The reason I’m not writing to you until now is that I’ve spent the day hammering through the zillions of pettifogging tasks that cram the hours before a lengthy departure from home.
Tasks like these:
As you may or may not have gathered, on Monday I leave for Glasgow, for four days’ final preparation before meeting the first cohort of sadists cyclists taking on the first week of our two-month, 5,400km bike ride to Athens.
I should be back home sometime in September or October.
It’s not a vanishingly long time, but it is certainly something of a disappearance.
And so this morning began with me randomly chucking things into what I like to think of as my ‘packing room’.
I think every adventurer needs a packing room: a place to dump the first practical stirrings of an adventure before it either (a) fizzles out and is forgotten or (b) slams you in the oh-fuck face of last minute dread.
(I also think that every human being is an adventurer in a choose-their-own domain.)
Here’s what my packing room currently looks like:
And I thought it could be a nice idea to take you through five items that wouldn’t make it onto most touring cyclists’ packing lists (let alone into their blessed packing room).
1. A Flag
This flag was hand-stitched many years ago — 2018, I think — for the third edition of Thighs of Steel, which rode from London to Athens, through Slovenia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria.
This photo represents the stomach-popping logistical and administrative rough and tumble that we all go through, both before and during the ride, to grease the wheels of summer so that they spin as smoothly as could reasonably be demanded.
I mean: have you ever tried to acquire seven debit cards that are free to use in Europe for a non-profit that isn’t a charity and doesn’t have money to burn?
This entry could just as easily have been a photo of our Public Liability certificate, representing the last two months of nerve-clenching horror as ‘a costly claim in the events industry’ totally ham-slapped our ‘risk profile’.
The good news is that I’m spending my final Friday evening at home writing these words to you, so we must be more or less ready to ride.
After my experiences a month ago in Northumberland, it’s time to up my anti-midge game.
Smidge is a classic, but now I’ve added a citronella candle and a frankly awesome midge head net to my battlements — both bought from Totally Herbie of Scotland.
Their website might be from the nineties, but they mean business. And so now do I.
5. Dougal The Bugle
I bought Dougal from a Hastings junk shop on the first leg of my second ride around Britain back in 2020 so that I could have a part to play (literally) in the mock-funeral of a friend of a friend.
(It was something he’d always wanted to do: my friend played his spirit guide, a badger.)
Tragically, I recently found out that this friend of a friend has now passed away for real, which adds an appropriate sense of gravitas to the sounding of my most unusual touring accessory.
Some love it, some hate it (especially when it wakes them up at 5am for another expletive-sodden ride up a mountain), and none can ignore it.
Mercifully, every once in a while, someone comes on the ride who can actually play the blasted thing.
At those moments, atop a ravaging hill climb in Wales or at a sundown lakeside in the Italian Alps, Dougal the Bugle will sing a sweet tune that I like to imagine wefts its way into outer space, into the resonating space between atoms where the stardust lives.
Sometimes, as during the Covid-19 lockdowns of 2020 and 2021, I’ve gone directly to more-or-less non-news analysts, such as research scientists and civil servants, or to crowdsourced aggregators like Wikipedia.
Everything else newsworthy comes to me through the filters of friends and the people around me — as likely to be the birth of their new niece as the sinking of a submersible off the coast of the Americas.
It’s not a perfect system, of course. I’m sure I do miss out on the odd thing that might change the way I think or act.
But it is one hell of a lot better than the old system I had, which was to try to stay on top of E V E R Y T H I N G.
Opening The Fire Hose Of Shit
From around 1995 until 2017, I used to listen to the radio news every day and (once I had an internet connection) trawl the pages of the BBC News website, scrapping for more information on whatever stories were top of the media agenda that week.
I felt like it was, in a vague, non-specific way, an important duty as a citizen to stay informed. And one stayed informed with a daily news report.
Unfortunately, this is how most of The News is reported:
Crap thing happening
Life getting worse
No end and no solution in sight
If you don’t believe me, let’s do an experiment. I’m going to go over to the BBC News website right now and see what kind of story they’ve chosen to tell about the world today.
(Feel free to skip this bit — it won’t make your life a better place.)
Murder arrests after man fatally stabbed
Sexual violence helpline pauses over lack of funds
Former PC faces trial over misconduct charges
Julian Sands’ brother on ‘overwhelming’ tributes
National police training in wake of mass shooting
Glastonbury Festival crew member dies in tent
Drink-driving arrest after car crashes into house
Andy Murray surprises girl who uses tennis prosthetic
Let’s be honest, opening the BBC News page — with its carefully cultivated projection of impartiality and fact — is like opening a fire hose of shit.
But here’s the kicker: just like me, the writers behind The News put a hell of a lot of thought and effort into the stories they’re telling.
The fire hose of shit is a choice; it is only one story, one vision of the world.
We don’t have to buy what they’re selling.
Let’s All Be Andy Murray
This shitty story nightly repeats, like the tolling of a death knell, the message that humans, collectively and globally, are failing.
(Except for Andy Murray: he’s nice.)
We’re failing ourselves, we’re failing each other and we’re failing the planet.
Andy Murray aside, there is no energy, no hope and no creativity.
Thanks to some quirk of human psychology, this apocalyptic vision is an extremely compelling story. So we share the worst of us.
It actually takes a great effort to share the best of us.
It takes even more of an effort to look deep into the worst of us and, resisting the temptation of negativity, to share the ways that humans, out of the darkness, respond with energetic hope and creativity.
When we only tell the stories of doom, we fail to see the stories of possibility.
The hundreds of examples of progress in human rights, rising living standards, public health victories, clean energy breakthroughs, technological magic, ecological restoration and the countless extraordinary acts of kindness that take place on this planet every day.
I believe that if we want to change the story of the human race in the 21st century, we have to start changing the stories that we tell ourselves.
And we have to remember that hope isn’t a noun. It’s a verb. It’s not something that we have or something that we’re given. It’s something that we do.
Millions of people around the world chose to hope in the last 12 months and then rolled up their sleeves to get it done. Perhaps it’s time for the rest of us to do the same.
And Now The Weather
It’d be totally remiss of me not to include a proper theme tune for today’s news broadcast and, who else, but Bill Bailey.
