How to Live Longer

Eat less for a long life

It has been found that calorie restriction (i.e. eating less) in mice:

  • Extends life.
  • Prevents rapid tumour growth.
  • Makes the mice more active as well.

Anecdotally, the Okinawans of Japan, one of the world’s longest living and active populations, abide by an old saying, ‘hara hachi-bu,’ which translates roughly as ‘eat until you are 80% full.‘ Of course that is only an anecdote. In reality, they eat, on average, 11% less than the average Japanese diet.

How does that work?

It could be because, when you eat, your body produces insulin to metabolize carbohydrates and fats. Insulin also promotes growth. That means it promotes growth in malignant, i.e. cancerous, cells. Diet can change the growth environment of cells, including cancer cells. It changes the nurture, not the nature of cells. Diet does not contain carcinogens. It can just create an environment that cancer cells will flourish in.

If you restrict rats to 2/3rds of calories then they will live 30-50% longer. Why? Because they have less body fat? Because they have lower weight? No. Obese mice on a restricted diet live longer than non-obese mice on a non-restricted diet and the same as non-obese mice on a restricted diet.

Eating less is the thing, not leanness.

Why?

The popular answer is that it reduces the creation of free radical cells and therefore reduces the oxidation of cells and thus the opportunities for cancerous cells to develop. When food is scarce (i.e. when your body gets a signal that it is not eating a 100% diet) you live longer so that you will survive the starvation period and still be young enough to reproduce.

This may well be correct, but calorie restricted mice also have:

  • Low insulin resistance.
  • Low blood sugar.
  • Low insulin levels.
  • Low levels of Insulin-like Growth Factor (IGF).

Low-carb for a long life?

The glucose found in carbohydrates causes IGF and insulin levels to rise sharlply, in comparison to other food groups. So, in 2004, Cynthia Kenyon asked: could a low-carbohydrate diet lengthen lifespan in humans?
By reducing carbohydrates and glucose she was able to reduce:

  • Blood pressure.
  • Triglyceride levels (a fatty acid linked to incidence of heart disease and strokes).
  • Blood sugar levels.
  • And to increase levels of HDL (High-density lipoprotein, ‘good’ cholesterol).

While she is not able to conclude, after just six years, that a low-carbohydrate diet will lengthen the human lifespan, it seems to be promising data.


This article is based on the information found in The Diet Delusion by Gary Taubes (p218 onwards)

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A Writer’s Manifesto

Every self-respecting writer has a manifesto these days, so here’s mine. Feel free to cover your mouth before laughing.

I. Beginning

  1. This manifesto is not a rule book and there is nothing wrong with hypocrisy.

II. Life

  1. I live. I experiment. I write.
  2. I don’t need any props for this life. I can even write without pen and paper.
  3. The world is big enough for us all.
  4. This isn’t a game and money isn’t the score.
  5. I’m not going to be a doctor, a lawyer, a businessman or an engineer. Survival isn’t enough.
  6. I will push my physical and mental capabilities. “Our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate, but that we are powerful beyond measure.” Mandela.
  7. I am responsible for my own experience. Nobody else knows what is good, meaningful or worthwhile for me.

III. Writing

  1. A book is just a book. I’ll write hundreds of them.
  2. My creation is independent of me. I just show up and put in the hours.
  3. Success and popularity are independent of my creation. They are whims of fortune.
  4. I’m not dependent on suddenly being ‘discovered’.
  5. Publishers are only middlemen.
  6. Bob Dylan can’t sing or play the guitar.

IV. The Audience

  1. There is an audience. They might not be listening, but they are there.
  2. I will not be afraid to engage the audience.
  3. The audience will see themselves in what I write because I am human also.
  4. I will inspire the audience with new ideas, perspectives and sensations.”What I began by reading, I must finish by acting.” Thoreau.
  5. I will entertain the audience.

V. End

  1. This too shall change.


What do you think? Big fat self-indulgent piece of tripe? A worthwhile exercise to keep me on the straight and narrow? You ever thought about writing your own manifesto?

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How to be Amazingly Happy!

Here’s a list of the most pleasurable (legal) things humans can do:

  • Have sex.
  • Suck on a piece of dark chocolate (minimum 60% cocoa).
  • Have a relaxed lunch with a friend.
  • Learn something new.
  • Go shopping!
  • Use your sense of smell – really sniff that flower!
  • Do some gardening.
  • Cook.
  • Sit in silence.
  • Go fishing (aka sit in silence).
  • Play or listen to music.
  • Go for a walk (or any form of exercise).
  • Trust others.
  • Have a nap.
  • Dream (including lucid dreams).

Just for the sake of completion: yes, certain drugs are also extremely pleasurable, but remember how harmful they can be – and just because something is less harmful than heroin doesn’t mean it’s safe!

Also realise that your use of drugs could give you such a massive high that real life just doesn’t seem that great any more. I’m being serious: a cocaine high can increase dopamine levels by 300-700%, compared to the 100% dopamine increase during sex – and you don’t even want to think about what amphetamines can do. Just remember that dopamine is involved in the wanting (i.e. addiction) rather than the liking (i.e. pleasure).

Cool, now I sound like your dad.

This list is compiled from Sex, Drugs and Chocolate: The Science of Pleasure by Paul Martin.

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Bryanology: An Analysis of Bryan Adams’ There Will Never Be Another Tonight

Forget Dylanology, there’s a new pseudo-science on the block: Bryanology, the close literary analysis of the major lyrical works of Canada’s Poet Laureate, Bryan Adams.

Today’s study is of Adams’ 1991 hit There Will Never Be Another Tonight (UK #31). This is one of my favourite songs ever. I’m not joking. It’s virtuoso use of language is astonishing. Bryan Adams sets off one lyrical firework after another in frantic pursuit of an apt metaphor to describe his Catherine Wheel of a lover. So set this video (shot at Sheffield Arena, Rachel Weisz in the crowd) to run in the background and I’ll talk you through it.

From the very beginning, Adams struggles with the common notions of femininity:

Put on your best dress darling,
Can’t you see the time is right?
There will never be another tonight.

But he clearly feels constrained by these clichéd words; this woman defies the accepted rules of description. And so he launches a passionate quest for the words that can capture his lover’s beauty.

First the lady-love is some sort of vehicle:

If you got your motor runnin’,
Then I got my engines on,
Say the word and darlin’ we’ll be gone.

Then she’s a witch with diabolic tendencies:

You gotta ride your broom right into my room,
Kick off your shoes make yourself at home,
Wave your little wand – weave a little spell,
Make a little magic – raise some hell.

Then, is she a boat? –

Let the wind fill your sails…

No, Adams explains, she’s a wind-powered train:

A runaway train ridin’ on the rails.

She’s a wind-powered train, Adams elucidates, at a baseball match:

We got the bases loaded,
Home run – power play,
Tonight’s the night we’re goin’ all the way.

But just when we think that he’s beginning to pin this woman down, Adams changes tack yet again – she’s actually a jewellery-operated torch:

Flash your diamonds, shine your lights,
There’ll never be another tonight.

It’s all we can do to keep up with Adams’ lyrical dexterity and fecund imagination – sometimes I wonder if he is as confused as we are.

And so we come to the end of the song and it seems that only one thing is clear: Adams is totally in thrall to this woman he is unable to describe – or is he? Perhaps not:

Cause we got nothin’ to lose, just me and you,
In your wildest dreams…
There’ll never be another tonight.

Has this all been a dream? Does this explain the series of bizarre and contradictory images that run through Adams’ sleep-addled brain? Perhaps the woman of his dreams is exactly that – there will never be another tonight indeed.

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How to Succeed in Business (Or How to Become a Writer)

I was at a business networking event this lunchtime (woah – I’ve just upped my street-cred), where I suffered a wonderful presentation given by a business-woman who supplies live-in carers to disabled, elderly or bored people.

Now, I usually spend the entire duration of these presentations wondering how the hell the panicking presenter has managed to start their business, let alone how they’ve come to be lecturing others about their wonderful success – but, right from the start, this presenter was different.

And when this truffle of wisdom fell from her lips, I knew I was in good hands:

“Don’t jump in,” she warned us, “with all feets a-blazing.”

So here it is, the wisdom of Lee-Ann from Choice Homecare on how to succeed in starting up your own business.

How to Succeed in Business

As you may have noticed from the sentence above, Lee-Ann loves figurative language. Well, who doesn’t?

Not one for hyperbole, she describes her battle for self-employed success as like the battle between David and Goliath.

She’s David, by the way, and Goliath is the seemingly insurmountable difficulty of running your own business.

Persisting with the metaphor, David slew Goliath with five stones in his sling and so, for Lee-Ann, there are five ‘stones’ in her ‘sling-shot’. So far, so metaphorical. Here are those stones:

Stone 1: Passion

Your business must be something you are passionate about because nothing else will keep you going through the tough times.

Success or failure will be down to you, you can’t rely on others and nor can others let you down.

Stone 2: Planning and preparation

At this point Lee-Ann also trotted out a lovely little cliché: ‘Fail to prepare and you prepare to fail.

As an employee of a regular business, you never have to worry about what happens tomorrow.

As the owner of your own business, you will constantly be worrying about tomorrow. Equally, though, there is no cap to the possibilities of what you can achieve; it’s up to you what you plan for.

Stone 3: Priority

You’ve got to know what is worth doing and what isn’t. Don’t waste your time on trivialities.

Stone 4: Past success

Keep a record of your achievements, so that you can look back on them when you feel like you’re a failure.

The memory of winning her first client keeps her going when she is finding it tough to find new clients.

Winning that first client told her that all her hard work had been worthwhile.

Stone 5: Perseverance

Lee-Ann had many nos before she got just one yes.

It took her 15 months to get her first client and she only became profitable in her third year.

Ka-pow. Goliath is slain. But what do all those deadly stones mean for me (and you) as writers of serious intent?

How to Become a Writer

I’ve said it before and I’ll probably say it again because a dead horse is there to be flogged: if you want to write seriously, then make it your business.

If you start taking it professionally, then the results will be professional. So let’s have another look at Lee-Ann’s five stones from the point of view of writing.

Stone 1: Passion

Because no one else is going to tie you to your desk and only you can make this a success.

Stone 2: Planning and preparation

I personally don’t plan novels when I start them, but boy is there a lot of planning after the first draft. There’s also a heck of a lot of preparation involved in creating the right conditions for writing, i.e. a huge block of alone time, a typing machine, copious pots of tea, etc..

I guess I did a fairly lengthy apprenticeship in writing with my 18-year academic career as well. And the possibilities are limitless with my writing.

Stone 3: Priority

Er, like not doing yet another blog post when I should be writing my novel.

Stone 4: Past success

I will always have written one novel. I know I can do it and there is no reason why I won’t be able to again. I know what it takes.

Stone 5: Perseverance

How many nos will I have to hear from agents, from publishers, from editors before I get that one yes?

Right now I have no idea, but I’m going to keep going until I find out.

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Hypnagogia: How to Dream like Thomas Edison

As I mentioned in yesterday’s article on How to Sleep, Thomas Edison used Stage 1 of the natural sleep cycle – AKA hypnagogia –  to come up with insanely creative ideas for new inventions.

He would take a cat-nap in a chair with steel balls in his hands and, as he drifted off and relaxed, the balls would drop (as it were), waking him and more often than not he’d have a new idea for research.

Edison had attained what is known as the hypnagogic state. Hypnagogia is just a fancy Greek word for the transition from wakefulness to sleep: Stage 1 of the sleep cycle. Please note that hypnagogia is NOT sleep: it is precisely the point between sleep and wakefulness. This is important.

The hypnagogic state is characterised by alpha-theta brainwaves and can lead to lucid dreaming, out-of-body experiences, hallucinations and sleep paralysis. Normally we would not recall any of these experiences because normally our body continues in the sleep cycle and we pass into Stage 2 and so on through the cycle.

If we recall dreams, they are usually from the REM stage of sleep. If, however, we are woken, like Edison, during this first phase then we are very likely to recall our dreams or hallucinations.

With practice we can learn to balance on the edge of sleep and wakefulness and even to control our hallucinations to a certain degree. We can use the hypnagogic state to boost our creativity, to reduce stress and to energise our mind and body.

How to Induce a Hypnagogic State

You’ve probably already experienced a hypnagogic state. Think of times when you’ve been drifting off and had some vivid dreams or hallucinations – but not fallen asleep.

Try to remember the details of where you were, what you were doing and what time of day it was when you had the experience.

Then simply set up those conditions again and this time try to induce the state deliberately. Perhaps it was after a meal at lunchtime, perhaps it was in the library, leaning back on a chair in the sunshine, perhaps it was listening to the radio in the early morning.

I find public transport is good: you can’t fall asleep totally and there is plenty of background noise to provide stimulus.

Here are some more tips:

  • Hypnagogia is about observing the mind as it descends into Stage 1 sleep. Therefore, the two prerequisites are drowsiness AND an effort to think. Just drowsiness and you risk falling asleep; just an effort to think and your mind will stay awake. It is the effort to think that makes it possible to ‘observe’ the consciousness of your subconscious mind.
  • Therefore, don’t try it when you are tired. Late night hypnagogia will probably just lead to full-on sleep.
  • If you think that sleep is a risk, don’t use your bed. If you do use your bed, perhaps prop yourself up with a pillow to avoid sleep.
  • Follow Thomas Edison’s guide. Get yourself some steel balls and an armchair. Another one I’ve heard is a teaspoon and a plate. Hold the teaspoon in your hand and put the plate on the floor underneath. You’ll wake when you muscles relax and the teaspoon drops onto the plate.
  • Try setting your alarm for 30 minutes earlier in the morning and then try to ‘doze’, try to balance between sleep and wakefulness until it is time for you to get up.
  • You can use the snooze alarm on your clock to make sure you don’t go into sleep.
  • The afternoon nap is another classic opportunity for hypnagogia.
  • The brain works in roughly 90 minute high activity cycles, each followed by a 20 minute low activity cycle. If you can, work for 90 minutes and then try a burst of hypnagogia.
  • Stage 1 of sleep only lasts about five minutes. If you wake up after twenty, you’ve probably been asleep.
  • Relax, close your eyes, but stay watchful, observe yourself drifting off.
  • Try concentrating on the changing patterns of your mind as you drop off. Don’t think about what you are thinking about (i.e. work, the kids, etc.), but just observe the way in which your thinking is changing, a change in consciousness perhaps.
  • For me, there’s a point where I feel the body go numb (sleep paralysis) and then I know that in a few seconds my mind will dip into subconscious activity. If I don’t fall asleep, I know that I will be able to observe this state.
  • Be patient. At first this will seem like an odd thing to be doing and you will probably struggle to enter a hypnagogic state. Keep trying, but don’t force it.

