Responsibility Is Not Heavy It's electromagnetic (metaphorically speaking)

We imagine responsibility as a weight.

This imagined foe finds expression in the metaphorical language we all use.

Responsibility is something we hold, bear, carry or shoulder. Responsibility is a heavy, weighty thing that can be handed over, dodged or ducked.

Sometimes responsibility even falls on us.

No wonder that, in our most solemn moments of responsibility, we speak — quite literally — of the ‘gravity’ of the situation.

This Is A Terrible Metaphor

Responsibility doesn’t behave like a weight.

A weight on your shoulders will always slow you down, drag you down, bring you down.

But responsibility doesn’t always feel like that, does it? Hell — I don’t think it even often feels like that.

If responsibility were a force (metaphorically speaking), then it wouldn’t be gravity.

Most of the time, responsibility is empowering: it gives us the energy and motivation we need to achieve cool things.

I’m sure you can think of many times in the past when someone handed over responsibility to you — and it made you feel lighter, stronger, faster, energised, electrified and empowered.

The Thing Got Done. Right?

Far from being a gravitational, weight-like thing, responsibility is much more like a vitalising force that we absorb, store, conduct or distribute.

Yep: a better energetic metaphor for responsibility is electricity.

One idiomatic hint that responsibility truly is more electrical than gravitational: we say that the person responsible for a task is the person ‘in charge’. I found this amusing.

Where a cumbrous weight will always slow us down, electricity, when it’s hooked up right, can grant us superhuman speed — like one of those mad scooters you get nowadays.

What responsibility really looks like (metaphorically).

Okay, cool. So we’re agreed that responsibility isn’t a weight, but an electricomagnetic energy. Where does that lead us?

The Party Balloon Of Expectation

We can imagine now that the responsibility for any given task is generated energetically from the expectations and obligations involved, like the build-up of static between a woolly jumper (obligations) and a party balloon (expectations).

The more friction between obligation and expectation, the bigger the metaphorical electrostatic charge and the bigger the energetic potential of responsibility.

Energy = exciting!

Yes, but a word of warning too.

Once generated, that high charge of responsibility can suddenly seem scarily high voltage.

Oh shit. A hundred people at the party and no balloons.

Even more worryingly: all the energy we’ve generated between obligations and expectations has a worrying propensity to be discharged through the nearest conductive surface.

Us.

This is exactly like — you see where I’m going — electricity.

Yesterday, for example, a 25,000 volt overhead cable fell onto a Birmingham railway line, causing ‘a spectacular fire with sparks, flames and smoke’.

That’s a lot of electrons spurting very quickly out of a literal fire hose.

Anyway. Don’t be scared. This is the wont of electrical charges, the world over, from time immemorial. This is the natural order of things.

And such is responsibility.

If you find yourself as the only conductive surface for an enormous electrostatic fire hose of responsibility, then god help you.

In plainer English: if you try to conduct all that responsibility through yourself, all alone, then you’re going to fry.

Like a tree caught in a flash of lightning, you’re going to burn out.

Stretching The Metaphor

Watching that touch-it-and-you-die 25,000 volt cable thrash around Birmingham of a summer’s day, it can seem a bit wild to remember that humans willingly generate electricity.

Oodles and oodles of the stuff.

Just today, just in the UK, humans have generated 608.3 gigawatt-hours.

For scale, imagine the UK is a building site and imagine that everyone on that building site has been working hard for eight hours.

In order to get through 608.3 gigawatt-hours of energy, that building site would need as many builders as India has people.

I’m not sure that scale model helped, but the point is that we generate a huge amount of power in this country and yet, somehow, we share it around, more or less safely (Birmingham railway notwithstanding) and then use it to do loads of really cool stuff like typing emails to strangers on the Internet when really we should be stuffing our faces with birthday banana bread.

Given how destructive electricity can be, isn’t that marvellous?

Responsibility is the same.

We generate oodles and oodles of the stuff, every day of our lives, because it’s a powerful motivating force that helps us do loads of really cool stuff.

Yes, it can turn us into charred steak quicker than you could say ‘medium-rare’ — but only if we try to absorb it alone or conduct too much all at once.

Big responsibility conducted through one person (ouch).

If instead, like the national grid, we find a way to distribute that energy — share it with friends, colleagues, sauna buddies — then together we can power all manner of wondrous things.

Big responsibiity distributed among equals (ahhhh).

End of metaphor.

Responsibility is a powerful force: share it around or you’ll get fried.

Or, to wilfully paraphrase Spider-Man:

With great responsibility comes great responsibility.

Thank you.

~

Etymological Side Note: What’s response got to do with responsibility?

According to the OED, a response was, originally, the answer given to a question asked of an oracle. A response is a reply: an answer.

If you are responsible, then you are the one answerable for that duty: you’re accountable.

~

Photos: Okai Vehicles, Felix Mittermeier and Johannes Plenio

Podcast: Talking Thighs of Steel with Bikepacking Buds

If you’d like to listen to me telling stories about that unique intersection between a) cycling really far, b) migrant solidarity and c) bugling on the beach, then — snakes alive! — you are in luck.

I did my first ever guest spot on a podcast this week, chatting to Saoirse at Bikepacking Buds, a rad community that aims to create a network of bikepackers across the UK.

Listen on Spotify (you don’t need an account) and hear about cycling Britain on a £50 auction bike, riding to Athens four times, how to fix broken brakes with duct tape, doing laps of Dartmoor for the sake of GPS artwork, and, of course, the spirit badger origin of my touring bugle.

Squatting The One Stretch To Rule Them All

For the first time in my life, I can sit cross-legged on the floor. Seriously: first time. At primary school, aged six, I remember pretending I’d stapled myself in the thumb so that I could have the ‘special’ (AKA ‘only’) chair at storytime.

This transformation in my flexibility is down to the cumulative power of doing a couple of minutes of yoga every evening. And it has genuinely improved my life: I can now have a picnic with friends without making them gather around a bench.

My latest small-but-mighty obsession is the flat-footed squat.

I’ve long known that the squat (what a word!) is the best position for defecation and that millions of people all over the world sit comfortably in this position every day. But it’s caught my attention this week because Simon Jackson, Head of Bike Fit at Cadence, chose a 45-second squat as his desert island conditioning exercise.

This is the One Stretch To Rule Them All.

And wow. I love it. I love it so much that I want to fill every forgotten corner of time with a squat. Waiting for the kettle to boil, on the phone, at the beach. Maybe one day, I’ll be able to work at a squat desk…

How To Give Me Birthday Presents (And accidentally take positive action on something you really care about)

I’ve spent the last six months working my ass off behind a computer screen to help make Thighs of Steel 2022 a sweat-n-spokes reality.

Now it’s time for the easy bit: cycling 5,000km from Glasgow to Athens.

SORRY WHAT?!?

Oh yes. I’ll be part of the core team for six of the eight weeks: from Glasgow to Milan (yep — over the Alps) and then again from Dubrovnik to Athens, through Albania and Macedonia.

Being core team means I’ll cycle about two thirds of the way and drive Mama Calypso the other third, supporting ninety pedal-pushing, wild-camping, fundraising cyclists through the biggest physical challenge of their lives.

And I won’t sleep for two months.

Together, we’re aiming to raise at least £60,000 for MASS Action, a volunteer-led charity that support grassroots projects like Khora, a social kitchen, asylum support centre and free shop for displaced people in Athens.

Our aim is to empower dignified and sustainable initiatives for migrants and asylum seekers in the UK and Greece. 💪

Enough typing!

If you’d like to listen to me telling stories about that unique intersection between a) cycling really far, b) migrant solidarity and c) bugling on the beach, then — snakes alive! — you are in luck.

I did my first ever guest spot on a podcast this week, chatting to Saoirse at Bikepacking Buds, a rad community that aims to create a network of bikepackers across the UK.

Listen on Spotify (you don’t need an account) and hear about cycling Britain on a £50 auction bike, riding to Athens four times, how to fix broken brakes with duct tape, doing laps of Dartmoor for the sake of GPS artwork, and, of course, the spirit badger origin of my touring bugle.

So what has this got to do with my birthday?

Next Friday, I’ll turn 40.

That seems like a nice round number and, when nice round numbers come along, it’s not unusual in our culture for people to mark the occasion with generous gifts.

I’m going to make this easy for you.

Instead of going to the hassle of wrapping up and posting me one of your old DVDs, subscribe to this newsletter between now and my birthday next Friday, and I’ll donate the entirety of your subscription fee (£30) to the fundraiser on your behalf.

As a bonus, you’ll receive all of the bragging rights associated with becoming a paying subscriber (and it will automatically renew next year, so stay sharp if you don’t want to go quite that far).

You might even receive gifts in return — like last year, when I sent out a book to all paying subscribers.

I am, for example, planning a surprise and surprisingly physical subscriber-only newsletter magazine-letter, on the theme of propinquity, delivered to your door (if your door is in the UK).

If this all sounds a bit much or you prefer random acts of kindness, you can simply donate to the fundraiser through JustGiving. Like, right now.

Thank you 🙏

The Bad News

What my impending sleeplessness also means is that, from mid-July to mid-September, these newsletters will inevitably become spontaneously irregular.

They’ll also, more likely than not, be obsessively focussed on cycling, cycling, cycling and, as you’ve already glimpsed, amplifying our message of international solidarity and maximising the impact of our and your financial contributions.

I hope that I’ll find time for one or two more thoughtful emails, but please don’t expect a whole lot more than a cache of images and word-images captured on the freewheel.

Think of it as a summer break. We all need one.

The Cataclysmic Event Hypothesis Nothing propinks like propinquity

Nothing propinks like propinquity
~ Ian Fleming, Diamonds Are Forever

Propinquity is the property of nearness.

On an archaeological dig, the closer together artefacts are found, the more similar their likely provenance. These artefacts are said to have high propinquity and, most likely, nearness in space equals nearness in time.

If beads from a lapis lazuli necklace are found in the dust around the bleached bones of a Neolithic hunter, then it’s fair to assume that they were both buried at the same time.

If the burial was uncovered in Orkney, then — bloody hell — you’ve found evidence that Neolithic Orkadian hunters had trade links with ancient Afghanistan.

That’s the law of propinquity in archaeology.

In social psychology, propinquity is one of the main factors in personal attraction.

Nearness in time and space, together with the regular frequency of encounters, explains why so many romances begin at work.

Work-based lovers are said to have high propinquity and are doomed to spend the rest of their days sharing long looks over a PowerPoint, sneaking a fumble at the fax machine and studiously pretending not to notice each other at the office party.

Propinquity can also be used to capture other, non-physical, similarities between people. We feel closer to those who share our political and religious beliefs, upbringing, education or sense of humour.

Even totally coincidental match-ups like sharing a first name can raise our sense of propinquity with another human. Davids are the best.

Why the heck am I going on about this?

The way most of us experience reality is linear. We feel bounded by time and space. Because of that, propinquity — hereness, nowness — is everything to us humans.

Stand by for a bold statement:

Your physical environment (space) is the most immediately relevant factor dictating the course of your life in that moment (time).

Because we’re such social beings, what this means is that the most important person in our lives is always the person closest to us in physical space at that moment.

Not convinced?

Think about this grisly scenario next time you’re crossing the street and a car comes fast round the bend.

Who’s most important to you right now — the driver, with his steering wheel and brake pedal, or your dearly beloved waiting for you to get back from the shops?

The brakes fail. You get hit.

Who’s most important to you right now — a passing grandma with an enthusiastic, but terrifyingly shaky memory of a first aid course she did sixty years ago, or the world’s greatest trauma surgeon twiddling her thumbs in a hospital in Basingstoke?

The Cataclysmic Event Hypothesis

This macabre thought experiment is what I call The Cataclysmic Event Hypothesis.

The idea made its first appearance back in 2008, when I thought I was going to become An Important Writer and wrote a 44-page manuscript modesty titled The Meaning Of Life.

If there is a cataclysmic event right now, I am going to be relying for my life upon those people in closest proximity to me.

Obviously, a cataclysmic event like being involved in a car crash is an extreme example, but isn’t this hypothesis exactly what we’ve learned during the pandemic?

Our nearest becoming, truly, our dearest.

Life made worthwhile again by the boy next door, the girl upstairs, neighbourhood support groups and a smile across the shared garden.

As I pompously wrote back in 2008:

[…] People talk even today of the ‘spirit of the Blitz’: catastrophic events tend to bring the best out in human beings. But why restrict our best behaviour to only after such a disaster?

[…] The most important things to you in any one moment are the things immediately around you: make things better for them and things will become better for you as well, because they are your environment and you are all part of one organism, the society.

As we’ve also discovered during the pandemic, virtual propinquity has changed the rules — but only somewhat.

Telephones, the Internet, social media and video conferencing help us maintain a sense of high propinquity with people far away, if not physically, then at least psychologically.

Equally, however — as many people have found during long periods of isolation and as that morbid thought experiment suggests — virtual propinquity is, when the chips are really down, an illusion.

No: we are entirely dependent, or rather interdependent with the people with whom we share our immediate physical environment, right now.

Nothing Propinks Like Cycle Touring

But why am I banging on about propinquity?

It’s not the usual topic of conversation for someone who just cycled 439km through the isles and kyles of western Scotland during a heatwave.

No — I should be boring you with an endless slideshow of what I done on my holidays.

Alright then, here you go:

1: Chain snaps. 2: Dave ‘fixes’ chain. 3 & 4: Rinse and repeat.

Well, besides being a generally interesting new concept that might completely transform the way you interact with everything and everybody in the world around you, forever until you lie stone cold dead in the ground, allow me to paraphrase Ian Fleming:

Nothing propinks like cycle touring

Sunday Afternoon: A Hill On A Tight Corner, In The Middle Of Nowhere, Scotland

I am 25km into an 85km bike ride and, crucially, 30km from the nearest bike shop. This is crucial because, two seconds ago, my chain snapped.

I have pushed my bike to the grassy verge and am now staring in disbelief at the metal snake lazily basking on the hot asphalt of the country lane.

It’s at this point that I have a flashback to a scene in my kitchen the week before, confidently fitting a new chain with all the smug satisfaction of an amateur who knows too much.

After ascertaining the above-mentioned crucial information, I have no choice but to attempt a roadside recovery.

Luckily (deliberately, to be fair) I have the necessary tools at my disposal. But fitting a chain is a pain in the ass (unless you have a thing called a ‘master link’) and, above all, a mess in the ass (especially if, only ten minutes prior, you heroically squirted a full litre of lubricant over the entire transmission, chain, sprockets, cogs and all).

Half an hour later, having used any excess bike oil to paint some pretty nifty body art, the chain is back on, the snake back in its bed.

I am mildly pleased with my handiwork, but not so proud that I don’t walk up the rest of this agonisingly steep hill.

Back on the flat, I test the chain with a few turns of the pedals. Despite the heat, every creak and twang sends cold shivers down the back of my neck.

I pull over and ponder my options: cycle back the way I came to the nearest bike shop thattaway (30km) or press gingerly on ahead, trusting my mechanical knowhow until the next town thattaway (45km).

It’s at that precise moment, oily fingers stroking oily beard, that another cyclist whizzes past me — gone, flying down the hill into the hazy distance, before I can blurt out the words, ‘Excuse me, you haven’t got any expertise in on-the-road chain repair, have you?’

Happily for me, cruising behind this bomber biker, is her husband, who sees my ponderous look and asks if anything’s up.

Propinquity And The Port Sunlight Wheelers

Iain pulls to a stop beside me and the exchange that follows is remarkable.

It’s not remarkable because he’s wearing an anglepoise mirror attached to his sunglasses so that he can keep an eye on his wife when she stops to chat to strangers.

It’s not even remarkable because he generously bequeaths me his own spare master link in case my chain snaps again later down the road.

It’s remarkable simply because he stopped.

About five cars passed while I struggled to tie my chain up in knots on the roadside. Hot-and-bothered people with places to go and children to feed, no doubt.

But Iain stopped. He alone acknowledged our high propinquity and he alone offered the words of comfort that gave me the strength to ride on ahead:

The exact same thing happened to me and the wife on Islay, ten years ago. On a tandem. With a kiddy trailer. Exactly the same: we were going up a steep hill and — crack — the chain snaps.

So I took out a link, same as you, and rivetted it back up, same as you — and it worked. It’s the exact same link that’s on the bike now, ten years later.

Get back on the bike and have some confidence in your work, lad.

Stepping back on the pedals with an oily handshake and a smile, Iain did indeed leave me full of confidence.

Utterly misplaced, of course — the chain snapped again not 15km later — but that’s not the point.

The point is that all the friends, all the money, all the power, all the joy and happiness in the world couldn’t help me out of my predicament in that moment.

The only entities that could possibly help me were those with whom I shared high propinquity.

Iain, in other words — Iain of the Port Sunlight Wheelers on the Wirral.

In other words, a complete stranger.

Stay Alive

So the next time you’re doing, well, anything at all, stay alive to your time and place, and embrace propinquity — even if, especially if, they are ‘strangers’.

Instead of ‘minding your own business’ or jacking up on virtual propinquity through your phone screen, look to strengthen the connections you have with the beings immediately around you.

You never know when and how they might need you and you might need them.

Arran – Islay – Jura Down on words, high on images

Apologies for the late running of this service – I neglected to bring the little duberry that magics words from my typewriter to my phone.

What that means is, rather than nothing at all this week, this story will be down on words and high on images.

I hope that’s okay by you. I also hope it might encourage you to travel in whatever sense of the word works for you this weekend.

If you do decide that the Western Isles is the place to be, then I must mention one huge / tiny element of the trip scandalously not shown in any of my images: midgies.

My advice? Grow a thick skin, or come in winter.

If you’re stuck inside in the rain and feeling envious, please remember: I am covered in midgie bites and itching all over. The image is not the experience.

(It’s still bloody nice, though!)

Three Small Things At The End

  • Every year, Islay has a whisky festival over the last two weeks of May. Each of the island’s 629,682 distilleries has its own special ‘open day’, with music and dancing and free drams for all.
  • George Orwell nearly died in a boating accident when he got caught in the whirlpool of Corryvreckan (the third largest in the world), off Jura.
  • In Sweden, apparently, secret beauty spots, away from the tourist tramp lines, are called ‘wild strawberries’.

I hope you find a few wild strawberries this weekend. Normal service resumes next Friday…

Dream Architecture

Yesterday I finished reading The Men’s Group Manual by Clyde Henry. I’m not a member of a men’s group and I can’t really imagine joining, much less starting one right now, except perhaps in some kind of Temporary Autonomous Zone.

Nevertheless, I got a lot out of reading the book because it explains, as if to idiots, the principles of non-violent communication and gives clear instructions on how to build constructive conversations, designed to bond human beings as equals.

One of the suggested meeting topics in the book was for each man to draw the floor plan of a boyhood home. It’s a powerful exercise (for all genders, I’m sure) that can unearth long-buried memories.

I can get with that.

Sometimes, on the threshold of sleep, I imagine myself an invisible, weightless spirit-bird, flying over and around old homes, swooping between floors to explore each before rising starward again. Beats Netflix for me.

Anyway, at the end of the floor plan exercise instructions, Clyde Henry suggests a variation where everyone draws their ‘perfect dwelling’.

Henry doesn’t offer any interpretation of this idea, but it seems to me that, rather than throwing us back on our childhood, this variation could help us visualise, with pen and paper, a dreamy future.

As someone who dwells all too often in the abstract, the pen-and-paper practicality struck me as an important part of an important tool that might help me do something I’ve never done before…

Future Visualisation

How do you see your life in five years?

At first pass, this doesn’t seem like a tricky question. It’s the sort of question your careers advisor at school would ask and you’d roll your eyes and be like ‘Ugh, I’m gonna be dead by then. SO OLD.’

But when AW3T asked me this exact question a week ago, I realised that, aside from the increasingly teenagery ‘dead by then’ answer, I hadn’t a clue. Not a Scooby.

It turns out that, while some people can’t keep their mind’s eye off their Five/Ten/Fifty Year Plan, some people can scarcely imagine breakfast tomorrow, let alone the second middle name of their third grandchild-to-be.

(Side note: Is this a symptom of Man Sloth Mode? I suspect it may be.)

If you’ve got It All Planned Out, you can probably skip today’s story.

But if you’re stuck with me in the Breakfast Club — and, to be fair, that’s probably at least a quarter of you — then let’s crack on and find our futures.

From The American Future Gap (Institute For The Future, 2017)

(Crumpets are a good shout tomorrow, btw.)

In A Minute: Clyde Henry’s Floor Plan Task

But first, let’s be clear: humans are bad at imagining the future.

When we’re asked to imagine the future, we usually look around at what life we’re currently living, tweak it so it’s not raining quite so heavily, and that’s us.

And we’re particularly bad at imagining our own futures.

Jane McGonigal, lead author on the afore-pictured American Future Gap survey, explained it thusly in a 2017 article for Slate:

Typically, when you think about yourself, a region of the brain known as the medial prefrontal cortex, or MPFC, powers up. When you think about other people, it powers down. And if you feel like you don’t have anything in common with the people you’re thinking about? The MPFC activates even less.

The further out in time you try to imagine your own life, the less activation you show in the MPFC. In other words, your brain acts as if your future self is someone you don’t know very well and, frankly, someone you don’t care about.

Furthermore, and as if that wasn’t enough, as we imagine increasingly distant futures, our imaginings become commensurately vague.

(This is called Construal Theory. There’s no need for you to know that, but I spent ages reading about it for this story so now it’s your problem.)

This explains why, sure, I can plan complex things like cycling from Glasgow to Athens with 100 other humans, but my time horizon is six months tops.

So, while I have a very clear idea of what I’ll be doing between now and October, I couldn’t begin to describe what my life might look like in a year, much less five or ten years.

Imagining May 2023 is, for me, like trying to cloud-watch on a foggy day. Through steamed-up glasses.

Finally: Clyde Henry’s Floor Plan Task

And here is where we come back around to Clyde Henry’s floor plan task because marks made in ink on paper are both imaginative and practical.

That’s exactly why architects use both pen and paper to make detailed plans that bring into being actual houses with plumbing and cavity insulation. They don’t just vaguely tell builders to sort of, you know, build, like, a house with, er, walls and stuff, I guess?

And we in the Breakfast Club can use the same physical properties of pen and paper to force ourselves out of a purely hypothetical fantasy realm and into the realm of reality.

So I took half an hour and sketched.

Looking down at my floor plan sketch, I can see the light breaking over the woods and falling onto my lap as I lie drowsy in the bay window.

Standing up and pushing open the French windows, I can smell the resin of the wood and hear the far-off songs of swallow and stream.

I can feel the cool grass against my bare feet, and the heat of split logs, as I mooch over to the fire pit, just in time to take a s’more, flame grilled à point, from the outstretched hand of a friend.

There.

I have succeeded. I have visualised a future for myself that goes far beyond the here and now, beyond the six-month horizon. For this dream dwelling is surely situated, at bare minimum, five years from today.

But, dear Breakfast Clubbers, visualisation is only the start because now it’s time for the easy part…

Ice Cream Execution

Why do I call this the easy part? Because we’re Breakfast Clubbers.

We don’t have any problem with executing a plan in the here and now. We just never had a plan — until now.

Now we have our floor plan.

Okay, okay. There’s probably a bit more to it than that.

We might have to practise our floor planning over and over again before our futures take on the kind of single-minded clarity that we need to feel confidence in our vision.

But let’s give ourselves a pat on the back today. Until this morning, we’d never even had the confidence to picture our futures, let alone create them. Now at least we know how it’s done.

It takes courage to first imagine and then bring into being a life significantly different to the one you’re currently heavily invested in.

Courage, that is, or — favourite word claxon — audacity.

If audacity is a muscle you need to build, see also: The Best Things In Life Are Audacious and Audacity Is Our Only Option. I think I’m due a re-read as well.

More Ideas For Future Visualisation

  • Write down your task-by-task schedule from a dream day in 2027, complete with meal plans (don’t forget to brush your teeth).
  • Flip through a prospectus from a university, adult education college or anywhere else that sells future selves. Stop when something jumps out at you. Read the description carefully. What makes you connect to this future?
  • Make a scissors-and-glue collage of stuff that whispers big dreams to you. Whatever you do, don’t use a computer — print if you find something online.
  • Take a psychedelic and make notes.
  • Finally: use FutureMe to send your visualisations to yourself in a year’s time.

~

Thanks to A3WT for the gentle prod that resulted in the foregoing and, perhaps, the going forth.

Towards A Dictionary Of Scent

Language is fossil poetry.

This is a story about scent, that strangest of our senses, which arises when a volatile chemical compound binds to a receptor in our nose and sends a signal through our olfactory system to the deepest seat of emotion, memory and learning in our brain.

But because this is also a story about poetry and vocabulary, we begin with language.

Language is also how we find precision.

For example, by increasing our vocabulary of emotion — learning more nuanced words for ‘anger’, say — we’re better able to distinguish between states of mind.

Are you feeling angry? Or are you feeling annoyed, apathetic, affronted, aggravated, antagonised, aggressive, appalled or apoplectic?

This is called emotional granularity and studies have shown that teaching people more words to describe their emotions can help them deal better with stress and trauma.

As Todd B. Kashdan, Lisa Feldman Barrett and Patrick E. McKnight wrote in their 2015 review:

upon experiencing intense distress, individuals who experience their emotions with more granularity are less likely to resort to maladaptive self-regulatory strategies such as binge drinking, aggression, and self-injurious behavior; show less neural reactivity to rejection; and experience less severe anxiety and depressive disorders

Wow.

Another great reason to keep reading books.

Having an impoverished vocabulary of emotion is such a serious condition that there’s even a medical name for it: alexithymia.

‘Language is fossil poetry’ is a line from The Poet, an essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson based on a lecture he gave in 1842.

The essay encourages us to dig, like palaeontologists, into the etymology of words, so that we might uncover their metaphorical and poetic origins.

Shall we?

In 1972, Harvard psychiatrist Peter Emanuel Sifneos created the word alexithymia by smashing together a couple of Greek words.

According to Sifneos, being alexithymic means you have ‘no soul-speech’.

Listen now. What does your soul say?

The Poet Names The Thing

As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his essay:

the poet names the thing because he sees it, or comes one step nearer to it than any other

The poet names the thing because he sees it. Or smells it.

I was cycling along the street earlier today, on my way to the post office to pick up a parcel of Rogue Welsh Cakes. (Maple and pecan? Shut UP!)

It had not long finished raining: the kind of May shower that scrubs the air clean and, as I cycled, the evaporating roads filled my nostrils with that wonderful, thirsty, humid scent I’ve learned to call —

Hold it!

I’m getting ahead of myself.

My reason for writing this story is because the English language, like most, lacks olfactory granularity.

As we’ve seen, English has many, many different words for the different gradations of anger. It’s up to us to learn them, identify them in ourselves, and use them appropriately so that we can live more contented lives.

But when it comes to smells, English simply doesn’t have the words.

As Ed Yong wrote in The Atlantic back in 2015:

In English, there are only three dedicated smell words — stinky, fragrant, and musty — and the first two are more about the smeller’s subjective experience than about the smelly thing itself.

That’s astonishing. But is it a bad thing?

You could say that quickly and accurately distinguishing between smells isn’t ‘saliant’ to our lives. It’s not life and death.

We can describe scent, more or less, by analogy and maybe saying that something smells salty, lemony or funky is good enough for us.

Once upon a time in the west, as research suggests, distinguishing scent more closely may well have been a matter of life and death, where pleasant perfumes identified nourishing food, healing medicine and cleanliness.

The case today for expanding our olfactory granularity rests on the same logic as that taken down by Robert Macfarlane in Landmarks, his paeon to ‘the power of language … to shape our sense of place’ and his attempt to release ‘its poetry back into imaginative circulation’.

