

There’s been one hell of a stink about Whatsapp since the announcement that the corporation will delete our accounts if we don’t accept these new terms of service.

First, to avoid any confusion, there’s one thing that the new terms of service are not: Facebook cannot now exploit the content of your messages. They are still encrypted. Everything else about your usage of the app, however, is up for grabs.

Despite this popular confusion, I think the great media stink has been very useful because I don’t think any of us should be using Whatsapp—or any Facebook product, for that matter. But I also think that we should temper our shock—not because Whatsapp isn’t a stinking rotten app, but because, since its acquisition by Facebook in 2014, it has always been a stinking rotten app.

Forbes cybersecurity correspondent Zak Doffman puts it well:

This isn’t about WhatsApp sharing any more of your general data with Facebook than it does already, this is about using your data and your engagement with its platform to enable shopping and other business services, to provide a platform where businesses can communicate with you and sell to you, all for a price they will pay to WhatsApp.

What the stink has usefully done is confront us with some important questions that we must answer before moving on with our lives:

  1. Do you want the Facebook corporation scraping the metadata from your Whatsapp messages to sell to their business partners who will then use that data to reach you, your contacts and other people like you inside Whatsapp?
  2. In other words: are you happy to participate in the development of the Whatsapp marketplace, where you and your data are the commodity, sold by Facebook to third-party businesses?
  3. Is that a fair price to pay for a service that offers ‘free’ messaging? HINT: No, it’s not. Not when actually free and secure alternative messaging services exist.

This great stink has brought Whatsapp’s corrupt business model to broader public awareness, so let’s take a look.

Surveillance capitalism

Whatsapp is part of the biggest surveillance operation the world has ever known: the Facebook corporation collects more data about its users than even the most dystopian science fiction writers ever imagined. The new Whatsapp terms of service will permit the sharing of your metadata—that is data about your messages, but not the content of your messages—across the Facebook corporation.

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that metadata is unimportant: your device ID, your user ID, your contacts, your purchase history and financial activity within Whatsapp and your location is more than enough data to build a detailed consumer profile and connect you to you—even if you don’t subscribe to the open surveillance of a Facebook account.

The change in the terms of service is to facilitate the encroachment of third party businesses into your private messaging. It’s classic surveillance capitalism: the Facebook corporation collects and sells your data for profit. That’s why their apps are ‘free’; our data is their business model.

They’re not alone, of course. Surveillance capitalism is a popular business model for many tech companies, including other social networks like Twitter and LinkedIn, but also Amazon, Apple and even Pokémon Go. But only two corporations have the far-reaching scale of surveillance to use our data to manipulate entire democracies: Facebook and Google.

In a group chat on Whatsapp, a friend asked whether as individuals we had anything to fear from mass surveillance capitalism. Another friend replied, saying:

I guess it depends who makes the laws? At the moment we’re not in much danger, but if we lived in Russia, for example, and wrote an article critical of the government, we’d be in more danger if our data wasn’t secure. And we do keep unexpectedly electing dictator-y people…

I love that last sentence. For decades our only defence against the dangers of mass surveillance has been ‘Yes, but that could never happen here!’ I wonder how many people still believe that.

But even if we stay relatively safe on an individual level, there is also a much broader societal risk. As another friend in the group put it:

At a national level, there are implications for private companies knowing more about a population than even the government, e.g. Facebook / Cambridge Analytica / Brexit.

Starting in 2014, and with the complicity of the Facebook corporation, Cambridge Analytica harvested the data of millions of Facebook users and analysed behavioural patterns in order to find, target and ‘infect’ the most susceptible demographics with a particular political ideology, and from there spread the contagion to the rest of the population.

Cambridge Analytica were used by both Donald Trump’s first presidential bid and the Vote Leave campaign during the UK’s referendum on membership of the European Union in 2016. Both campaigns, you’ll have noticed, were successful—an odd word to use given the four years of shit-fuckery that have ensued.

If you’re anything like me, even as an individual, the unregulated interference into and destabilisation of our democracies is a huge price to pay.

Side note: The aforementioned Whatsapp group, I’m pleased to report, has now migrated to the non-Facebook and genuinely secure messaging platform Signal—but more on that later…

Is there any hope?

That’s enough depressing content for now. The Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal broke years ago—hasn’t anything changed? Isn’t there any hope on the horizon?

Well, not really, no. But there are three points that offer Whatsapp users not so much hope as doubt that could easily be confused with hope and keep us wedded to a fundamentally unwell platform.

Firstly, in the European Union, GDPR law means that, legally, Facebook aren’t allowed to connect the dots between Whatsapp and the rest of the corporation. Despite leaving the EU, the same GDPR regulations apply in UK law—although the UK now has the independence to change those regulations.

However, as a friend keen on digital privacy commented:

Facebook will do what they want and pay the fine later. They are not on the side of good. IMHO.

In 2019, Facebook were ordered to pay a fine of $5 billion for privacy violations after the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data breach. This sounds like a lot of money, but the fine was described by observers as ‘a favour … a parking ticket’, ‘a mosquito bite’ and ‘a Christmas present five months early’. For scale, between 2016, when the worst effects of the data breach took hold, and 2019, when the fine was announced, Facebook increased their annual revenue by more than $43 billion.

Secondly, a terms of service update in 2016 gave existing users an ‘opt-out’ from the automatic sharing of their Whatsapp metadata with the rest of the Facebook corporation. Of course, this doubt/hope is only relevant if you joined Whatsapp before 2016. If you joined the corporation after 2016, then your metadata is already at the mercy of Facebook’s rapacious appetite.

Side bar: If you want to find out whether you took advantage of this opt-out, then you’ll need to request your account information by going to Settings > Account > Request account info. It takes a few days.

Facebook have said that they will continue to ‘honour’ this 2016 opt-out. But what does that mean? And can we trust Facebook to act on honour? Not if history is any guide: in 2018, when GDPR law came into effect in the EU, the corporation simply moved 1.5 billion non-EU Facebook accounts to servers outside the new privacy law’s jurisdiction. Facebook aren’t the only surveillance corporation to do this, by the way: LinkedIn did the same.

Thirdly, on 8 December last year, the US Federal Trade Commission and 46 of the US states launched an antitrust lawsuit arguing that Facebook’s acquisition of Whatsapp and Instagram has created a monopoly in social networking. The plaintiffs hope to force the Facebook corporation to break up again into smaller companies. This, they say, will be for the good of consumer choice—not, you’ll note, for the good of consumer privacy. The business model of selling our data is not under threat.

But how long will that lawsuit take? And, even if it’s successful, why would an independent Instagram and Whatsapp take any less of a surveillance capitalist attitude to our data? If you want to learn more about this lawsuit, BBC Sounds Briefing Room has a 28 minute discussion of Facebook’s ‘monopoly problem’.

Things you can do now

I think that’s enough exploration of the terrain. What can we do right now?

1. Delete Whatsapp, obviously

A lot of people, including me, have been trying alternative messaging apps recently. Signal has been the primary beneficiary of the great Whatsapp stink, becoming at times the second most downloaded app on the Apple App Store.

Signal is everything that we fooled ourselves into believing Whatsapp was: a totally secure messaging app with no ifs, no buts. Signal has all the features of Whatsapp—groups, video calling, voice notes—without any of the leaky surveillance data.

Simply put: none of us need Whatsapp and we should all leave today.

Of course, it’s not as easy as that. A messaging app is only as good as its user base—but that’s exactly why we should all install Signal, even if we continue to use Whatsapp during the transition.

I appreciate that, for some people, deleting Whatsapp is akin to having a surgical lobotomy and removing half a decade of memories. Luckily, we can save these memories. There are two steps to archiving your entire Whatsapp history:

  1. Save all of your downloaded Whatsapp photos, video and voice notes in one fell swoop by copying the Whatsapp Media folder from your phone to your computer. (Yeah, I’m amazed how insecure this is too!)
  2. Export the text content of your messages by going to Whatsapp Settings > Chats > Chat History > Export Chat. There’s no need to download the media files again because you did that in step one. However, because the text content is encrypted, you’ll need to do this second step manually for each of the individual or group chats that you want to save.

If you’re struggling with saving your message history, digital human rights organisation Witness wrote an excellent guide: How to export content from WhatsApp. If this process is too laborious for you, then all I can say is that I appreciate it can be hard to let go, but that there is also beauty in ephemera. Let it go.

I know that some people can’t be bothered to run multiple messaging apps. If you find that your friends are split across different platforms, like mine are, then Documentally recommends we embrace the diversity and ‘live in notifications’.

What does that mean? Typically, a message alert appears in your phone’s notification bar and tapping on that alert will automatically open whichever app the message came through. So it shouldn’t matter if you have one messaging app or twenty-seven: you access the messages in the same way, through notifications.

(BONUS: Using your phone in this way should also reduce the number of times you open your apps ‘just in case’ someone’s messaged.)

It’s worth saying here that, if you have a Facebook or Instagram account, then I genuinely don’t know how much you personally will gain from deleting Whatsapp alone. Whatsapp’s metadata merely compounds the surveillance operation led by those two other broad spectrum spying tools.

However, by installing Signal you will certainly be helping your friends who want to divest from the Facebook corporation altogether. And we really appreciate good neighbours!

2. Use different web browsers for different surveillance corporations

This is what security expert Rob Braxman calls ‘browser isolation’. Surveillance corporations collect their data using your unique browser fingerprint, so by using different browsers to isolate the various surveillance corporations, we can restrict the reach of their spying algorithms.

The two major surveillance corporations are Facebook and Google, so for Braxman that would mean we need three different web browsers:

  1. Google Chrome for nothing except our Google apps—Youtube, Gmail, Google Docs, Google Drive and so on. (Incidentally, Braxman suggests using DuckDuckGo for search, rather than Google.)
  2. A completely different browser for nothing but Facebook corporation apps—Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp. (Worth saying: Braxman strongly advises deleting all your Facebook accounts!)
  3. A third browser for everything else—Braxman suggests a clean install of Firefox.

Note that this protection only extends to desktop or laptop computers. Mobile devices, including tablets, are more complicated—not least because most Android devices are locked into Google’s surveillance engine.

3. Get a burner phone to run Whatsapp

Sadly, there are more mobiles in the UK than there are people—I’ve got three phones myself! Use that waste to your advantage: either you or a friend will have an old smartphone or tablet knocking around. Use that old smartphone or tablet to run Whatsapp and Whatsapp only.

Here is where I get a little out of my depth in terms of surveillance knowledge. At the moment, I run Whatsapp on my old smartphone without a SIM card installed. Day to day, I rarely carry my smartphone around—so how much data am I leaking to Whatsapp? But I do also use the Whatsapp Web client on my laptop—how much data does that leak? I don’t know.

Safer perhaps would be to get hold of a cheap SIM card and set up Whatsapp with a dumbphone. Some dumbphones, like the Nokia 2723 or 8110, can even run Whatsapp on the device. But with these you’ll be restricted to the hard-to-type keypad because there’s no way of scanning the QR code needed to launch the Whatsapp Web client on your computer.

You could, however, use an Android emulator like Bluestacks to use Whatsapp on your computer. It’s nowhere near as user friendly as the Whatsapp Web client and, again, I don’t know how much data would leak from your computer.

Is there a clever workaround involving putting your burner SIM card into a smartphone, setting up Whatsapp Web, and then transferring the burner SIM back to the dumbphone? Possibly, but I very much doubt it because the Whatsapp Web client is only a mirror of the Whatsapp app on your phone.

It’s worth saying that Whatsapp regularly drop support for older phones. At the moment, the app won’t work with iPhones 1-4 and Android phones released before 2010, for example.

Again, these burner phone options are only really worth exploring if you don’t have a Facebook or Instagram account. If you have other Facebook corporation products, then Whatsapp is the least of your problems—the tip of your data profit iceberg.

4. Uninstall Whatsapp without deleting your account

This is what I did when I went on my Catswold Way walk before Christmas. Four days of blissful radio silence.

It’s a great option to test leaving the platform and I found it completely pain-free:

  1. Take a backup of your Whatsapp account: Settings > Chats > Chat Backup. You can store the backup either locally on your device or encrypted in the cloud using Google Drive.
  2. Delete the app.
  3. Enjoy an indefinite period of surveillance-free life.

If you want to advise people that you’re going offline, you can—or you can change your profile status to something helpful, like, I dunno, maybe: ‘OH MY GOD WE’RE ALL BEING SPIED ON ALL THE TIME’.

When you’re ready to return, reinstall the app, restore the backup and you’re good to go. Let the surveillance resume!

A couple of warnings if you want to try this. I’m not a huge user of Whatsapp, but after four days of absence I came back to 235 unread messages (although more than half of them were from one group). Also: an unknown number of messages sent during my offline period didn’t get delivered to me afterwards and I don’t know why.

See you on Signal

Phew—I told you this was long! Hopefully you found something useful here. If you have any questions, you can reply to this email or find me on Signal.

Many thanks to the Jolly Rogers, Documentally and B.G. for the creative discussions that inspired this article.

UPDATE: Your questions are answered on The Great Whatsapp Stink Q&A.

Brutal! Look what happens to a bike after 18,000 miles On the importance of stuff

It is with some pride that I announce that Martin, my 2011 Marin San Anselmo touring bike, has finally met his match. At some point in the last few months, the chain stay of his frame cracked and snapped in two.

The fact that neither I nor a professional bike mechanic noticed anything wrong apart from a strange skipping in the chain is testament to how amazing bikes are. Martin was literally snapped in half and I was still more or less happily pootling around.

It’s impossible to say how far Martin and I have travelled together since I bought him in 2011, but a rough estimate using data from various bike computers suggests somewhere in the region of 18,200 miles—more than enough to qualify as a ride around the world.

The first picture I have of Martin, only a few hours old. Look how shiny!

Martin: A timeline of adventure

Note: if you’re not at all interested in bike touring or my holiday snaps, then feel free to skip ahead to the next subtitle…

Our first journey together, nine years ago, was around the coastline of Britain. Two months of putting one wheel in front of another, wild camping together in fields, under hedges, in forests and on canal towpaths.

A year later, we repeated the trick in Tunisia, cycling through olive and palm groves, between salt lakes, past Roman ruins, and through two different kinds of desert to the sand seas of the Sahara.

The largest salt pan in the Sahara: Chott el Djerid in south Tunisia. Martin took me there in 2012.

In the wet summer of 2016, Martin (now officially christened Martin) rode in duet with a vintage racer called Joy from London to Vienna. We matched tracks from the South Downs to the Bavarian Plateau, from the banks of the River Thames to the vineyard sprawl of the Danube. Our accommodation, still wild, upgraded to hilltop castles and monasteries.

Camping at Stift Melk, Austria. The abbey is famous for its 18th century frescos and the 11th century tomb of Saint Coloman of Stockerau, an Irish pilgrim mistaken for a spy, tortured and hanged. Martin took me there in 2016.

More recently, Martin found true companionship in the community of bikes that is Thighs of Steel. In 2018 and 2019, we covered over 2,000 miles together across Europe, discovering new countries, new friends and new talents. Martin got himself a chainring downgrade which helped us over the mountains. In Athens, he even got himself a blue tattoo, of which he is still very proud.

Climbing up into the mountains of Romania with Thighs of Steel in 2018. Martin carried me there.

Finally, in our swansong year, Martin learnt the healthy pleasures of daily rides during a catastrophic pandemic, playing his part in the incredible Around the World project that raised over £130,000 for refugees. And, of course, in the lockdown-lifted summer, Martin came full circle: imprinting the south coast with his tyre tracks exactly nine years after he last toured Britain.

Lands End 2020 (L) and 2011 (R). Martin carried me there—twice.

Consumerism gives stuff a bad rep

I don’t want to blow this out of proportion: we’re living through a pandemic. My old bike is broken. I’ll get another one. It’s no big deal. But I’ve never had nearly as much fun with any other object as I’ve had with Martin.

When I flipped him over and saw the thick black crack against his mud and sand-flecked white skin, I felt like I’d slipped into an alternate universe.

A broken frame was nothing more than we deserved: nine years of high-impact, heavyweight touring caught up with the partnership. It was bound to happen one day or another. I was lucky that it didn’t happen while I was out touring—although, on reflection, maybe it did.

Throwaway consumerism has, I think, dirtied the purity of possession. Many people, myself included, have hankered after ascetic minimalism: a glorious rejection of the waste and want that modern capitalism has brought us.

But it’s worth remembering why certain convivial objects are precious to their owners—and perhaps to hold all our purchases to a similar standard of value.

What did Martin ever do for us?

A bicycle extends our human frailties. We become bionic, able to move many times faster and further than we ever could on foot, and much more efficiently. I have done things with Martin that would have been unimaginable without him.

I’m thinking, of course, of the life-altering adventures I mentioned earlier, but I’m also thinking of our day-to-day. Martin made it possible for me to live an expansive twenty-first century lifestyle without ever needing a car or taking an aeroplane flight.

Every week, without complaint, Martin lugs my heavy shopping bags five kilometres across town. Together we’ve visiting sixteen different countries, excluding England, Scotland and Wales. Every day he teaches me something about perseverance, self-reliance and community.

Martin’s made me oodles of new friends and ridden me to work, school and social events—especially during my years in London, where the cost and patchy provision of transport makes travel in the city such an unequal battle. (Hence why The Bike Project gives free bikes to refugees.)

But at what cost?

You won’t be surprised to read that I’ve run the numbers… The original Marin San Anselmo cost me £488.99—still the most I’ve ever spent on a single item. But I’ve spent many times more on maintenance and spare parts over the years. To be precise, over his entire lifetime, owning and maintaining Martin has cost me £3,323.