See Jennifer Dumpert’s Liminal Dreaming for more hypnagogic dreaming exercises.

Using Hypnagogia for Creativity

Many artists, writers, mystics, philosophers and scientists have used hypnagogia to break through creative brick walls. These have included Aristotle, the Greek philosopher; Robert Desnos, the French surrealist poet; Edgar Allan Poe, the American writer; Isaac Newton, the English scientist; and Beethoven, the German composer.

Observed hypnagogia can inspire not just images and sounds, but also present flashes of insight and, occasionally, genius. I’ll never forget the time my hypnagogic state constructed an entirely new way of presenting data, unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. Shame I don’t work with data, really!

Hypnagogic states are highly creative. They are extremely productive, packing a high density of ideas into a short period of time. They are extremely novel, throwing together ideas and thoughts that might never have occured to you otherwise. They express the incredible flexibility of the mind. They are more complex than you can grasp in a wakeful state. They transform existing objects into something totally new.

But the best part is that we all have access to this state. We can do it as much as we like without doing harm to ourselves and it will become more productive the more we use it.

Think again of Thomas Edison. Was he a particularly innovative inventor? Or was he just some guy who napped a lot? The two go hand in hand. Walk hand in hand with your unconscious, work together.

Control Your Experience

As you develop your ability to enter a hypnagogic state, you can start to try and do more with these experiences. You can’t directly control the hallucinations, but you can try to suggest things to the mind.

It is important that you remain relaxed. Just let it happen, whatever it is. Anxiety will provoke your alarm systems and you will wake up. The hallucination is in control just as much as you.

Record Your Experience

Of course, the hypnagogic experience is just an entertainment unless you make an attempt to record it. If you want to make something creative out of the hallucination then you must rehearse and write it down immediately afterwards, while you are still in the afterglow of the experience, otherwise it will fade quickly and vanish.

Another way to record the experience is to learn to verbally report the images as they are happening using a dictaphone. This is not easy to do in the beginning because it uses the analytical side of the brain, which is inherently wakeful, but it can be done.

Verbal reporting can take place as long as you don’t search for words, grammar or intellectual concern for the expression of abstract ideas. This means that you can record more directly the images and ideas, rather than scrabbling for a pen immediately afterwards.

Ease the Pressure to be ‘Creative’

Inspiration gained from hypnagogic states can also be used to ease creative pressure on an artist and to deflate ego and arrogance. Because they are ideas that have arrived from an unconscious state, it is hard to take full credit for them. The creative process becomes more of a partnership between you and your ‘muse’.

Tom Waits is among the many artists who have found this a useful way of reducing the stress of public acclamation of his ‘talent’. He puts in his shift and his muse puts in hers. When the ideas arrive, he is ready to receive and works them up into songs or words. If the ideas don’t arrive, then it’s not his fault; he did his job and his muse simply failed to show up, maybe she will tomorrow.

Other Uses for Hypnagogia and Alternatives

Hypnagogia is not just good for unlocking the creative power of the brain, it is also beneficial in other ways. The relaxation of a hypnagogic state refreshes your mind and body and diminishes the apparent unpleasantness of painful stimuli.

The practice of hypnagogic observation doesn’t just conserve energy, it produces it. It also lowers blood pressure and oxygen consumption and leads to a decrease in heart rate and respiration. All of which is good for beating stress and stress-related illness.

Inducing a hypnagogic state is not the only way to get the benefits of theta brain-waves. The following are other alternatives (my experiments in brackets):

I encourage experimentation – but hypnagogia is a great option that’s relatively easy, fun and safe.

Hypnopompia

Hypnagogia has a partner: hypnopompia, the transition from sleep to wakefulness. Hypnopompia is probably the more common experience.

Most people quite often have this sort of hallucination in the mornings, especially if your alarm goes off early and you use the snooze button. It seems to be identical in brain-activity to hypnagogia, but of course happens at the end of the sleep cycle, when you are half-awake.

The downside: you can only do it once a day! Nevertheless, you might as well indulge when you can.

Bonus: A Theory of Dreaming

We have two brains, not one. We have an ‘old’ brain and a, relatively-speaking, ‘new’ brain and they’ve evolved one on top of the other in us humans. The old brain is for use in survival mode: there is no ‘ego’, it is totally animal. The new brain is what makes us uniquely human, this is where the ‘ego’ sits, our self-conscious mind.

Dreaming is a product of the old brain; it subsumes the ego totally. Babies almost exclusively use the old brain; they have no self-consciousness and have no concept of inner and outer worlds. As the new brain starts to take over we develop our self-conscious mind.

What is Wakefulness?

Dreaming is an activity independent of sleep. Brain activity observed during the dreams of REM sleep is identical to that observed during our (so-called) waking hours. Therefore you could characterise our waking state as REM dreaming plus direct sensory stimulus.

It is only with the development of the new brain that we have also developed the distinction between sleeping and wakeful states. The new brain grabs that sensory stimulus and takes over. The old brain is still doing its thing, but at the subconscious level, which we don’t often notice or pay attention to except in meditative states, day-dreaming or hypnagogia.

What is Sleep?

If the waking state is simply the REM dreaming of sleep plus an exterior sensory stimulus, then what is sleep? People deprived of REM sleep dream more in the NREM phases, people deprived of sleep altogether hallucinate.

Hallucination in the real world is dangerous; believing you can fly off that cliff, believing you are invincible and so on. Therefore, we need to secure a safe place to give ourselves over to dreaming, to give ourselves over to the old brain. That safe place is sleep.

We can only sleep when our surroundings are secure; we can’t sleep if we don’t feel safe, our panic buttons are pushed and we stay awake. Therefore sleep is simply a safe place where we can dream.

This idea has remarkable conclusions. If the wakeful state is simply REM dreaming plus sensory stimulus and sleep is simply a safe place for us to dream, then what are we? Dreamers I suppose.

Creativity as Dreaming

This makes sense. Humans need less sleep than other mammals. This could be because we are able to ‘let go’ in a wakeful state as well – through creative arts or daydreaming, for example. This explains why we can survive REM deprivation, whereas animals, cats for example, go crazy and die.

Our ability to relax and engage in dreaming activities means that we need less sleep and less sleepdreams. This also explains why napping during the day can reduce your need for nocturnal sleep.

Now: Experiment!

This is all fascinating and highly theoretical. Sleep and dreaming, especially hypnagogia, is not well-understood by anyone – and I certainly don’t claim to have the answers! All I hope is that I have given you something to think about, to investigate further and to experiment with in your own life.


The primary source for this article, particularly the section, A Theory of Dreaming, is a book by Andreas Mavromatis, Hypnagogia, published in 1987 by Routledge. This is still the standard work on hypnagogia (as far as I know).

Further Reading:

One more thing…

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How to Sleep

The Sleep Habit

Sleep is a habit. Get into a good habit and your sleep will be good.

This fact translates into just one hard and fast rule:

Get out of bed within 30 minutes of the same time everyday. Every day.

That includes the weekend. This will make your body rhythms consistent and you will get good at sleeping the whole time you are in bed because your body will know that that is the time allocated to it for sleeping.

Equally this will mean that you will begin to feel tired around 8 hours before your wake up time. So go to bed then. Don’t fight your body.

It is a scientific fact that most people get most benefit out of sleeping the hours between 11pm and 7am. Don’t blame me if you like staying up later, I’m just saying.

Sleep Hygeine

And that’s pretty much all there is to it. However, there are some things that contribute to sleep, some things you can do to facilitate it and some things that you should avoid. These tips are called Sleep Hygiene.

1. Don’t use your bed (or bedroom if possible) for anything other than sleep. Your body will then get used to the equation Bed = Sleep and respond accordingly.

2. Read fiction before sleeping. This activates the right side of the brain and helps you switch off the hyperactive, analytical left side. This will particularly help you if you spend hours lying in bed thinking over problems and worrying about things. Whatever you do, do not read non-fiction. This will have the reverse effect and you brain will churn over the ideas all night.

3. Don’t take caffeine after lunch. Caffeine is a stimulant and takes around five hours to leave the body. Caffeine includes coffee, coke and chocolate.

4. Don’t drink alcohol either. It badly damages sleep quality. Have a drink at lunch time instead!

5. Don’t smoke. Nicotine is a stimulant and smokers get withdrawal symptoms during the night, disrupting sleep.

6. Get a bigger bed. Sleep is an activity. During the night we twist and turn – as shown by the state of the bedsheets in the morning! If you sleep with someone else then consider a king size. Seriously, people who sleep together, sleep worse.

7. Sleep in silence. If noise is a problem, then use earplugs or a white noise recording (you can find them on the internet or just detune a radio). A fan works as well, although you might dream that you’re flying through the wind.

8. Keep cool. Body temperature is crucial for sleep and therefore so is room temperature. Slightly cool works best. Make sure there is sufficient ventilation as well.

9. Don’t eat a meal in the three hours before your sleep time. But you could have a small snack high in tryptophan, calcium and carbohydrate like a roast turkey sandwich with a small glass of warm milk. Tryptophan promotes sleepiness, calcium facilitates the absorption of tryptophan and carbohydrates slow and clear the mind. Avoid proteins at all costs.

10. Avoid bright lights in the run up to bed time. Your body clock is set by daylight, so you’re just confusing it with bright electric lights. Dim the lights, or read with just a soft table lamp. Equally, eliminate light in the room when you are actually trying to sleep. You might have to use blackout curtains or a eye mask.

11. Listen to an audio book to help soothe you to sleep. I know someone who listened to a recording of Marcel Proust’s ‘Swann’s Way’ for a whole week and never got past the first few pages. However, put the player on a timer so that it doesn’t wake you up a few hours later.

12. Take a warm bath before going to bed. Sleep onset is encouraged by a drop in temperature. A warm (but not hot) bath will simulate this drop as the water evaporates off your skin. However, this is artificial and not normally necessary. Bear in mind that this artificial drop is followed not long after by a gradual rise in body temperature as you warm up again. This is not conducive to sleep – so jump into bed within 20 minutes after taking the bath.

13. Slow down your heart rate. In other words, try meditation or focus on your breathing. Whatever you do, do not take exercise in the 3 hours before you intend to sleep. This could mean no after work gym sessions.

14. On the other hand, do exercise during the day. As little as 30 minutes exercise will help you sleep at night. Hit the gym in the morning.

15. Do not do any stimulating activities before sleeping. This means television, surfing the internet or card games.

16. Avoid sleeping medicines. There is no substitute for natural sleep. If you are still having problems then make doubly sure you are keeping good, regular sleeping habits and go and see your doctor. Be careful.

Now I shall dig a little deeper into what sleep is and what it does for us.

The Stages of Sleep

Sleep is made up of several different phases:

Stage 1
This lasts around 2-5 minutes. It is distinctive for its Quasi-REM (dreaming without the eye movements), which is not well understood. This is the condition that Thomas Edison induced to help him with breakthroughs in his inventions. He used to sit in an armchair with two steel balls in his hands, resting on the arm rests. When he moved from dozing into deeper sleep, the balls would fall onto the floor and he’d wake up from his dreaming, often with a new idea.

Stage 2
The first stage of ‘proper’ sleep is characterised by a slowing of your heart rate and a drop in body temperature. This explains why these two changes can be used to induce sleep. Stage 2 sleep is important for increasing alertness, promoting motor learning as well as reasoning, planning, language, reflexes and social interaction.

Stages 3 and 4 = Slow wave sleep (SWS)
This is the deepest sleep that we have. If we wake up during this phase (thanks to an alarm or an irate policeman) then we will feel groggy. This is known as sleep inertia and has three solutions: go back to sleep for 20 minutes or so, engage in a physical activity or splash water on your face. During slow wave sleep our bodies stop producing stress hormone and boost our levels of growth hormone. We also metabolise fats, cholesterol and carbohydrates during this phase and our mental neurons stop firing. This phase will clear your mind, repair your body and improve your declarative memory (e.g. “The Fire of London was in 1666”).

Rapid Eye Movement (REM)
REM is the most glamorous phase of sleep, it is the time when we dream most deeply and memorably. Our blood pressure and heart rate go up and we pump 50% more blood to the brain which is firing neurons as if we were fully awake. REM sleep enhances our memories as our brains transfer information from short to long term memory. REM sleep also enhances creativity.

Sleep Cycles
It is not necessarily helpful to give approximate time lengths for the various stages of sleep because they vary a lot according to the human. For example, a male aged 20-29 years will spend about 21% of his sleep time in Slow Wave Sleep, a male aged 40-49 years about 8% and those aged 60-69 will spend just 2% in SWS. However, the average duration of a sleep cycle is about 90-100 minutes. This explains why humans average about 8 hours sleep a night, that is 5 full cycles.

So that’s it. Sleep isn’t a terrifically well-understood area of human activity, given that we spend about a third of our time engaged in the activity, but the tips above are a good start to sleeping well.


This article first appeared on the (now defunct) website, How to be Human. I hope it finds an appreciative audience here.

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UK Jewish Film Festival Review

I am not Jewish. For me, it is hard work hacking through the thorny tangle of Jewishness. What am I to make of the Holocaust, murderous pogroms and rampant anti-Semitism? What am I to make of the foundation of the state of Israel, Israel’s wars of independence and expansion and the on-going Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza? What am I to make of the failures of the peace process, the battle for Jewish demographic supremacy in Israel and the ‘Jewish lobby’ in the USA and the UK? The global Jewish population is tiny, only about the size of the London commuter belt, but there is no question that ‘Jewishness’ captures the world’s imagination in mysterious ways, polarised, quite often, between fear and hatred, and blind defence behind the shield of history.