Yesterday morning I was walking back from the beach, up the cliffside zigzag, after a sunny run, swim and friend surprise (👋), when I heard the shuddering skid of something wheeled and weighted right behind me.
An electric tricycle.
The young driver wrestled the heavy vehicle into a right angle turn and pointed himself up the zigzag (No Cycling).
‘I nearly missed it,’ he said, before whirring the engine, pumping the pedals and overtaking me at a crawl.
Rather than giving in to some kind of nimby-level irritation at the interruption to our pedestrian slowway, I inspected his vehicle.
Happy Friday and welcome to Bournemouth, where I am writing — no, wait — that’s a lie.
I’m actually dictating this to you through my phone because I have somehow injured my left wrist and it hurts to type.
This injury was really bumming me out — until I re-read my old diaries.
When this injury made itself known last Friday, I had no idea from whence it came and was seriously concerned that my 560km ride from Liverpool to Newcastle had triggered nasties.
Not good when only weeks away from joining Thighs of Steel on a little two month ride from Glasgow to Athens…
A friend of mine got a horrible hand injury from cycling last year that took six months to recover. I can’t do that.
Then, on Monday, the shooting pain caused by my mild evening stretches triggered a flashing memory — a moment exactly like Proust’s petites madeleines, only with more downward dog.
One day in winter, as I came home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind.
She sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called ‘petites madeleines,’ which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim’s shell.
And soon, mechanically, weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake.
No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place.
(I absolutely love that book.)
Unlike Proust, rather than spend the whole of the rest of my life lying in bed tracing back to source this momentary mnemonic sensation, I searched my 2022 and 2021 digital diaries for the word ‘wrist’.
Prosaic, but effective.
I found two patches of entries, in April and November 2021, where I complained of an identical injury to my left wrist.
Reading on, I was relieved to learn that neither of these injuries happened after cycling. The first might have happened pushing my nieces on the swings for an hour, while the second probably happened on a climbing wall.
In November 2021, the injury took about ten days to recover, but only after I stopped typing for a week.
The worry of my injury’s uncertainty has been replaced by resignation — even relaxation — and, furthermore, my diaries uncovered a recovery action plan and timeline.
It’s not every day that you meet a motorcycling electrician called Graham eating chips and gravy in the sunshine at a village tearoom in Northumberland.
In fact, I’d say that it’s only ever happened to me once in my whole entire life.
Just once. Last Sunday.
I was about 470km into my 560km ride from Liverpool to Newcastle and had just decided that it was time for lunch. Again.
Because, you see, If I’ve got any Northumbrian cycle touring advice for you it’s this: whenever you see a tearoom, it’s time for lunch. Again.
Quick Detour Regarding Bloody Bush Road (Unsurfaced)
Northumberland is the least densely populated county in England, with only 62 inhabitants per square kilometre.
This is an incredibly misleading statistic.
Across a 36 kilometre stretch of my route, on the terrifyingly named Bloody Bush Road through the high pine forests of Kershope, Newcastleton and Kielder, there were precisely zero inhabitants per square kilometre.
This means I went five hours of riding and sixteen hours overnight without refilling my water bottles.
Parched. Slightly panicked.
It was only at the very end of the rocky gravel track that I found a sign warning me against the route I’d just taken — READ THIS BEFORE RIDING —
This route is 20km through remote forest areas on unsurfaced tracks and narrow paths.
This route includes steep climbs and crosses exposed open hills and fells. It is therefore better suited to proficient cyclists with higher levels of fitness, stamina and good off-road riding skills. Quality off-road bikes are considered to be essential.
No water, no food, no phone reception and no houses except a couple of eerily abandoned rental cottages: this was not the place to hurt one’s self.
About halfway through my unwitting 20km off-road stint, rolling downhill on the gravel, my unsuitable road tyres skidded.
As the heavy bike slid out from underneath me — threatening to crush my leg under the weight of all my camping gear — my instincts took over.
Without knowing how, my left foot hopped onto the falling cross bar and I leapt over the moving handlebars, miraculously landing in a running stumble, on both feet.
I got away with it this time.
My dusty dry throat was finally lubricated at The Forks, a clutch of forest cottages, thankfully occupied (and each with a wolf-head door knocker), before rushing to the civilised and fully stocked activity centres of Kielder Water.
Lesson learned: population density matters.
Back To Graham Eating Chips And Gravy
So that’s why, only half an hour after tea and scones at the Tower Knowe cafe on Kielder Water, I rolled to a stop outside Falstone village tearoom.
And that’s where, for the first time in my whole entire life, I met a motorcycling electrician called Graham eating chips and gravy in the sunshine.
Quick Detour For Some Miserable Setup
I left to come on this bike ride two days late.
I was originally booked to get the train up to Liverpool on the Monday, but I decided to delay for a couple of days.
Helping to organise Thighs of Steel — an eight week fundraising bike ride with over a hundred participants across eleven countries — is a rat’s nest of responsibility.
Many aspects of facilitating the organisation of the ride are totally within my control: choosing dates and routes, finding ride leaders, paying staff, planning routes, recruiting riders and, of course, fundraising.
But some aspects are wildly out of my — or anyone’s — control. For the past six weeks, I’ve been wrestling with such a task.
And here it was again, that task, demanding more time from me and, if not forcing, then at least prising two days’ holiday from my short break.
Actually, this sacrifice of two days was actually pretty good going for me. In 2022, I would’ve cancelled the whole holiday.
Last year, I felt as much responsibility for the organisation of Thighs and the stress I held manifested itself as a dumpy lethargy and a claggy brain fog.
In my fatigue, I made the mistake of cancelling any extracurricular activities and staying at home, hoping to rest and recovery in the quiet hours when I wasn’t working.
I even took two courses of antibiotics, before realising that my symptoms were ‘just’ stress, far beyond the reach of pharmaceutical treatment.
I learned that, in the responsibility of a stressful situation, my mind and body tend to hunker down, shutting off function in the hope that, by hiding away in stillness, the danger or threat will pass by safely.
While this avoidant strategy might have worked for me in the past, it’s exactly ZERO percent fun and, in most grownup cases, leaves the problem worse than before.
What helps are precisely the things that, last year, I cancelled: seeing friends, playing games, going dancing and, of course, riding my bike for days at a time.
Anyway: turns out that Graham, the motorcycling electrician eating chips and gravy in the sunshine, goes through the same damn thing.