That’s a heck of a lot of money, but—get this—counting from the day I bought him to the day he broke down at the end of my cycle around southwest Britain comes to exactly 3,323 days. Martin cost me one pound for every day that I owned him. Or about 18 pence per mile.

That, to me, is incredible value. There aren’t many other possession that have given me so much. Certainly some of my books, my Alphasmart Neo2 typewriter, yoga mat, guitar, teapot, plants and running shoes. Not much else that I can think of.

What about you? What possessions bring outsized value into your life? I’d love to hear from you—especially if you hold all your purchases to this standard.

On the naming of things

It is only right that we celebrate our most highly prized possessions—and, yes, give them petnames. I never loved Martin so much as when he was baptized Martin and grew a personality. My girlfriend at the time misread the brand name ‘Marin’ and contrasted his blocky functionality with the sleek lines of her own vintage racer.

Giving names to inanimate objects might sound silly, but I think it helps combat throwaway consumerism. A name and a personality is the beginning of a story and, when we tell stories about our favourite possessions, we honour, not only their service, but also the ingenuity, engineering and natural resources that went into their construction.

And this ingenuity and engineering is what’s so beautiful about the design of a bicycle. When Martin’s chain stay snapped, what did I lose, exactly? Why didn’t I feel this way after the rear mech sheared off, or all those times my chain snapped or wore out?

Indeed: what is left of that 2011 Marin San Anselmo that I bought from the Cycle Surgery in Camden Town nine years ago? Nothing more than the handlebars, forks, frame and rack. Everything else has been replaced—even the name.

Stuff has a soul

This reminds me of the ancient philosophical conundrum known as the Ship of Theseus: if you replace, one by one, all the planks of a ship until there are none left of the original, is it still the same ship?

The same metaphysical question is asked of Abraham Lincoln’s axe, which needed its handle and then its blade replacing. It’s a question that could be asked of ourselves: we shed our skin every few weeks and every ten years we get a new skeleton.

But as well as posing an insoluble philosphical question about the persistence of identity over time, the Ship of Theseus prompts us to think about what happens at the end of our stuff’s life.

Aristotle decided that the fully-replaced ship was indeed still Theseus’s. And if a yes is good enough for one of the more practical ancient philosophers then it’s good enough for me.

A great ship is a great ship forever. A great axe is a great axe forever. A great bike is a great bike forever, even as the parts are replaced one by one. Because well-designed stuff has something about it that endures. We could call it a soul.

So I’ll keep what I have of Martin—the original handlebars, forks and rack, as well as all the other components I’ve bought more recently—and replace the broken frame as I have replaced bent wheels, snapped chains and worn brake blocks.

The bike is gone, long live the bike!

What now for Martin Jnr?

Thankfully, a friend has very generously leant me her spare bike to ride (thanks GC!) until I’ve found a new frame for Martin Jnr. One of the more alluring options is the idea of spending this lockdown building my own bamboo bike frame.

I first came across the Bamboo Bicycle Club ten years ago, when I had neither the money nor the cycling experience to justify investing £300 in a wooden bike. But now… Now they do ‘home build kits’—surely it’s meant to be!

VIDEO: Four Quartets Featuring TS Eliot, Alec Guinness and a cat named Furniss

I made you a New Year present! It’s a kind of a poetic slideshow of photographs and audio from the Four Quartets walk that I did before Christmas. Words by T.S. Eliot, narrated by Alec Guinness.

Quick, said the bird, find them, find them,
Round the corner. Through the first gate,
Into our first world

Enjoy!

100 Days of Adventure

As you know by now, I love this time of year because of the artificial opportunity for self-reflection and, above all, STATS. One of the difficulties of STATS, however, is making sure that the thing you are measuring is a genuine correlate of the thing that is actually important.

For example, it’s easy for me to throw out a STAT like, ‘Last year I spent 2,117 hours on my computer’, but does that shockingly high number actually tell me anything shocking about how I spend my time? Only maybe.

I do a lot of things on my computer and, although some of my screentime is complete garbage and makes me hate myself, some of it is actually very important to me—like writing you this letter.

So yesterday I struck upon another metric that was relatively easy to collect from my diary and directly measures something that is extremely important to me. In many ways, it’s the equal and opposite to my existing measure of time spent in front of screens. Ready?

Introducing: Days Outside on Adventures (DOA)

DOA is simple to calculate. Every day of the year gets a binary Y/N score: did I spend a significant chunk of the day outside on an adventure? Then you count the Ys and—voilà—you have your DOA score for that year.

SIDE NOTE: ‘Outside’ is deliberately wide open because I’m a firm believer that adventure can be found anywhere. ‘Significant chunk’ and ‘an adventure’ are both deliberately relative because DOA is a simple binary measure that should work for everyone.

‘An adventure’ for an experienced touring cyclist will look very different to ‘an adventure’ for someone who’s never camped before. Likewise, ‘a significant chunk of the day’ could be a very different timespan for a freelancer with no dependents, compared to someone with a 9-5 job and two kids. The point of DOA is not competition between adventurers, but a measure of outdoor adventure against your past and future selves.

Oh, and, yes, I am aware that DOA also stands for Dead On Arrival, a definition only metaphorically compatible with the very best adventures.

DOA 2020

In 2020, my DOA score was 67. To give you an idea of what qualifies as adventure for me, those 67 DOAs included:

This was about 18 percent of my days in the three months pre-Covid and, happily, about 18 percent of my days in the nine months post-Covid. Hopefully that proves that days of adventure aren’t impossible to find, even in a pandemic world. We just have to choose our moments carefully.

67 days also compares favourably with 2019, when my DOA score was approximately 56. I say ‘approximately’ because these things are difficult to measure in retrospect and, depending on my definition, I could easily add many of the 50 days that I spent travelling in Italy and Greece.

DOA 2021

However you measure them, I would like more of them. In fact, I would like a lot more of them. How many more? I hear you ask. Do you really expect me to be that silly?

If there’s one thing that 2020 has taught us, it’s the utter absurdity of ever expecting plans to turn out how you imagined.

So here goes nothing!

In 2021, I would like to have 100 days of adventure. If you like, that could be a slogan: 100 Days of Adventure.

I’m going to stop writing now, before I get carried away and do something silly like buy the domain name or design a logo.

I hope that your 2021 is ram-packed with days of adventure— and I hope too that our adventures intersect, or that we can at least share stories with each other.

52 things I learned in 2020

I love looking back over time past, especially as a writer, when my follies are etched in permanent print for all to admire. On 3 January this year, for example, I wrote the following:

My 2020 is—absurdly—already mapped out.

I went on to predict that Foiled would be broadcast this summer and that I’d then be cycling off on an epic group bike adventure across Europe, before finishing up in Athens.

So it’ll be deep September before I have time for anything radically new. Already, then, January 2020 is about planning for 2021 and beyond.

Suffice to say that January Dave looks pretty foolish to December Dave. And this is exactly how it should be. Our plans are a starting point from which we always diverge; what counts is how we diverge.

No matter what you’ve been through this year and how many plans you’ve cancelled, replanned and recancelled, you’ve still grown as a human being and learned many new things from many new experiences. Don’t forget that.

As January Dave put it:

It’s easy to miss that we’re constantly putting down bedrock.

… Even when all your plans are scuppered and rescuppered by a global pandemic.

So without any further ado, here’s a list of things that I’ve learned in spite of being totally mugged off by 2020.

LOCKDOWN

  1. I’m incredibly lucky. Astonishingly, unfairly lucky. I’ve had four tests for Covid-19 this year (as part of the Zoe COVID Symptom Study) and have come up clean each time. As a writer who works a lot online anyway, my business hasn’t been hurt too badly by the pandemic. Although my outdoor instructing did take a hit, I was still able to get out in the autumn to help three groups through their Duke of Edinburgh Award Bronze expeditions. 2020 has been a lot of things for me, but above all it’s been lucky.
  2. Having said that, I don’t deal with the loneliness of isolation very well. Without the release valve of human contact, I gradually get more and more stressed, almost without noticing, until everything has to stop immediately. Good to know.
  3. 2020 was the first year since 2015 that I spent more than 28 days in one place. This came out after asking myself 52 questions before leaving lockdown.
  4. Video calls are great—and I have the data to back it up. Despite a three-month lockdown, despite social distancing and despite the infamous Rule of 6, I’ve had as much contact with friends and family as I would do in a normal year. In fact, looking at my closest friends and family, I’ve actually had significantly more.
  5. I learned how to write four episodes of a BBC Radio sitcom during a pandemic. There’s no real secret: just hours and hours of hard work.

    FOOD

  6. Veganism is totally fine. I was worried that it might be difficult: physically, logistically and socially. It’s not. It’s fine. In fact, it’s a great way to trigger habit change across your whole lifestyle (should you wish!).
  7. I learned how to make kimchi, or rather how to wait for kimchi. I more or less followed this recipe by Emily Han.
  8. I also learned how to make the high fibre, high protein bread of life. Follow the recipe on my website.
  9. Cholesterol is possibly not as demonic as it’s often portrayed. Late night consumption of cholesterol is converted into testosterone in the early hours of the morning and testosterone helps men protect against cognitive decline, increase bone mineral density and fight off depression.
  10. Borborygmus is the technical word for stomach rumbling.

    TREES

  11. Lichen is not one organism, but two.
  12. I learned how to plant a tree—a Victoria plum, to be precise. There was no harvest this year, but come back in a dozen seasons and help yourself at developed.fallen.obviously.
  13. Until the late nineteenth century, the area that is now Christchurch, Bournemouth and Poole was a ‘vast, desolate heath’. Read more about the planting of Bournemouth and the health benefits of pinenes on my blog.
  14. Much as we all love trees, sometimes cutting them down is the right thing to do for both biodiversity and carbon capture. Read more about the heathland conversion I’ve been involved with on Brownsea Island.
  15. In a cold, pre-lockdown Oxfordshire woodland, I learned how to build a warm, stormproof shelter from branches and leaf litter. Thanks to Woodland Ways for that.

    THE WONDERS OF NATURE

  16. The famous constellation of the Plough is actually a small part—an asterism—of Ursa Major, the hind quarters of a much bigger beast that rears menacingly over the night. A mother protecting her cub, but only in deep darkness. In most of our lamplit skies, the fearsome monster is reduced to an outmoded piece of farmyard machinery.
  17. Slavonian Grebes can swallow fish whole and eat their own feathers.
  18. There is only one ocean. We think of The English Channel as a body of water distinct from, say, the Indian Ocean, but it’s not. It’s merely convenient geographical nomenclature. Convenient, but dangerous. We have only one ocean; let’s look after it. Credit: David Annette-borough.
  19. Hammocks rule. Mainly by facilitating the absorption of low- to mid-range fractal dimensions that coax me into a ‘wakefully relaxed’ brain state.
  20. Spending a minute staring at a tree is surprisingly hard. But committing to spending 30 minutes every day outside in nature can do wonders for your happiness, sense of fascination and even your vitality.
  21. At a certain point in the future, the next thought you have will make your brain melt. (Don’t worry, it’s ages away.)

    POLITICS

  22. The Conservative government is trying to criminalise the currently civil offence of trespass. The difference between criminal and civil law is essentially the difference between the class of crimes that affect the whole of society—things like murder, fraud and sexual assault—and the class of crimes that only affect the rights and property of individuals or organisations—such as divorce, breach of contract and, unless the Conservative landowners get their way, trespass.
  23. TS Eliot was himself a renowned trespasser and advocated the ‘destitution of all property’.
  24. The Jewish word for financial giving is tzedakah—not ‘charity’, but ‘justice’. Read more about giving what we can on my blog.
  25. More bombs were dropped on Cambodia by the US Airforce than by Allied forces on Germany during the whole of World War II. The locals are still clearing up.
  26. Most chewing gum isn’t biodegradable and local councils spend about £60m a year cleaning it up. We should point the finger, not at litterbugs, but at business. Also: we shouldn’t throw banana skins into the undergrowth.
  27. Two thirds of the 361,000 people who originally came to the UK as asylum seekers have been here longer than the 11.5 million British children under 15. How ‘foreign’ are these asylum seekers, really?
  28. According to the 2020 International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) technical report, the UK produces no less than three quarters of the world’s legal cannabis.
  29. The first British people were black. With blue eyes. Also lactose intolerant. Cool.

    BOOKS

  30. Thanks to spending a lot of time cooped up indoors, I’ve read 50 books this year, although that figure does include seven of Hergé’s Tintin comics. Still, one mustn’t ignore the bequiffed one’s fascinating contribution to the public understanding of extreme weather.
  31. Reading a book relieves stress, can help you empathise with others, and builds your vocabulary, which may help you manage your own mental health by giving you a larger palette of emotions. Read more about how awesome books are on my blog—or, better, go and read a book.
  32. David Graeber died.
    But his ideas, which opened the field of political action to millions, will survive. To mark his death, I read Graeber’s book on bureaucracies, The Utopia of Rules, and it changed the way I think about capitalism and the pandemic. All of David Graeber’s books and many articles are available for free on The Anarchist Library—but not the footnotes. For that, you’ll need a real book.
  33. After cycling around the coast of southwest England, it was inevitable that several people would suggest I read The Salt Path by Raynor Winn. I eventually did. Superb.
  34. But no book of nonfiction captured me more this year than Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake. If you’re quick, you can still catch Merlin reading excerpts for BBC Radio 4’s Book of the Week.
  35. Marcel Proust’s 4,215 page masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time, is an absolute banger.

    They buried him, but all through the night of mourning, in the lighted windows, his books arranged three by three kept watch like angels with outspread wings and seemed, for him who was no more, the symbol of his resurrection.

    You can download the ebook or do as I do and listen to this spellbinding audiobook, read, abridged and even partially translated by Neville Jason.

    PERSONAL SELF-DEVELOPMENT

  36. You might not be able to feed yourself, climb the stairs or recognise your relatives after a stroke, but you can always live by your values.
  37. People pleasing is a bullshit excuse my subconscious uses to avoid taking responsibility for my choices. As Edith Eger wrote:

    We can’t spend our lives hanging out under someone else’s umbrella and then complain that we’re getting wet.

  38. We can accomplish a heck of a lot in nine years. And there’s a lot we can learn from looking back on history—which is why I write these end of year newsletters!

    HIKING AND BIKING

  39. On my cycle around the south coast of Britain, I learned that the people who live here are incredibly generous and talented folk. Thank you!
  40. Bike are horses too!
  41. Everything happens for a reason. Or, at the very least, you can’t deny that everything happens, so you might as well look for any reason that makes sense of it all.
  42. The wilderness is where we go to unbox ourselves. The four Special Areas of Conservation on Dartmoor are a bloody great option.
  43. During the first UK lockdown, Thighs of Steel and Help Refugees joined forces with hundreds of awesome cyclists to attempt to cycle 24,901 miles ‘around the world’ in 40 days. We ended up doing two and half revolutions and raising over £130,000 for refugees across Europe. Thank you to everyone who supported us!

    SCREENS & NEWS

  44. This year, I spent about 2,117 hours on my computer—that’s 88 days straight or about a quarter of my time on earth in 2020. Chuck in another 500 or so on my mobile phone, plus factor in that I sleep about eight hours a night, and the proportion of my waking time spent on screens goes up to about 45 percent. Is that too much? Or is that the famous ‘new normal’?
  45. This year, I visited approximately 64,120 webpages. That’s an 8 percent increase compared to 2019. In my defence, 2019 didn’t have a three-month period where I wasn’t allowed to leave the house.
  46. 2020 was the fourth year of my ‘No News is Good News’ media diet. Excluding sports, this year I read 150 BBC News stories, nearly three times my total for 2019. Half were me trying to find out information about coronavirus. Most of my other visits to the BBC News pages were for research, but I did also read current stories about Black Lives Matter, the campaign against food poverty and, in total, five articles about the US presidential election.
  47. Contrary to popular belief, and thanks to decades of extremely hard work, most bad things are getting better: the number of people living in extreme poverty, the number of young women in education, global life expectancy. However, some things are bad and still getting worse. For example, the number of displaced persons around the world has more than doubled in the last ten years.

    SPORT, EXERCISE & GAMES

  48. I don’t have the perfect media diet: this year I mindlessly clicked on 2,705 BBC Sport stories—mainly because Liverpool FC won the league for the first time in thirty years.
  49. With the pandemic, Black Lives Matter and the fight against food poverty, this was the year that footballers got properly political.
  50. Regular press ups help protect my shoulder against dislocations. If I want to keep climbing—or indeed hugging people—I need to keep that habit up!
  51. I learned how to solve the miracle Sudoku. As Ben Orlin says:

    You’re about to spend the next 25 minutes watching a guy solve a Sudoku. Not only that, but it’s going to be the highlight of your day.

    FINALLY: YOU

  52. You lot are great! Seriously. I know you’ve had a hard year, but somehow you’ve found the time to read this newsletter and sometimes send me very kind replies. Your emails always make my day. Some of you have even decided to dip into your pockets and support financially. I can’t thank you enough! Knowing that you good people are out there is honestly what’s kept me going this year. I hope that the words I’ve put down for you have sometimes helped you a bit too.

Still want more?

Really? You’re insatiable!

52 things I was thankful for in 2020

This is a massive list of 52 things that I was thankful for in my newsletters of 2020.

