September 17, 30 degree heat, Akropolis in sight. The culmination of seven months’ hard preparation and two months’ hard riding.
It was a spectacular summer, filled to the brim with vivid experiences and vital friendships. But, as I reluctantly turned my handlebars back northwest, I felt pretty empty.
So, as our ferry chugged inexorably across the Channel, I started a list of things to get excited about this winter.
When your whole being has been consumed by one or two projects and both those projects come to an abrupt end at the same time, it takes a force of will to step outside once more and rediscover, or reaffirm, who you are or who you aspire to be.
If I were an athlete, this winter would be my ‘off-season’, an opportunity to focus again on the basics, the training and training ground routines, rather than the exhilaration and exhaustion of competitive matchplay.
What do I want to learn? Where do I want to stretch myself? Who do I want to become for next season?
I won’t jinx the entire list by sharing it here, but here are a few winter wins that give you an insight into three areas where I want to grow.
Leadership & Communication
The nine months I have spent this year helping to steer Thighs of Steel have taught me a lot about myself and particularly about how I respond under pressure and time stress.
The main thing I have learnt is how important it is to keep lines of communication open, be honest about my feelings and needs, and make sure that empathy is flowing in both directions, between myself and the rest of the team (and, well, anyone else too!).
Out of season hotspots, like Dartmoor, the Lakes, North Pennines, Wales or the Highlands, are empty. The views, like the shadows, are long and clear and the weather is either exactly as expected or surprisingly delightful – no possible disappointment.
Learning forces us to remember that we’re not dead yet.
It reminds us that our brains are plastic (the good kind of plastic) and that we are very much unfinished animals.
Whether teaching your old self a new trick or honing a dulled blade, learning shows us that, in spite of everything, we are making headway.
A great winter win to have in your back pocket.
This year, as well as the NVC course I mentioned, I’m learning how to make sourdough from the delicious bakers at Bakehouse 24, getting guitar lessons from a chap who works for Specsavers (thanks again LH!), and building a FREAKIN SAUNA with a carpenter friend of mine.
I’ve also enrolled in a four-month Zoe Personalised Nutrition programme that involves a continuous blood sugar sensor, gut health and blood fat tests… and loads of muffins. Can’t wait!
I’m not usually one for bucket lists, but I really needed this.
I know that I can’t do everything on my list, but just knowing that I’m already doing some of the things, even if only the small things, will give me enough momentum to carry me through the dark days.
‘Once a small win has been accomplished,’ Weick wrote, ‘forces are set in motion that favour another small win.’
What one small, good thing can you do today that will set you up for another small, good thing tomorrow?
Yesterday, for example, I asked a friend whether she knew anyone who taught guitar. Today, she sent over the number of that guy from Specsavers who teaches guitar on the side. Tomorrow, when I’m back in the library, I’ll message him to set up a lesson.
And in one year’s time? I’ll be opening the London Palladium!
Or maybe I’ll just be a little better at making music. Either way, I’m happy: I have sustainable momentum in the direction I want to travel.
And if, at any point over the coming months, I feel myself drifting or dissatisfied, then I can come back to this list, remind myself of why I’m here, and do one small thing to regain that momentum.
Besides my data diet, I’ve been particularly enjoying having some distance from text messages, which have a nasty habit of crash landing in my brain like meteorites from outer space.
When we speak to someone on the phone or in person, we usually open with some variation of ‘Hello, how are you?’ — and, quite often, we listen to the answer.
We do a temperature check, we attune ourselves to each other, and only then, when it’s appropriate, do we announce our needs, whatever they are.
We can’t do this human temperature check via text message because they are, by nature, asynchronous.
We can never know the state of mind of the recipient in the instant that we communicate with them.
That’s an astonishingly optimistic way to go about a conversation, isn’t it? And, given how much we message (145 per day on average in 2018), isn’t it amazing that we’re not all nervous wrecks already?
So it’s been nice to be able to step away from text messages for all but a few hours a day. Nice to know that nothing can crash land — it’s like a temporary force field has been thrown up around Planet Dave, only disabled by libraries and hotel lobbies.
The Most Wonderful
But the most wonderful gift of this untethered time has been what feels like a reclamation, a reclamation of something that I had forgotten was mine: my early mornings and my evenings.
I usually wake up some time between half six and half seven. That gives me a couple of hours before the library to read, write and walk.
I don’t know what I did in the years when I had an internet connection, but I know that my mornings were nowhere near as grounded.
All my adventures, many of my stories and myriad other gifts of mental processing can be traced back to these pages.
It’s a quiet place to unload, unravel and understand. (Not so quiet today: Back In The USSR playing right now — written at the height of the Cold War, it still suprises me how radical Paul McCartney could be — and how good on the drums too.)
In Egyptian hieroglyphic script, each word ends with a determinative symbol that gives context to the preceding consonant-sounding signs.
For example, the determinative used at the end of the word relating to motion is a pair of legs walking — as in the word 𓉔𓄿𓃀𓂻 (shelter-vulture-foot-legs walking: h3b) meaning ‘send’.
But here’s the one thing that has stayed with me in the twenty years since I studied Egyptology: the determinative used to connote any abstract concept, such as ‘greatness’, ‘dignity’ or ‘truth’, was a scroll of papyrus: 𓏛
Because it’s only through writing — in this case, on a roll of papyrus — that we can manifest the abstract.
It’s like magic.
Once we have captured and written down our abstract thoughts, we can examine them at a distance, modify, modulate and manipulate them. Under the spell of our penwork or typecraft, we watch as our mind changes.
Writing a diary (journal, morning pages or whatever you call it) is a form of self-counselling.
My diary means I can arrive at face-to-face counselling sessions with the ingredients of my mind, my thoughts and emotions, at least half-baked.
I don’t just tip mental shopping bags, bursting with random ingredients, all over my counsellor’s kitchen floor. I’ve already prepped the meal.
So I’m grateful to my phone network for screwing up and bringing me back to my morning pages.
I now write twice a day: a thousand words on my untethered laptop, looking out over the slow winter dawn, and a thousand words on my Neo Alphasmart typewriter, tucked up in bed with the curtains drawn on the moon and stars.
Morning pages to write myself into a positive, productive mindset.
Evening pages to tie up any loose ends before sleeping, to reflect and regenerate.
Same Time, Different Tenor
Comparing this disconnected week with the very much connected week before, I was surprised to find that I spent the same amount of time on my devices — including the exact same time on messaging apps and email.
Not what I was expecting at all.
The difference was in the detail, however. I spent three hours more on my laptop and three hours fewer on my phone. Consequently, this led to an 8 percent increase in what RescueTime calls ‘Productivity’.
Given that I wasn’t trying to be more ‘productive’ and that the only apparent difference between the two weeks was my internet connection, this is a useful insight.
I don’t know what you use your mobile internet connection for, but I’ve also been happy to find that I haven’t missed any of its other features.
Mildly inconvenienced at times, perhaps, but not in any way that made me ungrateful for this opportunity for silence.
Social Gravity Pulling Us Back
But there’s only so long that our society will tolerate those without a tether.
Already I’ve run into problems dodging through two-factor security and accessing my bank account. There are also some websites that won’t work in the library.
No, not those ones! Honestly. Who do you think I am?
I mean totally legit ones – Substack, for example.
In the UK, the unseen forces of social gravity pull us strongly back in the direction of, not merely a mobile phone, but an internet-enabling smartphone.
Remember, though: this kind of social physics is not Newtonian. We can — and will — push back.
My phone actually started working again yesterday.
Between the hours of 9pm and 10am this morning, however, I kept the life-giving SIM card stashed away in a lock box outside the flat. Bliss.
With a little care and preparation, I believe that Pandora’s box might just work.
Earlier this year, tediously, Virgin Mobile transferred all their customers (hi) from the EE network to Vodafone.
(Did you know that there are only four actual mobile phone networks in the UK? All the other providers are just piggybacking.)
For 99.99 percent of Virgin customers, this move made absolutely no difference. For me, however, the switch was terminal, as I happen to live in a Vodafone dead zone.
It’s a strange story because outside on the streets, on the beach or even in my garden, I have full bars and leopard leaping 30mbps 4G coverage. Inside the flat, however, that drops to a caterpillar crawling 2mbps on the dreaded H+.
Why? How? Why?!
The Vodafone antenna is on our roof. Glorious reception in all directions but down.
Unfortunately, unless the wind is blowing just right, this stuttering connection is nowhere near good enough for me to work from home.
So earlier this week, I changed network providers. All well and good, until they tried to port my old phone number to the new SIM card.
Then something broke.
Now my phone can’t connect to any network. I can’t make calls and I can’t connect to the internet.
In fact, because I don’t have wifi installed in the flat, I haven’t been connected to the internet while at home for all of 48 hours.
Work = Internet?
This is probably the longest I’ve been without internet in my own home since I lived on a smallholder farm in 2009 and my work consisted of digging vegetable plots, hunting for chicken eggs and throwing apples for the pigs.
Even that was only a brief hiatus in a connective link between the dial-up of 1998, via broadband ethernet, to the arrival of wifi and 3G.
Despite being a late-adopter of the smartphone, I’ve been more or less tethered to the internet at home since I was about sixteen years old and certainly for the whole of my working life.
Since I left university, to a greater or lesser extent, my work has also depended on a reliable connection to the internet.
From finding my first English students through an advert on Gumtree to writing and designing a website for people I never met in meat space, the internet has always been an essential business partner.
But even in 2022 it would be wrong to say that my work is entirely dependent on the internet.
In fact, now that I find myself without, I realise that my writing work is a long way off needing the reliable always-on connection of the sort that fills most homes – and filled mine until 13:07 on Wednesday afternoon.
The guiding principle is that, when deciding what tool to use, start by defining the task and then choose the least complex tool that will do the job. No more, no less.
For example: I need to get some food later. The shops are 4km away, but I only have an hour to spare and I’ll have a lot to carry home. That’s the job.
The tools at my disposal are: my walking legs, my bicycle and my car. The least complex tool to solve the problem is my bicycle with a couple of pannier bags.
Choosing the bicycle, I’ll save money and petrol over the car, while keeping the head-clearing benefits of physical exercise at a speed considerably faster than walking.
But far too often we act with the principle of Minimum Viable Technology turned upside down.
Instead of first defining the task at hand, we’re dazzled by the tool and go searching for jobs it happens to be good at.
To someone with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
We have a spectacular tool at our fingertips – the internet – and so we bend almost every aspect of our entire existence into internet-shaped tasks.
In so doing, we accidentally generate a scrolling stream of work to grind through, in service of the tool.
Back in the 90s, who would have predicted that inbox overwhelm would become a daily battle for almost everyone with an internet connection, i.e. almost everyone?
In the creation of ubiquitous instant always-on asynchronous communication, the internet has turned human interaction into a stressful game of whack-a-mole.
But was ubiquitous instant always-on asynchronous communication ever defined as the job we needed done?
The tool has made civil servants and secretaries of us all.
The problem is not that the internet can’t be our Minimum Viable Technology for some (even many) tasks.
This newsletter wouldn’t be in front of your eyeballs right now if I hadn’t decided that the internet was the right tool for the job.
The problem with the internet is that, once chosen as the right tool for some tasks, it has a nasty habit of taking over everything else as well.
I’m sure someone clever has written a long treatise on how every business is now an internet business, but I’m more interested in what this takeover means for us as humans living our puny little lives.
More specifically: what it means for me. And, for me, the always-on internet means two things: spidering and defaulting.
Sometimes when I sit down at my computer to write a newsletter, that’s exactly what happens. My fingers, my brain and the internet work in a smooth and equal partnership.
Writing this way feels like a conversation with the rest of the world: pulling the data of other people’s experience into a synthesis with my own and putting that back out onto the network.
It’s a rare sensation. More often, I catch myself spidering.
Instead of looking inwards for authentic inspiration, I venture out onto the web.
I search this thing, that thing. Read this article, that article. Follow this link, that link. Type this, type that. Nothing sticks.
Before I know it, two hours have passed and I’ve got 43 tabs open and only 12 words on the page. That’s spidering.
Defaulting is what happens in the twelve hours of the day that I’m neither properly focussed on a task nor asleep.
The internet is always on. At home, my computer is always there. Until yesterday, that combination meant that the internet is not only always on, but always there.
As a freelancer (and increasingly for y’all nine-to-fivers), that means my work is always on and always there too.
I’ll drift over to my computer, handily stationed in the dominant middle of the room, and I’ll file email, cycle on rotation through the same default websites, tidy my spreadsheet calendar, check messaging apps, try to read something, buy something I don’t really need.
This is not productive work, this is ‘can’t switch off’ work. Footling around, tweaking, checking and triple checking. Busy work.
But do you know what I really hate about defaulting? When I use it as a ‘reward’.
I’ll be in the flow of writing and suddenly realise that I’ve been working for 45 minutes straight and, as a ‘reward’, I’ll check the BBC Sport headlines.
Reward defaulting is the WORST – it’s not refreshing, it’s not rewarding, it’s just blind dopamine addiction.
Always On, Always There
Who is at fault here?
There will be readers who say that all my spidering and defaulting behaviour is simply ill-discipline. Fair enough.
But once I’ve acknowledged my ill-discipline, what then? Just try harder? Ha!
My problem is not with my internet connection as such; my problem is with my ‘always on, always there’ part. But separating the two is almost impossible.
So far as I know, I can’t buy a nine to five connection. I either have the internet or I don’t.
Yes, I know there are apps out there that will limit my internet connection. I know because I use two of them: Freedom and Unpluq.
It’s true that I haven’t used Freedom to permanently disconnect myself – but I have used it to limit my access to certain websites. And I have also discovered how easy the app is to circumvent.
The temptation to circumvent my own discipline is much too great: waiting for me behind that protective firewall is a delicious banquet, every last megabyte morsel of internet goodness.
This is the reason why the most effective positive constraints are black and white: I don’t use aeroplanes to travel. Not: I don’t use aeroplanes to travel except sometimes when I do.
So, assuming I ever get my phone to work again, how the hell can I design a positive constraint that will keep the always-on, always-there internet out of my house?
Well, first of all, let’s see how I managed to write today’s newsletter, wifi-free.
A New Old Way To Write
Before today, I’d written 330 editions of this newsletter and I’d say that about 312 of them were written in the same way: with a solid internet connection running in the background.
It’s no wonder that, at first, this new way of working felt a little uncomfortable. Unstable. Untethered.
Writing a newsletter is a complex task, made up of dozens of smaller individual tasks – but I’ve realised today that only a couple of those smaller jobs are best done while tethered to an internet connection.
The rest are best done without internet – not that they can’t be done while connected, but they’re best done without.
This is where it helps to define the three major areas of newsletter writing according to Minimum Viable Technology principles.
Problem 1: How to get this newsletter in front of your eyeballs
With limited budget to spend on postage stamps, my options are pretty limited here. The internet is the Minimum Viable Technology for the job. Thank you, Substack.
Problem 2: How to research this newsletter
The internet might be the fastest tool for grabbing a quick quote and it might even be the best tool for prospecting and sieving for content – but it is also a resource that is available to almost everyone.
If almost anyone can perform a web search, then, however tempting for the writer, that work has less value to the reader.
Do you know how many hours a day the average American spends online? Well, yes you do. As much as I do, anyway. The answer’s right there, a few taps away.
The seductive ease of the internet squeezes out slower, deeper, more valuable research that I can do from my own experience and my own library – particularly when so many of the stories I write here are inspired by the physical books (not online articles) that I read.
The Minimum Viable Technology is my own brain in the first instance – not out of arrogance, but rather trust that I already know roughly what it is that I want to say, what line of argument to take, or what emotion or reaction I’d like you to have in response.
When my brain inevitably runs dry, my home library of about 400 books is there for inspiration: a much deeper well than a surface-level web search.
You can trace the origins of this story, for example, to two books by Cal Newport: Digital Minimalism and A World Without Email, both of which I’ve written about before and both of which are sitting on the desk right next to me.
As writers, we are spoiled by the wealth of knowledge found on the internet, forgetting that our personal libraries are probably better provisioned than 99 percent of libraries that ever existed in the millennia before 1960.
It’s rare that I write something so entwined with online research that I can’t put anything down on the page, but for those more research-heavy stories I can imagine a process of going back and forth to an internet connection between drafts — not during.
Missing research can be skimmed over in the draft using a marker like TK (a rare letter combination in English, standing for ‘to come’) and the gaps filled through batching when an internet connection is restored.
Stupid example: I had no idea how many mobile phone networks there were in the UK, only that there weren’t very many. I only looked up the exact number just now, before hitting send.
Quick Note On Batching
This morning, I went to the library to use the internet. Before going, I made a long list of things to do while I had a connection.
Besides getting in touch with my mobile phone service provider, I wanted to message a few people, send a couple of emails, check some train times and the weather forecast for a mushroom picking adventure.
It was all done quickly and easily. That’s the joy of batching tasks – like doing all the washing up in one go. And when it was done, there was nothing to keep me in the library.
If I’d been at home, those same jobs would have cropped up here and there throughout the day and either interrupted my flow or taken much longer thanks to my old friends, spidering and defaulting.
At the library, I simply got to the end of my list and felt almost disappointed: is that it? Is that all the business I have with this lofty invention to whom I dedicate so many hours at home?
Problem 3: How to actually write this newsletter
Writing is a long process of drafting and redrafting and, because of twin threats of spidering and defaulting, I think almost all that work is best done without an internet connection.
One of the big advantages to writing this newsletter offline is that I couldn’t rush to print.
I spent two hours writing the first draft of this newsletter and the temptation was to hurry over to the library and get it up on Substack for editing.
But then I realised that I didn’t need to. I could do all my edits in LibreOffice at home, still with no internet connection.
This new writing process unfolded over eight stages, the first five of which were offline and occupied five of the six hours this story took to write:
Second draft in LibreOffice, an offline word processing app
Print out, read and edit with an actual pen
Third draft edits in LibreOffice, offline
Cycle to my friends’ house (thanks GC and BS)
Copy over to Substack online
TK gap-filling and typesetting online
Publish online (yay!)
Those first two stages are the bulk of the work and took about four hours – probably about average for an epic story of this kind, but, with no distractions, I found the process more enjoyable, smoother.
Not only that, but with all the time in the world at my disposal, I could print out a copy of the text and take it to the sauna with me to do some relaxed line edits.
Why not try, just this once?
Quick Note On Tiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiime
One of the things that I did in the library earlier was to download a bunch of podcasts that I could listen to offline at home.
And here is the challenge I promised at the top: I bet you still find it IMPOSSIBLE to cut your home internet connection.
83 Percent Offline
Clearly, this newsletter isn’t going analogue any time soon.
But I’ve learned that five out of six hours, 83 percent, of the work can be done offline and this slower, less distracted process has undoubtedly made for a more focussed story.
(A better story, though? You be the judge of that!)
Even if the internet is the Minimum Viable Technology for many jobs, that doesn’t mean that I need it piped into my home twenty-four hours a day.
The question returns: how the hell can I design a positive constraint that will keep the always-on, always-there internet out of my god-damned house?
Given the spidering and defaulting tendencies and temptations of the internet, I’m afraid that only a radical solution will work. Something stronger than Freedom, Unpluq or my own willpower.
Okay, so… I’m going to try leaving my phone in my car in the car park outside, eight flights of stairs away.
I’ll still be able to do all the internet things I need to do when I need to do them, but, as well as the mild discomfort, there’s no way of charging my computer down there so I’ll be limited to an hour of connected time anyway.
If I need longer: away to the library again.
All the other things that I need a phone for, like using maps or (umm) phoning people, are done (or better done) outside anyway. Let’s walk and talk.
Oh – and yes: I am aware of the crushing irony of this.
No internet in the flat was the reason that I changed mobile network provider – yet also precisely how I came to discover that what I really want is… no internet in the flat.
For now, though, even my car phone solution is a luxury. I still haven’t got signal. (Sorry friends!)
Talking of friends: I was chatting about my predicament last night and someone pointed out how annoying it is for everyone else when one of you doesn’t have a phone.
Phone connection is part of the social contract now: if you can get in touch with me anytime, then I can get in touch with you anytime. That’s the deal.
So one friend suggested I leave my smartphone in the car, but keep a dumbphone in the house for calls. I’ve enjoyed the silence of the past couple of days, but I can’t deny that this is a fair and pragmatic suggestion. Thanks GC!
Anxiety is a big reason that Thighs of Steel managed support 95 cyclists over 5,408km from Glasgow to Athens and raise over £110,000 for grassroots refugee projects.
All thanks to good old anxiety.
I don’t mean that metaphorically, mystically or even mythically. I mean that in a very concrete way.
One tiny example
Two weeks before the ride set off, I was up late, worrying. As you do.
With 50 cycling days across 9 arduous weeks, Thighs of Steel is built on a rigid schedule: there is scarcely any wiggle room for disasters that take time out of the day.
Restlessly I mind-scrolled through each of the weeks, trying to imagine how they would all go horribly wrong, in as much catastrophising detail as my stress-addled brain would allow.
Week 2 of the ride, from Bristol to Paris, involved 529km of beautiful cycling through the cathedral towns, rolling countryside and luscious woodlands of southern England, into croissant-nibbling, cheese-munching, chateau-spotting France.
We would cycle, we would camp, we would cycle, we would camp, we would cycle, we would camp, we would catch a ferry, we would cyc —
Shit — I haven’t booked the ferry!
Heart pounding, blood rising, I leapt out of bed and dashed to the computer, praying to the four goddesses of St Christopher’s lucky rabbit foot that the ferry we had to be on would have last-minute space for 17 cyclists and a massive van.
We could neither afford the re-route to another port a hundred kilometres away, nor the five hour delay to wait for a later ferry.
Of course, the four goddesses were smiling upon me that night. But the real reason that disaster was averted was thanks to — yep — good old anxiety.
Good Old Anxiety
Like I said, that’s just one tiny example.
The disaster-spotting and problem-solving energy of anxiety came to our rescue thousands of times before we ever left home and on a near minute-by-minute basis during the ride.
The towering success of the ride was founded on anxiety.
The problem is that, if you have my sort of interpretation of anxiety, then that last sentence sounds AWFUL.
Who wants to feel anxious the whole time? Anxiety is a horrible feeling! (says I).
But this is only one interpretation of anxiety.
There is another sort of interpretation, one that acknowledges the energy and power that anxiety gives us.
Imagine the opposite. Imagine we never felt anxious. Imagine we went around in a semi-tranquillised state all the time. Nothing would happen!
Sure, we’d be mellow as fuck, but there’d be no adventures, no laughter, no stories to tell our grand kids.
Heart Pounding, Blood Rising
Ultimately, anxiety is a physiological response to a situation: heart pounding in my chest, blood rising to my neck.
However, the fact that I have interpreted anxiety as ‘a horrible feeling’ is wholly psychological.
For some reason, ‘horrible’ has become my default interpretation of that physiological response — at least in some circumstances.
Heart pounding, blood rising is actually my physiological response to quite a few things, many of which I interpret as ‘right good fun’.
But when it comes to what I call ‘work’, I default to an interpretation that makes me feel shitty about the energy that I call ‘anxiety’.
Incidentally, this seems to be getting worse as I get older, and as more and more of my day-to-day activities are labelled as ‘work’ and therefore potentially labelled as anxiety-inducing.
And that’s not all…
Shitty Interpretation = Shitty Thoughts
My shitty interpretation of anxiety leads to a cascade of shitty thoughts.
Firstly, I feel shitty for feeling shitty. I beat myself up for feeling anxious instead of some other emotion that I’ve labelled as ‘non-shitty’.
Secondly, I’m more likely for my shittiness to take over and colour the rest of my world experience.
For example: if there are other people around, then I’m likely to try and pin the blame on them for some aspect of the situation.
Why didn’t anyone else book the ferry? Why did it have to be me up at night worrying? How crap am I going feel tomorrow after losing so much sleep?
Then, thirdly, I feel shitty about myself for being shitty about other people.
Not One, But TWO Vicious Cycles — Yay!
So that’s shitty thought cascade is vicious cycle number one:
Anxiety ➡️ Being Shitty About Others ➡️ Ugh, I’m Shitty ➡️ Anxiety Rebound
But until now my only management technique for anxiety has been to try to push the anxiety further away: I shouldn’t be feeling like this. I should be feeling tra-la-la, la-di-dee instead.
Unfortunately, something you probably know about human anatomy is that our feelings are held in place (with cartilage to the spleen, I’m told) by a very powerful spring: push them away and they come back twice as hard to smack you in the face.
And, boom, that’s vicious cycle number two:
Anxiety ➡️ Push Anxiety Away ➡️ Anxiety Rebound
So the alternative interpretation of anxiety cannot be the false YAY I’M SO HAPPY LOOK AT ME I’M HAPPY.
The alternative interpretation is (drum roll and pull quote please):
I’m anxious — GREAT. My body is priming me to get shit done. So let’s do it.
Don’t ignore the anxiety or push it away. Don’t pretend that anxiety is always a lovely buzzy feeling of excitement (but remember that sometimes it is).
Instead, acknowledge that anxiety gets shit done. Respect the energy it generates.
All those physiological changes in our bodies make us perform better. Anxiety is not hindering, but empowering us.
That shot of adrenalin, the pounding heart and the rising blood give us the physiological boost we need to spot and solve difficult problems and work through disasters without anyone dying (hopefully).
Anxiety is not enjoyable, but it is useful.
So this story is a shout out to anxiety. I want to remember all the millions of times in the past that this uncomfortable emotion has saved all our asses.
Then, next time Sinjoro Maltrankvilo (as they say in Esperanto) comes galloping along, maybe I can tip my hat, grit my teeth and welcome him with a stern handshake and a whiskey.
My pardner’s back in town. What’s the job?
Thanks to Ben from Align Mind Body for a good chat that clarified how I’d tackle this topic today. As a meditation teacher, Ben knows all about observing emotions and finding that space between observation and interpretation. And — oh look! — he’s running an Intensive Meditation Foundation Course, starting on 24 October.
Personally, I use a passage in Viktor Frankl’s Auschwitz memoir, Man’s Search For Meaning, to train myself into the belief that I am indeed an excellent sleeper:
Somewhere it is said that man cannot exist without sleep for more than a stated number of hours. Quite wrong! I had been convinced that there were certain things I just could not do: I could not sleep without this or I could not live with that or the other.