Graham Eating Chips And Gravy
Graham, a man with spectacles and the lived-in look of late middle age, arrived in his leathers and backed his motorcycle into the small parking lot beside the tearoom’s outdoor toilets.
He ordered chips and gravy and a coffee for afters — ‘I’m in no rush here.’
We sat outside, on high stools, with our plates resting on a waist-high sandstone wall, looking out over the shaded village green.
Graham had come up from Sunderland, a trip he often makes on a weekend. He likes to get to the tearoom before twelve, in time for their to-die-for breakfast.
He’s far too late today, which is why turns down their offer of a bacon barm — I can make that at home, like — and settles for chips and gravy.
Graham tells me that he’s an electrician, working for himself, but through an agency, mostly industrial.
I’m not sure what I imagine an electrician doing all day (I know it can’t only be lightbulbs and 3A plugs), but it’s nothing like what Graham does.
He’ll spend weeks wiring up identical units on an industrial site, ticking off the cabling on a schematic works sheet.
None of his work will connected to power until long after he’s gone, so he has to get it right, maybe not first time, but reliably, every time.
A lot of other electricians say they don’t have the patience for it, they get bored, but Graham likes it. It suits his methodical mind and that means he’s never short of work.
Graham felt he had to get out on his bike today: he’s got a job starting tomorrow, a job he already regrets taking.
He holds up thumb and forefinger, about a chip’s width apart: ‘Summer’s only this long up here.’
‘The agency said it’s a two month job, but that doesn’t mean anything. Could be two days, two weeks — two years,’ he says.
‘They said I could have a week off after a month, but that’s…’ He looks over at me, a little desperately. ‘I don’t want to put a time limit on it, you know?’
‘That’s My Sign I Need To Get Away’
Graham is out on his bike for the same reason I’m on mine: it’s his way of getting back into his body, opening up and letting go.
He’s learned to heed the warning signs and take to two wheels before things get worse.
A couple of years back, after his mother died, Graham was on a six-month job on the coast near Edinburgh.
As the months rolled on, he started getting a thick knot of pain in the centre of his chest.
Nothing he did shifted the pain until, one day, he jacked in the job and went for a long motorcycle ride in a loop along the green border and up through Dumfries and Galloway.
‘I was on the road, coming out of Ayr, when I noticed it,’ Graham tells me. ‘The pain in my chest was gone. Completely gone.’
It’s then that I realise who we are: two men, strangers, telling each other how we fall apart. And how we might put ourselves back together again.
‘When I feel that in my chest,’ Grama says, ‘that’s my sign I need to get away.’
It’s the same for me: when I feel that heavy veil falling across my brain.
We shook hands, Graham and I, and swapped names.
‘Good luck with the stress,’ he said, as I took the steps down to my bike.
‘It’ll be straight back when I hit that hill,’ I said.
‘And then you’ll get rid of it again.’
Mind IS Body
That’s been my motto the last few weeks. It’s one I’d like to wear through the summer.
The brain is all very good, but it’s only a tiny part of how we think.
And the poor thing is terribly self-obsessed.
The brain has such an inflated belief in its powers that it thinks (ha) it can sort everything out on its own — and frequently overheats in the attempt.
But when I remember that brains only work well when the whole body is moving, then my mind flows again.
Instead of trying to brute force my way through life on brain alone, I should remember instead to feel my way through the world with all-body senses.
A long bike tour works, but so too does a regular morning run or evening stretch time.
The older I get, the more I learn and the more responsibility I take, the more important it becomes, not simply to get out of my head, but to get into my body.
A while ago, I was invited to contribute to a Red Pepper magazine retrospective on what a bunch of academics and activists learned from Debt: The First 5,000 Years, by anthropologist all-star thinker and doer David Graeber (RIP).
I’m thrilled that Red Pepper gave my bit the headline ‘Debt is bollocks’ and honoured they decided it was good enough to open up the article — but there are many more worthy contributions from folks who knew DG far better than I ever did.
Not least Nika Dubrovsky, David Graeber’s partner and collaborator, who gives us an insight into the process of writing and publishing Debt:
As we waited for publication, David was increasingly nervous; he complained to me he needed to publish the book to change public discourse and the time was right now. He was right: the book, published in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis, provided a new vocabulary needed to explain a changed world.
Today this new language—on how we understand debt—is used by everyone, including by power itself. This is what David called a revolution. He said revolution is not when palaces are seized or governments are overthrown, but when we change the ideas of what is common sense.
First, go and read our Red Pepper retrospective — I love Christopher J Lee’s bit about practising competitive generosity over competitive accumulation — and then go and read the book itself.
And welcome to Egremont Castle, in the shade of the ruined keep, where Amber has freaked herself out playing hide and seek and started first crying for her mama, before shifting up through the gears of shouting, yelling, screaming and now finally shrieking.
Amber’s mum walks up the steps towards me, wearing big shades and a tired smile: ‘Who said playing hide and seek in the castle was a good idea?’
Anyway, before I left Bournemouth to pick up the latest leg of my second ride around Britain, I was surprisingly emotional about my new debit card.
The old one, you see, has been with me since June 2018.
There aren’t many possessions in our lives that are so clearly timestamped and with so clear an expiry date and I took the cutting up of this old workhorse as an opportunity for a bittersweet taste of nostalgia.
This card has served me well, joining the team when I was rootless, directionless, empty, and there at my side as I found confidence and purpose in my writing and my outdoor work, both instructing and with Thighs of Steel.
The faded card leaves me thousands of miles richer and, daily it seems, on the edge of new life.
It feels stupid to be saying this, but thank you old 4543. You done well. I’m excited to see how your successor fares.
Liverpool to Newcastle: The First Three Days
Today’s story is going to be heinously short and primarily photographic. As I mentioned, I’m in the middle of a bike ride, stage seven of my second ride around Britain.
I have too many thoughts that will turn into stories, but perhaps not today, not when I am dictating this into my malfunctioning phone in the late afternoon sunshine on a castle park bench.
Today started gently, with a roll down to Lake Windermere and a glorious, bare bottomed soak in the fresh water.
I then spent an hour and twenty quid in Joey’s, a plant-based cafe at Wray Castle on the north end of the lake. Essential fuel for the climbs, the steep steep climbs, of Wrynose and Hardknott.
