Enter The Packing Room Five items that wouldn’t make it onto most touring cyclists’ packing lists (let alone into their blessed packing room)

The reason I’m not writing to you until now is that I’ve spent the day hammering through the zillions of pettifogging tasks that cram the hours before a lengthy departure from home.

Tasks like these:

Kudos to DRL’s Points Productivity Planner for keeping me on track. This is working document, so keep your spelling spots to yourself. Mainfest indeed.

As you may or may not have gathered, on Monday I leave for Glasgow, for four days’ final preparation before meeting the first cohort of sadists cyclists taking on the first week of our two-month, 5,400km bike ride to Athens.

I should be back home sometime in September or October.

It’s not a vanishingly long time, but it is certainly something of a disappearance.

And so this morning began with me randomly chucking things into what I like to think of as my ‘packing room’.

I think every adventurer needs a packing room: a place to dump the first practical stirrings of an adventure before it either (a) fizzles out and is forgotten or (b) slams you in the oh-fuck face of last minute dread.

(I also think that every human being is an adventurer in a choose-their-own domain.)

Here’s what my packing room currently looks like:

And I thought it could be a nice idea to take you through five items that wouldn’t make it onto most touring cyclists’ packing lists (let alone into their blessed packing room).

1. A Flag

This flag was hand-stitched many years ago — 2018, I think — for the third edition of Thighs of Steel, which rode from London to Athens, through Slovenia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria.

Ljubljana to Sofia — 1,400km riding, 14,000m climbing and 78 hours of saddle bum — was my first thighs ride and I was mightily proud that they entrusted me with the carrying of the flag.

I still am.

That’s me on the left after two weeks of cycling Ljubljana to Sofia, 2018

2. Seven Debit Cards & 500 Albanian Leke

This photo represents the stomach-popping logistical and administrative rough and tumble that we all go through, both before and during the ride, to grease the wheels of summer so that they spin as smoothly as could reasonably be demanded.

I mean: have you ever tried to acquire seven debit cards that are free to use in Europe for a non-profit that isn’t a charity and doesn’t have money to burn?

Thank goodness for Equals Money.

This entry could just as easily have been a photo of our Public Liability certificate, representing the last two months of nerve-clenching horror as ‘a costly claim in the events industry’ totally ham-slapped our ‘risk profile’.

The good news is that I’m spending my final Friday evening at home writing these words to you, so we must be more or less ready to ride.


3. A Very Specific Book

Lights In The Distance by Daniel Trilling

I wrote about this excellent book a few weeks ago, so I won’t say any more.

The purpose of Thighs of Steel is to raise funds in solidarity with refugees, migrants, asylum seekers and people on the move across Europe.

We help grassroots organisations keep doing everything they do.

We share a dream of a borderless world once again, with free movement for all.

You can add your heft to the hew by donating here. Thank you.

4. Defence For The Defenceless

It’s summer and we’re cycling through Scotland.

After my experiences a month ago in Northumberland, it’s time to up my anti-midge game.

Smidge is a classic, but now I’ve added a citronella candle and a frankly awesome midge head net to my battlements — both bought from Totally Herbie of Scotland.

Their website might be from the nineties, but they mean business. And so now do I.

5. Dougal The Bugle

I bought Dougal from a Hastings junk shop on the first leg of my second ride around Britain back in 2020 so that I could have a part to play (literally) in the mock-funeral of a friend of a friend.

(It was something he’d always wanted to do: my friend played his spirit guide, a badger.)

Tragically, I recently found out that this friend of a friend has now passed away for real, which adds an appropriate sense of gravitas to the sounding of my most unusual touring accessory.

Some love it, some hate it (especially when it wakes them up at 5am for another expletive-sodden ride up a mountain), and none can ignore it.

Mercifully, every once in a while, someone comes on the ride who can actually play the blasted thing.

At those moments, atop a ravaging hill climb in Wales or at a sundown lakeside in the Italian Alps, Dougal the Bugle will sing a sweet tune that I like to imagine wefts its way into outer space, into the resonating space between atoms where the stardust lives.

This one’s for you, Jimi.

Andy Murray’s Nice It takes effort to look deep into the worst of us and to share the ways that humans, out of the darkness, respond with energetic hope and creativity

As a writer, I am — naturally enough — very deliberate about what I put out into the world for other humans to think about.

I’d be INSANE if I wasn’t equally deliberate about I take in from the rest of the world.


But somehow, a writer’s natural deliberation isn’t always mirrored by the reader.

Readers — audiences of all kinds, myself included — often accept what we’re told without critique.

Particularly when it comes to content that is presented as impartial fact.

I’m talking about The News.

You Can Take Dessert Or You Can Pass

In these pages, I’m the writer. Every idea I write about, you can be sure I’ve thought very carefully about.

I don’t expect every idea to land with everyone, every week. That’s fine. As long as you get something out of most of my stories, then you’ll probably stick around.

If none of the stories ever help you make the world a better place, then I expect you to take the sensible decision to unsubscribe and stop reading.

That’s normal. I write stories that help you (and me) understand the world a little better, not stories that you can’t live without.

You can take dessert or you can pass.

With its apparently impartial presentation of fact, The News somehow, perniciously, sidesteps this judgemental faculty of ours.

We swallow The News as a vitamin.

It might not taste good, but, like vitamins, we believe that The News really does ‘contribute to the normal function of a healthy immune system’.

Unfortunately, it really doesn’t. And, secretly, we all know this.

If I told you that I got my news from The Daily Mail, Fox News and Russia Today, you’d probably draw the conclusion that I was a shitbag.

If, on the other hand, I got my news from the same place you get your news, however — why, what a discerningly well-informed world citizen I am!

We always believe that everyone else’s news sources are trash, but never ours.

The News is not a vitamin; it’s dessert and you can choose to pass.