The first night in Auschwitz we slept in beds which were constructed in tiers. On each tier (measuring about six-and-a-half to eight feet) slept nine men, directly on the boards. Two blankets were shared by each of the nine men. We could, of course, lie only on our sides, crowded and huddled against each other.
… And yet sleep came and brought oblivion and relief from pain for a few hours.
It’s been exactly three months since I was last ‘home’ and two months since I left this island.
Anything big happen since I left?
Let’s see now…
Work on the world’s largest windfarm was completed off the coast of Yorkshire. It’s record will superseded by another being built off these shores next year.
Waltham Forest became the first council in the UK to divest fossil fuels from their pension fund.
A trial showed that Oxford University’s malaria vaccine is the cheapest and most effective yet, with protection up to 80 percent. Not bad for a disease that (speculatively) may have killed 50 billion humans to date.
The University of Manchester have developed the first diagnostic test for Parkinson’s.
Period products became free in Scotland.
Cycling is booming in the UK with weekday journeys up 47% since 2021.
Doctors will soon be able to prescribe free bikes.
86 percent of British companies that took part in a 3,300 person trial of the 4-day working week say that they plan to keep the model.
A pine marten was spotted in London for the first time in a century.
This is part of an accidental mini series on the psychological and ecological benefits of taking new perspectives on life, society, citizenship and the planet.
The first part of the mini series looked at what I see as the organisational purpose of Thighs of Steel and took a new perspective to help me understand why I do anything at all: connection.
This second part will look more closely at happiness and take a new perspective to help assuage or at least understand the economic, ecological and existential distress that so many of us are feeling right now.
I’ll be honest: I wish I could have spent another twelve years researching and writing this piece, hands buried in the soil.
Think of it as a work in progress and please be gentle!
The Three (Or Four) Species Of Happiness
All good things come in threes:
Jesus, Joseph and Mary
Earth, Wind And Fire
Wet Wet Wet
Human happiness is no different: there are exactly three different species. (Except when there’s four, but we can ignore that one later…)
The first species of happiness is the kind that you can only feel when you’re inside the experience right now.
You might feel a sort of experiential penumbra of good vibes for a short time afterwards, but basically the happiness is gone as soon as you leave the situation.
For example, the visceral happiness you get from playing on a swing:
The question at the root of this first variety of happiness is: Am I having fun?
The second species of happiness is the sort you feel even when you’re no longer actually inside the experience.
This is one kind of time and space travel that humans can do: quite unbidden, a remembrance — oh, yes, I’m happy! — pops into our mind.
This sort of happiness is unlikely to stem from playing on the swings. Even this one:
(Watching that video, I think I screamed as much as they did. Worth the build up.)
This second species of happiness is more likely to crop up through a satisfying work life, successful relationships or a family of supportive friends.
The question at the heart of this second variety of happiness is: Does this feel right?
The third type of happiness goes deeper again: it’s an existential happiness, reaching out far beyond our selves and our immediate circle.
It comes from the sense that we exist as one small element of a community and society, a landscape and ecosystem that is thriving in unity together.
The question is: Are we all, people and planet, thriving?
This happiness is something I have felt in the past.
I’m not alone in struggling with it right now.
The Fourth Species
The fourth species of happiness that we can safely ignore is the kind that yogis and Russell Brand talk about:
Transcendence of all earthly happiness through direct connection with The Oneness of The Universe.
But you can forget all that for now — except one word: connection.
(Yes, I know — I’m obsessed with this idea.)
Because all three (or four) species of happiness depend on connection.
Back A Second: What Is Happiness?
Happiness is what happens when our sensory bodies come into contact with an experience and form a positive emotional bond.
When we play on the swings, that bond is easily broken by leaving the playground, and our happiness fades too.
When we form a close relationship with another human, such bonds are more complex, cropping up in more and more of our experiences and environments the longer and stronger that we share a emotional connection.
If that connection is predominantly positive: happiness ensues.
But even the strongest interpersonal relationship cannot sustain our happiness if the ecosystem around us is sick.
This is where the mushrooms might help. (Not like that! Although…)
The Great Entanglement
On the way back from Greece, I (finally) read Merlin Sheldrake’s book Entangled Life.
The subtitle is How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, And Shape Our Futures — and, yes, there is a lot of stuff in there about how fungi can forage for food, eat rocks and find the fastest route through IKEA.
But what struck me most forcefully was how, as a mycologist, the more Merlin learned about his subject, the more uncertain he became about what it means to be human.
The first living organisms on land were a collaboration between algae and fungi: lichens. The algae could photosynthesise to produce energy from the sun and the fungi could digest minerals from rock: the perfect partnership.
Likewise, plants are a collaboration between the above-ground photosynthesising organisms and the below-ground fungal mycelial networks that break down and transfer nutrients from organism to organism.
And the breaking down element is crucial: until fungi like the white rot fungus ‘learned’ how to digest plant matter, the earth was coated in a pile of dead plants, kilometres deep.
(This is how we got coal, by the way.)
By digesting dead vegetation, fungi guarantee the cycle of nutrients from one living organism to another. This is the thing we call soil. It wouldn’t exist without fungi.
Even humans are a collaboration between ‘humans’ and untold millions of bacteria, fungi and viruses that help, among many other basic living functions of body and mind, to break down the plants and animals that we eat as food.
It becomes increasingly difficult to determine where human ends and the rest of ecology begins.
Life is, indeed, entangled.
Back to that question of existential happiness: right now, do you feel like we are all, people and planet, thriving?
If you’re anything like me, that’s going to come across as a really stupid rhetorical question.
Apart from major scientific advances like the Vegan Sausage Roll, everything’s going to shit.
So what can we do about it?
Here’s one thought.
(It’s not a very clever or original thought, but hear me out because in a second I’m going to get you to imagine being a fungus and that’ll change everything.)
As a society, perhaps we have been putting too much effort into tending our digital networks.
(Told you it wasn’t very clever or original.)
I don’t just mean social media, I mean the creation of the whole World Wide Web.
Statista forecast that 97 zettabytes of data will be created, captured, copied, and consumed worldwide in 2022.
That’s 8,890,000,000,000,000,000 megabytes.
It’s completely overwhelming to think of all the billions of hours that are put into tending our digital society every day.
By necessity, that time is being diverted away from our other projects and has perhaps contributed to the neglect of our society offline.
That’s not to say that I think online networks can’t be extremely powerful — I doubt that social attitudes in the UK would be becoming so liberal, so quickly if it weren’t for the internet.
But I think we have to be careful that our online networks really are strengthening our ‘real’ offline lives in the direction of greater connectivity and solidarity with the people and planet that make up our ecosystem.
I think this hybrid online-offline model is why Thighs of Steel works so well: people discover the project online, meet each other online and communicate online.
But then we come together for two months in the summer to create a living, breathing community in the ‘real world’.
The difficulty is how to imagine change when our problems are so complex and our individual capacity is so limited.
One answer is to change our imaginative model of what it means to be an individual.
(Okay, here’s where things get trippy!)
What if we imagined ourselves as a single exploratory growing tip of a fungus, tiny and courageous, but directly, intimately, unbreakably connected to, entangled with and backed by a mycelial network of unfathomable power and complexity?
Human As Hypha
The growing tips of a fungus are called hyphae, so imagine yourself as a single hyphae, one little growing tip of the human mycelial network that is exploring our society, the landscape, this universe.
It’s easy for you to feel like an individual.
Look too closely and hyphae totally behave as individuals, merrily wiggling around through the soil, looking for yummy dead things to munch.
But zoom out and we see that, despite their apparent behaviour, hyphae are not individuals.
It’s not like there’s a central brain or body that tells the individual hypha what to do, but each one is plugged into a complex and responsive network.
You see: fungal hyphae can somehow sense and communicate across the network.
(I’m not even going to try and butcher the young science: I beg you, please read Merlin’s book.)
If one hypha finds some delicious dead tree stump, very quickly (and mysteriously) the rest of the network will stop what they were doing and turn their attention to devouring it.
As a human hypha, you are exploring on behalf of every other actor in the network — all the other hyphae who can and will respond to every move you make, every touch and every discovery.
That gives you, the connected individual, power, agency — and responsibility.
The network decomposition of the dead tree stump is no mere act of destruction. The capturing and recycling of nutrients is a life-giving act of creation: what we call soil.
As a hypothetical human hyphae, recognise that your influence extends far beyond the human network.
You are also exploring and creating on behalf of the vegetation, the plants and the trees, that depend on the network for life support. No network, no soil.
Consequently, you’re also exploring and creating for the insects and animals that depend on vegetation, and so too for those predators that depend on the life and death of their prey.
See how you are connected — not hypothetically, but literally — to everything else in the ecosystem.
This is how mushrooms help me fill the pit of despair that has taken the place of my third, existential, species of happiness.
Fungi give me a lens through which to see my existence as both individual and plural.
If I fall into the trap of seeing myself as an individual alone, then it’s too easy to feel powerless about the existential problems we face as a species.
It’s too easy to bumble along, exploring life — experiencing the first two species of happiness, perhaps — but never seeing my intimate role as part of the network that is creating this ecosystem.
And without the sense of living within a healthy ecosystem, I have no hope of experiencing the foundational existential happiness.
Fungi remind me that life is about more than my own personal exploration.
It’s a simultaneous — and utterly entangled — act of personal exploration and collective creation as part of the network.
The metaphor of the human hyphae gives me license to explore and create, to follow my own path, but also to ensure I nurture a healthy network and, in so doing, healthy soil and, ultimately, a healthy ecosystem.
And, perhaps, existential happiness.
So let’s commit to the roles we were born to play: as entangled explorer-creators.
Thanks for reading — I hope some of it made sense at least. If not: get yourself a copy of Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake and take a look at this marvellous world from a myco-centric perspective.
Postscript: Entangled Happiness Networks
People’s happiness depends on the happiness of others with whom they are connected.
Clusters of happy and unhappy people are visible in the network, and the relationship between people’s happiness extends up to three degrees of separation (for example, to the friends of one’s friends’ friends). … This provides further justification for seeing happiness, like health, as a collective phenomenon.
I said that Thighs of Steel left Glasgow on 16 July and arrived in Athens on 17 September.
I also said that 95 cyclists rode a cumulative 71,337km over the course of 49 days.
But there’s a gap between the truth and the whole truth, right? You know what I mean.
In those 49 days, we didn’t quite cycle all the way from Glasgow to Athens — even after you excuse us the cross-Channel ferry.
We missed a bit.
Let me take you back to Dubrovnik and the beginning of Week 7.
Probably A Hill / Gravel / Borek
Covering the 800km between Dubrovnik, Croatia and Thessaloniki, Greece inside one week was always going to be a big ask.
And not just because of the distance.
The mountains of Montenegro, Albania and Macedonia barred our way to the cotton and pomegranate plains of northern Greece.
Oh, and all this on a route we’d never done before, on roads that could run out at any moment.
Naturally, it was hands-down the most popular week of the trip, selling out on day one on this hapless promise of unknowable adventure:
This is the week for people who LOVE not knowing what’s around the corner (clue: probably a hill / gravel / borek).
We’ve never been to North Macedonia before (have you?) so we’ve no idea what to expect, but the internet tells us it’s freakin’ gorgeous (if a bit hilly). We’re looking forward to the endless views and the bottomless mountain lakes.
As ever, we don’t know where we’re staying each night until that day, so we may be welcomed into homes, adopted by villages or wild camping beside a river. Expect to meet extremely friendly strangers and strangers who are extremely confused by us.
Before The Lake
After two days climbing through Montenegro, including the sixteen switchbacks of the Kotor Serpentine, we camped on the edge of Lake Shkodër, right on the border with Albania.
We arrived at camp in time to blow up the inflatable aubergine (yep), chuck a frisbee around in the shallows and then, because apparently we weren’t tired enough after a 97km ride, embark on a leisurely grueling swim out to a rocky island.
About halfway across, I was reminded that, over water, however distant your destination seems to appear, you should triple it.
The evening sun hurt our backs, the lake weeds caught our strokes, the vast current clubbed our legs.
We struggled back from the island, crawled ashore like wet things from the Pleistocene, and collapsed into a pot of dinner as mosquitoes danced.
Within 15 hours of that ill-advised swim, I was fixed to a drip in an Albanian hospital while my friend was being jabbed in the butt with a needle of drugs.
After The Lake
We think we picked up the stomach bug from dirty water in the lake, but who knows.
What is certain is that, although almost everyone managed to cycle the 130km from Lake Shkodër to Tirana, by midnight all but five of the party were stricken.
There are no days off on Thighs of Steel, but there was no way we were going to cycle any further the next day.
Thighs of Steel, maybe, but bellies of jelly. Or worse.
A rest day was the only option.
Luckily, we had found a bucolic campsite up in the foothills of Mount Dajti, populated with ducks, chickens and a clutch of (now) horrified campervanners.
The proprieter was a jolly woman who, after seeing our condition, mocked us for not being able to handle our alcohol. When we revealed the true extent of our indisposition, she was appalled — until we explained that we’d picked up the bug in Montenegro.
‘Ah, Montenegro!’ she cackled. And restocked the toilet paper.
By the evening, most people were able to prop themselves up on an elbow and nibble a little plain pasta. A couple of us managed a game of Bananagrams. Some mad cats even cycled down to the city for a tour of the fleamarkets.
We called council and made the decision that anyone who could hold down the morning porridge could ride on the next day — with the proviso that Calypso, our beloved support van, would scoop up any strugglers.
But our recovery day meant we were travelling one day behind schedule.
In our fragile condition there was no way that we could make up the time, so, instead of reaching Thessaloniki on the seventh day, we ended the ride in Florina, a hot, flat ride over the border from Macedonia.
Then we caught a train.
In Thessaloniki, we snatched one last dinner together before saying our goodbyes.
The next day we welcomed the final week’s cyclists and rode six days to Athens.
5,304km from Glasgow, but somehow missing something…
Connecting The Dots
Why is it that we feel compelled to finish things?
I don’t know. But it felt really good. And not just because of roads like this:
It felt good to honour the ride that was a year in the making. It felt good to honour the other cyclists who couldn’t ride the full route during Week 7.
It felt good to take to the roads again and remember the purity of why we do this without the frantic circus that comes with riding in a large group.
It felt good to join the dots.
We have now raised £96,964 and if you want to help us join the dots to our £100,000 fundraising target for refugee solidarity charity MASS Action, you can donate here.
I know times are tough for pretty much everyone right now, but every donation makes a difference. Take these examples of what a donation could do for the Khora community spaces in Athens:
£10 buys 20kg of fresh fruit and veg to serve at the Khora community kitchen, free for anyone who needs a hot meal with friendly faces
£50 covers the costs of running the Khora Asylum Support Team for a day, providing vital, free legal support to asylum seekers in Athens
£100 pays the electricity, water and gas bills at the Khora kitchen for a fortnight
£250 covers food supplies needed at the Khora kitchen for a whole month
It does feel good to have connected the dots, to have finished a project. Like, really finished it.
But now, sitting improbably beneath a glacier, I’ve come to that other moment, where one project ends and I feel…
The What What Now Now
Well, the immediate what what now now is that I need to get to a secret location on the edge of the Morvan in central France. There, awaiting repair, is Calypso, fallen at the last, with oil spewing from her undercarriage.
But once the mechanics have been called, once the vehicle has been recovered, once she limps onto the ferry and makes her tired, troubled way back home, and I have, perhaps, showered and slept, then I will be faced with the what what now now.
Projects like Thighs of Steel take everything you’ve got, all thrown into a threshing machine, and scattered, in this case, across barren gravel tracks from the Clyde to the Acropolis.
During this grisly process, something powerful and enduring is created from the entrails of the various participants — no doubt about that — but it can take some time for everyone to regenerate.
In the meantime, while livers and kidneys and stem cells are doing their surreptitious work, the rest of the world, friends, family and lovers from back home look on and ask of us the what what now now.
The answer is I don’t know know now now.
But I do have some ideas, generated from a grid I made, which I’ll share because you might also find it useful if you’re having trouble figuring out your own what what now now.
To avoid jinxing all my nascent plans, here’s an empty one, drawn in the back of a notebook designed in Tehran, bought in Athens:
Get stuck in. Add or change the columns and rows until you have your own full-on personalised Zwicky Box of What What Now Now.
Thighs of Steel, a rolling community of fundraising cyclists, left Glasgow on 16 July and arrived in Athens on 17 September.
Over the course of 49 days, 95 cyclists rode a cumulative 71,337km and climbed up 757,975 metres of elevation, the equivalent of more than 85 Everests.
Powered by 781 bowls of porridge, 11kg of peanut butter and untold megatons of pastries to fill a 2,341,500 calorie cycling deficit.
Brought together by at least 34 punctures (including one tyre pin-cushioned by 15 thorns along one apocalyptic goat track), 435 tent erections at 42 camp spots, plus two saline drips and a butt jab during one of two trips to A&E.
Together we have raised £94,574 and we’re open for donations for another few weeks before distributing the money to solidarity communities working with refugees and other people on the move in Athens, the UK and northern France.
Today’s story is about what Thighs of Steel does in the world (hint: it’s not cycling) and, inadvertently, how you might zoom out from the particular to uncover the universal purpose to everything you do as a human.
It’s big picture stuff, so I’ve illustrated the story with seven photographs taken by cyclists on the ride. You can find more on Instagram. Enjoy.
Not A Charity Auction
A lot of people ask what it is that Thighs of Steel do and the answer is that the answer is different for everyone involved.
But here’s my answer.
We’re Not Movember
Thighs of Steel is a fundraising organisation. The way we fundraise is to organise bike adventures to give people an excuse to invite their friends to donate in solidarity with refugees.
Yet, in those two sentences alone, there is a contradiction.
If we wanted to maximise our fundraising potential, instead of spending nine months planning a bike trip, we’d throw all our energy and resources into schmoozing at charity auctions for High Net Worth individuals in The City.
Or, even better, we’d create mass participation events, like Movember or the World’s Biggest Coffee Morning, rather than a logistically complex continental adventure that is forceably capped at 96 participants.
Ergo: Thighs of Steel is not purely a fundraising organisation because, if it were, it’d be a horribly inefficient one. There’s something else going on.
We’re Not A Cycle Club Either
Thighs of Steel was formed as a Community Interest Company and, on our registration documents, this is how we describe our public benefit:
All communities within the United Kingdom stand to benefit from our company as our bike rides are open to people of all ages and fitness levels to join.
There are rides of different degrees of difficulty to challenge experienced cyclists and also encourage and include those who are new to cycling.
The individuals who participate and also those who follow our activities will benefit as we are promoting and encouraging healthy activities and challenges.
As well as health benefits, we are also promoting environmentally friendly travel (travelling by bicycle) which aims to inspire people to use their own bodies, thereby encouraging lives with a low carbon footprint, which has a positive impact on the whole community.
All of this is true, but there’s no at all mention of fundraising, the very reason Thighs was set up in the first place!
This is because the donations we raise don’t exclusively benefit UK populations and therefore fall outside the cut-and-paste regulatory requirements of a CIC.
And this isn’t the only time that our two primary activities of fundraising and cycling feel like they’re in competition with each other.
Are We Fundraising Or Cycling Here Or What?
During the difficult moments, sweating through the Lake District, struggling up the Dolomites or vomiting into a toilet in Albania, it can take a certain amount of effort to remember why we’re doing this horrible thing: caught up in effort, we forget why we’re fundraising.
Conversely, at peak moments, during sunshine descents, pistachio ice cream or geothermal sea baths, many of us feel a guilty tension between our personal joy and the difficult reality of daily life for refugees, the people we’re riding in solidarity with.
Both forgetfulness and guilt are dangerous states of mind that can sap our appetite to do anything at all, whether productive or pointless, difficult or delightful.
At its worst, our activities could seem pretty crass: a bit of fundraising bolted on to a cheap bike holiday.
But rather than try to resolve this tension between our stated aims of fundraising and cycling, let’s zoom out to a wide perspective where we’ll see them feeding into each other as two expressions of a third, much greater, purpose.
Zoom Zoom Zoom Out
Up close, things look disconnected. It’s only by zooming out that we can see the connecting lines between everything that we do.
This applies to our personal lives as much as the operational activities of a non-profit.
By zooming out, we can see what a £5 online donation from your cousin Frank has in common with rubbing someone’s back while they throw up into a toilet bowl.
The connection is connection.
One of the Thighs cyclists this year was Naoum Sayegh, a Syrian engineer who lived for 11 years in Lebanon before moving to the UK not long before Covid.
As well as being a great part of our little bike crew, Naoum is also super enthusiastic about embracing British culture, but until now has found authentic connection with his fellow citizens hard to find.
London is very individualistic so I don’t have the same social fabric as I had in the Middle East. I felt very isolated living in London alone. So, when I joined the ride, one of my main goals was to build this connection with British cyclists.
He wasn’t disappointed:
Cycling together and aiming to reach the same goal, reaching our destination and fundraising for refugees, brought everyone together and created a sense of intimacy that’s very difficult to find within British communities in England.
And because every night Thighs of Steel throw ourselves on the generosity of the communities we land in, Naoum was also able to connect with complete strangers across Britain (or at least along that thread of cycle road that connects Glasgow and Bristol).
Camping at community farms and being hosted by locals really helped me see the UK from a different perspective.
When we stopped at Claver Hill Community Farm in Lancaster, they cooked us a delicious meal with vegetables from the farm and gave us some outstanding apple cider — how sweet!
Then I sat down with the hosts and had a very interesting conversation about how they live and how community functions outside of London.
Being pampered by our hosts created a connection that is very important.
Let Me Count The Ways
Naoum counts two obvious ways that Thighs of Steel fosters connection: within the tight team of cyclists and with our camping hosts.
But there’s much, much more.
Cycling connects me as an individual to my own mind (agh, why won’t this hill stop!) and my own body (yes! I am strong!), as well as to my bike (another snapped gear cable!).
As Naoum said, over the course of a tough week of cycling, groups bond through both joy and adversity: one of the incredible things about organising this trip is seeing week after week of cyclists arrive as strangers and leave as friends.
These connections can last a week; they can last a lifetime.
Naoum mentioned our hosts, but what of the hundreds of people who helped us with directions, pastries, water or a smile? Every single one a spark of a connection, acknowledgement of something shared, and inducement to share in return.
The ride also connects us to the world, to its nature and construction: the landscapes we pass through, the tortoises we protect from onrushing cars, the wind, the weather, the birds of prey, the waves of the ocean, the kittens.
We leave the ride more connected to ourselves, to each other and to the rest of reality.
That’s a whole lot of connection already, but solidarity fundraising is in itself another gargantuan act of connection.
The 95 cyclists all set up fundraising pages and invited their wide networks of friends, family and casual acquaintances to participate by donation.
The most successful pages used creative strategies to connect communities and pull people into the project: parties, wine tastings, raffles.
Even those who never donated still heard about the ride and its purpose in an unmeasurable circle of influence that reaches out still.
Connection on connection.
And finally, of course, the money raised is funnelled directly into refugee projects specifically set up to foster connection and community.
Thousands of people will connect with those projects over the coming year and, being humans, the connections that they find will help make the world a better place for us all.
It’s not just cycling, it’s not just fundraising, it’s not just a £5 donation and it’s not just rubbing someone’s back while they vomit into an Albania toilet.
Connection, for me, is the purpose of Thighs of Steel. In fact, it’s what drives pretty much everything I do.
When I’m confused about why I’m doing something, I try to see how it will help me connect with the universe around me.
It’s usually not hard: everything we do connects us. If you want to get really zoomed out, then every act that you’re a part of is a small contribution to the workings of the cosmos.
The point is to amplify those connections and make them as generative as possible.
We finished the first half of the story on the cusp of making the big mistake of blaming an ahistorical socioeconomic system for the sharp contrast between two hotels only five minutes and three decades apart: the Sheraton and the Pelegrin.
More Like Communisn’t!
At the end of the eighties, the story that many people in Western liberal democracies told themselves was of the final triumph of Western liberal democracy.
We may be witnessing not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period in postwar history, but the end of history — that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.
A bold claim, but — to be fair to Fukuyama — one more or less supported by newsreels.
Even the market socialism of Yugoslavia, where companies were held cooperatively in competition with each other, had been successful only for so long as partizan Nazi killer, benevolant tyrant and war criminal Josip Broz Tito could hold the republics together through sheer cult of personality.
As Tito’s health ailed, decades of economic growth faltered and crashed. A chap called Slobodan Milošević took over the presidency of Serbia, one of the six Socialist Republics of Yugoslavia, with a rigorous programme of Serbian nationalism.
It really didn’t go well.
Although Croatia declared independence from the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia on 25 June 1991, the War of Independence only ended in 1995.
25,000 people were killed and over half a million displaced.
Ten kilometres up the coast from Kupari, Dubrovnik had been under siege for seven months of said war and more than half of the buildings in the famous old town were shelled and damaged or destroyed.
At the end of the conflict, UNESCO led a frighteningly successful mission to restore Dubrovnik to its former glory. The mission cost $80 million: money well spent for the million or more tourists who tramp those Hollywood walls every summer.
Like a pirate in shining armour, capitalism rode to the rescue, camera crew and cruise ships in tow.
The hotels at Kupari had also been subject to vicious shelling but, without the protection of thick medieval walls, their expensively assembled interiors were also ransacked and looted by the Yugoslav People’s Army.
Again, without the protection of heritage-worthy medieval walls, there was no post-war international restoration at Kupari.
As of August 2022, it looks like an investor has been found, for at least part of the complex.
The Hotel Grand, designed in classic Belle Époque style, is the earliest and most appealing of the hotel husks and, during my visit, its perimeter was surrounded by electric wire, keep out signs and portaloos.
A team of men were busy blowtorching something in one corner, while a team of women on ladders were touching up the paintwork of the epicerie and boulangerie, incongruous among the wreckage.
Incongruous for good reason, it turns out. As a more savvy friend quickly realised, this is obviously the conveniently dressed set of a World War film set in occupied France.
There’s something uncomfortable in the repurposing of one country’s historical wreckage for the lionisation of another’s. But a profit is a profit.
The Dubrovnik Times reports that the Kupari site was purchased in 2016 by Avenue Group, to be converted into a five-star resort managed by, yep — you guessed it — Marriot, owners of the Sheraton brand and the world’s largest hotel corporation, with enough bedspace to rehome the entire urban population of Buenos Aires, Chicago or Paris.