So steep, it was, that I watched one Belgian number plate sliding backwards down a 30% incline, engine squealing.
‘You have lots of luggage,’ the Belgian said through wound window as I passed. ‘Lots of luggage and lots of courage.’
Yesterday started early and finished late.
This had little to do with the illuminating distractions of Blackpool and Morecambe, and more to do with:
An inauspicious tide at Fleetwood, which made for a 14km detour around the estuary.
A series of failed camp spots, which resulted in an extraordinarily steep, unscheduled, hill climb as I came into the Lake District, and then a fairly unsatisfactory pitch on the slopes of a denuded Forestry Commission ‘forest’, cocooned in a cloud of ferocious midges.
Dinner was served at 10:00 p.m, a hasty repast of Co-op olive bread and vegan coleslaw.
Between yesterday’s beginnings and yesterday’s endings, I delighted in new discoveries: especially Silverdale, a no-reason-to-visit-it-unless-you’re-visiting-it outcrop of land to the west of the M6.
It’s exactly the sort of why-not place that I want to see more of on this second round of Britain.
And Wednesday? Who can remember that far back?
Suffice it to say that I still think Liverpool is an ace city, with a canalside run through Bootle that gently escorts the traveller into nature’s soft embrace.
I really enjoyed Crosby dunes until I came across a cycle path sign buried up to the hilt in six foot of shifting sand.
I wonder how many hapless round Britainers have met with such granulated fate underfoot?
Anyway. Sorry I can’t be more coherent in my storytelling this week.
It’s time to make myself scarce.
A couple of polite young lads just asked if I minded them flying a drone up here, and, besides, I must seek camp.
This morning, I decided to take that hoary self-help motto to heart:
Do something for yourself first thing in the morning. You won’t get a chance later.
I went for a run along the beach.
About a kilometre in, I heard the heavy foot-slap and raspy breath of a long distance runner coming up fast behind me.
Before long, I could feel them right on my heels. Subconsciously, though I didn’t mean to, I sped up until we were matched stride for stride.
My lion race instinct taking over.
(One for Narnia fans: in Turkish, the word for ‘lion’ is not ‘aslan’, but ‘arslan’ 🍑)
I looked over my shoulder to see with whom I was now sprinting down Bournemouth promenade: barefoot shoes, ponytail, nose piercing.
Between agonal inhales, they gasped: ‘Thanks for running with me. I’ve got one k left and I don’t want to ease off.’
I then proceeded to ask my fellow runner a battery of questions, none of which, I swiftly realised, they were in any position to answer, being (as they had so politely explained) into the last thousand metres of what had clearly been a long, hot, fast, hard training run.
I did manage to understand that they were training for some kind of biathlon, a run and swim, possibly in Tenerife, possibly as part of Team GB.
I did not manage to see them over the line, however. Five hundred metres short, I spotted two friends (👋👋) on a morning stroll, flasks in hand.
I stopped to chat, of course, before polishing off my run: my sweet spot is currently four kilometres.
As I turned at the halfway mark, I realised that I was gaining on a tanned cyclist loaded up with panniers. As I got closer, I noticed that they were flying a mini Welsh flag.
I said hello.
Jack was originally from Wales, but now lives in Oswestry, on the borders.
My head did the automatic mental route planning that is the reflex of all long distance tourers: Oswestry, Shropshire, probably down the Wye Valley trail into Newport, over the Severn Bridge to Bristol, then country lanes to Salisbury before dropping through the rolling Dorset hills, down to the coast.
Nope. Jack had just come in on the overnight ferry from Cherbourg, Normandy.
Two weeks of cycling into the wind, round through Brittany and back north. Would’ve taken him only one week if he’d been going the other way.
Living, as I do, by the beach, it’s considered bad ettiquette not to finish a sweaty run with a dunk in the waves and a handful of litter picking.
That’s when I met a council worker, litter tongs in one hand, bin bag in the other.
They wore that rusty, ruddy look of an outdoors dweller: eight hours a day on the beach, they told me, from March to October, walking eighteen miles a day, shovelling sand off the prom or shifting last night’s litter from the shore.
Normally there’s a three a.m. tractor that does the bulk of the litter trawling, but last night they were on a training course. So there’s a lot for the team of pickers to get through today.
There’s no real purpose behind these little vignettes of a Thursday morning, other than to make the point, again, that we are always free to make chance connections, to play the game of propinquity with the world: learn a little, expand a little, and — god dammit — commune with each other and this stupid little universe.
And, when you do get chatting with the universe, it’s always worth remember a little something that the Dalai Lama (fourteenth edition) once said to a pal of mine who runs a garage:
When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.
Ahem. Anyway. As I made my way back up the cliff slopes to my home, a silly poem, an aide-memoire, popped into my head:
Later than I expected, I returned home to start writing this email to you. I wanted to get it done by lunchtime so that I could prepare for this bike ride tomorrow.
Instead, I spent the morning in the Lush Green Hub with a friend (👋), picking out delicious donations, showertime products that might have unsellably passed their Lush-fresh peak, but are still very much fabulous.
Lush are kindly passing these intoxicating products onto Thighs of Steel so that our disgusting, smelly cyclists stay fragrant all the way to Athens this summer. Cheers!
Today’s story isn’t even a story. It’s a silly game, born of the ocean-inspired collision of three things floating on the waves in my mind.
The number twenty-four.
My two shelves’ worth of unread books.
My inevitable mortality. (Or at least, a busy summer wherein I shall do little reading.)
1. The Number Twenty-Four
This is, of course, the best number out there.
No — don’t contradict me, I’ve done a full survey of all the numbers, including many that are top secret, and none of them are better than twenty-four.
I mean, for starters, it’s the smallest number with eight factors — eight!
Read ‘em and weep:
This is why we divide rotations of our Mothership Earth into twenty-four hours: we can comfortably divide the day into halves of twelve hours each, thirds of eight hours each, quarters of six, and so on.
Twenty-four (24) is divisible, not only by both its independent digits (2 and 4), but also by the sum of those digits (6). This is what’s called a Harshad number.
And, just to show off, it can even be divided by the multiple of its digits (8).
The name ‘harshad’ took its etymology from Sanskrit: it means ‘joy-giver’.
