In today’s pages (p78-83), Viktor Frankl addresses the dangers of the past, the sufferings of the present and the promise of the future.
For concentration camp prisoners, the ‘most depressing influence’ on their psychology was the fact that no one knew how long they would remain imprisoned for.
This created, in the words of one unnamed research psychologist, a ‘provisional existence’, to which Frankl adds ‘of unknown limit’. Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 15 ‘With the end of uncertainty there came the uncertainty of the end.’
Our guide and translator was a Syrian engineer I’ll call Abu Falafel. The first time I met him was at the house he’d been allocated by the ministry on the outer ring of Thessaloniki. It was on the ground floor of a unspectacular apartment building and he shared it with his youngest son, who is deaf.
Abu Falafel started, as all Syrians do, by ignoring our protestations that a second lunch would be unnecessary. He’d gone to so much trouble already, prepping ingredients, that we gladly acquiesced.
And so began the theatre of falafel that would give him his name. Continue reading Abu Falafel
Before driving to Diavata camp, we had to pick up our interpreter. Being all-smiles Syrian, he was first compelled to cook up huge plates of falafel, mutabbel and hummus, and feed us until we could take no more.
Then we drove out to the camp.
Diavata is hidden away in the warehouse suburbs of industrial Thessaloniki. No one could come across these people if they didn’t know they were here – it’s a long way from the polished waterfront and expensive international chain coffee. Weatherbeaten old gypsies are on their haunches outside, selling vegetables and huge watermelons laid out on tarpaulins. Continue reading Diavata Camp, Thessaloniki
If ever you feel that life isn’t quite lining up, or that your blood isn’t quite circulating as it should, or that you haven’t seen or smelt or heard anything different in a while, take a trip out of your front door and ask strangers how you can help.
That’s what I’ve been doing this past week. Continue reading How travel works on the mind
In today’s pages (p74-78), Viktor Frankl sets out the first principles of his theory of logotherapy: addressing directly the question of man’s search for meaning.
Following his description of the psychological trials of the camp inmate, Frankl asks whether or not the ‘human being is completely and unavoidably influenced by his surroundings’.
Is that theory true which would have us believe that man is no more than a product of many conditional and environmental factors – be they of a biological, psychological or sociological nature? …
[D]o the prisoners’ reactions to the singular world of the concentration camp prove that man cannot escape the influences of his surroundings?
Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 14 ‘If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering.’
Today’s pages (p70-74) bring us to the end of the Nazi rule of the concentration camp where Viktor Frankl was kept prisoner.
But not without one last twist of fate.
Frankl’s celebrations at the coming of the Red Cross delegate was short-lived. The SS arrived that night and ordered the camp to be cleared, and the prisoners taken to another camp where they would be transferred to Switzerland.
But after a mistake by the Chief Doctor, Frankl was not put on any of the trucks which understandably left him ‘[s]urprised, very annoyed and disappointed’. Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 13 ‘There they were locked in the huts and burned to death.’
I’m writing this from Chios, hoping that my phone reception doesn’t flip into Turkish and I get charged £12.50 per megabyte. First world problems, I suppose.
Where I am now is less than 5 miles from Turkey: the mountains of Anatolia rise easily over the horizon. It’s the tantalising gap between Asia and Europe, between fear and safety for refugees from the wars in Syria and beyond. Continue reading From Chios to Crisis
Here I present to you a user’s guide to cycling (with a bicycle) in Athens, Greece. The guide is presented in no particular order and intends to offer bicyclopaedic information on Athenian attitudes, traffic, roads and even the mythical cycle lane(s).
Last update: July 2018. Continue reading A User’s Guide to Cycling in Athens
The generously observant among you will have realised by now that I’m raising money for a community centre for refugees in Athens called Khora.
I promised you all that I’d do my best to find out where our money is going, and that I have done. Thanks to sunset on Strefi. Continue reading Things I Have Learnt About Khora
Two things happened in the last week that more or less capture the vagaries of moving to a new city.