That evening, with the last of the sunlight shining clean through the building, it’s easy to imagine the Pelegrin lit up by holidaymakers.
Whether it’s hotels or Hollywood, maybe, even here at Kupari, capitalism will yet ride to the rescue once again. Perhaps the restoration of failed ideologies is the moneylenders burden.
But the mistake would be to assume that the story of civilisations is over: that this capitalist culture, by fluke or by nuke, has somehow won history and will sail ever on into the future, unperturbed by ruffles on the water.
There’s a brand new bridge just up the coast that puts a pin in that balloon right away.
Bridges Over Borders
Dalmatia is divided.
In the Treaty of Karlowitz of 1699, the Ragusa of Dubrovnik ceded territory north and south of their city to the Ottoman Empire in a pretty lame attempt to forestall a land invasion by their arch enemies: the Venetians.
It kinda worked actually and so this treaty of convenience ended up being the basis for the modern border between Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Zoom in close on a map of the Dalmatian coast and it looks as if Bosnia and Herzegovina is dipping a toe into the Adriatic.
This tiny scrap of land, known as The Corridor Of Neum, stuck stubbornly to the sole of history, turns Župa Dubrovačka into an exclave.
Although it tosses Bosnia and Herzegovina a lifeline to the Adriatic Sea, it cleaves Croatian Dalmatia in two, with multiple border crossings for anyone travelling the coast.
At least, that was the case until the opening in July 2022 of Pelješac Bridge, a 2.4km cable-stayed bridge across the Neretva Channel that connects Dubrovnik with the rest of the country.
By diverting traffic onto the peninsula of Pelješac, it’s now possible to avoid Bosnia, The Corridor Of Neum and those pesky border crossings altogether.
But what on earth has this bridge got to do with the end of the end of history?
Well. This is where the ball of thread starts to wind itself up in knots, but let’s see if I can break it down in three easy bullet points:
The Corridor Of Neum, being located in Bosnia and Herzegovina, is not in the EU
The rest of the Dalmatian coast, being located in Croatia, is in the EU and is scheduled to join the single currency Eurozone in 2023 and the free movement Schengen Zone in 2024
The Corridor Of Neum, being located in Bosnia and Herzegovina, is not in the EU
Pre-Schengen and pre-Eurozone, traffic between the Dubrovnik exclave and the rest of Croatian has two border crossings to make. Faff, but doable faff.
Schengen will turn two border checks into three as EU customs officials are as curious about what leaves the Eurozone as what arrives.
That’s one whole new level of faff and, having kinda worked actually for 300 years, the Corridor Of Neum is now just a bit much.
So, in 2007, the Croatian government decided to build a nice bridge, linking the Croatian mainland with a Croatian peninsula that conveniently protrudes up the coast from the other side of Bosnian Neum.
A new motorway would then carry traffic around Bosnia’s toe-dipping territory and The Corridor would be no more (except for bicycles).
They could’ve put on a ferry or turned The Corridor Of Neum into a hyper-surveilled, no exit highway, but they went for the nice bridge idea.
A nice bridge that would cost a nice lot of money.
Nevertheless, this was 2007 and optimism was in the air. The Croatian government barrelled on with the expensive bridge idea and, in September of that year, announced that the tender had been won by a Croatian construction consortium, led by a company with the quaintly amusing and very on-the-nose name: Konstruktor.
The bridge was due to be completed four years later, in 2011. Blah, blah, blah, global financial crisis, etc., tender cancelled and konstruktion terminated in May 2012.
Luckily, as it was kind of their problem, the EU were on hand with a nice lot more money — €357 million of it, in fact — and the bridge project went back out to tender in 2017.
But ten years is a long time in the story of civilisations.
This time the winning bid was from a corporation with a name so on-the-nose that, instead of being quaintly amusing, it’s downright sinister: China Road and Bridge Corporation.
But, six months ahead of schedule, the bridge is up and running. You cannot deny the facts on the ground. Croatia is happy. The EU is happy. China is happy.
Marine ecologists and Bosnians are not happy, but you can’t have everything.
The End Of The End Of History
Strange that this beautiful stretch of coastline has become, and has perhaps always been, a ley line of international mystery, a seam of conflict and opportunity, the hypoteneuse of a triangle between Europe, Russia and now China.
Close up, it certainly looked that way to Fukuyama.
In 1989, the year that he made his famous declaration, the ideological contrast between East and West couldn’t have been sharper.
In the East the Berlin Wall fell, the culmination of a year of Communist collapse; in the West, Tim Berners-Lee invented the freakin’ World Wide Web.
In the same way, close up, the Sheraton and Pelegrin hotels stand today in sharp ideological contrast on the beaches of the Dubrovnik Riviera.
But step back a little, take a little perspective, and its not their differences, but their similarities that really stand out to me:
Right now, the Sheraton sparkles with polished glass while the Pelegrin crumbles. But it’s easy to imagine the opposite.
As I leave the Pelegrin, I notice, high up in the empty space between smashed windows, someone’s strung out a washing line and hung out a t-shirt and a bedsheet in the last of the sunshine.
A single chair is has been placed right at the edge of the seventh storey roof: a good seat for the storyteller to pause and ponder the past, looking out over the mountain cliffs and the ancient city of Cavtat, founded as Epidaurus in the sixth century BC by Greek colonisers.
This coastline, its history, the story of its civilisations, is a labyrinth.
Make Them Lunch Today
I’ll end by returning to where this story began last week: looking down at the hopeless ball of tangled thread in my hand, with no end in sight.
Let me explain why this is a wonderful thing.
I can sympathise with Francis Fukuyama’s original urge to bring an end to the story, but, in fairness to Fukuyama, I confess that I have made something of a straw man out of his argument.
Fukuyama is willing to admit mistakes. He said that when he wrote his thesis he perhaps didn’t fully appreciate the concept of “political decay: the idea that once you became a modern democracy, you could also go backwards”.
Oh, great. Thanks for that cold blast of optimism, Fran.
If you care to look for them, symptoms of political decay are everywhere in the tales of our history told today on news channels and social media.
But (and here’s something to hang your hat on) somehow, despite the ‘end of history’, the people of Russia and China have found a way into the year 2022.
So too have the people of Croatia, even the people who once took their holidays at Kupari.
So too have you and I.
What’s more is that I reckon a bunch of us, Russian, Chinese, Croatian or whatever the heck you call yourself, will make it to 2052 — no matter what happens.
Don’t trust people who try to draw lines under historical events. They’re just trying to spin you a story. You can always tell it another way, a way that leaves space for you to act, for you (yes — you!) to take the stage, enter the arena, and play.
It’s easy to be despondent about the history that rushes through our lives, but despondency is the equal and opposite to Fukuyama-esque triumphalism.
Make neither mistake and you’ll find that history with no end is a dreadful and empowering thing.
An entire ruined city leaves behind a cemetery of civilisation. It reminds us that, not only will our individual lives decay and be forgotten, but our entire way of living will also decay and be forgotten.
At the distance of two millennia, a collapsed way of life feels safe. Humbling, but safe — like sitting on the edge of a high cliff at moonless midnight, looking over the ocean at the dance of the Milky Way.
But on the coast of what I might as well call Dalmatia, in what is now the south of Croatia, a collapsed way of life stands only a short way off.
The gravestones are fresh, the dates comfortably inside my own living memory. The cemetery has not had time to decay into the aesthetics of ancient archaeology.
The ruins come with bed springs, soap dishes, smashed glass and room service.
Two Luxury Beach Resorts, Two Socioeconomic Systems
I’m staying in an unsmashed studio apartment in Župa Dubrovačka, the Dubrovnik Riviera, overlooking a string of beaches that, over the past couple of millennia, have seen the comings and goings of Greeks, Illyrians, Romans, Byzantines, Avars, Slavs, Ragusans, Ottomans, French, Habsburgs, British, Italians and Germans.
What can I say? This coastline has always been a popular place for marauding tourists. And, from the glittering array of exotic numberplates lined up in the seafront car parks, I’d say it still is.
Which is nice because today’s story is the tale of two luxury beach resorts.
This is the Sheraton Dubrovnik Riviera, a 239-room complex nestled around Srebreno Bay that includes swimming pools, tennis courts, a piano bar (without a piano) and no fewer than 1500m² of conference facilities.
Fun fact: Sheraton hotels are owned by Marriott International, the world’s biggest hospitality chain, whose 1.4 million bedrooms could happily accommodate the entire urban population of Buenos Aires, Chicago or Paris.
It’s fair to say that, despite the downturn in fortunes over the pandemic, Marriott are doing okay. Otherwise they probably wouldn’t waste so much water sluicing down their restaurant decking with a power hose every morning.
An enduring triumph of twentieth century American capitalism.
But a five minute walk around the headland brings me to Kupari Bay and luxury beach resort number two…
Five minutes forward, five decades back, welcome to the Hotel Pelegrin, part of a five-hotel beach resort that, in its pomp, could accommodate 1,600 guests around the warm waters of Kupari Bay.
A triumph of twentieth century Yugoslavian market-based socialism.
But if we come closer, in time and space, today the Hotel Pelegrin looks more like this:
Even The President-For-Life Loves To Sunbathe
Climbing that crumbling staircase reminds me of the sheer face of a time worn Pharaonic pyramid — yet it can be scarcely fifty years old.
Say what you want about Communist-era building materials, but nature’s decay was certainly accelerated by vengeful military vandals.
Despite the shattered glass, exposed brickwork and stripped light fittings, it’s not hard to reconstruct a stay at the Pelegrin.
You pull up to the concrete entrance way, step out onto the terrace for sundown lounging, greet other guests as you pass on the thinly carpeted corridors.
Fill the closet, test the bed springs, piss in the avocado colour-matched bathroom.
Something about seeing another civilisation’s soap dishes really brings it home: we’re not here forever.
A waterfront pedestrian footpath, the rocky shore coated in the poured concrete so beloved of mid-twentieth century architects, leads you past Hotel Pelegrin to Comrade Tito’s private villa.
I wonder if Yugoslavian President-For-Life Josip Broz Tito, sunbathing at his private Kupari villa, ever pondered his own evanescence?
Sadly, the the path abruptly ends in an all too modern military guardhouse.
Idly, I look up the Kupari complex on Google: 4.6 stars from 179 reviews. The Sheraton Dubrovnik Riviera, pleasingly, scores no better and some of its guests sound like they should’ve stayed at the Pelegin:
Poor diner, poor food in general, piano bar without piano 🙄🤣. Diner area looks like an airport terminal. Everything looks just boring, no cosyness at all. Restaurants at the beach have the same boring vibe as the hotel in general.
There’s nothing boring about picking crushed glass out of your flipflops.
As I crunch around the enormous complex, I reflect on the gargantuan effort that went into building this thing.
And this thing is only one small corner of a civilisation that covered six republics — not only Croatia, but Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia too.
So what happened?
How come Srebreno Bay boasts the thriving Sheraton, busy with satellite restaurants, beach bars and umbrella entrepreneurs, while, five minutes up the coast, Kupari Bay is a ghost resort, riddled with actual bullet holes?
It would be all too easy to take these parallel beaches with their parallel histories and point to the parallel socioeconomic civilisations that built them.
Such finger pointing, however, would be a huge mistake…
When we’re elated, we’re well up for anything. And when we’re bored we’ll do pretty much anything to shake ourselves out of the torpor — even crappy things (as found by researchers Bench and Lench) like voluntarily giving ourselves random electric shocks.
After the non-stop hectic mess of the past month, cycling from Glasgow to Milan with Thighs of Steel, I was in desperate need of some restorative boredom.
A week in Bologna yawned ahead of me.
On Monday, uncertain of the precise voltage of the Italian electricity supply, I spent a listless half hour on Boring Games.
A ‘game’ called leftRight was particularly unstimulating, clicking the buttons ‘Left’ or ‘Right’ in order to print ‘L’ and ‘R’ character artwork:
That dealt with day one of my holiday. But how, I wondered, staring at the featureless expanse of ceiling above my bed, would I mine enough ennui to last the week?
The demise of the telephone book and the rise of the Internet has really foreshortened the tiresome traveller’s repertoire of pointless activities.
That’s when I discovered that the old town of Bologna has 38km of porticos, colonnaded, arcaded streets, crying out to be walked in their labyrinthine entirety.
Fearful that such a ridiculous idea might already be a firm fixture on the tourist trail, especially since the porticos were inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site last year, I went to see Lorenzo at Bologna Welcome.
I needn’t have worried.
Walking The Portici
Not only have the porticos of Bologna not been mapped, not only have they not been walked, but such a tour would be a blasphemous insult to the fundamental reason for their existence.
Lorenzo was quite clear:
Let me give you an example. There is a park, the Park of Montagnola. You go there — and I’m not saying you should go there, but if you are passing — there is a very cool statue.
There are four ways to the statue, but there are also dealers in the park, you know? You walk up one way, you are at the statue. So why walk the other ways, with the dealers? There is no reason to do that.
I nod enthusiastically. ‘Exactly!’
Lorenzo tosses his head: ‘It’s like wanting to walk all the freeways in your city — after a while they are all the same!’
I nod enthusiastically. ‘Exactly!’
I’m thinking of the absurd futility of the every-single-streeters, walkers and runners who use A to Zs or CityStrides to mark off, well, every single street in their city. Or, in the case of a Canadian I met with this mission, pass The Knowledge.
Lorenzo is thinking of my mental health.
The porticos are where we go to meet friends, where we chat, have a drink, eat. They are nothing by themselves. Seriously: just go out and meet people — that’s the only way to understand the porticos.
Despite his misgivings over my desecration of his city, with the heavy heart of a noble man paid to enable idiotic tourists, Lorenzo hands over a map of the old town.
All the streets are here, all the porticos. You will see. There is no reason to do that. You will get tired of all the same view, the same view. But seriously: keep me posted.
I switch on my GPS tracker and begin.
Following my paper map, crossing off streets without porticos, tracing back and forth the ones that do, pursuing dead ends, blind alleys, crescents and courtyards, I fall into the monotony, the horror and freedom of this empty reverie.
15km of walking and over 60 photographs later, I haven’t covered a quarter of the city.
I find myself agreeing and disagreeing with Lorenzo. Each stretch of portico is the same and different.
But despite Lorenzo’s concern, the portici are a way into the life of the city. A postive constraint of a dérive, leading me through the streets, almost but not quite at random, nudging me into the creative act of noticing.
A missing cat poster. A beaked day-glo naked skulled statue on wheels ratchet strapped to a pole. A plaque dedication to a partizan killed in the second world war. Graffiti telling me that my flies are down. Anarchist, No Borders slogans: ASSALTA IL CIELO. Gumball machines, condom machines.
I never know whether the next door will open to a tabacchi run by Bangladeshi handing out cups of lemonade or a thirteenth century church of Saint Bartholomew and Gaetano.
Set into niches in the walls are shrines to Madonna and vending machines selling legal cannabis. Sometimes side by side.
At one point, outside the Oratorio dei Bastardini, where the offspring of students and whores were raised, a warm wind snatched my map from my hands and the updraft lifted it high into the vaults where it danced for a full minute as first I flailed and then I laughed on the flagstones below.
With even the portico itself mocking my dependence on direction, I turned my attention to the life-under-arches that Lorenzo spoke about.
Men lying in the shade, some with a cap of coins in front of them. One leaps up and shouts my name when he sees me.
A man ahead whose terracotta trousers matches the terracotta paint on the walls. Lovers twisted around one another. A student leaning against a column waiting for her email to open.
Smokers smoke greeting each other across the columns’ shadows cast. A courtyard glimpse of family life. Osteria and trattoria preparing for the evening, metal chairs clattering on cobbles.
As my spiral turns back towards the Piazza Maggiore, the tourists converge with a strangely listless jibberjabber: ‘I appreciate architecture so much more now,’ one young American says to another, without answer.
She sounds bored, but yet not in the creative blank space that I have been seeking. I wonder if there’s a sweet spot of boredom that the numbered tourists sights overstimulate.
I walk back up the steps to the tourist office: it’s two minutes to closing and Lorenzo is cashing up the till.
He smiles and almost shakes his head.
Now Lorenzo’s Way
After my long day’s walk under whitewashed ceilings, I feel almost as indignant as a Bolognese local when I read that the porticos garner a paltry 2.83 stars on World Heritage Site. Beloved Rome, Venice and Florence all score over 4.58.
The written reviews of Bologna bemoan the imprecise, unexceptional, ineffable heritage value of a simple covered walkway.
Even as I agree that there is not much to see, in the traditional sight-seeing sense, I feel that these travellers have somehow missed the sensation of soft wonder that plays between the columns for anyone willing to suspend their qualifying instruments.
Only Maurice, from Switzerland, seems to have captured, in ALL CAPS, what Lorenzo impresses upon me again at the end of my walk:
In fact like the modern videogames Porticoes are INTERACTIVE but they are all TRUES…Here people get the joy to live and to do something together and Porticoes, are the glue that make it possible…
So the next day, I go out and try the porticos Lorenzo’s way.
Instead of walking, I meet people.
Sitting on the polished kerb of the portico outside the Cremeria Santo Stefano, sharing gelato of fig, marscapone and chocolate with new friends, I concede the point to Lorenzo.
If life here is a poem, then porticos are the metre: Bologna is what happens beneath the arches.
For most ordinary people, this means reincarnation after reincarnation as they labour through tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, rich, poor, beggar, thief. But the Carpocratians tried to pack everything — absolutely everything — into a single lifetime.
I know how they feel.
Thighs of Steel is an undertaking of Carpocratian magnitude and the last month has seen a total of 48 cyclists riding 2611km from Glasgow to Milan.
Over a hundred kilometres a day, packed into twenty-five heatdawn, overdrawn days.
So please accept my sincere apologies for not writing to you the last couple of weeks.
I am now taking a break from cycling while the ride continues from Milan to Dubrovnik without me.
This break will be amply — even excessively — filled with the frantic gathering of thoughts as I seek to process what on earth has happened over the past month.
I’m writing today from a farmhouse near Garlasco, a quiet town in a quiet corner of Lombardy, totally unremarkable to the locals, but nevertheless subject to a constant stream of remarks from me and my British companions, evenly split by topic between the heavenly pizza and the hellish mosquitoes.
Since I last wrote, our fundraising cyclists have covered every inch of the road (and sometimes gravel) between Bristol and Milan.
The change in scenery has been mildly dramatic:
Putting those two photos side by side gives an impression of distinct and dramatic movement. One moment your eyes are on the downs, the next on the Alps.
It looks like a clear and obvious turning point: that moment in a story where everything changes forever.
But that’s in stories.
On a bike ride, change is infinitesimal and incremental and our wheels are always turning.
Between that first and second photograph, we got up out of our tents, ate breakfast, did some cycling, ate some food, did some more cycling, drank our water bottles, refilled our water bottles, did more cycling, put on sun cream, did more cycling, ate dinner, went to sleep, woke up, got up out of our tents, ate breakfast, did some cycling, ate some food…
For two weeks.
There are no turning points — except those we choose to recognise after the fact for the purpose of understanding our lives, for telling our story.
Making sense of our experiences is one of the reasons I love writing to you and why it’s a shame in a way that the past three weeks have been so full of life.
I wonder if the Carpocratians allowed themselves any time to process, or whether ‘storyteller’ fell outside their definition of earthly experience.
Writing gives us a moment to put down a marker, recognise some turning point in experience or learning, and help us understand how what we’re doing fits into the universe at this moment in space/time.
So here are four turning points from this journey, one for each week of the ride so far.
Glasgow to Bristol: A Short Ride Across Town
The two months before this ride began were stressful.
Thirty blood tests, five Covid tests and two courses of antibiotics did nothing to alleviate the stress I felt, nor resolve the question uppermost in my mind: forget the century of cyclists signed up to ride, would I be able to take care of myself over the next 5,000km?
I needed, or thought I needed, a holiday.
Then, before we were anywhere near ready, it was already time to cycle across town to meet the first week’s cyclists at Glasgow youth hostel.
Spinning wheels, one, two, three kilometres. Friday rushhour, Clyde summer sunshine, giddy core team.
This short ride turned inertia to momentum, old questions to new, and blind doubt to blind faith.
By the time we crossed into Dumfries and Galloway, the stress was gone. The sneezes followed stress into the wind the next day.
Bristol to Paris: Cheese On Toast
That first week was tough. Thighs of Steel had never ridden so far in a week before: 754km with an Everest of climbing. In a heatwave.
In the heat of the struggle, the cycling had taken every ounce of our strength, while daily disasters had taken every ounce of our ingenuity and saying goodbye to fast firm friendships had taken every ounce of our social emotional energy.
And now we had to do it all over again, with ten complete strangers.
The turning point of this second week was relearning how quickly we humans can go from utterly depleted to utterly repleted.
Hunger draining our legs. Heat draining our minds. Off-road gravel draining bashed bikes. Then a smashed GPS screen.
We freewheel downhill to a cafe marked as ‘open’ on the map. Desperation for water-fillers and stomach-fillers.
Back up the hill, in silence.
They only serve cheese on toast.
No matter: water at least, tea at least, shade at least.
But wait. This isn’t cheese. This is Cheese. This isn’t a cafe, this is The Milk Churn, home of Sussex Charmer.
Fifteen cyclists tucked well in. Even the vegans. Powered all the way to Lovebrook.
Turning point: there is nothing that can’t be fixed by comfort food. (Except perhaps smashed GPS computer screens: for that you’ll need Laka cycle insurance.)
It’s not inconceivable that the success of the first week from Glasgow to Bristol was a fluke. But Bristol to Paris showed us that the Thighs method works.
Fresh croissants at dawn, demi-bottles of lunchtime wine, massage circles at sundown.
Something in the alchemy of the way Thighs of Steel was founded attracts people with not only a strong, positive and collaborative work ethic, but one that’s paired with equal parts joy.
Paris to Lyon: Pineapple Chess
Sometimes the most signficant turning points are scarcely more than a dramatic inflection, an almost imperceptible change of emphasis, but one that leaves an important, lasting impression on our experience.
Paris to Lyon was exactly that, for me at least. It was fun, actual fun, cycling with friends old and new for a week through Comté, Beaujolais and Tour de France country.
Days in the hot saddle chatting shit, inventing songs, playing games: ‘I’ve got a business’, one word stories, Pineapple Chess. Nights wild camping under stars, nuzzled by donkeys, rescue piglets and other tame animals.
That’s not to say that it wasn’t a tough week. But when you’re having fun, things just flow, right?
It’s a virtuous circle of energy: other people love to gather around fun and, when people gather together, problems get solved easily, almost before anyone’s noticed there was ever a problem.
That was the turning point of Paris to Lyon. And, if you want the rules to Pineapple Chess, you’ll have to donate 😂
I was worried about crossing the Alps on my bicycle.
The Scottish Lowlands, the Lake District and Hay Bluff are one thing: the French and Italian Alps are quite another. Not helped by the realisation that I hadn’t even taken a dump on a serious mountain range since, ooh… 1990.
Now: I’ve always been proud of my heavyweight cruiser of a bicycle, but with some of the others riding carbon, I was a little nervous to be giving away an eight kilo handicap before we even left the start line.
I was so worried, in fact, that my bowels occupied the first 24 hours of the week unavoidably voiding themselves and I was forced to spend the first long, hot, flat day in the van.
But early the next morning, sitting in the Alpine garden of our hosts Pierre and Pascal (found through slow travel hosting site Welcome To My Garden), madly trying to swallow down the prospect of more than 2,000m of climbing in the day, I decided to seek inspiration from all the other tough rides I’ve ever done.
As I shoveled soothing porridge into my belly, I searched Strava, where I record most of my ride data, by elevation climbed.
I was pleasantly surprised. The rides I did last year through Cornwall and Devon were similar total elevation and, in fact, steeper climbs.
The Alps, I decided, with their smooth roads and steady switchbacks, would be a cinch.
And so it proved.
Okay, so ‘cinch’ might sound like an overstatement, but when you’re riding in a generous community, always ready with a joke, a song or a word of encouragement, the metres and miles dissolve into the road.
And, besides, even in the toughest moments, there’s always the scenery.
It’s fair to say that I started out on this journey pretty worried. As an organiser, worried about all the things that could go wrong with the ride, but also increasingly worried about whether I personally would have the strength to see it through.
The last time I was part of the Thighs of Steel core team, back in 2019, I was also worried — and amazed, amazed to discover that, rather than being depleted, exhausting day by exhausting day, sleepless night by sleepless night, my strength only grew over the weeks, until I was fit to burst as we rode into Athens.
But 2019 was a long time ago. Much has changed. Would those wells run so deep?
As we rolled on and on, I was relieved. They do.
Humans are amazingly adaptable animals and even our relentless routine — early starts, big climbs, late nights — has become quotidian, tapping into fathomless reservoirs of energy that my daily life never needs.
And I’m not special. This isn’t something unique that my brainbody does.
As we sweated and strained our way up to the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière, dominating in gold and glass the skyline of Lyon, one of the cyclists remarked: ‘I can’t wait to go on more adventures like this — now I know what I’m capable of!’
Because I’m an irritating contrarian, I had to disagree with her.
‘No you don’t. That’s the whole point. You’ve cycled 600km in six days, in a heatwave, and you still haven’t hit the wall. You have no idea what you’re capable of.’
And learning that is one hell of a turning point.
What must terrify us most as humans is not how little can be done, not how powerless or puny our lives are, but rather how great and signficant, especially when we join together and reach for limits out of reach.
Have you hit the wall? Have you reached your limit?
Philoxenia is the wonderful Greek concept of generosity and friendship towards strangers, guests, gods, gods in disguise, foreigners, travellers and friends of friends of cousins of friends.
I’ve written before about philoxenia and my own solo experiences of bicycle touring (here and here), but, when travelling with sixteen other cyclists and a bloody great van, the generosity of strangers towards strangers that we receive rises to truly Homeric standards.
It’s hard — impossible — to pay tribute to myriad of kindnesses, large and small, seen and unseen, that the people of Glasgow, Dumfries and Galloway, Cumbria, Lancashire, Shropshire and Wales showered down upon us over the past 750km, but here are a few that rise to mind this morning.
June in Hesket Newmarket who let us use her campsite free of charge, ‘Consider it my donation’, her fridge-temperature bathroom papered with sheep-based cartoons and proud newspaper cuttings of Prince Charles.