Twenty-four also happens to be my birth date, which also happens to be later this month.
And that’s a lot of joy for one number to give.
2. Two Shelves Of Books
For the past three years, I’ve been indulging in the pleasure of buying books.
It began during lockdown, when the libraries were closed and I couldn’t spend any money on anything else (I hadn’t yet discovered bread baking).
Since then, I’ve bought more books per year than I’ve read and this has created an anxiety-inducing surplus.
Which brings us nicely onto…
3. My Inevitable Mortality
There comes a point in every reader’s life when they realise (like a dull blow to the back of the head) that the number of books on one’s shelf (never mind on one’s reading wishlist) vastly outnumbers the number of allotted hours for reading that remain on their own mortal shelf-life.
This is compounded by the accusatory glare of books bought in the first flush of lockdown and still with spines unbent, all hope crushed by the page-limiting design of my summer on the bicycle.
I accept now that I will never do justice to all of the books that sit on my shelf.
As a writer myself, this pains me further: think of all the years — not to mention all the bankruptcies, migraines, mortgage defaults, psychological breakdowns and RSIs — that went into creating these books, sucking out the heart and soul of every author, hoping for a connection that I will never give them.
Even though I could.
So today’s story is a silly game: herewith, please find twenty-four passages from page twenty-four of twenty-four of my unread books.
It’s my way of paying tribute to the extraordinary love and bloody-minded exertion that we all put into our earthly contribution; a contribution that will leave no trace on the overwhelming majority of humankind.
And, who knows, maybe some of these passages will intrigue me enough to make me pluck them off the dusty shelf…
Twenty-Four Passages From Twenty-Four Unread Books
Hey, let’s make this a proper game, shall we?
Shall we actually, though?
Every one of these passages is from a real book by a real author, published sometime between 1888 and 2020.
See if you can guess the title, writer and, for a very special harshad point, the year of publication.
Answers at the bottom.
Oh, go on then!
After all, what kind of a game would it be with no prizes?
(Well, actually, Dave, it’d be the kind of game that values intrinsic rather than extrinsic rewards, but let’s be honest: intrinsic rewards are for squares.)
In your donation message, have a stab at the title or author of any of these snippets
If you’re right (or if I think it’s a great guess), then I’ll send you a free book from my unread shelf of doom and pop it in the post to you (if you live in the UK).
Nah, fill your boots — cheat away!
David Perry (1994) postulates that the surface area — hence its absorption capability — of mycorrhizal fungi may be 10 to 100 times greater than the surfacde area of leaves in a forest. As a result, the growth of plant partners is accelerated.
‘No, not close, but let’s see how far. One elephant, two elephants, three elephants … fifteen elephants … twenty-five elephants … It’s still a long way off, more than five miles away.’
It is Friday and I have sweated out one page and a half. If I did not know this process so well, I would consider it a week of waste. But I know better than that now and I am content.
Rule: Pronounce ‘g’ as in ‘get’.
‘g’ in Welsh never sounds like ‘j’, as in ‘gentle’.
cragen — shell — kraggenn
You can follow these fence lines and walls all across the country on your Rights of Way, you can keep to your codes of conduct and never question this status quo. Or you can cross these lines, look inside this system and find out who put them there, and how. Because someone cast the net; something cast the spell.
Yet accomplished writers usually seem to have something else in mind when deciding how to put sentences together: the better the writers, of fiction and nonfiction alike, the more they tend to vary their sentence lengths. And they do it as dramatically as possible.
She said it took her over an hour, because she was arthritic by then, but when she finally found her clitoris, she said, she cried.
If Ecuador is to leave oil unburned, then Ecuador alone must shoulder the cost of lost oppportunity. Those who have so far put most of the fossil carbon into the atmosphere, the citizens of deep-pocketed industrialised nations, were not willing to take on part of the financial burden of restraint.
To Freud, though living surrounded by women and otherwise seeing so much and so well, women’s relationships seemed increasingly mysterious, difficult to discern, and hard to describe.
This book is nervous like coffee or malaria — it sets up a network of cut-outs & safe drops between itself & its readers — but it’s so baldfaced & literal-minded it practically encodes itself — it smokes itself into a stupor.
Reacting to the anxious climate of family life, they blunted their curiosity, narrowed their perception, and followed the ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy that ruled the family. Children know at a deep, automatic level what they are not supposed to say or tell or even remember.
After visiting the orange-belt and the opera-house, we went to bathe. Suddenly out of the crowd on the seafront, stepped Mr Aaronson of the Italia. ‘Hello, hello — you here too? Jerusalem’s so dead at this time of year, isn’t it? But I may look in tomorrow. Goodbye.’
The chemicals to which life is asked to make its adjustment are no longer merely the calcium and silica and copper and all the rest of the minerals washed out of the rocks and carried in rivers to the sea; they are the synthetic creations of man’s inventive mind, brewed in his laboratories, and having no counterparts in nature.
We are the poem, his poem says, that emerges from the unity of the body and the mind. That fragile unity — this brief parenthesis of being — is all we have. Celebrate it.
Suddenly and simultaneously they discover me, prone on my belly a few feet away. The dance stops. After a moment’s pause the two snakes come straight toward me, still in flawleess unison, straight toward my face, the forked tongues flickering, their intense wild yellow eyes staring directly into my eyes.
After crossing Bear River I find myself on a somewhat superior road leading through the Mormon settlements to Ogden.
Shadi claims to have been in the Foreign Legion, and he seems nuts enough for this to be true.
After twenty-three days of complete fast, Kundan died. The Jain community was happy to hear this news. I was sad. The monks said he had conquered the fear of death.
The broom is a palm leaf twice his size. He might have been sweeping all his life. Had this been Disneyland one might have thought he was put there to represent a worker from the past. But the hunchback is real, and his task is to keep the desert sand away from the historical copies. The man and the palm leaf seem to be the only genuine articles in all of Babylon.
Undaunted by the reality of being a single parent with a three-year-old son, she took inspiration from a film she’d seen about a woman who’d travelled across the Siberian tundra on her own in the 1920s. ‘I thought, “If she can do that, no equipment, just a big coat, I can walk to London, because I’ll just get myself a good litttle pram and da-da-da.”’
JUNE 10. Very warm. We get water for the camp from a rock basin at the foot of a picturesque cascading reach of the river where it is well stirred and made lively without being beaten into dusty foam.