  1. The man in the panic-buying supermarket who, after staring aghast at the empty shelves, turned to the shop assistant and beseeched him: ‘Do you not have any… pistachio oil?’
  2. The refugee in Turkey who emailed my mum, urgently asking whether our family were okay.
  3. The NHS and everyone who took part in the spine-riffling Clap For Carers. I really didn’t think Bournemouth would be much into it, but I could hear claps, cheers, whistles and whoops echoing all around town, from pier to pier, from neighbours near and far.
  4. Fossilisation. On Bournemouth beach (I spent a lot of time marching up and down Bournemouth beach) there is a tree fossil that is 140,000,000 years old. You can see the impression of the bark and the roots and run your hands over another epoch. Puts another twist on time.
  5. Viruses that infect other viruses. I don’t know why, but I find it comforting to know that obnoxious little snotrags like Coronavirus can themselves catch a virus. In fact, this is how all life began. We are nothing but an ecosystem of symbiotic relationships, including fungi, bacteria and, yes, viruses. You’ve heard of the human microbiome, and perhaps even the fact that there are more bacteria in our gut than stars in the galaxy, but now it’s time to learn about the human virome.
  6. Everyone who has had, is having, or will have a birthday during lockdown. This may well be the most contemplative anniversary you’ve celebrated yet. (24 June, thanks for asking — save the date.)
  7. The moon and sun. Hasn’t the moon been spectacular, keeping us company on the bright nights? One of my favourite sights this year was a spectral gibbous moon rising against a cobalt sky. The sun too has played its part, especially with the spring haze that gives soft focus to the horizon and draws the song of the birds closer. It’s like listening with headphones on.
  8. Portugal. In response to the coronavirus, Portugal has given refugees and asylum seekers full citizenship rights. Unfortunately, this liberation will last only until June 30, so rather than full marks perhaps it’s more like a B-. But still: this move shows how easily human lives can be loosed from their imaginary chains, with the merest stroke of a pen.
  9. Everyone who’s found their way up onto a rooftop. Give us a wave!
  10. Usama and Omar. Two kids who were stuck in their school accommodation in Bournemouth during lockdown, making the most of the extra English practice while they wait for flights back to Palestine. Except, of course, there are no airports in Palestine, so they’re waiting for flights back to Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt — or pretty much anywhere.
  11. The postal service, which made many of my days this year in both the sending and receiving of gifts Thank you, posties. (And special thanks to the cross-stitchers of this world.)
  12. Rain after a dry spell. Much as I enjoy the sunshine, full marks go to rain showers for making the trees happy.
  13. Over in Cholsey, full marks to my little tree, which sprung some flowers in spring.
  14. Paul Powlesland. The barrister rescued 1,000 oak saplings from a nursery that had to abandon their plans to plant 750,000 of the trees due to a change in government policy and our old friend the coronavirus.
  15. The Zoe Covid-19 symptom tracker app. Every day, along with a couple of million other people, I’ve been logging on to the Zoe Covid-19 symptom tracker. The data is fascinating and shows predictions of how the disease is progressing. Every week, the scientists behind the project give a public webinar to explain the science.
  16. Robigus, the Roman God of Wheat Leaf Rust, who could destroy a year’s harvest if displeased. As Salman Rushdie wrote: ‘Most of what matters in our lives takes place in our absence.’ The moment of our conception, the arcane decision-making processes of university exam boards and, not least, governments, but also the diseases that gather on the periphery until the day they strike at our daily lives. The Romans went in for dog sacrifice, but I wonder what offerings we could make to the invisible powers that circle our lives?
  17. The NHS — but not (only) for the obvious reason. Twelve years ago an NHS GP told me that I wasn’t unfit, lazy and bored of life; she told me, rather, that I had an underactive thyroid. It was that NHS GP who first looked at my pathetic jumble of symptoms and recommended a blood test. An NHS phlebotomist took the sample. An NHS lab analysed the results. An NHS endocrinologist lost his trousers with excitement and diagnosed me. And NHS pharmacists have been packaging up prescription drugs for me ever since. Thank you for keeping me alive.
  18. Kimchi. Packed full of enough microorganisms to defeat an invading army, vegans may take my cheese, may take my yoghurt — but they will never take MY KIMCHI!
  19. I’m gonna say it: Zoom. Yeah, I know about the security flaws, but as well as hooking me up with pub quizzes galore, Zoom connected me with family flung out all over the world.
  20. Sensible World of Soccer… 2020. After listening to Quickly Kevin’s interview with game developer Jon Hare, I had to look up to see how teenage timesink Sensible World of Soccer was faring. I wasn’t expecting to find a vibrant community bringing the game, first published in 1994, into the twenties. I can reveal that SWOS is as much of a timesink as it was 26 years ago.
  21. Riding for speed. The long evenings mean I can do a full day’s work, a full afternoon’s reading and still have time for a sundown cycle, riding hard and fast to Sandbanks and back. Buzzing.
  22. My friend Alex King for making a film about conditions in Greek refugee camps under Covid-19.
  23. Thighs of Steel for making the best of a bad show. Instead of cycling from London to Athens, we cycled 2.5 times around the world and raised over £130,000 for Help Refugees. Epic!
  24. Down time. As sleep researcher Sara Mednick explains, an afternoon nap is as restorative as a full night’s sleep. She also proposes that, for our productivity and health, we should not only take every Wednesday afternoon off work, but also take unlimited holiday, ad libitum. I wonder what she thinks of our enforced furlough?
  25. Charities helping refugees beat tech inequality during lockdown. Can you imagine not having the internet right now? Staff and volunteers at Bristol Refugee Rights are calling up to a 100 elderly asylum seekers, single mothers, people with disabilities or mental health issues a week to provide wellbeing services and combat isolation. You can help fund their work.
  26. Better protection for cyclists and pedestrians. The UK government has promised us £2bn to help make cycling and walking—let’s be honest—safe. This includes £250m for emergency protection for cyclists and pedestrians while we still have to observe social distancing regulations.
  27. The Israeli billionaire trying to solve Gaza’s water crisis—say whaaaat?! According to this Times of Israel report, Michael Mirilashvili ‘hopes to deliver enough units to meet the Strip’s daily needs within a year’.
  28. Your second self. Good Habits, Bad Habits by Wendy Wood introduced me to the concept of the ‘second self’, the notion that our habits are so powerful and so estranged from our executive function that they deserve equal acknowledgement alongside our autobiographical, conscious ‘I’ or ‘ego’.
  29. Khora. Huge shout out to everyone volunteering at Khora, helping deliver thousands of free meals to refugees and other vulnerable lockdowned humans in Athens and beyond—especially in 38 degree heat!
  30. The 2,500 council volunteers in Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole. I helped a man with a gammy leg in Westbourne who needed someone to top up his electricity meter and pop to the shops for him.
  31. The inventors of the bicycle. We’ll never quite know the names of all the inventors who’ve contributed to this near-miraculous feat of engineering, but I thank them all the same. Especially as a bizarre ankle injury meant I couldn’t run for a spell.
  32. Marcel Proust. In Proust’s own words: ‘In reality, every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable him to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have experienced in himself. And the recognition by the reader in his own self of what the book says is the proof of its veracity.’ Quoted in How Proust Can Change You Life by Alain de Botton.
  33. Ness Labs, James Somers, John McPhee and, above all, the lexicographer Noah Webster for introducing me to ‘the right dictionary‘.
  34. Protestors. No one would choose the global outbreak of a deadly disease as the ideal moment for a mass civil rights movement, but Covid-19 has certainly brought our disastrous social inequalities to the surface. The effort to protect people from Covid-19 is an extraordinary global collaboration, mustering extraordinary financial, academic and political resources. But where is the extraordinary collaboration, financial, academic and political, to fundamentally change the way this unequal society operates? Is it coming?
  35. The bacteria in my kimchi. The only problem is that, while it takes at least two weeks to ferment one jar of kimchi, I can eat the contents in less than five days.
  36. Lakshmibhai Pathak. Founder of Patak’s—a brand of Indian-inspired cookery foodstuffs. Specifically, Patak’s manufacture an excellent chilli pickle that has been entertaining my tastebuds for the past few months. Pathak was a refugee from Kenya.
  37. Wyclef Jean. Fugees’ 1996 album The Score was the sound of David Charles realising, not only that some people had a very different experience of the world, but that they could put that experience into words and invite the rest of the world in. I never thought of this before, but the clue’s in the name, really: Wyclef Jean was a refugee from Haiti.
  38. M.I.A. Born in the UK to Tamil Sri Lankan refugees, I’ve got to include big thanks to M.I.A. here. Mainly for her song Borders.
  39. George Orwell and the #1984Symposium. On George’s birthday, as usual, Documentally hosted a leisurely picnic of ideas around Orwell’s gravestone. 25 June every year, Sutton Courtenay. Find us on Atlas Obscura.
  40. Mamihlapinatapai. According to Wikipedia, mamihlapinatapai is a Yaghan word meaning: ‘a look shared by two people who want to initiate something, but neither start’.
  41. Train station staff. After taking my first train in three months and arriving back to the chaos caused by the thousands of holiday-makers who swamped Bournemouth in the summer, I have a new respect for the workers who must deal with the consequences of our government’s, shall we say, leadership.
  42. Old Father Thames. There’s nothing like a river swim. I love the sea, but sometimes I crave the certainty of the river. While tranquil, still the river knows well its direction.
  43. Cows. Relaxing in a cradle of oak roots, reading my book as the sun fed through the leaves, a herd of curious cattle mowed the grass to my feet, where one adventurous soul decided to ruminate on my shoes.
  44. Gifts. It really is the thought that counts. Thanks everyone!
  45. The antischedule. I’ve been using pen and paper more often and my timer is lying in pieces on the desk—I think it knew its time was finally up.
  46. The English language. My current toilet reading is The English Language by David Crystal. Published in 2002, the book traces the history of English from ancient to modern. But contemporary language is volatile. While Crystal clearly relishes sharing the millennial vocabulary of new technology with his readers, when was the last time you called anyone a ‘cybersurfer’, ‘netizen’ or—my personal favourite—‘nethead’?
  47. Cycle lanes. Can we have some more please?
  48. The River Thames and navigation in general. In the summer, I spent a glorious couple of days on a widebeam, slowly cruising down the Thames from Laleham to Windsor. Most river vessels or canal craft, whether barge, narrowboat or widebeam, move scarce more swift than pedestrianism: the ponderous pace of my thoughts. ‘Canal mania’ and the golden age of riverine industrial navigation may have lasted less than a lifetime before surrendering to the locomotive, but its legacy was savoured in the soft drizzle.
  49. Big trees. Cruising along the banks of the Thames, I was constantly awed by the gigantism of the riverbank trees. Perhaps it was because our eyes were at duck level, perhaps it was the fertility of the water, but the sinuous ash, the weeping willow and the London plane loomed quite magnificently.
  50. What if this is happening, not to me, but for me?
  51. Playing Out is a great campaign led by parents who want their kids to be able to play safely out on the streets. Like in olden times. The idea is that communities club together to agree a block of time when they won’t drive on the roads.
  52. And of course, all the people who to everyone who hosted me on my cycle around the south coast of Britain – or simply made me smile.

Distraction by distraction Four Quartets (Part The Second)

Last week, I quoted a section of Four Quartets in which TS Eliot bemoans how easily human beings can be distracted (by ‘men and bits of paper’), away from our real business of connecting with the universe.

At least, that’s my reading of these (shamefully truncated) lines from Burnt Norton:

Here is a place of disaffection
[…] neither daylight
Investing form with lucid stillness
[…] Nor darkness to purify the soul
[…] Neither plenitude nor vacancy. Only a flicker
Over the strained time-ridden faces
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration

Both daylight (plenitude) and darkness (vacancy) can reveal to us the wonders of the universe, but in a ‘place of disaffection’—later Eliot specifically refers to London—we are more likely to turn instead to the distraction of meaningless fripperies.

In 1936, the great enemy of concentration was ‘bits of paper’. Today I can think of a surely greater distraction that spends a lot of time in our pockets, but much more time in our hands, causing neck pain without respite.

Eliot’s antidote to the alienation from nature caused by modernity is ‘destitution of all property’ and ‘evacuation of the world of fancy’. Walking through day and night with provisions and accommodation on my back, while not as extreme as Eliot’s asceticism, was a timely reacquaintance with what’s most important.

For me, that means noticing: noticing the details in my existence. Like this moment, described by TS Eliot a hundred years ago, but which the universe brought to me only on Monday:

Now the light falls
Across the open field, leaving the deep lane
Shuttered with branches, dark in the afternoon,
Where you lean against a bank while a van passes

A moment of stillness, once noticed, that enriches the whole. Until my belly starts to rumble and I need a pee.

Burnt Norton and the Catswold Way Four Quartets (Part The First)

Shouldering a much-too-heavy backpack, I finally set foot in the Cotswolds on Monday afternoon. Four days, and 131,000 metres of claggy stomping later, I arrived at Bath Abbey.

It was sort of a pandemic-friendly hiking of the Cotswold Way national trail, skirting the Tier 3 troubles of South Gloucestershire. An alternative trail demands an alternative name: I’m going with the Catswold Way.

His name was Furniss and he can be snuggled with at the foot of the hill leading up to Belas Knapp Longbarrow.

Four Quartets (Part The First)

This week’s tramping of the Catswold Way was originally conceived as the most pretentious of walks. I originally intended to connect, by way of pilgrimage, the locations that inspired each of TS Eliot’s Four Quartets.

For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about: TS Eliot was a poet. His Four Quartets are a collection of four poems, written between 1936 and 1942, in which he tries to figure out humankind’s relationship to time and the universe.

If that’s not pretentious enough for you, then let me add that Four Quartets opens with two quotations from Heraclitus, the Ancient Greek philosopher. Untranslated.*

τοῦ λόγου δὲ ἐόντος ξυνοῦ ζώουσιν οἱ πολλοί ὡς ἰδίαν ἔχοντες φρόνησιν

ὁδὸς ἄνω κάτω μία καὶ ὡυτή

And, I hate to tell you, in all that follows there ain’t much rhyming.

Having said that, although Four Quartets might represent something of a high watermark for pretentious poetry, it’s still bloody marvellous. This, for example, is one of my favourite passages of poetry, rhymed or not, by anyone, anywhere:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

* Asterisk

I’ll save you a search and translate those fragments of Heraclitus. One note: ‘logos’ is what the Ancient Greeks called the divine principle that animates the universe. It’s often ill-translated as ‘reason’ or ‘logic’, a translation that renders Heraclitus’s aphorism pretty much meaningless. On with the two translations:

Although the logos is universal, the many live as if they had a wisdom all of their own

The way upward and the way downward is one and the same

Huge fan of Heraclitus, me.

Your turn

You can read Four Quartets for yourself here. But poems are meant to be read out loud, so you might as well get Alec Guinness to read them for you. That recording gave me goose-flesh (admittedly, that might have been because I was hiking through a muddy field in winter).

BBC 4

Conveniently enough for travel writers looking for destinations, TS Eliot titled each of his four poems after the specific location that inspired the verse.

After a little research, I learnt that the Burnt Norton of the first quartet is a manor house sitting at the northern end of the Cotswold Way. The second quartet is named for East Coker, a village in Somerset. The final poem takes its title from a village in Cambridgeshire: Little Gidding.

So far, all so very Merrie Englande. I gleefully imagined the highbrow BBC 4 series that would surely follow, as I made a learned pilgrimage between Thomas Stearns Eliot’s four poetical inspirations.

The television cameras would focus on a boot splashing into a muddy puddle, scattering a reflection of the stars, as my voiceover gently muses on how Eliot’s masterpiece, penned during a world war, can help modern humans make sense of time and the universe during a wholly different kind of calamity.

Then I looked up the third of the poems: Dry Salvages. Dry Salvages? What the actual fuck. It’s in Massachusetts, USA.

Walk

Picking through the wreckage of my documentary dreams, I reassembled some semblance of the idea. Scaling down the grandeur of my vision, I decided instead to walk from the manor of Burnt Norton all the way through to East Coker, where TS Eliot’s ashes are interred.

As you can tell, I haven’t finished this walk yet. From Bath Abbey to the church at East Coker, another 80km awaits (restrictions permitting) after Christmas.

So it was that I began: stepping off a train, then stepping onto a bus, before finally stepping off the bus (a few miles further on than I should have done) and onto the road from Chipping Campden to the stately manor of Burnt Norton.

My pack was full (inadvisedly so), my bivvy bag was dry and my feet were not yet hobbling, not yet throbbing.

Burnt Norton

It turns out that, for someone who does it on the regular, I’m a bad trespasser. Burnt Norton, you see, is privately owned.

Now, you might not think of TS Eliot as being particularly anti-establishment, but a century ago, he wilfully ignored the PRIVATE KEEP OUT signs that guard Lord Harrowby’s property and took a leisurely turn around the rose garden with his lover. (Side note: under a proposed new law, Eliot might today have been criminalised.)

The famous rose garden even made it into the poem:

Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.

Absenting the lover, I would still follow in Eliot’s footsteps and discreetly trespass. There followed a nerve-jangling yomp through quiet woodland that crackled underfoot, doubtless alerting the trigger-happy gamekeepers to my intrusion.

This felt nothing like Eliot’s ‘cheeky’ trespass. In the poem, his walkers are drawn on into the garden by ‘the deception of the thrush’:

dignified, invisible,
Moving without pressure, over the dead leaves,
In the autumn heat, through the vibrant air

I felt neither dignified nor invisible. The pressure over the dead leaves of this galumphing hiker made crispcracks that, at every footfall, had pheasants yawking up into the trees in a fluster of wings.

The path sank slowly into thick mud and wound past a gallery of shooting lookouts: would my backpack be mistaken for the hind quarters of a deer?

As it turned out: no. The trespass was all absolutely terrifying and all absolutely fine. In fact, the only thing that went wrong was my map-reading and I ended up parading up and down the Lord and Lady’s expensively-filled car park, in full view of their drawing room windows.