The elderly woman in Windermere who wasn’t quite sure how to use her garden hose, but, once shown, took over the task of hosing down our oven-hot cyclists with a cackling child-like relish.
Steve The Magic Cobbler in Preston who not only sorted us out with a new set of van keys (don’t ask), but also performed card tricks while we waited.
Paula, Paula, Pauline and Keith at The Kathleen & May Heritage Museum in Connah’s Quay for letting us doss on their floor, surrounded by exhibits on the River Dee and the local paint industry. Thanks too for the fried-up breakfast butties that put our porridge to shame.
Fathomless thanks to the communities at Claver Hill and Three Pools who hosted us in Lancaster and Abergavenny, and to Phil and Bec who Warmshowered us on the hills overlooking Offa’s Dyke near Montgomery. If you’ll have us, we’ll be back.
Joe at Rogue Welsh Cakes for donating three dozen exquisite Welsh cakes. I wish I could say that they’d been savoured, but after seven straight days of cycling, they were mainly devoured as delicious calories. Luckily, Joe does postal orders for easy at-home savouring.
In fact: thank you to all the strangers who heard about the ride and handed us cash donations in solidarity with refugees, asylum seekers and other people forced from their homes. The purest form of philoxenia: stranger to never met stranger.
All the pub landlords who patiently filled our water bottles and waved us in to empty our bursting bladders. There are now fewer than 40,000 pubs in England and Wales for the first time since the opening of the Domesday Book (probably).
Even as someone who doesn’t drink much, that feels like a bit of a shame, particularly for the countryside communities that we cycled through. We’ll keep on buying chips and Scampi Fries.
Finally: thanks to the rivers and lakes, the woods and fields, the mountains and valleys, the road and hedgerow, the wing, feather, snout, hoof and fur, the wild and the tame that swaddled us all in gentle cradle, wrapping the journey in threaded cloth of nurture and nature.
The thyroid is an endocrine gland that secretes three hormones that dictate the basal metabolic rate of almost all body tissues, manage our appetite and stimulate the breakdown of glucose and fatty acids, increase the rate of our heartbeat and mitochondrial activity, and play a key role in our sexual function, menstrual cycles, and sleep and thought patterns.
Looks pretty complex, no?
But when things go wrong, the thyroid plays pretty easy: one blood test to diagnose; one pill to restore normality.
Stress, on the other side, looks simple. But jumping jacks does it play hard.
We all clearly see the cause, but where is the cure?
Unpicking An Opinion
Stupid question: what is stress?
Let’s say it’s a troubling sense of anxiety that rides into town when external or internal demands on your performance exceed your capabilities.
But hold on.
Human beings are wonderful creatures. Our capabilities rise to the demands placed upon us.
This is why there is such a thing as eustress: motivational dollops of stress that actually improve our physical and mental performance.
Without the stress of a fierce opponent, neither of tomorrow’s Wimbledon finalists, Elena Rybakina and Ons Jabeur, could rise to the level demanded of tennis champions.
Even when demands on our performance do exceed our capabilities — why — that’s what we call learning! And there’s nothing bad about learning, is there?
So the negativity around anxiety must contain the seeds of something else.
We can see this physiologically, as well.
Anxiety is what’s known as an arousal state. It makes my heart race, shallowing my breath, making me sweat, butterflying my guts, tiring me out.
But these are the same symptoms as the arousal state of excitement. The only difference is the interpretation put on the two: one negative, coming from a place of fear, and one positive, coming from a place of joy.
If stress can be positive; if anxiety can be excitement; if falling short can be learning; then, anxiety as a response to stress is just, like, your opinion, man.
But it goes without saying that I not finding my current state of mind particularly joyful. I am not excited; I am fearful. I can’t even make space to see all the wonderful ways I am growing and learning.
Our radically varying responses to stress, then, must burrow deep, much deeper, into our core beliefs about ourselves as human beings.
The cure for stress, the one everyone will tell you, looks as simple as the diagnosis:
Relax, don’t worry, just let go
Thanks. Now what the fuck do you think I’m trying to do?
I can’t tell you how many hot baths, naps and slow walks I’ve had over the past three weeks. Sure: feels great. Now what?
Well, yesterday, my counsellor invited me to try the Sedona Method of letting go.
The Sedona Method, according to Rational Wiki, is a ‘roll-your-own New Age self-administered psychotherapy’. At this point, I’ll try anything.
If you can’t afford the $100 online course, here’s what I did with my counsellor:
Focus on an issue you would like to feel better about
Ask yourself: Is this feeling coming from a desire for control, a desire for approval, a desire for security or a desire for connection?
Ask yourself one of the following questions: Could I let this feeling go? Could I allow this feeling to be here? Could I welcome these feelings?
Ask yourself the question: Would I? Am I willing to let go?
Ask yourself this question: When? Hint: the answer is always ‘now’ because the past is gone and the future never comes.
Repeat half a dozen times, with slightly different inflections
Ecopsychology is, then, a discourse on the dwelling place of our soul. Or perhaps conversations aroundthe soul of our dwelling place. Or perhaps the two are identical.
Natural Academy prefer to use the term dwelling place over home, not only because dwelling place rolls more deliciously around the mouth, but because home is such a loaded term — for all of us, not least those ousted from or without their own.
Every being, however, must dwell in a place — even if only for this moment now.
Fascinatingly, the origins of the word dwell are more sinister, from the Sanskrit to mislead or disceive.
Perhaps there’s still something of the misleading in the word, that, for many of us, our dwelling place seems deceptively permanent or stable.
In reality, our dwelling is temporary, we’re transient visitors, fleeting expressions of consciousness.
Dwell has a broader, less partizan pattern of meaning, compared to the concept of home, for we can also dwell on an emotion or a thought, lingering, giving over our attention to fix on something important — or unimportant.
But mainly it’s just a lovely word.
So that’s what ecopsychology is — a conversation around the dwelling place of our soul.
A reintegration of psychology and ecology: an acceptance that we are nature.
Despite being pretty cosmic in scope, ecopsycholgy couldn’t be simpler. It’s nothing more than a return: coming back to ourselves as nature.
Over the course of the past three days, I noticed this in myself. Less learning and more remembering.
Like, I know what these white flowers pockering the grass are —
But it takes a smartphone app to tell me what I already know.
I wasn’t alone in this sense of remembering, for there is nothing in our natures that is alien to nature.
Yet, sometimes our disconnection is such that we need a bit of help getting back there, reconnecting, rediscovering the lines of reciprocity that fly between each node of nature’s unique, bountiful, abundant expression.
To see the lines that connect us with the beech bobbing outside the windows we peer through from inside our dwelling place, from inside our skull. The we that reaches out and connects with the touch of bark that reaches out from a branch of beech.
I’m here to learn how to facilitate these reconnections.
Facilitator is another word that’s interesting to explore etymologically.
Facere is Latin for doing or making, thus facilis: easy to do, from where we get the word facile.
A facilitator, then, is someone who makes the doing or making easy for someone else.
As a facilitator of nature connectedness, my job is to make reconnection with nature easy for others. This is a simple task because, of course, a facilitator is not a teacher.
Nature does the work.
All we have to do is clear that path back to nature, hold out a steadying arm, make the going easy.
Bring people back.
Encourage them to dwell for a moment on their dwelling place, on the environment around them in this moment, and to explore what that place is reflecting back to them about this connection we call soul.
And, above all, to invite them into the conversation.
So I invite you to engage directly with your dwelling place, your here and now, and to take two minutes to peer into its corners, scratch and sniff its edges, and expand your appreciation for its wholeness — and, naturally, your part within that wholeness.
Suspend any notions of beauty or judgement and instead wonder what the unique wholeness of your dwelling place could be trying to tell you about your soul’s place and purpose.
The branching of a tree, for example, is a pattern repeated at every level, from the veins of its leaves to the mycorrhizal networks of the fungi among its roots.
But my mind was pleasantly massaged earlier this week by the framing of an image laid out before me at the top of a hill overlooking the Somerset Mendips.
The foreground of my vision was a broccoli of grasses and clover, echoed above, and at a distance such that the pattern was repeated almost identically, by a broccoli perspective of deciduous woodland and hedgerow.
Occupying the entire upper half of the masterpiece, like proud sketches of the whole, the Platonic form of nature’s eternal pattern, were the magnificent broccoli towers of cumulus clouds.
Nature loves a broccoli. I see you. I see you. I see you.
Responsibility is something we hold, bear, carry or shoulder. Responsibility is a heavy, weighty thing that can be handed over, dodged or ducked.
Sometimes responsibility even falls on us.
No wonder that, in our most solemn moments of responsibility, we speak — quite literally — of the ‘gravity’ of the situation.
This Is A Terrible Metaphor
Responsibility doesn’t behave like a weight.
A weight on your shoulders will always slow you down, drag you down, bring you down.
But responsibility doesn’t always feel like that, does it? Hell — I don’t think it even often feels like that.
If responsibility were a force (metaphorically speaking), then it wouldn’t be gravity.
Most of the time, responsibility is empowering: it gives us the energy and motivation we need to achieve cool things.
I’m sure you can think of many times in the past when someone handed over responsibility to you — and it made you feel lighter, stronger, faster, energised, electrified and empowered.
The Thing Got Done. Right?
Far from being a gravitational, weight-like thing, responsibility is much more like a vitalising force that we absorb, store, conduct or distribute.
Yep: a better energetic metaphor for responsibility is electricity.
One idiomatic hint that responsibility truly is more electrical than gravitational: we say that the person responsible for a task is the person ‘in charge’. I found this amusing.
Where a cumbrous weight will always slow us down, electricity, when it’s hooked up right, can grant us superhuman speed — like one of those mad scooters you get nowadays.
Okay, cool. So we’re agreed that responsibility isn’t a weight, but an electricomagnetic energy. Where does that lead us?
The Party Balloon Of Expectation
We can imagine now that the responsibility for any given task is generated energetically from the expectations and obligations involved, like the build-up of static between a woolly jumper (obligations) and a party balloon (expectations).
The more friction between obligation and expectation, the bigger the metaphorical electrostatic charge and the bigger the energetic potential of responsibility.
Energy = exciting!
Yes, but a word of warning too.
Once generated, that high charge of responsibility can suddenly seem scarily high voltage.
Oh shit. A hundred people at the party and no balloons.
Even more worryingly: all the energy we’ve generated between obligations and expectations has a worrying propensity to be discharged through the nearest conductive surface.
This is exactly like — you see where I’m going — electricity.
For scale, imagine the UK is a building site and imagine that everyone on that building site has been working hard for eight hours.
In order to get through 608.3 gigawatt-hours of energy, that building site would need as many builders as India has people.
I’m not sure that scale model helped, but the point is that we generate a huge amount of power in this country and yet, somehow, we share it around, more or less safely (Birmingham railway notwithstanding) and then use it to do loads of really cool stuff like typing emails to strangers on the Internet when really we should be stuffing our faces with birthday banana bread.
Given how destructive electricity can be, isn’t that marvellous?
Responsibility is the same.
We generate oodles and oodles of the stuff, every day of our lives, because it’s a powerful motivating force that helps us do loads of really cool stuff.
Yes, it can turn us into charred steak quicker than you could say ‘medium-rare’ — but only if we try to absorb it alone or conduct too much all at once.
If instead, like the national grid, we find a way to distribute that energy — share it with friends, colleagues, sauna buddies — then together we can power all manner of wondrous things.
End of metaphor.
Responsibility is a powerful force: share it around or you’ll get fried.
Or, to wilfully paraphrase Spider-Man:
With great responsibility comes great responsibility.
Etymological Side Note: What’s response got to do with responsibility?
According to the OED, a response was, originally, the answer given to a question asked of an oracle. A response is a reply: an answer.
If you are responsible, then you are the one answerable for that duty: you’re accountable.
If you’d like to listen to me telling stories about that unique intersection between a) cycling really far, b) migrant solidarity and c) bugling on the beach, then — snakes alive! — you are in luck.
I did my first ever guest spot on a podcast this week, chatting to Saoirse at Bikepacking Buds, a rad community that aims to create a network of bikepackers across the UK.
Listen on Spotify (you don’t need an account) and hear about cycling Britain on a £50 auction bike, riding to Athens four times, how to fix broken brakes with duct tape, doing laps of Dartmoor for the sake of GPS artwork, and, of course, the spirit badger origin of my touring bugle.
For the first time in my life, I can sit cross-legged on the floor. Seriously: first time. At primary school, aged six, I remember pretending I’d stapled myself in the thumb so that I could have the ‘special’ (AKA ‘only’) chair at storytime.
This transformation in my flexibility is down to the cumulative power of doing a couple of minutes of yoga every evening. And it has genuinely improved my life: I can now have a picnic with friends without making them gather around a bench.
My latest small-but-mighty obsession is the flat-footed squat.
And wow. I love it. I love it so much that I want to fill every forgotten corner of time with a squat. Waiting for the kettle to boil, on the phone, at the beach. Maybe one day, I’ll be able to work at a squat desk…
I’ve spent the last six months working my ass off behind a computer screen to help make Thighs of Steel 2022 a sweat-n-spokes reality.
Now it’s time for the easy bit: cycling 5,000km from Glasgow to Athens.
Oh yes. I’ll be part of the core team for six of the eight weeks: from Glasgow to Milan (yep — over the Alps) and then again from Dubrovnik to Athens, through Albania and Macedonia.
Being core team means I’ll cycle about two thirds of the way and drive Mama Calypso the other third, supporting ninety pedal-pushing, wild-camping, fundraising cyclists through the biggest physical challenge of their lives.
And I won’t sleep for two months.
Together, we’re aiming to raise at least £60,000 for MASS Action, a volunteer-led charity that support grassroots projects like Khora, a social kitchen, asylum support centre and free shop for displaced people in Athens.
Our aim is to empower dignified and sustainable initiatives for migrants and asylum seekers in the UK and Greece. 💪
If you’d like to listen to me telling stories about that unique intersection between a) cycling really far, b) migrant solidarity and c) bugling on the beach, then — snakes alive! — you are in luck.
I did my first ever guest spot on a podcast this week, chatting to Saoirse at Bikepacking Buds, a rad community that aims to create a network of bikepackers across the UK.
Listen on Spotify (you don’t need an account) and hear about cycling Britain on a £50 auction bike, riding to Athens four times, how to fix broken brakes with duct tape, doing laps of Dartmoor for the sake of GPS artwork, and, of course, the spirit badger origin of my touring bugle.
So what has this got to do with my birthday?
Next Friday, I’ll turn 40.
That seems like a nice round number and, when nice round numbers come along, it’s not unusual in our culture for people to mark the occasion with generous gifts.
I’m going to make this easy for you.
Instead of going to the hassle of wrapping up and posting me one of your old DVDs, subscribe to this newsletter between now and my birthday next Friday, and I’ll donate the entirety of your subscription fee (£30) to the fundraiser on your behalf.
What my impending sleeplessness also means is that, from mid-July to mid-September, these newsletters will inevitably become spontaneously irregular.
They’ll also, more likely than not, be obsessively focussed on cycling, cycling, cycling and, as you’ve already glimpsed, amplifying our message of international solidarity and maximising the impact of our and your financial contributions.
I hope that I’ll find time for one or two more thoughtful emails, but please don’t expect a whole lot more than a cache of images and word-images captured on the freewheel.
Nothing propinks like propinquity ~ Ian Fleming, Diamonds Are Forever
Propinquity is the property of nearness.
On an archaeological dig, the closer together artefacts are found, the more similar their likely provenance. These artefacts are said to have high propinquity and, most likely, nearness in space equals nearness in time.
If beads from a lapis lazuli necklace are found in the dust around the bleached bones of a Neolithic hunter, then it’s fair to assume that they were both buried at the same time.
If the burial was uncovered in Orkney, then — bloody hell — you’ve found evidence that Neolithic Orkadian hunters had trade links with ancient Afghanistan.
That’s the law of propinquity in archaeology.
In social psychology, propinquity is one of the main factors in personal attraction.
Nearness in time and space, together with the regular frequency of encounters, explains why so many romances begin at work.
Work-based lovers are said to have high propinquity and are doomed to spend the rest of their days sharing long looks over a PowerPoint, sneaking a fumble at the fax machine and studiously pretending not to notice each other at the office party.
Propinquity can also be used to capture other, non-physical, similarities between people. We feel closer to those who share our political and religious beliefs, upbringing, education or sense of humour.
Even totally coincidental match-ups like sharing a first name can raise our sense of propinquity with another human. Davids are the best.
Why the heck am I going on about this?
The way most of us experience reality is linear. We feel bounded by time and space. Because of that, propinquity — hereness, nowness — is everything to us humans.
Stand by for a bold statement:
Your physical environment (space) is the most immediately relevant factor dictating the course of your life in that moment (time).
Because we’re such social beings, what this means is that the most important person in our lives is always the person closest to us in physical space at that moment.
Think about this grisly scenario next time you’re crossing the street and a car comes fast round the bend.
Who’s most important to you right now — the driver, with his steering wheel and brake pedal, or your dearly beloved waiting for you to get back from the shops?
The brakes fail. You get hit.
Who’s most important to you right now — a passing grandma with an enthusiastic, but terrifyingly shaky memory of a first aid course she did sixty years ago, or the world’s greatest trauma surgeon twiddling her thumbs in a hospital in Basingstoke?
The Cataclysmic Event Hypothesis
This macabre thought experiment is what I call The Cataclysmic Event Hypothesis.
The idea made its first appearance back in 2008, when I thought I was going to become An Important Writer and wrote a 44-page manuscript modesty titled The Meaning Of Life.
If there is a cataclysmic event right now, I am going to be relying for my life upon those people in closest proximity to me.
Obviously, a cataclysmic event like being involved in a car crash is an extreme example, but isn’t this hypothesis exactly what we’ve learned during the pandemic?
Our nearest becoming, truly, our dearest.
Life made worthwhile again by the boy next door, the girl upstairs, neighbourhood support groups and a smile across the shared garden.
As I pompously wrote back in 2008:
[…] People talk even today of the ‘spirit of the Blitz’: catastrophic events tend to bring the best out in human beings. But why restrict our best behaviour to only after such a disaster?
[…] The most important things to you in any one moment are the things immediately around you: make things better for them and things will become better for you as well, because they are your environment and you are all part of one organism, the society.
As we’ve also discovered during the pandemic, virtual propinquity has changed the rules — but only somewhat.
Telephones, the Internet, social media and video conferencing help us maintain a sense of high propinquity with people far away, if not physically, then at least psychologically.
Equally, however — as many people have found during long periods of isolation and as that morbid thought experiment suggests — virtual propinquity is, when the chips are really down, an illusion.
No: we are entirely dependent, or rather interdependent with the people with whom we share our immediate physical environment, right now.
No — I should be boring you with an endless slideshow of what I done on my holidays.
Alright then, here you go:
Well, besides being a generally interesting new concept that might completely transform the way you interact with everything and everybody in the world around you, forever until you lie stone cold dead in the ground, allow me to paraphrase Ian Fleming:
Nothing propinks like cycle touring
Sunday Afternoon: A Hill On A Tight Corner, In The Middle Of Nowhere, Scotland
I am 25km into an 85km bike ride and, crucially, 30km from the nearest bike shop. This is crucial because, two seconds ago, my chain snapped.
I have pushed my bike to the grassy verge and am now staring in disbelief at the metal snake lazily basking on the hot asphalt of the country lane.
It’s at this point that I have a flashback to a scene in my kitchen the week before, confidently fitting a new chain with all the smug satisfaction of an amateur who knows too much.
After ascertaining the above-mentioned crucial information, I have no choice but to attempt a roadside recovery.
Luckily (deliberately, to be fair) I have the necessary tools at my disposal. But fitting a chain is a pain in the ass (unless you have a thing called a ‘master link’) and, above all, a mess in the ass (especially if, only ten minutes prior, you heroically squirted a full litre of lubricant over the entire transmission, chain, sprockets, cogs and all).
Half an hour later, having used any excess bike oil to paint some pretty nifty body art, the chain is back on, the snake back in its bed.
I am mildly pleased with my handiwork, but not so proud that I don’t walk up the rest of this agonisingly steep hill.
Back on the flat, I test the chain with a few turns of the pedals. Despite the heat, every creak and twang sends cold shivers down the back of my neck.
I pull over and ponder my options: cycle back the way I came to the nearest bike shop thattaway (30km) or press gingerly on ahead, trusting my mechanical knowhow until the next town thattaway (45km).
It’s at that precise moment, oily fingers stroking oily beard, that another cyclist whizzes past me — gone, flying down the hill into the hazy distance, before I can blurt out the words, ‘Excuse me, you haven’t got any expertise in on-the-road chain repair, have you?’
Happily for me, cruising behind this bomber biker, is her husband, who sees my ponderous look and asks if anything’s up.
Propinquity And The Port Sunlight Wheelers
Iain pulls to a stop beside me and the exchange that follows is remarkable.
It’s not remarkable because he’s wearing an anglepoise mirror attached to his sunglasses so that he can keep an eye on his wife when she stops to chat to strangers.
It’s not even remarkable because he generously bequeaths me his own spare master link in case my chain snaps again later down the road.
It’s remarkable simply because he stopped.
About five cars passed while I struggled to tie my chain up in knots on the roadside. Hot-and-bothered people with places to go and children to feed, no doubt.
But Iain stopped. He alone acknowledged our high propinquity and he alone offered the words of comfort that gave me the strength to ride on ahead:
The exact same thing happened to me and the wife on Islay, ten years ago. On a tandem. With a kiddy trailer. Exactly the same: we were going up a steep hill and — crack — the chain snaps.
So I took out a link, same as you, and rivetted it back up, same as you — and it worked. It’s the exact same link that’s on the bike now, ten years later.
Get back on the bike and have some confidence in your work, lad.
Stepping back on the pedals with an oily handshake and a smile, Iain did indeed leave me full of confidence.
Utterly misplaced, of course — the chain snapped again not 15km later — but that’s not the point.
The point is that all the friends, all the money, all the power, all the joy and happiness in the world couldn’t help me out of my predicament in that moment.
The only entities that could possibly help me were those with whom I shared high propinquity.
Nevertheless, I got a lot out of reading the book because it explains, as if to idiots, the principles of non-violent communication and gives clear instructions on how to build constructive conversations, designed to bond human beings as equals.
One of the suggested meeting topics in the book was for each man to draw the floor plan of a boyhood home. It’s a powerful exercise (for all genders, I’m sure) that can unearth long-buried memories.
I can get with that.
Sometimes, on the threshold of sleep, I imagine myself an invisible, weightless spirit-bird, flying over and around old homes, swooping between floors to explore each before rising starward again. Beats Netflix for me.
Anyway, at the end of the floor plan exercise instructions, Clyde Henry suggests a variation where everyone draws their ‘perfect dwelling’.
Henry doesn’t offer any interpretation of this idea, but it seems to me that, rather than throwing us back on our childhood, this variation could help us visualise, with pen and paper, a dreamy future.
As someone who dwells all too often in the abstract, the pen-and-paper practicality struck me as an important part of an important tool that might help me do something I’ve never done before…
How do you see your life in five years?
At first pass, this doesn’t seem like a tricky question. It’s the sort of question your careers advisor at school would ask and you’d roll your eyes and be like ‘Ugh, I’m gonna be dead by then. SO OLD.’
But when AW3T asked me this exact question a week ago, I realised that, aside from the increasingly teenagery ‘dead by then’ answer, I hadn’t a clue. Not a Scooby.
It turns out that, while some people can’t keep their mind’s eye off their Five/Ten/Fifty Year Plan, some people can scarcely imagine breakfast tomorrow, let alone the second middle name of their third grandchild-to-be.
(Side note: Is this a symptom of Man Sloth Mode? I suspect it may be.)
If you’ve got It All Planned Out, you can probably skip today’s story.
But if you’re stuck with me in the Breakfast Club — and, to be fair, that’s probably at least a quarter of you — then let’s crack on and find our futures.
(Crumpets are a good shout tomorrow, btw.)
In A Minute: Clyde Henry’s Floor Plan Task
But first, let’s be clear: humans are bad at imagining the future.
Typically, when you think about yourself, a region of the brain known as the medial prefrontal cortex, or MPFC, powers up. When you think about other people, it powers down. And if you feel like you don’t have anything in common with the people you’re thinking about? The MPFC activates even less.
The further out in time you try to imagine your own life, the less activation you show in the MPFC. In other words, your brain acts as if your future self is someone you don’t know very well and, frankly, someone you don’t care about.
Furthermore, and as if that wasn’t enough, as we imagine increasingly distant futures, our imaginings become commensurately vague.
(This is called Construal Theory. There’s no need for you to know that, but I spent ages reading about it for this story so now it’s your problem.)
So, while I have a very clear idea of what I’ll be doing between now and October, I couldn’t begin to describe what my life might look like in a year, much less five or ten years.
Imagining May 2023 is, for me, like trying to cloud-watch on a foggy day. Through steamed-up glasses.
Finally: Clyde Henry’s Floor Plan Task
And here is where we come back around to Clyde Henry’s floor plan task because marks made in ink on paper are both imaginative and practical.
That’s exactly why architects use both pen and paper to make detailed plans that bring into being actual houses with plumbing and cavity insulation. They don’t just vaguely tell builders to sort of, you know, build, like, a house with, er, walls and stuff, I guess?
And we in the Breakfast Club can use the same physical properties of pen and paper to force ourselves out of a purely hypothetical fantasy realm and into the realm of reality.
So I took half an hour and sketched.
Looking down at my floor plan sketch, I can see the light breaking over the woods and falling onto my lap as I lie drowsy in the bay window.
Standing up and pushing open the French windows, I can smell the resin of the wood and hear the far-off songs of swallow and stream.
I can feel the cool grass against my bare feet, and the heat of split logs, as I mooch over to the fire pit, just in time to take a s’more, flame grilled à point, from the outstretched hand of a friend.
I have succeeded. I have visualised a future for myself that goes far beyond the here and now, beyond the six-month horizon. For this dream dwelling is surely situated, at bare minimum, five years from today.
But, dear Breakfast Clubbers, visualisation is only the start because now it’s time for the easy part…
Ice Cream Execution
Why do I call this the easy part? Because we’re Breakfast Clubbers.
We don’t have any problem with executing a plan in the here and now. We just never had a plan — until now.
Now we have our floor plan.
Okay, okay. There’s probably a bit more to it than that.