Thankfully, the UKJFF tackled ‘The Jewish Question’ head on with a tongue-in-cheek short before each of the films. It was a telling of the famous ‘So, Mrs Cohen…’ joke (google it) by various comedians and celebrity Jews, including David Baddiel, Tracy-Ann Oberman, Vanessa Feltz and Rabbi Lionel Blue. We’re forced to examine the joke: is the humour inclusive or exclusive? Is the joke anti-Semitic? Funny? Just plain bad? Is it okay to laugh? The film ends with the Victor Borge quote, ‘Laughter is the shortest distance between two people,’ and the ice is broken.

The feature films, particularly Diplomat and Protektor, tackle intensely Jewish narratives: modern social problems in Israel and the tragedy of the Holocaust. However, the stories themselves are not necessarily Jewish, they are universal tales of love, loss and redemption.

Diplomat is a superbly-shot documentary film about immigrants to Israel from the USSR. Over one million Jews have immigrated into Israel since the breakup of the USSR, drawn by the promise of a better life among their own people. In a country with a total population of only 5 million in 1991, absorption of these immigrants represented a serious social difficulty, and it continues to this day. The film follows the lives, loves and losses of a few hundred Soviet immigrants who were temporarily housed in the five-star Diplomat Hotel in Jerusalem. Now, over fifteen years later, temporary has become permanent. There’s a war veteran with a hundred medals on his uniform, an elderly dancer with an obsession for hats and a man who roams the hallways with a cat draped over his shoulders. A former Soviet piano virtuoso is now reduced to playing for tiny audiences in the hotel. ‘Here my life ended,’ he says. ‘Israel is a prison sentence. I did feel good once in Israel – when I was under general anaesthetic.’ This bitter-sweet tone goes through the film. We spend time with a young violinist who lives in a room with his grand-mother and dreams of studying under an Italian master, but is ashamed of his old violin. The hotel fixer secures a grant of $10,000 for him, but shortly afterwards his grand-mother dies and the film ends with him packing her life into boxes.

Protektor is a film about the Holocaust, but it is much more than that: it is a story of trapped lives and forced decisions. A Czech radio announcer chooses to become the voice of the Nazi occupation to protect his Jewish wife, his wife chooses obliteration over the claustrophobia of mere survival, another employee of the radio station chooses to marry a Nazi official, but her former boyfriend chooses execution over collaboration. Deals are made and broken, relationships are forged and betrayed and lives are survived or destroyed as events spiral out of the characters’ control to the film’s inevitable tragic end. The scenario may be unique to Jewish history, but the moral ambiguity of the decisions forced on the characters and their blurred lines of loyalty are only too human.

Broken Lines, slated for a wider release in 2011, is lovingly filmed against the backdrop of our very own Finsbury Park. A young Jewish man, obsessed with the death of his father, the failure of his parents’ marriage and the trap of his own impending marriage, transfers his obsession to a young waitress, herself locked in a stunted relationship. The two lives are drawn together in a tight embrace as the characters struggle to break free of the past and to move forward into a brighter future.

This was an appropriate film to finish the series with because it was the least obviously ‘Jewish’ and the most obviously ‘human’ story. When I consider ‘Jewishness’ in the future, from crass Jewish jokes, to social upheaval in Israel and the Holocaust, I will remember that these are, above all, human lives.


The UK Jewish Film Festival is in London, 4-21 November 2010. On tour around UK January – March 2011. I saw Diplomat (Israel, 2009); Protektor (Czech Republic, 2009); and Broken Lines (UK/Canada/USA, 2008).

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Global Social Media Use Statistics: FIFA.com Goal of the Year Case Study

This has to be the most boring blog post title EVER. But, hey, I love stats. I studied the reported social media use from each of the ten nominations for goal of the year. These nominations came from nine countries: South Africa, Brazil, Japan, The Netherlands (two nominations, although only one got any serious sharing), Argentina, France, Northern Ireland, Sweden and Turkey. I assume that these share statistics will roughly represent the social media usage in each of the countries nominated because football fans are very loyal and most of the goals came in international matches or national league matches in the country of the player’s birth, rather than national league matches in a country foreign to the player.

So, after 24 hours of global sharing (to allow for timezone differences), what do we find?

  • No one uses Buzz. 
  • Only three countries use Twitter that much: The Netherlands, Japan and – above all – Brazil. Brazil had over 30% of shares done through Twitter. 
  • Every single other country represented used Facebook to share more than 90% of the time.

Here are the hard stats, for the countries that drew more than 500 shares (sorry South Africa!):

Brazil (915 shares)

Twitter: 32.57%
Facebook: 66.67%
Buzz: 0.77%

Japan (2995)

Twitter: 18.3%
Facebook: 81.34%
Buzz: 0.37%

The Netherlands (2792 – two nominations)

Twitter: 9.6%
Facebook: 89.94%
Buzz: 0.47%

Argentina (1005)

Twitter: 6.17%
Facebook: 93.23%
Buzz: 0.6%

France (1439)

Twitter: 5.98%
Facebook: 93.26%
Buzz: 0.76%

Northern Ireland (3247)

Twitter: 5.67%
Facebook: 94.09%
Buzz: 0.25%

Sweden (9066)

Twitter: 2.14%
Facebook: 97.67%
Buzz: 0.19%

Turkey (at least 12281 – Facebook stops reporting precise data at these amounts)

Twitter: 2.17%
Facebook: 97.71%
Buzz: 0.11%

So there you have it. Fascinating, eh? I’m sure this will be interesting to someone, won’t it? That Brazil uses Twitter a lot? Or, at least, that goal trended in Brazil or something. Could just be a fluke. That’s the problem with statistics I suppose. Oh well. Enjoy the goals anyway.

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Idiots’ Idioms XII: Numbers

At the eleventh hour, the submerged tenth were dressed up to the nines, well on their way to being one over the eight – in seventh heaven, no less. But suddenly they were hit for six by the fifth column, while the fourth estate gave them the third degree. No doubt, they came off second best, sent back to square one: their number up.

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A Whole World of Hug: Amma 2010

Today I had a hug. But not just any hug. I got a hug from the most promiscuous hugger in the world, Sri Mata Amritanandamayi, otherwise (thankfully) known as Amma. Amma has hugged (at last estimate) 30 million people. If Planet Earth was a village of two hundred people, one of them would have been hugged by the divine mother.

So what was the hug like?
Hell, I’m not answering that question – yet. You’ll have to read the rest of this article to find out. 
Ok. Who’s this Amma?
You don’t know? Oh yeah. That’s just part of the Q&A conceit. Very clever. Amma is your mother. We are all her children. She is also an embodiment of the divine. A lot of people think that, apparently. That’s why they worshipped her feet when she arrived on stage. She’s a big cheese in the world of gurus and – in the same way that Henry Ford made his name with motor cars – Amma made her name with hugs. Hugs on the scale of mass-production. And don’t scoff either – through the power of hug, Amma has built one of the world’s biggest richest (and therefore most generous) charities. She is the proud owner of an ashram (er, monastery?) in India that houses more than 3,000 devotees. They live in 18-storey tower blocks in a gated community. But that’s just to preserve their spiritual purity and stuff. Amma’s so great she’s won loads of awards, including one from Cinema Verite, given to her by Sharon Stone. No I don’t get it either. 
Who was getting hugged aside from you?
A couple of hundred people, I’d estimate. I went to the morning hugathon, which is significantly less well attended than the evening shindig, apparently. There were a lot of European folks, there on their spiritual journey and a lot of Indian folks, there, I guess, for more traditional reasons. I saw a woman – a woman of a certain type, the middle-aged mother with blonde hair beginning to fray – reading a book called Anatomy of the Spirit: The Seven Stages of Power and Healing, while her son played on a Nintendo DS. I overheard another woman – of the same certain type – twittering that she’d already bunked her daughter off school once this year ‘to visit Amma,’ making the divine mother sound like a favourite cartoon character. There was a young chap in the queue for hug-tickets dozing, his head slumped on his backpack, a bed roll poking out of the top -he looked like he’d spent the night in ecstatic anticipation. Another British fellow with an effete voice begged a steward that Amma hug him again, ‘I feel like she gave me part one of a two part thing!’ he implored. But Amma likes to give priority to people who are hug-less and I met a few people who lied about their hug-status just to get another one. The volunteers who poked and prodded us towards our hug-tickets, to our seats and to the hug itself were all dressed in pure white (some with dashing purple sashes) and were excruciatingly polite, like they were hiding some horrible perversion. Stop with the cynicism! Open mind!
What was the programme guide booklet like?
Ah – I was hoping you’d ask that question. It was very interesting. Full of adverts for things like Vortex healing, detox foot patches, theta DNA healing, sacred journeys, Vedic astrology, career intuitives, Tibetan singing bowls, past-life regression (recommended by a big brother winner), transformative yoga and supernutrients. A veritable A-Z of spirituality. And mumbo-jumbo. I expect. Must remember to keep an open mind. I did meet some Vortex healers, actually, and they seemed like jolly nice people.
What was the hugging-hall like?
Oh the hugging-hall was wonderful. It was packed full of hugging-memorabilia: teacups, candles, bags, t-shirts, saris, incense, books, magazines, DVDs, CDs, photographs, jewellery and assorted knick-knacks. There were also places to indulge in Ayurveda, naturopathy, massage and Vedic astrology. It struck me that this was not just about Amma – this was a fully-blown spirituality expo with Amma as the headline act. And, in between spiritual explorations, we could stuff ourselves with vegetarian dosas and bhajis and muffins. 
What was the ceremony like?
On Amma’s blessed arrival, we worshipped her feet and gave a prayer of thanks to, well, Amma. Her right-hand man did all this, in a deep voice that resonated through speakers (with the bass turned right up). Then we all did a spot of meditation, to the sonorous tones of this bass-boosted gentleman. In fact, this part was rather sinister because we couldn’t see where the voice was coming from and at times he was almost hissing at us, whispering, urging us to love and peace as if it was, er, some horrific perversion. My neighbours, impatient for the hug, foot-tapped and coughed through this bit. I closed my eyes and solemnly meditated myself into a doze. Then we were onto the hugging. There was a strict ticket system and I was C2. The board clicked around, like a cricket scoreboard, and you had to be alert otherwise you’d miss your turn. C2 was quite early and I joined the queue, took off my shoes and edged closer and closer to the hug-machine.
Right – so what was the hug like, god-damn you!
It was nice. That’s what hugs are. I walked away smiling, beside myself with smilingness, in fact. I tried to suppress it, like a true Britisher, but failed. So I smiled a lot and felt a bit silly. I was surprised by how fervently she held me to her bosom. I tried to keep my distance, like a true Britisher, but her grip was very firm and, besides, she had some very important things to tell me. Unfortunately I don’t speak Malayalam so I have no idea what it was. I had been hoping for some sort of UN-style simultaneous translation. It wasn’t forthcoming, so I just knelt there, with my face in her breasts, drunk on her musky scent of incense while these words babbled over me. Then as soon as it had started, it was over: Amma pressed a sweet and a flower petal into my hand like I was her favourite naughty schoolboy and I was shoved out of the way for the next huggee. And I smiled.

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How to Avoid Regret

This is a moderately long article (2000 words). If you’re short on time, you can get straight to the point by going to the summary at the bottom of the page.

The Disaster Paradox

The human cons itself into feeling good about things. This should make us happy – our minds are on our side! They are constantly trying to turn negatives into positives. This is the work of what Daniel Gilbert calls the psychological immune system. The comparison with the physical immune system is a good one: our psychological immune system steps in when something really bad happens and corrects it without us having to do anything consciously.

Sometimes, though, when we’re infected with a minor virus, the immune system doesn’t kick in and we get a cold. Equally, sometimes something minor goes wrong in our life, the psychological immune system doesn’t kick in and we get really annoyed by it. This happens all the time. You might get made redundant: a complete disaster, but you start to rationalise it. It’s an opportunity to develop yourself and you never really liked the company anyway. But if you miss the bus on the way home you get into a stinking fury and it ruins your whole day.

This leads to an interesting paradox. Because mildly bad experiences don’t threaten our psychological health it is sometimes hard to see them positively compared to really awful experiences.

An experiment was done with volunteers who were told that they were joining an exclusive, elite club, but that they had to undergo an initiation which would be an electric shock. There were two sets of volunteers, one set who had a small electric shock and one set who had a massive shock before joining. Interestingly, the people who received the bigger shock preferred the club compared to the people who only had to suffer a small shock. Their psychological immune systems had kicked in at the higher level and had turned it into a positive.

That’s why it’s the small things that really get to us – you can forgive a cheating partner, but not the fact they always leave dirty dishes lying around.

This fact means that bystanders to an insult are often more hurt by it than the actual victims. The bystanders get mildly miffed and don’t trigger the psychological defences, whereas the victim gets badly hurt and looks on the positive side. However, we are not aware of this paradox: we believe that if we were insulted we would feel terrible and that the bystander wouldn’t be too bothered.

Our Defence: Rationalisation

The premise of the good psychological immune system is that it changes the facts to suit your mental state. This is the process of rationalisation. Before you got fired you thought you wanted that job – you did want that job: your brain had rationalised all the bad aspects of the job, leaving you with a feeling of satisfaction. The job was earning you good money and wasn’t too much of a pain in the ass. But as soon as you got fired you realised how awful it was; your brain rationalised in the opposite direction to match your new circumstances and to keep you happy.

How can this be? Simply that, when the psychological immune system is faced with hard evidence opposing the required mental state, it demands more rigorous standards and we criticise that evidence furiously. Forty percent of recently laid-off workers don’t find work again for at least six months, but that figure doesn’t apply to you because you’ve got excellent experience and great references. And when faced with favourable evidence we accept it with very little consideration. Four percent of recently laid-off workers find work that pays better than their old job; you’re easily in that four percent. Our brain agrees to believe what our eyes show us and in return the eyes look for what our brain wants to find. We tackle the bad event with rationalisation, re-framing it in our favour.

But beware: research shows that deliberate attempts delude ourselves will fail. We must feel as if we have come upon the positive feeling honestly, even if subconsciously we are still deluding ourselves. Asking a friend, ‘That job never suited me, did it?’ is an example of a loaded question wrapped up as an honest inquiry. It won’t work unless you’re really gullible.