So much for discretion.

Burnt Norton manor house, as captured through the branches of a fallen oak by a nervous trespassing photographer

The $3 Stories of Mr Aki Ra

A colonnade at Angkor Wat, the City of Temples, in Northwest Cambodia (2001)

Back in the summer of 2001, I spent a week exploring the temple complex at Angkor Wat. It was a short scooter ride from where we stayed in a village on the outskirts of Siem Reap.

Side note: For many years, I treasured an amber ring that my Cambodian scooter-guide had given me as a parting gift to celebrate our ‘marriage’—until a girlfriend accidentally, symbolically, smashed it, more, she protested, in play than in anger.

If you enjoy wandering around ancient ‘rems’ and wondering on the lives of our ancestors, then there is scarcely a better place on earth than the temples of Angkor.

But I’m here to talk about a more modern type of ruin.

Human skulls at the Killing Fields, Cambodia (2001)

All but essential

I was in Cambodia only a year and a half after the final surrender and dissolution of the Khmer Rouge—the party, led by Pol Pot, that perpetrated the genocide of about two million people in the 1970s.

Before I left the safety of Bangkok, my dad suggested that I look at the UK Government guidance on travel to Cambodia. It advised against all but essential travel.

My response was to rig up a DIY money belt, which promptly fell off in the streets of Phnom Penh, leaving me with no money and no credit card. The absurdity of this precaution was made embarrassingly apparent when I returned to Phnom Penh after my tour of the temples, and someone ran up to me in the street and handed back my wallet.

I haven’t paid much attention to UK Government advice ever since.

Nevertheless, the Cambodia I found in 2001 wasn’t exactly a haven of political stability. It was only three years since the death of Pol Pot. Two and half since two former Khmer Rouge generals made a ‘perfunctory’ apology for the genocide. And only two years since the capture of Ta Mok, the last of the unrepentant Khmer Rouge leadership, a man known prettily as The Butcher.

These final death throes of the Khmer Rouge genocidalists were overseen by Prime Minister Hun Sen, who himself only retained his position thanks to a coup d’état in 1997. Incidentally, but perhaps not surprisingly, Hun Sen still holds the reins of power.

In 2001, it was in no way obvious that Cambodia would steer clear of the violence that characterised so much of the history of the region in the twentieth century.

World War II: the forgotten 45 years

Geographically, Cambodia is cradled for over 1,000km by her neighbour, Vietnam. Only 200km separates the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, and Vietnam’s most populous city, Ho Chi Minh City.

The Vietnam War is well remembered in the West because of the tragic invasions and occupations of the French and US militaries between 1946 and 1975.

Cambodia is the forgotten victim here: between 1969 and 1973, the US Airforce dropped at least half a million tons of bombs on the country, making it ‘one of the most heavily-bombarded countries in history’, exceeding the Allied bombardment of Germany during World War Two.

But just because exogenous armies eventually left Vietnam and Cambodia, doesn’t mean that violence in the region was over, merely that what followed is less well remembered—despite this next phase of conflict matching or even exceeding the Vietnam War casualties.

In 1975, the Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia and launched their systematic genocide. In 1978, the Vietnamese military invaded. A ceasefire was only agreed in 1991—well within the bounds of living memory for this author, and a mere ten years before my visit to the country.

For Southeast Asia, the Second World War didn’t end until Bryan Adams was top of the charts and another four million people had died.

The horror of the conflict is remembered at the Cambodian Landmine Museum, set up on the outskirts of Siem Reap City by a former child soldier, a man who fought on all sides of the war and who now works clearing the mines he once helped to lay: Mr Aki Ra.

Introducing Mr Aki Ra

I confess that I was in Cambodia for ancient history, not bleeding history. But one evening, in the garden of the small guesthouse where I was staying, I got chatting to a young couple, who urged me to take a trip into the more recent past and to visit Mr Aki Ra.

Mr Aki Ra opened his museum in 1999 and filled it with all the military junk that he found while clearing some of Cambodia’s untold millions of landmines.

I had many guns such as AK47s, Kalashnikovs, M16s, M60s, small pistols, machine guns and large rifles. I had rocket launchers, mortars, grenades, gas masks, CS gas canisters, bombs and even uniforms. On one occasion, I found napalm but it was too heavy for me to carry alone so I had to leave it.

Surrounded by his collection of decommissioned weaponry, Mr Aki Ra offers visitors an inconvenient juxtaposition to the peace and tranquillity of the monuments of Angkor.

I have always lived in Siem Reap province in Northwest Cambodia and have spent most of my life surrounded by guns, artillery and most of all, the horrors of the landmine.

Not long ago, he explains, the temples we coo over were live military bases. The Khmer Rouge held the famous jungle-invested Ta Prohm, while the Vietnamese set up in Angkor Wat itself.

The Vietnamese were responsible for destroying many of the precious statues in and around the Angkor Wat area as they used to take potshots at them when they were bored. They looted many ancient and valuable artefacts from the temples and they have never been found.

Suitably chastened, I paid $3 for a stapled-together 17-page pamphlet of Mr Aki Ra’s stories. It’s those stories that I’d like to share with you today, finally fulfilling a promise that I made twenty years ago.

The stories of Mr Aki Ra

The $3 stories of Mr Aki Ra

After both his parents were killed when he was about five years old, Aki Ra was brought up as an orphan soldier of the Khmer Rouge. Everyone lived in a state of ‘virtual starvation’ and Aki Ra remembers sneaking out of camp to catch insects to eat.

It was a midnight feast that not everyone survived.

My friend went to the pig trough and stole some scraps and quickly ate them. The next morning, when the Khmer Rouge were carrying out their usual faeces check, they noticed that one lot was different from the others and asked who it belonged to. My friend said that it was the pigs, but there were tell tale child’s footprints beside it and the Khmer rouge accused the child of lying and killed him.

Villagers were encouraged to betray their neighbours and those accused of any petty crime ‘would have their throats slit very slowly with palm fronds’ while the rest of the village was forced to cheer and clap the murder.

To the Khmer Rouge, life was cheap and they did not care who lived or died during their years of brutality.

Primary education

When he was about ten, the Khmer Rouge gave Aki Ra his first AK47, a weapon almost bigger than he was. He was also taught how to fire rocket launchers, lay mines and make simple bombs.

In a way, these weapons were like toys to us children and we used to play games with them. Some small children were not familiar with guns and the Khmer Rouge would give them loaded guns with the safety pin off. One of my friends shot himself in the head accidentally because he did not understand how the gun worked.

The Khmer Rouge taught Aki Ra only one letter of the Khmer alphabet per week.

They had my innocence in their hands and were able to warp it any way they chose. I thought that the whole world existed like we did and the brutality and hardship, the starvation and all the guns, became my normal world.

At an age when I was making the transition from Primary to Secondary School, Aki Ra was captured at gunpoint by the Vietnamese army and conscripted to fight his former overlords.

Secondary education

By this time, both the Vietnamese and the Khmer Rouge armies were desperate for recruits and started to treat people better. The Vietnamese promised Aki Ra good food and money, as well as rank and power.

But life with the Vietnamese wasn’t so different: the soldiers were still hungry, constantly scratching around for food. Many times, Aki Ra would have to pee into a bag of rice to soften the grains for eating.

At this point, I still knew nothing of what was going on the outside world and continued to imagine that this kind of life was normal.

When he was fourteen, Aki Ra’s unit found themselves outnumbered by Khmer Rouge fighters and had to run for their lives.

While we were running, we dropped ammunition from the magazines of our AK47s onto the ground. These appeared to be loaded with ammunition. However, we had added poison to the bullets so that when the guns were consequently fired, they would give off a toxic gas. We later returned to find the Khmer Rouge choking on the poisonous fumes and we killed them all.

There were no rules of engagement: each side did whatever they must in order to kill and survive.

I was very lucky during all my time spent with the various different armies and had many lucky escapes.

Learning a trade

In 1993, a United Nations peacekeeping force arrived in Siem Reap and Aki Ra answered their call for people to start clearing the fields of landmines. He remembers his astonishment on visiting Siem Reap city for the first time:

When the UN put a huge cinema screen up in the town, the people came to wonder at the film. When the cars and tanks moved on the screen, many people ran away as they thought that they were going to come right off the screen into the audience.

Landmines were used on both sides of the war in Cambodia and, being small and light, were especially suited for armies of child soldiers.

Many people between the years 1984 and 1990 were killed or injured by landmines. The hospitals were far away and there were few civilians or soldiers who had first-aid knowledge to help.

The quantity of unexploded ordinance left in the country is hard to even estimate. In the first six months of 2020, according to the Cambodian Mine Action Centre, more than 20,000 explosive devices were found and destroyed.

In his stories of landmine explosions, Aki Ra paints a picture of terrifying randomness, tragically paired with desperate corruption.

It was […] common for villages to have to make huge payments to the Vietnamese army, if a family member or their animals stepped on and detonated a mine.

A landmine explosion is usually enough to rip off a leg, but often not enough to kill someone. If the victim survives, then they face a lifetime of torture—not only from the physical wounds, but from the wounds inflicted by society.

Many of the soldiers who were victims of mines were evicted from the army and then left to find badly-paid jobs, such as road cleaning. Many resort to begging to this day.

Making this country safe for its people

Since the 1990s, Mr Aki Ra has had only one ambition in life: to make his country safe for its people.

There are still hundreds of people killed or injured every year by landmines, many of them civilians working in the fields who come across them while clearing the land.

Profits from Aki Ra’s museum go towards funding his landmine clearance NGO and supporting children who, like him, have become orphans.

Despite an ambitious government target for the country to be landmine-free by 2025, Aki Ra thinks it will take 50-100 years to find and clear every single mine.

You can help us by informing people in your country about the problems we face in Cambodia and hopefully we will eventually get enough support to assist us to speed up making this country safe for its people.

In 2018, Mr Aki Ra was arrested and the museum shut down. Despite his protests that the weapons were all perfectly safe, the authorities suspected that he was building a private arsenal.

Luckily, he avoided a conviction and I’m pleased to report that, today, Mr Aki Ra is still out there, clearing landmines.

~

You can read more of Mr Aki Ra’s stories on the website of his NGO: Cambodian Self Help Demining.

The Solidarity Files

It’s December, which means that many people are thinking about making charitable donations. As you’ll know if you’ve been following closely, I really don’t like to call my financial donations ‘charity’. I much prefer the word ‘solidarity’.

This shift in vocabulary leads to an interesting shift in mindset that opens up potentially more impactful uses for my money. Many groups doing great work can’t afford (in money, time, privilege or expertise) to become official charities, but they have as great if not greater need for donations.

1. Cooking On Gas

Wednesday was Khora’s birthday. To celebrate, I bought them a month’s worth of gas.

What the hell am I talking about? Re-e-wind.

This week, Khora Community Kitchen celebrated one whole year of its latest incarnation. The kitchen couldn’t have re-opened at a more critical time and has continued to serve a thousand meals a day to refugees, migrants and people in need living through lockdown in Athens, Greece.

A thousand meals a day doesn’t come for free, of course. Funded by solidarity donations from across the world, Khora gives everyone the chance to contribute by chipping in for cooking oil, vegetables or even a month’s worth of gas—‘You buy the food, we serve the meals.’

You can help Khora by buying them washing up liquid (€4), tea for a day (€10) or bread for a week (€100) in their online ‘store’.

It’s a remarkable project that you can now see for yourself in this epic video of Kareem and the crew preparing Palestinian maqluba (mmm!) for about 950 people. You can also follow them on Instagram or Facebook.

2. Happy Anachistmas!

You might have seen the wonderful Dope magazine being sold by street vendors around the UK. If you haven’t, then it’s basically a better version of The Big Issue (better for readers, better for the vendors), but it’s not a charity—and deliberately so.

Dope is completely free for vendors and the vendors keep all of the £3 cover price. The writing, design, printing and distribution of Dope is funded by solidarity contributions on Patreon and people buying copies of the magazine directly from publisher Dog Section Press.

In contrast, The Big Issue costs vendors £1.25 and they make only £1.25 profit per issue sold. The Big Issue makes a big noise about how their 1500 vendors made £5.5m in profits last year, but that’s only £3,700 for each vendor on average—nowhere near enough money to even begin to think about a life off the streets. And, with a 50/50 profit share, it means that The Big Issue itself made £5.5m in profits.

This is not to say that The Big Issue are necessarily doing bad things with that money—I honestly have no idea—only that they could be helping people much more directly. If Dope had similar distribution and sales, vendors would be making an average of £8,800 each. Now, this is not a fortune for anyone, but it is just enough money for vendors to support themselves, on the streets or off.

Vive la solidarité!

What about you? I’d love to hear of any other non-charity contributions that this little newsletter community makes or would recommend.

He’s not the messiah, he’s an ethically ambiguous cut of lab-grown meat

Yesterday, a friend sent me a Guardian article that announced the regulatory authority approval in Singapore of lab-grown meat. It’s news that has been met with cautious optimism.

Unlike livestock, lab-grown meat doesn’t need to be injected with antibiotics, which—quite apart from being healthier for meat-eaters—would also help protect even non-meat-eaters against what the World Health Organisation calls ‘one of the biggest threats to global health, food security, and development today’: antibiotic resistance.

If lab-grown meat replaces animal-grown meat consumption, then it could also reduce the amount of land used to raise livestock and thus remove one of the biggest drivers for land use change, a major contributor to the current climate and biodiversity crises.

Reading this news article more closely, it becomes clear that it is still a story of ‘ifs’ and ‘coulds’:

The small scale of current cultured meat production requires a relatively high use of energy and therefore carbon emissions. But once scaled up its manufacturers say it will produce much lower emissions and use far less water and land than conventional meat.

My question is: how far would lab-grown meat have to come before it could challenge a plant-based diet for lowest environmental impact?

Even if it does, it’s far from a given that lab-grown meat actually would replace animal-grown meat. What if the only market for lab-grown meat turns out to be people currently eating a plant-based diet for ethical reasons and animal-grown meat continues to rise unabated?

Surprisingly, a 2019 study that examined dietary data from 137 countries around the world found that the level of meat production has a bigger influence on what we eat than our appetites: the more meat that is grown, the more we eat. So what if lab-grown meat makes us more dependent on animal meat rather than less?

The study also found that the two biggest drivers of rising global meat consumption are income and rate of urbanisation. Given that the rate of urbanisation is highest in countries like Uganda, Burundi, Liberia, Laos and Afghanistan, what reason is there to think that these people would have access to expensive lab-meat factories?

The word ‘news’ comes from the Latin ‘novus’, which means ‘unusual’. News stories, like this Guardian article, are stories that are unusual. Most of the time, that means there is a more mundane, less ‘newsworthy’ story. In this case: a surer way of reducing landscape use change and our vulnerability to antibiotic resistance is to lose our taste for flesh, however it’s grown.

How to write a BBC radio sitcom during a global pandemic

Beth Granville and I started working on the scripts for Series 4 of our BBC Radio sitcom Foiled at the end of March, making use of the uncertainty of the first lockdown to produce first drafts of three of the four episodes. We worked remotely, of course, and although we shared script ideas and weekly phone calls, we wrote more or less independently during this first phase.

(For the writing data geeks among you I spent 75.5 hours working on the project over those three months of sunny loneliness.)

We took a hiatus over the summer months and then, slapped with a November deadline, took up our keyboards again at the beginning of October.

I don’t mind sharing with you the fact that our producer hated two of the draft episodes we’d handed in. It’s hard to say whether that was down to the distance between Beth and I, the distractions of the health crisis or—I think most likely—the natural process of writing anything.

This second, autumnal phase was marked by much closer collaboration, with phone calls every other day and the luxury of ten days of in-person time, spread over three blocks. There was a lot of work to be done.

But gradually, as the hours totted up, the scripts, as they do, started to fall into place. We got great feedback from the producer, first on one episode (‘Oh my giddy aunt this is wonderful’), then on another (‘Hoorah! This is fucking WONDERFUL’) and finally on the series closer (‘I think this is the best episode you’ve ever done’).

There was just one problem: we’d been hired to write four episodes, not three. Episode 1, that big bang series opener, didn’t exist yet. This was last Tuesday, the last Tuesday in November. Our deadline was the first Tuesday in December.

We made that deadline.

I don’t know how, but we started, muddled and finished a 30-page radio sitcom episode in a week. Actually, I do know how: by spending a lot of time writing.

(Precisely 30.5 hours from my side, plus more from Beth and a day with comedian Adam Hess. Incidentally, this episode broke last year’s three-week record for fastest ever script—but the number of hours spent writing were identical.)

On Wednesday, we heard from our producer: ‘This is fucking great. Funny, feasible, surprising but makes sense—it’s ticking all my comedy boxes.’

Finally, 8 months, 213.5 logged writing hours and a global pandemic after we started, we have (almost) finished.

(This compares with our experiences last year. I estimated that Series 3 took about 50 hours per episode, but that excluded time spent talking through story with Beth. The ~54 hours per episode this year includes most of that time. Although our 2020 writing process has felt quite different, the amount of effort has been identical.)

Foiled is due for broadcast on BBC Radio Wales and BBC Sounds in late January. I hope you enjoy listening as much as we’ve enjoyed writing. There really is no substitute for putting the hours in.

What do brains and politics have in common?

According to research from the University of Haifa, the discovery of creative solutions is a collaboration between two very different parts of the brain. One brain region is responsible for original ideas; the other for assessing whether the idea is realistic.

The ability of the brain to operate these two regions in parallel is what results in creativity. It is possible that the most sublime creations of humanity were produced by people who had an especially strong connection between the two regions.