We might have to practise our floor planning over and over again before our futures take on the kind of single-minded clarity that we need to feel confidence in our vision.
But let’s give ourselves a pat on the back today. Until this morning, we’d never even had the confidence to picture our futures, let alone create them. Now at least we know how it’s done.
It takes courage to first imagine and then bring into being a life significantly different to the one you’re currently heavily invested in.
Courage, that is, or — favourite word claxon — audacity.
Write down your task-by-task schedule from a dream day in 2027, complete with meal plans (don’t forget to brush your teeth).
Flip through a prospectus from a university, adult education college or anywhere else that sells future selves. Stop when something jumps out at you. Read the description carefully. What makes you connect to this future?
Make a scissors-and-glue collage of stuff that whispers big dreams to you. Whatever you do, don’t use a computer — print if you find something online.
Take a psychedelic and make notes.
Finally: use FutureMe to send your visualisations to yourself in a year’s time.
Thanks to A3WT for the gentle prod that resulted in the foregoing and, perhaps, the going forth.
This is a story about scent, that strangest of our senses, which arises when a volatile chemical compound binds to a receptor in our nose and sends a signal through our olfactory system to the deepest seat of emotion, memory and learning in our brain.
But because this is also a story about poetry and vocabulary, we begin with language.
Language is also how we find precision.
For example, by increasing our vocabulary of emotion — learning more nuanced words for ‘anger’, say — we’re better able to distinguish between states of mind.
Are you feeling angry? Or are you feeling annoyed, apathetic, affronted, aggravated, antagonised, aggressive, appalled or apoplectic?
This is called emotional granularity and studies have shown that teaching people more words to describe their emotions can help them deal better with stress and trauma.
upon experiencing intense distress, individuals who experience their emotions with more granularity are less likely to resort to maladaptive self-regulatory strategies such as binge drinking, aggression, and self-injurious behavior; show less neural reactivity to rejection; and experience less severe anxiety and depressive disorders
Having an impoverished vocabulary of emotion is such a serious condition that there’s even a medical name for it: alexithymia.
‘Language is fossil poetry’ is a line from The Poet, an essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson based on a lecture he gave in 1842.
The essay encourages us to dig, like palaeontologists, into the etymology of words, so that we might uncover their metaphorical and poetic origins.
In 1972, Harvard psychiatrist Peter Emanuel Sifneos created the word alexithymia by smashing together a couple of Greek words.
According to Sifneos, being alexithymic means you have ‘no soul-speech’.
Listen now. What does your soul say?
The Poet Names The Thing
As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his essay:
the poet names the thing because he sees it, or comes one step nearer to it than any other
The poet names the thing because he sees it. Or smells it.
I was cycling along the street earlier today, on my way to the post office to pick up a parcel of Rogue Welsh Cakes. (Maple and pecan? Shut UP!)
It had not long finished raining: the kind of May shower that scrubs the air clean and, as I cycled, the evaporating roads filled my nostrils with that wonderful, thirsty, humid scent I’ve learned to call —
I’m getting ahead of myself.
My reason for writing this story is because the English language, like most, lacks olfactory granularity.
As we’ve seen, English has many, many different words for the different gradations of anger. It’s up to us to learn them, identify them in ourselves, and use them appropriately so that we can live more contented lives.
But when it comes to smells, English simply doesn’t have the words.
In English, there are only three dedicated smell words — stinky, fragrant, and musty — and the first two are more about the smeller’s subjective experience than about the smelly thing itself.
That’s astonishing. But is it a bad thing?
You could say that quickly and accurately distinguishing between smells isn’t ‘saliant’ to our lives. It’s not life and death.
We can describe scent, more or less, by analogy and maybe saying that something smells salty, lemony or funky is good enough for us.
Once upon a time in the west, as research suggests, distinguishing scent more closely may well have been a matter of life and death, where pleasant perfumes identified nourishing food, healing medicine and cleanliness.
The case today for expanding our olfactory granularity rests on the same logic as that taken down by Robert Macfarlane in Landmarks, his paeon to ‘the power of language … to shape our sense of place’ and his attempt to release ‘its poetry back into imaginative circulation’.
Ammil: A Devon term for the fine film of silver ice that coats leaves, twigs and grass when freeze follows thaw.
Noticing and naming are the yin and yang of learning, the head and tail of the ouroboros of understanding.
Smeuse: Sussex dialect for the gap in the base of a hedge made by the regular passage of a small animal.
Who can say what ‘use’ such vocabulary has for its users?
But, as Macfarlane writes, their precision undoubtedly leaves us with ‘our attention re-focused, our sight freshly scintillated’.
And that can only be a good thing in my book slash newsletter.
Back To My Bike Ride…
As I cycled along, the evaporating roads filled my nostrils with that wonderful, thirsty, humid scent I’ve learned to call — yes — petrichor.
Petrichor: A pleasant, distinctive smell frequently accompanying the first rain after a long period of warm, dry weather in certain regions.
Perhaps surprisingly, the term was only coined in 1964 by Isabel Bear and RG Thomas, two Australian researchers who discovered that a yellow-coloured oil could be extracted from dry, clay-based soils and rock.
Petrichor is the name they gave to the odour of that fatty elixir.
The oil is produced by plants during long dry spells and, in a follow-up paper published in 1965, Bear and Thomas showed that the oil significantly delays the germination and growth of various plants — presumably a defence mechanism until environmental conditions are more favourable.
These oils are absorbed from the plants into the soil and, when rain (preferably a light rain) finally hits the ground, the oils are released into the air and we all get to snort the wet scent of petrichor.
Again, the word is formed from Greek. Petros is the Greek word for stone (hence Peter, rock of the church) and ichor is the ancient word for the blood of the gods.
Petrichor draws the blood of the gods from a stone.
The poet names the thing and, in this case, we’re lucky that Isabel Bear was such a poet.
Funky Great Earth-Odour
But there’s more to that delicious post-rain stink than petrichor alone.
When rain hits soil, another molecule is released into the air, this one produced by bacteria living undergound: geosmin.
Geosmin: An organic compound with a strong earthy scent and flavour, produced especially by various microorganisms and largely responsible for the smell of damp soil.
It’s pronounced /dʒɪˈɒzmɪn/ or jee-OZ-min.
This is also a scientific neologism imagined into being by scientists in the mid sixties. This one, also of Greek origin, simply means earth-odour.
Florence Williams, author of The Nature Fix, describes the smell of geosmin as ‘funky-great’ and she’s not wrong: it gives beetroot its umami-earthy taste.
But when geosmin gets into the water supply, it’s just plain funky-bad. In fact, it’s what makes wine taste ‘corked’.
So there we have it: two words for distinctive earthy scents, followed back through the palaeontology of their fossilisation.
Maybe you’re shrugging your shoulders with a ‘so what’ look on your face. Maybe you already knew all about petrichor and geosmin.
In both cases, at least I’ve had a nice time.
But if you’re into this kind of thing, I’d love to hear your favourite smelly words — fancy scientific ones like I’ve written about here, ones stolen from other languages, or ones the poets made up long ago.
And so we come to the end of the story, where I wrap up my themes of poetry and the intellectual illumination that comes through noticing and naming.
Ideally this earth-shattering finale will come in a single flash-bulb image that encapsulates the whole in a moment of dazzling insight, leaving you with an awed sense of the power of the universe.
Sadly I don’t have that. What I’ve got instead is the following underwhelming anecdote.
On my way back from the post office, down the same street I had cycled earlier, I was dawdling behind a pedestrian when my eyes flicked right, caught by a flash of incongruous colour on the wall of an unremarkable Victorian house, glimpsed through a gap in a thick hedgerow.
(Not a smeuse — higher up, maybe a bird smeuse.)
It was a blue plaque — an honour reserved for only the most historic of British landmarks.
What was it doing here, in a quiet residential street round the back of Bournemouth train station?
I looked more closely:
Here Rupert Brooke (1888-1915) Discovered Poetry
Woah — poet and petrichor — On. The. Exact. Same. Street! What were the chances?
I told you it was underwhelming.
Before I botch this ending completely, allow me to make an orderly exit by leaving you with a few lines from one of Rupert Brooke’s less jinogistic poems, Tiare Tahiti:
Hear the calling of the moon,
And the whispering scents that stray
About the idle warm lagoon.
I hold strong opinions. Dangerously strong opinions.
The way that the human brain works, strong opinions like mine can lead to political breakdown, financial collapse and even death 💀
Most human beings hold at least a few strong opinions thanks to something called the confirmation bias. Duh, duh, DUH.
Because of, I dunno, evolution or something, our mystical skull goo (or ‘brain’) automagically seeks and celebrates evidence that supports our entrenched beliefs and rubbishes and discards evidence that contradicts them.
Humility is the recognition of your limitations. I always work with a goal, and the goal is to improve as a player and as a person.
This is the same Rafael Nadal who has won an all-time high 21 Grand Slam tournaments, the crowning achievement in tennis. What improvement? What limitations?
So whenever you notice yourself holding the sharp end of a strong opinion, take a minute.
Is the strength of your opinion really justified? Like, really justified.
Or are you just plain dumb?
Now: Be Like The Tree
But strong opinions don’t have to mean inflexible opinions.
If I can use a shitty metaphor that’ll break down in five minutes: imagine a hurricane ripping through your town. Sorry.
A skyscraper has a strong, inflexible opinion. It’s going dowwwwn. But a tree has a strong, but flexible opinion. It’s going to survive the storm by bending with the wind.
So be like the tree.
Strong opinions are fine — good, even — I will strenuously defend my strong opinion about the right of all beings to free movement across the planet. Go on: I dare you!
But strong opinions shouldn’t be like a badly constructed skyscraper in a hurricane. They should be re-examined in the light of new information, contrary viewpoints and changing circumstances. Like a tree.
In the latter pages of Poverty Safari, McGarvey addresses the apparent inability for political parties to work together to solve really important systemic problems like poverty.
McGarvey points the finger squarely at the confirmation bias and our desperate need to be right, no matter what the dire social consequences:
In a global civilisation dogged by political and religious tribalism, occasionally asking ourselves where we may be mistaken becomes a radical political act.
Isn’t it a bit convenient that we, the ‘good guys’, always find ourselves not only on the right side of history but also on the right side of every argument on the right side of history?
In an infinite universe, on a planet that has existed for billions of years, the chances of us being right about everything are slim, surely?
[…] There’s arguably more virtue in admitting you’re mistaken and correcting your course, than there is in stubbornly believing you haven’t been wrong since you were a teenager.
So (finally) here’s a list of:
9 things I once strongly believed and now completely don’t.
9 things I strongly believe today, but suspect I might not in the future.
9 things I strongly believe today, but am actively canvassing for contradiction — help me out, won’t you?
I suspect that sharing these beliefs should come with some sort of a trigger warning so please don’t take them too much to heart.
My point here is more to recognise where I now strongly disagree with my past self. And you can ask yourself the same question.
9 Things I Once Strongly Believed And Now Completely DON’T
Drugs are bad and will lead to addiction, destitution, imprisonment and an early grave. Drug users are, therefore, Bad People to be greatly feared. (Remember: these are opinions that I now strongly disagree with!)
Nation states are a sensible way of organising the different human communities of the world and borders must be protected against illegal intrusion.
The police service is unimpeachable. Police officers know the law and will always enforce it fairly. (Also applies to law courts and politicians.)
Morally and ethically, there is such a thing as Right and Wrong.
There is only one type of intelligence — the one that I’m good at.
When people let me down, turn me down or do me down, it’s probably because I’m in some way an awful person.
Being well-travelled is about how many countries you’ve visited.
Meat and dairy are an essential part of a healthy diet, or at least of a healthy diet for me.
I sleep badly 99.9 percent of the time. (It’s actually 100 percent — nah, only kidding. Compared to some horror stories I hear, I sleep really well. Sorry.)
9 Things I Strongly Believe Today, But Suspect I Might Not In The Future
Everything is relative. Morality, ethics, opinions, abilities, knowledge, whatever — it’s all relative. So back off.
I’m a handsome clever clogs.
I’m in great health and will probably live forever.
I’m crap at music.
I despise potato crisps or any crisp-like appetiser, such as poppadoms or Chinese crackers.
‘Everything is amazing and no one is happy.’ I hope I always believe the first half of that quote and I really hope that, magically, everyone in the whole wide world contradicts me on the second half.
For most people, looking at the weather forecast is a total waste of time. We’re in the UK, you’re going to need a raincoat.
I don’t deserve enduring happiness in my relationships. Because that would be too easy.
9 Things I Strongly Believe Today, But Am Actively Canvassing For Contradiction
Please can everyone stop voting Tory for a second? Thanks.
Authentic connection is the single most important thing we can do for each other and for the planet that we live on. That could mean going for a muddy walk in nature or sharing a ribald laugh with a stranger.
Every second I spend in front of a screen instead of outside in nature is killing me a little bit.
Reading a physical book, however, is probably the best way of building our empathy muscles to help us with #2. Also: books we can read outside.
Going on adventures is a wonderful thing to do and another way to build authentic connection with people and place.
The mind is a body and needs stimulation, touch and movement.
All property should be cooperatively owned. End landlords.
Now, over to you — how wrong am I? And how wrong have you been?!
Thanks to AT for the motivation to turn this nagging thought into a story.
In 58 days over the summer of 2011, I cycled 4,110 miles around the coast of Britain.
A decade later, in the foreshortened world of 2020, what better time was there to set out on a journey I’d always promised myself I would one day retrace?
But now, ten years older and wiser, instead of cycling over 70 miles a day for two months straight, I’m covering 40 miles a day in bursts spread over four years.
My 460 mile ride from Kings Lynn to Edinburgh was part four of what will become an eight-legged journey and my arrival into the Athens of the North marked my fifty-eighth day on the road.
Following Southern England in 2020 and Wales in 2021, I’m now about 60 percent of the way around the island…
… Or am I?
Looking at the gaps in the journey already — the northeastern tip of East Anglia, the north coast of Devon and Cornwall, the Black Country, the Welsh heartland, and, not least, Grimsby — I’m wondering: shall this ride ever be complete?
Putting aside even the geographical lacunae, I feel the flux of the universe as my feet touch the pedals, every atom in the stream growing, flowing and dying on, even as I race down the road in pursuit.
Not wanting to get too deep on you, but the only thing holding this ride together (and perhaps my whole being) is the weak bond of memory — or at least the illusion of such a memory.
Building The House Of Illusion And Memory
As hard as my leg muscles have worked, my memory works six-fold, constructing from the basement to the attic, storeys upon storeys, as it traces back and forth between 2011 and the 2020s.
Despite the passage of a decade, I’m amazed to find that I recognise many of the places I travel through.
Not exclusively the remarkable places either: I vividly remember cycling out of Middlesborough on a hot day in 2011. The broken concrete of a disused airfield, the abrupt silence of the birds and a sandy track between trees.
This time around, I knew what turns to take, running ahead of my GPS, marvelling at all the little blue Sustrans signs that were then my only guide.
The circumstances of my nan’s death that led to my leaving on that cycle around Britain eleven years ago and what has become of me since that first journey.
Comedy writer, uncle, outdoor instructor, cyclist-at-large, skateboarder and surfer.
All shared with friends and loved ones, some here for good, others passing through.
In 2011, I stayed in Newcastle with an old friend from childhood.
John taught me a lot about comfortable cycle touring: padded shorts for my long-suffering behind, glucosamine for my knees, handlebar ‘bull horns’ for hill climbing and to ease the ache on my shoulders.
This time around, John rode with me for 12 miles either side of his new home in Whitley Bay. Now it was my turn to share a decade’s worth of tea and cake touring experience with him.
Vivid memories of emotionally charged events. Like crossing the border into Scotland on 29 July 2011:
I cover the two and a half miles to the border with all the vigour of a man who’s just eaten an entire packet of Jaffa Cakes.
My overwhelming feeling at leaving England is elation.
For a hundred yards, I am in no man’s land. Ahead is a sign that reads, Welcome to Scotland; behind me a sign says, Welcome to England.
I scan the foxglove hedgerows for some Scottish significance, in roadside flora, fauna or filth: none.
The significance I seek is on the inside: I feel the spreading butterflies of adventure.
I am a stranger here, in a strange land. The harder I smile, the harder the sun shines.
Even the familiar motor skills required for climbing onto a fully loaded touring bike and pushing the pedals is a function of memory, laid down since childhood.
Every element of touring now is a rhyme from a decade of adventure. Pack up your bike, put up your tent, McGuinn. You ain’t going nowhere.
Interdependent and embedded among our personal memories are collective memories of our political, social and cultural milieu.
In 2011, it was impossible to escape the political landscape of scandal and austerity. War in Syria, Tony Blair on trial and police murder in Tottenham.
In 2020, of course, every interaction was marbled with the course grain of the pandemic.
This year, I lost count of the number of gardens, fences, windows, walls, rooftops that flew the flag of Ukraine.
As the muscle fibres in my legs stretch, break, grow and wither, the greatest survivor of this never-ending adventure is memory, creating meaning and character in every episode that I commit to words.
Thank you for reading and sharing these memories. Special thanks to the Shearers for their help in making them in the first place — have a wonderful dino-wedding!
Resuming where I left off two years ago, today I rode from Kings Lynn to a canalside camp just the other side of the lovely market town of Boston.
I’m dressed for Bournemouth, where it’s already summer, and today I froze in a biting northerly wind. Tomorrow I might see about replacing my sandals for shoes…
Big plus of riding in spring: cherry, hawthorn blossom and horse chestnut candles to cheer me!
Day 2: Boston to Cottingham (139km, maybe a touch more)
Lincolnshire knocked out in a day. Not too shabby! (It is very flat, to be fair…)
Some delightful off road sections and canal paths. Also wind.
Frozen toes somewhat comforted by the acquisition of overshoes from the Aladdin’s Cave of F&J Cycles in Lincoln.
Day 3: Cottingham to Ravenscar (107km)
Through the Yorkshire Wolds, including both the ‘capital’, Driffield (shout out to The Bike Cave vegan chocolate orange cake dipped in oat milk turmeric latte), and the ‘gateway’, Hunmanby (shout out to the ‘now very few’ members of the Hunmanby In Bloom committee who made my short stay there so peaceful).
This makes it sound like I had a nice time today. Well, I did. So there. Cycling doesn’t have to be a sufferfest.
This ride to Edinburgh is all part of my training for six weeks of Thighs of Steel this summer (including the Alps, which not even the Yorkshire Wolds can prepare me for!)
I’m currently sitting in Sanders Yard Bistro, hidden away in a historic potted plant courtyard, a sharp cobbled descent down the looming cliff of Whitby Abbey.
It’s been more than 300km since I rode out of Kings Lynn, picking up from where I left off in 2020.
This is the fourth leg of my recapitulation of my 2011 ride around the entire coast of Britain.
Being now eleven years wiser, I am taking my time, and expect another three stages and two summers of touring before I have finished.
I ride and I write to make authentic connections, something I struggled with back in 2011.
(Believing, with unfounded mystery, that everyone hated people who wore socks with sandals, and that it was not only the vampires who were out to get me.)
On the first three days of this nine-day stage, my deepest connection has been with the spring.
I’ve not done much touring in April before and I’ve been taken aback by how much is going on, everywhere I look, all the time.
Riotous nesting birds. Bluebells in the dappled woods. The first whiffs of cow parsley on the verges. Hens, geese, ducks, pheasants, fowl all busy with their own life admin, my passing only a clucking nuisance in theirs.
And, above all, the shocking silence of the blossoms.
There is never a dull moment, scanning the trees and the hedgerows for apple, cherry, hawthorn and the first candles of the chestnut.
There’s so much colour in our countryside that it’s frustratingly impossible for me to pin a name to the dozens of other pinks, whites, yellows and purples that I’ve marvelled on.
When I get home, I’ll consult a big book of blossoms and give these magnificent displays the quiet attention they deserve. I hear that’s a thing in Japan.
Human connection, perhaps because of the cold weather, has been less apparent than on my summer rides.
Positive, friendly, supportive, people and place, but nothing to fix a story in the memory.
Until this morning, when who should bring me breakfast and tea, but James Astin’s aunt.
James Astin’s aunt
There’s no reason for you to have heard of James Astin, and that’s kind of the point.
James Astin, his aunt confided, left one day from the bandstand right here in Whitby and cycled all around Europe, then into Russia, across China, south through Indonesia to Australia and then across to Alaska and all the way down through the Americas.
Quite the ride – but what struck me were the three stories that his aunt chose to divulge:
Once, cycling through China, James battled along 92km of a four lane motorway, only to be stopped by the authorities and transported right back to where he began.
The number of times he had to light a fire in his tent because of how cold it was. And the number of times he set fire to said tent.
James had to break his trip halfway around to fly home for a wedding (not his own).
What this tells me is that the worst experiences make the best stories. Also weddings.
Something to remember next time things are going south.
One day, maybe, however terrible things are now, this’ll be something your proud aunt will tell a stranger in a cafe.
The last time I was here I was desperately searching, with the help of my dad (long suffering telephonist for round Britain cyclist) for Ravenscar youth hostel.
As darkness, rain and sea all closed in on the cliffs below me, I despaired, and threw my bike, my bivvy bag and myself under a bush for shelter.
Shame that the bush was a gorse.
I’m sure I can do better this time.
As the cold drops colder with the fading sunlight, I find myself surrounded by an abundance of excellent camping spots and frankly astounded that my younger self managed to get it so horribly wrong all those years ago.
I’m in the abandoned quarries for the Peak Alum Works on the edge of Fylingdales Moor.
The industry has left the ground nicely levelled out, a quiet copse of trees sheltering a cinder-soft, gorse, thistle, branble and nettle-free clearing.
Tucked away from the path, but still in earshot of the waves swooshing against the rocks below, the silver birch form a merry band, their leader volunteering to snuggle up with Martin II (AKA King Duncan I) for the night.
It’s so perfect, in fact, that I sleep until nearly 8am, a full ten hours.
For anyone wondering: yes, camp sleep can be that good.
The unfavourable juxtaposition of my two experiences at Ravenscar illustrates two developments in my wild camping strategy.
Three if you include the inspired suggestion (by a dog walker on the Isle of Wight in 2020) that I use poo bags, but I’ll save that discussion for a time less close to lunch.
1. OS Maps
Smartphones are a double edged sword for the general population and no more so than for the wild camper.
But what I risk losing in disconnection – that sense of always being elsewhere, of app-watching, media monitoring, and even just listening to the radio of an evening – I gain in knowledge.
OS Maps are a boon, not for touring navigation, but for quickly finding likely spots for wild camping.
Yesterday, for example, I cycled straight past the perfect wild camping spot. On the coast, in full view of the ocean, a short trundle off the path, but with easy access, a clutch of picturesque ruins for shelter and a drystone wall to shield me from view.
As hard as it was to drag myself away, I refused the lure. From OS Maps I could see that this was private land, on a likely busy footpath.
I couldn’t be bothered to cycle a circuitous route to the farmhouse to ask permission, so I looked further ahead on my route and pinpointed an area of flat open access land right on my route: the abandoned quarry.
But, looking out over the landscape, I was even more reluctant to move on. To me, it looked like a mess of woods, gullies and gorges. But I decided to trust the map. And was rewarded.
Funnily enough, I think I camped only yards away from the gorse that I threw myself under 11 years ago.
The difference between these two camping experiences, of course, is daylight and confidence built on a foundation of years of experience.
There is nothing like the unexpected discovery of the perfect camping spot, but on long tiring days, OS Maps has become an invaluable tool.
2. A warm mattress
This could be broadened to include the whole sleep kit, but the mattress is so often overlooked and, in cold temperatures like last night, often the most important element of a warm sleep kit.
Most of your heat will be lost to the ground, not to the air.
Did you know that your sleeping bag is only as good as your mattress? And that camping mattresses have temperature ratings exactly like sleeping bags?
Nope, nor did I until a couple of years ago and now I won’t shut up about it.
Individuals with greater nature relatedness are more likely to adopt a sustainable lifestyle and have greater well-being. … This result implies that by nurturing nature relatedness, societies will achieve the double dividend of well-being and sustainability.
Again: for the sake of our future and the future of our children, we need you to trespass and win back our inalienable right to nature.
The reason I keep going back is that taking a sauna is, for me, a keystone habit.
A keystone habit is one habit that leads to a cascade of others. A keystone habit can be positive, like how exercising first thing in the morning gives you energy for the whole day.
But it can also be negative, like how checking your phone first thing in the morning sends you into a spiral of doom scrolling that leaves you tired and hopeless for hours.
And that last negative example is the clue to why visiting the sauna is a particularly powerful keystone habit for me: 90 degree heat does terrible things to technology.
Yes, saunas are wonderful for my health, an excellent place to meet interestingstrangers, and the perfect environment for quiet reflection.
But, above all, I most value how visiting the sauna gives me the precious opportunity for two hours of completely screen-free time in the middle of the day.
That sentence deserves its italics.
Busy Is A Decision
Now, before you switch off in disgust, I know that most people can’t take two hours to f-off to the sauna on a Tuesday.
I’m very lucky to work for myself and set my own hours and workload. The downside, of course, is that I set my own hours and workload.
When you work for yourself, there is no clock to punch and your work is never done.
Last year, on average, I spent more than 46 hours per week looking at screens. That’s six and a half hours per day, which is already a lot and doesn’t even account for holidays or weekends when I’m not at my desk.
On heavy weeks, that went up to over nine hours of screentime a day.
Two hours to read, reflect and recharge in the middle of the day is an investment that pays back more, beyond measure, in creativity and energy, than it takes in time.
This keystone habit creates a significant break in the day, triggering a cascade of other positive habits, both at the sauna — reading, rest, reflection as well as talking to strangers — and afterwards, in the way I approach the remains of the day — with calm, perspective and creativity.
But it takes a counter-intuitive psychological switch to fully embrace that ‘busy is a decision’ and that sometimes the best thing you can do is nothing at all.
So I leave my sauna kit by the front door, ready to go.
A Note On Accessibility
Sadly, in the UK, not everyone will have an affordable nearby sauna. My only advice is: move to Finland.
Actually, my only advice is to take a second look. Most council-run leisure centres have a sauna these days.
That’s where I used to go until I realised that the sauna was too important a habit to neglect and that the 15-minute bike ride was too high a cost. I am now a short-term member of a local hotel spa.
Other people join the gym; I go for the sauna.