When Scott Martin wrote a favourable article on Critical Mass in Bicycling magazine’s January 1994 issue, several reader retorts ensued; including ‘I’m disappointed to see Martin supporting this perverted brand of Street Justice,’ and ‘Your glorification of juvenile delinquents blocking traffic and assaulting motorists upsets me.’
Even if your performance is not affected directly, perfectionism may still reduce your ability to enjoy your work or may influence the ways in which you treat others at work.
One might cite Antony, in Antony and Cleopatra, as he tries to answer the question about what kind of thing is the crocodile: ‘It is shaped, sir, like itself, just so high as it is, and moves with its organs. It lives by that which nourisheth it, and the elements once out of it, it transmigrates.’ And, Antony might have added, it progresses through its days and nights very much at its own pace.
With The Greatest Of Thanks And Respect To…
Mycelium Running, Paul Stamets (2005)
Wild Signs And Star Paths, Tristan Gooley (2018)
Journal Of A Novel, John Steinbeck (1970)
Pronouncing Welsh Place Names, Tony Leaver (1998)
The Book Of Trespass, Nick Hayes (2020)
Artful Sentences, Virginia Tufte (2006)
The Vagina Monologues, Eve Ensler (2001)
The Songs Of Trees, David George Haskell (2017)
In A Different Voice, Carol Gilligan (1982)
T.A.Z., Hakim Bey (1985)
The Dance Of Connection, Harriet Lerner (2001)
The Road To Oxiana, Robert Byron (1937)
Silent Spring, Rachel Carson (1962)
Proust Was A Neuroscientist, Jonah Lehrer (2007)
Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey (1968)
Around The World On A Penny-Farthing, Thomas Stevens (1888)
Baghdad Bulletin, David Enders (2006)
No Destination, Satish Kumar (1992)
A Hundred And One Days, Asne Seierstad (2003)
All Together Now? Mike Carter (2019)
My First Summer In The Sierra, John Muir (1911)
Critical Mass, edited by Chris Carlsson (2002)
When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough, Martin M Antony and Richard P Swinson (2009)
Time, Eva Hoffman (2009)
UPDATE: After writing this piece, intrigued, I started reading Proust Was A Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer and didn’t stop until I’d finished. It’s a wondrous book, full of inspiration for both writers and readers.
What’s mad is that my first story on the topic, written after staying in an abandoned chemical factory in Calais, rings as true today as it did then: Do We Need Borders?
The question is, of course, rhetorical.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a nation state is: ‘An independent political state formed from a people who share a common national identity (historically, culturally, or ethnically).’
I’m sure you can already see the problems we might run into if, by any chance, those unlucky administrators happened to draw borders in inauspicious places (i.e. almost anywhere).
That 2014 story was written for an audience of your common-or-garden sceptics: the bulk of citizenry who, until now, have never questioned the very fact of our borders and who naturally assume, for amorphous reasons that they’ve never quite pinned down, that controls are necessary.
People like me, in other words.
It’s what I learned in Calais — talking to everyone, teaching some English, skipping fresh food out of supermarket bins, staying up all night on the rooftop watching for police raids — that shoved me into a new belief system, one that has no room for borders of any kind.
In all those ten years of listening, watching and writing, I’ve not come across a better argument to change people’s minds than the simple fact of being there.
William James, the founder of modern psychology, said that we become what we do. […] One trip to Calais, one cup of hot sugary tea with a Sudanese or Eritrean, is worth a full year of media stories, with their distortions, omissions, angles, exaggerations and outright lies.
These are not my words, but the general consensus of multiple economic studies conducted over the course of decades.
‘Impossible,’ all those sensible right-thinking folk say.
Not impossible, I say, only improbable. And everything, in this unlikely universe, is improbable so that’s not saying much.
Well, come on then, Mr 10 Years — what’s changed?
I was thinking about my long involvement with the free movement, er, movement because I’m currently reading Daniel Trilling’s excellent book Lights In The Distance: Exile And Refuge At The Borders Of Europe.
I met Daniel on my first 2014 trip to Calais, while he was researching this very book.
He wanted to visit the abandoned tioxide chemical factory where I was staying with half a dozen No Borders activists and several hundred other people, many from Sudan, but with representatives from all over — Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Albania, Vietnam.
We had a strict no journalists policy, but, for some reason, Daniel was allowed in — if only briefly. I dunno. Maybe because he seemed sound.
I still think he seems sound — and I agree with what he has to say about ‘change’:
Often, journalists like to think that what they’re doing is going to provoke a change. […] The myth we believe is that exposing something we consider unjust is enough to fix it. But it’s usually not. […]
Instead, if there’s anything useful in our work, it’s more like fitting the pieces of a shattered mirror back together […] As writers, we have the luxury of distance. We can step back from a situation, try to untangle the web of cause and effect that surrounds it, and retell it in a way that makes sense.
Not only that: I would add that we also introduce people to new ideas, voices and perspectives. It’s nowhere near as good as being there, but stories are a small beginning and that counts for something.
Oh, and plenty has changed in the past ten years.
Me, for starters.
Bikes x Borders
Since 2018, I’ve been part of Thighs of Steel, a community of cyclists who gather together every summer to ride an incredibly long way and raise funds for grassroots activist and migrant-led projects that either advocate for change or offer dignified ways for people on the move to elevate themselves.
As much as possible, these are sustainable projects that return a little power, independence and autonomy to people who have often been stripped of all three.
These are projects like Khora, a community kitchen and legal advice centre in Athens, Hakoura, a refugee-run eco-farm in Greece, the Bikes For Refugees cycle space in Scotland, and Calais Migrant Solidarity, the No Borders activist centre I first made contact with way back in 2014.
Since 2016, Thighs of Steel have cycled from the UK to Athens five times and raised over £650,000 in cash to help keep community spaces like these open to all.
This year, we’re riding again. Another 5,400km from Glasgow to Athens.
449 donors have aready helped our cyclists raise over £13,000 via our partner charity Mass Action.
Cycling my share of the 5,400km and raising the £500 I’ve committed as part of our £80,000 target — both strike me as totally impossible improbable from where I am now.
But if there’s one thing that being a part of Thighs of Steel has shown me over the years it’s that all this is possible — when we act together.