Firstly I did a search online for an Ultimate frisbee team in Athens. There is one, and only one. Remarkable, whichever way you look at it; after all, Greece is the home of the flying disc. Continue reading Sunset on Strefi
Today’s pages (p64-70) concern Viktor Frankl’s attitude to fate.
Frankl believed that destiny will run its own course, and his only responsibility was to his own conscience.
One day, Viktor Frankl’s name (or number!) appeared on the list for transportation to a ‘rest camp’.
The other prisoners were all convinced that this was nothing more than a euphemism for ‘gas chamber’, but Frankl did nothing to get his name crossed off the list – even when the camp’s chief doctor told him he only had to ask.
I told him that this was not my way; that I had learned to let fate take its course. … He shook my hand silently, as though it were a farewell, not for life, but from life.
Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 12 ‘They tried to save themselves, but they only sealed their own fates.’
Today’s pages (p60-64) start with the observation that, in the desperate fight for survival, the inmates could easily lose the feeling of being an individual with ‘inner freedom and personal value’.
He thought of himself then as only a part of an enormous mass of people; his existence descended to the level of animal life.
Viktor Frankl notices that the inmates started to behave like sheep, when herded from one place to another by the guards.
[W]e, the sheep, thought of two things only – how to evade the bad dogs and how to get a little food. Just like sheep that crowd timidly into the centre of a herd, each of us tried to get into the middle of our formations.
Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 11 ‘One literally became a number: dead or alive – that was unimportant; the life of a “number” was completely irrelevant.’
What makes such a place eerie?
- A place, like this, unfamiliar.
- The only human sounds are far off shrieks, and you’re hemmed in by the screams of insects.
- Everything is coated in a layer of dust.
- Discarded cigarettes, feathers and condoms.
Continue reading Daily Dérive #2: The Museum of Parkaeology
I recently finished reading Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy and was struck by the philosophical wranglings of the character of Levin, particularly in the final book.
Some readers might write Levin off as a bit of a prig, especially in contrast to the wild passions of the eponymous female hero, but I find his incessant naval-gazing appealingly familiar.
In this blog post, I’ll pick out Tolstoy’s line of argument that takes Levin from the torment of existential doubt to the clear certainty of his purpose in life. Continue reading The Limits of Rationalism: The Existential Journey of Levin in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina
The air is cool, but the sun is hot. I can smell that smell of hot stones and gasoline, sweet rotting rubbish, atomising flowers, or charring meat. It’s what my nose knows as the southern Mediterranean.
A man tidily dressed in a cotton shirt and trousers sits down beside me. He’s looking around like he’s lost a friend. He yawns ostentatiously. His beard is frizzled with grey and white. A toddler cackles and runs toward and away on the flagstones. Continue reading Daily Dérive #1: Agios Panteleimonas ~ Exarcheia
Travelling by bike is a dream, travelling with a bike is goddam nightmare – if (like me a week ago) you don’t know what you’re doing.
This is a recollection of my ‘with bike’ journey from London to Patras in Greece, via Paris, Milan and Brindisi. The trip took 5 hot days in July 2018, encompassing 3 trains through France and Italy, and 1 ferry across the Adriatic. Along the way, I got to see plenty of Paris, a little of Milan, and probably too much of Brindisi’s gelaterias!
Before I left, I searched everywhere for information about travelling across Europe with a bike and, although I found plenty of Official Rules, I couldn’t find anything like this – a straight-forward guide written by a cyclist who’d actually been there and done it.
I was pretty stressed on this journey simply because I didn’t know how much to trust the Official Rules – will Eurostar mistakenly send my bike to Brussels? will there be enough space on the TGV in among justifiably irate commuters? will my bike bag be 12cm too long? and will I be sent directly to jail without passing go by an over-officious guard?
Hopefully this guide will ease your troubled mind because this journey IS EASILY DONE. Continue reading London to Greece via Paris, Milan and Brindisi with (but not by) a bike
Today’s pages (p55-60) start with what must be one of the most shockingly apposite analogies in literature.
[A] man’s suffering is similar to the behaviour of gas. If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber.
Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering great or little. Therefore the “size” of human suffering is absolutely relative.
The choice to use ‘gas’ for the metaphor is both macabre and entirely fitting. Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 10 ‘Suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering great or little.’
This post is coming to you LIVE from the Milan-Brindisi train. Currently paused at Trinitapoli, where the air smells of rain and the clouds are ripped from oil paintings. Somewhere over there is the Adriatic, across which (with any luck) I shall be sailing tomorrow evening.
The man opposite me, in shirt sleeves and eyebrows, is eating one of those doughnut-shaped apricots, bringing the sharp tang of Italian soil and sunshine to the carriage. Continue reading Travel from the Heart
The prisoners’ inner life was so important to their survival, whether it was the mundane nostalgic memory of catching the bus or answering telephone, or the sublime sight of the setting sun through the tall trees of the Bavarian woods.
After admiring such a sunset, one prisoner said to another: ‘How beautiful the world could be.’ Continue reading Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 9 ‘I bit my lips till they hurt in order to keep from laughing at one of his love poems, and very likely that saved my life.’
The Foiled recordings last weekend went down an absolute storm (see above cast photo). In the memorable words of one superfan: ‘That made Series 1 sound shit.’ And I couldn’t agree more fervently.
Probably my favourite moment of the whole weekend was the read through before what will become Episode 2. Sitting across from the exquisite Miles Jupp as he transformed my words into actual live comedy is something I will never forget – barring a governmental lobotomisation programme or degenerative brain disease. Continue reading Foiled Diaries: Finito!
Today’s pages (p45-51) are some of the most touching in the whole book.
Viktor Frankl begins by describing, almost light-heartedly, the ‘cultural hibernation’ that took place in the concentration camps.
Two exceptions to the absence of interest in art and intellect were ‘almost continuous’ discussions of politics and religion:
The depth and vigour of religious belief often surprised and moved a new arrival.
This deepening of spiritual life is Frankl’s explanation of why ‘some prisoners of a less hardy make-up often seemed to survive camp life better than did those of a robust nature’. Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 8 ‘The salvation of man is through love and in love.’
Today’s pages (p41-45) are largely concerned with food, notable for its paucity in concentration camps such as Auschwitz.
Viktor Frankl recounts the daily menu:
[T]he daily ration consisted of very watery soup given out once daily, and the usual small bread ration.
In addition to that, there was the so-called “extra allowance,” consisting of three-fourths of an ounce of margarine, or of a slice of poor quality sausage, or of a little piece of cheese, or a bit of synthetic honey, or a spoonful of watery jam, varying daily.
Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 7 ‘In those ghastly minutes, I found a little bit of comfort; a small piece of bread.’
The Top Line
A bivvy bag is not much more than a waterproof sack for you to sleep inside. Despite that unpromising description, bivvying is a superb alternative to full-blown tent-based camping – especially when weight or discretion is important.
Without exaggeration, a bivvy bag could completely transform your vagabonding – as one did mine 7 years ago.
The following is the mother lode of lessons that I’ve learnt over dozens of bivvying adventures since 2011. Take all this advice with many pinches of low-sodium salt, and find your own way. Continue reading Brilliant Bivvying: The Mother Lode of Wild Camping Advice
In today’s pages (p37-41), Viktor Frankl describes how even the most hardened concentration camp prisoner can be roused through insult to rash – and potentially suicidal – indignation.
The beating Frankl received after defending his honour as a doctor against the insults of a particularly repugnant foreman was only relieved by the favour of the Capo in his work party.
How had Frankl won the good favour of this Capo? By lending a sympathetic ear to the Capo’s tales of matrimonial strife! Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 6 ‘No dream, no matter how horrible, could be as bad as the reality of the camp which surrounded us.’
Today I thought I’d buy a couple of newspapers, one national and one local, and cut out the stories that I considered ‘positive news’.
What do I mean by that? Although not necessarily ‘good news’ (certainly not in the Biblical sense), for me positive news stories are reported with an eye on constructive analysis and solutions. Above all, they steer clear of threatening or fear-mongering language.