Despite everything that the sauna gives me, it still sounds incredibly indulgent to me. I dread to think how you see it. 😂
Here’s how I rationalise it: if I keep up my habit of going three times a week, then the average cost per visit will be £3.15 — much cheaper than the leisure centre and not much more than a cup of coffee.
My point is: if you find a keystone habit that works for you, do whatever you can to make it happen. It’s worth the investment.
Yesterday I went for a sauna, a serendipitous, super-heated rendezvous with an Italian shamanic healer and, Paulo, a New York-born Italian-Irish dad who takes daily saunas so that he’s ‘mentally and physically ready’ to fight.
Paulo grew up tough. His own grandma would slap him if he chewed his food more than three times — I guess because not gobbling a scarce meal must be ingratitude.
Tough, ya know?
While myself and the shamanic healer sweated on the top deck pine, Paulo paced the tiles below, arms wheeling, trying to figure out how he could have been raised with such hardship and his own children with smartphones.
Winding back the clock, on Monday, I surfed my first proper waves — a 3.5ft primary swell, if that means anything to you.
I say ‘surf’… Apparently, the Bournemouth surf has a notoriously short interval between waves. As the first of a set broke over my board, the second was on top of me, smashing said board into the back of my head.
There’s a good reason why surf schools teach you to protect your head and neck when you come off. Takes practice though!
That night, as I did my yoga, half a cup of seawater flushed out of my nose.
Before all that, last weekend, I hosted my first ever Warmshowers cycle tourers, a pair of wonderful Dutch women doing a loop of southern England, before one cycles on alone to Portugal.
Pam and Laura were full of that energy you can only get from riding a really long way.
I’ve stayed with some incredible Warmshowers hosts all over the UK and Europe and, finally, I now understand the vicarious gratitude that my hosts must have felt.
There is a boundless joy in being able to open my door and offer so easily the solution to every need. A hearty stew on the stove, a couple of dry towels, a capful of washing detergent. A chair, a bed. Peace.
Pam and Laura’s Saturday night out in Bournemouth sounded like a blast: their pragmatic fleeces and practical shoes sharing bar space with a tirade of stag and hen fancy dressers.
Two species eyeing one another over cocktails and cider.
One of the most powerful tools in a Stoic’s mental toolbox is something I call the anxiety archive.
Building your own anxiety archive is a semi-structured, reasonably objective process — a HAZMAT suit and a pair of forceps — that helps you safely hold your fears, raise them to the light, examine them from every angle and see them for what they truly are: allies.
Lurking in the shadows, the nameless monster is most feared.
(Side swerve: it feels like the worst media outlets know and deliberately play on this, right?)
But, if we’re respectful, we can take that nameless monster on a journey of understanding and finish up with a fear that is, not only acknowledged, but accepted and even welcomed as a stir to action.
The journey goes something like this:
Notice anxiety: ‘I feel anxious…’ This is often the hardest part. Practice noticing.
Interrogate anxiety by questioning its supporting emotion or rationale: ‘Why am I anxious about this? Is there good reason to be anxious? Is a deadline approaching? What emotions do I feel besides anxiety? Where do I feel resistance? What do others expect of me?’
Understand anxiety: ‘This isn’t about the Dolomites, this is anxiety about my procrastination. This is the social anxiety of reaching out to cyclists and cycling groups with whom we don’t already have a relationship.’
Empathise with anxiety: ‘I hear you, anxiety. I hear your persistent alarm signal and acknowledge that I should be doing something.’
Act in concert with your anxiety: ‘I’m going to set a timer for ten minutes, find one cyclist or cycling group and tell them about this amazing ride we’re doing in the Dolomites.’
I don’t take my fears on this journey nearly enough, but I want to share two occasions in the past ten years when I have — and what I’ve learned from looking back.
Building My Anxiety Archive
In January 2012, I was inspired by hip-hop superstar Jay-Z to write up my own ‘99 Problems’.
Mine were less about systemic police brutality and racial profiling and more about ‘only having a single bed’ and ‘the mysteries of bicycle brakes’.
And I only got as far as 23 before I dried up.
Isn’t that amazing?
For all the worries that I had in my life at the time — from the laughably ridiculous (‘A lot of my clothes have holes in them’) to the genuinely worrysome (a bully for a housemate, relationships with ‘no flow’ and ‘No regular income’) — in sum of all of this anxiety, I still couldn’t come up with enough problems to pen a half-assed sonnet, let alone an era-defining rap.
(But, yes, if you’re wondering, thanks to my ongoing battle with eczema, the itch was one.)
Six years later, in February 2018, I wrote down another list of everything that was bothering me at the time.
I did little better: 28 anxieties.
Magic #1: Problems Get Boring Fast
Of course, if I really put my mind to it, I could easily bust out a list of 99 — or even 999 problems.
But part of the anxiety archive exercise is to realise that, for me at least, I get bored of worrying long, long before I hit Jay-Z’s 99 problems.
(And I’m not alone: I can only actually count 9 distinct problems in Jay-Z’s famous song.)
As they start to pile up under my pen, a wave of exhaustion overtakes me. Writing down any more starts to feel silly.
Instead, helpful solutions spring to mind, as well as gratitude for the many, many things in my life that aren’t problems.
Looking down at the abstracted, objectified feelings that fill my spreadsheet (natch) gives me a different perspective on my anxiety.
They either look silly (buy some new clothes, Dave) or they become puzzles to figure out (talk to my neighbour or move house).
My mind becomes active rather than reactive. I can put away the archive and get on with my day, lighter.
But the anxiety archive isn’t only of use in the moment. I recommend storing your archives on a computer for posterity so that you can enjoy…
Magic #2: This Too Shall Pass
Browsing through my 2018 anxiety archives from the vantage point of today, I am amazed to find only two remain in full force.
Another eleven are notably quieter for the passage of years, still something I think about from time to time, but now scarcely worth a mention.
That means that more than half of the anxieties on that four-year-old list leave me with nothing more than a wry smile at the memory.
It’s immensely reassuring to recognise that I am, for example, no longer anxious about the state of my arteries or whether or not I’m ‘good enough’ to write entertaining, interesting, useful stuff.
Of course, I could fill this email with a dozen more juicy anxieties that have crept up on me since 2018, but — and here is where the magic is — the strength of building an anxiety archive is that it gives me incontrovertible evidence that ‘this too shall pass’.
From my anxiety archive, I know that there’s a solid chance today’s most pressing anxiety will, given time, become tomorrow’s wry smile.
Unlocking My Anxiety Archive
With the distance of time between us, I can see from both my 2012 and 2018 anxiety archives that the worst rarely happens and, when it does, it is rarely the catastrophe that I foretold.
Indeed — and here is where I invite you to give me a hearty slap in the face — these difficult moments were hidden opportunities for growth.
What we once considered weaknesses, with practice and patience, become strengths.
For example, the breadth of work that I do, meandering across industries and skillsets, was once a great source of anxiety.
For years, I believed that I had no focus, no commitment and no purpose.
The exact same breadth has, since 2018, become a source of strength.
I am a writer: I write this newsletter, as well as comedy with Beth Granville and environmental science journalism.
I’m an outdoor instructor, working weekends with kids as they plan, organise and execute their first overnight expeditions.
This plurality of interests is, well, interesting. My diverse portfolio is, by its nature, more robust to shocks. Much is work that I can do from anywhere, setting my own boundaries.
Most importantly, however, I truly value this work and my enthusiasm carries over into a more positive relationship with myself and the rest of planet.
It took a lot of energy to get here — and anxiety was an integral part of the process.
Anxieties Are Allies
Anxiety doesn’t have to feel like a darkened, locked room; we can choose to feel this emotional force as a powerful motivating ally.
But before we simply let our anxieties pull us along, willy-nilly, we must first harness the energy by noticing, naming, interrogating, understanding and empathising.
As a regular part of our self-driving engine of inspiration, we can also then go back through our anxiety archive to identify and celebrate how we found the strength to grow in years gone by.
You see: buried in our own personal anxiety archive we will find the proof that we already possess everything within ourselves that we need to in order to rise and meet today’s challenges — not in spite of our fears, but thanks to them.
NOTE 1: Anxiety can be devastating. The anxiety archive is intended as a mental health check-up, not an emergency intervention. Don’t hesitate to see a professional counsellor if you think you might need one.
Today I’m going to build on everything that I wrote last week, encorporating as many of your wonderful contributions as I can.
In fact, last Saturday, I got so excited by your responses that I had to make a load of changes to the original article, so please go and read that if you haven’t already.
Then come back for more diaries.
What’s In A Name: Man Sloth Mode? Secondary Carer Sloth Mode? Drive Care / Take Care?
One of the things that surprised me about the comments on last week’s email was how many women said that they had noticed themselves slipping into man sloth mode — to the point where a friend asked if they could drop the ‘man’ bit altogether.
Of course you can — it’s yours!
Before delving into the terminology, it’s worth saying that I don’t necessarily believe these women when they say they go into what I called man sloth mode.
So, while I accept that women (being human) can and do go into some sort of sloth mode, I don’t think it’s anywhere near as common and nowhere near as acute as the male strand that I discussed last week.
Aaaaanyway, that aside, what was particularly interesting was under what circumstances people told me they go into sloth mode.
Just as men tend to sloth mode when a woman is there to take care of all the life admin, so it seems that adults of all genders can easily slip into sloth mode when they go back to their parents’ for the weekend.
Having just spent a week with family, I can relate. But I’m getting better at noticing man sloth mode and acting before it impacts too badly on other people. (And I still think you’re overpraising when I fill the dishwasher, mum 😂)
Fascinatingly, I also got an email from a friend who is part of a two-mum family. They described how one person, who they call the primary carer, often carries the ‘emotional and functional weight’ for everyone in the family unit.
‘Traditionally,’ my friend wrote, ‘it’s the Dad that slips into Man Sloth Mode, but take out those genders and you’re left with secondary carer sloth mode.’
My friend also made a brilliant distinction between what she called ‘drive care’ and ‘take care’ modes — and how she and her partner have bounced back and forth between the two as they’ve matured.
If I’ve understood correctly:
Drive care = someone who sees and actively straightens out the chaos of life: a person who cares
Take care = someone who would rather passively adapt themselves to the chaos of life: a person who receives or benefits from care
I love how this distinction acknowledges that we can find ourselves more or less in one or the other mode at different times and in different contexts in our lives.
As children, naturally, we are take carers. As parents, naturally, we are drive carers.
Within the parental bubble, it is common for one or other of the partners to take the more active primary care role. And I think the same is true for relationships without children: a primary carer emerges. Which sucks.
So: what do you think about dropping the man from man sloth mode? What about my friend’s secondary carer sloth mode and the drive and take care distinction?
Oooh — talking of inspired new terminology. How about this, from the irrepressible M.C.:
Man sloth dodging (noun,verb): Man sloth dodging is when the female partner of one man makes direct contact with the female partner of another man in order to guarantee the successful and timely arrangement of social plans. 🤣
So good. More please!
Utimately, the point here is to develop language that facilitates conversations. Have we done that? Maybe. Can we go further? Definitely.
Psychological Fragility And The Male Response
The response to last week’s newsletter was genuinely wonderful. I loved getting screenshots of when you shared it with friends. 😍
But I couldn’t help noticing that the strongest responses were from women. Largely in the form of: YES, THANK YOU FOR NOTICING.
I feel a bit of fraud, given that ninety percent of the ideas behind man sloth mode were smuggled away from conversations I’ve had with women.
Nonetheless, it’s gratifying to hear that I nailed one of the purposes of the article: to really hear and validate what other people are saying.
Ultimately, however, I wrote this whole thing for men — to help myself and other males take responsibility for the direction of our lives and our relationships — so it’s their reaction and response that I’m most worried about.
The tricky thing here is that men tend to be, in the words of one friend I spoke to last week, ‘psychologically fragile’. After all, that’s why primary carers feel they have to overpraise their male partners and colleagues for the slightest cooperative behaviour.
Maybe it’s just me, but I feel like we men don’t tend to deal well with our flaws being pointed out, nor with other people providing us with a solution that we haven’t come up with by ourselves (and subsequently been overpraised for our cleverness).
I have essentially dodged this problem by coming up with a solution (man sloth mode) for which I have been acknowledged and praised (again: thank you). This assuages my ego and paves the way for me to be a bit better.
But I want to find an accessible way for everyone to talk about these problems.
A female friend of mine told me that she’d love to send my article to a bunch of the men in her life, but was a little nervous about how it might be received, as a ‘personal slight’ or even ‘man-hating’.
So how do we reach men?
Do you know, I think the answer might be…
The Sweaty Stranger In The Sweaty Sauna
Bear with me.
Last weekend, I shared a sauna with a lovely chap called Ren.
We chatted about this and that: how awkward a sweaty silence can be in a sauna, how nice it is to chat to strangers, even if they’re sweaty, stories of past sweaty sauna escapades, and so on.
Then, because we were two sweaty men sitting on a sweaty bench in eighty degree heat, I decided to broach the topic of last week’s newsletter.
This was the first time I’d chatted to a total stranger about these ideas and I was unsure what to expect from a half-naked sweaty man in his mid-fifties.
Reader, Ren practically slipped off his bench with enthusiasm.
Ren’s father had died when he was very young, so was brought up by his mother. His mother, as it happened, was a feminist and determined to make sure that her son did his share of the housework.
Ren cleaned the toilets, did the dishes and the mopping, as well as the cooking. By the time he was an adult, Ren could actually function as, well, as an adult.
He only realised this was weird when he went to university and all his peers were, to put it bluntly, slobs.
Now happily married with two kids, Ren boasts that he does seventy percent of the housework at home, simply because, having started at such a young age, he’s better at it than his wife.
Ren is living, breathing, sweating proof that boys can learn this stuff, if only we teach them.
‘Kids,’ Ren tells me, ‘pick up on your actions, not your words.’
‘You think you’re doing your kid a favour by not making them do the washing up, but you’re not,’ Ren says, mopping his brow. ‘You’re only saving up problems for them later in life.’
Boys need adult householding skills not only for the bloody obvious reasons like hygeine and diet, but also for the sake of their adult relationships.
Ren was taken aback when he got to university and realised that all the other young men were slobs, but he was delighted to find that his domestic talents were valuable, attractive — sexy even.
Man Sloth Mode ≠ Sexy
Guys: science tells us that men who do the dishes have more sex.
Actually, there’s nuance here and the nuance starts badly.
‘Traditional’ gender conventions have actually been found to increase the amount of sex had by heterosexual couples.
The explanation for this is that traditional ‘sexual scripts’ of ‘male sexual control’ privilege male sexual desire and men, basically, want to have loads of sex. So that’s what happens.
But, as the adults among you have probably noticed by now, there’s a lot more to our ‘sexual scripts’ than this.
So, yes: more egalitarian attitudes to domestic and paid labour leads to a reduction in sexual frequency, through the mechanism of male sexual control.
As I said: boooooo.
But, if you study the model closely, you can see that male sexual control comes at a cost in communication. Weird. The more the male is in command of the sexual situation, the less likely they are to communicate with their partner.
Communication was measured, quite simply, using the following question:
When you have had a particularly difficult or bad day at work or in your daily activities, what is the percent chance that you will tell [PARTNER] about what is going on?
The more egalitarian each partner’s attitude towards work, the more likely they were to report a high percentage and actually discuss their problems, together. Honey, how was your day?
That sounds like a nice thing to have in a relationship. But it’s got nothing to do with sex — or has it? Yes.
Carlson and Soller found that, with higher scores for communication, came higher scores of ‘sexual self-efficacy’ — for both male and female. The more men and women talk to each other, the more sexually self-efficacious they become.
Sexual self-efficacy is sexual empowerment. You can play along at home by (strongly) agreeing or (strongly) disagreeing with these statements:
If my sexual activity is not satisfying, there is little I can do to improve the situation.
I feel that it is difficult to get my [PARTNER] to do what makes me feel good during sex.
If our birth control choice is not satisfactory, there is little I can do to improve the situation.
Now here’s the clever part: as female sexual self-efficacy rises, so does sexual frequency for everyone.
➡️ Egalitarian attitudes towards domestic and paid labour
➡️ Better partner communication between male and female
➡️ Higher women’s sexual self-efficacy
➡️ Higher sexual frequency 🔛
But wait — there’s more!
In a 2015 study of first-time parents (a role that is heavy on household labour), researchers found that more equal division of labour (presumably excluding the actual birth labour) led to greater sexual satisfaction for mothers and greater sense of romance for fathers. Aww…
Frankly, nothing I’ve said here should come as a surprise. Tired, overworked, annoyed women are unlikely to find a sloth man sexually attractive or, for that matter, have the energy or even the free time (which is, incidentally, gendered) for sex.
And yet, at the risk of slapping you in the face with stating-the-bleeding-obvious research one too many times…
In 2017 Swedish researchers found evidence that relationships where there is an unequal division of domestic labour, combined with a general sense of entitlement among men, are — BREAKING NEWS — liable to end in a breakup.
Right. That’s enough now.
Are you a man? Do you enforce and enact traditional sexual scripts of male sexual control to get your rocks off? Okaaay… And how’s that working out for you?
End On A Positive
So what now?
Well, besides a little idea I have for setting up a sweaty sauna men’s group, now I go for a quick walk and then I go to bed.
But before I disappear, one of the most thoughtful responses I got to last week’s email included a ‘not yet fully-formed thought’ about the role of positive self talk in man sloth mode.
My email last week might have made it sound like there was a lot of work to do. And there is. But it’s important to focus on the positive and acknowledge when we are doing our best.
The good news is that every moment we live between now and our death is another moment to do our best. So let’s not beat ourselves up when we slip-slide; let’s just keep on noticing when we do.
I will finish now by repeating my four point, work-in-progress strategy to draw ourselves out of whatever we call this sloth mode of being:
Call yourself out publicly and explain what’s going on (without being boring or attention seeking). At first, acknowledging man sloth mode out loud will really help, but the ultimate goal is to effortlessly skip from stage one directly to stage three. (Who knows: stage one might one day miraculously vanish altogether…)
Seize the initiative. Take positive action to drive yourself out of man sloth mode. If you genuinely can’t think of anything to do, simply ask how you can help and listen to the answer. WARNING: If you find the other person instinctively micro-managing your contribution, don’t get annoyed. Remember that they might well be used to dealing with man sloths as if they were children. Politely request that they step back: you’ve got this.
If you discovered in stage three a pretty basic life skill that you couldn’t do without a lot of help, go onto the internet and learn how it’s done properly. Do not waste other people’s time: they are not your personal life trainer. If you regularly find yourself unable to think of helpful things to do, then spend more time observing the things that other people do to be helpful. Copy them.
Huge, huge thanks to everyone who responded to last week’s article and all the conversations that have contributed to this one. Please share your experiences and let’s keep thinking and acting on this!
But none of these scales or inventories helped me understand what was happening.
Stuck In The Mud
On paper, things were going well. I’d just co-written and co-produced a successful Edinburgh show, now commissioned for BBC radio. I’d also been hired to work for The Bike Project, helping them give bikes to refugees in London.
In March, I moved into a lovely houseshare near Burgess Park with my partner. We had a garage for our bikes, tomatoes in the garden and only shared a bathroom with one other couple.
Perhaps for the first time in my life, I felt like an adult — I even managed to buy us a super king mattress for £10 off a millionaire in Kensington.
Life was totally going my way, but I seemed to be stuck in the mud, somehow unable or unwilling to let it flow.
This feeling of mudiness not only affected my mental wellbeing, but also — not surprisingly — affected my relationship.
Then, as now, I worked from home and found myself, most days, pretty much waiting around for my partner to get back from work. Then, somehow, I thought, my life could begin.
Except, increasingly and understandably, I wasn’t the sort of person she wanted to spend time with. Who wants to hang around that guy?
(Side note: An introductory counselling course should be on the national curriculum in its entirety, but if you only take one counselling technique into your life, take these 12 Blocks To Active Listening.)
This course taught me a lot that I didn’t know about the simplest things. One of those things was the importance of simple observation of your own mental landscape.
That summer, with the help of those psychological instruments, I observed that I didn’t always feel ‘dissatisfied with life’ and that, most often, the balance of my life was toward ‘positive experience’.
It wasn’t difficult, then, to pay closer attention to the moments when I felt most positive.
I’ll give you a second to roll your eyes.
Yep: it was those horribly rare occasions when I got out of the house to spend time with friends.
On 28 October 2017, I spent half an hour building a spreadsheet to keep an eye on how often I was seeing my friends. Then I phoned my parents and met up with an old primary school friend for a stroll along the beach and a Harvester.
I originally set up the spreadsheet as a 30-day experiment in order to, in the words of my diary at the time, ‘see what my social support is like and how we can build and expand and whatnot’.
Over four years later, I still update my (now legendary) friends spreadsheet every single day.
Why? This newsletter is the answer to that question.
I don’t intend for this to be the final word on masculinity, but more of a provocation. Only by talking about this stuff can we hope to live in a more harmonious, creative and joyful future.
I would LOVE to hear your side of the story: your experiences, observations and coping mechanisms. Thank you.
What Is Man Sloth Mode?
Essentially, man sloth mode is a temporary depressed state of being to which men are particularly susceptible.
I don’t mean depressed in the diagnostic sense — although it can lead to that — I mean low energy, low initiative, low activity, low affect, low arousal.
And it’s worth reiterating that this is a temporary state, usually triggered by specific environmental factors.
It is perfectly possible for a man to miraculously exit man sloth mode when faced with a stimulating environment, such as a table tennis table, a lively speakeasy, or a room that really needs its skirting boards deep cleaned (real life example).
There is one enormous environmental elephant in the room here, which I’ll get onto in a second.
First, however, let’s look more closely at the symptoms of man sloth mode so that we all know what we’re talking about.
Man Sloth Mode: The Symptoms
Man sloth mode has a diverse range of symptoms, covering life at home, work and play.
In fact, it’s actually useful to split them into two strands. Let’s call them social man sloth mode and work man sloth mode.
These are not mutually exclusive, but you might find that you slip more easily into one or the other.
What’s interesting is that, while almost everyone has stories of work man sloth mode, social man sloth mode seems to go under the radar. Which is a big shame because social man sloth mode is quite literally a killer. But more on that later.
First: the symptoms.
1. Social Man Sloth Mode
As we’ve seen, when I was balls deep in man sloth mode, I inexplicably stopped doing the things that make me happy.
In so doing, I effectively outsourced the majority of my social support network to my partner. Not cool.
Here are some more symptoms of social man sloth mode that you might recognise, in yourself or loved ones:
Not seeing your own close friends
Not doing the things that make you happy, or other inexplicable radical change in past-you and now-you
Spending a disproportionate amount of your free time on passive past-times like watching television or scrolling through the internet
Losing your ambition or get-up-and-go in both social and work settings
Piggy-backing on the social plans and activities of other people
Increased dependence on one other person for social support
Never hosting social events
Saying things like, ‘I don’t mind, you decide’ when asked what you want to do
Not introducing other people to your close friends
By the way, I’m not talking here about feeling bored or apathetic when faced with niche social pursuits. I can understand why some people might be less enthusiastic than I am about spreadsheets, word etymologies and bike pannier bags.
This is about switching off from social contact and activities or shifting into auto-pilot when you used to take the initiative.
2. Work Man Sloth Mode
This is the one that a lot of people get proper angry about — and for good reason.
While social man sloth mode tends to be a slow boiler, work man sloth mode has an immediate and disruptive impact on the lives of others.
This is all about the essential admin that goes into basic human functions like eating food, inhabiting a home, wearing clothes, and caring for other humans.
The symptoms of work man sloth mode include, but are not remotely limited to, the following:
Doing shared tasks badly so you’re never asked again
Only doing the fun or exciting bits of shared tasks
Only doing joint activities on your terms: your way, your timeframe, your strengths, your activities
Waiting until instructed on tasks, rather than taking the initiative; requiring micro-management in those tasks
Offering to help someone else in a task and then not moving from the sofa
Neglect of basic self-care: cleaning, cooking, washing, exercise
Tolerating or simply ‘not seeing’ deteriorating living conditions until someone else fixes the problem
Failure to anticipate future problems, especially when they concern other people (and responding to criticism by saying that you’re ‘living in the moment’)
Failure to anticipate the needs of others
Limited expressions of gratitude, including compliments, gift giving and appropriate apologies, creating a sense of entitlement, taking advantage or simply not seeing the work others do to keep the world spinning around
Always having an excuse or shifting the blame: ‘but you enjoy doing X’, ‘you know I’m no good at Y’, ‘I physically can’t see the problem’, ‘I’m just more laid back than you’, ‘you make me feel like a failure’, ‘I can’t multitask’, ‘I’m too tired after work’, ‘yeah, you being so busy has been hard for me too’, ‘you’re not being fair — I do the bins!’
Do you know what I’m talking about? Recognise yourself or any of the men in your life? Can you think of any other symptoms? Please let me know!
The Enormous Environmental Elephant
Yep: the biggest environmental predictor of man sloth mode is the convenient presence in that man’s life of a woman.
Someone to pick up the slack, someone to keep our lives ticking along.
Stop A Second, Dave: Why Do You Hate Men?
I don’t. I write this because I am a man and I love men. I think they’re pretty cool. At least some of the time.
I write this because, when we unwittingly slip into man sloth mode, we’re shooting ourselves in the face.
As a friend said to me only last night: it’s as if the world has moved on and men haven’t noticed.
In the past seventy years, at least in wealthy liberal societies, gender roles and opportunities have changed. Today, all around me, I see inspiring, active women and men struggling to get up to speed.
Real life example: I moved to Bournemouth a couple of years ago and I’ve found it much, much easier to make female friends.
Is this because too many men are stunted by social man sloth mode?
Admittedly there has been a pandemic on, but consider this:
The surfing class that I recently joined is female led and majority female
The off-road cycling club I’ll be riding with tomorrow is female and non-binary led and majority female (tbf, their motto is ‘shred the patriarchy’)
Plus I’m the only man in the room when I train at my local bare-knuckle bloodsports wrestle club
But personally I see far more women than men putting themselves out there, doing epic shit and making the most of life: at home, at work and at play.
What about you? When you think about successful adults in your life, the ones who are totally smashing it out of the park, who comes to mind?
We Don’t Know What We’re Doing
Sometimes, when my female friends talk about what I’m calling man sloth mode, they see an evil, almost Macchiavellian intent behind the behaviour.