It struck me that the sociopolitical breakdown between supposed ‘idealists’ and ‘realists’ is a tension embedded in our own individual brains.

When there isn’t what the researchers call a ‘strong connection’ between the associative and the conservative regions of our minds, our ideas aren’t as creative as they could be.

Likewise, when the idealist and realist sides of a society aren’t strongly connected, then that society’s political ideas aren’t as creative as they could be. And we all suffer.

~

After fighting on the losing side during the 2016 EU Referendum, political campaigner Eddie Barnes became interested in how we can form stronger, more collaborative connections between people with radically opposed politics.

Politics will always divide people; indeed, division is necessary in a functioning democracy.

Barnes argues that mature democracies divide in ‘mostly civil ways’ because citizens on either side of the chasm have a ‘basic emotional and empathetic grasp of how the other side thinks and feels’.

If that’s the basic requirement for a ‘mature’ democracy, then the UK is definitely a screaming, sulking, stomping adolescent.

~

But Barnes is optimistic that we can find a way back to creative collaboration. He works for Our Scottish Future, a think tank founded by Gordon Brown that was (until Covid-19 intervened) trialling ‘community assemblies’ of citizens with very different political world views.

These assemblies were designed to help people understand each other and move past their differences to find solutions acceptable to everyone.

One element of each assembly involved having to listen to another person for 90 seconds without interrupting. … It was intriguing to see people’s surprise that they shared common priorities and values with each other. We also witnessed groups reaching fresh conclusions about how to navigate some of our thorniest problems.

~

This, of course, all sounds very familiar: the community assembly is a basic unit of anarchist decision-making.

I, like many others, was first taught the principles of anarchist decision-making by creative, collaborative activists from the feminist movement. And I have seen these ideas working in practice everywhere from the streets of Cairo to the steps of Saint Paul’s.

Now—lo and behold—Our Scottish Future have also found that these open assemblies are much better at bridging political divides than either ignoring or shouting at each other.

There is hope—and I couldn’t offer up a more striking image for this hope than asking you to imagine one half of your brain as Gordon Brown and the other half as a band of anarchists.

Creative, collaborative decision-making facilitated by Codepink activists in Cairo, 2009

This piece was written using a process I learned on the Ness Labs Content to Creator course.

Thought for Food #2: Bread of Life

Egyptians use the same word for bread as they do for life: عيش—‘aish. Bread, quite literally, is life. Street bread in Egypt عش بلدي—‘aish baladi—translates just as well as ‘rustic loaf’ as it does ‘live my country’.

More broadly in Arab culture, عيش وملح—’aish w melh, bread and salt—is used to celebrate an alliance of gratitude between two people. Breaking bread together in any culture is symbolic of friendship. For Salvador Dalí, bread was a subject of fetishism and obsession.

If you like your bread leavened, then you’re at the mercy of burping microbes. This episode of BBC CrowdScience follows the fabulously unlikely story of how humans found yeast that actually tastes good.

Besides walking upright, gripping a hand tool and moaning about the weather, baking bread is the closest modern humanity comes to the lived experience of our Mesolithic ancestors.

If you’re uncertain about your status as a flesh and blood human being, what more direct way of communing with our evolution than to bake and break a loaf of bread?

Perhaps that’s why so many people have turned to their ovens during this pandemic. In a very literal sense, we knead bread.

Now I too have joined the baking legions, with a loaf that might consume your soul, but won’t consume your time. My bread of life recipe doesn’t need any kneading because there’s no gluten and no added yeast. It doesn’t need fancy weighing scales or even a loaf tin. You simply mix up the ingredients, leave it to rest (or don’t) and bake it.

Credit where credit’s due: I pinched the bones of this recipe from the back of Bauckhof’s gluten free, organic, vegan bread mix packets. I have also found this similar recipe by Sarah Britton, which gives a great explanation of how this bread works without the binding gluten of flour, and what kind of substitutions you can play around with.

Bread of Life: Ingredients

  • 155-215g wholemeal rolled oats
  • 185-245g of your favourite whole seeds (not ground). Bauckhof use (in descending order of quantity):
    • Pumpkin
    • Sunflower
    • Linseed (= Flax)
    • Sesame
  • 2 tbsp Chia seeds
  • 3 tbsp Ground psyllium husks (important!)
  • 1 tsp Fine grain sea salt

Play around with the ratio of oats to seeds (or go crazy and add a few nuts) for a total weight of about 430g for all the dry ingredients.

If, like me, you don’t have weighing scales, then simply measure out the dry ingredients using a measuring jug. You want to fill it up to about the 700ml mark.

Please don’t worry too much about precision: you’ll soon be able to tell when you mix the dough with water whether you’ve done too much or too little, whether it’s too wet or too dry.

Bread of Life: Method

  1. Put the mix into a bowl and add 360ml cold water
  2. Mix well and leave to stand for a few minutes
  3. Mix again. It should be sort of sticky, but still hold its form
  4. Form the dough into a loaf and put onto a greased baking tray. You can also use a well-greased loaf tin if you have one
  5. Leave for as long as you can. I leave it overnight, but don’t sweat
  6. Bake for 70 minutes at 200C. I use a fan oven, but every oven is different so keep an eye on it. It’s ready when tapping the bottom sounds kinda hollow
  7. Take out of the tin and leave to cool, about 20 minutes

What you’re left with is a nutritious loaf that, per 100g and depending on your ratio of oats (higher carb and fibre) to seeds (higher fat), delivers:

  • 15-17g fat (supermarket wholemeal comparison: 1.8g)
  • 17-21g carbs (37.8g)
  • 12g protein (10g)
  • 8-9g fibre (6.8g)

NOTE: This is not the Chorleywood Process, so forget any notion of airy vapidity. This recipe makes a dense loaf, an equal partner in a meal rather than the merest carbohydrate envelope for your sandwich fillings. Bauckhof note that ‘oat grain fibre contributes to an increase in faecal bulk’—great for happy guts!

Lockdown complete.

Trespassers Welcome

From The Book of Trespass by Nick Hayes

The majority of the English countryside is out of bounds for most of its population. 92% of the countryside and 97% of rivers are off limits to the public.

Private Keep Out signs are a personal hatred of mine. In England, we forget that private ownership of the land is an abomination in most of the rest of the world.

Private ownership without allowance for public access is the deoxygenated water in the poisoned pond that we swim in: so ubiquitous that we don’t even know what we’re doing to ourselves.

But there are other ponds. And we can clean our own water. Even in Scotland, public access to private land is a right enshrined in law.

Nick Hayes is an illustrator and writer who has recently published The Book of Trespass, which charts the human stories, history and politics of land enclosure. At its heart is a passionate campaign to extend the Right to Roam in England, currently under threat from the Conservative Party who want to make trespass a criminal offence punishable with imprisonment.

If that happens, then I don’t know how many of our outdoor adventures would end in gaol time, but probably about 92 percent. 97 percent if you like to swim, paddle or kayak.

If, like me, you have found sanctuary in our countryside during the pandemic, then please join the campaign.

During lockdown, perhaps the issue of crowded parks and footpaths was not so much people flouting the rules, but very simply the lack of space available to people taking their daily exercise. Covid-19 has demonstrated that access to space is very visibly, very viscerally, linked to social wellbeing.

The Shock and The Reason

In this postmodern, information age of imagination, the pandemic is a confrontation with realities—both the one we have created over the past fifty years and the one that was always there, bleeding behind the screens.

The reality we simulate

In The Utopia of Rules, David Graeber described an historical shift since the 1970s in the development of technology, away from physical objects and towards simulated projects:

What technological progress we have seen since the seventies has largely been in information technologies—that is, technologies of simulation. They are technologies of what Jean Baudrillard and Umberto Eco used to call the ‘hyper-real’—the ability to make imitations more realistic than the original.

If you doubt the essential truth of this broad assertion, then consider your life in 2020. Many of your human activities, I’m sure, have been reduced to their simulations:

  • WFH instead of with colleagues in the office
  • Email instead of love letters
  • Dating apps instead of meeting strangers
  • Sport, drama, comedy on television instead of in the crowd
  • Video calls instead of birthday parties
  • Emojis instead of touch

These simulations are only possible because of the development of information technologies. They’re not the real thing, but they’re the best we can do at the moment and I’m sure many of us are very grateful.

But these simulations didn’t come out of nowhere. As Graeber continues:

The technologies that emerged were in almost every case the kind that proved most conducive to surveillance, work discipline, and social control. … Information technology has allowed a financialisation of capital that has driven workers ever more desperately into debt, while, at the same time, allowed employers to create new ‘flexible’ work regimes that have destroyed traditional job security and led to a massive increase in overall working hours for almost all segments of the population.

The evolution of this society has been like boiling the proverbial frog: change has been so gradual that few people notice until it’s too late.

But this year, without warning, the hyper-real dropped the ‘hyper’ and became pretty much the only reality left to us. This abrupt shift to a life entirely mediated through screens has confronted us with what, perhaps, we might otherwise have forgotten.

The reality that bleeds

Conspiracy theories notwithstanding, Covid-19 is caused by a virus—a virus with what I’ll call a ‘bleeding reality’.

The virus is no simulation. It is not a threat that leaps out at us from behind a screen, like bankruptcy, trolling or slow broadband. It is a real and present danger of the kind that, in wealthy societies, we are not used to confronting, personally, daily.

The threat of pandemic has shown us our direction of travel, from bleeding to simulated reality. It’s zipped us to the end of the hyper-real and asked, Do you really want this? When bleeding reality is stripped away, what are you left with?

It’s the same discombobulation caused by technological revolution, as described by Marx and Engels in the Manifesto of the Communist Party:

All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

It took millennia for physicians to dream the idea that intangible viruses could kill humans. Funny that something we can’t see, smell, taste or touch should be what cuts through the imaginary play of light to show us what is real.

The Shock and The Reason

The pandemic has shown us that bleeding reality still matters deeply, and in a way that the simulated worlds of surveillance capitalism never will.

We hear of a vaccine and realise that real science matters. We read a book and realise that real art matters. We climb a tree or swim a river and realise that real nature matters. We sit alone in our houses and realise that real community matters, and that fairness, justice and equality really do matter too.

Your life isn’t meaningless. It’s not postmodern or ironic. It is real. Your life matters, desperately.

The pandemic has been a shock, but that shock has helped us come to our senses. As Marcel Proust wrote:

Some moments after the shock, my intelligence, which like the sound of thunder travels less rapidly, taught me the reason.

Unsponsored Content: Going Rogue

Joe (L) and Maria (R) Granville, Rogue Welsh Cake Company. Credit: Alex Jones

This week your humble writer is brought to you by the Rogue Welsh Cake Company, a mother and son hot-plating duo, flogging morsels of ‘is-it-a-bread-is-it-a-biscuit’ goodness to astonished foodies in the South Wales area.

The menu boasts nine audaciously rogue flavours, from coconut and mixed spice to Marmite and cheese. The young company’s Head of Fancy Dress, Mr Joseph Granville of Penarth, tried to explain what on earth they were thinking to a local newshound:

We’re all massive food lovers, literally everything revolves around food in our house. You know how some people taste with their eyes? We really do taste with our mouths. We care about flavours.

At a time when most people are really struggling, in life, love and laverbread, the Granvilles have become the nation’s undisputed Welsh Cake Barons, the hottest thing in baked goods since Mr Kipling first burnt the icing on his fondant fancies.

But the Rogue Welsh Cake Company’s despotic laughter is benevolent: over half term, the company have been doling out free dollops of doughy delights to frazzled families and their offspring.

But, Dave, what is the secret to the Rogue Welsh Cake Company’s meteoric success? I’ll let the company’s Y-chromosome mansplain:

It’s just me exploiting my mum’s talents really.

Now that’s what I call rogue.

If you would like to order some Rogue Welsh Cakes, DM the family on Instagram. Joe will come round your house dressed as a Welsh peasant girl and feed you cake. NOTE: Delivery currently only in the CF area—but they are experimenting with postal deliveries so if you swamp their DMs they’ll have no option. Class.

If you have any heartfelt products or services that you want to share with an audience of discerning and beautifully dressed mammals, then let me know by replying to this email.

Nowstory to history

Welcome to the 311th day of the 5520th year of human recorded history. I know it’s going back a bit, but do you remember, five thousand years ago, the furore surrounding the Pharaonic election of the unifier of Upper and Lower Egypt, King Narmer AKA The Raging Catfish?

Phew-ee! I mean, I know the mace-wielding despot brought reliable taxation to the civilisation of the Nile Valley and I know he re-established Egyptian military authority in the Lands of Canaan, but man!

Five gets you ten that there was a forgotten faction, a rival party, shoved to the sidelines in the pomp of Narmer’s coronation, drowned by posterity in the literal column inches of the King’s tomb inscriptions.

Humans have come a long way, baby.

Two questions

What is most important in your life? And where do you actually put your attention? The answers to these two questions, ideally, would be the same. They rarely are.

For example, friends, family, creativity and larking about outside are pretty much the most important things in my life.

But a disproportionate amount of my attention disappears into the screen, indoors, alone, fighting the swell of current events, the course of which I can’t even begin to control.

2011

Without thinking too hard, what are the first things you remember from 2011?

If you’re anything like me, then it’ll be personal events, coloured with the purples of intense emotion:

  • Cycling around the coast of Britain.
  • Spending Easter in Shropshire with my then-girlfriend.
  • Dislocating my shoulder cycling into a dog (the dog was fine).
  • Playing guitar on stage for the first (and last) time.
  • Squatting the Gaddafi family home in West Hampstead.
  • The death and funeral of my nan.

Before doing any deeper interrogation of my memory banks, one major political event surfaced: the so-called riots after the murder of Mark Duggen by police in London. But even this traumatic national memory I saw as through a glass darkly.

Of course, a lot else happened in 2011 and perhaps you remember more than I did without prompts:

  • The UK voted to reject the Alternative Vote electoral system. The campaign put strain on the already uneasy Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition (remember them?).
  • The Arab Spring revolutions threw out three dictators: Ben Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya (with some assistance from British, French and US airstrikes).
  • The Syrian Civil War began, precipitating the flight of more than 13 million people.
  • The News International phone hacking scandal dominated headlines and ended careers, newspapers and the life of one former journalist in a bizarre marquee erection accident.
  • Tony Blair finally appeared before the Chilcot Public Inquiry into British involvement in the Iraq War.
  • The UK severed diplomatic relations with Iran.
  • Barack Obama (remember him?) announced the killing of Osama Bin Laden.
  • Mobile internet use reached 50 percent of Britons (I waited another five years).
  • The UK enjoyed its second warmest year on record, in its warmest decade, on a globally warming planet. Yay.

From this list, 2011 looks like a disaster. At the time, it probably felt like a disaster. It certainly presaged disaster. And yet, in my own personal memory, it wasn’t so bad.

Experience Spectacles

Human beings see the world through two very different pairs of Experience Spectacles, and we switch between the two depending on whether we are thinking about current events or thinking about past events.

Our current experience spectacles tend to give us laser focus on the bad shit, while blurring out the good stuff. Our past experience spectacles have the opposite effect. They tend to filter out the horror, smooth over the ugly, and focus on the good shit.

We switch between these two very different prescriptions for excellent evolutionary reasons. After all, Bad News Now could imminently threaten our lives and livelihood.

(I won’t labour the obvious point about how modern communications technologies have radically altered the availability and quantity of Bad News Now, but suffice to say that, if we wanted, we could find a different awful thing to think about every minute of our lives. Whether you see that as a healthy contributor to your own experience is none of my business.)

Conversely, there’s not much evolutionary benefit to holding onto Bad News Then because we have, by definition, survived it. That’s why not many of us are still bitter about King Narmer’s Nile Valley power-grab in the fourth millennium BCE.

As with my memories of 2011, we are better off remembering things that make us feel good or continue to offer meaning to our lives: completing my first epic bike ride, a painful shoulder that still pops out on me, the kindness of my grandma.

Correction

The thing is that we all know that our experience of present and past is coloured by these two very different pairs of spectacles, but we could do a lot more to correct their alternately dystopian and utopian lenses.

On the one hand, we would do well to spend more time fishing upstream in the meandering river of history to modulate our Pollyanna memories. Reminding myself of the tribulations of 2011 not only reassures me that even awful events are survivable, but also offers understanding of what was to come, and of what is perhaps still to come.

In December 2011, Prime Minister David Cameron vetoed a European Union treaty that was designed to address the on-going eurozone crisis (remember that?). The Conservative party was behind Labour in the polls at the time and this anti-European veto gave him a popular bounce. However, Conservative newspaper The Sunday Telegraph ran an independent survey that found a majority of voters now wanted a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU.

I’m not alone in my memory of the vote to leave the EU in 2016 being a surprise campaign of disinformation and violence. But five years before Brexit, the drums were already beating.

Equally, we should make much more of an effort to place Bad News Now into a broader historical narrative. We’re so wrapped up in 2020 that we forget everything that’s ever happened and everything that ever will.

The antidote is to check that whatever is important to you is where you’re putting your attention. Stay focussed on your place in history, not your gut reaction to Bad News Now.

2020 is a terrible year. Too many people won’t be here for the future. But, for most, even 2020 is a survivable moment if we stick to what we do best: community. What counts now is not the bad news, but how we help each other through, until our memories do their opiate work of erasure and we can hold hands again.

Shankly’s Life and Death Food banks not football

This might look like a story about football, but it’s not. It’s a political parable with a footballing backdrop.

Misquotes

Folkloric Liverpool Football Club manager Bill Shankly once said:

Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.

Except he didn’t. He didn’t say that at all. What he actually said was:

Somebody said that football’s a matter of life and death to you. I said, ‘Listen, it’s more important than that.’