These rationalisations or explanations are the psychological immune system’s filing mechanism. Explanation closes the file and we cease to respond emotionally to an event that has had closure. Think about the great thrillers in film or literature: there are always plenty of cliff-hangers. You are desperate for the mystery to be solved and, when it is, you get a great dose of pleasure and forget about it, you move onto the next chapter. But if the mystery is never resolved, you keep on thinking about it long after the book’s finished. With explanation we can file the event away. Even fake explanations enable us to move on (as long as we believe in them).

Conversely, the unexplained dominates our mind. If you find out that you have a secret admirer, but you don’t know who, it keeps you buzzing for days – weeks, even! The unexplained is rare and unusual, it captures our attention and we keep thinking about it. This is great if the unexplained is a happy event, like your secret admirer; not so great if the event is a disaster, like your redundancy. If you can explain an event, you can move on from it. However, even in happy circumstances, most people will choose to avoid uncertainty; we are a cautious people and think we’ll  prefer guaranteed outcomes.

What Makes Us Feel Regret?

We feel more regret when:

  • we suffer because of bad luck rather than through human error;
  • we are rejected unanimously by a broad range of people, rather than one judge;
  • we learn of alternatives to our choice than when we don’t;
  • when our bad choices are unusual rather than conventional;
  • when we fail by a narrow margin than a wide margin;
  • when we accept bad advice, rather than reject good advice;
  • when we don’t act, than when we do (even wrongly).

We feel more regret in these situations because the psychological immune system is less able to rationalise away these occurrences. Bad luck is a poor excuse; we prefer to have someone to blame. But then again, we can’t blame everyone. If you have a choice of a hundred spaghetti sauces and the one you choose is not good then you only have yourself to blame because you could have gone for a different one. If you are doing something that no one else is doing and you fail, you only have yourself to blame. If you come within a millisecond of breaking the county 100m sprint record, then you’ll obsess over all the little things you could have done to get that last fraction of a second. If you accept bad advice then you can only blame yourself for being so stupid to have taken it. Rejecting good advice is much easier to rationalise: maybe it wouldn’t have worked out so well for you, it was still the right decision in the circumstances and so on.

The interesting thing about the last point, however, is that we expect to regret incorrect decisions that we act on more than incorrect decisions where we didn’t act – even though the opposite is true. Daniel Gilbert gives an example with stock shares.

You have shares in Company A and consider moving them to Company B, but don’t. Company A’s shares then lose £1,000 in comparison to B’s. At the same time you have shares in Company C and decide to switch them to Company D, whereupon they instantly lose £1,000 in value compared to Company C.

Which scenario do you instantly feel worse about? The one where you make the switch, right? The one where you took action. But we know that inaction, in the long run, will make you feel more regret than action.

We find it harder to generate a positive view of inaction because we can’t think of all the lessons we learnt from the experience, whereas with action you can always say: ‘Well at least now I know!’ Although our psychological immune system can rationalise an excess of courage better than an excess of cowardice, we will always err on the side of inaction for fear of looking like an idiot.

We are also more likely to look for the positive in things that we’re stuck with. Tests on people on election day show that they prefer their chosen candidate on the way out of the polling booth, compared to on the way in. Siblings, employees and spouses should provide numerous other examples from your own life. You demand higher standards from someone on a first date compared to someone you’ve already said ‘I do’ to. We feel happier when we get a test result saying that we have a potentially deadly genetic defect OR if it says that we don’t – but we feel terrible if the tests are inconclusive. We can’t feel happy until the fate is irrevocably ours.

Summary: How Can I Avoid Regret?

Our psychological immune system will kick in at a certain level and particularly when we:

  • take action;
  • are in pain;
  • are trapped and have no choice.

Conversely, the psychological immune system is not good at seeing the good side of:

  • inaction;
  • mildly negative events;
  • avoidable events.

But, when given a choice, we do not choose action, serious pain and irreversible commitment over inaction, mildly painful things and freedom. So we are actively choosing the things that will leave us less satisfied in the long run.

However, knowledge is power, so I have a few of suggestions of how to avoid regret. Do not be surprised if you find them hard because they run counter to every instinct you have.

  • Don’t think too much, just act – even if you think inaction is wiser.
  • Consequences from actions, bad or good, can and will be justified.
  • But equally, keep most people on your side – your psychological immune system can’t ignore overwhelming evidence!
  • If in doubt, follow conventions – they are more easily justified.
  • Don’t be afraid of failing spectacularly – you won’t feel that bad.
  • When you fail by a hair’s breadth use it as motivation, try not to think what might have been.
  • Don’t fear the catastrophe.
  • Don’t fear pain – in fact, seek out real hardship.
  • Don’t give yourself a choice, commit.
  • Start shopping in smaller shops (or write a specific shopping list before hand).
  • Become a determinist (‘There was nothing I could do…’).
  • Look for the good (or the diabolically disastrous) in the small things that go wrong.
  • Writing about bad events can make you feel better about them. However, logically enough, writing about good events makes you feel worse about them!

I’m sure you can already spot problems with this list (slavery was a convention once and presumably Hitler could have done without some of the consequences of his actions) so remember to do things that you can justify to yourself and, if in doubt, write down this justification in plain, logical language so that later, when you are kicking yourself for investing in paper pickaxes, you can remember what on earth possessed you. At the very least this justification will make it look more like you had no choice anyway so you can just sigh and get on with no regrets.


This article draws heavily on the work of Daniel Gilbert, specifically his book Stumbling On Happiness.
This was originally published on the website, How to be Human. I hope it finds a new audience here.

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The Nine Best Books Ever Written in the English Language

This list is an aggregate of lists from Random House (1998), The Guardian newspaper (2003) and Time Magazine (2005). Hopefully it represents a fair blend of US, UK and publishers’ perspectives.

Why nine? Simply because these nine are the only ones that make all three lists.

Without further messing about, I present the nine best books ever written in the English language, in alphabetical order, by author:

  • Fitzgerald, F. Scott: The Great Gatsby (1925)
  • Forster, EM: A Passage to India (1924)
  • Golding, William: Lord of the Flies (1954)
  • Heller, Joseph: Catch-22 (1961)
  • Kerouac, Jack: On the Road (1957)
  • Nabokov, Vladimir: Lolita (1955)
  • Orwell, George: 1984 (1949)
  • Salinger, J.D.: Catcher in the Rye (1951)
  • Spark, Murial: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)

I’ve only read seven of these. The ones I’ve missed are A Passage to India and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. I shall be catching up as soon as I’ve got through Midnight’s Children, which only made two lists (Time and Random House).

There are plenty of debates and arguments to be had over this list, but the indisputable truth is that these are nine pretty good books.

Here instead are my one-sentence reviews of the seven I have read:

Gatsby: Vacuous morality in the roaring twenties.
Flies: Politics = Let’s pick on piggy.
Catch-22: O what a hilarious war!
Road: Wild unripping hail of road-storm America.
Lolita: The aesthetic mind of the forbidden erotic.
1984: Big brother is still watching us.
Catcher: We were all teenagers once.

Now get reading.


2018 UPDATE: I still haven’t read A Passage to India or The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – presumably because I never finished Midnight’s Children.

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It’s just a question of careful editing

I was just editing my latest book (The Soles of My Shoes, out in time for Christmas, I hope), when I noticed something very peculiar. I use the word “just” an awful lot. And I mean an awful lot. Anyway, I spotted this and started editing them away, using instead “simply” or “only” or just deleting them altogether. I thought I’d done a pretty good job getting rid of them and was quite pleased that my eagle editing eye had noticed this oddity. Then I decided to run a word frequency count, just for a laugh – and the full horror of the problem was revealed.

After my purge I was still using 201 instances of the word “just”. In a book of 48,000 words, this comes out at about one “just” per paragraph or about two per page. I then compared it with my previous draft. In that I’d used 213 “justs”. My bloody purge had got rid of just 12.

So I went back and declared a just war. Now I’m down to only 108, about the same number as “around”, “people” and “yeah” (oh yes, this is a book of great eloquence).

This is a valuable lesson for all writers: do you know what words you’re addicted to? I use a word analysis extension for OpenOffice called Linguist to check my writing. YWriter, my favourite writing tool, also has word analysis built in. Use these weapons in your battle against mono-vocabulary and cliché. You might find you’re missing something, like I just was.


Update: “Just” is very common. Apparently there are 3,400 instances per million in British English conversation, second most frequent, after the adverb of place ‘there’ at 3,800. So, in fact, my usage was average. Maybe I should just go through and put them all back in then!

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How to Make Happy Memories

There is a lot going on in our lives and our poor little brains are just not big enough to remember every detail of all the things that we experience. So they engage in a bit of reductionism. We remember our birthday party last year as being ‘fun’ or ‘debauched’, we remember the botanical garden at Kew as being ‘lovely’ or ‘green’ and we remember banoffee pie as being ‘yummy’ or ‘sickly’. We might go a bit deeper than this for vivid memories, we might remember (or imagine we remember) particular scenes or words, but most people do not have a photographic memory.

So you might imagine that we are more or less at the mercy of the experience itself as to whether it is a happy memory or a sad memory; an exciting memory or a disappointing memory. If the film was an excruciatingly tedious series of over-blown monologues then you are inevitably going to have a memory filled with disappointment. But you would be wrong.

An experiment was done in 1990 by cognitive psychologists concerning memory and the effect of ‘verbal overshadowing’. A group of volunteers were shown a particular shade of yellow for five seconds. Half the volunteers were then asked to describe the colour they saw verbally for a further thirty seconds; the other half just sat and waited for thirty seconds. Everyone was then asked to pick out the particular colour from a line-up of yellows. 73 percent of the non-describers successfully picked out the correct shade of yellow they had studied just thirty seconds earlier from this line-up. That is quite shocking in itself, but incredibly only 33 percent of the people who had described the shade of yellow successfully picked it out. Their description had interfered with their memory, overwriting what they had experienced and replacing it with something else.

This has fascinating implications for happiness and memory. Imagine if, by a simple process of reprogramming, we could remember that monotonous film as a great occasion, one that made us ecstatically happy, rather than bitterly disappointed. All it would take would be a chat over a glass of wine afterwards with a friend, describing all the good bits, all the bits you enjoyed – even if it was just the fact that you had a good nap during the tedious monologues.

But there is also another implication contained in my first sentence: there is a lot going on in our lives and our brains are not suited to remembering fine details of our experiences. They want to reduce things down to simple ‘good/bad’ adjectives. But if we take time over our experiences, being careful to process them in a ‘happy’ way rather than just experiencing them and automatically assigning ‘good’ or ‘bad’ then we will be more able to generate happy memories. This explains why some people just seem to be happy all the time and others just seem to be permanently annoyed by everything: these people might just have got into the habit of assigning ‘good’ or ‘bad’ more often.

So perhaps the solution is to try and do less and concentrate more on the things that we do experience. Slow down and think about your experience for happiness. Instead of going to Kew Gardens and rushing around trying to see everything, go to just one of the greenhouses and spend all day studying a particular species of plant. By doing things slowly you will remember more and be able to draw more happiness out of each experience. You would have a surfeit of adjectives for that plant, not just ‘pretty’ or ‘withered’ and thus you would be more involved in your own experience.

This need not be the Zen advice that it appears to be. I recently took a long distance bicycle ride to Bordeaux and find that the memories of it are still incredibly vivid and a constant well-spring of happiness. It’s not as though I was picking a blade of grass and contemplating it for hours on end, but just by progressing through France at a leisurely 10 mph I was more deeply involved in my own experience.

How to make happy memories:

1) Self-modify your experiences by discussing them and framing them in a positive light.
2) Broaden your memory’s record of an event by spending longer over it, relishing the moment.

Give it a try today, after all: what price happiness?


This was originally published in 2009 on the (now defunct) How to be Human site. I hope it finds a new audience here.

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Idiots’ Idioms VIII: Time

You’ve got time on your hands so take it. Serve it. Play for it. Pass it. Bide it if you must – it’s on your side, after all. Have the time of your life.

But beware. Keep a close eye on the time because, before you know it, time is out of mind, it’s running out – it flies, even! Suddenly you’ll have to march just to keep up with the times. If you possibly can, stay ahead of time because, if you lose it, first you’ll be living on borrowed time – and then you’ll be dead on time.

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Vipassana Meditation at Dhamma Dipa: A Philosophical Consideration

Please be warned: this is a lengthy post (3000 words), but it contains all the fears and joys of my experience of the ten-day Vipassana meditation course at Dhamma Dipa. I hope you find it valuable.

How I felt at Dhamma Dipa: A Summary.

Ten days of renunciation, renunciation of all the things I listed here, some I was glad to be rid of, some I was uncomfortable without. The purpose of the renunciation was to clear space for meditation, for the serious hard work of meditation, living the life of a monk for ten days. All my basic needs were comfortably covered, but I found that I was still not content. Food, water and shelter were not sufficient for me. What could I possibly still need after my basic needs were covered? I craved stimulation. I found I craved three big stimulations: mental, physical (including sexual) and social. I suppose there are other stimulations, such as psychotic and spiritual, but I do not covet these stimulations in the ‘outside world’ so I did not miss them at Dhamma Dipa.

Social and physical stimulation are expressly forbidden on the ten-day course and punished with expulsion (after warnings) so I could only indulge in mental stimulation. This is the last thing that another person can control. Physical and social activity can be observed, monitored and punished. But no one can observe my mind without pinning me down and sticking electrodes onto my skull. So I found solace from the boredom in my own mind. The evening discourses at Dhamma Dipa were the only brain-food that my poor mind found in the outside world so I turned inwards, naturally enough, and found that my internal world was a vast, unexplored territory. I spent hours and hours when I should have been meditating just going over small areas of this territory, discovering, rediscovering. The course was well worth attending just for this precious opportunity for self-exploration, even if I found the meditation hard going.

So why did I find the meditation at Dhamma Dipa hard going?

1) The physical pain was unexpectedly hard.
2) I’m not used to doing one thing repetitively for up to twelve hours a day.
3) I don’t like being told what to do and particularly when I’ve got to do it.
4) I was not ready for the hard work and mental focus that meditation demands. My mind was much more eager to explore itself.
5) I found certain aspects of the Vipassana meditation technique contradictory, confusing and frightening.