Ammil: A Devon term for the fine film of silver ice that coats leaves, twigs and grass when freeze follows thaw.

Noticing and naming are the yin and yang of learning, the head and tail of the ouroboros of understanding.

Smeuse: Sussex dialect for the gap in the base of a hedge made by the regular passage of a small animal.

Who can say what ‘use’ such vocabulary has for its users?

But, as Macfarlane writes, their precision undoubtedly leaves us with ‘our attention re-focused, our sight freshly scintillated’.

And that can only be a good thing in my book slash newsletter.

Back To My Bike Ride…

As I cycled along, the evaporating roads filled my nostrils with that wonderful, thirsty, humid scent I’ve learned to call — yes — petrichor.

Petrichor: A pleasant, distinctive smell frequently accompanying the first rain after a long period of warm, dry weather in certain regions.

Perhaps surprisingly, the term was only coined in 1964 by Isabel Bear and RG Thomas, two Australian researchers who discovered that a yellow-coloured oil could be extracted from dry, clay-based soils and rock.

Petrichor is the name they gave to the odour of that fatty elixir.

The oil is produced by plants during long dry spells and, in a follow-up paper published in 1965, Bear and Thomas showed that the oil significantly delays the germination and growth of various plants — presumably a defence mechanism until environmental conditions are more favourable.

These oils are absorbed from the plants into the soil and, when rain (preferably a light rain) finally hits the ground, the oils are released into the air and we all get to snort the wet scent of petrichor.

Again, the word is formed from Greek. Petros is the Greek word for stone (hence Peter, rock of the church) and ichor is the ancient word for the blood of the gods.

Petrichor draws the blood of the gods from a stone.

The poet names the thing and, in this case, we’re lucky that Isabel Bear was such a poet.

Funky Great Earth-Odour

But there’s more to that delicious post-rain stink than petrichor alone.

When rain hits soil, another molecule is released into the air, this one produced by bacteria living undergound: geosmin.

Geosmin: An organic compound with a strong earthy scent and flavour, produced especially by various microorganisms and largely responsible for the smell of damp soil.

It’s pronounced /dʒɪˈɒzmɪn/ or jee-OZ-min.

This is also a scientific neologism imagined into being by scientists in the mid sixties. This one, also of Greek origin, simply means earth-odour.

Florence Williams, author of The Nature Fix, describes the smell of geosmin as ‘funky-great’ and she’s not wrong: it gives beetroot its umami-earthy taste.

But when geosmin gets into the water supply, it’s just plain funky-bad. In fact, it’s what makes wine taste ‘corked’.

Poetic Palaeontology

So there we have it: two words for distinctive earthy scents, followed back through the palaeontology of their fossilisation.

Maybe you’re shrugging your shoulders with a ‘so what’ look on your face. Maybe you already knew all about petrichor and geosmin.

In both cases, at least I’ve had a nice time.

But if you’re into this kind of thing, I’d love to hear your favourite smelly words — fancy scientific ones like I’ve written about here, ones stolen from other languages, or ones the poets made up long ago.

Let’s move towards a dictionary of scent.

The only one that’s lodged without budging from my schooldays is Ted Hughes’s ‘sudden sharp hot stink of fox’.

Please help me out!

The Earth-Shattering Finale

And so we come to the end of the story, where I wrap up my themes of poetry and the intellectual illumination that comes through noticing and naming.

Ideally this earth-shattering finale will come in a single flash-bulb image that encapsulates the whole in a moment of dazzling insight, leaving you with an awed sense of the power of the universe.

Sadly I don’t have that. What I’ve got instead is the following underwhelming anecdote.

On my way back from the post office, down the same street I had cycled earlier, I was dawdling behind a pedestrian when my eyes flicked right, caught by a flash of incongruous colour on the wall of an unremarkable Victorian house, glimpsed through a gap in a thick hedgerow.

(Not a smeuse — higher up, maybe a bird smeuse.)

It was a blue plaque — an honour reserved for only the most historic of British landmarks.

What was it doing here, in a quiet residential street round the back of Bournemouth train station?

I looked more closely:

Here Rupert Brooke (1888-1915) Discovered Poetry

Woah — poet and petrichor — On. The. Exact. Same. Street! What were the chances?

I told you it was underwhelming.

Before I botch this ending completely, allow me to make an orderly exit by leaving you with a few lines from one of Rupert Brooke’s less jinogistic poems, Tiare Tahiti:

Hear the calling of the moon,
And the whispering scents that stray
About the idle warm lagoon.

OH MY GAWD HE MENTIONS SCENTS.

What do your pronouns mean?

No, I’m not wading into The Pronoun Wars. (Scrap ‘em all. More than half of the world’s langauges don’t have gender markers anyway.) This is something else…

Next time you’re having a conversation, notice what pronouns you’re using and think about what that might mean about your state of mind.

Here are some suggestions:

Saying ‘I’ a lot

Is this really all about you? Are you self-obsessed or self-reflective? Maybe stop in a second and ask the other person, ‘How about you? What do you think?’

Saying ‘You’ a lot

Are you arguing or accusing? Can you flip this around? ‘I feel such-and-such when whatever-happens.’

Saying ‘He/She/They’ a lot

Are you bitching about someone? Would you say this to their face? How would they respond if you did? Speak for them and add their defence to the conversation.

Saying ‘They’ a lot

Are you blaming an ill-defined other? ‘Experts’, ‘Tories’, ‘Gardeners With Fucking Leafblowers’. Can you be more specific? Can you take responsibility instead?

Using personal names a lot

Are you using personal names to respect or censure? Does it feel intimate or impersonal?

27 Things I Used To Believe And Now Completely Don’t

I hold strong opinions. Dangerously strong opinions.

The way that the human brain works, strong opinions like mine can lead to political breakdown, financial collapse and even death 💀

I used to believe in the infallibility of these friendly guys

Most human beings hold at least a few strong opinions thanks to something called the confirmation bias. Duh, duh, DUH.

Because of, I dunno, evolution or something, our mystical skull goo (or ‘brain’) automagically seeks and celebrates evidence that supports our entrenched beliefs and rubbishes and discards evidence that contradicts them.

For example:

(PSA: In the first half of 2021, Covid-19 was the cause of death in 37.4 percent of all unvaccinated people in the UK. Among those who chose to get two shots of a vaccine, the Covid-19 death rate was 0.8 percent. But, then again, this data is from the government-funded Office of National Statistics so you can magically confirmation bias that away too!)

Just Plain Dumb

But even worse than political breakdown, financial collapse and death is succumbing to the Dunning-Kruger effect:

Dumb people think they’re smart.

Or, as David Dunning and Justin Kruger wrote in their original 1999 paper:

Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it.

Smackdown. You do not want to get on the wrong side of Messrs Dunning and Kruger.

Follow up research on the Dunning-Kruger effect has since expanded the phenomenon to take in its flipside too:

Smart people think they’re dumb.

The more one learns, the more one realises how much more one has to learn, which leads high achievers to underestimate their level in comparison to the rest of us dumb-asses.

You see this a lot. Smart or skilful people tend to come with a healthy dose of humility. As ancient philosophy MVP Socrates apparently said:

What I do not know, I do not think I know either.

Or, as twenty-first century tennis MVP Rafael Nadal put it:

Humility is the recognition of your limitations. I always work with a goal, and the goal is to improve as a player and as a person.

This is the same Rafael Nadal who has won an all-time high 21 Grand Slam tournaments, the crowning achievement in tennis. What improvement? What limitations?

So whenever you notice yourself holding the sharp end of a strong opinion, take a minute.

Is the strength of your opinion really justified? Like, really justified.

Or are you just plain dumb?

Now: Be Like The Tree

But strong opinions don’t have to mean inflexible opinions.

If I can use a shitty metaphor that’ll break down in five minutes: imagine a hurricane ripping through your town. Sorry.

A skyscraper has a strong, inflexible opinion. It’s going dowwwwn. But a tree has a strong, but flexible opinion. It’s going to survive the storm by bending with the wind.

So be like the tree.

Strong opinions are fine — good, even — I will strenuously defend my strong opinion about the right of all beings to free movement across the planet. Go on: I dare you!

But strong opinions shouldn’t be like a badly constructed skyscraper in a hurricane. They should be re-examined in the light of new information, contrary viewpoints and changing circumstances. Like a tree.

(Told you it’d break down in five minutes.)

Always Right In An Infinite Universe

One of the wisest books I’ve read recently is Poverty Safari by Darren McGarvey.

(Tl;dr: Poverty Safari is an attempt to describe how brains, humans, families and communities operate under conditions of financial scarcity.

It’s the anthropological-autobiographical partner to the more academic Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much by psychologist Eldar Shafir and economist Sendhil Mullainathan, and you can read an updated summary of the research here.)

In the latter pages of Poverty Safari, McGarvey addresses the apparent inability for political parties to work together to solve really important systemic problems like poverty.

McGarvey points the finger squarely at the confirmation bias and our desperate need to be right, no matter what the dire social consequences:

In a global civilisation dogged by political and religious tribalism, occasionally asking ourselves where we may be mistaken becomes a radical political act.

Isn’t it a bit convenient that we, the ‘good guys’, always find ourselves not only on the right side of history but also on the right side of every argument on the right side of history?

In an infinite universe, on a planet that has existed for billions of years, the chances of us being right about everything are slim, surely?

[…] There’s arguably more virtue in admitting you’re mistaken and correcting your course, than there is in stubbornly believing you haven’t been wrong since you were a teenager.

Amen.

So (finally) here’s a list of:

  • 9 things I once strongly believed and now completely don’t.
  • 9 things I strongly believe today, but suspect I might not in the future.
  • 9 things I strongly believe today, but am actively canvassing for contradiction — help me out, won’t you?

I suspect that sharing these beliefs should come with some sort of a trigger warning so please don’t take them too much to heart.

My point here is more to recognise where I now strongly disagree with my past self. And you can ask yourself the same question.

9 Things I Once Strongly Believed And Now Completely DON’T

  1. Drugs are bad and will lead to addiction, destitution, imprisonment and an early grave. Drug users are, therefore, Bad People to be greatly feared. (Remember: these are opinions that I now strongly disagree with!)
  2. Nation states are a sensible way of organising the different human communities of the world and borders must be protected against illegal intrusion.
  3. The police service is unimpeachable. Police officers know the law and will always enforce it fairly. (Also applies to law courts and politicians.)
  4. Morally and ethically, there is such a thing as Right and Wrong.
  5. There is only one type of intelligence — the one that I’m good at.
  6. When people let me down, turn me down or do me down, it’s probably because I’m in some way an awful person.
  7. Being well-travelled is about how many countries you’ve visited.
  8. Meat and dairy are an essential part of a healthy diet, or at least of a healthy diet for me.
  9. I sleep badly 99.9 percent of the time. (It’s actually 100 percent — nah, only kidding. Compared to some horror stories I hear, I sleep really well. Sorry.)

9 Things I Strongly Believe Today, But Suspect I Might Not In The Future

  1. Robots and A.I. — ughhhh. Let me talk to a human! While we’re here: I strongly believe that we’re not living in a computer simulation. I’m probably wrong.
  2. Everything is relative. Morality, ethics, opinions, abilities, knowledge, whatever — it’s all relative. So back off.
  3. I’m a handsome clever clogs.
  4. I’m in great health and will probably live forever.
  5. I’m crap at music.
  6. I despise potato crisps or any crisp-like appetiser, such as poppadoms or Chinese crackers.
  7. Everything is amazing and no one is happy.’ I hope I always believe the first half of that quote and I really hope that, magically, everyone in the whole wide world contradicts me on the second half.
  8. For most people, looking at the weather forecast is a total waste of time. We’re in the UK, you’re going to need a raincoat.
  9. I don’t deserve enduring happiness in my relationships. Because that would be too easy.

9 Things I Strongly Believe Today, But Am Actively Canvassing For Contradiction

  1. Please can everyone stop voting Tory for a second? Thanks.
  2. Authentic connection is the single most important thing we can do for each other and for the planet that we live on. That could mean going for a muddy walk in nature or sharing a ribald laugh with a stranger.
  3. Every second I spend in front of a screen instead of outside in nature is killing me a little bit.
  4. Reading a physical book, however, is probably the best way of building our empathy muscles to help us with #2. Also: books we can read outside.
  5. Fuck borders.
  6. Going on adventures is a wonderful thing to do and another way to build authentic connection with people and place.
  7. The mind is a body and needs stimulation, touch and movement.
  8. All property should be cooperatively owned. End landlords.
  9. Saunas.

Now, over to you — how wrong am I? And how wrong have you been?!

~

Thanks to AT for the motivation to turn this nagging thought into a story.

58 Days In Memory’s Universal Flux Cycling around Britain Part IV

In 58 days over the summer of 2011, I cycled 4,110 miles around the coast of Britain.

A decade later, in the foreshortened world of 2020, what better time was there to set out on a journey I’d always promised myself I would one day retrace?

But now, ten years older and wiser, instead of cycling over 70 miles a day for two months straight, I’m covering 40 miles a day in bursts spread over four years.

Edinburgh from Salisbury Crags

My 460 mile ride from Kings Lynn to Edinburgh was part four of what will become an eight-legged journey and my arrival into the Athens of the North marked my fifty-eighth day on the road.

Following Southern England in 2020 and Wales in 2021, I’m now about 60 percent of the way around the island…

Map made using Jonathan O’Keefe’s Strava Multiple Ride Mapper. If you’re really interested, you can also explore the ride in more detail on Komoot.

… Or am I?

Looking at the gaps in the journey already — the northeastern tip of East Anglia, the north coast of Devon and Cornwall, the Black Country, the Welsh heartland, and, not least, Grimsby — I’m wondering: shall this ride ever be complete?

Putting aside even the geographical lacunae, I feel the flux of the universe as my feet touch the pedals, every atom in the stream growing, flowing and dying on, even as I race down the road in pursuit.

‘The Road goes ever on and on, Down from the door where it began. Now far ahead the Road has gone, And I must follow, if I can.’ (JRR Tolkein)

This whole trip may be nothing more than a vain attempt to defy Heraclitus and ‘step twice into the same river’.

Everything flows and nothing abides; everything gives way and nothing stays fixed.

The way up and the way down are one and the same. In the circle, the beginning and the end are common.

Into the same rivers we step and we do not step.

Not wanting to get too deep on you, but the only thing holding this ride together (and perhaps my whole being) is the weak bond of memory — or at least the illusion of such a memory.

Building The House Of Illusion And Memory

As hard as my leg muscles have worked, my memory works six-fold, constructing from the basement to the attic, storeys upon storeys, as it traces back and forth between 2011 and the 2020s.

Topographical

Despite the passage of a decade, I’m amazed to find that I recognise many of the places I travel through.

Not exclusively the remarkable places either: I vividly remember cycling out of Middlesborough on a hot day in 2011. The broken concrete of a disused airfield, the abrupt silence of the birds and a sandy track between trees.

Leaving Middlesborough on Sustrans NCN Route 1

This time around, I knew what turns to take, running ahead of my GPS, marvelling at all the little blue Sustrans signs that were then my only guide.

Autobiographical

The circumstances of my nan’s death that led to my leaving on that cycle around Britain eleven years ago and what has become of me since that first journey.

Comedy writer, uncle, outdoor instructor, cyclist-at-large, skateboarder and surfer.

All shared with friends and loved ones, some here for good, others passing through.

Episodic

In 2011, I stayed in Newcastle with an old friend from childhood.

John taught me a lot about comfortable cycle touring: padded shorts for my long-suffering behind, glucosamine for my knees, handlebar ‘bull horns’ for hill climbing and to ease the ache on my shoulders.

This time around, John rode with me for 12 miles either side of his new home in Whitley Bay. Now it was my turn to share a decade’s worth of tea and cake touring experience with him.

Courtesy of the incredible Mister Ridley’s Parlour, a former bowling pavilion decorated in outrageous Victorian splendour in Ridley Park, Blyth

Flashbulb

Vivid memories of emotionally charged events. Like crossing the border into Scotland on 29 July 2011:

I cover the two and a half miles to the border with all the vigour of a man who’s just eaten an entire packet of Jaffa Cakes.

My overwhelming feeling at leaving England is elation.

For a hundred yards, I am in no man’s land. Ahead is a sign that reads, Welcome to Scotland; behind me a sign says, Welcome to England.

The last town in England: Berwick upon Tweed

I scan the foxglove hedgerows for some Scottish significance, in roadside flora, fauna or filth: none.

The significance I seek is on the inside: I feel the spreading butterflies of adventure.

I am a stranger here, in a strange land. The harder I smile, the harder the sun shines.

Procedural

Even the familiar motor skills required for climbing onto a fully loaded touring bike and pushing the pedals is a function of memory, laid down since childhood.

Every element of touring now is a rhyme from a decade of adventure. Pack up your bike, put up your tent, McGuinn. You ain’t going nowhere.

Going nowhere from Craigmillar Castle Park, Edinburgh

Collective

Interdependent and embedded among our personal memories are collective memories of our political, social and cultural milieu.

In 2011, it was impossible to escape the political landscape of scandal and austerity. War in Syria, Tony Blair on trial and police murder in Tottenham.

In 2020, of course, every interaction was marbled with the course grain of the pandemic.

This year, I lost count of the number of gardens, fences, windows, walls, rooftops that flew the flag of Ukraine.

As the muscle fibres in my legs stretch, break, grow and wither, the greatest survivor of this never-ending adventure is memory, creating meaning and character in every episode that I commit to words.

Thank you for reading and sharing these memories. Special thanks to the Shearers for their help in making them in the first place — have a wonderful dino-wedding!

Serving suggestion

Round Britain IV: Cycling Diaries Kings Lynn to Ravenscar

Day 1: Kings Lynn to Boston (66km)

Resuming where I left off two years ago, today I rode from Kings Lynn to a canalside camp just the other side of the lovely market town of Boston.

I’m dressed for Bournemouth, where it’s already summer, and today I froze in a biting northerly wind. Tomorrow I might see about replacing my sandals for shoes…

Big plus of riding in spring: cherry, hawthorn blossom and horse chestnut candles to cheer me!

Day 2: Boston to Cottingham (139km, maybe a touch more)

Lincolnshire knocked out in a day. Not too shabby! (It is very flat, to be fair…)

Some delightful off road sections and canal paths. Also wind.

Frozen toes somewhat comforted by the acquisition of overshoes from the Aladdin’s Cave of F&J Cycles in Lincoln.

Day 3: Cottingham to Ravenscar (107km)

Through the Yorkshire Wolds, including both the ‘capital’, Driffield (shout out to The Bike Cave vegan chocolate orange cake dipped in oat milk turmeric latte), and the ‘gateway’, Hunmanby (shout out to the ‘now very few’ members of the Hunmanby In Bloom committee who made my short stay there so peaceful).

This makes it sound like I had a nice time today. Well, I did. So there. Cycling doesn’t have to be a sufferfest.

This ride to Edinburgh is all part of my training for six weeks of Thighs of Steel this summer (including the Alps, which not even the Yorkshire Wolds can prepare me for!)

If you would like to get in on the game early and show your support for refugees and those rebuilding their lives after war, conflict and persecution, you can send a message and donate here.

Thank you!

If you would like to watch my stately progress as a dot on a screen, then YES, we do live in a Big Brother dystopia. You can do that here.

Alternatively, you could follow me rather less obsessively on Strava.

Up next: a coast ride to Middlesborough, aiming for an old friend’s place in Whitley Bay tomorrow evening.

This is the same friend I stayed with in Newcastle eleven years ago.

Our paths have taken a circuitous road since the last time I was up this way and, by great fortune, my friend has only recently moved back here after many years away.

A lovely circular story, chiming this ride with my last. And, yes, he’s getting married next week.

Cycling Connections from Kings Lynn to Whitby

I’m currently sitting in Sanders Yard Bistro, hidden away in a historic potted plant courtyard, a sharp cobbled descent down the looming cliff of Whitby Abbey.

It’s been more than 300km since I rode out of Kings Lynn, picking up from where I left off in 2020.

This is the fourth leg of my recapitulation of my 2011 ride around the entire coast of Britain.

Being now eleven years wiser, I am taking my time, and expect another three stages and two summers of touring before I have finished.

I ride and I write to make authentic connections, something I struggled with back in 2011.

(Believing, with unfounded mystery, that everyone hated people who wore socks with sandals, and that it was not only the vampires who were out to get me.)

On the first three days of this nine-day stage, my deepest connection has been with the spring.

Spring.

I’ve not done much touring in April before and I’ve been taken aback by how much is going on, everywhere I look, all the time.

Riotous nesting birds. Bluebells in the dappled woods. The first whiffs of cow parsley on the verges. Hens, geese, ducks, pheasants, fowl all busy with their own life admin, my passing only a clucking nuisance in theirs.

And, above all, the shocking silence of the blossoms.


There is never a dull moment, scanning the trees and the hedgerows for apple, cherry, hawthorn and the first candles of the chestnut.

There’s so much colour in our countryside that it’s frustratingly impossible for me to pin a name to the dozens of other pinks, whites, yellows and purples that I’ve marvelled on.

When I get home, I’ll consult a big book of blossoms and give these magnificent displays the quiet attention they deserve. I hear that’s a thing in Japan.

Human connection, perhaps because of the cold weather, has been less apparent than on my summer rides.

Positive, friendly, supportive, people and place, but nothing to fix a story in the memory.

Until this morning, when who should bring me breakfast and tea, but James Astin’s aunt.

James Astin’s aunt

There’s no reason for you to have heard of James Astin, and that’s kind of the point.

James Astin, his aunt confided, left one day from the bandstand right here in Whitby and cycled all around Europe, then into Russia, across China, south through Indonesia to Australia and then across to Alaska and all the way down through the Americas.

Quite the ride – but what struck me were the three stories that his aunt chose to divulge:

  1. Once, cycling through China, James battled along 92km of a four lane motorway, only to be stopped by the authorities and transported right back to where he began.
  2. The number of times he had to light a fire in his tent because of how cold it was. And the number of times he set fire to said tent.
  3. James had to break his trip halfway around to fly home for a wedding (not his own).

What this tells me is that the worst experiences make the best stories. Also weddings.

Something to remember next time things are going south.

One day, maybe, however terrible things are now, this’ll be something your proud aunt will tell a stranger in a cafe.

Failing that: drop everything and join a wedding.

How To Sleep In A Tent: A Story 11 Years In The Making

Ravenscar.

The last time I was here I was desperately searching, with the help of my dad (long suffering telephonist for round Britain cyclist) for Ravenscar youth hostel.

As darkness, rain and sea all closed in on the cliffs below me, I despaired, and threw my bike, my bivvy bag and myself under a bush for shelter.

Shame that the bush was a gorse.

The Great Gorse Of Ravenscar. A familiar sight.

I’m sure I can do better this time.

As the cold drops colder with the fading sunlight, I find myself surrounded by an abundance of excellent camping spots and frankly astounded that my younger self managed to get it so horribly wrong all those years ago.

I’m in the abandoned quarries for the Peak Alum Works on the edge of Fylingdales Moor.

The industry has left the ground nicely levelled out, a quiet copse of trees sheltering a cinder-soft, gorse, thistle, branble and nettle-free clearing.

Tucked away from the path, but still in earshot of the waves swooshing against the rocks below, the silver birch form a merry band, their leader volunteering to snuggle up with Martin II (AKA King Duncan I) for the night.

It’s so perfect, in fact, that I sleep until nearly 8am, a full ten hours.

For anyone wondering: yes, camp sleep can be that good.

The unfavourable juxtaposition of my two experiences at Ravenscar illustrates two developments in my wild camping strategy.

Three if you include the inspired suggestion (by a dog walker on the Isle of Wight in 2020) that I use poo bags, but I’ll save that discussion for a time less close to lunch.

1. OS Maps

Smartphones are a double edged sword for the general population and no more so than for the wild camper.

But what I risk losing in disconnection – that sense of always being elsewhere, of app-watching, media monitoring, and even just listening to the radio of an evening – I gain in knowledge.

OS Maps are a boon, not for touring navigation, but for quickly finding likely spots for wild camping.

Yesterday, for example, I cycled straight past the perfect wild camping spot. On the coast, in full view of the ocean, a short trundle off the path, but with easy access, a clutch of picturesque ruins for shelter and a drystone wall to shield me from view.

As hard as it was to drag myself away, I refused the lure. From OS Maps I could see that this was private land, on a likely busy footpath.

I couldn’t be bothered to cycle a circuitous route to the farmhouse to ask permission, so I looked further ahead on my route and pinpointed an area of flat open access land right on my route: the abandoned quarry.

But, looking out over the landscape, I was even more reluctant to move on. To me, it looked like a mess of woods, gullies and gorges. But I decided to trust the map. And was rewarded.

Funnily enough, I think I camped only yards away from the gorse that I threw myself under 11 years ago.

The difference between these two camping experiences, of course, is daylight and confidence built on a foundation of years of experience.

There is nothing like the unexpected discovery of the perfect camping spot, but on long tiring days, OS Maps has become an invaluable tool.

2. A warm mattress

This could be broadened to include the whole sleep kit, but the mattress is so often overlooked and, in cold temperatures like last night, often the most important element of a warm sleep kit.

Most of your heat will be lost to the ground, not to the air.

Did you know that your sleeping bag is only as good as your mattress? And that camping mattresses have temperature ratings exactly like sleeping bags?

Nope, nor did I until a couple of years ago and now I won’t shut up about it.

The best thing you can do for the planet is be here

I’m spending this weekend supporting young people as they devise and execute their first ever overnight outdoor expeditions. Pretty cool.

I am also cautiously optimistic on reading the following news that they might even have an outdoors when they grow up:

Analysis of climate pledges by nations at the COP26 meeting indicates that such commitments could ensure that global warming does not exceed 2 ºC before 2100 — but only if backed up by short-term policies.

It is easy to set ambitious climate targets for 30, 40 or even 50 years in the future — but it is much harder to enact policies today that shift energy systems towards a more sustainable future.

I’m a believer that the best thing you can do for the planet is be here. Properly be here. Show up to nature in all your glory and bask in the wonder of being.

Happily, Sunday is also the ninetieth anniversary of the 1932 Kinder Trespass, which has become a potent legend in the fight for our right to roam.

As I wrote in my anniversary article last year, ‘spending time in nature is the keystone of a healthy society and, in England and Wales at least, there is not enough nature to go around’.

These are not idle words, but based on scientific findings like this, from a Spanish study published last year:

Individuals with greater nature relatedness are more likely to adopt a sustainable lifestyle and have greater well-being. … This result implies that by nurturing nature relatedness, societies will achieve the double dividend of well-being and sustainability.

Again: for the sake of our future and the future of our children, we need you to trespass and win back our inalienable right to nature.

Stay honest, people.

100 Days Of Adventure: Tercile Update And Round Britain IV

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What is this?

We are almost a third of the way through the year and, happily, I am almost a third of the way through my target of 100 Days Of Adventure for 2022.

As it happens, 100 DOA is a low bar for this year, what with me spending six weeks on tour with Thighs of Steel in the summer.

I’m exceptionally lucky that my hobby has become my job. Starting on Tuesday, for example, I’m basically being forced to spend nine days cycling from Kings Lynn to Edinburgh.

It’s work, I tell you!

This is also the fourth instalment of my post-Brexit, mid-Covid, pre-Apocalypse cycle around Britain, a journey that I first sweated out in the 58 days after the death of my nan in 2011.

I pedalled into Kings Lynn on 5 August 2020, following in the footsteps and pushsteps I took on 21 July 2011, after my hapless police auction bike had bust a spoke for the nth time in five days.