And this line was not—as is so often assumed—a piece of swaggering braggadocio delivered at the height of his championship-winning fame. This was Shankly speaking four months before his death and expressing an intense regret that he’d put football above even his own family.

Watch this short clip for a sense of the man’s passion for football—and the sincerity of his regret he’d allowed it to overwhelm everything else in his life.

Breaking the holy trinity

According to the COVID Symptom Study, the city of Liverpool currently has a COVID-19 incidence rate of about 1.6 percent—about double the rate of southern England, where I’m writing from.

It was bad enough to put Liverpool into tier three local lockdown ten days ago. Pubs and bars are closed and residents must not socialise with others outside their household or support bubble.

There are more important things in life and death than watching live sport, but football fans can’t watch the game in stadiums, they can’t watch on a big screen down the pub and now they can’t even have their mates over to watch Liverpool on the telly.

It’s in this environment that nineteen of the twenty Premier League clubs (credit to Leicester City) decided, together with broadcasters BT Sport and Sky Sports, to start charging additional one-off fees for a total of 150 league matches.

The Pay Per View charge of £14.95 per game comes on top of the cost of television subscription services, on top of the cost of season tickets, on top of the cost of the pandemic and on top of desperate—and pre-COVID—deprivation in Liverpool.

According to a 2018 parliamentary research briefing, nearly 30 percent of children in Liverpool were living in poverty. In 2019, Liverpool was ranked as the third most deprived Local Authority in England.

One neighbourhood is ranked inside the top ten most deprived in England. That neighbourhood is a five minute walk from Anfield, the home of Liverpool Football Club.

Liverpool 019C, according to government statistics, the tenth most deprived neighbourhood in England

The Pay Per View scandal reminds me of one of Bill Shankly’s slightly less famous quotes:

At a football club, there’s a holy trinity—the players, the manager and the supporters. Directors don’t come into it. They are only there to sign the cheques.

How times change.

Choosing a different direction

Times might change, but collective action can still dictate its direction.

Last Saturday, Liverpool played a game against Sheffield United. I won’t mention the score, because, as Shankly was trying to say, some things are more important than football.

The match was significant because it was Liverpool’s first that was only legally available on a Pay Per View subscription. But it was a night when fans chose a different direction.

Fans Supporting Food Banks (FSFB) is a joint initiative launched in 2015 by rival fans of the two Premier League clubs in Liverpool, Everton and Liverpool, to fight food poverty in the city. For the past five years, FSFB been responsible for about a quarter of all food bank donations in Liverpool. It’s a story that belies the narrative of the brainless, chauvinistic football fan.

FSFB and Liverpool fan groups, including the Spirit of Shankly Supporters Trust, urged Liverpool fans to divert their Pay Per View subscription to food bank fundraising. Rather than pay £14.95 to watch Saturday’s game on Pay Per View, fans who wanted to support people, not profiteers, helped FSFB raise over £125,000 for food banks in Liverpool.

This isn’t an isolated case. The weekend before, Leeds fans raised £57,000—doubling annual food bank donations in only five days. In protest at the Pay Per View game before that, Newcastle fans raised more than £60,000.

Almost every supporters group in the country has put their voice behind the boycott and so far football fans have raised over £300,000 for desperate people in their communities.

Liverpool Football Club have given me a lot to be meaninglessly proud about, over the last two years in particular; it’s nice to feel proud about something meaningful now too.

Food banks: a Tory problem

Of course, it’s not the responsibility of the Premier League, the football clubs or the supporters to feed people who are struggling due to the erosion of the social fabric of human society. Another organisation already has that job: the government.

According to the Independent Food Bank Study, food banks are a ‘post-2010 phenomenon’. Coincidentally, that is the very year that the Conservative Party first came to power.

A decade after David Cameron first pushed open the door to Number 10, food banks are giving away millions of meals to people who are struggling to support themselves. In many cases this is because of failures in the benefit system—but the primary reason people are referred to food banks is because of low income: they have jobs, but the wages don’t cover their diets.

This is data from 2019, before the pandemic, which, according to Scotland’s independent food banks, has already doubled demand.

So no: it’s not the responsibility of the supporters to help feed their fellow humans, except insofar as the supporters are also citizens, who will take responsibility. That’s what human beings do when they see other people struggling around them, especially after hearing their elected government throw off responsibility, not with excuses, but with insults.

This doesn’t merely belie the popular image of the selfish, loutish football fan; it belies the Conservative death wish that society is best served by individuals and families looking out for themselves. That individualist, familial model doesn’t work. And the strength of its cooperative alternative has been amply demonstrated, in this case, by the most tribal section of modern society: its football fanatics.

Common cause

The government, the Capitalist Media and even the club owners themselves like to forget that football, even the multi-billion pound business of Premier League football, is first and foremost a community event. That’s why the teams have names like Liverpool and Everton (a district of Liverpool) and not names like Standard Chartered FC and Nike FC.

Anfield Stadium is a community building, set in a neighbourhood of ordinary terraced housing on Anfield Road. Look: a middle-aged bald man loads up his van, a white hatchback parks on double yellow lines, someone opens a window to air their living room on a pale spring morning.

This is Anfield. Terraced housing on Anfield Road, neighbouring Liverpool Football Club. (Google Streetview)

Everybody knows that there is a lot of money in football, but most of it is tapped from its millions of supporters. So if the Premier League clubs and broadcasters won’t do the right thing, then football fans must—and will.

In the past couple of days there have been signs that the Premier League and broadcasters might decide to reduce the swingeing price tag of the PPV subscriptions. It’s bad for their image, they say, and the viewing figures have been ‘disastrous’.

I’m sure it’s already too late.

More than most, football fans know what can happen when thousands of people are united behind a common cause—the team wins trophies. Now we have seen what can happen when thousands of people are united behind a common political cause—food banks filled, families fed, governments shamed, politicians held to account and fans radicalised.

Communities taking charge

I said at the top that this might look like a story about football. It’s not, of course. The stage scenery is football, but what we have here is a story of a community taking charge when they have been failed by central government. It’s a story that inspires others to take seize power in their own communities and use the collective will to do the right thing.

Other managers won more trophies, but Bill Shankly, a socialist, holds a special place in Liverpool folklore for building the football club on the solid rock of its community. A football club is only as strong as its supporters; a nation is only as strong as its neighbourhoods.

Together we can do the right thing when our government is wrong; together we can lead when our government is feckless. As Shankly might have said:

Politicians don’t come into it. They are only there to sign the cheques.

Addendum

By the way, I have no problem with footballers making millions of pounds from their short careers. The money is obscene, of course, but I’d start by pointing the finger elsewhere.

According to the 2019 Global Sports Salary Survey, the average annual salary for a Premier League footballer—the best of the best, in other words—is £3.1 million. That’s still less than the average annual salary of the ‘best of the best’ businessmen in the UK—FTSE 100 CEOs—who are paid 117 times more than the average worker earns in their businesses.

And, of course, a top CEO might spend 20 years earning that kind of salary, with another couple of decades at lucrative positions lower down the ladder too. A top footballer is lucky if their entire career, from teenage star to journeyman pro, lasts 15.

Footballers, by and large, are working class men and women who couldn’t afford to buy their way onto the top table. And, unlike the executives who herd into high paying jobs from a place of privilege, Premier League footballers bring joy to millions all over the world.

That football’s highest earners—Marcus Rashford, Raheem Sterling and Trent Alexander-Arnold to name but three—are using their position to lead conversations around social justice shows that they too understand that their strength is the strength of the community.

Leave no trace: don’t drop banana skins

If we want to leave no trace when we’re out in the countryside (and we do!) then we should never (ever) throw our banana skins into the undergrowth. Banana skins are a big problem for conservation: especially in natural beauty spots haunted by humans.

I don’t want to make anyone feel bad: I’ve definitely been guilty of this faux pas on many occasions. More than anything, it’s a problem with how we educate ourselves about littering (and the ways that nefarious forces tamper with that education).

The problem with bananas is that their rubbery skins take up to two years to decompose—and when they finally do, the high levels of potassium throw off the nutritional balance of the local ecosystem. We’re effectively poisoning the soil. On top of that, animals have trouble digesting the skins—bananas aren’t a native diet for British wildlife.

So let’s take our banana skins home with us and either compost them or throw them into a smoothie and eat them (seriously).

If we can’t do either of those, then let’s take different snacks on our walks, ones we can devour in their entirety: berries, nuts or dried fruit. My number one hiking snack is apples—and I eat the core!

Whatever you do, leave no trace.

A message from a refugee stuck in the Napier Barracks

This heart-rending message was written by a young Iranian man I met in Samos last year. I first met Nima when he was volunteering at a restaurant that helped to feed hundreds of other refugees trapped on the Greek island.

Nima already had his travel documents: he could have left Samos any time. But he was prepared to wait months and months for the bureaucracy to approve papers for his best friend, Omid, so that they could travel onwards together.

Omid and Nima were inseparable. Brothers in a world without family.

The day before I left Samos last October, Omid was granted his papers. They celebrated with a dinner party in the restaurant. A moment of hope on an island of despair.

A year passed. Omid and Nima finally reached London, as they’d always promised, together.

It was in London where I was given the freedom and opportunity to feel normal again. After all this time I felt like a human, no different from every other human.

Normality was brief. A few days ago, Nima was thrown into a camp called Napier Barracks.

Alone.

The only thing I asked for was for Omid to come with me. Don’t leave me alone. Please. We made it this far, together. Why wouldn’t we continue together? It’s not my journey. It’s our journey. And doing it without him translates into emptiness. An emptiness that doesn’t fit inside me.

Thought for Food #1: Making an effort

Making an effort with simple flapjacks, sweetened and bound with dates and banana

If I’ve learned one thing about eating vegan in the past six months, it’s that I need to make more of an effort if I’m not going to die—not of malnutrition, but of boredom. I’ve often thought of this as a bad thing, but it’s actually an extremely good thing. (When I can be arsed.)

Non-veganism made me lazy. Any ragtag collection of roasted vegetables could go from gross to gourmet in the time it takes to grate half a pound of Davidstow. Strip out the dairy, however, and the vegan remains are revealed for what they truly are: hastily thrown together and technically edible plants flavour-masked with lashings of chilli sauce.

The only response, short of depressing vegan junk food, is to improve my cooking combinations, by practising flavoursome recipes. This is mildly profound: I’ve always been happy putting time into cooking for others, but now I have to acknowledge that me, myself and I are worth cooking well for.

So I bought a cookbook: Dirty Vegan by former professional skateboarder Matt Pritchard. (Two series of Dirty Vegan are also available on BBC iPlayer)

One of the issues with veganism is the paucity of fatty treat foods. The human brain loves two kinds of foods above all else: fats and carbs.

Thousands of years of human ingenuity have created dairy fats prepared and packaged into delightful forms for our brains: cream, cheese and cream cheese, to name but three. Vegan fats are manifestly not. Things are improving—step forward Naturli vegan block, the affordably tasty butter-killer—but there is a long way to go.

The temptation for vegans, then, is to depend on carbs. But, because there’s only so much bread that you can eat, sugar starts to creep into the diet. More raisins, prunes and dates; bananas, apples and berries; biscuits are a temptation for the first time in years. Sugar creep is the only reason I’ve ever wondered whether my vegan diet is any healthier for me than my old dairy diet.

The solution is the same: make an effort. I can’t slop a quart of cream into a bowl with oats and nuts as a dairy treat. Instead, I need to spend an hour making a tray of ‘no-sugar’ vegan flapjacks or maltloaf. And that’s a good thing. It’s good for me, it’s good for the planet and—this is the kicker for me—it’s good for other people.

You see, not many other humans would put up with a daily diet consisting of roasted vegetables (no matter how much cheese) and a bowl of cream. If I want to delight my friends, then I need to become the sort of person who puts time and effort into making tasty, satisfying and healthy food. And preparing food for others has to begin in the workshop, preparing food for myself.

Last weekend I made a full Bristolian breakfast for a friend’s birthday: five guests around the table, some vegan, most not. Scrambled tofu, garlic mushrooms, smokey beans, spinach, toast and mimosas. That it was vegan was irrelevant; it was nutritious and delicious.

Well worth the effort.

Making an effort with breakfast: garlic mushrooms and scrambled tofu—labelled by my collaborator as ‘a triumph’. Recipes by Dirty Vegan (since this photograph, I’ve also made his smokey baked beans and they’re banging)

Swallow the rainbow

In the greengrocers, I met an elderly man who’d ‘spent the last week in bed’. He shook his head at me as he fumbled for the word ‘avocado’. The Platonic Form of an avocado floated in his mind—‘Rough, green…’—but the abstraction stayed maddeningly out of reach. ‘Kiwi!’ I guess.

He shook his head again, this time at the world around him. ‘What do you make of it, bud? What a mess we’re in.’ I made some optimistic comment like, ‘We’ve survived worse’ and I was surprised by his abrupt reversal: ‘Oh yes, my man,’ he said with feeling. ‘Believe me, I’ve survived worse!’

This man was probably born the wrong side of the Second World War and remembers well the food shortages and fuel shortages. I found out today that there was a timber shortage in the 1960s and the door frames of our apartment were built with metal. The strength of this survivor’s feeling as he shopped for avocados and groped for words gave me a glimpse of our privilege.

The sun shone and we are surrounded by a rainbow of colours: striped pumpkins and carmine tomatoes, tricolour peppers and blanched potatoes, pale celery and deepest broccoli, gaudy bananas and russet apples, wine dark berries and chestnut mushrooms, blonde figs and treacle dates. The shop manager fills the man’s bags with colour and loads them up onto his mobility scooter.

‘Oh yes,’ the man chuckles to himself, shaking his head. ‘Haven’t we been through worse?’

At work, I’ve been covering a conference about big data in agriculture. One of the conference organisers, the environmental scientist Dr Andy Jarvis, made this comment about the pandemic:

We were all expecting a food system collapse—people were panic buying and didn’t have confidence in the food system and in our farmers. But the farming community has worked incredibly hard, the food system has stood up, and we’ve all remained well-nourished through this crisis. A big thank you to all the farmers.

Next time you’re in your local greengrocers, look around you at the colours on display. Look more closely and see the fingerprints of the farm workers who planted the seeds, the soil, light and water that grew the plant, and the robust food system that brought these colours to your high street.

Buy the freshest food you can, make something delicious and swallow the rainbow.

Falling profits for climbing

My local climbing centre, The Project in Poole, is back open—huzzah! There’s only one snag in the celebrations: because of the pandemic, they’re running at an unsustainable loss. Hm.

Government Covid-19 safety guidelines dictate that they can ‘only’ have 155 people climbing in the centre at any one time. Which would be totally fine, but climbing is dangerous enough as it is without adding a high risk of catching and spreading the virus.

Even before Covid-19, the capacity of the centre was ‘only’ around 150 people. I’ve been there when there’s been about 100 people fighting for wall space and I can tell you it is FULL. To be precise: it’s an elbows-out jostling bunfight. Not what you want in a global pandemic.

So, after boggling their minds at the fanciful government guidelines, the team running the centre got together and decided that 60 climbers could sensibly enjoy the walls while preserving a safe distance from others. 60—that’s less than half the government figure!

But this means that The Project is running at about 60 percent of their usual business—poof—there goes their profit margin.

So why are they open at all? The manager shrugs: ‘Well, at least we’re all back climbing, aren’t we?’ And he’s goddamn right: there aren’t many other places still open for people to go and let off steam (and, in my case, dislocate their shoulders).

It made me wonder: how many thousands of small, community-minded businesses like The Project are running at a loss simply because the fabric of society is built on small businesses with small profit margins?

Unless we speak to the people running our favourite places, we might not realise what’s really going on because, superficially, ‘we’re all back climbing again’. But that’s plaster work over foundational cracks.

We need these places more than ever; let’s back them more than ever.

Tintin versus the foo fighters (not those ones)

Panels from The Seven Crystal Balls by Hergé, Methuen English edition 1962

When I saw these panels in the Tintin adventure The Seven Crystal Balls, I confess to thinking, ‘Gah, I hate it when Tintin goes all sci-fi—I much prefer it when he’s fighting real baddies!’

As this particular bande dessinée was first published while Belgium was under Nazi occupation, I can understand why Hergé went for a vague, supernatural kind of an enemy, but still. Give me The Blue Lotus, with its vile business tycoons, opium wars and belligerent Japanese, any day.

At the end of my particular library edition, however, there was a section that explains to the reader the source of Hergé’s inspiration for the story. And I was astonished to read that the ball of lightning depicted in these fantastical panels hadn’t stretched Hergé’s imagination past breaking point.

Ball lightning is… real?

An engraving of ball lightning that Hergé might himself have seen (Wikipedia)

~

Although rare, ball lightning is well-attested throughout history. On Sunday 21 October 1638, during a violent thunderstorm, four people died and scores more were injured when ball lightning wreaked havoc through the parish church of Widecombe-in-the-Moor, Dartmoor.

A ‘true revelation’ published at the time reported that:

The extraordinarie lightning came into the Church so flaming that the whole Church was presently filled with fire and smoke, the smell whereof was very loathsome, much like unto the scent of brimstone.

Some said they saw at first a great ball of fire come in at the window and passe thorough the Church, which so much affrighted the whole Congregation that the most part of them fell downe into their seates, and some upon their knees, some on their faces, and some one upon another, with a great cry of burning and scalding, they all giving up themselves for dead.

The revelation makes for delightfully grisly reading, particularly on the demise of one ‘Warriner unto Sir Richard Reynolds’:

his head was cloven, his skull rent into three peeces, and his braines throwne upon the ground whole, and the haire of his head, through the violence of the blow at first given him, did sticke fast unto the pillar or wall of the Church ; so that hee perished there most lamentably.