Now, numbers 1) – 4) are all about me. It would be unfair to judge Vipassana for these personal limitations. However, number 5) is more serious; an ideological barrier is more significant than a physical or even a mental barrier.

So what did I find objectionable about the technique at Dhamma Dipa?

1) False scientific claims.
2) Rites, rituals and holy men.
3) Egocentricity.
4) Fear of brain-washing.
5) Inflexibility.

1) The technique was repeatedly described as ‘scientific, rational and logical.‘ It was not. There were elements that had their own internal logic, correct, but the premises they were founded on were neither scientific nor rational. For example, the idea that the pains or sensations of pleasure that you feel in the body are ‘Sankharas bubbling up to the surface,‘ and that by simply observing them and not reacting they would ‘pass away,‘ and not trouble you again is absurd. Equally the idea that these Sankharas are the fuel that is required for mind and matter to ‘push the life force into the next life‘ is absurd. I need not explain why this is not scientific or even rational. It is prima facie absurd.

Unfortunately for logic, reason and science, there was a text-book religious escape clause built into the Vipassana technique: if you don’t agree with any of the theory, that doesn’t matter – ignore it, forget it, pay no attention. If the meditation works for you, that’s fine, and you might find that after meditating for longer you realise that these elements of the theory are in fact the truth also. I suppose anyone who puts a serious amount of time into something is going to believe more and more. I would suggest that the more ‘Christian’ you become, the more rational the raising of Lazarus becomes.

2) The method was also held up as free from all dogma, rite and ritual and yet, at the end of every meditation sitting, there would be the repetition of the phrase ‘Bhavatu sabba mangalam,‘ to which the response was ‘Sadhu, sadhu, sadhu,‘ and then a little bow (if you wanted). The teacher assured us that these were merely kind words of encouragement and that the response was simply thanking the teacher for his teaching. Fine. But why in this language, the dead language of Gautama the Buddha? Why not in my language? It reminded me of the Catholic church, with mass called in Latin. The sittings also start and frequently end with some chanting, also in Pali, this language I don’t understand. If this isn’t ritual, I don’t know what is. Metta meditation, which takes place at the end of a sitting of Vipassana and involves filling the mind and body with thoughts and feelings of goodwill for all beings, struck me simply as prayer: ‘May all beings share in my happiness.‘ Furthermore, at the end of the discourses, the teacher raises his hand and speaks some words of what I can only call blessing. It looks like he’s Jesus or something. I was not impressed; in fact I was scared.

3) Some aspects of the egocentricity in the technique were positive, like the belief that you should focus on changing your perception of the outside world rather than trying to force other people to change. But the egocentricity went further. We were urged to spread our experience of dhamma, the law of nature, to other people. This was essentially a call to proselytise on behalf of the Vipassana technique, which is the only true course to knowledge of dhamma and real enlightenment. We were urged to use our knowledge of dhamma for the good of the world. I found this frightening. Perhaps I am a moral relativist, but I find it hard to guarantee my good judgement in all cases, even if I were an enlightened being. The technique seemed to breed the sort of arrogance you see in religions: I know I’m right, let me help you to better yourself by teaching you my wonderful technique.

A development of this egocentricity was the idea of intentionality. According to Gautama the Buddha, intention of action is everything. If the mind is pure (ensured by following the sila, five moral precepts) then the action will be pure, even if it turns out to be a wrong or harmful action. Only from an impure mind can impure actions follow. In other words, honest mistakes happen, but it doesn’t matter too much, you can make up for them. Flip this around and you could say that unintentionally good actions from an impure mind are also mistakes and shouldn’t be counted as good.

Unfortunately, I disagree entirely. I happen to believe that hypocrisy is fine. We are all hypocrites (except perhaps Gautama the Buddha) – there’s no getting away from that, so why not fake it until we make it? I would argue that, as long as the action is good, the intention scarcely makes a difference. If the action is bad then a good intention only ameliorates things for the victim, doesn’t it? It’s mitigation in your defence and doesn’t necessarily lead to forgiveness and restitution.

For all we know, the intentions of Hitler may have been good. Surely every human on the planet believes in their own right action, we all feel sure our intentions are good. But the actions of Hitler were, by general consensus, bad. His (hypothetical) good intentions do not make the suffering of the victims any more bearable. Similarly, no one actually cares if the intentions are bad, as long as the actions are good. I could do something solely for my own personal gain and only inadvertently do endless good to others. I don’t believe that makes my action bad.

But perhaps Gautama the Buddha would say that your good action with bad intent would make you feel bad, that it would make you miserable. In other words, that, while intention might not matter from the perspective of the victim of the action, it does from the perspective of the perpetrator. But I would argue that good intentions only ameliorate the situation for the perpetrator also. If you are the one who pulls the lever that kills six people when you thought that it would save them, you are still overwhelmed with remorse, you go over and over the action again and again trying to work out if you could have done anything. Everyone may well say that there is nothing you could have done, that it wasn’t your fault – but still you killed six people. If you have bad intentions behind good actions then you might feel like a fraud, but good intentions behind bad actions might make you feel like an idiot, a blunderer.

4) We were asked, not only to renounce physical comforts, mental props and all kinds of things, but it seemed we were also asked to leave our brains at the door. We were told that ‘In order to give the technique a fair trial,’ we should give ourselves entirely to the method, to work hard and to focus for ten days solid. After the ten days we would be free again, we could throw it all in the garbage can if we wanted. But to give up your mind for even ten days is a huge commitment. I’m pretty sure I could make anyone believe in the power of writing if they gave themselves to me for ten days and worked on nothing but writing for twelve hours a day. It’s nothing to do with the wonder of writing (or plumbing or painting or accountancy, all of which would benefit from 120 hours hard practice), it’s to do with the sheer time commitment by the student.

This ten-day commitment at Dhamma Dipa was then coupled with a further commitment to continue to practise at home for two hours a day for a year. Again, if you do anything two hours a day for a year, you’ll sure as hell believe in it! You’d get good. The more you invest in something, the more your clever brain will squeeze out of it and, crucially, the more the brain will ascribe value to the activity. Now I’m not saying this is a bad thing. I’m not saying it is a good thing. It is just a fact. Vipassana doesn’t seem to do anything particularly harmful to its students or to the people around the student. It’s hard to disagree with the ethics of Vipassana (although I’ll try, later) and equanimity seems a pretty harmless life-goal (if a little dull). But why should I help spread this particular meme?

Unfortunately the Vipassana meme can also be addictive, ironic as it is supposedly about freeing the mind and the body from craving. My room-mate at Dhamma Dipa was addicted to meditation. I know this because he told me. He was upset on the last night that it was all over, another person in the hall was in tears. A co-meditator warned me about meditation becoming an ego trip, as it had become for him some years previously. Several people commented that either people go once and then never again or they get really into it. A young guy told me that you need a girlfriend who is into it otherwise they don’t understand when you don’t react to their love or their anger – they think you don’t love them.

Isn’t this the meme multiplying itself very successfully? But does this addiction matter if it makes people happy? There is an element of truth in the idea that happiness comes from simply committing to a life philosophy or a life goal. We see it all the time in people who have found Jesus (sorry to pick on Christianity, I use it only because it is the predominant background religion in the UK and my use is illustrative).

Perhaps it’s just that I don’t want to commit to a life philosophy; I enjoy learning as I go, trying new things, building my own system. That is the game of life for me. I don’t believe in any after-life, therefore I have no need for any system of getting there (or not getting there). All I need is something that will make me happy here and now and that will make other people happy (which seems to be what makes me happy). I am perfectly willing to concede that this purpose could well be served by Vipassana, but I prefer the liberality of my own vision. There are plenty of people in the world who share my ideas, including students of Vipassana. The main advantage (some could see it as a disadvantage – it involves thinking) is that I’m open to change, Vipassana isn’t.

5) I don’t like the inflexibility of Vipassana. The first precept, for example, is: ‘To abstain from killing any being.‘ This translates (in real terms: no human likes killing things) into vegetarianism (and not squishing bugs). But really, science has moved on. Plants are no longer the dumb biomass that people thought 2,500 years ago. They are sentient beings just like you and I. The moral justification for vegetarianism on these grounds is shot to flames. So too, therefore, is this precept, but they aren’t about to change it, are they? Of course not: the five precepts are fundamental and immutable.

I’m not saying that you can’t justify vegetarianism on moral or ethical grounds, just not on these moral grounds. You could, for example, argue that vegetarianism is the least disruptive diet to the ecology of the planet, given our current farming methods and our current population. Fine (but note that these conditions on the ethical rectitude of vegetarianism are subject to change), but you cannot justify it on the grounds of the immorality of killing any beings. It is this inflexibility that leads to dogma and unthinking. That is what scares me. And of course, once you’ve opened up this precept to examination, then all kinds of questions raise themselves, real questions that people have been facing up to for millennia, such as: when is killing acceptable?

So what did I like about the method at Dhamma Dipa?

You may have got the impression that, from a theoretical point of view, this ten-day course was a complete waste of my time. Fine: I may have learnt a lot about my own mind, but I could have done that without the Vipassana education on top, couldn’t I? Yes, but I must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water. There were a plenty of theoretical points that I did appreciate in Vipassana and several very important lessons that I learnt, more ammunition in my arsenal against the demons, devils and dragons that we face in life.

1) Everything is changing. One can witness this by observing sensations on the body, by observing the feelings of pain or pleasure that arise and then pass away after some time. But the idea goes much much deeper than sensations on the body. Every situation we face, every being on the planet, every molecule is in a state of constant flux. This concept helps to develop equanimity, which can help you combat stress, help you make better decisions or simply make you happier. For example, if you have money problems, then understand that this is just a situation and that it will change over time. Sometimes you will have money, sometimes you won’t. You can then use this equanimity to develop a calm and logical plan for saving money or for earning more – or for deciding that money isn’t important to you.

2) It is the sensations that we feel on the body that provoke disgust or pleasure and that lead to our reactions of aversion or clinging. Understand that it is not the object out there in the world that causes your reaction, but the patterns of the mind that interpret how your body feels. With this in mind, it is much easier to resist the temptation to buy that videophone that you know will only cause you pain when it breaks or when it is stolen, that you know will only cause you to spend hours on Facebook when you should be working, that you know will only take you further away from real social interactions with the people you love. Equally it makes the thought of cleaning the toilet a much happier prospect: that disgusting stain on the bowl is simply that. It need not provoke aversion; perhaps it is something to be enjoyed instead. Enjoy it for what it is: just another object in the world, like a deer in the snow or that scene in There’s Something About Mary or a kiss from a lover – nothing to feel aversion towards or craving for.

3) Hard, hard work is the secret to success. The teacher had a mantra that is a great foundation for everything we do in life: ‘Work diligently, patiently and persistently, and continuously. You are bound to be successful, bound to be successful.’ It is not about sitting around and waiting for enlightenment (or whatever); it is about getting off (or on) your arse and doing some hard bloody work. We all think we’re perfect so the first step is to realise that isn’t true and to work hard at being better.

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How to travel anywhere without disappointment

The heart of all disappointment is expectation. The same is true of travel. It is particularly acute with travel, however, because we are all the time harried into building expectations of a destination. Guide-books and travel articles in newspapers urge us to make itineraries of places to go, places to see, things to do, things to eat, all of which add up to make ‘the experience.’ Very often we already know what these things look like from photographs or videos; very rarely will we be surprised and delighted by some reality of the object that was hidden in the description in the guide-book or the photograph in the magazine. I remember being a bit underwhelmed by the Pyramids of Giza when I first visited them. I remember thinking that they were like the photographs, but less beautiful, more uncomfortable and a lot of effort under the blazing sun.

But we cannot avoid expectations. That would be ridiculous. No one would bother travelling at all if it weren’t for the expectation of something. So how to travel with expectation, but without disappointment? I suppose one way would be to have low expectations, but it is very hard for us humans to manage our expectations, especially excitable optimists like myself. So what can I do?

1) Avoid itineraries.
Remember that whatever is on an itinerary will usually be the default tourist option and thus the most boring thing you can do at that particular destination. You will share the space with hundred or thousands of other tourists and, unless your particular interest is the ethnography of tourists, then that is pretty boring. Don’t just tick off a selection of sights that represent, say, ‘London’ to a collection of guidebooks. What is ‘London’? I’d say that it is an amorphous, phatasmorgorical amalgamation of random events. It certainly isn’t an itinerary.

2) Travel more realistically.
What do I mean by ‘realistically’? I mean that travel in the olden days used to be for a clearly defined purpose. People would travel to market or on a pilgrimage or in a gold rush. Nowadays people seem to travel just to see ‘London’, which as we have seen, doesn’t exist. A more realistic example of travel would be, not to try to see a ‘London’, but to go to see a real and concrete object. For example, the paintings of Rothko in the Tate Modern or The Phantom of the Opera at the theatre or the Rosetta stone in the British Museum. These purpose-driven excursions may well disappoint, but the disappointment will be real and directed at the object, rather than the destination of the imagination. Also don’t try to travel in time. You cannot go to London to try to see Dickens’ London or London in the time of Boudicea. It doesn’t exist. Which leads me on to:

3) Treat the destination with respect, as a living, breathing place.
Do not treat it as a museum or a gallery, but as a town or a country; a place of the world that will continue to be a place of the world until such a time as the world disintegrates. It has a past and a future. Do not expect the past and the future to be as you see it today. Do not expect to see Oliver Cromwell at the Tower or Oliver Twist running down the back streets round London Bridge. The people you do meet have nothing in common with the past and are all working towards their own future, different again. As a frequent traveller to Egypt, I have seen this mistake happen again and again with travellers (and with myself over the years). The past is not a country.

4) Travel to learn.
Don’t travel to see ‘London’ and don’t expect anything of ‘London’. That would be to travel with a closed mind. Travel instead with an open mind, with a mind willing to learn. Travel instead for what London can teach you. Be less selfish with your travel: you sure as hell won’t leave any impact on London, but what impact will London leave on you? Listen, look and let it work.

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Vipassana Meditation at Dhamma Dipa: What I did do

So that’s what I didn’t do during my 10-day study of Vipassana Meditation at Dhamma Dipa. Here’s a list of what I did do.