On Tuesday, I’ll catch the morning train, just as I did after buying a new bike in London back in 2011 (RIP Martin), and continue north into Lincolnshire, Yorkshire, Northumberland — and Scotland.

My younger self managed to reach Edinburgh inside a week, cycling nearly ten hours a day to cover the 884km at an average of 133km per day. Yikes.

Luckily, I have eight full days and two half days. I’m also reassured that the route I have planned out on Komoot is only 654km.

With the infinite zoom of a smartphone in my pocket and the all-seeing eye of a GPS on my handlebars, cycle touring is a far cry from the bygone days of map creases and keeping the sea on your right.

It means that I can worry less about navigation and concentrate more on story-seeking. I can’t wait to get started.

Hot Stones, Keystone Habits

I thought I knew why I sauna.

There is a legend that I tell around the hot stones about how, five years ago, I got injured while training for a half marathon.

So it was that, six weeks out from competition, I found myself frantically casting around the Internet for scientifically-backed endurance training techniques that involved, well, zero training.

Then I came across this 2007 study on club runners where three saunas a week for only three weeks led to an astonishing 32 percent increase in time to exhaustion on a treadmill.

Okay, so the saunas were taken immediately after training and the sample size was only six runners — but still.

If I could simply maintain my endurance fitness until the race, then I’d be golden. And so I signed up to the local leisure centre and started sauna-ing.

Lo and behold, six weeks later, I recorded my best ever time at the Gosport Half.

Okay, so the only other time I’d run there it’d been blowing a gale — but still.

I was sold on saunas and have been telling the story of why I sauna to anyone who would listen ever since.

But it’s not true.

Keystone Habits

A single low-powered running study might have been what first got me through the glass sauna door, but it’s not the reason I keep going back.

And the reason I keep going back has nothing to do with the evidence that saunas reduce blood pressure and inflammation, reduce chances of Alzheimer’s and depression, and 40 percent less likely to, ya know, die young.

No, none of them.

The reason I keep going back is that taking a sauna is, for me, a keystone habit.

A keystone habit is one habit that leads to a cascade of others. A keystone habit can be positive, like how exercising first thing in the morning gives you energy for the whole day.

But it can also be negative, like how checking your phone first thing in the morning sends you into a spiral of doom scrolling that leaves you tired and hopeless for hours.

And that last negative example is the clue to why visiting the sauna is a particularly powerful keystone habit for me: 90 degree heat does terrible things to technology.

Yes, saunas are wonderful for my health, an excellent place to meet interesting strangers, and the perfect environment for quiet reflection.

But, above all, I most value how visiting the sauna gives me the precious opportunity for two hours of completely screen-free time in the middle of the day.

That sentence deserves its italics.

Busy Is A Decision

Now, before you switch off in disgust, I know that most people can’t take two hours to f-off to the sauna on a Tuesday.

I’m very lucky to work for myself and set my own hours and workload. The downside, of course, is that I set my own hours and workload.

When you work for yourself, there is no clock to punch and your work is never done.

Last year, on average, I spent more than 46 hours per week looking at screens. That’s six and a half hours per day, which is already a lot and doesn’t even account for holidays or weekends when I’m not at my desk.

On heavy weeks, that went up to over nine hours of screentime a day.

Two hours to read, reflect and recharge in the middle of the day is an investment that pays back more, beyond measure, in creativity and energy, than it takes in time.

This keystone habit creates a significant break in the day, triggering a cascade of other positive habits, both at the sauna — reading, rest, reflection as well as talking to strangers — and afterwards, in the way I approach the remains of the day — with calm, perspective and creativity.

But it takes a counter-intuitive psychological switch to fully embrace that ‘busy is a decision’ and that sometimes the best thing you can do is nothing at all.

So I leave my sauna kit by the front door, ready to go.

A Note On Accessibility

Sadly, in the UK, not everyone will have an affordable nearby sauna. My only advice is: move to Finland.

Actually, my only advice is to take a second look. Most council-run leisure centres have a sauna these days.

That’s where I used to go until I realised that the sauna was too important a habit to neglect and that the 15-minute bike ride was too high a cost. I am now a short-term member of a local hotel spa.

Other people join the gym; I go for the sauna.

Despite everything that the sauna gives me, it still sounds incredibly indulgent to me. I dread to think how you see it. 😂

Here’s how I rationalise it: if I keep up my habit of going three times a week, then the average cost per visit will be £3.15 — much cheaper than the leisure centre and not much more than a cup of coffee.

My point is: if you find a keystone habit that works for you, do whatever you can to make it happen. It’s worth the investment.

It’s been a week of water and heat Sauna Diaries, Surfing and Warmshowers

Yesterday I went for a sauna, a serendipitous, super-heated rendezvous with an Italian shamanic healer and, Paulo, a New York-born Italian-Irish dad who takes daily saunas so that he’s ‘mentally and physically ready’ to fight.

Paulo grew up tough. His own grandma would slap him if he chewed his food more than three times — I guess because not gobbling a scarce meal must be ingratitude.

Tough, ya know?

While myself and the shamanic healer sweated on the top deck pine, Paulo paced the tiles below, arms wheeling, trying to figure out how he could have been raised with such hardship and his own children with smartphones.

Winding back the clock, on Monday, I surfed my first proper waves — a 3.5ft primary swell, if that means anything to you.

I say ‘surf’… Apparently, the Bournemouth surf has a notoriously short interval between waves. As the first of a set broke over my board, the second was on top of me, smashing said board into the back of my head.

There’s a good reason why surf schools teach you to protect your head and neck when you come off. Takes practice though!

That night, as I did my yoga, half a cup of seawater flushed out of my nose.

Before all that, last weekend, I hosted my first ever Warmshowers cycle tourers, a pair of wonderful Dutch women doing a loop of southern England, before one cycles on alone to Portugal.

Pam and Laura were full of that energy you can only get from riding a really long way.

I’ve stayed with some incredible Warmshowers hosts all over the UK and Europe and, finally, I now understand the vicarious gratitude that my hosts must have felt.

There is a boundless joy in being able to open my door and offer so easily the solution to every need. A hearty stew on the stove, a couple of dry towels, a capful of washing detergent. A chair, a bed. Peace.

Pam and Laura’s Saturday night out in Bournemouth sounded like a blast: their pragmatic fleeces and practical shoes sharing bar space with a tirade of stag and hen fancy dressers.

Two species eyeing one another over cocktails and cider.

If you’re a cycle tourer not yet part of the Warmshowers network, please correct that immediately.

Unlocking Your Anxiety Archive Learn the transformative mental health protocol pioneered by rap star Jay-Z

One of the most powerful tools in a Stoic’s mental toolbox is something I call the anxiety archive.

Building your own anxiety archive is a semi-structured, reasonably objective process — a HAZMAT suit and a pair of forceps — that helps you safely hold your fears, raise them to the light, examine them from every angle and see them for what they truly are: allies.

Lurking in the shadows, the nameless monster is most feared.

(Side swerve: it feels like the worst media outlets know and deliberately play on this, right?)

But, if we’re respectful, we can take that nameless monster on a journey of understanding and finish up with a fear that is, not only acknowledged, but accepted and even welcomed as a stir to action.

The journey goes something like this:

  1. Notice anxiety: ‘I feel anxious…’ This is often the hardest part. Practice noticing.
  2. Define anxiety: ‘…about filling up the Dolomites week on Thighs of Steel.’
  3. Interrogate anxiety by questioning its supporting emotion or rationale: ‘Why am I anxious about this? Is there good reason to be anxious? Is a deadline approaching? What emotions do I feel besides anxiety? Where do I feel resistance? What do others expect of me?’
  4. Understand anxiety: ‘This isn’t about the Dolomites, this is anxiety about my procrastination. This is the social anxiety of reaching out to cyclists and cycling groups with whom we don’t already have a relationship.’
  5. Empathise with anxiety: ‘I hear you, anxiety. I hear your persistent alarm signal and acknowledge that I should be doing something.’
  6. Act in concert with your anxiety: ‘I’m going to set a timer for ten minutes, find one cyclist or cycling group and tell them about this amazing ride we’re doing in the Dolomites.’

I don’t take my fears on this journey nearly enough, but I want to share two occasions in the past ten years when I have — and what I’ve learned from looking back.

Building My Anxiety Archive

In January 2012, I was inspired by hip-hop superstar Jay-Z to write up my own ‘99 Problems’.

Mine were less about systemic police brutality and racial profiling and more about ‘only having a single bed’ and ‘the mysteries of bicycle brakes’.

And I only got as far as 23 before I dried up.

Isn’t that amazing?

For all the worries that I had in my life at the time — from the laughably ridiculous (‘A lot of my clothes have holes in them’) to the genuinely worrysome (a bully for a housemate, relationships with ‘no flow’ and ‘No regular income’) — in sum of all of this anxiety, I still couldn’t come up with enough problems to pen a half-assed sonnet, let alone an era-defining rap.

(But, yes, if you’re wondering, thanks to my ongoing battle with eczema, the itch was one.)

Six years later, in February 2018, I wrote down another list of everything that was bothering me at the time.

I did little better: 28 anxieties.

Magic #1: Problems Get Boring Fast

Of course, if I really put my mind to it, I could easily bust out a list of 99 — or even 999 problems.

I mean, just for starters, there’s world hunger, the climate crisis and the baggage retrieval system they’ve got at Heathrow.

But part of the anxiety archive exercise is to realise that, for me at least, I get bored of worrying long, long before I hit Jay-Z’s 99 problems.

(And I’m not alone: I can only actually count 9 distinct problems in Jay-Z’s famous song.)

As they start to pile up under my pen, a wave of exhaustion overtakes me. Writing down any more starts to feel silly.

Instead, helpful solutions spring to mind, as well as gratitude for the many, many things in my life that aren’t problems.

Looking down at the abstracted, objectified feelings that fill my spreadsheet (natch) gives me a different perspective on my anxiety.

They either look silly (buy some new clothes, Dave) or they become puzzles to figure out (talk to my neighbour or move house).

My mind becomes active rather than reactive. I can put away the archive and get on with my day, lighter.

But the anxiety archive isn’t only of use in the moment. I recommend storing your archives on a computer for posterity so that you can enjoy…

Magic #2: This Too Shall Pass

Browsing through my 2018 anxiety archives from the vantage point of today, I am amazed to find only two remain in full force.

Another eleven are notably quieter for the passage of years, still something I think about from time to time, but now scarcely worth a mention.

That means that more than half of the anxieties on that four-year-old list leave me with nothing more than a wry smile at the memory.

That’s huge.

It’s immensely reassuring to recognise that I am, for example, no longer anxious about the state of my arteries or whether or not I’m ‘good enough’ to write entertaining, interesting, useful stuff.

Of course, I could fill this email with a dozen more juicy anxieties that have crept up on me since 2018, but — and here is where the magic is — the strength of building an anxiety archive is that it gives me incontrovertible evidence that ‘this too shall pass’.

From my anxiety archive, I know that there’s a solid chance today’s most pressing anxiety will, given time, become tomorrow’s wry smile.

Unlocking My Anxiety Archive

With the distance of time between us, I can see from both my 2012 and 2018 anxiety archives that the worst rarely happens and, when it does, it is rarely the catastrophe that I foretold.

Indeed — and here is where I invite you to give me a hearty slap in the face — these difficult moments were hidden opportunities for growth.

What we once considered weaknesses, with practice and patience, become strengths.

For example, the breadth of work that I do, meandering across industries and skillsets, was once a great source of anxiety.

For years, I believed that I had no focus, no commitment and no purpose.

The exact same breadth has, since 2018, become a source of strength.

  • I am a writer: I write this newsletter, as well as comedy with Beth Granville and environmental science journalism.
  • I’m an outdoor instructor, working weekends with kids as they plan, organise and execute their first overnight expeditions.
  • I’m also a director and cyclist-at-large at Thighs of Steel (please sign up to the Dolomites week in August — it’s so beautiful!)

This plurality of interests is, well, interesting. My diverse portfolio is, by its nature, more robust to shocks. Much is work that I can do from anywhere, setting my own boundaries.

Most importantly, however, I truly value this work and my enthusiasm carries over into a more positive relationship with myself and the rest of planet.

It took a lot of energy to get here — and anxiety was an integral part of the process.

Anxieties Are Allies

Anxiety doesn’t have to feel like a darkened, locked room; we can choose to feel this emotional force as a powerful motivating ally.

But before we simply let our anxieties pull us along, willy-nilly, we must first harness the energy by noticing, naming, interrogating, understanding and empathising.

As a regular part of our self-driving engine of inspiration, we can also then go back through our anxiety archive to identify and celebrate how we found the strength to grow in years gone by.

You see: buried in our own personal anxiety archive we will find the proof that we already possess everything within ourselves that we need to in order to rise and meet today’s challenges — not in spite of our fears, but thanks to them.

NOTE 1: Anxiety can be devastating. The anxiety archive is intended as a mental health check-up, not an emergency intervention. Don’t hesitate to see a professional counsellor if you think you might need one.

NOTE 2: Tim Ferriss does a more structured version of this Stoic-inspired examination of anxieties, which he calls ‘fear-setting’. You can read about Tim’s process on his blog.

The Man Sloth Mode Diaries Do you enforce and enact traditional sexual scripts of male sexual control to get your rocks off? Okaaay…

Today I’m going to build on everything that I wrote last week, encorporating as many of your wonderful contributions as I can.

In fact, last Saturday, I got so excited by your responses that I had to make a load of changes to the original article, so please go and read that if you haven’t already.

Then come back for more diaries.

What’s In A Name: Man Sloth Mode? Secondary Carer Sloth Mode? Drive Care / Take Care?

One of the things that surprised me about the comments on last week’s email was how many women said that they had noticed themselves slipping into man sloth mode — to the point where a friend asked if they could drop the ‘man’ bit altogether.

Of course you can — it’s yours!

Before delving into the terminology, it’s worth saying that I don’t necessarily believe these women when they say they go into what I called man sloth mode.

I’m well aware that women habitually underestimate their performance compared to men.

Despite identical performance, the average male rates his own performance 15 points higher than the average female.

So, while I accept that women (being human) can and do go into some sort of sloth mode, I don’t think it’s anywhere near as common and nowhere near as acute as the male strand that I discussed last week.

Aaaaanyway, that aside, what was particularly interesting was under what circumstances people told me they go into sloth mode.

Just as men tend to sloth mode when a woman is there to take care of all the life admin, so it seems that adults of all genders can easily slip into sloth mode when they go back to their parents’ for the weekend.

Sound familiar?

Having just spent a week with family, I can relate. But I’m getting better at noticing man sloth mode and acting before it impacts too badly on other people. (And I still think you’re overpraising when I fill the dishwasher, mum 😂)

Fascinatingly, I also got an email from a friend who is part of a two-mum family. They described how one person, who they call the primary carer, often carries the ‘emotional and functional weight’ for everyone in the family unit.

‘Traditionally,’ my friend wrote, ‘it’s the Dad that slips into Man Sloth Mode, but take out those genders and you’re left with secondary carer sloth mode.’

My friend also made a brilliant distinction between what she called ‘drive care’ and ‘take care’ modes — and how she and her partner have bounced back and forth between the two as they’ve matured.

If I’ve understood correctly:

  • Drive care = someone who sees and actively straightens out the chaos of life: a person who cares
  • Take care = someone who would rather passively adapt themselves to the chaos of life: a person who receives or benefits from care

I love how this distinction acknowledges that we can find ourselves more or less in one or the other mode at different times and in different contexts in our lives.

As children, naturally, we are take carers. As parents, naturally, we are drive carers.

Within the parental bubble, it is common for one or other of the partners to take the more active primary care role. And I think the same is true for relationships without children: a primary carer emerges. Which sucks.

So: what do you think about dropping the man from man sloth mode? What about my friend’s secondary carer sloth mode and the drive and take care distinction?

Oooh — talking of inspired new terminology. How about this, from the irrepressible M.C.:

Man sloth dodging (noun, verb): Man sloth dodging is when the female partner of one man makes direct contact with the female partner of another man in order to guarantee the successful and timely arrangement of social plans. 🤣

So good. More please!

Utimately, the point here is to develop language that facilitates conversations. Have we done that? Maybe. Can we go further? Definitely.

Psychological Fragility And The Male Response

The response to last week’s newsletter was genuinely wonderful. I loved getting screenshots of when you shared it with friends. 😍

But I couldn’t help noticing that the strongest responses were from women. Largely in the form of: YES, THANK YOU FOR NOTICING.

I feel a bit of fraud, given that ninety percent of the ideas behind man sloth mode were smuggled away from conversations I’ve had with women.

Nonetheless, it’s gratifying to hear that I nailed one of the purposes of the article: to really hear and validate what other people are saying.

Ultimately, however, I wrote this whole thing for men — to help myself and other males take responsibility for the direction of our lives and our relationships — so it’s their reaction and response that I’m most worried about.

The tricky thing here is that men tend to be, in the words of one friend I spoke to last week, ‘psychologically fragile’. After all, that’s why primary carers feel they have to overpraise their male partners and colleagues for the slightest cooperative behaviour.

Maybe it’s just me, but I feel like we men don’t tend to deal well with our flaws being pointed out, nor with other people providing us with a solution that we haven’t come up with by ourselves (and subsequently been overpraised for our cleverness).

I have essentially dodged this problem by coming up with a solution (man sloth mode) for which I have been acknowledged and praised (again: thank you). This assuages my ego and paves the way for me to be a bit better.

But I want to find an accessible way for everyone to talk about these problems.

A female friend of mine told me that she’d love to send my article to a bunch of the men in her life, but was a little nervous about how it might be received, as a ‘personal slight’ or even ‘man-hating’.

So how do we reach men?

Do you know, I think the answer might be…

The Sweaty Stranger In The Sweaty Sauna

Bear with me.

Last weekend, I shared a sauna with a lovely chap called Ren.

We chatted about this and that: how awkward a sweaty silence can be in a sauna, how nice it is to chat to strangers, even if they’re sweaty, stories of past sweaty sauna escapades, and so on.

Then, because we were two sweaty men sitting on a sweaty bench in eighty degree heat, I decided to broach the topic of last week’s newsletter.

This was the first time I’d chatted to a total stranger about these ideas and I was unsure what to expect from a half-naked sweaty man in his mid-fifties.

Reader, Ren practically slipped off his bench with enthusiasm.

Ren’s father had died when he was very young, so was brought up by his mother. His mother, as it happened, was a feminist and determined to make sure that her son did his share of the housework.

Ren cleaned the toilets, did the dishes and the mopping, as well as the cooking. By the time he was an adult, Ren could actually function as, well, as an adult.

He only realised this was weird when he went to university and all his peers were, to put it bluntly, slobs.

Now happily married with two kids, Ren boasts that he does seventy percent of the housework at home, simply because, having started at such a young age, he’s better at it than his wife.

Ren is living, breathing, sweating proof that boys can learn this stuff, if only we teach them.

‘Kids,’ Ren tells me, ‘pick up on your actions, not your words.’

‘You think you’re doing your kid a favour by not making them do the washing up, but you’re not,’ Ren says, mopping his brow. ‘You’re only saving up problems for them later in life.’

YES.

Boys need adult householding skills not only for the bloody obvious reasons like hygeine and diet, but also for the sake of their adult relationships.

Ren was taken aback when he got to university and realised that all the other young men were slobs, but he was delighted to find that his domestic talents were valuable, attractive — sexy even.

Man Sloth Mode ≠ Sexy

Guys: science tells us that men who do the dishes have more sex.

Actually, there’s nuance here and the nuance starts badly.

‘Traditional’ gender conventions have actually been found to increase the amount of sex had by heterosexual couples.

Booooo.

The explanation for this is that traditional ‘sexual scripts’ of ‘male sexual control’ privilege male sexual desire and men, basically, want to have loads of sex. So that’s what happens.

But, as the adults among you have probably noticed by now, there’s a lot more to our ‘sexual scripts’ than this.

The interlinked variables that go into good sex were unpicked in a 2019 study by Daniel L. Carlson of the University of Utah and Brian Soller at the University of New Mexico.

Here’s a fun picture of what they found:

This is the good sex model proposed by Carlson and Soller (2019). The black shapes are variables observed in women. The grey shapes are the same variables in men. The black lines are the statistically significant correlations.

So, yes: more egalitarian attitudes to domestic and paid labour leads to a reduction in sexual frequency, through the mechanism of male sexual control.

As I said: boooooo.

But, if you study the model closely, you can see that male sexual control comes at a cost in communication. Weird. The more the male is in command of the sexual situation, the less likely they are to communicate with their partner.

Communication was measured, quite simply, using the following question:

When you have had a particularly difficult or bad day at work or in your daily activities, what is the percent chance that you will tell [PARTNER] about what is going on?

The more egalitarian each partner’s attitude towards work, the more likely they were to report a high percentage and actually discuss their problems, together. Honey, how was your day?

That sounds like a nice thing to have in a relationship. But it’s got nothing to do with sex — or has it? Yes.

Carlson and Soller found that, with higher scores for communication, came higher scores of ‘sexual self-efficacy’ — for both male and female. The more men and women talk to each other, the more sexually self-efficacious they become.

Sexual self-efficacy is sexual empowerment. You can play along at home by (strongly) agreeing or (strongly) disagreeing with these statements:

If my sexual activity is not satisfying, there is little I can do to improve the situation.

I feel that it is difficult to get my [PARTNER] to do what makes me feel good during sex.

If our birth control choice is not satisfactory, there is little I can do to improve the situation.

Gross, huh?

Now here’s the clever part: as female sexual self-efficacy rises, so does sexual frequency for everyone.

Et voilá!

➡️ Egalitarian attitudes towards domestic and paid labour
➡️ Better partner communication between male and female
➡️ Higher women’s sexual self-efficacy
➡️ Higher sexual frequency 🔛

But wait — there’s more!

In a 2015 study of first-time parents (a role that is heavy on household labour), researchers found that more equal division of labour (presumably excluding the actual birth labour) led to greater sexual satisfaction for mothers and greater sense of romance for fathers. Aww…

Frankly, nothing I’ve said here should come as a surprise. Tired, overworked, annoyed women are unlikely to find a sloth man sexually attractive or, for that matter, have the energy or even the free time (which is, incidentally, gendered) for sex.

And yet, at the risk of slapping you in the face with stating-the-bleeding-obvious research one too many times…

In 2017 Swedish researchers found evidence that relationships where there is an unequal division of domestic labour, combined with a general sense of entitlement among men, are — BREAKING NEWS — liable to end in a breakup.

Right. That’s enough now.

Are you a man? Do you enforce and enact traditional sexual scripts of male sexual control to get your rocks off? Okaaay… And how’s that working out for you?

End On A Positive

So what now?

Well, besides a little idea I have for setting up a sweaty sauna men’s group, now I go for a quick walk and then I go to bed.

But before I disappear, one of the most thoughtful responses I got to last week’s email included a ‘not yet fully-formed thought’ about the role of positive self talk in man sloth mode.

My email last week might have made it sound like there was a lot of work to do. And there is. But it’s important to focus on the positive and acknowledge when we are doing our best.

The good news is that every moment we live between now and our death is another moment to do our best. So let’s not beat ourselves up when we slip-slide; let’s just keep on noticing when we do.

I will finish now by repeating my four point, work-in-progress strategy to draw ourselves out of whatever we call this sloth mode of being:

  1. Notice yourself slipping into man sloth mode. If you’re not sure when this happens, look closely at the symptoms listed at the top of my original article — and remember that there are two strains of the disease (social and work)
  2. Call yourself out publicly and explain what’s going on (without being boring or attention seeking). At first, acknowledging man sloth mode out loud will really help, but the ultimate goal is to effortlessly skip from stage one directly to stage three. (Who knows: stage one might one day miraculously vanish altogether…)
  3. Seize the initiative. Take positive action to drive yourself out of man sloth mode. If you genuinely can’t think of anything to do, simply ask how you can help and listen to the answer. WARNING: If you find the other person instinctively micro-managing your contribution, don’t get annoyed. Remember that they might well be used to dealing with man sloths as if they were children. Politely request that they step back: you’ve got this.
  4. If you discovered in stage three a pretty basic life skill that you couldn’t do without a lot of help, go onto the internet and learn how it’s done properly. Do not waste other people’s time: they are not your personal life trainer. If you regularly find yourself unable to think of helpful things to do, then spend more time observing the things that other people do to be helpful. Copy them.

~

Huge, huge thanks to everyone who responded to last week’s article and all the conversations that have contributed to this one. Please share your experiences and let’s keep thinking and acting on this!

Man Sloth Mode From November 2016 until October 2017, I was in what I have learned to call man sloth mode.

For about a year, I did nothing.

From November 2016 until October 2017, I was in what I have learned to call man sloth mode.

Honestly, apart from writing the first radio series of Foiled (which I never would have done without the impetus of Beth Granville), I can’t remember a single thing I did in that entire year.

Two things in particular that I didn’t do all year were:

  1. See my friends much
  2. Travel

As someone who travels a lot and feels a bit glum when isolated from friends, this was WEIRD.

To be fair to me, I knew something was WEIRD. That’s why, the summer of 2017, I started to track my wellbeing using a well-respected psychological instrument, the Satisfaction With Life Scale.

Oh, and, for literal good measure, I also regularly tested myself on the Scale of Positive and Negative Experience, Flourishing Scale, Inventory of Thriving, General Self-Efficacy Scale and Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale.

I’m nothing if not thorough in my weirdness.

But none of these scales or inventories helped me understand what was happening.

Stuck In The Mud

On paper, things were going well. I’d just co-written and co-produced a successful Edinburgh show, now commissioned for BBC radio. I’d also been hired to work for The Bike Project, helping them give bikes to refugees in London.

In March, I moved into a lovely houseshare near Burgess Park with my partner. We had a garage for our bikes, tomatoes in the garden and only shared a bathroom with one other couple.

Perhaps for the first time in my life, I felt like an adult — I even managed to buy us a super king mattress for £10 off a millionaire in Kensington.

Life was totally going my way, but I seemed to be stuck in the mud, somehow unable or unwilling to let it flow.

This feeling of mudiness not only affected my mental wellbeing, but also — not surprisingly — affected my relationship.

Then, as now, I worked from home and found myself, most days, pretty much waiting around for my partner to get back from work. Then, somehow, I thought, my life could begin.

Except, increasingly and understandably, I wasn’t the sort of person she wanted to spend time with. Who wants to hang around that guy?

Like I said: I didn’t do anything. For a year!

The Spreadsheet Counsellor

Actually, that’s a lie. One other important thing that I did in 2017 was a 10-week introduction to counselling course at CityLit.

(Side note: An introductory counselling course should be on the national curriculum in its entirety, but if you only take one counselling technique into your life, take these 12 Blocks To Active Listening.)

This course taught me a lot that I didn’t know about the simplest things. One of those things was the importance of simple observation of your own mental landscape.

That summer, with the help of those psychological instruments, I observed that I didn’t always feel ‘dissatisfied with life’ and that, most often, the balance of my life was toward ‘positive experience’.

It wasn’t difficult, then, to pay closer attention to the moments when I felt most positive.

I’ll give you a second to roll your eyes.

Yep: it was those horribly rare occasions when I got out of the house to spend time with friends.

On 28 October 2017, I spent half an hour building a spreadsheet to keep an eye on how often I was seeing my friends. Then I phoned my parents and met up with an old primary school friend for a stroll along the beach and a Harvester.

I originally set up the spreadsheet as a 30-day experiment in order to, in the words of my diary at the time, ‘see what my social support is like and how we can build and expand and whatnot’.

Over four years later, I still update my (now legendary) friends spreadsheet every single day.

Why? This newsletter is the answer to that question.