In fact, with our collective momentum, it’s not only possible, it’s highly likely.
And what’s true of cycling from Glasgow to Athens, what’s true of raising £500 or even £80,000 for solidarity projects, is also true of our ultimate goal: free movement and no borders for all, not only for the privileged few.
Right. Brace yourselves. Today I’m going to take two happily and clearly defined terms from two very different fields of study — literary theory and couples therapy — and invalidate both by applying them to a tangential third: your life.
1. Negative Capability
The poet John Keats coined and defined the term ‘negative capability’ in a private letter to his brothers:
when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason
Keats presents this as a good thing, his poetic model being none other than William P. Shakespeare, who erases himself as an authorial voice in the text and instead lets his characters roam free range over the whole of human thought, belief and action, without ever tapping the audience on the shoulder.
This suspension of the judging, grasping author is a lovely concept to define and negative capability has burrowed its way into the everyday language of psychotherapy and mindfulness.
For the mindfulness buffalo, negative capability is a fourth possible response to any stressful situation: we can fight, flight, freeze — or we can sit with the uncertainty.
For the psychotherapy bison, starting with the work of Wilfrid Bion (as previously in these pages), negative capability represents an openness to being rather than knowing.
In all three use cases — aesthetics, mindfulness and psychotherapy — negative capability is a virtue to be sought after.
But what about when, in spite of all our poetry readings, deep breaths and counselling sessions, uncertainty simply won’t stop feeling uncomfortable?
What happens when good negative capability goes bad?
2. Stable Ambiguity
Originally coined (it seems) by couples therapist Terry Real, Esther Perel defines stable ambiguity in the context of romantic relationships where people feel ‘too afraid to be alone, but unwilling to fully engage in intimacy building’.
This results in relationships with unclear status, blurred lines and prolonged break-ups, as one or more people are held in a ‘holding pattern’.
As Perel writes:
We want to have our cake and eat it too. We want to have someone available to cozy-up with when it’s snowing, but if something better comes along, we want the freedom to explore.
In this relationship culture, expectations and trust are in constant question. The state of stable ambiguity inevitably creates an atmosphere where at least one person feels lingering uncertainty, and neither person feels truly appreciated or nurtured.
Perel is clear: stable ambiguity is baaad.
But hang on. Don’t people who feel like they’re being kept in a ‘holding pattern’ just need to up their negative capability game?
Speaking like this, theoretically, on the page, the answer to that question might seem obvious — but what about when you’re actually in the moment, living this experience?
How can we tell when a situation is one that calls for negative capability and when it’s a stalemate of stable ambiguity?
Even more tricky: how can we tell when a situation flips (or more likely slides) from one to the other?
Even more more tricky: what if we take these questions out of the messy world of romance and into the even messier world of The World?
It’s one thing figuring out when your lover is ghosting, icing or simmering you, but it’s quite another to pick the bones out of the zillions of other relationships we ride throughout our lives.
And uncertainty pops up everywhere: office politics and geopolitics, macroeconomics and home finances, every time we catch the bus, every time we hit the road, the state of our house plants, the state of our biosphere.
How can we tell when we need to breathe through our pettifogging whinny-worries and when we need to bloody well do something because, quite frankly, we’re getting mugged off real nasty?
Maybe you’ve got the answer. The best I can do right now is make some lists.
Feelings That Might Indicate Stable Ambiguity
I want control
I want my freedom, choice and to keep my options open
A friend once blew my mind with his story about a friend from the States who’d spent twenty-plus years picking up lost playing cards — you know, the ones you see littering the streets? Keep an eye out, you’ll see ‘em — until he completed a whole deck.
Fifty-two unique cards, plus jokers. If that doesn’t blow your mind, then start looking.
Last summer, another friend and I were on a bike ride — actually, the last 125km of Thighs of Steel — and we spotted a blue baseball cap on the side of the road.
I didn’t think anything of it: one of the day’s less interesting roadside flotsam compared to the drifts of cotton fruit and the odd tortoise.
But my friend pulled sharp to a stop, picked the battered cap up and brushed it down.
‘I love these weird old caps,’ he said, showing off his find. ‘Look at that — !’
I looked. The word ‘Castrol’ was stitched into the forehead.
For the rest of the ride, the game was cap-spotting. We found no fewer than six caps that day.
Fast forward to a couple of weekends ago, instructing in the Chiltern Hills. One of those deceptive spring days where the sunrays were stronger than the ambient temperature.
I was surprised to get home and feel the heat still radiating off my scalp.
‘I need a cap,’ I said to myself, without really knowing what I was letting myself in for.
Since then, I’ve been on the look out, hoping to join the secret society of lost hats. So far, I’ve only come up with a luscious woven beach hat and a child’s baseball cap.
Anyway. If you know a kid called Aamilah, let her know that it’s tied up on the handrail leading down to the Durley Chine Harvester. Cheers.
But it’s one thing to learn my lessons, it’s another thing entirely to be able to intervene decisively, in the shadow of the darkest fog, to give myself the best chance of rising strong.
For that, we’ll need more powerful medicine…
Do you know exactly how you were feeling a year ago today?
At 2pm on 12 May 2022, I was feeling a ‘not bad’ bog standard 3 out of 5. For context, here’s what I noted down at the time:
Working on the newsletter. Tired the last couple of days. Rising stress with Thighs?
You see, most days, I log how I’m feeling using a nifty little app that my dad made for me during the first Covid lockdown.
It’s dead simple: at a random time in the day, a box pops up on my computer and asks me how I’m feeling on a scale of 1 to 5. I can then add a few notes for context.
I’ve logged 644 days since September 2020 — almost exactly two thirds of available days — so there’s a good bunch of data in there now.
From all this delicious data, I can tell you that my average wellbeing score is 3.24.
I’d say that was a bit better than not bad, edging, in that very English way, towards pretty good.
I can also tell you that, contrary to the unfounded assertion of TS Eliot, April is not the cruellest month, but my happiest — and by some distance too.
Over the past three years, April scores an average of 3.63. The next happiest months are May and November, both scoring 3.33.
On the shoulder of summer, I think April takes me by delight with its leafy freshness, frisky birdsong and moony evenings.
While the April thing was unexpected, entirely predictable is my score from June last year, the nadir of my brain foggy symptoms.