Armed with my copy of The Guardian and The Bournemouth Daily Echo, I set about on the floor with a pair of scissors. Continue reading All News isn’t Good News; Most News is Crappy
In this section (p31-37), Viktor Frankl moves onto the second phase of the psychological response to incarceration: apathy, a ‘kind of emotional death’.
As he says, such an ‘abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behaviour’.
This ‘mortification of normal reactions was hastened’ by the punishments meted out by the camp officials:
It was a favourite practice to detail a new arrival to a work group whose job was to clean the latrines and remove the sewage.
If, as usually happened, some of the excrement splashed into his face during its transport over bumpy fields, any sign of disgust by the prisoner or any attempt to wipe off the filth would only be punished with a blow from a Capo.
Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 5 ‘Disgust, horror and pity are emotions that our spectator could not really feel any more.’
This is necessarily going to be a super short diary update: I’ve done more than enough typing for one week on Foiled and I haven’t slept in a bed for a few nights – the glamour!
One particular highlight of the last 7 days was realising on Wednesday that our producer wanted a rewrite of one episode by 9pm – at 8.40pm. I still don’t know how I managed to write 8 pages in 20 minutes – and only half of it was chucked out the next day! Continue reading Foiled Diaries: Writers Rooms
Last week I was invited to join my friend’s Ultimate Summer League team. Minutes later, I chucked her Frisbee into the river Thames. I’ve double-checked and the invite still stands.
Ultimate is the codified sport of throwing a Frisbee around a field. The rules are a cross between American Football and Netball: you score in end zones, but you can’t travel with the disc and there’s no physical contact allowed.
I’m not sure about the dress-code. I sincerely hope the uniform isn’t also a cross between American Football and Netball. Shoulder pads and short skirts are not a good look on me. Continue reading Ultimate Medal Hope
Today’s pages mark Viktor Frankl’s transition from naive optimism to the moment he ‘struck out’ the whole of his former life and started his bare fight for survival from Auschwitz.
Those who had survived the initial cull were stripped of all their belongings and shaved bare with not a hair left on their bodies.
While we were waiting for the shower, our nakedness was brought home to us: we really had nothing now except our bare bodies: all we possessed, literally, was our naked existence’.
Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-day Book Cult: Day 4 ‘A man can get used to anything, but do not ask us how.’
I was undeterred by the sight of a gaggle of ‘Run Doggy Run’ dogs being hauled into the water for a splash. Not even after one particularly enthusiastic hound decided to urinate over some reeds.
I’m sure his pee is already thoroughly diluted. Besides: worse things have certainly oozed in that water unseen, but still. Slightly distasteful to actually witness the event.
There is something magical about the swimmer’s view of the world. Instead of being on top of everything, you are 95% submerged. The banks rise up and the horizon stretches on forever as you gaze over your belly down stream. Continue reading Sunswim
These five pages (p22-26 in my 2004 Rider edition) begin with the first phase of the inmates mental reactions to life in a concentration camp. Unsurprisingly, the dominant symptom on admission to Auschwitz was shock.
There are three passages in today’s reading that stand out for me. The first is Viktor Frankl’s observation of the ‘delusion of reprieve’:
The condemned man, immediately before his execution, gets the illusion that he might be reprieved at the very last minute. We, too, clung to shreds of hope and believed to the last moment that it would not be so bad.
Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-day Book Cult: Day 3 ‘The condemned man, immediately before his execution, gets the illusion that he might be reprieved at the very last minute.’
These first pages (p17-21 in my 2004 Rider edition) of Part 1: Experiences in a Concentration Camp contain the most chilling passage I think I have ever read in a work of non-fiction.
After describing how desperate was the fight for survival in the concentration camps of World War Two, Viktor Frankl matter-of-factly states:
On the average, only those prisoners could keep alive who, after years of trekking from camp to camp, had lost all scruples in their fight for existence; they were prepared to use every means, honest and otherwise, even brutal force, theft, and betrayal of their friends, in order to save themselves.