IMPORTANT NOTE

I don’t intend for this to be the final word on masculinity, but more of a provocation. Only by talking about this stuff can we hope to live in a more harmonious, creative and joyful future.

I would LOVE to hear your side of the story: your experiences, observations and coping mechanisms. Thank you.

What Is Man Sloth Mode?

Essentially, man sloth mode is a temporary depressed state of being to which men are particularly susceptible.

I don’t mean depressed in the diagnostic sense — although it can lead to that — I mean low energy, low initiative, low activity, low affect, low arousal.

And it’s worth reiterating that this is a temporary state, usually triggered by specific environmental factors.

It is perfectly possible for a man to miraculously exit man sloth mode when faced with a stimulating environment, such as a table tennis table, a lively speakeasy, or a room that really needs its skirting boards deep cleaned (real life example).

There is one enormous environmental elephant in the room here, which I’ll get onto in a second.

First, however, let’s look more closely at the symptoms of man sloth mode so that we all know what we’re talking about.

Man Sloth Mode: The Symptoms

Man sloth mode has a diverse range of symptoms, covering life at home, work and play.

In fact, it’s actually useful to split them into two strands. Let’s call them social man sloth mode and work man sloth mode.

These are not mutually exclusive, but you might find that you slip more easily into one or the other.

What’s interesting is that, while almost everyone has stories of work man sloth mode, social man sloth mode seems to go under the radar. Which is a big shame because social man sloth mode is quite literally a killer. But more on that later.

First: the symptoms.

1. Social Man Sloth Mode

As we’ve seen, when I was balls deep in man sloth mode, I inexplicably stopped doing the things that make me happy.

In so doing, I effectively outsourced the majority of my social support network to my partner. Not cool.

Here are some more symptoms of social man sloth mode that you might recognise, in yourself or loved ones:

  • Not seeing your own close friends
  • Not doing the things that make you happy, or other inexplicable radical change in past-you and now-you
  • Spending a disproportionate amount of your free time on passive past-times like watching television or scrolling through the internet
  • Losing your ambition or get-up-and-go in both social and work settings
  • Piggy-backing on the social plans and activities of other people
  • Increased dependence on one other person for social support
  • Never hosting social events
  • Saying things like, ‘I don’t mind, you decide’ when asked what you want to do
  • Not introducing other people to your close friends

By the way, I’m not talking here about feeling bored or apathetic when faced with niche social pursuits. I can understand why some people might be less enthusiastic than I am about spreadsheets, word etymologies and bike pannier bags.

This is about switching off from social contact and activities or shifting into auto-pilot when you used to take the initiative.

2. Work Man Sloth Mode

This is the one that a lot of people get proper angry about — and for good reason.

While social man sloth mode tends to be a slow boiler, work man sloth mode has an immediate and disruptive impact on the lives of others.

This is all about the essential admin that goes into basic human functions like eating food, inhabiting a home, wearing clothes, and caring for other humans.

The symptoms of work man sloth mode include, but are not remotely limited to, the following:

  • Sitting back and letting others do the cognitive and emotional labour of shared tasks
  • Doing shared tasks badly so you’re never asked again
  • Only doing the fun or exciting bits of shared tasks
  • Only doing joint activities on your terms: your way, your timeframe, your strengths, your activities
  • Waiting until instructed on tasks, rather than taking the initiative; requiring micro-management in those tasks
  • Offering to help someone else in a task and then not moving from the sofa
  • Neglect of basic self-care: cleaning, cooking, washing, exercise
  • Tolerating or simply ‘not seeing’ deteriorating living conditions until someone else fixes the problem
  • Failure to anticipate future problems, especially when they concern other people (and responding to criticism by saying that you’re ‘living in the moment’)
  • Failure to anticipate the needs of others
  • Procrastination
  • Limited expressions of gratitude, including compliments, gift giving and appropriate apologies, creating a sense of entitlement, taking advantage or simply not seeing the work others do to keep the world spinning around
  • Always having an excuse or shifting the blame: ‘but you enjoy doing X’, ‘you know I’m no good at Y’, ‘I physically can’t see the problem’, ‘I’m just more laid back than you’, ‘you make me feel like a failure’, ‘I can’t multitask’, ‘I’m too tired after work’, ‘yeah, you being so busy has been hard for me too’, ‘you’re not being fair — I do the bins!’

Do you know what I’m talking about? Recognise yourself or any of the men in your life? Can you think of any other symptoms? Please let me know!

The Enormous Environmental Elephant

Yep: the biggest environmental predictor of man sloth mode is the convenient presence in that man’s life of a woman.

Someone to pick up the slack, someone to keep our lives ticking along.

Stop A Second, Dave: Why Do You Hate Men?

I don’t. I write this because I am a man and I love men. I think they’re pretty cool. At least some of the time.

I write this because, when we unwittingly slip into man sloth mode, we’re shooting ourselves in the face.

As a friend said to me only last night: it’s as if the world has moved on and men haven’t noticed.

In the past seventy years, at least in wealthy liberal societies, gender roles and opportunities have changed. Today, all around me, I see inspiring, active women and men struggling to get up to speed.

Real life example: I moved to Bournemouth a couple of years ago and I’ve found it much, much easier to make female friends.

Is this because too many men are stunted by social man sloth mode?

Admittedly there has been a pandemic on, but consider this:

  • The surfing class that I recently joined is female led and majority female
  • The off-road cycling club I’ll be riding with tomorrow is female and non-binary led and majority female (tbf, their motto is ‘shred the patriarchy’)
  • Plus I’m the only man in the room when I train at my local bare-knuckle bloodsports wrestle club

MASSIVE CAVEAT

Obviously I’m NOT saying that women have overtaken or can even match men in mega-important stuff like how much they actually get paid for the work that they do.

But personally I see far more women than men putting themselves out there, doing epic shit and making the most of life: at home, at work and at play.

What about you? When you think about successful adults in your life, the ones who are totally smashing it out of the park, who comes to mind?

We Don’t Know What We’re Doing

Sometimes, when my female friends talk about what I’m calling man sloth mode, they see an evil, almost Macchiavellian intent behind the behaviour.

Maybe they’re right, but I genuinely think that, most of the time, the lethargy of man sloth mode is unwitting.

We don’t know what we’re doing.

That isn’t an excuse — I just mean that most of us lack the emotional self-awareness to properly understand what we’re doing to ourselves.

If we seriously confronted what we do to ourselves by choosing inaction, then we would see that man sloth mode makes us miserable.

That’s exactly what happened to me. Unconsciously, I was letting a woman do the cognitive and emotional labour of, well, pretty much my entire life.

(Just to be completely clear: man sloth mode was NOT something that my partner did to me. I accidentally choose it for myself, like pulling clothes out of the wardrobe at random and only realising at an important job interview that I was wearing Mickey Mouse pyjamas.)

The Truth Of What We’re Doing To Ourselves

In 2016-17, I was what we can call a functional man sloth.

I still did the basics of cleaning, washing, shopping and whatnot, but I stopped doing anything interesting outside the home and just kind of hung around waiting for my partner to make my life exciting.

Classic social man sloth mode.

It’s not surprising, then, that man sloths are statistically more likely to be socially isolated than women — because who wants to spend time with that guy?

(Or, in the words of one friend, man sloth mode is the opposite of sexy.)

It’s also a sorry statistic that social isolation is positively correlated with depression, illness, all-cause mortality, including, most tragically, suicide.

(Note 1: The studies referenced above almost universally report these statistically significant effects for social isolation, not necessarily for feelings of loneliness. You may know some people who are perfectly happy when they are alone. Happy, but, statistically speaking, probably not healthy.)

(Note 2: This study of social isolation and gender neatly summarises the differences between the social support networks of men and women: ‘men generally get their emotional needs met by their spouses/partners while women often get their emotional needs met by their female friends’. Boom. That was me: social man sloth.)

Why We Need (The Concept Of) Man Sloth Mode

Despite the shadowy threat of depression, illness, death and suicide, rather than trying to change our behaviour, we men find it easier to deploy a long litany of excuses and finger-pointing to re-write the narrative of what we’re doing so that it sits more comfortably with our sense of self-esteem.

The man sloth imagines a world where other people genuinely enjoy scrubbing the toilet bowl, where other people just need to chill out more and where only we’ve had a hard day at work.

‘Besides,’ the indignant man sloth cries, ‘we do the bins once a fortnight!’

I believe that this inability to accept responsibility is at least partially because we don’t have the language to understand our own predicament.

This makes it very difficult for us to talk about the problem as adults, to address our behaviour without resorting to insults or shame, and to change ourselves for a more just society.

Hence our need for a new concept: man sloth mode.

(Almost inevitably, the term ‘man sloth’ was created by a woman. Thanks G!)

Hang On: What’s Wrong With ‘Selfish Lazy Man Child’?

‘But Dave,’ I hear you cry, ‘we already have the words to describe such a man: we call him a selfish lazy man child.’

It’s a good question. Why (apart from lucrative opportunities for merch) do we need an entirely new term for such age-old behaviour?

Firstly — and I flagged this up earlier, if you remember — man sloth mode is a mode, a temporary state of being, not a fixed character trait.

(By the way, I have thought about removing the ‘man’ and calling it ‘default sloth mode’. Maybe that would not only make it more palatable to our male ego, but also recognise that this is a collection of behaviours that men seem to revert to almost by default when someone else is there to take care of us.)

The problem with terms like ‘selfish’ and ‘lazy’ is that, even when objective rather than accusatory, they come across as fixed character traits. If you’re lazy, then you’re lazy — and always will be.

Terms like these, although often thrown around in bitterness, can actually turn into excuses to protect the status quo: ‘He’ll never change, he’s just lazy’ or ‘You know me, love, I’m a lazy bum’ (said with a forgive-me-twinkle in his eye).

But adult males are more than capable of stepping up into very active roles (in fact, sometimes we all wish they wouldn’t, but that’s another story…)

‘Man child’ is a little better. It at least acknowledges that this is largely a problem with men, rather than ungendered character traits like selfishness.

Man sloth behaviour is also very child-like and friends even tell me that they have to speak to their male partners as if they were children just to get them to function.

This ‘mothering’ seems to happen in at least four ways:

  • Straight-up scolding
  • Making deals to the effect of ‘you can watch TV if you do the dishes’
  • Silently spinning plates and tidying up after them
  • And the most pernicious: over-praising the accomplishment of basic tasks, like successfully chopping two carrots (real life example)

But we are not children.

Treating us like children is not only degrading for the ‘mother’, a role that friends tell me makes them feel guilty and ‘naggy’, but it also re-enforces infantile behaviour.

It needs to stop.

Real Life Example Of Over-Praising: The Man’s Barbecue

The Man’s Barbecue begins several days before, when The Man’s Partner makes a list, does the shopping and invites guests.

The night before, The Man’s Partner spends a couple of hours preparing salads and marinading the meat.

On the day of The Man’s Barbecue, The Man’s Partner tidies the garden, sets out the table and welcomes the guests.

Meanwhile, The Man cracks open a beer and drags out the barbecue and coals from last summer. With great theatre, the guests gather round to watch The Man light The Man’s Barbecue. He can’t find the matches.

The Man’s Partner finds the matches.

The Man’s Barbecue is officially lit. The Man sits down beside The Man’s Barbecue with a poker and another beer. Two hours later, the meat is still raw. The Man’s Partner finishes it off in the oven.

While The Man’s Partner cleans up in the kitchen, the guests pick through the last of the salads and applaud: ‘Wow, Man, you sure do a great barbecue!’

I Understand Why You Do This, But Please Stop

Treating an adult male as a man child inadvertently enables the status quo.

The tougher reality is that we can do all the adult stuff and, if there’s some stuff we still need to learn, then it’s not the responsibility of anyone but ourselves to act as our trainer.

There is no excuse: the internet is stuffed with detailed instructions on how to do every single adult task required for modern living.

Of course, we shouldn’t expect men to become mind-readers, but they must become able to hear the needs of other people and to teach themselves the necessary skills to respond effectively.

No one likes to think of themselves as selfish, lazy or a man child. When we are told those things, either in words or through actions, we don’t hear needs being expressed. Instead, we re-write the narrative to maintain the coherence of our self-image.

That’s why ‘selfish lazy man child’ doesn’t work and that’s why we need a new term: something that men will actually hear and respond to.

3 Reasons Man Sloth Mode Might Just Work

  1. It acknowledges that there is a problem: sloth behaviour isn’t desirable
  2. It applies to all men: it’s not a personal attack
  3. It’s a temporary state of being, like boredom or anger, that we can shift out of

(While we’re here, a word on #2: A lot of women, when I describe man sloth mode to them, say: ‘But it’s not all men’. Fellas, let’s be honest here: yes it is. We might be susceptible in different ways at different times and perhaps to different degrees, but this is surely universal among men.

I genuinely believe that I’m one of the ‘good guys’, but the whole reason I’m writing this article is because I still need to find reliable ways of levering myself out of man sloth mode.)

Hopefully I’ve done at least a half-assed job at explaining what I’m talking about and convinced you that we men need new language so that we can talk about what’s happening to us when we’re being crap.

Hopefully, too, I haven’t offended too many people: please remember that this is very much a first draft and I still need your help to understand what’s going on.

Phew. Okay, now it’s time to go deeper.

What Causes Man Sloth Mode?

I think this is an important question because the answers can help us, as men, understand what we can do to change.

But first, a warning: we don’t want to be trapped on either side of the explanation canyon:

I don’t want to come out of this section shrugging my shoulders and saying, ‘Love them or hate them, men are just like that!’ Nor do I want to point the merciless finger of shame at the individual man.

The path on one side of the canyon won’t change anything, while the other path might (and only might) change a single person alone.

I want to come out of this section with answers that will open up a path right down the middle.

I want to believe that the problem of man sloth mode is both tractable and bigger than any one man. In fact, I want to believe that it’s excitingly gigantic (more on that in a bit).

So here we go.

First up is the depressing answer that things are the way they are because things are the way they always have been.

AKA…

Social Conditioning

Average hours of unpaid work done per week in each category for women (orange bars) and men (green bars), 2015 (Source: Gender Equality Monitor)

In the UK, according to the government’s Gender Equality Monitor, women do 25.5 hours of unpaid work per week, while men manage only 16 hours — and more than 7 of those are spent on transport, probably commuting to work.

In high income countries, which are globally the most equal, women do an average of two hours more unpaid care work per day than men. Overall, when unpaid is added to paid work, men find themselves with an extra half hour per day to put their feet up.

This social conditioning starts young. In Denmark, 75 percent of girls participate in household chores, compared to 66 percent of boys. Meanwhile, in the United States, girls’ participation in household chores is already significantly greater than boys’ by age eight.

The social conditioning explanation for man sloth mode is given weight by the ‘glacial’ rate of change in men’s share of unpaid care work over recent decades.

According to this fascinating International Labour Organisation report, between 1997 and 2012, the gender gap in time spent in unpaid care work declined by precisely seven (7) minutes.

At this pace, it will take 210 years before we have eliminated man sloth mode. I’ll be dead by then. Too slow.

But if a couple of centuries is too long, then how about millions of years? That brings us nicely to my second answer to Where Does Man Sloth Mode Come From?

My Spurious Evolutionary Explanation™️

Disclaimer: I’m not a scientist, evolutionary or otherwise. But this is a story that might help some men move past any feeling of being under personal attack, paving the way for positive action.

Bear with me on this one because it might sound for a while like I’m making intractable excuses for man sloth mode. I’m not.

Massively Generalised Proposition: Men evolved for explosive life-and-death activities.

Men seem to have an evolutionary advantage when it comes to stuff like fighting (to the death), sprinting (to kill things) and lifting heavy rocks (to crush things).

This massively generalised proposition has two aspects:

  1. Men perform better when they and their loved ones are under threat or facing an epic struggle, rather than when faced with the non-threatening day-to-day life admin
  2. This life-and-death stuff tends to be explosive: it requires a huge outlay of energy in a short space of time

The consequence of all this is that, when not under threat or facing an epic struggle, men will conserve energy for when they really need it.

There you go: a neat little evolutionary explanation for man sloth mode. We’re not being lazy or selfish, we’re saving our energy so we can throw rocks at bears.

The problem is that, most of the time, for men like me, a life-and-death threat or epic struggle never materialises and we can slide unwittingly into a semi-permanent state of man sloth.

(There is one notable exception to this dearth of life-and-death in our modern man lives. Included in my list of life-and-death activities is mating. Yes: we can be pretty good at seduction.

So now you also have a neat little evolutionary explanation for that infuriating tendency for men to be incredibly attentive right up until the moment you decide to sleep with them.

As a good friend said to one of her girlfriends who was being messed around: ‘Hun, he wasn’t leaving it six days to reply when he wanted to fuck you.’ Amen to that.)

Evolutionary Addendum

After reading the first draft of this article, a very smart friend cast doubt over the suggestion that evolutionary pressure could possibly exert much of an influence over our lives today.

She also described her scepticism about gender essentialism, the idea that evolution has somehow prepared ‘men’ as a biological category to do things differently than it has prepared ‘not-men’.

But, she added, ‘Maybe the concept of evolution and the concept of the biological category has!’

So the challenge for us men is how to use this popular, if scientifically unlikely, evolutionary story to support men’s growth rather than to fossilise it.

Where Does That Leave Us?

The point is that my Spurious Evolutionary Explanation™️ pins the ‘blame’ for the existence of man sloth mode on powerful forces outside of our control.

That doesn’t mean we shrug our shoulders and give up: it means that we now have two ways to understand our predicament and two approaches to change.

On the one hand, the social conditioning explanation shows us that change is possible: if slimy girls can learn how to anticipate the needs of others and change the sheets more than once a year, then so can we adult males.

On the other hand, my Spurious Evolutionary Explanation™️ helps us shift the weight of individual shame or guilt (which isn’t helping anyone) and understand what might motivate us to elevate ourselves out of this temporary depressed state of being.

In a word or six, we men need something that’s…

Excitingly Gigantic (But Also Totally Achievable)

This is where we get back to my legendary friends spreadsheet.

Every evening, I take a second to note down the number of meaningful interactions that I had with friends that day, either in person or on the phone.

Then, every Monday, in my personal finance and business accounting spreadsheet, I write down the total number of meaningful interactions for that week.

Over the past year, my average weekly total was 16 friend interactions, with a record high of 36 and a low of just 3 (shocking and only partially explained by the November lockdown).

I have data like this going back more than four years: that silo of numbers is (to me) excitingly gigantic, making me feel like my social life is some kind of epic data-based struggle.

At the same time, the individual actions that I take every day are almost pathetically achievable, pandering to my default laziness even on my most man sloth mode days.

The spreadsheet plays to my strengths as a man, but its purpose is to hold me to account.

Am I feeling a little blue today? Well, maybe it’s because I have only spoken to three people all week.

Finally, this is the answer to the question posed at the start of this newsletter

Drum roll please because coming right up is my answer to why, over four years later, I still update my (now legendary) friends spreadsheet every single day:

Rather than outsourcing the management of my social support network to a woman, I have outsourced it to a spreadsheet.

My friends spreadsheet was the first of my excitingly gigantic but also totally achievable strategies to protect myself against the type of chronic man sloth mode that I fell into back in the winter of 2016.

I have plenty of others, like my two daily journals that help me watch my mental health or my 100 Days of Adventure challenge that pushes me to get outside regularly.

But these strategies only tackle personal pickles like my year-long social man sloth mode.

They don’t cover (except obliquely) the more immediate man sloth mode behaviours that result in other people picking up the majority of society’s practical care work as well as the bulk of its cognitive and emotional labour.

We need a strategy that will help us in the very moment that work man sloth mode strikes.

What About Strategies To Defeat Work Man Sloth Mode?

Confession: I don’t really know. This is all new so I’m still experimenting. I would love to hear from you on this one.

What I do know is that the creation of the term ‘man sloth mode’ has already helped me overcome its seductive allure.

Last night, I went over to a friend’s house for dinner. She was in the middle of cooking us a curry and, when I arrived, I noticed that I could quite comfortably slip into man sloth mode.

I felt a strong urge to do nothing but drink tea and chatter inanely while she worked at the stove, making the dinner that I would later scoff contentedly.

But instead of succumbing to man sloth mode, I called myself out.

I explained what I was feeling using the language of man sloth mode (it helped that I’d spent the whole day writing this article). Then, instead of sitting down and watching her work, I made rotis for us to eat with the curry.

This might not sound like much (and it really isn’t), but it is, I hope you’ll agree, a step in the right direction.

If this is a strategy for overcoming acute daily man sloth mode (and I think it could be), then it has four stages:

  1. Notice yourself slipping into man sloth mode. If you’re not sure when this happens, look closely at the symptoms listed at the top of this article
  2. Call yourself out publicly and explain what’s going on (without being boring or attention seeking). At first, acknowledging man sloth mode out loud will really help, but the ultimate goal is to effortlessly skip from stage one directly to stage three. (Who knows: stage one might one day miraculously vanish altogether…)
  3. Seize the initiative. Take positive action to drive yourself out of man sloth mode. If you genuinely can’t think of anything to do, simply ask how you can help and listen to the answer. WARNING: If you find the other person instinctively micro-managing your contribution, don’t get annoyed. Remember that they might well be used to dealing with man sloths as if they were children. Politely request that they step back: you’ve got this.
  4. If you discovered in stage three a pretty basic life skill that you couldn’t do without a lot of help, go onto the internet and learn how it’s done properly. Do not waste other people’s time: they are not your personal life trainer. If you regularly find yourself unable to think of helpful things to do, then spend more time observing the things that other people do to be helpful. Copy them.

As the infamous man sloth Theodore Roosevelt once berated himself:

Get action; do things; be sane; don’t fritter away your time; create; act; take a place wherever you are and be somebody; get action.

Life in man sloth mode is miserable. It is ending our relationships, fossilising our personal growth and slowing killing us. For our sake and for your own sake, get action.

Coda: Over To Us

This morning I was chatting to a friend on a bike ride. She’d just had a blazing row with her partner about his passivity and told me that the ideas around man sloth mode gave her hope for her relationship.

Guys: let’s not make that a false hope.

Over to us.

Now It’s My Turn To Ask The Questions

  • Have I gone too far? Not far enough?
  • What strategies do you have to protect yourself and others from man sloth mode? (Or whatever you call it)
  • Have I missed any symptoms, major or minor, of man sloth mode?
  • Is there an equivalent mode of being to which females are more susceptible?

Thank You

Thank you so much to everyone I’ve spoken to about this topic over the past million years and thank you to everyone who has responded so thoughtfully to this article.

You have all been incredibly generous with your experiences and helped me mis-understand things a little less.

Special thanks to BG for holding up a mirror to the man sloth over so many years, to GC for coming up with the term ‘man sloth’, and to LH — for dinner!

Surfing And The Blue Mind Surfing is exactly like snowboarding, except you’re being chased by an avalanche.

On Monday, I pulled on a wetsuit and jumped into the ocean with a surfboard. I’ve lived in Bournemouth now for about two years so it was about time.

After watching a few pro videos to see how it’s really done, I realised, with some trepidation, that surfing is exactly like snowboarding, except you’re being chased by an avalanche.

I am, in retrospect, glad that I waited for the mushy ripples of Bournemouth for my first surfing lesson, rather than taking on the crash and boom of the Atlantic.

Now, I’ve never gone snowboarding (quite apart from the expense and the injuries, the snow just isn’t there any more).

But I have, since last year, been a skateboardist. So I at least understand the principle of balancing on a small thing with no handlebars and riding in an approximately forwardsly direction.

Naturally, this experience was next to no help at all when plopped onto an unstable surface like the ocean.

Fascinating fact: it’s the unstable surface of the water that actually keeps surfers afloat. As amazingly buoyant as modern surfboards are, they couldn’t overcome the gravitational effect caused by the hefty addition of an adult human, the weight of which threatens to sink said human into a watery grave.

But the restless movement of the ocean against the underside of the board creates many additional hydrodynamic forces that combine with buoyancy to keep the surfer from sinking. Yes, it’s basically a miracle.

My first lesson (with the awesome humans of Resurface) was spent lying flat on my face, windmilling my arms in the seat and scootching around the white water, occasionally feeling the rush of a wave beneath me, but mainly just kind of bobbing around pleasantly.

The few times that I did attempt to crawl onto my knees, the carefully callibrated balance point of the board would mysteriously vanish and I’d go for a quick swim. Hence the wetsuit.

But for the most part, I lay atop the board, surprised by my buoyancy, enchanted by my ripple-eye view of the world. I’m not sure if that’s surfing, but I want more of it.

Blue Mind

I recently finished reading Blue Mind by marine biologist Wallace J Nichols.

I thought I was buying a popular science book on the cognitive and social benefits of being in or near the water, but what I actually got was a surprisingly disassociated collection of anecdotes, lightly supported by scientific footnotes.

In some ways, the book was a little like my experience of surfing: never quite knowing what would happen next or even from what direction ‘next’ would come, but more or less buoyed through the experience with only the occasional, perhaps refreshing, dunk.

Rather than having an array of science-y data at my fingertips, I’m left instead with a generalised sense that the ocean (river, lake, stream or shower) can be a force for good in our lives.

‘Blue mind’ is Nichols’ term for ‘a mildly meditative state characterised by calm, peacefulness, unity, and a sense of general happiness’, by no means exclusive to the ocean, but promoted by safe experiences with water.

Many of the studies that Nichols cites have nothing to do with any kind of liquid, which makes his thesis based on limited but favourable scientific evidence and then buttressed by not-implausible extrapolation.

In ‘The Men Who Stare At Trees’ I explored the health benefits of being in nature and it’s true that some studies have found an enhanced positive effect when water features are involved.

In 2010, Matthew White and a team from the University of Plymouth found that something as simple as adding a water feature to entirely urban environments could make street scenes as restorative as images of wholly natural environments that don’t include water.

Matthew White was also one of the researchers involved in a 2019 study that found better general and mental health among people who lived less than 5km from the ocean, an effect particularly strong for the lowest-earning households.

This is why Nichols positions the oceanic ‘blue mind’ as an antidote to both the hyper-stressed state of what he calls ‘red mind’ and the apathetic, depressed state of ‘grey mind’.

It’s also why I found myself flat out on a surfboard, staring into the setting sun, mesmerised by the light and sound of the lapping ocean, nudging me gently to shore, in blue mind.

ee cummings said it best:

maggie discovered a shell that sang
so sweetly she couldn’t remember her troubles,

… and

may came home with a smooth round stone
as small as a world and as large as alone.

For whatever we lose(like a you or a me)
it’s always ourselves we find in the sea

~

Thanks to everyone at Resurface Bournemouth and to AT for getting me into the water. Six lessons, including wetsuit and board hire, cost me the unfathomably low sum of £95. The next session is Monday — can’t wait.

The Travel Triangle Heat, Fuel and Air. Oh no, wait - that's the fire triangle. So what's the travel triangle?

Welcome to the First Class carriage of the 9.10 from Barcelona to Paris.

I wouldn’t normally travel First Class, but these were the cheapest seats by far (€49) — a fact abundantly evident in the crowded aisles of the carriage.

There’s a family of five occupying the three seats ahead of me (fair play to them), beside an American husband and wife team with divergent approaches to crash-learning French in the six hours before we arrive.

The wife is patiently grinding her way through Duolingo, writing out convoluted sentences like ‘Voulez-vous aller en voiture au magasin?’ (‘Do you want to drive to the shop?’), while the husband taps ‘Hello, how are you?’ into Google Translate — whereupon the app promptly crashes. He’s now playing Candy Crush.

I’m three legs into my four-legged journey back to the UK from Portugal. I left Lisbon late on Wednesday evening and, after sliding through Madrid and Barcelona, I’m due back in Bournemouth tomorrow evening.