  1. Lived in silence.
  2. Lived in an all-male community where the loudest sound were the birds (until the Harrier Jets passed over).
  3. Saw rabbits before dawn.
  4. Saw not just every sunset and sunrise, but every moonset and moonrise.
  5. Watched a nest of spiders entrap their prey around a light. With our vow of no killing, there was no sweeping away of cobwebs.
  6. Lots of walking, slow and fast. I used the field as a clock sometimes, 6 minutes to make a circuit.
  7. Lots of sleeping (when I shouldn’t have been).
  8. Lots of sitting crosslegged, something I hadn’t done since primary school.
  9. Lots of pain.
  10. Lots of thinking. I spent a lot of time going over my memories and felt a deep appreciation for all the people I’ve met and ridden with.
  11. Lost any reasonable idea of social graces and personal appearance. Scoffed food, nails long and grubby, beard shabby and dandruff all over the place.
  12. Watched a bee pick pollen from a blue flowered plant.
  13. Ate gorgeous vegetarian food and spectacular breakfasts.
  14. Meditated (a bit).
  15. I learnt a bit about myself, about how frustrated I get with petty annoyances, how bored I get without mental stimulation.
  16. Sat in a hall with 120 other people and listened to the sounds of coughing, sneezing, sniffing, shifting, scratching, swallowing, farting, breathing, crying.
  17. Laughed hard at the teacher’s hilarious discourses in the evenings (the only intellectual stimulation allowed).
  18. Heard an owl hooting in the night.
  19. Heard foxes screeching.
  20. Woke up and got up at 4am everyday – or before.
  21. Had crazy cool dreams.
  22. Created an aversion to the sound of a gong.
  23. Got paranoid that my co-meditators hated me. The slightest body-language snub was a cause for boiling paranoia.
  24. Listened to the most appalling chanting noises, sounding like the final death rattle of our teacher, and still kept my equanimity (almost).
  25. Spent a lot of time looking at my clock, counting down the minutes and the days.
  26. Felt a surge of joy every morning to be out in the cold and sometimes the misting rain and to be looking out over the valley and the woods, out into the silence.
It’s a list that goes on and on, believe me. I repeatedly fail to quite capture the experience of frustration and joy that went with the 10-days at Dhamma Dipa. You’ve just got to try it for yourself. But you can read my attempt to capture more of my experiences here.

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Vipassana Meditation at Dhamma Dipa: What I didn’t do

I just got back from a 10-day course in Vipassana meditation at Dhamma Dipa in Herefordshire. I thought it might be interesting for people to get an idea about the sort of things that we got up to down there, but first, here’s a list of the things that I didn’t get up to.

  1. I did not see god, get converted or become enlightened.
  2. No meat-eating.
  3. No women, no children.
  4. No speaking (hardly) – in fact no communication at all, not even body language or a smile was allowed.
  5. No intoxicants.
  6. No caffeine.
  7. No reading (except for a few instructions posted on the boards).
  8. No writing.
  9. No clothes washing – or any other normal household chores.
  10. No exercise except walking.
  11. No email or internet.
  12. No telephone.
  13. No music.
  14. No games or other entertainment.
  15. No travel.
  16. No spectacles (except to watch the evening discourses).
  17. No refined sugar (perhaps a little in the desserts, but not much).
  18. No proper meals after about 11.30am.
  19. Only a five or six hours sleep a night.
  20. No news or information, no radio, newpapers etc..
  21. No solitude (really, not much).
  22. No freedom – the timetable was rigid.
  23. No days off.
  24. No difficulties at all – meals provided, bed provided, nothing to worry about, nothing could go wrong.
  25. No money.
  26. Nothing in my pockets except a few tissues and a clock.
  27. No stealing.
  28. No killing.
  29. No lying (I don’t think I lied – perhaps I did, not sure).
  30. No physical contact with anyone else.
  31. No contact with advertising! That was a good one.
All this was supposed to clear the way for some concentrated work on our minds. See what I did do at Dhamma Dipa in my next post.

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Idiots’ Idioms I: Camels, Needles and Straw

Is it easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle if its back has already been broken by the straw? And is this the same needle that was found in a haystack? Is this also where all that back-breaking straw came from?

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Bicycle Film Festival: Program 9, 10 & 11

After twelve hours of watching films about bicycles, what is the feeling I’m left with?

Well, apart from a blinking aversion to light and cramp in my legs, I feel like I’m beginning to understand the truth about bicycles and that truth can be summed up in one word:

FREEDOM.

A Swarovski Crystal Low-Rider. Yeah, that’s freedom.

Sorry it’s not more profound than that, but do let me expound a little.

Freedom isn’t just feeling the wind in your hair, although there was plenty of that on show today and throughout the festival. Freedom is the power to be self-reliant, to unbend the yoke that ties us to cars and lorries. There was a short film about the Pedal Co-Op in Philadelphia in the US. They use long trailers attached to their bikes to make green deliveries around the city. For every forty trips they make with these trailers, that’s one truck off the road. It gave me the feeling that anything is possible with pedal power. Why shouldn’t we trade trucks for trailers for use in the local economy?

There was a great little piece about freedom from stereotyping and night buses (I may be reading too much into this one) called Heels on Wheels, in which a bunch of girls go out for the night on bicycles. Why not? I don’t approve of them drinking heavily before setting off, but otherwise, this is a great advert for people using bikes under any circumstance. You don’t have to turn up sweaty, take your time, cycle slow and safe. And so our girls get to the club with all make-up perfectly applied and not a hair out of place. But then the film goes and ruins it all by having one of the bikes stolen. What is it about stealing bikes on today’s program? The only message that comes out of this is: don’t bother, mate, it’ll only get stolen anyway. A bit annoying.

But I love the freedom of Project N. A bunch of kids break into an abandoned gymnasium, set up a bunch of obstacles, drink some beer, roll some spliffs and have some damn good fun. It looks pretty cool to me; but then the police come and shut it down. A bit annoying as well. You can get a taste of it here: http://vimeo.com/10033943.

There was more emphasis on fictional stories in today’s program. The highlight of which was Bicycle Thieves, a classic Italian film from 1948. It’s a film about freedom and poverty. I won’t spoil the plot for you, but the protagonist needs his bike to do his work and when it gets stolen he is driven to further and further extremes of desperation. Sample quote:

There’s a cure for everything – except death!

Don’t worry, be happy (or miserable, like the end of this film).

Jitensha was a Japanese story which reminded me of a Murakami plotline. A loner quits his job because he got punched in the face by a colleague. He cycles around a bit, looking miserable. Then he gets his bike seat nicked. Over the course of the next few days more parts get stolen until our hero just sticks a piece of paper onto the remains of the bike saying, ‘Dear Thief, please take the whole thing.’ The next day, he is surprised to find a reply fixed to the bike, which says, ‘Thank you for your kind offer, but I am not a thief. Sincerely, God.’ When there is nothing left but the bicycle bell, God leaves a package with details of where all the parts are hidden with the message: ‘This is the world in which you live.’ And so our hero rediscovers his sense of purpose and on the way connects with all sorts of people, from a young family to a gang of youths and a street hawker. Eventually he finds the last part, the saddle, with the help of an old man who is using a metal detector on the beach. When the detector goes off, our hero runs over and starts madly digging and then uncovers it, shouting:

‘I found it, I found it!’
‘What did you find?’ the old man asks, meaningfully.
‘My bicycle seat.’
The old man looks at the saddle and says, ‘Sometimes you have to rely on others to find what you are looking for.’

I don’t know why this is profound, but I’m sure it is.

The evening program had some pretty cool features in it, but if I have to watch one more old man welding, I think I’m going to go insane. Seven – I’ve just counted them – that is the number of films which featured old men welding.

Note to film-makers: there is nothing dramatic about welding unless it is with laser beams and they are travelling very slowly between James Bond’s legs towards his groin. 

I’m sure it looks great on film and I appreciate that there isn’t very much dramatic at all about building bikes, but please: no more welding! I kept myself mildly entertained by noting the difference in safety precautions between the US (visor, goggles and gloves), The Netherlands (welding box, like it was radioactive or something) and Japan (bare hands and dark glasses). Having said that, the film about Dario Pegoretti was pretty good actually, once I had finished cursing about the welding. It was pretty good because it was about a real human being who spent most of his time swearing and talking about girls. I learnt that luomar meant a heap of shit in Italian, for example. In fairness, the last of the welding stories was also bearable, but only because of these quotes:

The bicycle is two wheels, a chain and a brake; the bicycle is not the machine. Man is the machine.

and, in allusion to bicycles:

Sometimes ugly girls are beautiful – and all the beautiful ones are beautiful, right?

Can you tell he was Italian too?

But the high point of the day, really, was the sheer exuberant joy of On Time, a blaxploitation flick from 1985, the first big hit for director Ari Taub. Our hero is a bike messenger who has to deliver a package to an address in New York for a 2pm sharp deadline. It’s pretty dramatic, and he ends up with his bike in bits and getting chased by some brothers who think he’s a thief. But when he finally delivers the package, right on time, it explodes. But the real hero of the film was the theme tune, which played pretty much throughout the whole thing:

The wheel’s are turning
And your body’s burning
Meet the deadline everyday
Nothing’s gonna get in our way!

You can check out a preview here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6sWZBb0xwpc – but it ends, tantalisingly, just before the song kicks in.

You know what, I’m going to miss these films, but at least I didn’t miss them. I can only say: you’d better go next year.

One more thing…

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Bicycle Film Festival: Program 4,5 & 7

Phew, tough day in the life of a bike film reviewer. Not as tough as for Abdul Aziz, an Afghani asylum seeker who found out today that he is going to be deported on the 10.00am flight from London on Tuesday. Thanks to the new government, there’s a bit of a clear-out of left-over Afghanis going on at the moment. We don’t want them anymore, apparently, so we’re freighting them out at the rate of one flight every week, Tuesdays at 10.00am.

‘What’s that got to do with bikes?’ You may very well ask. Well, Abdul Aziz has been one of the beneficiaries of a wicked little scheme in Bristol called The Bristol Bike Project (all the creative genius has gone into the project, not the name), which takes bikes no one wants anymore and pairs them with people no one wants anymore. After a spot of repair, these bikes are given to the asylum seekers, who struggle to survive on the £35 of Tesco vouchers they’re given every week. I mean, can you imagine doing ALL your shopping at Tesco? Complete nightmare. I can give you an example from my own life only today: shopping around for some patisseries, I discovered that Tesco Express do Pain au Raisin for 84p whereas Sainsbury’s do 2 for £1! That’s the sort of value you need when you’re on £35 a week, trust me.

I should also mention that these vulnerable men, women and kids (remember, they left their countries because they were going to be killed, dude) are not allowed to work by the government here. What? And we call them scroungers? Why not let them do something useful and earn a bit of money then? Because doing something useful is a primary human need; without feeling useful a little part of us dies and we do stupid stuff. So a lot of these asylum seekers get involved with voluntary groups, just to feel useful, you know? But there’s a problem, of course: Tesco don’t do buses (yet). How the fuck are these people supposed to get around? How the fuck are they supposed to get to English classes or to their asylum interviews or to their voluntary work – or just to fucking Tesco’s for that matter?

Answer: bikes.

More than the practicality of riding a bike, though, is the spiritual element of unshackling the feet from walking for the asylum seekers:

I feel free on my bike. Just me and the road and my bike.

I feel like an eagle, like a bird…I feel freedom and peace…and no problem for me like I had before.

So hats off to the Bristol Bike Project.

That was actually the last film of Program 4; don’t worry, I won’t go on like this for all of them. There was Ben Hurt, bike chariot combat in Portland, Oregon; there was a 25 metre chain reaction like those car adverts, but this time with bike parts in Japan; there was papergirl delivering art to unsuspecting strangers in Berlin; there was a day in the life of a paperboy in Italy; there was a bike kitchen doing repairs using the alternative economy in Vienna; there was some nutty German woman doing handstands on her bike in Beijing and there was a 62 year old biologist who recently started to commute to work in Budapest (he takes secateurs with him to tend the cycle paths – ahhh, what a nice old man).

So that was all pretty heart warming (apart from the bit about Abdul Aziz getting deported, Tuesday, 10.00am, but I won’t go on about it). Program 5, in contrast, was pretty vacuous. It was all either arty or enthusiasty. I overheard some friends leaving the show, one saying to another, ‘…and Katie forced us to watch some bike geek-fest…’ and Katie replied, hurt, ‘ – it wasn’t geeky!’ Oh yes it was, Katie, oh yes it was.

But we were back on form for the evening show, imaginatively titled Program 7. It was a sell-out for starters and we all got into the swing of things with a little call and response:

RIGHT SIDE OF THE ROOM: Bikes!
LEFT SIDE OF THE ROOM: Rock!
RIGHT: Bikes!
LEFT: Rock!
RIGHT: Bikes!
LEFT: Rock!
RIGHT: Bikes!
LEFT: Rock!
ALL TOGETHER: Biriokekess…

Unfortunately, the ‘show-piece’ of the evening was a film about the wankers I mentioned yesterday – you remember the guys who cycle like idiots around New York? Well, it turns out they’re assholes as well as wankers. I don’t understand, I really don’t. They race around cities: fine. They don’t care if they kill themselves: fine. The problem I have is that if / when they kill themselves, they’ll almost certainly be using someone else to do it. Just smacking the road isn’t likely to be their demise, no. It’ll be some poor sod they’ve dashed in front of and he’ll have their blood all over his windscreen. Nothing he could have done about it, but there it is.

It seems particularly perverse to have this film showing at the BFF considering that it was started after the founder got hit by a bus! If that seems perverse, then my mind does half-pipes when I see that this film was sponsored by the BFF itself. I don’t get it. Perhaps, if the BFF is all about publicising cycling and raising awareness of cycling to motorists, then getting smashed up is about the best form of deterrent there is. For sure it gets headlines, for sure it scares the crap out of motorists and for sure they’ll look twice next time (if they’re not in therapy, that is). That’s the only logic I can see. If that isn’t the logic, then it really is just self-indulgent bullshit, suicidal wankdom. A quote from the guy who films these ‘Alleycats’:

People think we’re crazy or reckless or lucky – 

No, mate, we think you’re wankers. Arrogant wankers. I sort of feel like I should be checking this guy’s Wikipedia page on a regular basis, just so that when he dies I can write on the bottom: ‘Dude had it coming.’