We who have come back, by the aid of many lucky chances or miracles – whatever one may choose to call them – we know: the best of us did not return.
Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-day Book Club: Day 2 ‘We know: the best of us did not return.’
Gordon W Allport opens his preface to Man’s Search for Meaning with an anecdote about Viennese psychiatrist-author Victor Frankl. Apparently he used to ask all his patients one question: ‘Why do you not commit suicide?’ Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-day Book Club: Day 1 ‘A psychiatrist who personally has faced such extremity is a psychiatrist worth listening to.’
In 2016 I embarked on the somewhat ambitious target of cycling from London to Syria, reporting on the refugee ‘crisis’ from the saddle of my bicycle. In 46 days, I got as far as Vienna, before rushing back to work on Foiled at the Edinburgh Festival. It was a busy summer!
I always said that I’d carry on the cycle some day. Well, some day has arrived. Continue reading Cycling to Syria – Back in the Saddle!
It’s not every day that the premise for a Hollywood film gets turned into a psychology experiment designed to make you feel more satisfied with your life.
But that’s what has happened to Frank Capra’s perennial schmaltz-fest It’s A Wonderful Life. Continue reading It’s a wonderful life – isn’t it?
As you can see, the Department for Work and Pensions are optimistic that my comedy writing career is really going to take off over the next 31 years. I’m sure that the reason they have so much confidence is that they’ve heard I write in Arcot Street. Continue reading Everyone needs an Arcot
So apparently Facebook have had some bad press recently. What can I add to the debate, other than being smug about being 5 years ahead of the curve?
The way I describe quitting Facebook is that it’s as if a tiny little bit of your brain suddenly becomes available again. I didn’t realise that it was being taken up by Facebook 24 hours a day until I quit. If you haven’t already, and if only for that reason, quit.
If you’re worried about What Might Happen, take courage. After deleting my account, I didn’t get a single twinge of remorse. I didn’t miss a thing, although I do now have no social life (unrelated, I’m sure…) Continue reading Look after the weirdos and delete everything
In the preface to my edition of Man’s Search for Meaning, Gordon W Allport tells us that Viktor Frankl used to ask his psychotherapy clients what it was that stopped them from committing suicide.
It’s a question that existential philosopher and bon vivant Albert Camus considered the only serious question in philosophy. Continue reading The Only Serious Question of Philosophy The lesson from history is that humans are infinitely adaptable, and the most adaptable are those who are able to see the potential for growth among abject suffering.
I read a lot of books. Not a ridiculous quantity, like my sister, but a lot. I also make a lot of spreadsheets. Not a ridiculous quantity, like my dad, but a lot. Putting those two aspects of my nature together, I can tell you things like:
- I read an average of 32.7 books a year.
- About a quarter of those will be fiction.
- I also give up on an average of 6.9 books every year.
- In the last 5 years, I have given 45 books a rating of 5 out of 5. That’s 27% of all the books I’ve read.
- Only 1 book in 202 has scored 1 out of 5. Most of the books in this category I don’t finish, and therefore don’t score. This one I finished, and it was irritatingly bad. It was by Jeffrey Archer.
Every now and again I read a book that defies my rating scheme. If I was a different sort of person, a more devil-may-care sort of person, then I’d break my 5-point rating for books like this.
This week I read such a book, after finding out that Alastair Humphreys reads it every year: Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. Continue reading Viktor Frankl and Man’s Search for Meaning
On Wednesday, for the umpteenth time in the last year, I found myself in swimming shorts, dripping in sweat, and making small talk with strangers. Even in the UK, saunas are a great place to meet people.
“What even is the benefit of doing a sauna, anyway?”
I’ve heard that question while sweating my guts out so many times that I really wonder what brought them there in the first place. You just walked through the door, son, you tell me! Continue reading Why I sauna
After a week of fluctuating symptoms of flu, yesterday I was reminded of the healing power of a bike ride. The weight came off my shoulders as I cycled through the southerly reaches of Greater London, through back streets of spring sunshine, between grid-lines of daffodils, dodging traffic on green lanes and perking up parks. Has it been so long since that summer we shared?