All the friends I was staying with in Lisbon will be making the same journey by plane, a fact that’s made me reflect on why I chose to travel overland instead.

It comes down to the three essential factors of any journey, which I shall pretentiously call the Travel Triangle:

  1. How long does it take?
  2. How much does it cost?
  3. How comfortable is the traveller before, during and after the journey?

Most people probably only think of the first two sides of the travel triangle when they’re planning their holidays and, thanks to government subsidies and low-cost airlines, planes are perceived as both faster (obviously) and cheaper (criminally).

That’s why I want to spend a little bit of time exploring how on earth I managed to end up with an overland itinerary that was not only justifiable according to the travel triangle, but actually preferable on all three sides compared to flying.

Plane versus train: speed test

Firstly, let’s look at what would happen if we tried to match up trains versus planes on the plane’s strongest side of the travel triangle: time.

Although my overland journey will take three nights and days, I’ve calculated that it is technically possible to leave Lisbon at 10.30am and arrive in Bournemouth the following afternoon:

  • 1030-0505 Coach from Lisbon to Bordeaux
  • 0558-0929 Train from Bordeaux to Paris
  • 1113-1230 Eurostar from Paris to London
  • 1315-1600 Train from London to Bournemouth

Unfortunately, this hectic itinerary would lose out to flying on all three sides of the travel triangle:

  1. At 30 hours, it would take three times as long as flying (including getting to the airport and going through security and immigration).
  2. One way and booked three weeks in advance, this journey would cost about £240, compared to about £140 by plane.
  3. On this schedule, the poor traveller would not only miss out on a night’s sleep, but also spend 25 out of those 30 hours on their backside. Not healthy.

Using the travel triangle, it’s easy to see that long distance overland travel cannot compete with planes on speed. If you need to get somewhere as soon as physically possible, it’ll probably be quicker, cheaper and more comfortable to fly. Sorry.

But there is good news!

If we tweak our itinerary to favour the strengths of overland travel rather than the strengths of flying, then it’s not hard to come up with journeys where overlanding is not only justifiable, but preferable — on all three sides of the travel triangle.

Train versus plane: rematch

The following sentence sums up the great strength of overland travel:

No one (but no one) wants their plane to stop mid-way.

(Once upon a time, while waiting for a delayed train in Brussels, I heard a fellow traveller lauding this particular benefit of air travel: ‘At least you either arrive or you don’t.’)

Assuming that most people don’t wish to disembark mid-way, my friends who fly get two stops: London and Lisbon.

In stark contrast, my terrestrial alternative needs freakin’ bullet points to encompass the delightful array of city breaks I’ll enjoy:

  • London (twice)
  • Paris (twice)
  • Bayonne
  • Madrid
  • Lisbon
  • Barcelona

This was my first trip abroad since 2019, during which time two friends had moved out of London to live in Paris and Bayonne respectively. So, when my co-writer Beth Granville suggested working together for a week in Lisbon, I immediately knew I could plan a trip that fully exploited the strengths of overlanding.

In Paris, Tim and I did some hiking in Rudenoise and Chantilly; in Bayonne I got to hang out with friends in Basque country, hiking in the foothills of the Pyrenées and visiting the pretty towns of Sare and Saint Jean-de-Luz; in Madrid I met up with a new friend who’ll be cycling with us on Thighs of Steel this summer; and in Barcelona I got to sleep off a cold I picked up in the Saharan dust storm that hit Lisbon on Tuesday.

As I write these words, our train is passing over a narrow spit of land that bisects a vast lagoon on the Mediterranean coast near Narbonne. It would have been easy to have added yet more adventures to my journey — the Algarve and Andalucía, Bilbao and San Sebastián, Montpellier and Nîmes.

The lesson is that, if we plan itineraries that take advantage of overlanding’s great strength, then the travel triangle magically starts to work in our favour.

Round 1: Cost

Yes, the face value of point-to-point train tickets are often more expensive than the plane equivalents, but this all changes when we start to add stops.

My overland journey from Bournemouth to Lisbon and back cost me £366.

(Incidentally, the London-Bournemouth leg is both the shortest and, horrifyingly, very nearly the most expensive of the entire journey.)

I booked only three weeks before I left and, while it’s reasonable to say that I didn’t get the best prices, it’s also true that I probably couldn’t do it very much cheaper. The Man In Seat 61 suggests around £300.

(Personally, I don’t think it’s fair to add the cost of overnight stays to the overall cost of overland travel because that’s all part of the holiday. For full disclosure, however: I stayed with friends in Paris and Bayonne and spent £60 on two nights in Madrid and Barcelona.)

Looking at flights, I can see that Bournemouth to Lisbon and back costs around £220-240. So flying direct would have saved me about £120 — but only if I’d been happy to miss out on seeing my friends.

(Note: If you book further in advance, and want to spend the night near Stansted Airport, you can get cheaper flight-based journeys at around £170-200 return from Bournemouth. But I want to compare apples with apples. Thanks to JCK for this research!)

If we only include my longer stopovers in Paris and Bayonne, then travelling by plane would have cost another £140. If I were to add Madrid and Barcelona as well, then flying would be sheer craziness.

Take home message: overlanding with stops is cheaper than flying with stops.

Trains 1 Planes 0

Round 2: Time

With cost out of the equation, the decisive factor in choosing between overlanding and flying will, for most people, be time.

I’m not talking about the time taken for each leg of the journey — the longest of my overland journeys was eight hours, which is less than I would have needed to get from Bournemouth to Lisbon by plane.

I’m talking about the total amount of time the traveller has for the whole trip — and how they want or need to spend that time.

If you have two weeks’ holiday and you want to visit friends in Paris and Bayonne or stop by Barcelona and Madrid on your way to Lisbon, then travelling overland is the best way for you to travel. End of.

If you only have a week’s holiday, then Lisbon is off the cards for overlanders unless you’re prepared for the hectic itinerary that opened this piece. Sorry.

The same is true if, for some reason, you need to be in Lisbon for as much of the whole two weeks as possible.

For example: flying to Lisbon would occupy about 6 percent of a two week stay. Even at its fastest, overlanding gobbles up 18 percent, with a more relaxed itinerary swallowing 22 percent of your total time away.

On this occasion, for me, the time allowed for the whole trip was flexible — a few days either side would have made no difference.

But overlanding did help me change the way I spent my holiday, not only by allowing those stopovers in Paris and Bayonne, but also in moments like this, where I have the time and comfort to do some writing.

(In fact, if you are lucky enough to be able to do actual work on the long train journeys, then you might even be able to earn back the cost of overlanding — good for you!)

Trains 2 Planes 0

Round 3: Comfort

This is where things become a little more personal, as we all define ‘comfort’ in different ways:

  • How anxious does this mode of transport make you feel — both before you leave and during the journey?
  • How many bags do you need to take?
  • How much space do you need?
  • How much information do you need to feel reassured?
  • How comfortable are you operating in foreign languages and in unfamiliar cities?
  • Militarised airport security, train ticket barriers or coach driver whimsy?
  • Drinks trolley, buffet car or service station?
  • How do you feel when you arrive?

For me, trains win on every count, every time. Coaches are a bit more problematic: less information, less space, less smooth — but I’d still choose them over the airport security and border checks that make me feel like a pre-criminal.

Trains 3 Planes 0

Think of the children!

Many people choose to go Flight Free because of the massive 95 percent reduction in carbon emissions when travelling overland compared to flying.

According to recent research by The Jump, individual citizens have primary influence over 25-27 percent of the total emissions savings needed to stop ecological breakdown. That’s pretty cool. It means that we can all take direct action today.

(Note: this 25-27 percent figure is an average and lower income groups are responsible for far fewer emissions. The more you earn, the greater your obligation to change.)

Of this 25-27 percent, reducing our use of aeroplanes to one short haul flight every three years would deliver a 2 percent reduction in emissions by 2030.

That’s a bloody good reason to stop flying. But it’s not my reason.

I have never chosen overlanding because of its lower impact on the environment and I’ve taken too many flights in my lifetime to waste my time preaching to anyone else.

I choose overlanding because, for me, it’s the most comfortable, most connected and most creative way to travel.

Now that’s what I call a travel triangle.

Not The Best Medicine You might meet today with ‘inquisitive, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, uncharitable men’. Maybe they’re suffering from a twisted omohyoid.

Science might say that laughter releases endorphins that support your immune system, can provide a palliative to long term illness, moderate sensations of intense pain and reduce your risk heart disease by relaxing your arteries.

Journalists around the world have celebrated this vindication of the pernicious claim that ‘laughter is the best medicine’.

It’s all lies.

When you have an intercostal muscle injury, laughter is manifestly not the best medicine.

In this case, laughter is, almost literally, side-splitting.

If humans have personalities, so do muscles. Some are extroverts, showing off their range and power, like the hamstrings or the biceps, making their presence felt with almost every movement of your body.

But some are introverts, happiest when unnoticed and, like the muscles of the eyeball or the omohyoid, scarcely ever consciously felt — until something goes wrong. Then: beware the quiet ones.

The intercostal muscles of the rib cage are introverts.

Intercostal muscles highlighted in dark red. Wikipedia

Their job is to help you breathe by expanding and contracting the rib cage so that the lungs beneath can fill and empty of air.

In the same way that a hamstring injury doesn’t necessarily mean you have to stop walking, so too an intercostal injury means that you don’t necessarily have to stop breathing.

What it does mean (in both cases) is that you should avoid explosive exercise.

In the case of a hamstring injury, now is not the right time to go sprinting.

In the case of an intercostal injury, now is not the right time for the six bodily functions that make life worth living:

  1. Yawning before sleep
  2. Hiccups after drinking
  3. Burps after eating
  4. Laughter with joy
  5. Sighing in peace and contentment
  6. Sneezing

Is there a more important muscle group than the one that helps suck in the air, not only of survival, but of life?

It started with a hiccup

It all started with a hiccup. Not a particularly large or loud one, just a normal hiccup on a hilltop near (appropriately enough) Rudenoise in France.

I felt a twinge in my side, but nothing more. The next day the twinge grew a little worse, but nothing insurmountable. I’d also pulled a muscle in my calf on the same walk. No big deal. I can walk it off.

The problems really started on Friday night, when Tim and I started trawling through our back catalogue of Abandoned Rugs songs.

There are many types of laughter. Some laughter is a social lubricant, either totally or partially under conscious control. This kind of laughter is fine.

But there is a laughter that is orders of magnitude more violent, more explosive and almost completely involuntary. More like a sneeze, in other words. This is what the songs we made with Abandoned Rugs do to me.

Now, these songs won’t necessarily make you laugh quite as much as they make me laugh. But imagine being six years old again. Go back to your most childish, playful self.

Now give your inner child unfettered access to an array of musical instruments, recording equipment and one very talented musician.

If I were to die and the only artefact to survive the centuries, from all my decades of creative work, was ‘Walking In The Area’ by Abandoned Rugs, I would die contented.

The magic of Christmas reduced to the banality of boredom and the sheer absurdity of trusting me (of all people) with the parody of a famous choral soprano leaves me helpless.

I’m standing on the grass,
I’m standing near the garden shed…

Professionally, I’m sure I’ve done better work, but nothing so reliably reduces me, personally, to paroxysms of laughter.

Unfortunately, such laughter rips into my intercostal muscles with uncontrollable and terrible force.

Laughing myself to death

The next day I catch the train down to Basque country. On Saturday night, I sleep fitfully and wake up almost in tears, unable to even roll over to get out of bed.

Luckily, I’m staying with a GP and, with the help of some serious Spanish painkillers, bought to ease my friend through the Camino, I feel much better on Monday and Tuesday — as long as I don’t go much further than a polite chuckle.

On Wednesday, however, I arrive in Lisbon. For some reason I decide not to take any painkillers. Despite the fact that I am here to spend a week with my comedy writing partner Beth Granville and our friends, writing funny jokes that make people laugh uncontrollably.

It’s a disaster. I manage to hold it together enough to survive the first course at dinner. Then I share a story about an ex, a bath and a game of chess…

Doubled over in the restaurant, struggling to breathe, not because I’m overcome by laughter, but because my lungs are unable to expand enough to draw oxygen into my blood cells through the pain.

It’s at this point that I wonder whether laughing oneself to death is a thing.

The Internet isn’t reassuring on this point. Aside from kuru, a devastatingly sad ‘laughing sickness’ caused by the consumption of diseased human brains, there are multiple cases of cardiac arrest caused by excessive fits of laughing:

Asphyxiation caused by laughter leads the body to shut down from the lack of oxygen.

I must remember to keep taking painkillers.

Personality is physicality

I sincerely hope that you never have to spend time with an injured intercostal muscle, but there is a broader lesson here, one that I hope everyone can sit with today.

The lesson is: personality is physicality.

I know this only too well from my experiences with my thyroid. An underactive thyroid makes you cold, tired and unable to focus. Not the best conversationalist. Physicality is personality.

In the same way, with an injured intercostal, I can feel myself consciously measuring my responses to other people. It’s simply too painful to let go and laugh with my friends. I can do a half-hearted chuckle — but who wants that?

I notice that I’m holding back from saying things that I know the other people will find funny because I can’t risk the laughter tripping my muscles. It’s a whole new way of being in the world (and a bit of a shit one). Personality is physicality.

In the same way that mountains, valleys and the ocean play a decisive role in our experience of clouds or sunshine, so too does the morphology of our bodies influence our own psychological weather.

There’s no point ignoring the basic principles of our existence, our facticity.

If you’re feeling irritable, maybe you need to be kinder to yourself. Stop pushing so hard. Ease off for a minute. Your body needs a break and your mind is responding with antisocial behaviour, in the hope that you’ll isolate and rest.

And vice-versa. You might, as Marcus Aurelius wrote, meet today with ‘inquisitive, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, uncharitable men’. Maybe they’re suffering from a twisted omohyoid. Try empathy before anger.

Thought For Food #4: Chocolate Ginger Thighs Flapjack

This vegan flapjack almost caused a riot on the last Thighs of Steel London ‘club’ ride. Dense, nutritious, spicy and with a strong chocolate bite. What more could you want after a beasty climb?

The base flapjack recipe is inspired by Andrew Hardwick.

Ingredients

  • 125g porridge oats
  • 125g jumbo oats
  • 150g vegan block
  • 100g crystallised ginger (finely chopped)
  • 2 bananas (smooshed)
  • A squidge of rice syrup (or similar)
  • For the chocolate coating: 200g (yep) 90% (yep) dark chocolate

Method

  1. On a low heat, melt down the vegan block, bananas, ginger and rice syrup until you’ve got a thick paste
  2. Stir in the oats
  3. Line a small baking tray (19x23x3cm — smaller than you expect) with greaseproof paper or use a bit of vegan block to grease it up real nice
  4. Smoosh the flapjack mixture firmly into the tray
  5. Smoosh it down some more using a heavy weight
  6. Bake at 175C for 25-odd minutes
  7. When you take it out of the oven, the flapjack should be visibly soft and beginning to brown

While the flapjack is baking, prepare the chocolate:

  1. Boil some water in a pan
  2. Put HALF the chocolate into a glass bowl or measuring jug (one that fits into the pan)
  3. Turn off the heat on the water (or leave it on really low)
  4. Put the chocolate jug into the pan
  5. Wait for the chocolate to melt gently, then add the remaining solid chocolate
  6. This process is called tempering and makes sure that the chocolate doesn’t change molecular structure and go all sticky on your fingers
  7. When the chocolate’s all melted (this will take some time), pour it over the flapjack, spread it around, and allow to cool

Finishing off:

  1. While the flapjack is still soft, cut the flapjack into whatever size slices you want
  2. Once the tray is cool enough for the fridge, whack it in there

Now share with friends after a badass hill climb.

Rudenoise Under the very silly tour guidance of The Tim Traveller, where else, of all the entrepots, bordellos and gin-joints of the world, would we end up but here.

This story is coming to you live from the tramways, Thai eateries and new build blocks of Paris.

Yes! For the first time since December 2019, more than 800 sleeps ago, I’m not in the United Kingdom.

By my calculations, this is the longest period that I’ve spent inside the borders of the UK in my entire life. How lucky am I?

The next longest gap without stamps in my passport was between my eventful visit to pre-revolution Egypt and perma-conflict Palestine in January 2010 and cycling (and eating) around post-revolutionary Tunisia in February 2012.

2010-2012 was the two year period was when, after a series of thoroughly entertaining hitchhiking adventures, I decided to stop flying.

You all know the reasons for the latest hiatus in my stamp-collecting. That doesn’t mean that the last two years haven’t been full of adventures.

I have completed over 3,000km of a modular reconstruction of my first flightless adventure, cycling around the coast of Britain. Last year, with Thighs of Steel, I cycled most of the world’s largest bike-powered GPS art, 2,208km of generosity and solidarity.

Confinement to the country of one’s birth is hardly a punishment for people born in peacetime.

Indeed, the first lines of William Blake’s great anti-war poem, Auguries of Innocence, can be read as a mission statement for travellers:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour

Travel has depth as well as breadth.

Many of my most transformative travels have taken place no more than a few dozen miles from my front door. Many of my more far-flung outings have left nothing but the merest trace of an impression on the wax of my sloppy mind.

Nevertheless, to travel beyond our borders, and beyond the hem of the common fabric of language, is to travel more easily into empathy.

Empathy can be thought of as an inverse function of our comfort zone. The more comfortable we are, the less easily we will be able to empathise with those less comfortable.

As I have written before, travelling to a foreign country is an easy way to leave your comfort zone, become conscious of the ‘intractable conditions’ of your own existence and, as I have not written before, develop your empathic muscle.

In a foreign land — the more ‘foreign’ the better — we are at an immediate disadvantage.

Even something so simple as catching public transport is an adventure riddled with peril. We don’t know the rules and we struggle to ask for help because we don’t speak the language.

Foreign travel, if we allow it, is an empathy machine.

And this was what Blake was driving at with his paradoxes: to make us feel, first gratitude for what little we have, and then empathy for those that have less.

Every Morn and every Night
Some are Born to sweet delight
Some are Born to sweet delight
Some are Born to Endless Night

To capture this transformation in a single moment, as we arrived into Gare de l’Est, a long announcement came over the public address system in the unfamiliar diphthongs of a deeply foreign language:

Ukrainian.

~

The unexpected juxtapositions, misunderstandings, mistranslations, missteps and pratfalls of foreign travel, it has to be said, are also bursting ripe with pure silliness.

Under the very silly tour guidance of The Tim Traveller, where else, of all the entrepots, bordellos and gin-joints of the world, would we end up but here:

In Rudenoise.

Tim unreliably asserts that ‘Rudenoise’ probably translates as ‘raw hazelnut’ since the valley of the Marne, in which Rudenoise is nestled, is hazelnut (and champagne) country.

So it’s entirely appropriate that, since we arrived, I’ve eaten very little that hasn’t contained noisette. More specifically: chocolat aux noisettes, AKA Nutella.

(There were, on close examination, precisely zero vegan options in the boulangerie, but I have a cure for that if you keep scrolling.)

The nut in Nutella is, of course, hazelnut. In fact, the makers of Nutella, Ferrero, use a staggering 25 percent of the world’s supply of hazelnuts, nearly 70 percent of which is farmed in Turkey.

Harvesting hazelnuts is, I never realised, a dangerous job. The pickers — most often underpaid, overworked migrant labourers from Syria or Kurdistan — are sometimes roped up to protect against a deathfall from the steep rocky slopes.

But here in the Marne, we’re a long way from the harvest — the hazels are only now showing their catkins and, besides, the fields are crowded out with rows and rows of the more profitable champagne grape.

A bridge takes us over a ditch and onto the ‘L’île de la Rudenoise’, a small nature reserve of muddy paths, bare trees, and a burbling brook.

A young woman walks past with a wolfhound.

An information board tells us that trout eggs require a cumulative 400 degrees of temperature before they will hatch. So 50 days in 8 degree water or 40 days in 10 degree water, for example. If the water is boiling, we surmise, the eggs will not hatch.

An old woman comes down the hill towards us, making her way between the neatly trained vines.

‘I can’t feel my fingers,’ she says with a grin, holding them out to us.

The crimson of her painted nails are stark contrast to the white of her blood-drained palms.

~

Keep your eyes locked on The Tim Traveller channel for a sunnier day when Tim will finally do some filming at Rudenoise.

Respect The Hormones ‘I want to see what is going on,’ he said. ‘So many great events are happening, and I’m not there to see them. I’m learning nothing here that will do me any good.’

As you may have noticed this week, The News.

One of the things that people say they appreciate about his newsletter is that I don’t tend to respond to current affairs. So I won’t do that today either.

(Except in this one bolded, italicised sentence, where I hope you will join me in a primal effort to extirpate all our collective rage: uggghaaaaaaaaghhhhhhgghghghghhguuuugaahhgahhhhhhhhguhggggggggghghgahhghhuuauauhghghghguuauuhghghghhghgghhgfuckssakefuckssakeghghgughghaagughhghhhhgagg.)

While I won’t respond to The News directly today, I will do something very much in keeping with the mission of this newsletter: I’ll show you a graph.

And then we can play a little game called: ‘What’s the time Mr News?’ or ‘What time of day should I partake in news gathering and sharing?’

But first a quick note about a hormone called cortisol.

Meet Cortisol

Cortisol is an awesome hormone. It’s quite literally what gets us out of bed in the morning. Cortisol’s superpower is that it gives us energy, fast. Quite handy.

One little problem with cortisol, however, is that, in the wrong place, at the wrong time, it can be pretty darned stressful. In fact, cortisol is often called ‘the stress hormone’ (an unfair nickname, given the number of other useful jobs it does).

You see, one of the things that cortisol can do is make you better at noticing crappy things and then make you feel crappier about those crappy things.

This is what sciencey people call elevated negative affect and arousal. It’s what the rest of us call stress and, at its worst, chronic stress, anxiety and depression.

(To be fair to cortisol, this combination of crap-ray-vision and fast energy does make sense from an evolutionary standpoint. There wouldn’t be much point in us having a hormone that responds with high energy when primed by the sight of white fluffy clouds or a field of kittens.)

In summary: although we are very lucky to have cortisol, we don’t want to mess with it.

Okay. Now here’s the graph:

And all together now…

‘What’s the time Mr News?’

If The News were a neutral report of the comings and goings of the tides, the pattern of the clouds on the water, the first catkins on the hazel and the first daffodils on the verge, amid the nest-building busyness of spring, then all would be well.

But, sadly, it’s not.

The News, as digested by most humans, is a voluntary poison that will reduce grown adults to anxious, sad, catatrophising worriers in less than a quarter of an hour.

This catastrophising worry is likely driven by our friend cortisol, although that does depend on other situational factors. The effect seems to be particularly pernicious in women, for whom reading The News appears to prime cortisol spikes in response to subsequent stressors.

This probably comes as news to no one, but the science suggests that digesting The News with your breakfast will set you up for a crappy day.

What time of day should I partake in news gathering and sharing? Not until at least 4 hours after waking up.

The News Is A Privilege

The thing that gets me is that, for most people, The News is a privilege.

For people directly affected by the events reported in The News, it rarely comes through newspapers, social media or the television. The News comes as a knock on the door, a cry from a neighbour, a storm cloud on the horizon.

The News that the rest of us experience is a repackaged biography of other people’s lowest points, their worst moments, their most cataclysmic life events decontextualised for sensationalist (dare I say) entertainment in homes on the other side of the planet.

Worse: this style of ‘hard’ News can be addictive, often designed to manipulate our hormones to maximise eyeball retention, to maximise profit.

News aggregators like Google News or Apple News, shares on social media and ‘breaking news’ phone notifications all contribute to greater and greater consumption of The News and that growing addiction is associated with despair for the future and low levels of trust in other people.

I am not saying that we should ignore social and political events.

As psychologists Boukes and Vliegenthart put it in 2017, The News ‘is generally understood to be crucial for democracy as it allows citizens to politically participate in an informed manner’.

And I’m all for sharing more information to empower democratically active citizens.

But Boukes and Vliegenthart then go on to demonstrate that, due to its focus on ‘negative and worrisome’ events, The News as we know it has a ‘negative effect on the development of mental well-being over time’.

I don’t think any of us are surprised by this finding. But it’s time that we all took the science seriously and acted with total respect for the awful power of The News.

Please Don’t Abuse The News

Respect your own hormones: give yourself at least a few hours after waking up before stepping into fire hose. Turn off your breaking news notifications, delete your news apps, watch awesome nature videos instead of The News.

Respect other people’s hormones: don’t share The News — at all, if you don’t have to — but at least not without considering how it might land. Be aware that other people simply aren’t prepared to hear The News from you. They probably opened their messages with eyes still half shut hoping for a love note… And now they’ve got This.

If you’re not sure about sharing something; don’t. Wait for the right context. I understand that The News is traumatic and humans seek to share that traumatising information to soften the impact, like a freefalling skydiver landing on a trampoline.

If you feel traumatised by The News, first seek out a genuine connection with a friend, set up the context, and only if it’s right then share your pain.

Remember that The News is mostly awful life shit that’s really happening to someone else. If you are lucky enough to have the choice, then please spend the morning beside a quiet stream, watch the buds on the branches, listen to the soft news shared by the chattering birds.

I’m serious. Respect the hormones.

My touchstone in this endeavour is the nineteenth century naturalist John Muir. Stuck on his California farm, doing the ‘penal’ work of cherry-picking, Samuel Hall Young reports how John Muir longed for the ‘glaciers and woods of Alaska’:

Passionately [John Muir] voiced his discontent:

‘I am losing the precious days. I am degenerating into a machine for making money. I am learning nothing in this trivial world of men. I must break away and get out into the mountains to learn the news.’

Through all his raillery there ran a note of longing for the wilderness.

‘I want to see what is going on,’ he said. ‘So many great events are happening, and I’m not there to see them. I’m learning nothing here that will do me any good.’

Outside my window, I can hear the gulls. So many great events are happening.

~

A friend who reads this newsletter says that, most of the time, he gets to the end and doesn’t really know whether he’s understood the message.

The comment made me laugh, but it’s a really good point. What is my message?

Shut off your screen, right now, and take a fourteen minute news-check on nature.

Call Me Baby Are you emboldened to hit CALL instead of SEND? Do you more often swipe right to answer instead of left to reject? Have you learned to love again the sound of the human voice?

It’s been nice to spend a little time catching up with some of the new research supporting the thesis behind my (somewhat delayed) 2015 book You Are What You Don’t.

The thesis of the book is simple:

It’s pretty obvious that we are what we do. It’s less obvious, but no less formative, that we are also what we don’t.

Not only that, but what if what you don’t do is exactly what you should be doing?

Essentially, You Are What You Don’t sends me off on diverse adventures trying to not do the things that I normally do and trying to do the things that I unavoidably do in a manner completely opposite.

(It’s not a massive surprise that I so much enjoyed writing about paradoxes a couple of weeks ago.)

For example: it would, as we’ve all discovered in the years since, be crushingly dull to not leave the house every day — but there’s no reason that we have to walk.

So, for one day, back in 2015, I didn’t walk. I ran, I danced, I jumped, I skipped, I twisted my ankle, I crawled to A&E and I learned a lot. Particularly about crutches.

The point of the book is that we should learn to question our habits and at least try living without them: sometimes to discover an unexpected better life and sometimes just to return to normality, with gratitude.

One of the most instructive chapters of the book was called ‘No Mobile Phone’. This experiment was run in the halcyon days before I owned a smartphone, but I was no less addicted to those old school beeps and vibrations.

In the month before I ditched my Nokia — back in 2015, remember — I had sent 419 text messages. As I observed at the time:

that’s a ridiculous 13 per day, which makes me look like either a man in demand or a man desperate for attention. I have a horrible suspicion it’s not the former.