No News Is Good News

Taking care over The News that I read, watch or hear is something that I’ve written about on these pages before:

Since 2017 — for more than five years now — I’ve not regularly read, listened to, or watched any newspaper, website or broadcast.

For much of this time, I have allowed only one feed into my life, the constructive journalism of the fortnightly Future Crunch email newsletter.

Sometimes, as during the Covid-19 lockdowns of 2020 and 2021, I’ve gone directly to more-or-less non-news analysts, such as research scientists and civil servants, or to crowdsourced aggregators like Wikipedia.

Everything else newsworthy comes to me through the filters of friends and the people around me — as likely to be the birth of their new niece as the sinking of a submersible off the coast of the Americas.

It’s not a perfect system, of course. I’m sure I do miss out on the odd thing that might change the way I think or act.

But it is one hell of a lot better than the old system I had, which was to try to stay on top of E V E R Y T H I N G.

Opening The Fire Hose Of Shit

From around 1995 until 2017, I used to listen to the radio news every day and (once I had an internet connection) trawl the pages of the BBC News website, scrapping for more information on whatever stories were top of the media agenda that week.

I felt like it was, in a vague, non-specific way, an important duty as a citizen to stay informed. And one stayed informed with a daily news report.

Unfortunately, this is how most of The News is reported:

  • Crap thing happening
  • Life getting worse
  • No end and no solution in sight

If you don’t believe me, let’s do an experiment. I’m going to go over to the BBC News website right now and see what kind of story they’ve chosen to tell about the world today.

(Feel free to skip this bit — it won’t make your life a better place.)

  • Murder arrests after man fatally stabbed
  • Sexual violence helpline pauses over lack of funds
  • Former PC faces trial over misconduct charges
  • Julian Sands’ brother on ‘overwhelming’ tributes
  • National police training in wake of mass shooting
  • Glastonbury Festival crew member dies in tent
  • Drink-driving arrest after car crashes into house
  • Andy Murray surprises girl who uses tennis prosthetic

Let’s be honest, opening the BBC News page — with its carefully cultivated projection of impartiality and fact — is like opening a fire hose of shit.

But here’s the kicker: just like me, the writers behind The News put a hell of a lot of thought and effort into the stories they’re telling.

The fire hose of shit is a choice; it is only one story, one vision of the world.

We don’t have to buy what they’re selling.

Let’s All Be Andy Murray

This shitty story nightly repeats, like the tolling of a death knell, the message that humans, collectively and globally, are failing.

(Except for Andy Murray: he’s nice.)

We’re failing ourselves, we’re failing each other and we’re failing the planet.

Andy Murray aside, there is no energy, no hope and no creativity.

Thanks to some quirk of human psychology, this apocalyptic vision is an extremely compelling story. So we share the worst of us.

It actually takes a great effort to share the best of us.

It takes even more of an effort to look deep into the worst of us and, resisting the temptation of negativity, to share the ways that humans, out of the darkness, respond with energetic hope and creativity.

That’s why it was wonderful to hear that Angus Hervey, one of the people behind Future Crunch, was recently invited to open the TED conference with his version of The News.

Hope Is A Doing Word

When we only tell the stories of doom, we fail to see the stories of possibility.

The hundreds of examples of progress in human rights, rising living standards, public health victories, clean energy breakthroughs, technological magic, ecological restoration and the countless extraordinary acts of kindness that take place on this planet every day.

I believe that if we want to change the story of the human race in the 21st century, we have to start changing the stories that we tell ourselves.

And we have to remember that hope isn’t a noun. It’s a verb. It’s not something that we have or something that we’re given. It’s something that we do.

Millions of people around the world chose to hope in the last 12 months and then rolled up their sleeves to get it done. Perhaps it’s time for the rest of us to do the same.

And Now The Weather

It’d be totally remiss of me not to include a proper theme tune for today’s news broadcast and, who else, but Bill Bailey.

Always Take The Doughnut The tricycle was a scuffed red, with a wire basket fixed behind and a black electric motor strapped to the basket. Also in the basket: one box of Krispy Kreme doughnuts, four remaining

Yesterday morning I was walking back from the beach, up the cliffside zigzag, after a sunny run, swim and friend surprise (👋), when I heard the shuddering skid of something wheeled and weighted right behind me.

An electric tricycle.

The young driver wrestled the heavy vehicle into a right angle turn and pointed himself up the zigzag (No Cycling).

‘I nearly missed it,’ he said, before whirring the engine, pumping the pedals and overtaking me at a crawl.

Rather than giving in to some kind of nimby-level irritation at the interruption to our pedestrian slowway, I inspected his vehicle.

(In fairness, the painted No Cycling warning was covered in sand and may well, in any case, be insupportable under law — see here for the fascinating difference between cycling on a footpath and a footway.)

The tricycle was a scuffed red, with a wire basket fixed behind and a black electric motor strapped to the basket. Also in the basket: one box of Krispy Kreme doughnuts, four remaining.

Before I really knew what I was doing, I blurted out: ‘Where are you going with those doughnuts?’

‘I’m going to see my wife, share ‘em with ‘er,’ he yelled back, reaching the first of the zigzag’s zigs. Then: ‘D’you want one?’

At this point, post-run, pre-breakfast, I should have said, ‘Ahh — yes please!’

But I didn’t.

Instead, I automatically said, ‘Nah, you’re alright, thanks. That’s really kind, though.’

‘I got ‘em free, at Waterloo station this morning. I told ‘em I was a delivery driver and if I could have a doughnut — they gave me the ‘ole box!’

At this point I definitely should have said, ‘Ahh, go on then — I’d love one.’ After all, it is nearly my birthday.

But I didn’t.

‘I missed my train last night, had to sleep at the station, didn’t I?’ the young man explains, letting me catch up as he struggled with his engine on the steep zags.

‘They won’t give me my money back, even though I got train insurance. Two ‘undred quid they owe me. It’s a joke.’