The feeling was of a reflective moment during the playing of an old song: a moment of calm and clarity. It made me pick up the phone this lunchtime and call an old friend, stitching something together where it might have severed. That’s what a bike ride can do: that’s what being in-the-world can do – for me, at least.
It also ties the first loop in a chain of habit; today I walk out of my (borrowed) front door and into a wood. Continue reading From a log in a quiet noisy place with mud underfoot
One of my favourite aphorisms is “Happiness is the very opposite of selfishness”, attributed to Anthony Seldon, vice-chancellor of Buckingham University and obsessive historian of Tony Blair. [Read an elucidation of his aphorism on the BBC]
This aphorism is a great tonic for when I find myself footling around in my brain for that elusive drug, happiness. It gently nudges me back onto the path, calibrates my compass, gets me out of my head and connects me with others.
But there are times when it doesn’t work. Continue reading Work is the Opposite of Worry
My radio play, Options for Dealing with Squatting, is now out! The Narrativist is a unique podcast that splices a conventional interview with an original radio play on the same theme. My episode is about squatting. No: not weightlifting, but the nefarious art of appropriating unused buildings for shelter. Continue reading Options for Dealing with Squatting: A Mockumentary Radio Play
The half term holiday was the perfect opportunity for Beth and I to go down to Wales, breathe the comic airs and get started on series two of Foiled.
The temptation, of course, was to treat the half term holiday as, well, a holiday – and there were indeed blows along the respective proms of Barry and Penarth, as well as long cups of tea in the terrace sunshine. But sitcoms, even radio sitcoms, have to start somewhere. And ours, however leisurely, started here. Continue reading Foiled Series 2: A Sitcom Writer’s Diary
I last took a flight in January 2010. I was still in my mid-to-late 20s, of no fixed abode (no change there) and had only been taking writing seriously for a year. I didn’t own a bicycle, had never worn a beard or grown my hair, and knew Cairo better than I knew any town outside London and my county of birth. Continue reading No No Aeroplanes: 98 Months and Out
Dum loquimur, fugerit invida aetas: carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero.
Even as we speak, envious time flies past: harvest the day and leave as little as possible for tomorrow.
Horace, Ode XI (65-8BC)
I’m currently reading Carpe Diem Regained by Roman Krznaric (incidentally, a book funded by Unbound – it is possible!) and this blog post is inspired by the tools and techniques he explores in the second chapter: Dancing with Death.
The ancient philosophy espoused by Horace in the first century before Christ is one of the most ubiquitous in modern culture, but its ubiquity disguises how little any of us actually think about what it would really mean to live by. Continue reading Carpe Diem: Dancing with Death
The best positive constraints are easily explicable and as simple to follow. Before bed, I put my phone on airplane mode and hide it away in a drawer. Then I don’t touch it until after noon the next day. (Unless there is some pressing human need; but that’s only happened twice in the last three weeks.) Continue reading No Phone (Before Noon)
Scotland, it turns out, knows how to put on a show.
As Ben and I walked out on Monday afternoon, squeezing in one last tramp before the drive back to civilisation, we were audience to a scene that the Scottish Tourist Board couldn’t have choreographed better. Continue reading Bothy Bothering: Cairngorms
In 1973, the anthropologist Clifford Geertz wrote something wise:
“We are, in sum, incomplete or unfinished animals who complete ourselves through culture – and not through culture in general but through particular forms of it.”
The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays, 1973
I love this idea: it’s what makes life so exciting and so terrible. We are born, not as blank slates, but certainly unfinished. Our parents and carers start our finishing, but as adults we, in collusion with our society, continue the process. Continue reading Unfinished Animals: A Novel
Last Sunday, I was the beneficiary of some friend-wisdom – that variety of wisdom that you can only hear from friends because otherwise it just doesn’t sink in.
What 5 things do you love doing? 5 things that invariably fill you with joy every time you do them. Feed yourself with them. Continue reading Your 5 Things