Fast forward seven years and I suspect I would be aghast at the number of messages I send on my smartphone in a month.

Actually, as a confirmed data-holic, I wouldn’t be aghast, I’d be fascinated. And then aghast.

Perhaps that’s why Android, Signal and Whatsapp make it either completely or virtually impossible to count the precise number of messages sent from your phone.

(Do you know how? Message me.)

Back in 2015, I wrote about the powerful effects of ‘social gravity’. I was concerned then with the pressure building on all citizens to buy a smartphone:

If we don’t go with the tilt, with the tendency for everyone to have smartphones, then we must be prepared to work ever harder against the steepening slant.

More than one of my freelancing friends finds that they need a smartphone in order to get emails on the go: if they don’t reply immediately to that job offer, then someone else will.

Today we can see the effects of social gravity in the way that we use our phones to communicate with each other.

In fact, to call this communicative tool a ‘phone’ is now almost a misnomer. ‘Phone’ is ancient Greek for ‘voice’ but today, compared to text messaging, we rarely use our ‘phones’ to transmit our voices.

According to a 2018 study, the average Whatsapp user sends or receives a total of 145 messages per day. That’s more than ten times my ‘ridiculous’ 13 text messages per day back in 2015.

In contrast, between 2012 and 2019, the total time that people in the UK spent on phone calls dropped by 15 percent, from about 10 minutes per person per day to 8 minutes (given that the population also increased slightly).*

As smartphone use has increased, so too has our use of ‘frictionless’ messaging apps like Whatsapp. The ensuing pressure of social gravity has squeezed out voice phone calls.

The question is: are we better off without voice communication or is this the worst thing ever?

It’ll come as no particular surprise that a 2020 study from the University of Texas at Austin found that voice communication, even without the visual cues of face-to-face contact or video, is integral to social bonding.

It follows that the researchers found that phone calls make us feel more bonded with others than text-based communication like email or messaging.

Voices make us feel good. Intuitively, we know this.

But that’s not why we make fewer phone calls today compared to 2012. We make fewer phone calls because phone conversations, even with friends, are faffy and awkward.

And that’s where the research gets more interesting.

Before the event, the 200 study participants expected that a phone call, whether with an old friend or a stranger, would make them feel more socially awkward than connecting by email or text.

But when asked how the call went afterwards, participants reported no extra awkwardness from the live, unscripted nature of the conversation.

In fact, the phone call was not only a more positive interaction than the text-based communication, but it was also no extra faff. The researchers found that a simple phone call took no longer than reading and responding to the same scenarios over email.

In conclusion: we overestimate how ‘convenient’ text communication is and we underestimate how good a proper voice call will make us feel.

~

* The kicker is that, after seven consecutive years of falling call minutes, 2020 saw a huge leap in our use of phones for voice communication. Lockdown helped us rediscover the dial tone.

Are you emboldened now to hit CALL instead of SEND? Do you find yourself more often swiping right to answer instead of left to reject? Have you learned to love again the sound of the human voice?

Please don’t bother answering by email — call me instead!

Writerly Questions With An Obvious Solution Once You Write Them Down

Part 1: Which Should I Worry About More — My ‘Grand Theme’ Or Whether The Audience Laughs?

This is a short addendum to last week’s piece on The Adventurer’s Journey. One of the things that I was quite careful not to say was that adventures were stories and stories were lessons and, thusly, adventures were lessons.

There is an academic passion for analysing stories for grand themes and universal morals, summed up by the question: what does this story have to say about the human experience?

It’s a forensic approach that has been translated wholesale into the dozen or more ‘how to write’ books that fill my own bookshelves.

Books as diverse as Save The Cat! by Blake Snyder and Story by Robert McKee all have the same underlying logic: find your theme and you’ll find your story.

But I’ve just finished reading an excellent book that takes the complete opposite approach to story analysis — and therefore implies a wholly different logic for creative writing.

Rather than mining the library shelves for themes, meanings and lessons, Angus Fletcher’s Wonderworks examines the psychological effect that different stories have on the reader.

It’s a disarmingly naive method, inspired by Aristotle’s Poetics, that can be crudely summed up by the question: who gives a crap about theme when my readers are gripped by catharsis, shaken with wonder, bawling their eyes out and lolling their heads off.

Fletcher’s 400-page thesis is a little repetitive and certainly misses out a huge chunk of what makes certain stories so effective, but it’s a potent corrective to a tendency that I have as a spreadsheet-driven writer, when an obsession with structure blocks a clear view of how the story will land in the mind of the audience, with tears and laughter.

Progress Through Process And don't count on accountability.

Eager readers among you will remember that, in 2021, I vowed to accomplish and then did indeed accomplish 100 ‘Days of Adventure’.

The experiment, then, was a success: the stated objective, to have ‘a lot more’ adventures, was achieved.

But getting outside more isn’t what made the experiment a success. What made the experiment a success was the success of the experimental method.

(Last week, a friend and reader said that he was never quite sure whether he understood my emails: with sentences like the preceding, I concede his point.)

Let me explain.

In 1747, the ship’s doctor of HMS Salisbury, James Lind, decided to compare six different treatments of scurvy, the bloody scourge of sailors long at sea. Some were given cider, some were given sulfuric acid. Some were given oranges and lemons.

In the process, Lind learned how to cure scurvy (it wasn’t the cider, sad face). That was useful, sure, but not nearly as useful as simultaneously proving the efficacy of a well-conducted clinical trial.

I’m not saying that 100 Days of Adventure was a well-conducted clinical trial, but it was a trial with a positive outcome and, like James Lind’s scientific successors, I can work backwards to isolate the elements of the trial that supported its happy ending.

Based on my reading of immortal business management truisms, two contenders for contributing elements of success spring to mind:

  1. Public accountability thanks to this newsletter
  2. Working with a well-defined and measurable goal

On closer reading, I’ve learned that both might well have done more harm than good.

1. Go public — but not too public

I’d assumed that, by talking about my goal in this newsletter, I was being held to account by nearly 300 discerning humans. And I thought that this was a good thing that would help me reach my goal.

Turns out that I was probably wrong.

A 1998 management study found that, while conditions of ‘low accountability’ improve goal performance, conditions of ‘high accountability’ merely encourage people to massage their public image, with no improvement in performance.

In other words: with the eyes of the world upon you, you’re more likely to hide the failures and emphasise the positives.

But is this newsletter helpful low accountability or damaging high accountability? Well, it’s hard to say for sure because I don’t have access to the paywalled academic papers…

But perhaps what this newsletter was helping me with was not accountability at all, but commitment.

Thanks to this newsletter, every week last year, I sat down with my calendar and counted up how many Days of Adventure I’d had in the past seven days. On the equinox and solstices, with the changing of every season, I also delved a little deeper and wrote a little more, reflecting on my progress towards my goal through the year.

Perhaps it was this regular commitment to the process that was helping me, rather than the sense that you lot were standing over me, tapping your rulers on the desk, waiting to punish or reward me.

This is certainly what I’ve found in the opening months of 2022. There was no fanfare at the end of 2021: there were no fireworks to celebrate my achievement. All that happened was that I moved onto a new page on my spreadsheet and started again from zero (now on nine).

Goals come and go, but the process endures.

2. Not so SMART

Some of you business types will immediately jump up and tell me why my process was successful: it was because I created a SMART goal.

The 100 Days of Adventure project was:

  • Specific. 100. Days. Adventure.
  • Measurable. A day either is or is not adventurous and when I hit 100, I’d hit my target.
  • Achievable. Before starting, I counted that I’d done 67 the year before, so 100 didn’t seem like too much of a stretch (as long as Covid played along).
  • Relevant. 100 Days of Adventure was totally aligned with my personal and professional values and priorities.
  • Time-bound. I knew exactly when to begin (1 January 2021) and when to end (31 December 2021).

But what if 100 Days of Adventure succeeded despite the smartness of the SMART acronym? After all, how specific was my definition of a Day of Adventure?

Not very, as it turns out.

My original definition is that a Day of Adventure is a day when I could answer the following question in the affirmative: ‘Did I spend a significant chunk of the day outside on an adventure?’

I immediately followed up this definition with a weasly confession:

‘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.

This definition did mature over the course of the year. At some point, I decided that three hours was unequivocally significant, but I still maintained that great adventures could be had in less and several, particularly as the end-of-year deadline drew closer, were more like two hours.

Compare this to the stringent requirements of the forty practice hikes that I have to log before I can take my professional Hill and Moorland Leader assessment. These require me to do at least four hours of walking time. No ambiguity there — particularly not when all my hikes are timed and logged automatically by GPS.

The lack of wiggle room in this qualification metric means that I missed the deadline for taking my assessment next week. I’ve been out on far more than forty hikes in the hills and moorlands of England, but, analysing the data, I fall six days short.

Although I’ve enjoyed every single practice hike that I’ve done, the reality is that, by the SMART goal measure, I have failed. And that failure makes me feel a bit crap.

But my deliberately, ostentatiously vague definition of a Day of Adventure meant that there was plenty of flexibility in my 2021 goal and — surprise, surprise — I completed the challenge and that made me feel bloody marvellous. What an accomplished human being I am, pat on the back for me!

Two outdoor challenges: one I can put down as a triump, the other I’m forced to consider a failure.

But here’s the thing: the two challenges were identical. By definition, any day that qualified as one of forty practice days for my Hill and Moorland Leader assessment was also one of my 100 Days of Adventure.

They were identical in every detail bar one: one of the goals wasn’t so SMART. And, confusingly, sometimes smart goals aren’t SMART goals.

Suppose I’d only managed 99 Days of Adventure in 2021. What would I have gained from that year of abject failure? Yes, that’s right — a whole heck of a lot!

Similarly, what have I gained so far from only completing 34 of 40 logged hikes for my Hill and Moorland assessment? Yes, that’s also right — a whole heck of a lot!

The flexibility of my definition of Days of Adventure encourages me to go outside and try something new.

The inflexibility of the professional definition of a Hill and Moorland qualifying hike means that I won’t go outside until I can guarantee at least four hours walking.

Last time I was on Dartmoor, I arrived extremely tired. I’d meant to do a four-hour hike that afternoon, but only managed a couple of hours before I quit.

The pressure of an inflexible goal kept me going longer than I should have and, when I got back to the bunkhouse, knowing that the deadline loomed, I went back over the past few years of hiking, desperately massaging the numbers, trying to convince myself that I was ready for assessment.

I was doing exactly what the literature told me I would do. Instead of improving my performance, this condition of high accountability was making me manipulate my public image — I was being lured into lying!

So I stopped scrolling through my hike logbook and went to bed instead.

A couple of quality hikes later, walking off Dartmoor, through the woods on the edge of Fernworthy reservoir, the sun jumping from leaf to leaf through the trees, the chill air plucking at the hair on my bare arms, I realised that I didn’t want this to end; I didn’t want to qualify; I didn’t want to finish my training.

SMART goals are time-bound. SMART goals end.

What more would I accomplish by rushing to accomplish this goal? Nothing. Nothing, no assessment, no qualification could top what the process consistently delivers: these moments of serenity in the woods and on the moors.

There will be no fanfare, no fireworks. All that must happen is to move onto a new page and start again from zero.

Goals come and go, but the process endures.

So, sitting in the car, the chewy scent of mud in my nostrils, I opened up my email and wrote to my assessor, telling him of my gleeful decision to cancel…

The Adventurer’s Journey Adventure today is not man versus wilderness. Adventure today is so much more complex and covers every imaginable subgenre of human experience.

As I was tramping over the clitter scattered in the moorland of Manga Hill, on the approach over the brook to the ruins of Teignhead Farm, I noticed that adventures, like most stories, follow a three act structure.

Act One

The adventurer-to-be is going about their mundane daily life when they first hear the ‘call to adventure’. A conversation overheard on a bus, an interview on a radio station, a tantalising glimpse of a map — or a nagging question in the back of their mind that won’t go away.

But they ignore the call because mundane daily life is kind of okay.

Then, perhaps all-of-a-sudden, perhaps in a glacial process unfolding over the course of decades, the adventurer-to-be realises that mundane daily life is not kind of okay anymore — and it won’t be until they scratch that itch and answer the call.

Emboldened by wise mentors, whether in person or culled from books, documentaries or the internet, the adventurer-in-waiting prepares for the journey ahead.

Preparation doesn’t have to mean much, maybe just a toasted bagel, but generally there will be at least an intake of breath between the adventurer accepting the challenge and then leaving the comfort zone world of Act One.

Act Two

This is what we usually think of as the adventure. It begins the moment we cross the threshold, board the train, slip our mooring, or step through the looking-glass.

Even though we may very well still be sitting in our own living room, everything has changed. We have entered the topsy-turvy, ‘funhouse mirror’ world of adventure.

They do things differently here. There’s a different logic, different rules for us to learn.

Strange things happen in this strange new world. With any luck, some of those things will be great fun and we’ll feel excitement rather than fear.

But, guaranteed, some of those things will be scary. They will challenge us. This is built into the definition of adventure. We left behind our comfort zone at the end of Act One, remember?

In adventuring terms, Act Two can last as little as five minutes or as long as five decades. There might be one little hurdle to jump or a seemingly endless series of Herculean obstacles to overcome.

However long the adventure, there will come a ‘point of no return’ when to push onward is easier than to return. For me, on my ride around the coast of Britain, this happened at Scarborough, the first town I came to where a return ticket home tipped over the £100 mark.

There may also be some sort of ‘crisis’ moment where the adventurer can fall no further and a ‘revelation’ when they realise how they must change or adapt before they can come through alive.

There are all kinds of other story elements that may or may not appear in an adventure: a moment of false victory or false defeat, ‘bad guys’ closing in, ‘the dark night of the soul’, a brush with death that ‘raises the stakes’, a ticking clock and so on.

Whatever happens, our adventurer does eventually have to leave the adventure world and return to the comfort zone world of Act One — where they discover that the world or they themselves have changed.

Act Three

Change is a baked-in part of adventure. Greek philosopher Heraclitus once wrote:

No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.

If that’s true for an adventure as small as stepping into a river twice, then bloody hell it’s true for whatever happened in Act Two.

Even if an adventurer finishes Act Two by building a cabin in the woods and never returning to the physical world of Act One, they’ll find one day that the cabin in the woods is no longer the world of adventure and has become their new comfort zone.

The world, and the adventurer, have changed.

The End

Or is it?

What I found exciting about the parallel structures of story and adventure is the implication that, just as you can tell a story about anything, so you can have an adventure about anything.

Back in the olden days, most stories were written about adventurers, and those adventurers were usually called ‘heros’ and they were usually men and they were usually fighting or being smartasses or harassing women or looting dragon caves or whatever.

But nowadays most stories are not written about these ‘heros’. The stories of humanity have become much more complex, much more interesting and cover every imaginable subgenre of human experience.

Paranormal romance, fine, but how about extraterrestrial sex fetish with a twist of French philosophy? It’s a thing.

The same is true of adventure. Adventure today is not man versus wilderness. Adventure today is so much more complex, so much more interesting and covers every imaginable subgenre of human experience.

I happened to be wandering the moors when I made this connection. But, in many ways, this kind of classical wilderness adventure is the least adventurous thing I could be doing.

My experience is now more heavily weighted towards a familiarity with wilderness; wilderness is creeping into my comfort zone. (Doesn’t stop me getting sucked into the mire up to my thighs, mind you.)

After two years of walking Dartmoor, I find myself heading back to Act One. Perhaps now I need to step through the looking-glass and into another world, another genre of adventure.

Anyone know any decent French philosophy?

~

Further reading

If you like reading about how adventure fits into everyday life, then I can recommend Al Humphreys’ book The Doorstep Mile.

A note on the title of this piece

It’s unfortunate that Joseph Campbell’s problematic description of ‘the hero’s journey’ has become the abiding popular reference point for story structure.

Campbell’s ‘monomyth’ is not only a hugely reductionist and wildly inaccurate piece of folk story analysis, it’s also been unhappily described as perpetuating racist, sexist, classist and despotic norms.

I like to think that the Adventurer’s Journey is not so much these things. At the very least, ‘adventurer’ is not a gendered word like ‘hero’.

However, I am conscious that artist and comic book illustrator Alice Meichi Li’s criticism of Joseph Campbell is still applicable to my description of adventure:

[It’s] the journey of someone who has privilege… In the final chapter, they may end up on equal footing. But when you have oppressed groups, all you can hope for is to get half as far by working twice as hard.

Japanese Puffer Fish Teaches Us The Wondrous Value Of Art

Watch this and wonder at the astonishing things we do to find love.

Perhaps you hope that, after the cameras stopped rolling, Mrs Right swam past, eyes popping with hearts, and found her Mr Japanese Puffer Fish.

Or perhaps you wish Mr Fish a lewd and lascivious future, swarmed by budding mates, destined for a stud’s death on his lustful seabed.

But what if Mr Fish goes hungry? What if no female swims past? What if symmetrical sand art is out of fashion with Japanese Puffer Fish?

Down be downhearted.

Wonder at the astonishing things we do to find love and wonder still further at the astonishing artworks that are inspired by love, independent of the sexual success of their creator.

Wonder too at the remarkable capability for intra-species aesthetic appreciation that has brought a loving dose of oxytocin to 475,253 humans — 475,254 including you.

It’s not every artist who can touch such an audience so deeply.

We see you, Japanese Puffer Fish.

48.3 Mature Trees

I’ve owned the Corollavirus for a year now and today the poor beast went in for its MOT. I’ve just heard news that it’s failed, quite comfortably.

In a way, I’m glad — the handbrake was starting to feel really quite dangerous and, while I have no idea what an ‘excessively worn offside front inner tie rod end’ means, it does sound important.

So that’s another £226 tucked into the greasy pockets of my local mechanic.

(Greasy because they work with engine oil a lot, not because they take bribes. Although that might have been a quicker way to get through this MOT.)

Working out the cost of owning the Corollavirus

It’s been quite easy to work out how much this vehicle has cost me over the past year. Including tax, insurance, breakdown cover, servicing, petrol and parking it comes to £3755.55.

It’s also quite easy to say how many miles I’ve driven in the past year: 5338.

Thus, it’s mere child’s play for me to tell you how much the vehicle has cost me per mile: 70 pence. If you like, we can see how that breaks down in a pretty chart:

So far, so good. But what about emissions?

Working out the Corollavirus’s carbon emissions

It’s not particularly hard to tell you how many kilograms of carbon the Corollavirus has emitted while in my possession: 1443.3.

(By the way, when I write ‘carbon’, it’s generally just lazy language for ‘carbon dioxide equivalent’. This metric encompasses not only carbon dioxide, but also methane, nitrous oxide and all other gases and aerosols. You might have seen the shorthand ‘CO2e’ kicking around. Now you know what the ‘e’ stands for: equivalent.)

I can tell you that, if I’d somehow been able to do all these journeys by public transport (I couldn’t have, but that’s a separate complaint I have for the Department For Transport), then I’d have used 1061.8kg less carbon.

(Incidentally, I bought the Corollavirus so that I could do my work as an outdoor instructor so I can tell you that 55 percent of those miles and therefore 55 percent of those emissions are work-related. That’s using a stringent measure of ‘work-related’, but it’s still far lower than I’d hoped.)

I can even tell you that, according to very ballpark figures, my 1061.8kg transport carbon debt (let’s call it) would be hypothetically dealt with by a mature hypothetical tree in a grand total of 48.3 years.

In other words: if I’d planted a tree a decade before I was born, and it’d survived until today in good health, then the Corollavirus would’ve wiped out that tree’s carbon credit in less than 12 months.

If I want to keep up with my car ownership on an annual basis, then I’d need to plant a fresh copse of 48.3 trees every spring and the rest of my years nurturing them into maturity.

I can tell you all these things about the cost of my carbon emissions thanks to a combination of basic accounting and a couple of easy web searches.

What is incredibly difficult to tell you is the unembedded cost of my 1061.8kg vehicular carbon debt compared to public transport.

That’s where the statistical labyrinth begins.

Wait — unembedded?

When we buy and use a Thing, many aspects of that Thing can be said to be ‘embedded’ in the cost of buying or using that Thing.

Incredibly relevant example: when I pay Esso for the petrol I put into my car, a lot of things are embedded, included or accounted for in that price:

  • The cost of pumping crude oil out of the ground
  • The cost of refining the crude oil into fuel
  • The cost of the pipelines and trucks that transport this fuel from across the world to the petrol pump down the road
  • The cost of running the petrol station
  • Etcetera, etcetera, kai ta hetera, and so forth

You’ll observe that one notable thing is missing from that list:

THE COST TO FUTURE GENERATIONS OF THE UNTOLD DAMAGE DONE TO THE ENVIRONMENT BY DRILLING INTO THE EARTH’S CRUST AND SETTING FIRE TO THE BLACK MAGIC JOO-JOO THAT SPURTS OUT FROM THEREIN.

Which is a shame.

Come on then — what are the unembedded costs of driving The Corollavirus?

Good question. This is precisely what I thought would be one simple web search away.

Surely someone on the Internet had one day wondered precisely how much their tank of unleaded was costing the earth? Apparently not.

Luckily for us, it is something that the government has calculated. It just seems that no one’s bothered to figure out, even roughly, what that means for drivers.

As you may have heard, back in 2019, the UK legally committed to having net zero greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2050.

For that to happen, all areas of our economy must take full account of the environmental impact that their activities have on society.

That means digging down into those sneaky unembedded costs.

WARNING: I am not remotely interested in the current value of carbon credits. That data is very easy to find: one tonne of CO2e is currently worth €89 on the European Carbon Credit Market.

Carbon credits are a financial instrument that allows businesses, industries and entire countries to transfer their emissions onto the ledger of another business, industry or country. Naturally, climate change doesn’t give a shit.

We need to go far beyond market economics.

So, in September last year, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy published a spectacular policy paper called Valuation of greenhouse gas emissions: for policy appraisal and evaluation.

(By the way, the Climate Action Tracker rates the UK as having one of the most effective net zero policies in the world. Even so, that policy is still ranked as only ‘almost sufficient’ to limit global heating to 1.5C. Must do better.)

It’s rare that I get emotional about government policy, but this paragraph had me screaming in delight (emphasis is mine):

Carbon values are used in the framework of broader cost-benefit analysis to assess whether, taking into account all relevant costs and benefits (including impacts on climate change and the environment), a particular policy may be expected to improve or reduce the overall welfare of society.

YES.

Of course, it’s an entirely separate matter whether or not this policy actually gets implemented effectively.

But let’s not let that hold us back because, buried deep down in Annex 1, is a little chart called Carbon values in £2020 prices per tonne of CO2, which gives the expected unembedded costs of our emissions to a future carbon neutral society.

You’ll see that, as we move closer to our 2050 target, the social costs of using carbon increases. A tonne of carbon today is already valued at £4-12 more than it was in 2020.

This reflects the fact that the more we do now to reduce our carbon emissions, the less of a problem we’ll have to deal with later.

As Future Crunch put it so well: saving the world is cheaper than ruining it.

You’ll also see is that there are three different price ‘series’. These take into account different levels of optimism in the underlying assumptions on the ‘future evolution of socioeconomic factors’ such as population and GDP.

For my own estimates, I’ve used the least optimistic assumptions and gone for the ‘high series’ because, quite frankly, if the past sixty years have taught us one thing, it’s that it’s better to err on the side of pessimism when it comes to climate action.

So there we have it!

In 2022, the cost to UK society of one tonne of carbon equivalent emissions is £373.

You’ll notice that this is five times the current ‘value’ of carbon on the European Carbon Credit Market. That’s why carbon credits are bollocks.

Now all I have to do is work out what all this means for The Corollavirus.

Drum roll ple…

Stop right there!

Before we go any further, it’s worth reiterating that there is no way, no way at all, to make up for the greenhouse gases that we emit.

In that sense, our carbon emissions are unquantifiably priceless.

This is where we stop to ponder our fragile existence and long for a society that already valued, say, public transport over private vehicle ownership.

It’s up to us to build that society and I think we car owners can join in by looking at the environmental cost of our driving in a more clear-sighted way.

For example, driving is often, lamentably, cheaper than taking the train. That will remain the case until our government acts to tilt the economic condition back in favour of public transport.

(And it is kinda on their radar, as shown by the recent re-opening of the Okehampton line into the heart of Dartmoor. But I think we can do more.)

But what if drivers took into account the hidden environmental cost of their journeys? Might knowing the exact monetary cost to future generations (or just their senile future selves) of their joyriding tip their economic calculations in favour of taking the train next time?

Maybe, maybe not. Quantifying these costs doesn’t mean that I beat myself up about driving — life is hard and we do what we can. But it does mean that I at least understand what I’m doing to the world when I put my pedal to the metal.#

Anyway. Where were we? Oh yes —

Drum roll please…!

At 168g CO2e per kilometre, driving one mile in my car has an implied environmental cost to society of ten pence.

Let’s update that pretty chart, shall we?

When I’m 68…

I started this whole rigmarole because I wanted to take responsibility for the additional unembedded environmental costs that came about as a result of buying a car.

And, thanks to the policy wonks at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, I can now put a precise value, in pounds and pence, on what I’ll call my Unembedded Environmental Costs Premium — UEC Premium for short.

For all my driving miles over the past year, all those ten pences add up to £527.55.

Rather neatly, my UEC Premium last year comes to about the same price as my car insurance, tax and breakdown cover combined.

So maybe I could think of the UEC Premium as a sort of insurance, tax and breakdown cover for the environment.

That might be going a bit far, but the point is that this isn’t an abstract number.

This is an estimate of the out-there-in-the-world environmental costs that no one is currently budgeting for in the price of driving.

This is damage caused by burning fossil fuels that will need to be paid for, by someone — a living, breathing human being like me — at some point in the future.

I’m choosing to at least acknowledge these unaccounted costs and use that UEC Premium in a way that might go some way to repairing the damage caused.

I think it’s important to do this, because, like bank loan interest, environmental damage compounds. That’s why the policy paper shows a tonne of CO2e as being cheaper to deal with today than in 2050.

The more we do now, the less ‘interest’ we’ll have to pay on our emissions later.

In this case, the past year of me driving the Corollavirus has cost society an unaccounted £527.55. A year of driving such a vehicle in 2050 will cost society an unaccounted £816.48 (assuming zero inflation).

At this point, you may be thinking that the UEC Premium is surprisingly affordable and that you’d happily pay an extra few hundred pounds to make climate change go away and stop bothering you.

Sadly, it doesn’t quite work like that. There is, again, no way, no way at all, to make up for the greenhouse gases that we emit. Once they’re up in the atmosphere, greenhouse gases can continue to affect the climate for millennia.

But I think there is value in recognising that a few hundred pounds, for many people, myself included, is an unembedded cost that we can afford to contribute to the fight for our futures.

The question is: what to do with that UEC Premium?

As you can probably guess, I’m not going to buy any carbon credits. Perhaps more surprisingly, I’m also not going to invest in any carbon offsetting programmes, like tree-planting.

I won’t go into why carbon offsetting programmes tend to be problematic, but I rather like the way it’s been put by the Guerilla Foundation:

Carbon-offsetting does seem to be a ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ card for polluters to keep polluting while greenwashing their hands.

Instead, I’m going to follow their lead by giving to:

activist groups such as Stay Grounded or Yes to Life, No to Mining, that are trying to radically revision and restructure major carbon emitters, while trying to limit [my] own pollution to the barest minimum.

~

In 2050, I’m going to be 68 years old.

I’m excited to celebrate my sixty-eighth birthday in a just — and net zero — society.

Let’s do it.

The Beatles: Not As Good As Dylan

I know how enthralled you all were by my breakdown of every single Dylan album (see 88 Percent Perfection), so it was only a matter of time before I inflicted the same analysis on The Beatles.