I commiserated, then smiled as his engine kicked in and the tricycle burned off up the zigzag, scattering the first of the family sunbathers and the last of the early dog walkers.

This microscopic, heartfelt, sunny connection with tricycle-doughnut man got me thinking.

And list-making.

Things I Can’t Do Right Now Because Of My Wrist

  • Type words on a mechanical keyboard
  • Play guitar
  • Shift gear on my bike (chainrings)
  • Open doors while carrying an object in my right hand
  • Get into downward dog pose

All very specific things that can be adapted around easily. (And at least one of which I can’t do even with a fully functioning wrist…)

Things I Can Still Do

  • Dictate words through my phone
  • Run
  • Flounder in the gentle waves
  • Have funny little interactions with strangers
  • Connect
  • Listen
  • Love
  • Allow

All the important things, in other words.

More than anything, though, tricycle man’s beautiful attitude taught me another of life’s little mottos: Always Take The Doughnut.

Proust’s Wrist Unlike Proust, rather than spend the whole of the rest of my life lying in bed tracing back to source this momentary mnemonic sensation, I searched my 2022 and 2021 digital diaries for the word ‘wrist’

Happy Friday and welcome to Bournemouth, where I am writing — no, wait — that’s a lie.

I’m actually dictating this to you through my phone because I have somehow injured my left wrist and it hurts to type.

This injury was really bumming me out — until I re-read my old diaries.

When this injury made itself known last Friday, I had no idea from whence it came and was seriously concerned that my 560km ride from Liverpool to Newcastle had triggered nasties.

Not good when only weeks away from joining Thighs of Steel on a little two month ride from Glasgow to Athens…

A friend of mine got a horrible hand injury from cycling last year that took six months to recover. I can’t do that.

Then, on Monday, the shooting pain caused by my mild evening stretches triggered a flashing memory — a moment exactly like Proust’s petites madeleines, only with more downward dog.

One day in winter, as I came home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind.

She sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called ‘petites madeleines,’ which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim’s shell.

And soon, mechanically, weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake.

No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place.

(I absolutely love that book.)

Unlike Proust, rather than spend the whole of the rest of my life lying in bed tracing back to source this momentary mnemonic sensation, I searched my 2022 and 2021 digital diaries for the word ‘wrist’.

Prosaic, but effective.

I found two patches of entries, in April and November 2021, where I complained of an identical injury to my left wrist.

Reading on, I was relieved to learn that neither of these injuries happened after cycling. The first might have happened pushing my nieces on the swings for an hour, while the second probably happened on a climbing wall.

In November 2021, the injury took about ten days to recover, but only after I stopped typing for a week.

The worry of my injury’s uncertainty has been replaced by resignation — even relaxation — and, furthermore, my diaries uncovered a recovery action plan and timeline.

Score one for diary writing!

Round Britain Twice: Graham Eating Chips And Gravy It’s then that I realise who we are: two men, strangers, telling each other how we fall apart. And how we might put ourselves back together again

It’s not every day that you meet a motorcycling electrician called Graham eating chips and gravy in the sunshine at a village tearoom in Northumberland.

In fact, I’d say that it’s only ever happened to me once in my whole entire life.

Just once. Last Sunday.

I was about 470km into my 560km ride from Liverpool to Newcastle and had just decided that it was time for lunch. Again.

Because, you see, If I’ve got any Northumbrian cycle touring advice for you it’s this: whenever you see a tearoom, it’s time for lunch. Again.

Quick Detour Regarding Bloody Bush Road (Unsurfaced)

Northumberland is the least densely populated county in England, with only 62 inhabitants per square kilometre.

This is an incredibly misleading statistic.

Across a 36 kilometre stretch of my route, on the terrifyingly named Bloody Bush Road through the high pine forests of Kershope, Newcastleton and Kielder, there were precisely zero inhabitants per square kilometre.

This means I went five hours of riding and sixteen hours overnight without refilling my water bottles.

Parched. Slightly panicked.

It was only at the very end of the rocky gravel track that I found a sign warning me against the route I’d just taken — READ THIS BEFORE RIDING —

This route is 20km through remote forest areas on unsurfaced tracks and narrow paths.

This route includes steep climbs and crosses exposed open hills and fells. It is therefore better suited to proficient cyclists with higher levels of fitness, stamina and good off-road riding skills. Quality off-road bikes are considered to be essential.

No water, no food, no phone reception and no houses except a couple of eerily abandoned rental cottages: this was not the place to hurt one’s self.

About halfway through my unwitting 20km off-road stint, rolling downhill on the gravel, my unsuitable road tyres skidded.

As the heavy bike slid out from underneath me — threatening to crush my leg under the weight of all my camping gear — my instincts took over.

Without knowing how, my left foot hopped onto the falling cross bar and I leapt over the moving handlebars, miraculously landing in a running stumble, on both feet.

I got away with it this time.

My dusty dry throat was finally lubricated at The Forks, a clutch of forest cottages, thankfully occupied (and each with a wolf-head door knocker), before rushing to the civilised and fully stocked activity centres of Kielder Water.

Lesson learned: population density matters.

Back To Graham Eating Chips And Gravy

So that’s why, only half an hour after tea and scones at the Tower Knowe cafe on Kielder Water, I rolled to a stop outside Falstone village tearoom.

And that’s where, for the first time in my whole entire life, I met a motorcycling electrician called Graham eating chips and gravy in the sunshine.

Quick Detour For Some Miserable Setup

I left to come on this bike ride two days late.

I was originally booked to get the train up to Liverpool on the Monday, but I decided to delay for a couple of days.

Helping to organise Thighs of Steel — an eight week fundraising bike ride with over a hundred participants across eleven countries — is a rat’s nest of responsibility.

Many aspects of facilitating the organisation of the ride are totally within my control: choosing dates and routes, finding ride leaders, paying staff, planning routes, recruiting riders and, of course, fundraising.