Maybe they’re right, but I genuinely think that, most of the time, the lethargy of man sloth mode is unwitting.
We don’t know what we’re doing.
That isn’t an excuse — I just mean that most of us lack the emotional self-awareness to properly understand what we’re doing to ourselves.
If we seriously confronted what we do to ourselves by choosing inaction, then we would see that man sloth mode makes us miserable.
That’s exactly what happened to me. Unconsciously, I was letting a woman do the cognitive and emotional labour of, well, pretty much my entire life.
(Just to be completely clear: man sloth mode was NOT something that my partner did to me. I accidentally choose it for myself, like pulling clothes out of the wardrobe at random and only realising at an important job interview that I was wearing Mickey Mouse pyjamas.)
The Truth Of What We’re Doing To Ourselves
In 2016-17, I was what we can call a functional man sloth.
I still did the basics of cleaning, washing, shopping and whatnot, but I stopped doing anything interesting outside the home and just kind of hung around waiting for my partner to make my life exciting.
(Note 1: The studies referenced above almost universally report these statistically significant effects for social isolation, not necessarily for feelings of loneliness. You may know some people who are perfectly happy when they are alone. Happy, but, statistically speaking, probably not healthy.)
(Note 2: This study of social isolation and gender neatly summarises the differences between the social support networks of men and women: ‘men generally get their emotional needs met by their spouses/partners while women often get their emotional needs met by their female friends’. Boom. That was me: social man sloth.)
Why We Need (The Concept Of) Man Sloth Mode
Despite the shadowy threat of depression, illness, death and suicide, rather than trying to change our behaviour, we men find it easier to deploy a long litany of excuses and finger-pointing to re-write the narrative of what we’re doing so that it sits more comfortably with our sense of self-esteem.
The man sloth imagines a world where other people genuinely enjoy scrubbing the toilet bowl, where other people just need to chill out more and where only we’ve had a hard day at work.
‘Besides,’ the indignant man sloth cries, ‘we do the bins once a fortnight!’
I believe that this inability to accept responsibility is at least partially because we don’t have the language to understand our own predicament.
This makes it very difficult for us to talk about the problem as adults, to address our behaviour without resorting to insults or shame, and to change ourselves for a more just society.
Hence our need for a new concept: man sloth mode.
(Almost inevitably, the term ‘man sloth’ was created by a woman. Thanks G!)
Hang On: What’s Wrong With ‘Selfish Lazy Man Child’?
‘But Dave,’ I hear you cry, ‘we already have the words to describe such a man: we call him a selfish lazy man child.’
It’s a good question. Why (apart from lucrative opportunities for merch) do we need an entirely new term for such age-old behaviour?
Firstly — and I flagged this up earlier, if you remember — man sloth mode is a mode, a temporary state of being, not a fixed character trait.
(By the way, I have thought about removing the ‘man’ and calling it ‘default sloth mode’. Maybe that would not only make it more palatable to our male ego, but also recognise that this is a collection of behaviours that men seem to revert to almost by default when someone else is there to take care of us.)
The problem with terms like ‘selfish’ and ‘lazy’ is that, even when objective rather than accusatory, they come across as fixed character traits. If you’re lazy, then you’re lazy — and always will be.
Terms like these, although often thrown around in bitterness, can actually turn into excuses to protect the status quo: ‘He’ll never change, he’s just lazy’ or ‘You know me, love, I’m a lazy bum’ (said with a forgive-me-twinkle in his eye).
But adult males are more than capable of stepping up into very active roles (in fact, sometimes we all wish they wouldn’t, but that’s another story…)
‘Man child’ is a little better. It at least acknowledges that this is largely a problem with men, rather than ungendered character traits like selfishness.
Man sloth behaviour is also very child-like and friends even tell me that they have to speak to their male partners as if they were children just to get them to function.
This ‘mothering’ seems to happen in at least four ways:
Making deals to the effect of ‘you can watch TV if you do the dishes’
Silently spinning plates and tidying up after them
And the most pernicious: over-praising the accomplishment of basic tasks, like successfully chopping two carrots (real life example)
But we are not children.
Treating us like children is not only degrading for the ‘mother’, a role that friends tell me makes them feel guilty and ‘naggy’, but it also re-enforces infantile behaviour.
It needs to stop.
Real Life Example Of Over-Praising: The Man’s Barbecue
The Man’s Barbecue begins several days before, when The Man’s Partner makes a list, does the shopping and invites guests.
The night before, The Man’s Partner spends a couple of hours preparing salads and marinading the meat.
On the day of The Man’s Barbecue, The Man’s Partner tidies the garden, sets out the table and welcomes the guests.
Meanwhile, The Man cracks open a beer and drags out the barbecue and coals from last summer. With great theatre, the guests gather round to watch The Man light The Man’s Barbecue. He can’t find the matches.
The Man’s Partner finds the matches.
The Man’s Barbecue is officially lit. The Man sits down beside The Man’s Barbecue with a poker and another beer. Two hours later, the meat is still raw. The Man’s Partner finishes it off in the oven.
While The Man’s Partner cleans up in the kitchen, the guests pick through the last of the salads and applaud: ‘Wow, Man, you sure do a great barbecue!’
I Understand Why You Do This, But Please Stop
Treating an adult male as a man child inadvertently enables the status quo.
The tougher reality is that we can do all the adult stuff and, if there’s some stuff we still need to learn, then it’s not the responsibility of anyone but ourselves to act as our trainer.
There is no excuse: the internet is stuffed with detailed instructions on how to do every single adult task required for modern living.
Of course, we shouldn’t expect men to become mind-readers, but they must become able to hear the needs of other people and to teach themselves the necessary skills to respond effectively.
No one likes to think of themselves as selfish, lazy or a man child. When we are told those things, either in words or through actions, we don’t hear needs being expressed. Instead, we re-write the narrative to maintain the coherence of our self-image.
That’s why ‘selfish lazy man child’ doesn’t work and that’s why we need a new term: something that men will actually hear and respond to.
3 Reasons Man Sloth Mode Might Just Work
It acknowledges that there is a problem: sloth behaviour isn’t desirable
It applies to all men: it’s not a personal attack
It’s a temporary state of being, like boredom or anger, that we can shift out of
(While we’re here, a word on #2: A lot of women, when I describe man sloth mode to them, say: ‘But it’s not all men’. Fellas, let’s be honest here: yes it is. We might be susceptible in different ways at different times and perhaps to different degrees, but this is surely universal among men.
I genuinely believe that I’m one of the ‘good guys’, but the whole reason I’m writing this article is because I still need to find reliable ways of levering myself out of man sloth mode.)
Hopefully I’ve done at least a half-assed job at explaining what I’m talking about and convinced you that we men need new language so that we can talk about what’s happening to us when we’re being crap.
Hopefully, too, I haven’t offended too many people: please remember that this is very much a first draft and I still need your help to understand what’s going on.
Phew. Okay, now it’s time to go deeper.
What Causes Man Sloth Mode?
I think this is an important question because the answers can help us, as men, understand what we can do to change.
But first, a warning: we don’t want to be trapped on either side of the explanation canyon:
I don’t want to come out of this section shrugging my shoulders and saying, ‘Love them or hate them, men are just like that!’ Nor do I want to point the merciless finger of shame at the individual man.
The path on one side of the canyon won’t change anything, while the other path might (and only might) change a single person alone.
I want to come out of this section with answers that will open up a path right down the middle.
I want to believe that the problem of man sloth mode is both tractable and bigger than any one man. In fact, I want to believe that it’s excitingly gigantic (more on that in a bit).
So here we go.
First up is the depressing answer that things are the way they are because things are the way they always have been.
In the UK, according to the government’s Gender Equality Monitor, women do 25.5 hours of unpaid work per week, while men manage only 16 hours — and more than 7 of those are spent on transport, probably commuting to work.
At this pace, it will take 210 years before we have eliminated man sloth mode. I’ll be dead by then. Too slow.
But if a couple of centuries is too long, then how about millions of years? That brings us nicely to my second answer to Where Does Man Sloth Mode Come From?
My Spurious Evolutionary Explanation™️
Disclaimer: I’m not a scientist, evolutionary or otherwise. But this is a story that might help some men move past any feeling of being under personal attack, paving the way for positive action.
Bear with me on this one because it might sound for a while like I’m making intractable excuses for man sloth mode. I’m not.
Massively Generalised Proposition: Men evolved for explosive life-and-death activities.
Men seem to have an evolutionary advantage when it comes to stuff like fighting (to the death), sprinting (to kill things) and lifting heavy rocks (to crush things).
This massively generalised proposition has two aspects:
Men perform better when they and their loved ones are under threat or facing an epic struggle, rather than when faced with the non-threatening day-to-day life admin
This life-and-death stuff tends to be explosive: it requires a huge outlay of energy in a short space of time
The consequence of all this is that, when not under threat or facing an epic struggle, men will conserve energy for when they really need it.
There you go: a neat little evolutionary explanation for man sloth mode. We’re not being lazy or selfish, we’re saving our energy so we can throw rocks at bears.
The problem is that, most of the time, for men like me, a life-and-death threat or epic struggle never materialises and we can slide unwittingly into a semi-permanent state of man sloth.
(There is one notable exception to this dearth of life-and-death in our modern man lives. Included in my list of life-and-death activities is mating. Yes: we can be pretty good at seduction.
So now you also have a neat little evolutionary explanation for that infuriating tendency for men to be incredibly attentive right up until the moment you decide to sleep with them.
As a good friend said to one of her girlfriends who was being messed around: ‘Hun, he wasn’t leaving it six days to reply when he wanted to fuck you.’ Amen to that.)
After reading the first draft of this article, a very smart friend cast doubt over the suggestion that evolutionary pressure could possibly exert much of an influence over our lives today.
She also described her scepticism about gender essentialism, the idea that evolution has somehow prepared ‘men’ as a biological category to do things differently than it has prepared ‘not-men’.
But, she added, ‘Maybe the concept of evolution and the concept of the biological category has!’
So the challenge for us men is how to use this popular, if scientifically unlikely, evolutionary story to support men’s growth rather than to fossilise it.
Where Does That Leave Us?
The point is that my Spurious Evolutionary Explanation™️ pins the ‘blame’ for the existence of man sloth mode on powerful forces outside of our control.
That doesn’t mean we shrug our shoulders and give up: it means that we now have two ways to understand our predicament and two approaches to change.
On the one hand, the social conditioning explanation shows us that change is possible: if slimy girls can learn how to anticipate the needs of others and change the sheets more than once a year, then so can we adult males.
On the other hand, my Spurious Evolutionary Explanation™️ helps us shift the weight of individual shame or guilt (which isn’t helping anyone) and understand what might motivate us to elevate ourselves out of this temporary depressed state of being.
In a word or six, we men need something that’s…
Excitingly Gigantic (But Also Totally Achievable)
This is where we get back to my legendary friends spreadsheet.
Every evening, I take a second to note down the number of meaningful interactions that I had with friends that day, either in person or on the phone.
Then, every Monday, in my personal finance and business accounting spreadsheet, I write down the total number of meaningful interactions for that week.
Over the past year, my average weekly total was 16 friend interactions, with a record high of 36 and a low of just 3 (shocking and only partially explained by the November lockdown).
I have data like this going back more than four years: that silo of numbers is (to me) excitingly gigantic, making me feel like my social life is some kind of epic data-based struggle.
At the same time, the individual actions that I take every day are almost pathetically achievable, pandering to my default laziness even on my most man sloth mode days.
The spreadsheet plays to my strengths as a man, but its purpose is to hold me to account.
Am I feeling a little blue today? Well, maybe it’s because I have only spoken to three people all week.
Finally, this is the answer to the question posed at the start of this newsletter
Drum roll please because coming right up is my answer to why, over four years later, I still update my (now legendary) friends spreadsheet every single day:
Rather than outsourcing the management of my social support network to a woman, I have outsourced it to a spreadsheet.
My friends spreadsheet was the first of my excitingly gigantic but also totally achievable strategies to protect myself against the type of chronic man sloth mode that I fell into back in the winter of 2016.
I have plenty of others, like my two daily journals that help me watch my mental health or my 100 Days of Adventure challenge that pushes me to get outside regularly.
But these strategies only tackle personal pickles like my year-long social man sloth mode.
They don’t cover (except obliquely) the more immediate man sloth mode behaviours that result in other people picking up the majority of society’s practical care work as well as the bulk of its cognitive and emotional labour.
We need a strategy that will help us in the very moment that work man sloth mode strikes.
What About Strategies To Defeat Work Man Sloth Mode?
Confession: I don’t really know. This is all new so I’m still experimenting. I would love to hear from you on this one.
What I do know is that the creation of the term ‘man sloth mode’ has already helped me overcome its seductive allure.
Last night, I went over to a friend’s house for dinner. She was in the middle of cooking us a curry and, when I arrived, I noticed that I could quite comfortably slip into man sloth mode.
I felt a strong urge to do nothing but drink tea and chatter inanely while she worked at the stove, making the dinner that I would later scoff contentedly.
But instead of succumbing to man sloth mode, I called myself out.
I explained what I was feeling using the language of man sloth mode (it helped that I’d spent the whole day writing this article). Then, instead of sitting down and watching her work, I made rotis for us to eat with the curry.
This might not sound like much (and it really isn’t), but it is, I hope you’ll agree, a step in the right direction.
If this is a strategy for overcoming acute daily man sloth mode (and I think it could be), then it has four stages:
Notice yourself slipping into man sloth mode. If you’re not sure when this happens, look closely at the symptoms listed at the top of this article
Call yourself out publicly and explain what’s going on (without being boring or attention seeking). At first, acknowledging man sloth mode out loud will really help, but the ultimate goal is to effortlessly skip from stage one directly to stage three. (Who knows: stage one might one day miraculously vanish altogether…)
Seize the initiative. Take positive action to drive yourself out of man sloth mode. If you genuinely can’t think of anything to do, simply ask how you can help and listen to the answer. WARNING: If you find the other person instinctively micro-managing your contribution, don’t get annoyed. Remember that they might well be used to dealing with man sloths as if they were children. Politely request that they step back: you’ve got this.
If you discovered in stage three a pretty basic life skill that you couldn’t do without a lot of help, go onto the internet and learn how it’s done properly. Do not waste other people’s time: they are not your personal life trainer. If you regularly find yourself unable to think of helpful things to do, then spend more time observing the things that other people do to be helpful. Copy them.
As the infamous man sloth Theodore Roosevelt once berated himself:
Get action; do things; be sane; don’t fritter away your time; create; act; take a place wherever you are and be somebody; get action.
Life in man sloth mode is miserable. It is ending our relationships, fossilising our personal growth and slowing killing us. For our sake and for your own sake, get action.
Coda: Over To Us
This morning I was chatting to a friend on a bike ride. She’d just had a blazing row with her partner about his passivity and told me that the ideas around man sloth mode gave her hope for her relationship.
Guys: let’s not make that a false hope.
Over to us.
Now It’s My Turn To Ask The Questions
Have I gone too far? Not far enough?
What strategies do you have to protect yourself and others from man sloth mode? (Or whatever you call it)
Have I missed any symptoms, major or minor, of man sloth mode?
Is there an equivalent mode of being to which females are more susceptible?
Thank you so much to everyone I’ve spoken to about this topic over the past million years and thank you to everyone who has responded so thoughtfully to this article.
You have all been incredibly generous with your experiences and helped me mis-understand things a little less.
Special thanks to BG for holding up a mirror to the man sloth over so many years, to GC for coming up with the term ‘man sloth’, and to LH — for dinner!
But I have, since last year, been a skateboardist. So I at least understand the principle of balancing on a small thing with no handlebars and riding in an approximately forwardsly direction.
Naturally, this experience was next to no help at all when plopped onto an unstable surface like the ocean.
Fascinating fact: it’s the unstable surface of the water that actually keeps surfers afloat. As amazingly buoyant as modern surfboards are, they couldn’t overcome the gravitational effect caused by the hefty addition of an adult human, the weight of which threatens to sink said human into a watery grave.
My first lesson (with the awesome humans of Resurface) was spent lying flat on my face, windmilling my arms in the seat and scootching around the white water, occasionally feeling the rush of a wave beneath me, but mainly just kind of bobbing around pleasantly.
The few times that I did attempt to crawl onto my knees, the carefully callibrated balance point of the board would mysteriously vanish and I’d go for a quick swim. Hence the wetsuit.
But for the most part, I lay atop the board, surprised by my buoyancy, enchanted by my ripple-eye view of the world. I’m not sure if that’s surfing, but I want more of it.
I recently finished reading Blue Mind by marine biologist Wallace J Nichols.
I thought I was buying a popular science book on the cognitive and social benefits of being in or near the water, but what I actually got was a surprisingly disassociated collection of anecdotes, lightly supported by scientific footnotes.
In some ways, the book was a little like my experience of surfing: never quite knowing what would happen next or even from what direction ‘next’ would come, but more or less buoyed through the experience with only the occasional, perhaps refreshing, dunk.
Rather than having an array of science-y data at my fingertips, I’m left instead with a generalised sense that the ocean (river, lake, stream or shower) can be a force for good in our lives.
‘Blue mind’ is Nichols’ term for ‘a mildly meditative state characterised by calm, peacefulness, unity, and a sense of general happiness’, by no means exclusive to the ocean, but promoted by safe experiences with water.
Many of the studies that Nichols cites have nothing to do with any kind of liquid, which makes his thesis based on limited but favourable scientific evidence and then buttressed by not-implausible extrapolation.
In ‘The Men Who Stare At Trees’ I explored the health benefits of being in nature and it’s true that some studies have found an enhanced positive effect when water features are involved.
Matthew White was also one of the researchers involved in a 2019 study that found better general and mental health among people who lived less than 5km from the ocean, an effect particularly strong for the lowest-earning households.
This is why Nichols positions the oceanic ‘blue mind’ as an antidote to both the hyper-stressed state of what he calls ‘red mind’ and the apathetic, depressed state of ‘grey mind’.
It’s also why I found myself flat out on a surfboard, staring into the setting sun, mesmerised by the light and sound of the lapping ocean, nudging me gently to shore, in blue mind.
maggie discovered a shell that sang
so sweetly she couldn’t remember her troubles,
may came home with a smooth round stone
as small as a world and as large as alone.
For whatever we lose(like a you or a me)
it’s always ourselves we find in the sea
Thanks to everyone at Resurface Bournemouth and to AT for getting me into the water. Six lessons, including wetsuit and board hire, cost me the unfathomably low sum of £95. The next session is Monday — can’t wait.
Welcome to the First Class carriage of the 9.10 from Barcelona to Paris.
I wouldn’t normally travel First Class, but these were the cheapest seats by far (€49) — a fact abundantly evident in the crowded aisles of the carriage.
There’s a family of five occupying the three seats ahead of me (fair play to them), beside an American husband and wife team with divergent approaches to crash-learning French in the six hours before we arrive.
The wife is patiently grinding her way through Duolingo, writing out convoluted sentences like ‘Voulez-vous aller en voiture au magasin?’ (‘Do you want to drive to the shop?’), while the husband taps ‘Hello, how are you?’ into Google Translate — whereupon the app promptly crashes. He’s now playing Candy Crush.
I’m three legs into my four-legged journey back to the UK from Portugal. I left Lisbon late on Wednesday evening and, after sliding through Madrid and Barcelona, I’m due back in Bournemouth tomorrow evening.
All the friends I was staying with in Lisbon will be making the same journey by plane, a fact that’s made me reflect on why I chose to travel overland instead.
It comes down to the three essential factors of any journey, which I shall pretentiously call the Travel Triangle:
How long does it take?
How much does it cost?
How comfortable is the traveller before, during and after the journey?
Most people probably only think of the first two sides of the travel triangle when they’re planning their holidays and, thanks to government subsidies and low-cost airlines, planes are perceived as both faster (obviously) and cheaper (criminally).
That’s why I want to spend a little bit of time exploring how on earth I managed to end up with an overland itinerary that was not only justifiable according to the travel triangle, but actually preferable on all three sides compared to flying.
Plane versus train: speed test
Firstly, let’s look at what would happen if we tried to match up trains versus planes on the plane’s strongest side of the travel triangle: time.
Although my overland journey will take three nights and days, I’ve calculated that it is technically possible to leave Lisbon at 10.30am and arrive in Bournemouth the following afternoon:
1030-0505 Coach from Lisbon to Bordeaux
0558-0929 Train from Bordeaux to Paris
1113-1230 Eurostar from Paris to London
1315-1600 Train from London to Bournemouth
Unfortunately, this hectic itinerary would lose out to flying on all three sides of the travel triangle:
At 30 hours, it would take three times as long as flying (including getting to the airport and going through security and immigration).
One way and booked three weeks in advance, this journey would cost about £240, compared to about £140 by plane.
On this schedule, the poor traveller would not only miss out on a night’s sleep, but also spend 25 out of those 30 hours on their backside. Not healthy.
Using the travel triangle, it’s easy to see that long distance overland travel cannot compete with planes on speed. If you need to get somewhere as soon as physically possible, it’ll probably be quicker, cheaper and more comfortable to fly. Sorry.
But there is good news!
If we tweak our itinerary to favour the strengths of overland travel rather than the strengths of flying, then it’s not hard to come up with journeys where overlanding is not only justifiable, but preferable — on all three sides of the travel triangle.
Train versus plane: rematch
The following sentence sums up the great strength of overland travel:
No one (but no one) wants their plane to stop mid-way.
(Once upon a time, while waiting for a delayed train in Brussels, I heard a fellow traveller lauding this particular benefit of air travel: ‘At least you either arrive or you don’t.’)
Assuming that most people don’t wish to disembark mid-way, my friends who fly get two stops: London and Lisbon.
In stark contrast, my terrestrial alternative needs freakin’ bullet points to encompass the delightful array of city breaks I’ll enjoy:
This was my first trip abroad since 2019, during which time two friends had moved out of London to live in Paris and Bayonne respectively. So, when my co-writer Beth Granville suggested working together for a week in Lisbon, I immediately knew I could plan a trip that fully exploited the strengths of overlanding.
In Paris, Tim and I did some hiking in Rudenoise and Chantilly; in Bayonne I got to hang out with friends in Basque country, hiking in the foothills of the Pyrenées and visiting the pretty towns of Sare and Saint Jean-de-Luz; in Madrid I met up with a new friend who’ll be cycling with us on Thighs of Steel this summer; and in Barcelona I got to sleep off a cold I picked up in the Saharan dust storm that hit Lisbon on Tuesday.
As I write these words, our train is passing over a narrow spit of land that bisects a vast lagoon on the Mediterranean coast near Narbonne. It would have been easy to have added yet more adventures to my journey — the Algarve and Andalucía, Bilbao and San Sebastián, Montpellier and Nîmes.
The lesson is that, if we plan itineraries that take advantage of overlanding’s great strength, then the travel triangle magically starts to work in our favour.
Round 1: Cost
Yes, the face value of point-to-point train tickets are often more expensive than the plane equivalents, but this all changes when we start to add stops.
My overland journey from Bournemouth to Lisbon and back cost me £366.
(Incidentally, the London-Bournemouth leg is both the shortest and, horrifyingly, very nearly the most expensive of the entire journey.)
I booked only three weeks before I left and, while it’s reasonable to say that I didn’t get the best prices, it’s also true that I probably couldn’t do it very much cheaper. The Man In Seat 61 suggests around £300.
(Personally, I don’t think it’s fair to add the cost of overnight stays to the overall cost of overland travel because that’s all part of the holiday. For full disclosure, however: I stayed with friends in Paris and Bayonne and spent £60 on two nights in Madrid and Barcelona.)
Looking at flights, I can see that Bournemouth to Lisbon and back costs around £220-240. So flying direct would have saved me about £120 — but only if I’d been happy to miss out on seeing my friends.
(Note: If you book further in advance, and want to spend the night near Stansted Airport, you can get cheaper flight-based journeys at around £170-200 return from Bournemouth. But I want to compare apples with apples. Thanks to JCK for this research!)
If we only include my longer stopovers in Paris and Bayonne, then travelling by plane would have cost another £140. If I were to add Madrid and Barcelona as well, then flying would be sheer craziness.
Take home message: overlanding with stops is cheaper than flying with stops.
Trains 1 Planes 0
Round 2: Time
With cost out of the equation, the decisive factor in choosing between overlanding and flying will, for most people, be time.
I’m not talking about the time taken for each leg of the journey — the longest of my overland journeys was eight hours, which is less than I would have needed to get from Bournemouth to Lisbon by plane.
I’m talking about the total amount of time the traveller has for the whole trip — and how they want or need to spend that time.
If you have two weeks’ holiday and you want to visit friends in Paris and Bayonne or stop by Barcelona and Madrid on your way to Lisbon, then travelling overland is the best way for you to travel. End of.
If you only have a week’s holiday, then Lisbon is off the cards for overlanders unless you’re prepared for the hectic itinerary that opened this piece. Sorry.
The same is true if, for some reason, you need to be in Lisbon for as much of the whole two weeks as possible.
For example: flying to Lisbon would occupy about 6 percent of a two week stay. Even at its fastest, overlanding gobbles up 18 percent, with a more relaxed itinerary swallowing 22 percent of your total time away.
On this occasion, for me, the time allowed for the whole trip was flexible — a few days either side would have made no difference.
But overlanding did help me change the way I spent my holiday, not only by allowing those stopovers in Paris and Bayonne, but also in moments like this, where I have the time and comfort to do some writing.
(In fact, if you are lucky enough to be able to do actual work on the long train journeys, then you might even be able to earn back the cost of overlanding — good for you!)
Trains 2 Planes 0
Round 3: Comfort
This is where things become a little more personal, as we all define ‘comfort’ in different ways:
How anxious does this mode of transport make you feel — both before you leave and during the journey?
How many bags do you need to take?
How much space do you need?
How much information do you need to feel reassured?
How comfortable are you operating in foreign languages and in unfamiliar cities?
Militarised airport security, train ticket barriers or coach driver whimsy?
Drinks trolley, buffet car or service station?
How do you feel when you arrive?
For me, trains win on every count, every time. Coaches are a bit more problematic: less information, less space, less smooth — but I’d still choose them over the airport security and border checks that make me feel like a pre-criminal.
Trains 3 Planes 0
Think of the children!