I went through every single Beatles song on every single canonical Beatles album (except Yellow Submarine because: huh?) and ranked them according to the same vigorous scale:

  1. SKIPPER. I’d skip this song more times than not. Actively unpleasant.
  2. FILLER. I’d probably leave this song on, but might skip. Unmoved either way.
  3. BOPPER. This song would get me moving pleasantly and possibly singing along.
  4. BANGER. I’d be singing by now. A thoroughly enjoyable experience (the song, not my singing).
  5. KILLER. My life would not be the same without this song. I’d stop what I’m doing to listen and probably rewind when it gets to the end.

I won’t agonise over the details and let this chart speak for itself:

Dylan = Red (N=35 – four exclusions shown as 0), The Beatles = Blue (N=12)

Before you weigh in with invective, it’s worth remembering that over 60% POP is, as I said in my original piece, ‘a sublime album’.

Once they got their cover album training wheels off, The Beatles delivered six sublime albums, including one that almost rivals Dylan’s mid-sixties output.

Of course, no metric can fairly judge something as subjective as a song — our experiences are so fluid in our own minds, not to mention in other people’s. Already my Dylan chart has changed. I expect my Beatles chart to change with almost every listen.

But there are a few surprises in the data: I have long held as a truth self-evident that The White Album is my favourite Beatles album.

That’s as may be, but according to the POP chart it is surpassed in perfection by Revolver, Abbey Road, Let It Be and, top of the rankings, Rubber Soul.

Although it contains almost a quarter of my favourite Beatles songs of all time, The White Album’s rating is stuffed by a surfeit of tracks all too easily skipped.

Naming no names, but ‘Dear Prudence’ (mainly composed by Lennon), ‘Wild Honey Pie’ (McCartney), ‘Piggies’ (Harrison), ‘Don’t Pass Me By’ (Starr), ‘Revolution 9’ (Lennon), ‘Glass Onion’ (Lennon), ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’ (McCartney), ‘Long, Long, Long’ (Harrison) and ‘Good Night’ (Lennon) could have been saved for a Bootleg Series-style retrospective.

But even if The Beatles had shown a little more, er, prudence in the cutting room, The White Album would still only have ranked fourth in a combined Dylan-Beatles album chart.

I suppose that’s why Dylan was awarded a Nobel prize for his songwriting and all Paul McCartney got was a red ribbon with a threaded golden border and the letters CH after his name.

(What about the others? Annoyed with Britain’s support of the Vietnam War and ‘Cold Turkey slipping down the charts’, John Lennon returned his MBE in 1969; George Harrison, hoping for a knighthood, refused an OBE in 2000; Ringo Starr, in 1989, accepted an Emmy for his role as The Fat Controller in Thomas The Tank Engine.)

Is the answer to this question ‘no’? Yes

Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller is a novel famous for its paradoxes. It’s so iconic that the book’s title has become the technical term for a specific type of paradoxical situation in which we’re trapped by the circular logic of rules and regulations.

Catch-22 was inspired by the inexorable bureaucratic logic of war, where war itself is a paradox.

We don’t need long memories to remember preemptive or, even more absurdly, preventive war: wars fought to prevent wars. The US and UK justification of their invasion of Iraq in 2003 springs to mind.

But how can war prevent war?

The paradox deepens, of course. Less than three months into World War One, HG Wells published a book describing that conflict as The War That Will End War:

[It] is a grim satisfaction in our discomforts that we can at last look across the roar and torment of battlefields to the possibility of an organised peace. For this is now a war for peace.

Every soldier who fights against Germany now is a crusader against war. This, the greatest of all wars, is not just another war — it is the last war!

But how can a war end war? How can nations wage war for peace?

History tells that the peace won by Wells’ paradoxical war lasted barely twenty years. Among the ruins of the World War Two, another author stretched the paradox.

After George Orwell’s Nineteen Eight-Four, wars are no longer fought for peace. Now, according to the doublethink doctrine, ‘war is peace’. Perpetual conflict abroad is the easiest way for a government disinterested in social progress to foster a distracted sense that all is well at home.

The paradoxical logic of the military-industrial complex

It’s no coincidence that both ‘catch-22’ and ‘doublethink’ have entered the modern lexicon.

We are, all of us, too familiar with the inexorable bureaucratic logic of the military-industrial complex that has become an invisible motor running in the background of our societies.

That motor may be invisible to many of us today, but in 1961 — the year Catch-22 was published — it was evident as a growing threat to liberty and democratic process.

Those are not my words, but the words of President Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during World War Two and one of the prime architects of D-Day:

[We] must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military–industrial complex. … We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals so that security and liberty may prosper together.

War is peace. Security is liberty. Paradox is logic.

Living inside the paradox

For anyone who doubts the modern relevance of these military-industrial paradoxes, ponder for a moment which side of the paradox you’re living through.

The war or the peace? The security or the liberty? The paradox or the logic?

Are you the crazy Orr, blythly flying deadly missions when you could be grounded? Or are you the sane Yossarian, flying deadly missions in terror that ‘they’re trying to kill you’.

Maybe you can’t feel the edges of the paradox because your reality persists entirely on the side of the happy-go-lucky.

It’s probably easiest to illustrate with an example. You’ll have your favourites, but here’s one that’s often on my mind.

Consider the paradox of the asylum seeker.

Paradox I

On one side of the paradox, refugees arriving in the UK after fleeing conflict or persecution will, in the grandiose name of Great British justice, be granted asylum.

On the other side of the paradox, the new Nationality and Borders Bill will ensure no legal ways for would-be refugees to arrive in the UK. And those arriving under the new ‘illegal’ definition will be deported.

It’ll be the most efficient asylum system in the world: a perfectly empty paradoxical asylum system, where the whole category of ‘refugee’ is frozen out by the inexorable logic of Catch-22.

War is peace. Security is liberty. Paradox is logic.

Of course, no system can be perfectly perfect. But our paradoxical asylum system solves that problem with a second paradox.

Paradox II

On one side of this paradox, the UK extends a ‘warm welcome’ to refugees, especially highly qualified refugees from countries where our military action has created a national crisis.

Yet, on the other side of the paradox, any unemployed adult is a drain on our national resources and unemployed foreign nationals should be expelled. In the UK, asylum seekers are not allowed to work.

Asylum seekers should be welcomed and immediately expelled.

War is peace. Security is liberty. Paradox is logic.

We are the catch

Of course, the kicker is that, in Heller’s novel, Yossarian comes to realise that the regulatory trap of Catch-22 is a trap of our own imagination:

Yossarian strode away, cursing Catch-22 vehemently even though he knew there was no such thing. Catch-22 did not exist, he was positive of that, but it made no difference. What did matter was that everyone thought it existed, and that was much worse, for there was no object or text to ridicule or refute, to accuse, criticize, attack, amend, hate, revile, spit at, rip to shreds, trample upon, or burn up.

The paradoxes of seeking asylum are not entirely traps of imagination. Unlike Yossarian, we do have a text we must ridicule, refute, accuse, criticise, attack, amend, hate, revile, spit at, rip to shreds, trample upon and / or burn up.

The Nationality and Borders Bill is still being debated by the Lords. If you are a Lord, please choose at least three of Yossarian’s verbs and apply them most vigorously to the infamous text before you.

But, even if you are not a Lord, we are all responsible for the collective imagery of the multiple Catch-22s that appear in stories like ‘some humans are illegal’, ‘the unemployed are a drain on our national resources’ and in any number of doublethink bureaucratic snares whose teeth are invisible to those of us lucky enough to exist entirely in the land of the happy-go-lucky.

I don’t have any big and clever ways out of the paradox. Except to remember that human affairs are perhaps best described by Shakespeare’s Romeo, using, of course, paradox:

Here’s much to do with hate but more with love.

Where you go from here is up to you. Are you crazy enough to be grounded? Are you sane enough to keep flying? Is the answer to this question ‘no’?

Word Of The Week: Rhabdomancy

Rhabdomancy is the use of a rod (rhabdo-) for the purpose of divination (-mancy), specifically the technique of using a dowsing rod to find underground sources of water or minerals.

Needless to say, rhabdomancy is about as effective as haruspicy, the least vegan of all the ancient divination practices.

I stumbled across rhabdomancy by complete chance while browsing the splendid interactive lexicon, Visuwords.

By complete chance, really? Or was I guided by a higher power?

100 Days of Adventure 2022

The end-of-year rush to reach 100 adventures has passed — I actually ended up with 102 due to an accounting error and a wonderful New Year’s Eve hike through Dartmoor.

And so here we are again, back at zero. Or one, thanks to a wonderful New Year’s Day hike through Dartmoor. Start as you mean to go on.

This is the double stone row at Hurston Ridge. It was constructed thousands of years ago in the midst of a dense forest of alder, oak and hazel, most likely as a form of crowd control for Neolithic hunters waiting to have their crack at The Beast Of Dartmoor.

Sometime between lunch and afternoon tea on New Year’s Day, my companions and I processed solemnly down the stone row. It was a powerful moment that symbolised the transition from old year to new and from dry feet to soggy.

I love New Year for the same reason I love Mondays, birthdays, anniversaries, solstices, equinoxes, new moons, full moons, Kalends, Nones and Ides.

I relish the opportunity to exploit the psychological power of an arbitrary date on which I can wipe clean the soiled and besmirched slate of my own personal biography and, indeed, fate.

At these slate-polishing moments, I can afford myself the time to look back over the past year / week / month / moon / ancient festival season and decide that everything from this day forth shall be different (or the same, depending).

As the business management psychologists like to say, I use ‘salient temporal landmarks’ to create ‘new mental accounting periods’, which ‘relegate past imperfections to a previous period, induce [me] to take a big-picture view of [my] lives, and thus motivate aspirational behaviours’.

Yes, I have multiple lives. (At least that’s how it feels at the moment.)

That is why, after a short period of reflection (I think I was waiting for some soup at The Old School tearoom in Belstone), I arrived at the decision to reprise my 100 Days of Adventure adventure for 2022.

Why? Because I know from experience that adventures in the G.O.D.* make me a healthier and happier human being and I also know from experience that, unless I hold myself to account by counting them, one by one, I will adventure less and subsequently feel less healthy and less happy.

It’s simple. So simple, in fact, that I’m surprised that few people count the really REALLY important things in their lives.

Lots of people count their money, many people count their steps, but I haven’t met anyone else who, say, counts the number of friends they see every day — and what could be more important than that?

Whether it’s adventures, friends or enthusiasm that you want to maximise in 2022, I’d gently encourage you to add one little extra flower to the bouquet of your New Year’s Resolution: a simple, irrefutable way of tracking your serene progress.

Oh, and ideally a means of holding yourself to public account, such as by writing an unbroken chain of 302 weekly newsletters…

Welcome to 2022, people — it’s going to be a blast!

~

*Great Out Doors. Despite the fact that it doesn’t really work, I’ve been eccessively delighted with this acronym ever since I discovered it back in 2018. Please share widely. I’ll figure out a way to monetise it later.

52 Things I Learned In 2021

And welcome to the final hours of 2021. Behind us lie 8,744 of those tidy little parcels, sixty minutes each. Sixteen more rush toward you on the railway tracks of time.

You’ll probably want to spend those sixteen hours in revelry or reflection, but if you find yourself with a few spare minutes, then here’s a fly-by of a year’s worth of creativity and curiosity.

AKA what I’ve learned thanks to this newsletter.

  1. I can do a thing, consistently, for a whole year. Yes: 100 Days Of Adventure is complete. Bring on DOA 2022.
  2. It takes about 55 hours to write my half of one episode of a radio sitcom. Creative writing is impossible to judge objectively. But knowing roughly how long a sitcom episode takes to write tells me that there is a reliable process behind the evanescent, ineffable clouds of creativity.
  3. How to make bread. Easily.
  4. My beloved Marin bike lasted about 18,000 miles and cost me about 18 pence per mile.
  5. We are an indoor species, spending 90-95 percent of our living hours in boxes, either static or mobile. There’s a statistic worth raging against!
  6. Drawing leaves is a lovely way to spend an hour. And might make my brain healthier too.
  7. Veganism hasn’t killed me. Or given me diabetes, gout or low testosterone.
  8. How to skateboard. Possibly the most rewarding thing I’ve learned this year. Never too old!
  9. You get paid more for doing ethically dubious jobs.
  10. Sending thank you emails to my favourite authors is surprisingly rewarding.
  11. Since I bought The Corollavirus back in March, I’ve driven 4883 miles. This has cost me about £777 in petrol, racking up a carbon debt of about 968kg CO2e compared to similar journeys on public transport. It’d take 44 mature trees a year to absorb these new emissions. That’s a whole copse worth.

    In monetary terms, I’ve worked out that the unembedded carbon cost of my 4883 driving miles is £480. More to come on this calculation in a future email — along with where I’m going to invest that money for maximal positive environmental impact.


  12. Right from the very beginning, the people who invented email knew that it was highly unproductive. Mind blown. Credit to Cal Newport’s A World Without Email.
  13. Bitcoin currently uses more electricity than the entire countries of Austria and Greece combined. Since the most recent surge in market price, which began in November 2020, the energy demands of the Bitcoin network have doubled…
  14. But cryptocurrencies could still be a force for good, by helping to change wealth distribution, reverse inequalities and counter ecological degradation.
  15. 92 percent of our countryside is ‘private property’. We need the law to change. Until then, we need to trespass.
  16. 90 percent of women have been victims of sexual harassment while travelling on public transport. That was according to a French survey, but nothing I’ve heard suggests the number is any lower in the UK. Credit Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez.
  17. How to light a campfire using a flint and steel. Also: how to click ‘buy’ on a stormproof gas-powered lighter. There’s no prizes for going hungry.
  18. Heifers are terrifying in the springtime and tearooms are always unexpected.
  19. ‘Inoculating’ degraded soil with the ‘soil microbiome’ of a healthy landscape can accelerate recovery and increase carbon sequestration.
  20. Even a massive ‘wartime’ level of investment in carbon-removing technologies will not stop global heating at 2 degrees.

    Even if negative emission technologies are a huge success, we must still make far-reaching changes to our societies and our economies. And, of course, there is no guarantee that negative emissions technologies will be a huge success.


  21. There was a man called Buys Ballot. He taught me something or other about atmospheric pressure. Turns out that interpreting synoptic charts is hard to internalise.
  22. Every spring, thousands of ermine moths swaddle the poor bird cherry tree in a terrifying web of silk.
  23. George Orwell’s 1984 opens with a graphic description of a helicopter gunning down a raft of refugees floating somewhere out in the Mediterranean. The passage chimes loudly today.
  24. 108 ancient woods are being damaged or felled to make way for the HS2 railway line. There is no way to replace or replant a 400-year old oak.
  25. Over the past three decades, Bob Dylan has played 3,064 shows — about 100 per year. For comparison, between 2014 and 2019, modern chart-toppers Arctic Monkeys played about 50 shows a year. About half the work rate of an eighty-year-old.
  26. Aero bars are a PHENOMENAL bit of kit for the touring cyclist. I don’t know how I survived without them for so long. If you intend on cycling a long way next year, I can highly recommend getting a proper bike fitting.
  27. In practice, there are no legal routes for claiming asylum the UK.

    If it passes without amendment, our government’s new Nationality and Borders Bill will put UK law in direct opposition to the 1951 Geneva Convention by criminalising people who arrive on these shores without a visa — even when they have a legitimate claim for asylum under international law.


  28. Cycle touring is a storyful way to see the world, making sense of the scenes briefly illuminated in our lamplight as we pass.
  29. Liverpool is the world’s eleventh least stressful city.
  30. Breaking a world record is a LOT of admin.
  31. The Mayor of Glastonbury is an absolute baller.
  32. Wiltshire is the most generous county in southern England. FACT. (Probably…)
  33. Tiramisú is perhaps the least appropriate cycling snack for a vegan who likes to avoid sugar and doesn’t drink coffee. Works a charm, though.
  34. After a month talking politics with strangers, I learned that The Daily Mail and the Conservative Party do NOT represent the views of the people of Britain. Far from it.
  35. There are six ‘solidarity archetypes’: The Capitalist, The Idealist, The Gregarious, The Paranoid, The Wealthy, The Compassionate — which are you?
  36. Feeling your support van’s clutch snap is not a great start to a day on a world record breaking cycle tour. But sometimes Turkish Delight falls from the sky and sometimes miracles do happen.
  37. In Barcelona, you can swap your car for a free annual public transport pass. Tempting.
  38. Once you’ve got your eye in, psilocybe mushrooms are almost impossible to miss in the autumnal damp of the Welsh Valleys.
  39. An acute scarcity of time, money or love can mean a ten point penalty to your IQ. It’s not that you’re stupid, it’s that you’re stressed.
  40. Lamb from New Zealand has a quarter of the carbon footprint of Welsh lamb, despite travelling 17,840km around the world to our shop shelves. But you’re still better off eating coconuts.
  41. How to identify and presever the heather among the gorse.
  42. The proportion of citizens who say that having people from many different ethnic and religious backgrounds makes the UK a better place to live has increased since Brexit from 75 to 85 percent. Thank fuck.
  43. Sternutation is science-speak for a sneeze, a bodily reflex that I performed 127 times on a chilly day in November. That’s more than most people will ever do in a whole month. Proud.
  44. Blood On The Tracks is 88 percent perfect and my appreciation for the music of Bob Dylan can be quantified.

    Dylan’s finest albums by decade: Bringing It All Back Home (1965, 84% perfect), Blood On The Tracks (1975, 88%), Oh Mercy (1989, 63%), Time Out of Mind (1997, 56%), Modern Times (2006, 50%), Tempest (2012, 40%), Rough and Rowdy Ways (2020, 30%).


  45. Homemade vegan chocolate hobnobs are divine.
  46. Our right to wild camp on Dartmoor is being constrained: no hammocks, no family tents, no groups of more than six, plus an 8 percent reduction in the permitted camping area, including some of the most accessible land.
  47. Winter is the best time to go adventuring in Britain, for the wonders of solitude, star-gazing and silence.
  48. Twenty-four hours in the day is merely a convenient average; the actual time between solar noons fluctuates throughout the year. This is why the latest sunset of the year arrives ten days before the shortest day.
  49. Using nothing but the eyes that evolution gave you, you might see anywhere up to 4,548 stars in the night sky — although that number will depend greatly on the amount of light pollution in your vicinity.
  50. I’ve now read 46 books this year. Here are seven of the best.
  51. Writing a diary keeps me sane. I’ve written in excess of 223,000 words in my journal this year.

    I use the wonderful novel-writing software yWriter to store my diaries and, since 2010, I’ve amassed more than 2.7 million words for future historians to sift through in bewilderment.


  52. Above all, I’ve learned (again and again) that the discipline, creativity and curiosity of sharing this newsletter with you is not only good for my heart and soul, but that so many of you generous humans love it too!

THANK YOU

Thank you for sharing some of those 8,744 hours with me. Thank you for hitting reply or posting a comment and telling me what moves you. Thank you for sharing these words with your friends and for helping this newsletter grow.

Most of all, thank you for helping everyone through a year of resilience and adventure.

I look forward to seeing what becomes of 2022 and I hope you’ll join me there.

Hungry for more?

How to navigate… in fog… at night

Your sense of adventure can be sharpened, in order of descending visibility, by haze, mist and — as I enjoyed on Sunday night in the Purbecks — fog.

As the waves of the English Channel hurled themselves onto the white cliffs below, clouds of water vapour condensed around the flecks of salt in the cold air.

I was navigating towards the obelisk of Ballard Down. To give you some idea of visibility, here’s what that imposing monument looked like at ten paces:

The Obelisk: a 19th century souvenir taken from a church near Bank, London

Definitely a night to practice my navigational instincts.

  • Use all your senses, starting with your common sense. Foot feel is your most reliable feedback system in fog. Sound, smell and sight are also useful and sometimes combine to make an inexplicable sixth sense: if you get a funny feeling that you might be going wrong, pay attention.
  • Fog is low-lying cloud, so if you need to use a torch (generally you don’t if your night vision is switched on), then hold it at hip height or lower, otherwise it’ll just reflect water vapour back in your face.
  • Contour lines are your best friend: you can feel them through your feet and if you’re walking up a steep hill or along a ridge you can often see a change in shadow below the line of the fog.
  • If you really can’t detect anything, not even a contour, lie down on the ground and see if the view is any better from there. If you’re worried about cliff edges, a crawl is safer than a walk.
  • Expect a discombobulating sense of vertigo if you stare into the fog for too long: keep your eyes moving and check in with solid ground every now and again.

A Sense of Adventure Psychologists at the University of Bhunkum have found that adding the words ‘at night’ or ‘by moonlight’ to any activity increases its AQ (Adventure Quotient) by an incredible 308 percent.

Leaving the car at the Picket Plain viewpoint, I stumbled quickly through heath and gorse and mud, using the light of the moon to see the pathshine and feeling my way over the contours.

I worked my way over the valleys and into the woods, the fractals of the trees in their winter coats standing brilliantly against the sky.

As the year scribbles its way to a close, and penned in by the invisible boundaries of good health, I’ve spent the last week sketching out adventure close to home.

I’m often asked what kind of experience counts towards my 100 Days of Adventure challenge. The answer isn’t very satisfying: you know an adventure when you have one. You can’t always predict it; it’s something you feel.

That’s why we call it having ‘a sense of adventure’.

Darkness definitely eases back the threshold of adventure. Indeed, psychologists at the University of Bhunkum have found that adding the words ‘at night’ or ‘by moonlight’ to any activity increases its AQ (Adventure Quotient) by an incredible 308 percent.

  • Getting lost in the woods: annoying
  • Getting lost in the woods at night: adventure
  • Climbing a tree: fun
  • Climbing a tree by moonlight: adventure

See? This is why wintertime is the best time for adventures: darkness falls in late afternoon, leaving ample time for adventure before cocoa and bed.

This reframing turns our usual seasonal preferences on their head: the long summer evenings are a barrier to adventure, not an opportunity. Winter is where we get our kicks, sunset marking time to shut the laptop and pull out the map.

Equal parts terror and wonder

Feeling the sublime sense of awe is pretty good for us humans: falliable scientific experiments have shown that these wow-experiences can make us happier, healthier, brainier, humbler and kindlier.

And nature is the ultimate awesome experience, equal parts terror and wonder.

That’s what I thought as I rambled through the Purbecks on a foggy Sunday night, anyway.

The Purbecks are famed for their crumbly white cliffs, dropping sheer into the rocky water from the pleasant and abrupty terminated grassy heath above.

On a clear day, it looks a lot like this:

For daredevils, there is a narrow spit of land connecting to a lonesome chalky pillar. The cliffs tumble away either side and you can look down into your doom and see it swirling in the foam below.

On a clear day, it looks a lot like this:

On a wintery night, when the sea fog has rolled in after dark, it doesn’t look anything like this at all.

All I can see, as I creep out into the void, is the ghostly white of the chalk and the angry foam of the waves.

I lie down, nothingness either side of me, wind howling above, sea raging below, and I laugh. This is why they named this place for the devil: Old Harry Rocks.

Cut off from the solid ground of the heath, I imagine a shadowy figure looming at the end of the lace thin path. Cackling with delight, I crawl back on my hands and knees.

That’s awe.

Ignore your smoke alarm and look up

Of course, awe is much more safely experienced by simply looking up on a clear night. The key word there is ‘night’. This cannot be done during the daytime. Score another point for winter’s early evenings.

(Yes, ‘clear’ was also a key word. Unless otherwise stated, assume all my words are key.)

I’m sure we’ve all stared up into a wintery sky and felt very small. Nothing turns burning the toast into the insignificant annoyance that it is faster than boggling over the number of stars in the universe.

So ignore your smoke alarm for a second and imagine: how many stars are there in the Universe? More than there are grains of sand in the world.

Having said that, more prosaically, on a night like tonight, using the eyes that evolution gave you, you might see anywhere up to 4,548 stars — although that number will depend greatly on light pollution.

Starry views from (L) Dark Sky reserve and (R) city centre. Source: Stellarium

Each one of these stars is its own solar system, each one is home (potentially) to billions of lifeforms, each one enjoying the unfathomable richness of your own earthly experience. Take that in for a second.

Now switch off your smoke alarm.

Given that it’s nighttime, the closest star you can see in the northern hemisphere is Sirius, the Dog Star, about 81 trillion kilometres away.

The furthest star that humans have ever clapped eyes upon is called Icarus, and it sits in the night sky about 5 billion light-years away from Earth. A light-year is more than 9 trillion kilometres.

Our galaxy, the Milky Way, holds about 300 billion stars and the billions of other galaxies scooting along around us mean that there are about 70 billion trillion stars in the observable universe.

Beyond that..?

Silence, Senses, Solitude

But the value of nighttime is not only the ghoulish darkness or the Mills & Boon soft celestial lighting: nighttime, especially in winter, is also a time of solitude.

I met no earthly being but horses during two evening rambles through the New Forest and the Purbecks this week. On two similar daytime adventures in the Forest and the Heath, I could hardly move for chirpy off-schoolchildren and professional dog walkers.

That solitude brings with it the gift of silence — which is itself the gift of sensory abundance, for even the most silent night is full of sound.

The stochastic comforts of matter moving through matter. The crackle of boots through leaves. The percussive snap of twigs under weight. The creak and rustle of unseen insects laying a trail.

The darkness sharpen other senses too: I smell the moss-sucking damp of the bog before my boots get wet. Movement, real or imagined, is enhanced in my peripheral vision. My skin tingles, every follicle straining for sensory input.

I followed the stars of Cassiopeia out of the woods and back up towards the A31. The mud on my jeans gave me away to the petrol station attendant.

I feel a sense of adventure.

Seven Superb Books I Read Despite 2021

I’ve read 43 books so far this year, 21 fiction and 22 non-fiction. This is a slight decline on last year, but still the second highest total since records began in 2013.

For some bone-headed reason, I always finish the fiction I start reading, but there are 4 other non-fiction titles that I started and gave up part-way through.

14 of the books I’ve read this year were by female or non-binary authors, another was by a collective of non-binary, female and male authors. 6 of these female or non-binary-written books were fiction; 8 were non-fiction.

All of the books I gave up on were written by men. Make of that what you will.

The stand-out worst book I read all year was the horribly racist and sexist Neither Here Nor There by Bill Bryson. If you were being generous, you could say that it was ‘of its time’. In the same way that slavery or the guillotine was ‘of its time’.

Moving rapidly on.

The meaningless average year of publication was 1994 — meaningless because I read zero books published in 1994. (But a stunning hattrick from 1995: Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson, High Fidelity by Nick Hornby and Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh. Wonderful.)

The mode (most frequent) year of publication was, surprisingly, 2021. I don’t think of myself as a hot-off-the-press kinda guy, but this is a symptom of my lockdown habit of buying books instead of waiting for the library to open, as well as an attachment to certain authors, including friends.

Here are the seven books I’ve read that were published this year:

Although all were highly enjoyable and/or instructive, only one of these books also appears in my list of seven absolute corkers that I read this year. Tension.

So here, finally, is that list.

The Chinese zodiac might insist that 2021 was the year of the ox, but for me it was the year of the wolf, as I devoured To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Woolf and Feral by George Monbiot.

Naturally I had to follow that pack of wolves with the splendid The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd.

Heimat by Nora Krug taught me history, A World Without Email by Cal Newport taught me technology and Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez taught me perspective.

You could do a lot worse than putting any of those seven books on your Christmas list, but, in the generous spirit of overdelivering, this year I also re-read two books that I remember enjoying decades ago, way back, before I had a beard.

I was relieved to discover that both A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S Thompson are indeed appealing and enduring works of the highest order.

Dare I re-read Catch-22 in ‘22?