But some aspects are wildly out of my — or anyone’s — control. For the past six weeks, I’ve been wrestling with such a task.

And here it was again, that task, demanding more time from me and, if not forcing, then at least prising two days’ holiday from my short break.

Actually, this sacrifice of two days was actually pretty good going for me. In 2022, I would’ve cancelled the whole holiday.

Last year, I felt as much responsibility for the organisation of Thighs and the stress I held manifested itself as a dumpy lethargy and a claggy brain fog.

In my fatigue, I made the mistake of cancelling any extracurricular activities and staying at home, hoping to rest and recovery in the quiet hours when I wasn’t working.

I even took two courses of antibiotics, before realising that my symptoms were ‘just’ stress, far beyond the reach of pharmaceutical treatment.

I learned that, in the responsibility of a stressful situation, my mind and body tend to hunker down, shutting off function in the hope that, by hiding away in stillness, the danger or threat will pass by safely.

While this avoidant strategy might have worked for me in the past, it’s exactly ZERO percent fun and, in most grownup cases, leaves the problem worse than before.

What helps are precisely the things that, last year, I cancelled: seeing friends, playing games, going dancing and, of course, riding my bike for days at a time.

Anyway: turns out that Graham, the motorcycling electrician eating chips and gravy in the sunshine, goes through the same damn thing.

Graham Eating Chips And Gravy

Graham, a man with spectacles and the lived-in look of late middle age, arrived in his leathers and backed his motorcycle into the small parking lot beside the tearoom’s outdoor toilets.

He ordered chips and gravy and a coffee for afters — ‘I’m in no rush here.’

We sat outside, on high stools, with our plates resting on a waist-high sandstone wall, looking out over the shaded village green.

Graham had come up from Sunderland, a trip he often makes on a weekend. He likes to get to the tearoom before twelve, in time for their to-die-for breakfast.

He’s far too late today, which is why turns down their offer of a bacon barm — I can make that at home, like — and settles for chips and gravy.

Graham tells me that he’s an electrician, working for himself, but through an agency, mostly industrial.

I’m not sure what I imagine an electrician doing all day (I know it can’t only be lightbulbs and 3A plugs), but it’s nothing like what Graham does.

He’ll spend weeks wiring up identical units on an industrial site, ticking off the cabling on a schematic works sheet.

None of his work will connected to power until long after he’s gone, so he has to get it right, maybe not first time, but reliably, every time.

A lot of other electricians say they don’t have the patience for it, they get bored, but Graham likes it. It suits his methodical mind and that means he’s never short of work.

Graham felt he had to get out on his bike today: he’s got a job starting tomorrow, a job he already regrets taking.

He holds up thumb and forefinger, about a chip’s width apart: ‘Summer’s only this long up here.’

‘The agency said it’s a two month job, but that doesn’t mean anything. Could be two days, two weeks — two years,’ he says.

‘They said I could have a week off after a month, but that’s…’ He looks over at me, a little desperately. ‘I don’t want to put a time limit on it, you know?’

‘That’s My Sign I Need To Get Away’

Graham is out on his bike for the same reason I’m on mine: it’s his way of getting back into his body, opening up and letting go.

He’s learned to heed the warning signs and take to two wheels before things get worse.

A couple of years back, after his mother died, Graham was on a six-month job on the coast near Edinburgh.

As the months rolled on, he started getting a thick knot of pain in the centre of his chest.

Nothing he did shifted the pain until, one day, he jacked in the job and went for a long motorcycle ride in a loop along the green border and up through Dumfries and Galloway.

‘I was on the road, coming out of Ayr, when I noticed it,’ Graham tells me. ‘The pain in my chest was gone. Completely gone.’

It’s then that I realise who we are: two men, strangers, telling each other how we fall apart. And how we might put ourselves back together again.

‘When I feel that in my chest,’ Grama says, ‘that’s my sign I need to get away.’

It’s the same for me: when I feel that heavy veil falling across my brain.

We shook hands, Graham and I, and swapped names.

‘Good luck with the stress,’ he said, as I took the steps down to my bike.

‘It’ll be straight back when I hit that hill,’ I said.

‘And then you’ll get rid of it again.’

Mind IS Body

That’s been my motto the last few weeks. It’s one I’d like to wear through the summer.

The brain is all very good, but it’s only a tiny part of how we think.

And the poor thing is terribly self-obsessed.

The brain has such an inflated belief in its powers that it thinks (ha) it can sort everything out on its own — and frequently overheats in the attempt.

But when I remember that brains only work well when the whole body is moving, then my mind flows again.

Instead of trying to brute force my way through life on brain alone, I should remember instead to feel my way through the world with all-body senses.

A long bike tour works, but so too does a regular morning run or evening stretch time.

The older I get, the more I learn and the more responsibility I take, the more important it becomes, not simply to get out of my head, but to get into my body.

Some Maps

Round Britain So Far… 2020-2023. Built using Jonathan O’Keeffe’s Strava Multiple Ride Mapper
Last week’s ride: 558km from Liverpool to Newcastle. Map built using GPX Studio
Extra geek points: all 5339m of last week’s hill climbing. Built using GPX Studio

Indebted to D.G. 'The book, published in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis, provided a new vocabulary needed to explain a changed world'

A while ago, I was invited to contribute to a Red Pepper magazine retrospective on what a bunch of academics and activists learned from Debt: The First 5,000 Years, by anthropologist all-star thinker and doer David Graeber (RIP).

Well, the article has just been published: Learning from David Graeber.

I’m thrilled that Red Pepper gave my bit the headline ‘Debt is bollocks’ and honoured they decided it was good enough to open up the article — but there are many more worthy contributions from folks who knew DG far better than I ever did.

Not least Nika Dubrovsky, David Graeber’s partner and collaborator, who gives us an insight into the process of writing and publishing Debt:

As we waited for publication, David was increasingly nervous; he complained to me he needed to publish the book to change public discourse and the time was right now. He was right: the book, published in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis, provided a new vocabulary needed to explain a changed world.