Many people choose to go Flight Free because of the massive 95 percent reduction in carbon emissions when travelling overland compared to flying.
According to recent research by The Jump, individual citizens have primary influence over 25-27 percent of the total emissions savings needed to stop ecological breakdown. That’s pretty cool. It means that we can all take direct action today.
(Note: this 25-27 percent figure is an average and lower income groups are responsible for far fewer emissions. The more you earn, the greater your obligation to change.)
Of this 25-27 percent, reducing our use of aeroplanes to one short haul flight every three years would deliver a 2 percent reduction in emissions by 2030.
That’s a bloody good reason to stop flying. But it’s not my reason.
Journalists around the world have celebrated this vindication of the pernicious claim that ‘laughter is the best medicine’.
It’s all lies.
When you have an intercostal muscle injury, laughter is manifestly not the best medicine.
In this case, laughter is, almost literally, side-splitting.
If humans have personalities, so do muscles. Some are extroverts, showing off their range and power, like the hamstrings or the biceps, making their presence felt with almost every movement of your body.
But some are introverts, happiest when unnoticed and, like the muscles of the eyeball or the omohyoid, scarcely ever consciously felt — until something goes wrong. Then: beware the quiet ones.
The intercostal muscles of the rib cage are introverts.
Their job is to help you breathe by expanding and contracting the rib cage so that the lungs beneath can fill and empty of air.
In the same way that a hamstring injury doesn’t necessarily mean you have to stop walking, so too an intercostal injury means that you don’t necessarily have to stop breathing.
What it does mean (in both cases) is that you should avoid explosive exercise.
In the case of a hamstring injury, now is not the right time to go sprinting.
In the case of an intercostal injury, now is not the right time for the six bodily functions that make life worth living:
Is there a more important muscle group than the one that helps suck in the air, not only of survival, but of life?
It started with a hiccup
It all started with a hiccup. Not a particularly large or loud one, just a normal hiccup on a hilltop near (appropriately enough) Rudenoise in France.
I felt a twinge in my side, but nothing more. The next day the twinge grew a little worse, but nothing insurmountable. I’d also pulled a muscle in my calf on the same walk. No big deal. I can walk it off.
There are many types of laughter. Some laughter is a social lubricant, either totally or partially under conscious control. This kind of laughter is fine.
But there is a laughter that is orders of magnitude more violent, more explosive and almost completely involuntary. More like a sneeze, in other words. This is what the songs we made with Abandoned Rugs do to me.
Now, these songs won’t necessarily make you laugh quite as much as they make me laugh. But imagine being six years old again. Go back to your most childish, playful self.
Now give your inner child unfettered access to an array of musical instruments, recording equipment and one very talented musician.
The magic of Christmas reduced to the banality of boredom and the sheer absurdity of trusting me (of all people) with the parody of a famous choral soprano leaves me helpless.
I’m standing on the grass,
I’m standing near the garden shed…
Professionally, I’m sure I’ve done better work, but nothing so reliably reduces me, personally, to paroxysms of laughter.
Unfortunately, such laughter rips into my intercostal muscles with uncontrollable and terrible force.
Laughing myself to death
The next day I catch the train down to Basque country. On Saturday night, I sleep fitfully and wake up almost in tears, unable to even roll over to get out of bed.
Luckily, I’m staying with a GP and, with the help of some serious Spanish painkillers, bought to ease my friend through the Camino, I feel much better on Monday and Tuesday — as long as I don’t go much further than a polite chuckle.
On Wednesday, however, I arrive in Lisbon. For some reason I decide not to take any painkillers. Despite the fact that I am here to spend a week with my comedy writing partner Beth Granville and our friends, writing funny jokes that make people laugh uncontrollably.
It’s a disaster. I manage to hold it together enough to survive the first course at dinner. Then I share a story about an ex, a bath and a game of chess…
Doubled over in the restaurant, struggling to breathe, not because I’m overcome by laughter, but because my lungs are unable to expand enough to draw oxygen into my blood cells through the pain.
It’s at this point that I wonder whether laughing oneself to death is a thing.
In the same way, with an injured intercostal, I can feel myself consciously measuring my responses to other people. It’s simply too painful to let go and laugh with my friends. I can do a half-hearted chuckle — but who wants that?
I notice that I’m holding back from saying things that I know the other people will find funny because I can’t risk the laughter tripping my muscles. It’s a whole new way of being in the world (and a bit of a shit one). Personality is physicality.
In the same way that mountains, valleys and the ocean play a decisive role in our experience of clouds or sunshine, so too does the morphology of our bodies influence our own psychological weather.
There’s no point ignoring the basic principles of our existence, our facticity.
If you’re feeling irritable, maybe you need to be kinder to yourself. Stop pushing so hard. Ease off for a minute. Your body needs a break and your mind is responding with antisocial behaviour, in the hope that you’ll isolate and rest.
You all know the reasons for the latest hiatus in my stamp-collecting. That doesn’t mean that the last two years haven’t been full of adventures.
I have completed over 3,000km of a modular reconstruction of my first flightless adventure, cycling around the coast of Britain. Last year, with Thighs of Steel, I cycled most of the world’s largest bike-powered GPS art, 2,208km of generosity and solidarity.
Confinement to the country of one’s birth is hardly a punishment for people born in peacetime.
Indeed, the first lines of William Blake’s great anti-war poem, Auguries of Innocence, can be read as a mission statement for travellers:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour
Travel has depth as well as breadth.
Many of my most transformative travels have taken place no more than a few dozen miles from my front door. Many of my more far-flung outings have left nothing but the merest trace of an impression on the wax of my sloppy mind.
Nevertheless, to travel beyond our borders, and beyond the hem of the common fabric of language, is to travel more easily into empathy.
Empathy can be thought of as an inverse function of our comfort zone. The more comfortable we are, the less easily we will be able to empathise with those less comfortable.
But here in the Marne, we’re a long way from the harvest — the hazels are only now showing their catkins and, besides, the fields are crowded out with rows and rows of the more profitable champagne grape.
A bridge takes us over a ditch and onto the ‘L’île de la Rudenoise’, a small nature reserve of muddy paths, bare trees, and a burbling brook.
A young woman walks past with a wolfhound.
An information board tells us that trout eggs require a cumulative 400 degrees of temperature before they will hatch. So 50 days in 8 degree water or 40 days in 10 degree water, for example. If the water is boiling, we surmise, the eggs will not hatch.
An old woman comes down the hill towards us, making her way between the neatly trained vines.
‘I can’t feel my fingers,’ she says with a grin, holding them out to us.
The crimson of her painted nails are stark contrast to the white of her blood-drained palms.
One of the things that people say they appreciate about his newsletter is that I don’t tend to respond to current affairs. So I won’t do that today either.
(Except in this one bolded, italicised sentence, where I hope you will join me in a primal effort to extirpate all our collective rage:uggghaaaaaaaaghhhhhhgghghghghhguuuugaahhgahhhhhhhhguhggggggggghghgahhghhuuauauhghghghguuauuhghghghhghgghhgfuckssakefuckssakeghghgughghaagughhghhhhgagg.)
While I won’t respond to The News directly today, I will do something very much in keeping with the mission of this newsletter: I’ll show you a graph.
And then we can play a little game called: ‘What’s the time Mr News?’ or ‘What time of day should I partake in news gathering and sharing?’
But first a quick note about a hormone called cortisol.
Cortisol is an awesome hormone. It’s quite literally what gets us out of bed in the morning. Cortisol’s superpower is that it gives us energy, fast. Quite handy.
One little problem with cortisol, however, is that, in the wrong place, at the wrong time, it can be pretty darned stressful. In fact, cortisol is often called ‘the stress hormone’ (an unfair nickname, given the number of other useful jobs it does).
You see, one of the things that cortisol can do is make you better at noticing crappy things and then make you feel crappier about those crappy things.
(To be fair to cortisol, this combination of crap-ray-vision and fast energy does make sense from an evolutionary standpoint. There wouldn’t be much point in us having a hormone that responds with high energy when primed by the sight of white fluffy clouds or a field of kittens.)
In summary: although we are very lucky to have cortisol, we don’t want to mess with it.
Okay. Now here’s the graph:
And all together now…
‘What’s the time Mr News?’
If The News were a neutral report of the comings and goings of the tides, the pattern of the clouds on the water, the first catkins on the hazel and the first daffodils on the verge, amid the nest-building busyness of spring, then all would be well.
This probably comes as news to no one, but the science suggests that digesting The News with your breakfast will set you up for a crappy day.
What time of day should I partake in news gathering and sharing? Not until at least 4 hours after waking up.
The News Is A Privilege
The thing that gets me is that, for most people, The News is a privilege.
For people directly affected by the events reported in The News, it rarely comes through newspapers, social media or the television. The News comes as a knock on the door, a cry from a neighbour, a storm cloud on the horizon.
The News that the rest of us experience is a repackaged biography of other people’s lowest points, their worst moments, their most cataclysmic life events decontextualised for sensationalist (dare I say) entertainment in homes on the other side of the planet.
Worse: this style of ‘hard’ News can be addictive, often designed to manipulate our hormones to maximise eyeball retention, to maximise profit.
I am not saying that we should ignore social and political events.
As psychologists Boukes and Vliegenthart put it in 2017, The News ‘is generally understood to be crucial for democracy as it allows citizens to politically participate in an informed manner’.
And I’m all for sharing more information to empower democratically active citizens.
But Boukes and Vliegenthart then go on to demonstrate that, due to its focus on ‘negative and worrisome’ events, The News as we know it has a ‘negative effect on the development of mental well-being over time’.
I don’t think any of us are surprised by this finding. But it’s time that we all took the science seriously and acted with total respect for the awful power of The News.
Please Don’t Abuse The News
Respect your own hormones: give yourself at least a few hours after waking up before stepping into fire hose. Turn off your breaking news notifications, delete your news apps, watch awesome nature videos instead of The News.
Respect other people’s hormones: don’t share The News — at all, if you don’t have to — but at least not without considering how it might land. Be aware that other people simply aren’t prepared to hear The News from you. They probably opened their messages with eyes still half shut hoping for a love note… And now they’ve got This.
If you’re not sure about sharing something; don’t. Wait for the right context. I understand that The News is traumatic and humans seek to share that traumatising information to soften the impact, like a freefalling skydiver landing on a trampoline.
If you feel traumatised by The News, first seek out a genuine connection with a friend, set up the context, and only if it’s right then share your pain.
Remember that The News is mostly awful life shit that’s really happening to someone else. If you are lucky enough to have the choice, then please spend the morning beside a quiet stream, watch the buds on the branches, listen to the soft news shared by the chattering birds.
‘I am losing the precious days. I am degenerating into a machine for making money. I am learning nothing in this trivial world of men. I must break away and get out into the mountains to learn the news.’
Through all his raillery there ran a note of longing for the wilderness.
‘I want to see what is going on,’ he said. ‘So many great events are happening, and I’m not there to see them. I’m learning nothing here that will do me any good.’
Outside my window, I can hear the gulls. So many great events are happening.
A friend who reads this newsletter says that, most of the time, he gets to the end and doesn’t really know whether he’s understood the message.
The comment made me laugh, but it’s a really good point. What is my message?
Shut off your screen, right now, and take a fourteen minute news-check on nature.
For example: it would, as we’ve all discovered in the years since, be crushingly dull to not leave the house every day — but there’s no reason that we have to walk.
So, for one day, back in 2015, I didn’t walk. I ran, I danced, I jumped, I skipped, I twisted my ankle, I crawled to A&E and I learned a lot. Particularly about crutches.
The point of the book is that we should learn to question our habits and at least try living without them: sometimes to discover an unexpected better life and sometimes just to return to normality, with gratitude.
One of the most instructive chapters of the book was called ‘No Mobile Phone’. This experiment was run in the halcyon days before I owned a smartphone, but I was no less addicted to those old school beeps and vibrations.
In the month before I ditched my Nokia — back in 2015, remember — I had sent 419 text messages. As I observed at the time:
that’s a ridiculous 13 per day, which makes me look like either a man in demand or a man desperate for attention. I have a horrible suspicion it’s not the former.
Fast forward seven years and I suspect I would be aghast at the number of messages I send on my smartphone in a month.
Actually, as a confirmed data-holic, I wouldn’t be aghast, I’d be fascinated. And then aghast.
Perhaps that’s why Android, Signal and Whatsapp make it either completely or virtually impossible to count the precise number of messages sent from your phone.
(Do you know how? Message me.)
Back in 2015, I wrote about the powerful effects of ‘social gravity’. I was concerned then with the pressure building on all citizens to buy a smartphone:
If we don’t go with the tilt, with the tendency for everyone to have smartphones, then we must be prepared to work ever harder against the steepening slant.
More than one of my freelancing friends finds that they need a smartphone in order to get emails on the go: if they don’t reply immediately to that job offer, then someone else will.
Today we can see the effects of social gravity in the way that we use our phones to communicate with each other.
In fact, to call this communicative tool a ‘phone’ is now almost a misnomer. ‘Phone’ is ancient Greek for ‘voice’ but today, compared to text messaging, we rarely use our ‘phones’ to transmit our voices.
According to a 2018 study, the average Whatsapp user sends or receives a total of 145 messages per day. That’s more than ten times my ‘ridiculous’ 13 text messages per day back in 2015.
It follows that the researchers found that phone calls make us feel more bonded with others than text-based communication like email or messaging.
Voices make us feel good. Intuitively, we know this.
But that’s not why we make fewer phone calls today compared to 2012. We make fewer phone calls because phone conversations, even with friends, are faffy and awkward.
And that’s where the research gets more interesting.
Before the event, the 200 study participants expected that a phone call, whether with an old friend or a stranger, would make them feel more socially awkward than connecting by email or text.
But when asked how the call went afterwards, participants reported no extra awkwardness from the live, unscripted nature of the conversation.
In fact, the phone call was not only a more positive interaction than the text-based communication, but it was also no extra faff. The researchers found that a simple phone call took no longer than reading and responding to the same scenarios over email.
In conclusion: we overestimate how ‘convenient’ text communication is and we underestimate how good a proper voice call will make us feel.
* The kicker is that, after seven consecutive years of falling call minutes, 2020 saw a huge leap in our use of phones for voice communication. Lockdown helped us rediscover the dial tone.
Are you emboldened now to hit CALL instead of SEND? Do you find yourself more often swiping right to answer instead of left to reject? Have you learned to love again the sound of the human voice?
Please don’t bother answering by email — call me instead!
Part 1: Which Should I Worry About More — My ‘Grand Theme’ Or Whether The Audience Laughs?
This is a short addendum to last week’s piece on The Adventurer’s Journey. One of the things that I was quite careful not to say was that adventures were stories and stories were lessons and, thusly, adventures were lessons.
There is an academic passion for analysing stories for grand themes and universal morals, summed up by the question: what does this story have to say about the human experience?
It’s a forensic approach that has been translated wholesale into the dozen or more ‘how to write’ books that fill my own bookshelves.
Books as diverse as Save The Cat! by Blake Snyder and Story by Robert McKee all have the same underlying logic: find your theme and you’ll find your story.
But I’ve just finished reading an excellent book that takes the complete opposite approach to story analysis — and therefore implies a wholly different logic for creative writing.
Rather than mining the library shelves for themes, meanings and lessons, Angus Fletcher’s Wonderworks examines the psychological effect that different stories have on the reader.
It’s a disarmingly naive method, inspired by Aristotle’s Poetics, that can be crudely summed up by the question: who gives a crap about theme when my readers are gripped by catharsis, shaken with wonder, bawling their eyes out and lolling their heads off.
Fletcher’s 400-page thesis is a little repetitive and certainly misses out a huge chunk of what makes certain stories so effective, but it’s a potent corrective to a tendency that I have as a spreadsheet-driven writer, when an obsession with structure blocks a clear view of how the story will land in the mind of the audience, with tears and laughter.
The experiment, then, was a success: the stated objective, to have ‘a lot more’ adventures, was achieved.
But getting outside more isn’t what made the experiment a success. What made the experiment a success was the success of the experimental method.
(Last week, a friend and reader said that he was never quite sure whether he understood my emails: with sentences like the preceding, I concede his point.)
Let me explain.
In 1747, the ship’s doctor of HMS Salisbury, James Lind, decided to compare six different treatments of scurvy, the bloody scourge of sailors long at sea. Some were given cider, some were given sulfuric acid. Some were given oranges and lemons.
In the process, Lind learned how to cure scurvy (it wasn’t the cider, sad face). That was useful, sure, but not nearly as useful as simultaneously proving the efficacy of a well-conducted clinical trial.
I’m not saying that 100 Days of Adventure was a well-conducted clinical trial, but it was a trial with a positive outcome and, like James Lind’s scientific successors, I can work backwards to isolate the elements of the trial that supported its happy ending.
Based on my reading of immortal business management truisms, two contenders for contributing elements of success spring to mind:
Public accountability thanks to this newsletter
Working with a well-defined and measurable goal
On closer reading, I’ve learned that both might well have done more harm than good.
1. Go public — but not too public
I’d assumed that, by talking about my goal in this newsletter, I was being held to account by nearly 300 discerning humans. And I thought that this was a good thing that would help me reach my goal.
Turns out that I was probably wrong.
A 1998 management study found that, while conditions of ‘low accountability’ improve goal performance, conditions of ‘high accountability’ merely encourage people to massage their public image, with no improvement in performance.
But is this newsletter helpful low accountability or damaging high accountability? Well, it’s hard to say for sure because I don’t have access to the paywalled academic papers…
But perhaps what this newsletter was helping me with was not accountability at all, but commitment.
Thanks to this newsletter, every week last year, I sat down with my calendar and counted up how many Days of Adventure I’d had in the past seven days. On the equinox and solstices, with the changing of every season, I also delved a little deeper and wrote a little more, reflecting on my progress towards my goal through the year.
Perhaps it was this regular commitment to the process that was helping me, rather than the sense that you lot were standing over me, tapping your rulers on the desk, waiting to punish or reward me.
This is certainly what I’ve found in the opening months of 2022. There was no fanfare at the end of 2021: there were no fireworks to celebrate my achievement. All that happened was that I moved onto a new page on my spreadsheet and started again from zero (now on nine).
Goals come and go, but the process endures.
2. Not so SMART
Some of you business types will immediately jump up and tell me why my process was successful: it was because I created a SMART goal.
The 100 Days of Adventure project was:
Specific. 100. Days. Adventure.
Measurable. A day either is or is not adventurous and when I hit 100, I’d hit my target.
Achievable. Before starting, I counted that I’d done 67 the year before, so 100 didn’t seem like too much of a stretch (as long as Covid played along).
Relevant. 100 Days of Adventure was totally aligned with my personal and professional values and priorities.
Time-bound. I knew exactly when to begin (1 January 2021) and when to end (31 December 2021).
But what if 100 Days of Adventure succeeded despite the smartness of the SMART acronym? After all, how specific was my definition of a Day of Adventure?
Not very, as it turns out.
My original definition is that a Day of Adventure is a day when I could answer the following question in the affirmative: ‘Did I spend a significant chunk of the day outside on an adventure?’
I immediately followed up this definition with a weasly confession:
‘Outside’ is deliberately wide open because I’m a firm believer that adventure can be found anywhere. ‘Significant chunk’ and ‘an adventure’ are both deliberately relative because DOA is a simple binary measure that should work for everyone.
This definition did mature over the course of the year. At some point, I decided that three hours was unequivocally significant, but I still maintained that great adventures could be had in less and several, particularly as the end-of-year deadline drew closer, were more like two hours.
Compare this to the stringent requirements of the forty practice hikes that I have to log before I can take my professional Hill and Moorland Leader assessment. These require me to do at least four hours of walking time. No ambiguity there — particularly not when all my hikes are timed and logged automatically by GPS.
The lack of wiggle room in this qualification metric means that I missed the deadline for taking my assessment next week. I’ve been out on far more than forty hikes in the hills and moorlands of England, but, analysing the data, I fall six days short.
Although I’ve enjoyed every single practice hike that I’ve done, the reality is that, by the SMART goal measure, I have failed. And that failure makes me feel a bit crap.
But my deliberately, ostentatiously vague definition of a Day of Adventure meant that there was plenty of flexibility in my 2021 goal and — surprise, surprise — I completed the challenge and that made me feel bloody marvellous. What an accomplished human being I am, pat on the back for me!
Two outdoor challenges: one I can put down as a triump, the other I’m forced to consider a failure.
But here’s the thing: the two challenges were identical. By definition, any day that qualified as one of forty practice days for my Hill and Moorland Leader assessment was also one of my 100 Days of Adventure.
They were identical in every detail bar one: one of the goals wasn’t so SMART. And, confusingly, sometimes smart goals aren’t SMART goals.
Suppose I’d only managed 99 Days of Adventure in 2021. What would I have gained from that year of abject failure? Yes, that’s right — a whole heck of a lot!
Similarly, what have I gained so far from only completing 34 of 40 logged hikes for my Hill and Moorland assessment? Yes, that’s also right — a whole heck of a lot!
The flexibility of my definition of Days of Adventure encourages me to go outside and try something new.
The inflexibility of the professional definition of a Hill and Moorland qualifying hike means that I won’t go outside until I can guarantee at least four hours walking.
Last time I was on Dartmoor, I arrived extremely tired. I’d meant to do a four-hour hike that afternoon, but only managed a couple of hours before I quit.
The pressure of an inflexible goal kept me going longer than I should have and, when I got back to the bunkhouse, knowing that the deadline loomed, I went back over the past few years of hiking, desperately massaging the numbers, trying to convince myself that I was ready for assessment.
I was doing exactly what the literature told me I would do. Instead of improving my performance, this condition of high accountability was making me manipulate my public image — I was being lured into lying!
So I stopped scrolling through my hike logbook and went to bed instead.
A couple of quality hikes later, walking off Dartmoor, through the woods on the edge of Fernworthy reservoir, the sun jumping from leaf to leaf through the trees, the chill air plucking at the hair on my bare arms, I realised that I didn’t want this to end; I didn’t want to qualify; I didn’t want to finish my training.
SMART goals are time-bound. SMART goals end.
What more would I accomplish by rushing to accomplish this goal? Nothing. Nothing, no assessment, no qualification could top what the process consistently delivers: these moments of serenity in the woods and on the moors.
There will be no fanfare, no fireworks. All that must happen is to move onto a new page and start again from zero.
Goals come and go, but the process endures.
So, sitting in the car, the chewy scent of mud in my nostrils, I opened up my email and wrote to my assessor, telling him of my gleeful decision to cancel…
As I was tramping over the clitter scattered in the moorland of Manga Hill, on the approach over the brook to the ruins of Teignhead Farm, I noticed that adventures, like most stories, follow a three act structure.
The adventurer-to-be is going about their mundane daily life when they first hear the ‘call to adventure’. A conversation overheard on a bus, an interview on a radio station, a tantalising glimpse of a map — or a nagging question in the back of their mind that won’t go away.
But they ignore the call because mundane daily life is kind of okay.
Then, perhaps all-of-a-sudden, perhaps in a glacial process unfolding over the course of decades, the adventurer-to-be realises that mundane daily life is not kind of okay anymore — and it won’t be until they scratch that itch and answer the call.
Emboldened by wise mentors, whether in person or culled from books, documentaries or the internet, the adventurer-in-waiting prepares for the journey ahead.
Preparation doesn’t have to mean much, maybe just a toasted bagel, but generally there will be at least an intake of breath between the adventurer accepting the challenge and then leaving the comfort zone world of Act One.
This is what we usually think of as the adventure. It begins the moment we cross the threshold, board the train, slip our mooring, or step through the looking-glass.
Even though we may very well still be sitting in our own living room, everything has changed. We have entered the topsy-turvy, ‘funhouse mirror’ world of adventure.
They do things differently here. There’s a different logic, different rules for us to learn.
Strange things happen in this strange new world. With any luck, some of those things will be great fun and we’ll feel excitement rather than fear.
But, guaranteed, some of those things will be scary. They will challenge us. This is built into the definition of adventure. We left behind our comfort zone at the end of Act One, remember?
In adventuring terms, Act Two can last as little as five minutes or as long as five decades. There might be one little hurdle to jump or a seemingly endless series of Herculean obstacles to overcome.
However long the adventure, there will come a ‘point of no return’ when to push onward is easier than to return. For me, on my ride around the coast of Britain, this happened at Scarborough, the first town I came to where a return ticket home tipped over the £100 mark.
There may also be some sort of ‘crisis’ moment where the adventurer can fall no further and a ‘revelation’ when they realise how they must change or adapt before they can come through alive.
There are all kinds of other story elements that may or may not appear in an adventure: a moment of false victory or false defeat, ‘bad guys’ closing in, ‘the dark night of the soul’, a brush with death that ‘raises the stakes’, a ticking clock and so on.
Whatever happens, our adventurer does eventually have to leave the adventure world and return to the comfort zone world of Act One — where they discover that the world or they themselves have changed.
Change is a baked-in part of adventure. Greek philosopher Heraclitus once wrote:
No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.
If that’s true for an adventure as small as stepping into a river twice, then bloody hell it’s true for whatever happened in Act Two.
Even if an adventurer finishes Act Two by building a cabin in the woods and never returning to the physical world of Act One, they’ll find one day that the cabin in the woods is no longer the world of adventure and has become their new comfort zone.
The world, and the adventurer, have changed.
Or is it?
What I found exciting about the parallel structures of story and adventure is the implication that, just as you can tell a story about anything, so you can have an adventure about anything.
Back in the olden days, most stories were written about adventurers, and those adventurers were usually called ‘heros’ and they were usually men and they were usually fighting or being smartasses or harassing women or looting dragon caves or whatever.
But nowadays most stories are not written about these ‘heros’. The stories of humanity have become much more complex, much more interesting and cover every imaginable subgenre of human experience.
Campbell’s ‘monomyth’ is not only a hugely reductionist and wildly inaccurate piece of folk story analysis, it’s also been unhappily described as perpetuating racist, sexist, classist and despotic norms.
I like to think that the Adventurer’s Journey is not so much these things. At the very least, ‘adventurer’ is not a gendered word like ‘hero’.
However, I am conscious that artist and comic book illustrator Alice Meichi Li’s criticism of Joseph Campbell is still applicable to my description of adventure:
[It’s] the journey of someone who has privilege… In the final chapter, they may end up on equal footing. But when you have oppressed groups, all you can hope for is to get half as far by working twice as hard.