Drawing Out I don’t know what’s in your 3pm choccy-biccy, but it’s probably against some sort of substance misuse company policy because, come Happy Hour down the Dog & Duck, your wage is topping £30 per hour.

And the nights are officially drawing out — we are rattling lungs-first into the long mosquito summer, people of the northern hemisphere!

Here in Bournemouth, the earliest sunset of the year passed last Sunday, at 16.02. We are already five days into the race for rebirth.

But, David, I hear you roar — what about the winter solstice, isn’t that supposed to be the shortest day in the northern hemisphere on account of the tilt of the earth on its axis?

Keep your macs zipped — it very much still is. In Bournemouth, we’ll scrape a mere 7 hours 57 minutes and 32 seconds out of next Tuesday, a full 54 seconds less in the barrel of time than today. That’s enough time to boil an egg. (And get food poisoning. five minutes, people, five minutes.)

So why, for the love of daylight, do I insist that the nights are drawing out?

Ah. Because, my dear friends, a day is not the twenty-four hours our capitalist calendars would like us to imagine. Twenty-four hours is but an average. (And not a particularly accurate average either, hence leap years.)

An average?

Yeah, I know. It’s like learning that you don’t get paid £13 for every hour you work, but rather on a pay schedule designed by Byzantine Emperor Justinian ‘the slit-nosed’:

Okay, so when you clock in, you’re on about £10 per hour, but that quickly drops to nothing until the caffeine from your first three mugs of tea have kicked in. By lunchtime, however, you’re cock of the roost at £16 per hour, before getting whacked by the dreaded afternoon slump.

I don’t know what’s in your 3pm choccy-biccy, but it’s probably against some sort of substance misuse company policy because, come Happy Hour down the Dog & Duck, your wage is topping £30 per hour.

Unlikely as it seems, this rollercoaster of a wage structure averages out to about £13 per hour and, frankly, HR works off that figure because, by this point, they need a lie down.

Anyway. That’s what days are like.

Solar days are measured as the time between the solar noon of one day and the solar noon of the next.

Because of the elliptical shape of the earth, these solar noons are pretty much never exactly twenty-four hours apart. In fact, the precise ‘time’ of solar noons fluctuates throughout the year. Right now, solar noon in Bournemouth is 11.56 — and every day it’s getting later.

That explains why, even though the amount of daylight in a day is still going down, the exact time of sunset is already drifting out, following the later solar noon.

For the first time this winter, the minutes and seconds being shaved off our daylight hours are not being taken from earlier sunsets, but only from later sunrises.

In fact, dawn lags more than two weeks behind: the latest sunrise of winter doesn’t roll around until New Year’s Eve. It’s almost as if the sun wants us to stay under the covers a little longer.

So celebrate our later sunsets, celebrate (on Tuesday) the returning of our star from the Tropic of Capricorn, and ignore the astronomers who say that winter is yet to begin…

Fire! Over the past few years, I’ve become a much more qualified arsonist.

Over the past few years, I’ve become a much more qualified arsonist.

Back in 2009, I remember footling around with a grate and some matches for about three hours, before a consummate fire-starter dragged a toothpick along an emery board for an instant conflagration.

Here are a few of the cheats I use today:

  • Cotton wool balls rubbed in Vaseline make for excellent lightweight, multi-purpose and fragrance-free starter fuel.
  • Stop using cigarette lighters and matches. Start using a torch. Not those kind of torches. These kind of torches, the ones with a steady, focussed blue flame that you might use to cremate a crème brulée. I’ve started fires with wet tinder using this. Definitely cheating.
  • Use an axe, penknife or saw to cut your fuel down to the right size for whatever stage of fire building you’re at. From bundles of finger-width twigs to hefts of wood block.
  • Make sure there is enough draft under your fuel. Oxygen is the forgotten force in the fire trinity of fuel, heat and air.
  • Don’t waste your breath on breathing life into your baby fire. Fan the flickers by using a piece of card, a scrap of bark, a book or even a t-shirt. You’ll get a much steadier draft and won’t pass out from smoke inhalation.

The solitude of stars Because the stars are slowly parading through our night sky, Draco’s head will once again shine forth as our pole star in about 21,000AD. Assuming we make it that far as a species.

One of the consolations of winter is the growing role of the moon and stars in our lives. Last night, I watched the moon rising in a fine crescent over the sea, backing into the inky gap between Jupiter and Saturn.

Together with Venus, these are the easiest planets to spot at the moment because, at dusk, they form a nice easterly curve up from the horizon in the southwest.

As the night deepens, you’ll be able to pick up the constellations ever present in the northern night sky: the two Bears, Cassiopeia, Cepheus and Draco the serpent or dragon.

The first three are important to the nightwalker: the constellation of Little Bear holds the North Star and, when you know how to read them, both Cassiopeia and Big Bear point the way north.

Fascinatingly, the head star of Draco was the pole star for the ancient Egyptians, who constructed their pyramids so that the serpent’s head should be visible from the entrance passage.

Because the stars are slowly parading through our night sky, Draco’s head will once again shine forth as our pole star in about 21,000AD. Assuming we make it that far as a species.

In winter, we get the starry show of every child’s favourite pattern of stars, Orion the hunter, who draws his deadly bow in the east.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that winter is the finest time to explore, not only the celestial firmament, but also terra firma.

The weather is nowhere near as bad as we fear and the darkness brings the twin balms of silence and solitude.

I hiked about 72km over four days while on Dartmoor and saw no more than eight other human beings the whole time — and only one group of four who were close enough to bid good day.

The only action that broke the peace were military manoeuvres: four helicopters ploughing furrows in the sky over my head for half an hour.

Hiking back up to the car park, following the North Star with Jupiter at my back and Orion by my side, I saw two headtorches bobbing in the distance. I passed an empty tent.

Thought for Food #3: Vegan Dark Chocolate Hobnobs

Hobnobs are vegan. Chocolate Hobnobs are not, thanks to the inclusion of something called ‘butter oil’ or ‘anhydrous milk fat’ in the chocolate coating.

This recipe began as your humble author melting a load of proper dark chocolate (naturally vegan) over a load of ordinary Hobnobs.

Delicious. Especially when sneezing one’s head off on Dartmoor.

However: as soon as one starts perusing lists of ingredients, one can’t help wondering whether one couldn’t do better one’s self.

Do those ordinary Hobnobs really need palm oil, sugar and partially inverted sugar syrup? I suspect not. Hence: this recipe.

Hob, nob, is his word; give’t or take’t
Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

Ingredients

Makes a baker’s dozen of large-ish vegan dark chocolate hobnobs.

  • 150g oats (small grade, not jumbo)
  • 75g flour (plain or wholemeal)
  • 80g rice syrup (about 4 tablespoons)
  • 75g vegan block
  • 1/2 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
  • 100g proper dark chocolate — I used 85%
  • Optional: pinch of ginger
  • Optional: tablespoon of coconut oil

The Biscuit Phase

Adapted from BBC Good Food

  1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (fan). Next time I’ll experiment with baking them for longer at a lower temperature — maybe even as low as 150°C.
  2. Line a large baking sheet with that brown parchment baking paper stuff.
  3. Beat the vegan block until it starts to behave. Add the rice syrup and mix well.
  4. Combine the flour, oats and bicarbonate of soda in a separate bowl.
  5. Add the dry mixture to the wet mixture a bit at a time, ensuring you mix well to incorporate all the ingredients together.
  6. Next time, I’ll wrap this dough in cling film and put it into the fridge for as long as I can bear — this recipe promises crumblier results.
  7. Roll the mixture into 13 little balls.
  8. Smoosh each ball into round biscuit shapes onto the baking sheet. Repeat until mixture is all used up.
  9. Bake in the oven (middle shelf) for 13 minutes or until golden brown. They’ll still be a bit soft, so don’t be fooled — they’re done.
  10. Allow to cool completely. 40 minutes is more than enough (I forgot about them).

The Chocolate Phase

The key here is to avoid un-tempering the chocolate — tempering is how it stays solid at room temperature. It’s not a complete disaster if you mess this phase up, you’ll just have sticky fingers during the eating phase.

The following, rather delicate, method was adapted from eHow, of all places. You might prefer to melt your chocolate with a tablespoon of coconut oil in 30 second blasts in the microwave, as per this recipe — but be careful not to overheat the concoction.

  1. Put only two-thirds of the chocolate into a glass vessal (I use a measuring jug).
  2. Put that vessal into a saucepan of water and gently heat the whole kit and kaboodle.
  3. Allow the chocolate to melt gently, without stirring, until it is nearly melted.
  4. After a gentle stir, allow the chocolate to continue melting.
  5. When the chocolate is fully melted, carefully remove the glass vessal from the saucepan and slowly stir in the remaining chocolate a few pieces at a time, stirring with each addition, until it’s all completely melted.
  6. When all of the chocolate has been incorporated, dab a small amount of the chocolate onto the inside of your wrist. If the chocolate is slightly cooler than your body temperature, it is ready to use.
  7. Add a pinch of ginger if you’re feeling that way inclined
  8. Pour the chocolate over the top of the biscuits or dip the biscuits into the chocolate — whichever makes more sense to you.
  9. Leave the biscuits to cool. In theory, if you’ve tempered the chocolate correctly, the coating will become solid at room temperature. I whacked mine in the fridge because I was desperate.
  10. Whatever you do, make sure that you either leave the biscuits on the parchment paper or you wipe the melted chocolate away from the base of the biscuits, otherwise they’ll stick to the tray and break when you attempt to scoff them into your mouth.

The Eating Phase

Compared to normal Hobnobs, these taste quite savoury, but quite delicious.

In reality, I’m not sure how ‘savoury’ these biscuits really are.

They might have nearly 30% less sugar content than a McVities, but there’s still 3.2g of sugar per biscuit from the rice syrup and another 1g or so from the dark chocolate coating.

We’re down to slightly shy of one teaspoon of sugar per biscuit!

Actually, that’s still loads, isn’t it? Enjoy!

Litigation not education on Dartmoor

Dartmoor is the only place in England where wild camping is allowed without seeking permission from the landowner.

Unfortunately, reactionary forces are trying to ban camping in many of the most popular places on Dartmoor, including around the quarries of Foggintor, where I spent my first night’s wild camping on the moor in 2020.


It’s a beautiful spot and, crucially, it’s easily accessible from the road on foot or bike.

It’s an area where many people like myself will have had their first wild camps before building the confidence and the skills needed to safely camp in the more extreme environments of the open moor.

I understand the reasons why the Dartmoor National Park Authority are trying to curtail our right to the land: humans inevitably damage the environment they travel through.

But the popularity of Dartmoor after the easing of lockdown restrictions in the summer of 2020 need not be the trigger for ranger patrols and keep out signs.

First time or inexperienced campers can be the most destructive because they simply don’t know how to behave in the outdoors yet.

So teach them.

(Did I mention that I’m an outdoor instructor?)

The Dartmoor National Park Authority has also identified a problem with ‘fly camping’ — disposible dump and run campers — as well as with hordes of revelling ravers.

These problems crop up where there is immediate road access. So is there reallly any need to change the byelaws when camping within 100 metres from a road is already banned? Not to mention the byelaws that prohibit noise disturbance.

Even so, similarly popular areas near to roads, towns and rivers have also been removed from the proposed camping map. It amounts to an 8 percent cut in the allowed camping area.

This doesn’t sound like much, but if those areas are where first time campers are most likely to be able to access, then it’s a huge barrier for people ‘not like us’.

The outcome of these proposed changes is that campers who are not white, wealthy and middle class enough will be discouraged from communing with one of our last expanses of wilderness.

How depressing.

Other proposed changes to the Dartmoor access byelaws include:

  • A clear ban on van or car-based camping, and even the occupation of a parked vehicle after 9pm. So I can’t prepare a bit of night nav or stargaze under some of the only dark skies in England?
  • A ban on tents of more than 3 people and groups larger than 6 people. So what — no families, no school groups, no Ten Tors expeditions?
  • A ban on hammocks suspended from trees. Fair enough. I’m not sure this needs to be in place for the biologically dead pine plantations, but byelaws aren’t built for nuance.
  • A ban on the gathering of fuel, as well as the lighting and tending of a fire. Camping stoves are still fine. I get it, but this is another byelaw that falls under the heading of ‘litigation, not education’.
  • A ban on mass participation activities involving more than 50 walkers or 30 cyclists.
  • A clarification and extension of the ban on paid guides and instructors. This inexplicable byelaw is ignored by almost every single school expedition, but hey.
  • A ban on the use of drones. At last! Now if they could only ban those blasted military helicopters who strafed my peaceful walk up Cocks Hill…

88 Percent Perfect

One significant highlight of the past seven days was calculating a formula that tells me exactly where each of Bob Dylan’s 39 studio albums lies in relation to the others…

The raw data for my Every Dylan Album formula comes from a personal rating, on a five point scale, of every Dylan song.

  1. SKIPPER. I’d skip this song more times than not. Actively unpleasant.
  2. FILLER. I’d probably leave this song on, but might skip. Unmoved either way.
  3. BOPPER. This song would get me moving pleasantly and possibly singing along.
  4. BANGER. I’d be singing by now. A thoroughly enjoyable experience (the song, not my singing).
  5. KILLER. My life would not be the same without this song. I’d stop what I’m doing to listen and probably rewind when it gets to the end.

WARNING: This scale can only represent my feelings about a song at a particular moment in time. It excludes one very important category: the GROWER.

One example of a Dylan grower is Make You Feel My Love, from Time Out Of Mind. It’s as slushy as you would guess from the title and, until the summer of 2011, was a firm skipper.

Then Adele’s cover of the song came on the cafe radio as I sat waiting for breakfast, utterly exhausted from one of my first bivvies, a long way from home with a long road ahead of me, a couple of weeks after a painful break up. The tears rolled into my sausage and beans. Now it’s an easy banger.

The Secret Formula

I’m tempted to tell you that the Colonel’s formula is top secret, but it’s the first time I’ve ever used the LARGE function (proud!) so here it is in full:

=SUMPRODUCT(LARGE(($'All Songs'.D$2:$'All Songs'.D$1000=B2)*($'All Songs'.H$2:$'All Songs'.H$1000),{1,2,3,4,5}))

This formula, as I’m sure you’ve all effortlessly deduced, returns the total score of the five highest rated songs from any particular album.

This is then multiplied by the average song score for the whole album and converted into what I call the ‘Percentage Of Perfection’ — or POP.

See what I did there.

The POP Scale

On the POP scale, Bob’s albums range from a zenith of 88% to a nadir of 11%, with an average of 43%.

That might sound quite low, but remember the five point scale. An album of mostly twos and threes — a not unpleasant, if unmemorable, experience — would score 30%.

A POP score of 43% could be an album that’s got one killer track, a couple of bangers, a couple of boppers and the rest filler. That’s a decent album in my book.

I’ve not got as much raw data on any other artist (and I don’t have time to go through all thirteen Beatles studio albums), but let’s use Arctic Monkeys as a reference:

(Side note: these are four of the six albums that Arctic Monkeys released in their first twelve years of operation. By that time, Dylan had released thirteen. Just saying.)

In short, over 60% POP is a sublime album — and Dylan’s done seven of them, as you can see from this chart:


Note: I haven’t scored Columbia’s 1973 rogue outtake album, nor the trilogy of songbook albums Dylan released between 2015 and 2017 because a) I haven’t got them and b) I’ve heard they’re not worth the entry fee.

Scraping The Barrel

You can all guess the highest scoring albums; the real fun is found scraping the barrel at the bottom of the scale.

No surprises to see the universally panned Knocked Out Loaded and Saved down there, but as bad as these (or worse) was an album described by Rolling Stone as ‘a stunning recovery of the lyric and melodic powers that seemed to have all but deserted him’.

Nope. Not in my world. Infidels (1983) is shite. Yes: even Jokerman. I don’t get it.

Instead of leaving you on a downer, I’ll leave you with three pearls cast into the swineyard of three otherwise scarcely redeemable Dylan albums:

On Sneezing What can you do a hundred times a day at a thousand kilometres per hour?

There’s a folkloric myth that does the rounds at this time of year and I’m going to start this article by busting it.

Humans do not lose an inordinate amount of heat through our heads.

The amount of heat lost through your face and scalp is entirely proportionate to the size of your head.

The idea that we lose 40-45% of heat through the head is a myth, based on a dodgy military experiment in the 1950s.

Your face and head are more sensitive to changes in temperature than, say, your shins, but this doesn’t translate to more rapid cooling from an un-hatted bonce.

However: if the rest of your body is well-insulated with woolly jumpers and thermals, then — yes! — the absence of a similarly-insulated noggin will result in a surprisingly rapid drop in your core temperature. But, I repeat, this is only if the rest of you is wrapped up warm.

Rapid cooling through the head might happen for two reasons:

  1. A cold head alone doesn’t trigger the shiver reflex (which slows the rate of cooling). Strange, but true.
  2. There are a lot of blood vessels very close to the surface of your scalp and face. When exposed to cold air, the blood passing through your scalp cools quickly and this cold blood gets pumped around the rest of your body. Brr.

In fact, it seems that the primary role of networks of blood vessels close to the surface of the skin is for dumping heat (AKA thermoregulation). In humans, these ‘radiators’ are not just on our face, but also on our feet and, most prominently, our hands.

Conclusion: keep the hat, but don’t neglect the rest of your winter wardrobe — particularly not winter socks and mittens.

Strenuous sternutation

November is the official snuggle-up-warm time of year because a mere twenty minutes of cold exposure can more than double your chances of getting an actual cold.

Even when I don’t have a cold, I sneeze a lot. It seems to happen as a reflex response to getting a bit chilly, particularly my feet. And then, sometimes, the sneezing doesn’t stop.

As I spent the week on Dartmoor, I, and particularly my feet, got cold. During the course of a beautiful four and half hour walk on Thursday, I sneezed a grand total of eighty times.

There would appear to be two possible explanations for my heroic record of sternutation (you didn’t think that medicine would call a sneeze a sneeze, did you?):

  1. The trigeminal nerve in my nose is hyper-sensitive to stimulation (in this case, fluctuations in temperature).
  2. The sneezing centre in my brain’s lateral medulla has a low threshold for triggering explosive exhalations.

I could perhaps moderate the first using a steroid nasal spray. The second might have developed as a result of a work-shy allergy to dust and might be influenceable by some kind of Jedi mind trick?

Frankly, I’m speculating / making things up. Let’s get back to the science.

Counting one’s bless-you-ings

I’m a huge fan of The Boring Talks and, as a sneezer, the most memorable for me is #11: Sneezing.

It’s narrated by Peter Fletcher, a man who logged every single sneeze he ever snozed between July 2007 and June 2018.

To take my mind off my explosive sternutations, I decided to give Sneezing another listen.

I was shocked to discover that I sneezed more times on Thursday than sneeze-meister-general Peter Fletcher ever recorded in a month across eleven years of monitoring (95 in March 2008).

My twenty-four hour sneeze count topped out at 127.

You can see from this chart that peak sternutation occured while walking the windy wilds of Dartmoor, between about 10am and 3pm, before settling down in front of the cosy bunkhouse fire and stopping completely after I fell asleep.

Why sleep sneezing is impossible

A sternutation is a physical reflex to external stimuli. When we sleep, our body does two things to prevent this reflex from happening.

During non-REM sleep, our cerebral cortex and thalamus get together to massively raise the waking threshold for incoming stimuli. Without registering the irritating stimulus, there is no sneeze reflex.

During REM sleep, we also go into a state called REM atonia, during which our motor neurons are inactive. As sneezing is a physical reflex, this sleep paralysis prevents the coordination of muscles necessary for a jolly good wachoo.

If, while you were soundly sleeping, I were to tap your knee with one of those silly little hammers, you’d just lie there and take it. (Unless I give you a proper whack, that is.) No reflexes; no sneezes. Mercifully.

How often does the average person sneeze??

It turns out that my epic sneeze count means that I am in high demand. At least, I would be over on Sneeze Fetish Forum. Oh yes. There’s a forum for everything.

The photic sneeze reflex, caused by bright light, is pretty common. Less common are the snatiation reflex, caused by a full stomach (‘snatiation’ is a portmanteau of ‘sneeze’ and ‘satiation’), and, yes, sneezing at the point of orgasm.

To satiate your curiosity, here’s a selection of Sneeze Fetish Forum responses to the question, ‘How often does the average person sneeze??’:

  • Unfortunately, I seem to sneeze once a week at most.
  • People who sneeze seldom have the nicest wettest sneezes in my observations. My old girlfriend was one of those types.
  • For a long period of time I was inducing sneezes to create content regularly and during that time I would rarely naturally sneeze.

Things I’ve learnt from my undercover sneeze fetish research:

  1. Some people yearn for sneezes.
  2. Wetter sneezes are better sneezes.
  3. Sneezes are CONTENT.

Before I fire up the old webcam for an Only Fans, here is the scientific answer to the same question on sneeze frequency: 95% of eighty people in one experiment sneezed and blew their nose fewer than four times per day on average.

More than half of those people averaged less than one sneeze per day over the two weeks of the experiment. Now, that is boring.

What can you do a hundred times a day at a thousand kilometres per hour?

Maybe my whole life I’ve been thinking about my violent sneezes all wrong. Maybe I’m special.

Maybe my sneezes are some kind of super power — what can you do a hundred times a day at a thousand kilometres per hour?

Maybe, maybe my sneezes are divine omens from the gods.

This makes complete sense, as ancient Greek philosopher Aristo pointed out, because the sneeze is a direct message from the lungs, the most profound and holy part of the body.

After all, the great poet Homer once sang of the mighty sneeze of Telemachus, son of Odysseus, and of how patient Penelope interpreted this awesome sternutation as a divine omen that her depraved suitors would be vanquished by the mysterious stranger:

Telemachus sneezed so loudly that the whole house resounded with it. Penelope laughed when she heard this, and said to Eumaeus, ‘Go and call the stranger; did you not hear how my son sneezed just as I was speaking? This can only mean that all the suitors are going to be killed, and that not one of them shall escape.’

So next time you see me, tremble before my almighty sternutations and weep!

Bygone Bicycles There’s something exquisite about unfolding the worn creases of a forgotten map and following, again, the inky lines where my pen once traced the turning of my wheels

Unfolding The Map Shelf: Northern Scotland, 2011

There’s something very relaxing about not being able to type. In my case, not being able to type means not being able to work, at least not in the hyper-productive sense. It means more slow time for things like organising one’s map shelf. (You do have a map shelf, don’t you?)

When I did exactly that earlier this week, I found the old map of Northern Scotland, much tattered, which I’d used when cycling around Britain back in 2011. (Did you know you can read the book of the ride?)

You can see where, at the end of every day, tucked up against the trunk of a tree, I inked in my anticlockwise route. If you look very closely, you can also see where I camped every night — X marks the spot. If you look with a magnifying glass, you can even see where I had to double back to Alness to fix a tyre that exploded with shotgun terror on the Black Isle.

A map is a wonderful souvenir for an adventure. (So wonderful, in fact, that Alastair Humpheys once told the story of a pilgrimage along a sacred river in India using the medium of map.)

It’s all very well having our memories of adventure saved forever and ever amen in the databases of apps like Komoot or Strava, but there’s something exquisite about unfolding the worn creases of a long forgotten map and following, again, the inky lines where my pen once traced the turning of my wheels.

The Happening: Britain to Bordeaux, 2009

While planning the 2022 edition of Thighs of Steel’s London to Athens adventure, I had reason to go even further back in time, to 2009 and the diaries I wrote on my very first cycle tour: transporting my friend’s Halfords Apollo from our childhold home in Oxfordshire to his new home in Bordeaux.

So I loaded up, told my parents I was going some place and cycled out of the garage. They waved and took photos, did all those nice things, and then closed the garage door behind me. I turned left, then left again…

Mercifully, the rest of the diaries aren’t a turn-by-turn account. Re-reading them today, as a seasoned cycle tourer, I recognise all the aches, pains and unpleasantnesses of days on the road.

By day four, I’d already suffered a broken rack, brake failure (which, knowing nothing about bike mechanics, I ‘fixed’ with tape) and the hell that is Basingstoke.

Also: knee pain, stomach cramps, lips chapped like the ‘crust of an old baguette’, a bed-stricken fever and a sore neck that meant I couldn’t turn my head past 10.30 and 1.30 on the clockface.

The experience of being unable to raise one’s royal behind from the throne without excruciating agony gave me an insight into old age that I do not wish to experience again until a more appropriate age, when I shall have had the foresight to install some sort of pulley system, ramp or catapult.

It’s a wonder that I ever went back to bikes. But the diaries also show glimpses of my first ecstasies of unbounded exercise:

On the road, no one can hear you scream, shout, sing, snort. Storming fury, shouting defiance. Leaving the trapdoor of emotions far behind on the road.

As well as more pleasant postcard images, the ones all cycle tourers collect as they roll through strangers’ lives:

A group of elderly Frenchmen playing petanque, one of them wearing a stripy jumper. I feel like I’ve won the lottery in a game of I-Spy

The final day’s ride, from Saintes to Bordeaux, was spectacular in that it featured a solid eight hours of rain:

Steady streaming hissing rattling rain, seeping, steaming through the grey wall, piercing, prodding, poking as I ride, going left some, going right some, but mostly going right on ahead, into the misty wet, hopelessly putting one foot forward, the other chasing it endlessly. And all I pass are closed patisseries.

By this point, I’d got the brakes more or less working — in the dry, that is:

My brakes deteriorate so quickly in all this rain that I can only shake my head and shout ‘no!’ when a car pulls across my path.

Yikes.

Needless to say, I didn’t become another statistic for the mortuary (although my friend nearly did after I removed my brake tape fix without telling him). Somehow, I fell enough in love with cycle touring for it to be the least worst option for getting around Britain a couple of years later.

The clue for why is found in the diary too:

Too long waiting, too long waiting for something to happen. It’s only when something does finally happen that you realise how it was happening all along, just outside your front door, only you didn’t know how to see it, didn’t know how to feel it, didn’t know where to put your feet — didn’t know how to become the happen.

I discovered that, besides chapped lips, riding a bicycle along an open road also gifts us a euphoric sense of optimistic opportunity. Less than ten miles into the unknown of a 547 mile journey, I wrote this:

The Sun was starting to win, the grass was filling my nose and that open green lane was rolling out under my wheels. There was just something about it, something that said: ‘Yes. This is going to happen.’

A Road Poem

My first three long bike trips were all done alone and I would entertain myself by building poems over the rhythm of the pedal strokes. Here’s one from the Bordeaux diary, sung to the tune of ‘I Once Swallowed Three Hatpins’:

I once caught a bluebottle
Right between my teeth
When I tried to unlodge it with my tongue
It buzzed right underneath

Now I’m sick with fever
And I’m sure the fly’s to blame
But I’ve tried every medicine going
And my stomach just isn’t the same

It wouldn’t be much of a problem
But cycling over a bridge
I wish I’d paid more attention
When invaded my nostril a midge

So listen to this little poem
And remember my tale of woes
Wear a mask when you’re cycling the country
Cos if it isn’t the mouth, it’s the nose!

Can you tell I was running a fever? :))

Policy Versus Society The proportion of citizens who say that having people from many different ethnic and religious backgrounds makes the UK a better place to live has increased since Brexit from 75 to 85 percent.

According to the Pew Research Center, the proportion of citizens who say that having people from many different ethnic and religious backgrounds makes the UK a better place to live has increased since Brexit from 75 to 85 percent.

The proportion rises to 92 percent among the under-fifties and reflects a broader increase in support for diversity around the world.

This is at least suggestive that racially divisive policy doesn’t have to correlate with a racially divisive society. Thank fuck.

Table showing larger shares see benefits of diversity in 2021 than in 2017