Today this new language—on how we understand debt—is used by everyone, including by power itself. This is what David called a revolution. He said revolution is not when palaces are seized or governments are overthrown, but when we change the ideas of what is common sense.

First, go and read our Red Pepper retrospective — I love Christopher J Lee’s bit about practising competitive generosity over competitive accumulation — and then go and read the book itself.

The full text of Debt: The First 5000 Years is available free online at the Anarchist Library.

Round Britain Twice: From Egremont Castle The faded card leaves me thousands of miles richer and, daily it seems, on the edge of new life.

And welcome to Egremont Castle, in the shade of the ruined keep, where Amber has freaked herself out playing hide and seek and started first crying for her mama, before shifting up through the gears of shouting, yelling, screaming and now finally shrieking.

Amber’s mum walks up the steps towards me, wearing big shades and a tired smile: ‘Who said playing hide and seek in the castle was a good idea?’

Anyway, before I left Bournemouth to pick up the latest leg of my second ride around Britain, I was surprisingly emotional about my new debit card.

The old one, you see, has been with me since June 2018.

There aren’t many possessions in our lives that are so clearly timestamped and with so clear an expiry date and I took the cutting up of this old workhorse as an opportunity for a bittersweet taste of nostalgia.

This card has served me well, joining the team when I was rootless, directionless, empty, and there at my side as I found confidence and purpose in my writing and my outdoor work, both instructing and with Thighs of Steel.

The faded card leaves me thousands of miles richer and, daily it seems, on the edge of new life.

It feels stupid to be saying this, but thank you old 4543. You done well. I’m excited to see how your successor fares.

Liverpool to Newcastle: The First Three Days

Today’s story is going to be heinously short and primarily photographic. As I mentioned, I’m in the middle of a bike ride, stage seven of my second ride around Britain.

I have too many thoughts that will turn into stories, but perhaps not today, not when I am dictating this into my malfunctioning phone in the late afternoon sunshine on a castle park bench.

Today started gently, with a roll down to Lake Windermere and a glorious, bare bottomed soak in the fresh water.

I then spent an hour and twenty quid in Joey’s, a plant-based cafe at Wray Castle on the north end of the lake. Essential fuel for the climbs, the steep steep climbs, of Wrynose and Hardknott.

So steep, it was, that I watched one Belgian number plate sliding backwards down a 30% incline, engine squealing.

‘You have lots of luggage,’ the Belgian said through wound window as I passed. ‘Lots of luggage and lots of courage.’

Yesterday started early and finished late.

This had little to do with the illuminating distractions of Blackpool and Morecambe, and more to do with:

  1. An inauspicious tide at Fleetwood, which made for a 14km detour around the estuary.
  2. A series of failed camp spots, which resulted in an extraordinarily steep, unscheduled, hill climb as I came into the Lake District, and then a fairly unsatisfactory pitch on the slopes of a denuded Forestry Commission ‘forest’, cocooned in a cloud of ferocious midges.

Dinner was served at 10:00 p.m, a hasty repast of Co-op olive bread and vegan coleslaw.

Between yesterday’s beginnings and yesterday’s endings, I delighted in new discoveries: especially Silverdale, a no-reason-to-visit-it-unless-you’re-visiting-it outcrop of land to the west of the M6.

It’s exactly the sort of why-not place that I want to see more of on this second round of Britain.

And Wednesday? Who can remember that far back?

Suffice it to say that I still think Liverpool is an ace city, with a canalside run through Bootle that gently escorts the traveller into nature’s soft embrace.

I really enjoyed Crosby dunes until I came across a cycle path sign buried up to the hilt in six foot of shifting sand.

I wonder how many hapless round Britainers have met with such granulated fate underfoot?

Anyway. Sorry I can’t be more coherent in my storytelling this week.

It’s time to make myself scarce.

A couple of polite young lads just asked if I minded them flying a drone up here, and, besides, I must seek camp.

‘Hi, I’m Dave.’ No shame. Do something for yourself first thing in the morning. You won’t get a chance later.

This morning, I decided to take that hoary self-help motto to heart:

Do something for yourself first thing in the morning. You won’t get a chance later.

I went for a run along the beach.

About a kilometre in, I heard the heavy foot-slap and raspy breath of a long distance runner coming up fast behind me.

Before long, I could feel them right on my heels. Subconsciously, though I didn’t mean to, I sped up until we were matched stride for stride.

My lion race instinct taking over.

(One for Narnia fans: in Turkish, the word for ‘lion’ is not ‘aslan’, but ‘arslan’ 🍑)

I looked over my shoulder to see with whom I was now sprinting down Bournemouth promenade: barefoot shoes, ponytail, nose piercing.

Between agonal inhales, they gasped: ‘Thanks for running with me. I’ve got one k left and I don’t want to ease off.’

I then proceeded to ask my fellow runner a battery of questions, none of which, I swiftly realised, they were in any position to answer, being (as they had so politely explained) into the last thousand metres of what had clearly been a long, hot, fast, hard training run.

I did manage to understand that they were training for some kind of biathlon, a run and swim, possibly in Tenerife, possibly as part of Team GB.

I did not manage to see them over the line, however. Five hundred metres short, I spotted two friends (👋👋) on a morning stroll, flasks in hand.

I stopped to chat, of course, before polishing off my run: my sweet spot is currently four kilometres.

As I turned at the halfway mark, I realised that I was gaining on a tanned cyclist loaded up with panniers. As I got closer, I noticed that they were flying a mini Welsh flag.

I said hello.

Jack was originally from Wales, but now lives in Oswestry, on the borders.

My head did the automatic mental route planning that is the reflex of all long distance tourers: Oswestry, Shropshire, probably down the Wye Valley trail into Newport, over the Severn Bridge to Bristol, then country lanes to Salisbury before dropping through the rolling Dorset hills, down to the coast.