But I’m not going to finish on that sour note of hostile bitterness, no. That would be unfair to the great films that preceded the self-indulgent crap. The most important moment of the evening came fairly early on, during a film of some American dudes cycling from Tokyo to Osaka. They were helped along the way by a Japanese cyclist, who was mad on bikes. They asked him why and he told them this (I paraphrase):

This bike was my father’s. He raced on it in a qualifier for the Tokyo Olympics. He passed away three years ago, but before he died we raced together, him and I. He was old but still he beat me! So now every time I ride my bike I feel like I am chasing him. I am still chasing my father.

Maybe we should all jump on our bikes and chase after that plane that’s taking Abdul Aziz away, Tuesday at 10.00am.

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Bicycle Film Festival: Program 1 & 2

I have the pleasure of covering the Bicycle Film Festival at The Barbican for the London Student. Yes, I am still a student (technically). This means I get to watch films I would never have even considered paying money for. In fact, I thought I’d spend most of the evening looking around at a half-empty auditorium wondering what kind of person paid to watch pedals turning on a big screen. I suspected that I would be sitting with various members of the lower strata of the London press and that the sounds of our biros clicking in and out would be the most interesting thing happening in the room.

How I was wrong. 
Not only were the two showings pretty full, but the crowds were positively raucous and the films were – good! I wasn’t expecting that, I have to say. Now, this isn’t the place for a film review because, frankly, you’ve missed it, it just happened, but I will give a quick run-through to encourage you to go tomorrow or Sunday – or next year, maybe. (Yeah, ok, I know you won’t, but dammit, play along with the conceit will you?)
So first of all there were a series of three shorts. The first was a bunch of idiots cycling like suicidal idiots around New York City. They even boasted about how safe they felt while ‘riding the wave’, i.e. jumping red lights. Wankers. Can’t wait for one of them to get strawberried – actually I can because that would mean some poor sod is responsible for scraping them up off the road (and, being a city-cyclist myself, I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, but still – wankers). The second one was a fascinating story about ‘the world’s most prolific bicycle thief’, a Slovenian immigrant to the States called Kenk. Three thousand bikes he had when the police busted him. He said he stole them to demonstrate the wastage of the consumer society. Fair enough. The third one was about Rollapaluza in London, where people get up on stage and Fight Club-style bike it out against each other in 500m sprints. 
Then the main event had the crowd hooting and cheering even before it began. It was the story of Mat Hoffman, who is, apparently, a bit of a legend in the world of Big Air. Yeah – no idea either. But it was a great story and boy did that guy get hurt for something he believed in (doing big stunts on a BMX for those of you wondering). Couple of inspirational quotes though: 

Nothing is impossible; you’ve just got to keep coming back to it.

And: 

If I die with a body that isn’t completely wrecked I’ll feel like I’ve wasted it.

No danger of that, mate.
The second programme started in rollicking fashion with The Tweed Run, which takes place in London every year. A few hundred people cycle around Buckingham Palace and Saville Row in their finest tweed (and other gentlemanly attire). They stop off for tea and sandwiches in Hyde Park and finish off with a stiff gin and tonic. Spiffing. Then there was some boring Los Angeles short which was a bit pointless, but very artistic I’m sure. That’s ten minutes I could have spent getting a sandwich myself. Then there was a short about taxi-bikes in Cuba (the serious documentary of the day – there’s always one). It was genuinely interesting, though, and beautifully done too. It peered into the bicycle-heart of the social, economic and political life of Cuba. It’s major cinematographic contribution was a shot of these taxi-bikes going around and around in circles. I couldn’t spot the metaphor. It couldn’t have contrasted more with the bombastic piece of pointless fun that followed: a bunch of boys arsing about around Sacramento.
The main feature of the second program was about a bunch of pro skaters (as in skate-boarding – yeah, they do exist) who decided to cycle the length of New Zealand’s North Island to find some good skating along the way. They soon realise it’s not that easy. I felt for them, I really did, as they discovered the same things all first-time bike tourers do (including me – especially me): 
  1. Most of your time will be spent going uphill (without bending the laws of physics – work it out.)
  2. There’s a limit to how wet you can get.
  3. If you just keep going, wheel by wheel, you’ll get there in the end.
All in all, a great night’s entertainment. Just a shame you weren’t there and I was. Never mind. Oh, and I had one of the Barbican’s huge chocolate brownies as well – but I had to pay for that.

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A Meeting of Activists for Palestine

Not long ago I went to a meeting of Palestine activists, held in a community hall in West London.

A young man reads out a statement from Leila Khaled, who could not be with us today because the Israeli government wouldn’t let her travel. I’ve been to a few of these activist meetings and she can never make it. She’s a member of the Palestinian National Council, but Israel know her power as a hero of the Palestinian resistance movement after her involvement in the 1969 hijackings. What the Israeli government don’t realise is that her continued suppression only increases the fervour of our sense of injustice. The young man’s hands shake holding the paper, his voice shakes with her words also.

Then we settle down and watch a film documentary about the Raytheon 9, anti-war activists from Derry who occupied and wrecked the Raytheon arms factory in Derry. Raytheon supplied missiles to the Israeli army during their invasion of Lebanon in 2006. The film had pub-interviews with the activists in jocular reminiscence of their hour of heroism, pints of stout in hand. I don’t know if they’re idiots or heroes. They fought against the injustice, but what good did they do? The documentary mentioned the difficulty of attracting business investment in the Derry area after the end of the troubles in Northern Ireland. There was a concern that Raytheon would leave, damaging the economy of Northern Ireland and risking future investment. However, Raytheon are still there and Israel still get their missiles.

The Raytheon 9 were expecting to get thrown out of the building by the police, but they weren’t. The police thought they were armed and so called in a specialist unit. When this police squad – with guns and gas masks – burst in to where the activists had blockaded themselves, the Raytheon 9 were sitting around playing cards. They were arrested and taking to court, of course, but the judge ruled in the activists favour. It is not a crime to use illegal means to attempt to prevent a greater crime. Tony Benn came on, saying that this ruling shows that there is no moral obligation to obey a law contrary to your conscience. Mark Steele came on, saying that this was a glorious victory and that the worst thing for an activist is to feel alone, to feel that you are banging your head against a wall and not getting through to anyone.

There is raucous laughter and cheers and applause at the film’s end. It’s like watching a bloodsport; we’re tourists at a bullfight, with front row seats.

Next, there’s a panel of activists and they all have their speeches to make. But I’m losing interest with their fine words and raised voices. One of the activists is a captivating young woman. I stare despite myself: spectacular hair, rings of blonde, somehow brown, syrup, honey, gold, framing a white blushed face, perched on a chair, chin lifted, showing the delicate sinews of her neck. If she catches me staring I would have violated her image. My stares are not lascivious, but aesthetic; she is Rembrandtian. Fine arched eyebrows, a curl of gold from her ear, lashes in synchronisation. What makes a person like that join a movement like this? So young, so beautiful? What makes anyone stand up and fight?

I am not convinced by these speakers. Why? They talk of injustice, I do not doubt that there is injustice, but I struggle to whip up any enthusiasm. Is it simply my growing boredom as the evening wears on? Is it because I am unconvinced by the efficacy of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement? Is it because I still see things from the point of view of the government, am I too conservative? Should I have more courage to stand up and fight the wrongs of others? Or am I reticent because I don’t trust these speakers?

I suspect some of the panellists to be fantasists. One of them tells a story about being asked questions in English by Israeli guards and answering in Arabic. The Israeli guards then spoke to each other in English, saying, ‘Don’t worry about him, he’s just an Arab.’ Why would they speak together in English? I know the power of activism. I’ve seen people charged with their own sudden self-importance, overwhelmed by the feeling of power, of rebellion. I’ve felt it, I was an important person, I was a hero. But what do our actions mean, actually? Nothing at all. The feeling of power is a delusion, a luxury we feel as privileged British passport holders. Another panellist refers to the ‘millions’ of people killed by Zionism. This is a heinous falsehood. A high estimate would have 80,000 casualties in war since 1948 and perhaps another 15,000 during al-Nakba. That is a long way less than millions, even if you were to add on the number of people killed in custody by the Israeli police force. I’m sorry, but fantasy makes your argument significantly less convincing.

There is time at the end of the panel for questions. It degenerates into squabbles between the organisers of the event and the Stop the War campaign, who resent the chair’s anecdotal story that he had to wait forty-five minutes on a march to get help after he was detained by the police force. This forty-five minute claim dominates the questions and the discussions for the rest of the evening, despite some people desperately calling for unity and to focus on the injustice of the Israelis and the sufferings of the Palestinians. It reminds me of another forty-five minute claim that twisted headlines.

At the end of the meeting, a young woman stands up and declares that she is from Gaza herself. Suddenly the hall erupts into cheers and applause, people lean over to hug her and to shake her hand, to pat her on the back. The air is of that surrounding a celebrity: at last, a real victim!

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Ezekiel is not an Idiot

Ezekiel is not an idiot. He is very well qualified and holds a position of responsibility at one of the more respectable IT services corporations. He has a company car. Ezekiel is not an idiot.

But he’s troubled. It should just be lunch, but something has disrupted his meal. Ezekiel is eating a bag of mixed nuts – or rather – he was eating a bag of mixed nuts. Instead, he is looking down at his palm, trying to identify his food. He knows from the list of ingredients that this bag of mixed nuts includes peanuts, Brazil nuts, hazelnuts, pecan nuts and almonds. Using a process of elimination he thought he had identified them successfully, that’s a peanut, that’s a pecan, that’s a hazelnut and that’s surely an almond.

But what’s this? Ezekiel isn’t sure what this nut is. It’s a lot smaller than his almond, but there’s something very almondy about it. Perhaps this one is the almond, not that other one. But then which ones are the Brazils? And are these really hazelnuts? Ezekiel is troubled. If he can’t identify his own food, what else is he missing?

Ezekiel is not an idiot; he’s got a company car.

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Slave for Hire

I’m not going to write about slaves. I’m going to write about hirelings, people who depend on a wage for their livelihood, people who could not be alive without that wage. Wage slaves.

The abolition of the slave trade made the buying and selling of slaves illegal – and rightly so. But consider this: after buying his slave, a slave-owner would have to continue paying to keep the slave – to care for him, to feed him, to house him, to prevent him from getting hurt, to cure him of illnesses – because the slave was a capital asset. It was in the master’s interest to keep the slave at an operable level of health.

In today’s society, we need only rent the slave. We can pay a small amount of money directly to the slave and it is his responsibility to manage his livelihood. If the slave fails to maintain an operable level of health, if the slave breaks down, then others are ready to fill his place – at no capital cost to the slaver.

Incredibly, this modern state of affairs, post-abolition, is a much better arrangement for the slaver and no better for the slave, offering only the inducement -the illusion – of freedom. If the slave is lucky enough to break out beyond the earning power of a wage slave, then it is true: he may buy his manumission. More likely, however, he will earn only enough to keep slaving away for his master until he breaks down. Then he is done for, he must throw himself on the mercy of his family, his community or the welfare state, a shaming embarrassment.

But, hang on, isn’t that all of us? Aren’t we all slaves for hire?

This probably sounds a little extreme, but two hundred years ago it was a natural response to the introduction of wage labour, the decline of self-employment in artisan trades and the rapid increase in industrialisation. Nowadays, large businesses, corporations and governments represent the most likely source of employment. We sell our freedom hour by hour, day by day, in exchange for money; if we are lucky, enough to subsist.

I am not, of course, making an argument for the return of slavery; there are much better models out there to learn from.

Firstly, there is self-employment in a trade that is of permanent use to society. This is still a good way to guarantee sufficient employment to cover living expenses and the opportunity to save money in addition to this subsistence earning to pay for our dotage.

Secondly, there are worker cooperatives, where the workers participate in the democratic operation of the business and profits are divided among the share-holders: one share for each worker.

Thirdly, there are self-sustaining communities, like Braziers Park in Oxfordshire. Braziers Park is a working farm, an adult education college and a venue for hire. The income generated from these activities support a permanent community of approximately fifteen people all year round. These people do not pay rent to Braziers Park, but rather donate their labour on the farm and in the house. They run the business and are rewarded handsomely with organic locally-grown food, shelter and a vibrant living community.

It could be worth your while calculating whether you are being paid a slave wage or not. If you are paid only the minimum you need to subsist – or less (and this includes the means to support your family) – then you are being paid a slave wage and you would be better off seeking out alternative means of living, such as the examples above. If you are being paid more than the minimum you need to subsist, then that is great – as long as you enjoy the work that you are doing. If you do not, then remember that you are also giving away your freedom and your autonomy, two things that contribute greatly to our happiness as humans. Perhaps consider if you would be better off exchanging a wage-profit for greater autonomy.

I’m comfortable with wage slavery; it is a fact of modern life. But I’m also lucky enough to know it when I see it. I know what I am getting into when I exchange my freedom for money.

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What is travelling?

It’s a verb of motion, that’s what it is *. But why choose that verb over a hundred others? When are we travelling rather than simply going?

Here’s my answer.

Travelling, like writing, is about asking questions.

I’m going to Egypt, puts the emphasis on the destination, as if the goer and the transport mean nothing, contribute nothing to the meaning of the sentence. Going is almost passive; we all know that it’s the aeroplane that will be travelling and the goer is simply being transported. I’m going to Egpyt doesn’t beg any questions. You would never suspect that the goer is doing anything other than transporting himself to Egypt by conventional means for a holiday. I’d never ask the goer How are you going to Egypt? I just wouldn’t expect an interesting answer. By using the word going the goer is already pushing his journey into the mundane.

I’m travelling to Egypt, on the other hand, asks more questions than it answers. It puts the emphasis on the traveller and on the journey. Travelling seems to be more active, more conscious and more deliberate than going. I might very well ask the traveller, How? and I would expect an interesting answer.

Most importantly, though, travelling also begs questions of the traveller. It is hard to say, in all seriousness, I’m travelling to Camden, without thinking of what that means to you as the traveller and what implications the decision to travel has on your journey. You would ask yourself, How? and already the act is more active, more conscious and more deliberate.