I know what you’re thinking: what is a ‘Warriner’? It’s someone who keeps rabbits. And, if you’re anything like me, you’re also thinking that Hergé let Tintin and Captain Haddock off lightly.

~

But can we really trust the ‘true revelation’ of 1638? Might it not have been embellished for popular effect? After all, this was the century of Shakespeare and nobody looks to his Antony and Cleopatra as a reliable source for the toxicology of the asp.

If you are wont to ascribe hysteria to the medieval denizens of Dartmoor, then perhaps you are more convinced by the reports of U.S. airforce pilots, who spotted ball lightning during the Second World War.

In a mission debriefing on the evening of November 27, 1944, Fritz Ringwald, the unit’s S-2 Intelligence Officer, stated that Meiers and Ed Schleuter had sighted a red ball of fire that appeared to chase them through a variety of high-speed manoeuvrers.

These meteorological freaks were not so rare that the pilots weren’t moved to give the terrifying phenomena a more colourful name. They called them foo fighters.

(Actually they called them fuckin’ foo fighters, but that kind of nomenclature won’t earn you twelve Grammys and four Brit Awards. Any excuse…)


~

But if even the U.S. airforce are too hysterical for you, then how about this couple from Gwinn in Michigan, whose home was invaded by ball lightning in the late 1980s while they were entertaining friends. How rude.

A bright blue and white sphere the size of a football floated across the party room before imploding on the television set. As the hostess described:

It was just a very loud bang and—poof—it was gone. And everybody’s kind of standing there, staring at each other.

Slippery Nipples all round.

And if an ancient anecdote delivered by a camera-shy, cocktail-loving couple from the American midwest doesn’t convince you of the reality of ball lightning, then, frankly I don’t know what will.

Oh, actually, maybe I do—science!

~

During a thunderstorm on 5 August 2014, a red ball of fire 40 cm in diameter was witnessed entering an office through an open window at the local Water Conservancy Bureau in Xinjiang, Shanxi, China. The ball lasted for less than one second and then exploded loudly. Five computers in the room were damaged, which is a direct result of high-power microwaves.

That account is from a 2017 paper published by Hui Chun Wu from the Institute for Fusion Theory and Simulation at Zhejiang University in China. In the paper, Dr Wu proposed what he calls ‘a comprehensive theory for the phenomenon’ of ball lightning:

At the tip of a lightning stroke reaching the ground, a relativistic electron bunch can be produced, which in turn excites intense microwave radiation. The latter ionizes the local air and the radiation pressure evacuates the resulting plasma, forming a spherical plasma bubble that stably traps the radiation.

Huh?

Don’t panic: here’s a video demonstration of the effect and an explanation of the theory, using a microwave oven and a grape.

In this video, a microwave gets trapped inside the ‘bubble’ of a grape and creates plasma. Fun. What Dr Wu is suggesting is that ball lightning is what happens when a microwave gets trapped inside a bubble of plasma. Epic.

Wait. What is plasma? According to the writer’s saviour, WordWeb, plasma is:

A fourth state of matter distinct from solid, liquid or gas and present in stars and fusion reactors; a gas becomes a plasma when it is heated until the atoms lose all their electrons, leaving a highly electrified collection of nuclei and free electrons.

Great. So we now have a theory of ball lightning that we kind of understand and that sciencifies the fantastic plotline of The Seven Crystal Balls. But Dr Wu has more revelations in store for us.

~

Dr Wu’s theory not only shows how ball lightning could pass through aeroplanes and glass windows, but might also give credence to the bloodboiling injuries of the poor Warriner unto Sir Richard Reynolds back in 1638:

Theoretical analysis reveals that rapid temperature rise leads to a thermoelastic expansion of tissue, which launches an acoustic wave travelling by the skull to the inner ear.

Enough to make a brain explode? Dr Wu confesses that he didn’t pump quite as much energy into his balls (err…) as a lightning strike, but does state:

In our theory, the microwave reaches ~1 J/cm2 for the ball formation, which is enough to induce both microwave hearing and nerve damage on witnesses.

~

So there you have it: an entirely plausible explanation for the ball lightning phenomena witnessed by Tintin et al. in Hergé’s thoroughly researched comic science book, The Seven Crystal Balls.

Hold on—what’s that you say? The rest of the plot depends on a ‘mystic liquid’ found in coca that puts people into instant comas and the use of voodoo spells to punish wrongdoers thousands of miles away? Oh for pity’s sake…

Britain: Dope Capital of the World

Possession of cannabis for personal use is illegal in the United Kingdom—OBVIOUSLY. Our doctors can’t even prescribe it for proven medical use—OBVIOUSLY.

So it’s perhaps surprising to learn that the UK is the world’s biggest producer and exporter of legal cannabis. Say whaat!

Oh yes: we’re not messing around. We are the big boys.

According to the 2020 International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) technical report, the UK produces no less than three quarters of the world’s legal cannabis—289.5 tonnes in 2018, the last year for which we have data. Dopey old Netherlands, by contrast, produced a measly 10.2 tonnes.

We are Steppenwolf’s poetic vision:

You know the dealer, the dealer is a man
With the love grass in his hand

That’s us. We’re dealing a whopping 75 percent of the love grass.

If you’re wondering why Britain grows so much cannabis when we have one of the most restrictive legal structures on its use in the world, then all I can tell you is that, apparently, cannabis seed makes good bird feed.

In 2018, the UK also produced 2.3kg of psilocin—the active compound found in magic mushrooms. The INCB called this ‘the largest quantity of the substance ever manufactured in a given year’.

Needless to say, psilocin—along with all the other psychedelic compounds, including ones that grow in our fields around this time of year—is stupidly illegal. Picking and sharing the wrong kind of mushrooms with your friends is the most illegal thing you can do in this country, short of murder.

If you’re starting to get annoyed that our government is saying one thing to its citizens and then doing the complete opposite behind our backs, well, hold up, soldier. Maybe that’s a good thing.

There are some things that for some reason (I’m looking at you, Daily Mail readers) are ‘politically impossible’ for our governments to achieve. The decriminalisation of cannabis is one such.

The most popular illegal drug in the country was briefly downgraded in illegality from Class B to Class C under a Labour government in 2004—a decision that was labelled a ‘mistake’ and reversed by the same politicians in 2009. This despite the fact that the science and hospital admissions show that, as a compound, cannabis is much less dangerous than alcohol.

So it’s kind of nice to know that, behind the headlines, politicians are secretly doing the ‘politically impossible’ anyway. It’s just a shame that, for a taste of Great British dope, we have to go abroad.

P.S. This week Future Crunch pulled this story out of The New York Times, which illustrates a parallel point. Governments, no matter what they say or feel it is politically expedient to say, are as much in thrall to the tide of history as anyone:

During the first term of the most coal-friendly president in American history, 145 coal-burning units at 75 power plants have been shut down, eliminating 15% percent of the country’s coal-generated capacity. This is the fastest decline in coal capacity in any single presidential term, far greater than the rate during either of President Barack Obama’s terms. #MAGA

Stroke Values

My sister is a speech therapist who works with people who have suffered a stroke. A stroke is what happens when the blood supply to your brain gets cut off, usually by a blood clot but sometimes after the bursting of a blood vessel.

By the way, the etymology of the word ‘stroke’ is completely unrelated to that thing you do to cats. It’s from the same root as ‘strike’: a blow delivered, such as the stroke played by a top order batsman to a half-paced delivery outside offstump. It’s use is metaphorical in the medical case.

Whatever the etymology, being struck by a stroke is not a good thing. The longer the blood supply is cut off, the more extensive the damage to brain cells, damage that can be long-lasting and even permanent.

Hence the international information campaign to improve public recognition of the signs of stroke:

And hence why victims of stroke sometimes need speech therapists like my sister to help them re-wire their damaged brain to cope with the loss of the cells that used to manage language and communication.

What has this got to do with values?

Not a lot, but also everything.

Treating someone who’s had a stroke isn’t like treating someone who’s got frostbite. I’m not one for body-mind dualism, but for most people our brains are a significant contributor to what makes us us. And the importance of correctly parsing and producing language is absolutely ru8gia;;AKL

At a stroke, a stroke can completely transform the person we thought we were. It’s a cataclysm—and an opportunity.

In the three months after a stroke, as the body madly tries to heal itself, the brain enters a period of heightened neuroplasticity. This is when speech therapists do the bulk of their work, which begins by exploring the patient’s values—those invisible through-lines of a human’s psychology and behaviour.

Philosophers, theologians and self-dev gurus are prominently conscious of their values. The rest of us tend to cruise through life with our values in the driving seat, blissfully unaware we’re a passenger until something forces us to take the wheel for a second.

Like when we have a stroke and a meddling psychologist asks us a bunch of damnfool questions in a desperate bid to figure out the kind of brain they’ve been tasked to put back together.

Enter my sister…

There are two ways to look at stroke recovery. It’s an opportunity to change the values you’ve always lived by because they’re not working for you. Or it’s an opportunity to hold onto your old values, as one solid anchor at a time when everything else in your life has been turned upside down.

So my sister starts her sessions with stroke survivors by exploring their values. It’s a deceptively simple task: read through a list of words like ‘courage’, ‘creativity’ and ‘curiosity’ and pick out the ones that resonate with you most.

I say deceptively simple because, as my sister explains, when your language and cognition have been banjaxed by a stroke and you have no understanding of abstract concepts like ‘courage’, picking words from a list is nigh on impossible. It’s the speech therapist’s job to help people communicate across the opening chasm.

But when they’re pinned down, these six words, these six values, give the survivor a foundation on which to build the rest of their post-stroke lives.

As my sister says:

You might not be able to feed yourself, climb the stairs or recognise your relatives after a stroke, but you can always live by your values.

If Janet decides that one of her values is generosity, then she can apply those values as easily to her post-stroke existence as she did before. Maybe she can’t work any more and can’t afford the big money gifts she used to dole out to friends and to charity—but generosity as a value is independent of wealth. It’s up to Janet to decide what generosity means for her now.

In this way, human beings can find meaning in any situation by foregrounding and following their values instead of focussing on the mental, physical and material capacity they might have lost.

This remains true even if the only value left to them is the ability to bear suffering with fortitude. If you’re dubious, see Viktor Frankl. And if you haven’t had a stroke recently, please don’t check out because…

Ratiocination incoming

As human societies the world over are wracked with The Virus, we’re showing all the signs of a metaphorical stroke. Bear with me.

We can’t do the same things as we could a year ago—we can’t even think the same thoughts. We’ve become estranged from society and alienated from the world. Our future horizon has shrunk unpredictably: tomorrow is another day, but only probably.

Doesn’t it feel, metaphorically speaking, like we’re stumbling around half paralysed, thinking through the sludge of a million dead brain cells? Not really, no. But also: yeah, a bit.

Without downplaying the complementary cataclysms of either stroke or global pandemic, I think there’s something in twisting my sister’s words to the scenario:

You might not be able to play touch rugby, find gainful employment or buy toilet paper during a global pandemic, but you can always live by your values.

~
FWIW: When I went through the Russ Harris values worksheet yesterday, I settled on no less than thirty-one values that were very important to me. It was sweaty work narrowing it down to six, but I ended up with adventure, creativity, curiosity, generosity, intimacy and—the one ring to rule them all—connection.

Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.
E.M. Forster, Howard’s End (1910)

~

P.S.: Fund the NHS!

This Means Moor

Dartmoor demands from its ramblers an ancient glossary: kists, reaves and leats; logan, staddle and bond stones; clitter, cleaves and clappers; growan, pluton and tors. The map could be read as a found poem; the land invites explorations historical, geological and botanical.

Here you’ll find not only the eponymous moorland, but also featherbed bog, heathland and ancient oak forests. At least 13 rivers arise on Dartmoor. Rivers arise—wonderful.

Waterfall on the East Dart River, one of the many that arise on the moor

If you live in the southeast of England, then you don’t have ready access to wilderness—and you haven’t done since the Industrial Revolution. The closest for many is Dartmoor: 368 square miles of granite, an intrusive layer of plutonic rock; crystallised magma cooling into geology a sprightly 280 million years ago.

Wilderness is a charm. I write these words sitting in a box. Natural light does shine through the transparent panes on one edge of the box, but I’m isolated from the outdoors: not even a scent of nature can penetrate my sealed box. I had to buy an atomiser to pump out the restorative smell of Scots Pine.

My senses are no use inside the box, they can only cause discomfort—like when the rubbish truck goes past or the gardeners turn on their leaf-blowers. Inside the box, textures are polished smooth and geometry is planed square: these cushions, the carpet under my feet, the wood of the desk.

Unless I’m cooking, eating or bathing, this box holds my senses in suspension so that I can tether myself to the abstractions of the knowledge economy. The painted box makes me feel pinned, as in T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock:

When I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin?

Well, I say that Prufrock should begin by leaving Middle England. Dartmoor, ho!

Wild camping among the ruins of Foggintor quarry, granite from which helped build Nelson’s Column

Wilderness is where we go to unbox ourselves. It’s where our senses can hardly believe their luck: gorging on stiff smells and stubborn ground. It’s where we revel in the full breadth of our human faculties: endurance, strength, ingenuity, forbearance, comradeship, imagination and foresight.

We seek the wilderness for respite from the human mania for order and abstraction. The welcoming wilderness of Dartmoor, all jagged sights and weathered touch, feels orders of entropy more chaotic than my little box—but even this alien wasteland isn’t there in spite of us humans; it’s there because of us humans.

A distinctive Dartmoor contradiction of ancient stone circle surrounded by modern pine plantation, Fernworthy Forest

Ten thousand years ago, I wouldn’t have found the barren land I trudge through today. Instead I would have been thrashing through the darkness of vast oak, hazel and elm forests, thorns clutching at my sides. It’s hard to believe, but this blasted heath once wore a technicolour dreamcoat of trees, covering all but the highest tors over 460m.

Indeed, the richness of the land and its warmer-than-now climate drew Mesolithic, Neolithic and then Bronze Age farmers and Dartmoor was once busily populated with industrious agriculturalists.

It was these happy-go-lucky folk who did the hard work of forest clearance, setting fires to burn clearings in the canopy for crop fields, which they parcelled off with stone wall reaves. On the high moor, where agriculturists fear to tread, cattle and sheep were grazed, happily gobbling up any green shoots of recovery in the forest.

These civilisations were a triumph, each successive generation a right winner. Writing of the landscape transformation in England more broadly, Oliver Rackham in The History of the Countryside goes so far as to claim:

to convert millions of acres of wildwood into farmland was unquestionably the greatest achievement of any of our ancestors

But with every tree cut down, landscape erosion tilted the ecology toward invisible processes that couldn’t be handled with the woodcutter’s axe. Over thousands of years of human occupation, the soil gradually acidified and the decaying vegetation of the dying trees became the peat bogs for which Dartmoor is now famous.

The climate changed, becoming wetter and colder, and gradually the people abandoned their huts and longhouses. And what they left for their ancestors was a wasteland: bare scraps of ancient oak woodland in an exposed landscape that is playground to the west wind.

The classic view of Dartmoor: pony, clitter (rubble), Bronze Age menhir (standing stone) and an awful lot of exposed moor and heathland. And the television tower

But our forebears left something else behind as well. Something special. Today we recognise how special this special land is with a scattering of special titles: we call them Special Areas of Conservation.

There are 256 Special Areas of Conservation in England and Dartmoor boasts no fewer than four of them: Northern Atlantic wet heaths; European dry heaths; blanket bogs and old sessile oak woods—the latter includes the stunted oaks and layered lichen of venerable Wistman’s Wood.

English oak growing among the moss-coated clitter of venerable Wistman’s Wood. Moss grew so thickly on the trunks that we found filmy ferns thriving at head height

If our forebears hadn’t stripped Dartmoor, would any of this wilderness be here? Would we find rare stag’s-horn clubmoss on the heath or Sphagnum imbricatum growing on the bogs? Would we have this sanctuary for the otters, the cuckoos and the horseshoe bats? And would I be here, unboxing myself?

On average, there’s two and a half times more rainfall on the moor than on the nearby Exe Estuary; I had four days of solid sunshine, only one where the weather got ‘a bit thick’.

I told you I was lucky.

Above: Maidenhair spleenwort, a wee fern, growing between the cracks in an old stone bridge across the Cholake River

Happy Global Day of Climate Action!

This is a takeover! Legendary school strike movement Fridays For Future have declared today a global day of climate action. As Eric Damien from Fridays For Future Kenya says:

The pandemic has shown us that politicians have the power to act quickly and consistent with the best available science. But not even amid a pandemic is the climate crisis on hold. No measures have been taken to lower worldwide greenhouse gas emissions in a sustainable and just manner. The billion-dollar-investments that are now made to tackle the pandemic and its aftermath must be in line with the Paris Agreement.

My action—aside from sending this email, which unhappily costs the planet approximately 1kg in carbon dioxide equivalent emissions—is to spend the week in Dartmoor. I’m training for my Hill and Moorland Leader qualification and need to get some quality walking days done before the winter lockdown sets in.

Watchful in Wistman’s Wood, Dartmoor. Photo by legendary photographer and all round nice guy, Ben Queenborough (his words, not mine)

It might not sound like much of an ACTION, but spending more time in nature and helping others do the same is a significant element of the change we need to make.

Out on Dartmoor, the ‘environment’ isn’t a hypothetical entity beyond your screen. It’s coming at you from all angles, undeniable and awe-inspiring. We protect what we value, but we can only value what we know ourselves, first hand.