Nope. Jack had just come in on the overnight ferry from Cherbourg, Normandy.

Two weeks of cycling into the wind, round through Brittany and back north. Would’ve taken him only one week if he’d been going the other way.

Living, as I do, by the beach, it’s considered bad ettiquette not to finish a sweaty run with a dunk in the waves and a handful of litter picking.

That’s when I met a council worker, litter tongs in one hand, bin bag in the other.

They wore that rusty, ruddy look of an outdoors dweller: eight hours a day on the beach, they told me, from March to October, walking eighteen miles a day, shovelling sand off the prom or shifting last night’s litter from the shore.

Normally there’s a three a.m. tractor that does the bulk of the litter trawling, but last night they were on a training course. So there’s a lot for the team of pickers to get through today.

There’s no real purpose behind these little vignettes of a Thursday morning, other than to make the point, again, that we are always free to make chance connections, to play the game of propinquity with the world: learn a little, expand a little, and — god dammit — commune with each other and this stupid little universe.

And, when you do get chatting with the universe, it’s always worth remember a little something that the Dalai Lama (fourteenth edition) once said to a pal of mine who runs a garage:

When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.

Ahem. Anyway. As I made my way back up the cliff slopes to my home, a silly poem, an aide-memoire, popped into my head:

Be brave.
Say: 'Hi,
I'm Dave.'
No shame.
'What is
Your name?'

Later than I expected, I returned home to start writing this email to you. I wanted to get it done by lunchtime so that I could prepare for this bike ride tomorrow.

I failed.

Instead, I spent the morning in the Lush Green Hub with a friend (👋), picking out delicious donations, showertime products that might have unsellably passed their Lush-fresh peak, but are still very much fabulous.

Lush are kindly passing these intoxicating products onto Thighs of Steel so that our disgusting, smelly cyclists stay fragrant all the way to Athens this summer. Cheers!

The Number Twenty-Four (And My Inevitable Mortality) There comes a point in every reader’s life when they realise that the number of books on one’s shelf vastly outnumbers the number of allotted hours for reading that remain on their own mortal shelf-life

Today’s story isn’t even a story. It’s a silly game, born of the ocean-inspired collision of three things floating on the waves in my mind.

  1. The number twenty-four.
  2. My two shelves’ worth of unread books.
  3. My inevitable mortality. (Or at least, a busy summer wherein I shall do little reading.)

1. The Number Twenty-Four

This is, of course, the best number out there.

No — don’t contradict me, I’ve done a full survey of all the numbers, including many that are top secret, and none of them are better than twenty-four.

I mean, for starters, it’s the smallest number with eight factors — eight!

Read ‘em and weep:

  1. One
  2. Two
  3. Three
  4. Four
  5. Six
  6. Eight
  7. Twelve
  8. Twenty-four

This is why we divide rotations of our Mothership Earth into twenty-four hours: we can comfortably divide the day into halves of twelve hours each, thirds of eight hours each, quarters of six, and so on.


Twenty-four (24) is divisible, not only by both its independent digits (2 and 4), but also by the sum of those digits (6). This is what’s called a Harshad number.

And, just to show off, it can even be divided by the multiple of its digits (8).

The name ‘harshad’ took its etymology from Sanskrit: it means ‘joy-giver’.

Twenty-four also happens to be my birth date, which also happens to be later this month.

And that’s a lot of joy for one number to give.

2. Two Shelves Of Books

For the past three years, I’ve been indulging in the pleasure of buying books.

It began during lockdown, when the libraries were closed and I couldn’t spend any money on anything else (I hadn’t yet discovered bread baking).

Since then, I’ve bought more books per year than I’ve read and this has created an anxiety-inducing surplus.

Which brings us nicely onto…

3. My Inevitable Mortality

There comes a point in every reader’s life when they realise (like a dull blow to the back of the head) that the number of books on one’s shelf (never mind on one’s reading wishlist) vastly outnumbers the number of allotted hours for reading that remain on their own mortal shelf-life.

This is compounded by the accusatory glare of books bought in the first flush of lockdown and still with spines unbent, all hope crushed by the page-limiting design of my summer on the bicycle.

I accept now that I will never do justice to all of the books that sit on my shelf.

I could — there are only about fifty or sixty there in total, which is only about sixteen month’s worth (or g months if we’re counting in base twenty-four) if I plough through them.

But I won’t. I just won’t.

As a writer myself, this pains me further: think of all the years — not to mention all the bankruptcies, migraines, mortgage defaults, psychological breakdowns and RSIs — that went into creating these books, sucking out the heart and soul of every author, hoping for a connection that I will never give them.

Even though I could.

So today’s story is a silly game: herewith, please find twenty-four passages from page twenty-four of twenty-four of my unread books.

It’s my way of paying tribute to the extraordinary love and bloody-minded exertion that we all put into our earthly contribution; a contribution that will leave no trace on the overwhelming majority of humankind.

And, who knows, maybe some of these passages will intrigue me enough to make me pluck them off the dusty shelf…

Twenty-Four Passages From Twenty-Four Unread Books

Hey, let’s make this a proper game, shall we?

Shall we actually, though?


Every one of these passages is from a real book by a real author, published sometime between 1888 and 2020.

See if you can guess the title, writer and, for a very special harshad point, the year of publication.

Answers at the bottom.


Oh, go on then!

After all, what kind of a game would it be with no prizes?

(Well, actually, Dave, it’d be the kind of game that values intrinsic rather than extrinsic rewards, but let’s be honest: intrinsic rewards are for squares.)

How to enter the prize draw:

  1. Go to my MASS Action x Thighs of Steel fundraising page
  2. Make any kind of a donation
  3. In your donation message, have a stab at the title or author of any of these snippets
  4. If you’re right (or if I think it’s a great guess), then I’ll send you a free book from my unread shelf of doom and pop it in the post to you (if you live in the UK).