I did this, in fact. Last Friday, I wanted to go to Camden to visit my friend Ben. Fine. I live in South London and I could have quite easily gone to Camden by public transport. But the idea of going bored me so I made the decision to travel. So my question to myself then was How? and suddenly I was part of the journey, not just passive cargo for a train or a bus. Cycling was out of the question because it was pissing it down with rain. Then it struck me that I didn’t know what it meant to travel 7.5 miles across London in the pouring rain.

We are in the situation today that we can transport ourselves vast distances without thinking about it. We can go 7.5 miles. A few hundred years ago going 7.5 miles would have been unthinkable. Travelling was the only option. So I wanted to reconnect with that time, I wanted to understand what 7.5 miles in the rain meant.

So I ran 4.2 miles (in the rain) and then walked the rest (in the rain). It was as simple as that. Now I understand (only a little bit: I caught the train home). If I had gone by public transport then I wouldn’t have been travelling. I would have forgotten what I was doing and I would simply have been going. I would, instead of travelling, have been reading or people-watching or something else, filling time, enduring the transport. But by deliberately changing my mode of transport and by asking myself questions, suddenly I was not going, but travelling.

And that’s the nub of the matter: travel always involves a question or a series of questions. If you don’t ask the questions then you are just going. That doesn’t mean that travelling must only be done at leisure; a commuter can easily travel just by asking questions, by becoming conscious of his activity. Instead of taking the same train at the same time he could walk or run or take an earlier train or a later train or a bus. But it’s not even just about the mode of transport. The commuter could transform his journey by talking to his neighbour on the train or by taking photographs of the journey or by writing a story about the journey – anything to become a conscious part of the locomotion. The traveller is constantly aware of his travel, for him the journey is as relevant as the destination.

This, I believe, is why travel writing is always interesting, because it seeks to ask and perhaps answer questions about the world or about the traveller. There is conflict in those travel stories: will the journey be a success? Will the questions be answered? All stories are questions. All journeys are questions.

And once you stop asking questions, once you stop thinking, you stop travelling and you are simply going or commuting or – worst of all – enduring.

So I always try to ask myself:
How can I travel today? How can I turn my transport into a journey?


* All right, all right – it’s a verbal noun, but who’s splitting hairs?

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Hitchhiking: London to Oxfordshire (and Back)

26 September 2010
Distance: 55 miles (one way)

Lesson: The Right Reasons

I got a train out to Gunnersbury to hitch from the side of the road onto the M4. It didn’t work. I stood near a bus-stop with my sign, people looked at me and accelerated up the slip-road. So I took a bus from that bus-stop to Hounslow West and walked to Heston Services. Unfortunately the M4 was half closed and going at a crawl past a traffic accident (I believe). But still, I got a lift no problems, from a travelling solar panel salesman. It took us an hour to get past the accident site, by which time there was nothing left and all lanes were open. But it was a great conversation, he told me all about his dad who was the first military pilot for Abu Dhabi and his brother who was a commercial diver up in Aberdeen. He dropped me in Reading and I walked across town to the railway station. I could have hitched from there to my destination, but time was short and the bus was only £2.90. So I caught a bus.

The next day, I caught a cold. No one would want to pick me up like that and I didn’t fancy standing on the road side in the sharp Autumn. So I caught a train from Reading back to London. It cost me £13, about what it would have cost if I’d bought a return ticket from London to Goring the previous day. My hitch had saved me nothing. So was it a waste of time? No chance. I’d know a lot less about solar panel sales, underwater oil rig repairs and the Abu Dhabi air force if I’d just caught the train.

Don’t hitch for financial reasons, hitch for the right reasons.

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The Little Red Fiat

This is the story of The Little Red Fiat. You’ve probably seen it, haven’t you, in the Tate Modern? It was painted by my little boy – not so little now, but he was back then. Probably about twelve I think, when he painted that one. But he started painting them when he was only three.

We’d bought him a painting set, nothing fancy, for his third birthday. We needed something to keep him occupied after his little sister was born. He hadn’t taken too well to the new member of the family and we couldn’t deal with a demanding toddler and a new baby. So we sent Joseph off with his painting set. It seemed to absorb him and he did a painting of our little red Fiat – we used to have one back then. This painting wasn’t quite like the one you’ve seen in the Tate, just blobs of red in a box shape. It took a bit of working out what it was, but we said well done and stuck the picture to the fridge, like all good parents do. We encouraged him to paint some more and over the next few weeks he painted and painted and painted. But all he’d paint were little red Fiats.

At first we were just grateful we’d found something to keep him occupied. But then, after his little sister had grown up a bit, we started to worry. We tried to encourage him to paint other things: a tree, the house – other cars, at least. But no, all he wanted to paint was our little red Fiat. He painted all day sometimes and the paintings did improve, he put in more details, made it look more realistic, but it was always the little red Fiat. When he was about six, the painting (for their was only ever one painting really) had crystallised in its final form: the little red Fiat with the the doors thrown open and a boy in pyjamas standing with his back to the painter, looking at the car with his hands folded behind his back – you would recognise it, I’m sure. And so, for six years, that’s exactly what he carried on painting, doing three or four a week. We didn’t think much of the paintings themselves, except as a cause for worry over our son’s mental state, but then we weren’t an artistic family.

But then, one day, something extraordinary happened. Joseph was twelve by then and had just finished one of his paintings and, as usual, it was of the little red Fiat with the doors thrown open and the little boy in pyjamas facing it with his back to the painter and his hands behind his back. This one didn’t seem much different to us from the very first one he’d painted, certainly not in the subject matter. He’d got better with the brush, of course, but you can imagine our frustration as parents. But that evening we had a couple of friends over for dinner and they saw the picture on the fridge (Joseph put them there now, a new one every couple of days) and they remarked how good it was. This must have been almost the first time we’d had friends over for dinner, Joseph now old enough to look after himself and Sarah upstairs while the adults ate. Of course, we just thought they were being polite and we thanked them and carried on serving chicken in white wine. But the husband couldn’t keep his eyes off the painting and it started to irritate us, we wanted to enjoy the evening, but he was obviously totally distracted by the painting. Then, in the middle of dessert, he stood up, quite rudely I thought, went straight to the fridge and stared intently at the painting for a couple of minutes. “You must take this to a gallery!” he declared and his wife nodded, equally hypnotised. We could not believe it and just said, “Oh, don’t be silly,” annoyed more than anything.

Even so, we were rather taken aback by their reaction to the painting and we wondered what to do. Perhaps we should take Joseph to a psychologist, find out what was wrong with him. Over the next few days, though, something even more remarkable happened. Our friends started showing up at our door unannounced, obviously a little embarrassed, asking to see ‘The Little Red Fiat’. Baffled, we opened the door of course, took them to the kitchen and showed them the fridge. Some of them we had to forcibly eject from the premises, they stood staring for so long. It was nice to have friends, and we were oddly proud that our son was attracting their admiration, but the disruption was a little annoying and we were scared that one of them might tell social services that our son was mentally unstable. But then, after the friends, came the strangers. Complete strangers, not even acquaintances, coming up to our door asking to see ‘The Little Red Fiat’. Some even offered to buy it for extravagant sums of money, some people left money on the kitchen table in entrance fees, everybody said how brave we were to keep it in the house and not secure in a gallery. We were on the local news, then national, then the BBC came to our door asking if we would be happy to take part in a documentary about our artistic prodigy son. Of course not, we said, we’re not an artistic family.

Well, we knew it was getting out of hand when an elderly woman fainted – she could have knocked her head and done some serious damage. As it was, she got away with a cracked hip and breathless said, “It was all worth it!” And then of course we had all the doctors around, gawping at the painting – a child’s painting!

So we decided to get rid of it. We asked some auctioneers to come over and value the painting. It sold, quickly, for 1.2 million pounds. That just about knocked our socks off. It was immediately donated to the Tate Modern, a ‘national treasure’. You’ve probably seen it, haven’t you? A little red Fiat with the doors thrown open and a little boy with his back to the painter and his hands folded behind his back.

Our son doesn’t paint any more. He’s grown out of it, I suppose. After we sold the Fiat painting, we also sold the real-life Fiat and bought a Bentley. A few weeks later he came home from school saying he’d finished with painting. He never painted anything else, just our little red Fiat. Just one of those things, isn’t it? We still make a living selling the hundreds of other paintings he did during those nine extraordinary years. We’re glad he’s normal again, though, imagine how he would have been bullied at school, doing those funny paintings.

***

Everyone always asks why I didn’t paint anything else, why I don’t paint any more at all, why it was always the Fiat. I only understood when I got to secondary school, I didn’t have a clue why I was painting at the time. Mum says I was three when I started painting the car. I just remember being so confused by it. The colours were insane. I was scared of what I’d seen. I knew it wasn’t right and I sensed at the time that I couldn’t ask mum and dad about it. And then, when my sister was born, I was even more afraid. It scared me, that scene, the red Fiat with the doors thrown open, like it was abandoned, dad jerking away on top of mum.

One more thing…

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Hitchhiking: London to Winchester and Back

19 – 20 September 2010
Distance: 190 miles (including detours)
My first solo hitch in the UK.

Lesson: The Right Question

I picked up my first ride from the side of the road. A man drove past me, stuck in traffic, went to the end of the road, turned around at the roundabout and came back, pulled up and waved at me from the other side of the road. I assumed he must always pick up hitchers, but, no, he’d never done it before. I would have just driven past. My second lift was from Fleet Services. I asked my usual demographic, an older, single male: able to look after himself, unlikely to want to rape me and likely to drive safely. He accepted me, but then revealed he had a wife and a five year-old daughter in the car as well. It was a joy. I just played around in the back with the daughter, watching a DVD with her, admiring her spelling homework, laughing. They dropped me in Winchester. It couldn’t have been a simpler journey. It took me an hour and a half from London to Winchester, 70 miles. There was no need to ask any questions: I stuck my thumb out, I asked people nicely and they all said yes.

But then there was the journey home. I was dropped off at Chieveley Services by my friend. No problem, it was just off the M4, perfect for heading East to London. Or not. I asked and asked and asked for two hours or more. No one was heading East from Chieveley Services. I was bashing my head against a brick wall. I was asking the wrong question. No one stops at Chieveley and then goes East, it is actually just off the A34, which goes North-South and is on the South-side of the M4, convenient for people heading West, not East. After three hours, I changed my approach. I would head West, go with the flow and then try to hitch back from the next Service Station along. The first man I asked took me. The service station was full of people only too glad to help me, but I was asking them the wrong question. I asked the right question and was back in London within three hours.

Ask the right question. Always think of the people you are asking, where are they going?

One more thing…

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Ephraim

Ephraim is holding a big orange balloon in front of his face. He knows that very soon it will all be over and the girls who are dancing around the dining room floor will stop. He knows this because he can hear the mothers’ talk getting louder and their footsteps approaching the door.

The girls are swinging each other by the arms on the wooden floor, their bare feet skipping past Ephraim as he tries to hide. At least they’ve stopped calling him to them. They’re of a certain age, these girls, too old to think anything of him, too young to think anything of him. But they don’t realise that Ephraim is old enough, just about.

So he holds the big orange balloon in front of his face and he prays for the mothers to end this embarrassment. How can he bear it?

***

‘I’m sorry, Ephraim the Younger, I can tell you that it only gets worse,’ says Ephraim the Elder, as he sits on a leather-effect bench in a discotheque. Those same girls – and others – are jerking their bodies on the dancefloor in front of him to beats that Ephraim’s head can’t stand. He lifts his bottle of beer in front of his face and drinks in the view. ‘It only gets worse, buddy.’

***

‘You have no idea, you young ones. Much is left to be decided.’ Ephraim the Eldest was a disembodied vase on a shelf in a motel room in Santa Fe, New Mexico. His china gaze fell on the bed, where two bodies were writhing on top of the stitched bed cover. The sun came in through the window. ‘Have patience.’

***

Ephraim the Youngest swam on ahead, into the waiting world. Leaving his brothers behind. Bold, love has its own way, new life.

One more thing…

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Hitchhiking: London to Scotland and Back

25 – 29 August 2010
Distance: 1125 miles (approximately)
My first hitching journey in the UK.

Lesson: Optimism

This was a spectacular introduction to what is possible with hitchhiking. It took us a day to get up from London to Edinburgh, only an hour longer than the National Express bus and a whole lot cheaper. We had no idea where we were going to end up when we started – we even discussed what we would do if we failed to get out of London (try again tomorrow) – but the elation of that first lift, and then the second, the third, the fourth, the fifth, pushing ever further North, was indescribable. Meeting the friendly and helpful people of this island was joyous and an education in itself. Walking from the Tube station back to my house, I felt the barriers to limitless travel falling away. Impossible situations ‘worked out’. Stuck in the outskirts of Edinburgh for a couple of hours, tired, failing, something turns up and three hours later we were in Lancaster. Optimism.

One more thing…

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She must be French

Another young girl, teenaged, makes funny faces by pulling an elastic band between her nose and her lips. She grimaces and the band snaps back. She rubs her lip with a frown pucking her brow. I think she looks French. Is that how they get their feminine pout?

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London Bridge, Riverside

There’s a fountain, maybe six jets rising from a cobbled paving. A tourist family stops to let the son take a photograph with his new manual camera. The young man, a youth, turns the lens seriously, focusing. He steadies the camera carefully, framing. The other members, five or six of them, gather around behind their serious son, waiting for the artist to finish his work. Suddenly the father, paunch, mid-aged, runs, head down for the fountain. He jumps through the six jets of water, all youth regained. Damp laughter.

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Canada Water: A vista

It looks computer generated. Straight lines, an exercise in perspective perhaps. A long flat roof opposite – of a sports retailer. The roof is supported by two storey poles and the shop abuts the water’s edge. Stacked behind this in our perspective game, at an angle receding into the distance is another, taller flat roof. Even the cladding of the building looks computer-pixilated. The Home of Quality Newspapers. A number of other structures poke above this warehouse. One in green, tall towers with sloping roofs.

I notice, now, why the vista looks so odd: none of these buildings have windows, just bare flat greys and greens. It is like the first stages of a computer simulation, before details have been added for realism.

Behind all these foreground buildings, far away, I know, on the other side of the river, is the tower of Canary Wharf. Its light for aircraft flickers on / off sharply. A pyramid in the centre of London. 9.55 am.

One more thing…

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