Wistful near Devil’s Tor, Dartmoor

Helping teenagers spend a couple of days immersed in nature—especially those who’ve never hauled a backpack into the woods or held a map the right way up before—makes it a little more likely that they’ll be sympathetic to radical economic and ecological change, not only when they grow up, but now.

A 2009 study from the University of Rochester found that exposure to mere photographs of natural landscapes nudged people to value their community and human relationships. On the contrary, exposure to images of man-built cityscapes made people more focussed on wealth and fame.

Focussed on wealth and fame, but also focussed on not falling arse over tit on a massive trip ladder

In an attempt to explain why this should be, study co-author Andrew Przybylski suggested that nature helps us connect to our authentic selves.

Nature in a way strips away the artifices of society that alienate us from one another.

This is worth pondering. What kind of environments, in this fragile moment, should we choose for ourselves and our children? It doesn’t have to be Dartmoor: as the Rochester study showed: images work a little; plants work a little more.

What does your immediate environment look like today? What can you do now to turn your environment into action for the climate?

Plant wisdom in the ancient forest

Make adders count

Last weekend I saw my first adder. I didn’t take a photograph because I was instructing a group of teenagers and we don’t do screens when we’re outdoors. Instead we watched in awe as it slalomed across the sandy path and into the tree root undergrowth.

We were lucky: adders are a conservation priority species in the UK and 90 percent of adder sites now have only small populations—and numbers are falling. The Amphibian and Reptile Groups of the UK (ARG!) found that, unsurprisingly, the human rampage was doing nothing for the peace and tranquillity of Britain’s most infamous serpent.

You might not have much sympathy for the adder personally, but they are an indicator species: if adders are struggling, then so too are unheralded species who share the same habitat.

While no one wants to be bitten by a snake, adders are not aggressive animals and adder venom toxicity is relatively low compared to other vipers. There have been 14 fatalities from adder bites in the UK since 1876, and none since 1975.

If you’re bitten, seek medical attention immediately: there’s a buffet of at least eight different antivenoms to enjoy.

Feel the Fear… And Give Future Readers a Hard Time By Not Referencing Your Sources Anyway!

I’m currently reading Feel the Fear… And Do It Anyway, a classic of the self-help genre, by Susan Jeffers. It was written in a fever of enthusiasm back in 1987 and you can kind of tell.

Although there’s plenty of practical wisdom in there—clearly inspired by the Stoics I might add—there are also moments of sweeping generalisation and unsubstantiated assertion. All good fun.

I’m reading the revised edition, published in 2012, and very much enjoying the fact that she felt no need to update the references to ‘audio cassettes’ and ‘portable CD players’. More annoying, however, is her tendency to quote other writers without attribution or without context.

In the chapter ‘Filling the Inner Void’ Jeffers presents a long quotation from George Bernard Shaw. I wanted to share his idea of ‘feverish selfishness’ with you, but also wanted to give some context. So I looked it up on the internet—something Susan Jeffers can kind of be forgiven for missing out on in 1987, but not in 2012.

Irrelevant fact: Bernard Shaw and Bob Dylan are the only artists to have been awarded both an Oscar and a Nobel Prize. Life goals.

It wasn’t easy sourcing this supposed Bernard Shaw quotation. It seems like most of the internet has slavishly copied out the words as they appear in Jeffers’ book, but I’m more demanding than that. The internet is full of ‘inspirational’ quotes spuriously attributed to dead white men: I want to see the words printed by a reputable publisher, ideally in Bernard Shaw’s very own blood.

Plugging the first words of Jeffers’ quotation into DuckDuckGo, I quickly traced them to the dedication at the beginning of Bernard Shaw’s 1903 play Man and Superman:

This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.

I note that Jeffers edited the text slightly, changing ‘you’ to ‘me’ at the end and excising the excellent ‘scrap heap’ clause. (For pity’s sake, Susan, there are ellipses in the title of your book, why not use them in quotations?)

But even ignoring those minor quibbles, this text is scarcely half of what Jeffers had presented as a continuous quotation. Where’s the rest? Cue more frantic searching, but the words are nowhere to be found in Man and Superman.

DuckDuckGo had to work hard to earn its crushed biscuits this time. Mainly because the second part is uncontextualised reported speech quoted at the very end of George Bernard Shaw: His Life and Works, a 1911 biography by Archibald Henderson:

“I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community, and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatsoever I can.

“I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no ‘brief candle’ for me. It is a sort of splendid torch, which I have got hold of for the moment; and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.”

Jeffers was a little more free with the translation here: her source—clearly not Henderson’s biography—less precise. This makes me think that she was given this quotation as it’s presented: the two parts as a whole.

Looking back at how Jeffers presents the quotation(s), I can see the disjunction in the two texts. The first, written by Bernard Shaw himself, is a single sentence with a transcendent idea concisely expressed from three different angles. It was this first sentence that I wanted to share with you (and now look what’s happened).

The second passage you can tell is reported speech. It’s no less than five sentences, including two half-thought fragments. It’s both more wordy and a little cliché. With all due respect to Archibald Henderson, you can tell it’s not the drafted and re-drafted work of Bernard Shaw.

Anyway, the point is: always reference your sources. Oh, and please be ‘a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy’. Nice one.

Maybe we’re doing okayish

In his book There Is No Planet B, Mike Berners-Lee bemoans the ironically glacial pace of international action on climate change:

We have had decades of warning about climate change. But we have wasted that time through our denial, first of the problem itself and then of the nature of the solution that is required, and through the unspeakably clumsy way in which we inch towards the kind of global agreement that might actually help. In the Anthropocene, we can’t rely on every challenge giving us so much warning. We’d better practise our global governance because we might need to respond to something just as intangible as climate change on a far shorter timescale.

This was a funny thing to read in the middle of a global pandemic because it made me reflect that, for the most part, humans are actually doing okay this time around.

Yes, nearly a million people have died from Covid-19. That’s awful. Perhaps millions more will die in the months and years to come. That’s also awful.

But the response, which is what Berners-Lee is talking about, has been rapid, global and, most importantly, cooperative. Given the difficulties—or perhaps because of them—there has been a surprising shortage of denial, clumsiness and ‘inching’.

Of course we can all point to individuals who dig sandpits of denial, others to whom clumsiness is a kind of elegance, and still more whose rulers are still dreamily scored with Imperial Inches.

But if we ignore the bombast of our elected politicians… What have we seen?

  • As individuals, we have all taken part in rapid and compliant social lockdowns to slow the spread of the virus. More importantly: we haven’t torn our social fabric in the process. Indeed, research from 28 countries suggests that people may be feeling slightly less lonely now than they were before the pandemic. Well done us.
  • For all the post-truth opprobrium aimed at the ‘so-called experts’, the response to Covid-19 from the scientific community has been instantly impressive. To take vaccines alone, there are 321 candidates in development, with 39 already going through clinical trials. A process that usually takes years is being compressed into months—despite the difficulties of social distancing in a laboratory. Well done science.
  • Last year, the number of worldwide deaths from AIDS fell to its lowest level since 1993—and incidence of the disease is at its lowest since the epidemic began. (Wait, you’ll see how this is relevant in a second.) The UN estimates that the total amount of money needed for the global response to an AIDS epidemic that will kill another 600,000 people in 2020 is only £22bn. (Okay, here we go.) By July—i.e. only four months into their response to Covid-19—the UK government (alone) had spent £15bn on PPE (alone) for NHS staff (alone). That gives us some idea of the scale of our response to Covid-19.

Two points arising from these three observations:

  1. The AIDS epidemic is much worse than you think and still horribly underfunded. In the last thirty years, we’ve lost 32,000,000 lives to the disease—that’s the population of Australia and Denmark put together. An even larger number are living with AIDS today.
  2. No matter how shit Covid-19 is and no matter how much shitter things get, I don’t think humans should beat themselves up about their response. We can—and we will—do more, but maybe we’re already doing okay.

Finally, this isn’t to undermine Berners-Lee’s point about climate change. Note that he says ‘we might need to respond to something just as intangible as climate change’. Covid-19 is far from being intangible: as I’ve pointed out, human beings are very good at dealing with imminent threats to life.

As Daniel Gilbert wrote in his article ‘If only gay sex caused global warming’:

Like all animals, people are quick to respond to clear and present danger, which is why it takes us just a few milliseconds to duck when a wayward baseball comes speeding toward our eyes. The brain is a beautifully engineered get-out-of-the-way machine that constantly scans the environment for things out of whose way it should right now get.

Sadly, the brain is nigh-on helpless when faced with the inexorable logic of generational climate change. But perhaps Covid-19 is helping us rewire our Neanderthal instincts, showing us how, when the chips are down, we can do this rapid, global cooperation kind of thing.

And that maybe, perhaps, we’ll do okayish.

Death of an anarchist

David Graeber, author of one of the most influential books I’ve ever read—Debt: The First 5,000 Years—died earlier this week.

David Graeber may have been professor of anthropology at Yale, Goldsmiths and finally the London School of Economics, but he was always conscious that his work must not be allowed to stifle in the deoxygenated air of academia.

He was a practical and public intellectual who faced down the big social inequalities of our time and has given thousands of people the tools to build an alternative.

Occupy debt

Graeber came to my attention in 2011 as something of a doorman for the Occupy movement. He opened doors we thought were permanently locked and showed us entire suites of rooms that we never could have imagined were there.

Reading Debt: The First 5,000 Years, I often laughed.

I learned that systems of credit and debt, far from being the pernicious invention of modern capitalists, are how human societies have managed their economic affairs for millennia. But I also learned that we are perhaps the first society to orgy in credit and debt without having in place the checks and balances that protect the poor from catastrophe.

Graeber traces how these checks and balances came into being in ancient Sumer:

In years with bad harvests especially, peasants would start becoming hopelessly indebted to the rich, and would have to surrender their farms and, ultimately, family members, in debt bondage. Gradually, this condition seems to have come to a social crisis—not so much leading to popular uprisings, but to common people abandoning the cities and settling territory entirely and becoming semi-nomadic ‘bandits’ and raiders. It soon became traditional for each new ruler to wipe the slate clean, cancel all debts, and declare a general amnesty or ‘freedom’, so that all bonded labourers could return to their families.

Biblical prophets also formalised this system of ‘Jubilee’ and cancelled all debts every seven years. This was how humans arranged things for centuries: all debts cancelled, every seven years.

Its simplicity and justice still makes me laugh.

Graeber dared us to wonder why our society couldn’t declare regular jubilees, write off all debts and protect the poor against the wealthy? There’s no reason why not. It’s a choice.

As you can imagine, this colour of politics was too much for the fine upstanding Yale University and we were lucky that Graeber decided to move to London—in fact, he joined the university over the road from where I lived: Goldsmiths.

On bullshit jobs

Graeber taught a number of my friends at Goldsmiths and I attended a few of his public seminars, where we got to discuss and share ideas in an atmosphere of open debate. It’s hard to overestimate this guy. He was like a rockstar to me and my friends.

In fact, Graeber’s 2013 article On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs came about after a friend of mine, STRIKE! magazine’s Vyvian Raoul, asked Graeber whether he had ‘anything provocative that no one else would be likely to publish’.

Oh yes he did. It was an idea that would call into question the value of entire industries, let alone jobs—including, perhaps, his own.

This was his original thesis of ‘bullshit jobs’:

Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it.

The article hit such a nerve that it crashed the magazine’s servers multiple times and was copied and republished (frequently by bullshit companies) across the known world. In 2018, Graeber expanded his ideas and the polemical article became a more carefully researched book.

The bullshitisation of work

In his book, David Graeber details a taxonomy of five varieties of bullshit job, each with its own identifiable features. Before explaining further, Graeber stresses that there can be no objective definition of a bullshit job: if an employee asserts that their job is bullshit, then bullshit it is.

Likewise, however, it’s very hard to argue against someone who believes that their job isn’t bullshit. So don’t be offended if you recognise your job as one of those broadly categorised as bullshit. Maybe it’s not for you.

Nevertheless, the response to Graeber’s book seems to suggest that people know when what they’re doing is worthless—even if they’ve buried that sense deep down inside.

  • Flunkies: people whose only purpose is to make someone else look important. Doormen, concierges, some receptionists and personal assistants.
  • Goons: those people whose job has an aggressive element. The military, but also most lobbyists, PR specialists, telemarketers, and corporate lawyers.
  • Duct tapers: employees whose jobs exist only because of ‘a glitch or fault in the organisation; who are there to solve a problem that ought not to exist’.
  • Box tickers: ‘employees who exist only or primarily to allow an organisation to be able to claim it is doing something that, in fact, it is not doing’. Bureaucrats, in-house magazine writers and the unfortunate authors of unread government commissions.
  • Taskmasters: these employees come in two types. Type 1 Taskmasters are the opposite of Flunkies: ‘unnecessary superiors rather than unnecessary subordinates’. Type 2 Taskmasters are the bullshit generators: those whose ‘primary role is to create bullshit tasks for others to do, to supervise bullshit, or even to create entirely new bullshit jobs’.

Ring any bells? I recognise plenty of my past jobs in this list—and even a few of the ones I force myself do now I’m self-employed. I’m not alone in having thoroughly absorbed the logic of the bullshit economy.

The antidote

As well as describing the boundaries of bullshit, Graeber also suggests an antidote, reasoning that nothing can be called bullshit if it’s concerned with caring.

Now, maybe there are arms dealers who ardently believe that they’re in a caring career, but even so I think we can agree with Graeber that some jobs are more naturally compatible with caring: nurses, cleaners, teachers, mechanics and electricians (of the non-duct-taping variety) to name a few.

By choosing a non-bullshit career as a member of what Graeber calls the ‘caring classes’, you almost certainly won’t be rewarded financially. There is an inbuilt inequality in our society that seems to imply that bullshit jobs are so sociopathically awful that they need to be highly paid otherwise no one but sociopaths would be masochistic enough to take them.

The book summarises the results of a study by the New Economic Foundation that looked at the social return generated by various different jobs. See if you can identify the bullshit ones:

  • City banker – yearly salary c. £5 million – estimated £7 of social value destroyed for every £1 earned
  • Advertising executive – yearly salary c. £500,000 – estimated £11.50 of social value destroyed per £1 paid
  • Tax accountant – yearly salary c. £125,000 – estimated £11.20 of social value destroyed per £1 paid
  • Hospital cleaner – yearly income c. £13,000 (£6.26 per hour) – estimated £10 of social value generated per £1 paid
  • Recycling worker – yearly income c. £12,500 (£6.10 per hour) – estimated £12 in social value generated per £1 paid
  • Nursery worker – salary c. £11,500 – estimated £7 in social value generated per £1 paid

See any injustice there? It was something that was deeply felt at the Occupy protests—indeed, Graeber describes the Occupy movement as the ‘revolt of the caring classes’. He observes that the most common complaint heard at the protests went something along these lines:

“I wanted to do something useful with my life; work that had a positive effect on other people or, at the very least, wasn’t hurting anyone. But the way this economy works, if you spend your working life caring for others, you’ll end up so underpaid and so deeply in debt you won’t be able to care for your own family.”

But of course the Occupy movement wasn’t enough. That’s why Graeber wrote this book: in the hope that it would offer millions more flunkies, box tickers and duct tapers the intellectual courage to quit and join the ranks of dissenters.

Funnily enough, though, the only reason STRIKE! magazine—and Graeber’s original polemic—ever existed at all was thanks to a bullshit job.

Bullshit origins of STRIKE!

Last year, I interviewed Vyvian Raoul for a review of Bullshit Jobs that I never finished writing. He told me how, back in 2013, he’d been working as a communications officer for a big charity in London. A classic bullshit job.

‘It was basically internal PR, jeeing up the troops,’ he explained. ‘People hated us. We should have been spending the money on more nurses.

‘One time I corrected the grammar on a blogpost that the CEO wrote,’ Raoul said. ‘It was the only useful thing I ever did there—and I got a bollocking for it.

‘From that point on, I’m coasting,’ he continued, ‘and I started setting up STRIKE! in my spare time at work.’

Raoul remembers exactly where he was when he first read On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs:

‘I was reading it in Vauxhall Park in the sun when my boss walked past. We reluctantly greeted each other,’ Raoul said. ‘I knew, in that moment, that I was going to leave the job—and maybe jobs full stop.’

The first issue of STRIKE! was paid for out of his redundancy pay from that bullshit job. Graeber’s article was published in the third issue of the magazine and was only posted online as something of an after thought. It went viral: office workers around the world nodding their heads and beating their desks.

‘We got quite a few people emailing in to say thanks for publishing the article and that they’d left their jobs on the basis of it,’ Raoul told me.

I like the circularity of this story. Severance pay from a bullshit job liberated Vyvian Raoul and gave him the independence he needed to start a radical newspaper that published a tract against bullshit jobs, which has itself inspired another generation of bullshit employees to quit and revolt.

Raoul finished our conversation about Bullshit Jobs in a reflective mood: ‘Perhaps liberation is more of a process than a grand, Utopian, revolutionary moment,’ he suggested. ‘And maybe that’s the point of the book?’

~

All I can add is encouragement for us all to continue our process of liberation. All of David Graeber’s books and many articles are available for free online at the Anarchist Library.

Besides his writing, David Graeber was an excellent public speaker and many lectures and discussions will outlive him online:

If you’d like to support the ongoing publication of David’s work then check out Anthropology for All and buy some ‘politically challenging’ books from Anthropology for Kids (content suitable, nay important for all ages).

Above all, please, please make sure that you really give a damn about what you’re doing. Do yourself a favour and care.

I raise my cap to a proper public intellectual. Someone who grappled with politics and ideas in a way that made sense and was immediately useful. Rest in power.