No cheating?

Nah, fill your boots — cheat away!

David Perry (1994) postulates that the surface area — hence its absorption capability — of mycorrhizal fungi may be 10 to 100 times greater than the surfacde area of leaves in a forest. As a result, the growth of plant partners is accelerated.

‘No, not close, but let’s see how far. One elephant, two elephants, three elephants … fifteen elephants … twenty-five elephants … It’s still a long way off, more than five miles away.’

It is Friday and I have sweated out one page and a half. If I did not know this process so well, I would consider it a week of waste. But I know better than that now and I am content.

Rule: Pronounce ‘g’ as in ‘get’.

‘g’ in Welsh never sounds like ‘j’, as in ‘gentle’.

cragen — shell — kraggenn

You can follow these fence lines and walls all across the country on your Rights of Way, you can keep to your codes of conduct and never question this status quo. Or you can cross these lines, look inside this system and find out who put them there, and how. Because someone cast the net; something cast the spell.

Yet accomplished writers usually seem to have something else in mind when deciding how to put sentences together: the better the writers, of fiction and nonfiction alike, the more they tend to vary their sentence lengths. And they do it as dramatically as possible.

She said it took her over an hour, because she was arthritic by then, but when she finally found her clitoris, she said, she cried.

If Ecuador is to leave oil unburned, then Ecuador alone must shoulder the cost of lost oppportunity. Those who have so far put most of the fossil carbon into the atmosphere, the citizens of deep-pocketed industrialised nations, were not willing to take on part of the financial burden of restraint.

To Freud, though living surrounded by women and otherwise seeing so much and so well, women’s relationships seemed increasingly mysterious, difficult to discern, and hard to describe.

This book is nervous like coffee or malaria — it sets up a network of cut-outs & safe drops between itself & its readers — but it’s so baldfaced & literal-minded it practically encodes itself — it smokes itself into a stupor.

Reacting to the anxious climate of family life, they blunted their curiosity, narrowed their perception, and followed the ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy that ruled the family. Children know at a deep, automatic level what they are not supposed to say or tell or even remember.

After visiting the orange-belt and the opera-house, we went to bathe. Suddenly out of the crowd on the seafront, stepped Mr Aaronson of the Italia. ‘Hello, hello — you here too? Jerusalem’s so dead at this time of year, isn’t it? But I may look in tomorrow. Goodbye.’

The chemicals to which life is asked to make its adjustment are no longer merely the calcium and silica and copper and all the rest of the minerals washed out of the rocks and carried in rivers to the sea; they are the synthetic creations of man’s inventive mind, brewed in his laboratories, and having no counterparts in nature.

We are the poem, his poem says, that emerges from the unity of the body and the mind. That fragile unity — this brief parenthesis of being — is all we have. Celebrate it.

Suddenly and simultaneously they discover me, prone on my belly a few feet away. The dance stops. After a moment’s pause the two snakes come straight toward me, still in flawleess unison, straight toward my face, the forked tongues flickering, their intense wild yellow eyes staring directly into my eyes.

After crossing Bear River I find myself on a somewhat superior road leading through the Mormon settlements to Ogden.

Shadi claims to have been in the Foreign Legion, and he seems nuts enough for this to be true.

After twenty-three days of complete fast, Kundan died. The Jain community was happy to hear this news. I was sad. The monks said he had conquered the fear of death.

The broom is a palm leaf twice his size. He might have been sweeping all his life. Had this been Disneyland one might have thought he was put there to represent a worker from the past. But the hunchback is real, and his task is to keep the desert sand away from the historical copies. The man and the palm leaf seem to be the only genuine articles in all of Babylon.

Undaunted by the reality of being a single parent with a three-year-old son, she took inspiration from a film she’d seen about a woman who’d travelled across the Siberian tundra on her own in the 1920s. ‘I thought, “If she can do that, no equipment, just a big coat, I can walk to London, because I’ll just get myself a good litttle pram and da-da-da.”’

JUNE 10. Very warm. We get water for the camp from a rock basin at the foot of a picturesque cascading reach of the river where it is well stirred and made lively without being beaten into dusty foam.

When Scott Martin wrote a favourable article on Critical Mass in Bicycling magazine’s January 1994 issue, several reader retorts ensued; including ‘I’m disappointed to see Martin supporting this perverted brand of Street Justice,’ and ‘Your glorification of juvenile delinquents blocking traffic and assaulting motorists upsets me.’

Even if your performance is not affected directly, perfectionism may still reduce your ability to enjoy your work or may influence the ways in which you treat others at work.

One might cite Antony, in Antony and Cleopatra, as he tries to answer the question about what kind of thing is the crocodile: ‘It is shaped, sir, like itself, just so high as it is, and moves with its organs. It lives by that which nourisheth it, and the elements once out of it, it transmigrates.’ And, Antony might have added, it progresses through its days and nights very much at its own pace.

With The Greatest Of Thanks And Respect To…

  1. Mycelium Running, Paul Stamets (2005)
  2. Wild Signs And Star Paths, Tristan Gooley (2018)
  3. Journal Of A Novel, John Steinbeck (1970)
  4. Pronouncing Welsh Place Names, Tony Leaver (1998)
  5. The Book Of Trespass, Nick Hayes (2020)
  6. Artful Sentences, Virginia Tufte (2006)
  7. The Vagina Monologues, Eve Ensler (2001)
  8. The Songs Of Trees, David George Haskell (2017)
  9. In A Different Voice, Carol Gilligan (1982)
  10. T.A.Z., Hakim Bey (1985)
  11. The Dance Of Connection, Harriet Lerner (2001)
  12. The Road To Oxiana, Robert Byron (1937)
  13. Silent Spring, Rachel Carson (1962)
  14. Proust Was A Neuroscientist, Jonah Lehrer (2007)
  15. Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey (1968)
  16. Around The World On A Penny-Farthing, Thomas Stevens (1888)
  17. Baghdad Bulletin, David Enders (2006)
  18. No Destination, Satish Kumar (1992)
  19. A Hundred And One Days, Asne Seierstad (2003)
  20. All Together Now? Mike Carter (2019)
  21. My First Summer In The Sierra, John Muir (1911)
  22. Critical Mass, edited by Chris Carlsson (2002)
  23. When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough, Martin M Antony and Richard P Swinson (2009)
  24. Time, Eva Hoffman (2009)

UPDATE: After writing this piece, intrigued, I started reading Proust Was A Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer and didn’t stop until I’d finished. It’s a wondrous book, full of inspiration for both writers and readers.

10 Years Of No Borders I’ve been writing about the crisis of borders for ten years. My first story on the topic, written after staying in an abandoned chemical factory in Calais, rings as true today as it did then: Do We Need Borders?

Here’s a thing: I’ve been writing about the crisis of borders for ten years.

What’s mad is that my first story on the topic, written after staying in an abandoned chemical factory in Calais, rings as true today as it did then: Do We Need Borders?

The question is, of course, rhetorical.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a nation state is: ‘An independent political state formed from a people who share a common national identity (historically, culturally, or ethnically).’

I’m sure you can already see the problems we might run into if, by any chance, those unlucky administrators happened to draw borders in inauspicious places (i.e. almost anywhere).

That 2014 story was written for an audience of your common-or-garden sceptics: the bulk of citizenry who, until now, have never questioned the very fact of our borders and who naturally assume, for amorphous reasons that they’ve never quite pinned down, that controls are necessary.

People like me, in other words.

It’s what I learned in Calais — talking to everyone, teaching some English, skipping fresh food out of supermarket bins, staying up all night on the rooftop watching for police raids — that shoved me into a new belief system, one that has no room for borders of any kind.

In all those ten years of listening, watching and writing, I’ve not come across a better argument to change people’s minds than the simple fact of being there.

William James, the founder of modern psychology, said that we become what we do. […] One trip to Calais, one cup of hot sugary tea with a Sudanese or Eritrean, is worth a full year of media stories, with their distortions, omissions, angles, exaggerations and outright lies.

If I can’t convince you to engage kinaesthetically, then the most disarming argument I’ve found, especially for all those sensible right-thinking folk, is the economic argument: free movement and open borders is ‘the efficient, egalitarian, libertarian, utilitarian way to double world GDP’.

These are not my words, but the general consensus of multiple economic studies conducted over the course of decades.

‘Impossible,’ all those sensible right-thinking folk say.

Not impossible, I say, only improbable. And everything, in this unlikely universe, is improbable so that’s not saying much.

‘Everything is improbable. Nothing is impossible.’ Graffiti on the walls of the abandoned chemical factory where I stayed in Calais, 2014

Well, come on then, Mr 10 Years — what’s changed?

I was thinking about my long involvement with the free movement, er, movement because I’m currently reading Daniel Trilling’s excellent book Lights In The Distance: Exile And Refuge At The Borders Of Europe.

I met Daniel on my first 2014 trip to Calais, while he was researching this very book.

He wanted to visit the abandoned tioxide chemical factory where I was staying with half a dozen No Borders activists and several hundred other people, many from Sudan, but with representatives from all over — Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Albania, Vietnam.

We had a strict no journalists policy, but, for some reason, Daniel was allowed in — if only briefly. I dunno. Maybe because he seemed sound.

I still think he seems sound — and I agree with what he has to say about ‘change’:

Often, journalists like to think that what they’re doing is going to provoke a change. […] The myth we believe is that exposing something we consider unjust is enough to fix it. But it’s usually not. […]

Instead, if there’s anything useful in our work, it’s more like fitting the pieces of a shattered mirror back together […] As writers, we have the luxury of distance. We can step back from a situation, try to untangle the web of cause and effect that surrounds it, and retell it in a way that makes sense.

Not only that: I would add that we also introduce people to new ideas, voices and perspectives. It’s nowhere near as good as being there, but stories are a small beginning and that counts for something.

Oh, and plenty has changed in the past ten years.

Me, for starters.

Bikes x Borders

Since 2018, I’ve been part of Thighs of Steel, a community of cyclists who gather together every summer to ride an incredibly long way and raise funds for grassroots activist and migrant-led projects that either advocate for change or offer dignified ways for people on the move to elevate themselves.

As much as possible, these are sustainable projects that return a little power, independence and autonomy to people who have often been stripped of all three.

These are projects like Khora, a community kitchen and legal advice centre in Athens, Hakoura, a refugee-run eco-farm in Greece, the Bikes For Refugees cycle space in Scotland, and Calais Migrant Solidarity, the No Borders activist centre I first made contact with way back in 2014.

Images courtesy our charity partner @massactionuk on Instagram

Since 2016, Thighs of Steel have cycled from the UK to Athens five times and raised over £650,000 in cash to help keep community spaces like these open to all.

This year, we’re riding again. Another 5,400km from Glasgow to Athens.

449 donors have aready helped our cyclists raise over £13,000 via our partner charity Mass Action.

⚠️ YES! You too can donate by going along here.

Cycling my share of the 5,400km and raising the £500 I’ve committed as part of our £80,000 target — both strike me as totally impossible improbable from where I am now.

But if there’s one thing that being a part of Thighs of Steel has shown me over the years it’s that all this is possible — when we act together.

In fact, with our collective momentum, it’s not only possible, it’s highly likely.

And what’s true of cycling from Glasgow to Athens, what’s true of raising £500 or even £80,000 for solidarity projects, is also true of our ultimate goal: free movement and no borders for all, not only for the privileged few.

As I wrote back in 2017:

If the last thousand years are any guide, slow but dramatic change is not only possible but highly likely.