June 2022 ~ May 2023
From 20 logged days, June 2022 scored a shocking 2.65 — a full 1.08 points lower than April of the same year.
Looking back over my text comments, it’s easy to see that I really wasn’t feeling great for a full fortnight in the second half of the month:
Woozy. Skin tender. Heady. Took painkillers. Hot. It is hot though.
Tired and heady and throaty. Sunny, hot. I felt better on Monday when it was cooler…
Just absolutely zapped. Another nap today. I thought this morning I was feeling a bit more energetic. Throat and nose better. But a headache (wine?!)
Just bumping along at the bottom. A bit heady. A bit sinusy. A bit tiredy. 2 weeks now…
What’s worrying is that these comments could have been written at any point this week. Here are my notes from the past two days:
Really tired today. Yesterday irritable. Today just whacked. Hot and headachey. Exhausted. Went for a run this morning and a meditate. Urgh.
Headache. Tired. Just classic brain foggy symptoms like last year. Stress? So what’s the solution, if any? I’m struggling to write, struggling to see the positive.
Just to be clear: I’m not worried that I don’t feel 5 out of 5 every single day — I’m human, after all.
No: I’m worried because I really don’t want to repeat how I responded to my lowest feelings last year.
2022: The Rest Recipe
Last year, my approach was to cancel things — often social activities — in a desperate attempt to create a feeling of space.
I cancelled a weekend of outdoor instructing. I stayed at home when my friends went for a bike ride in the New Forest. I even cancelled a big part of my fortieth birthday party — and, worse, forced everyone to meet me in Basingstoke.
Now. This urge to cancel isn’t an obviously stupid idea. I was feeling physically and mentally drained; it’s not insane to think that I needed to rest.
Indeed, the internet is littered with countless stress-busting blog posts featuring variations on the rest recipe:
Cancel stuff to make space for yourself
Run a bath, ideally with bubbles
Light a candle
Put on some whale song
Read a book
The only problem with this approach, for me, is that it didn’t work — and often left me feeling worse.
So what might work for me?
In the words of the Michael J Fox movie that never was, it’s time to go…
Back To The Data!
Let’s flip over and look at what happened on the 23 days since 2020 when I have logged the top wellbeing score of 5.
What do these days have in common?
For starters, no fewer than a quarter of my best days have landed in Aprils, but besides that, I’ve identified three themes to my notes.
1. Active Time Outdoors
Sunny. Out all day, more or less. Saw G. Run, skate, walk.
18km walk. Sunny. Dartmoor. Slow morning reading. I was tired yesterday, but today’s walk and sun really energised me. Relaxing?! B came down in the evening.
Freezing cold toes, but loving the ride. In a community wood after burger and chips at Scotland’s best takeaway 2021 in Burntisland.
2. Seeing Friends And Family
Apart from getting soaked… Had a lovely morning with mum and dad, second breakfast at Chineside. Then cycled 50km with G and J!
So nice to be with thighs and eating amazing food! Super sunny too! H, G, E, J, J, A, F, I!
Tiredish, but happy to be here and with C. Faffed on the computer for ages, but then got a bit of focus on Monday Tasks.
3. Tired Contentment From The Feeling Of Having Been Well Used
I think this is my favourite commonality to my best days.
Tired, but content. Felt woozy a little earlier. One sneeze. Fluey!? DofE.
Tired, but great. Moon rising. Just got back from a great day’s walking in Dartmoor. Sunny, mostly. Gorgeous evening. Got back safe. Lovely, wind-chapped. Well used.
The thing that really jumps out at me from this analysis of my notes is that tiredness, discomfort, unproductivity and even flu symptoms don’t always mean I feel like shit.
Remember: these are days when I maxed out on happiness.
Physical and mental exhaustion can leave me feeling incredible.
2023: The Release Recipe
While I understand that the rest recipe is nice and can make space for pressure to dissipate, the evidence would suggest that, personally, I get much more out of the complete opposite:
Instead of cancelling, commit to ecstatic (and probably social) experiences to build pressure
Dance, sing, play
Trip, meditate, pray
Get sweaty, get sexy, get fresh air
Then — boom! — let all that pressure go in a cathartic release
A good example of this was last week, when I travelled up to London to go and see Yard Act, not once, but twice, two nights in a row.
On the face of it, this was self-destructive behaviour. I wasn’t feeling great when I left home on Thursday lunchtime and I lost half a day of work and two nights of good sleep.
But that doesn’t even begin to capture what I gained.
The euphoria of the catharsis, the release, stayed with me all day on Friday and Saturday and, even though I was tired, I got plenty of good work done.
From Rest To Release
Just to be clear: I’m not against bubble baths.
I think the rest recipe might work well for people who lose their sense of self in the stress of their lives — those who feel that they are always serving others, perhaps.
They’d be justified (perhaps) in wanting a little more me-time.
But my stress is different: it’s the stress of too much me-time and, specifically, too much me-indoors-time.
It is my I that feels the responsibility of organising a 5,400km bike trip for 104 people and it is my I that works and (most often) lives alone, indoors, in front of this computer screen.
So it makes sense that creating more space for my I to be alone wouldn’t work too well at relieving the pressure.
What I need is to lose my I, forget my I, subsume my I to the ecstasy of the sublime experience. To get out of my head.
Even last year, with stress building to what felt like breaking point, the moment the wheels started turning and we set off from Glasgow with that first group of wonderful cyclists, every drop of stress fell away, released into the air.
If it’s release rather than rest that I need, then there’s simply no point cancelling things to create a sense of space.
This year, I’m determined to do the opposite: commit to much more time losing control in order to create a sense of release.
If the way I felt after going to see Yard Act (twice) is any guide, then this approach is also going to be a lot more fun than a bath — with or without bubbles.
ps: After writing two thirds of this newsletter, on Thursday, I left my computer and cycled out into the sundown to meet friends on the beach for pizza.
✔️ Well Used
It’ll surprise none of you to hear that I felt much better.
Thanks to G (👋) for the pizza, B & M (👋) for the dance, and C (👋) for the original inspiration.
Repeated exposure to a statement has been shown to increase its acceptance as true.
The “illusory truth effect” is well documented, whereby people rate statements as more truthful, valid, and believable when they have encountered those statements previously than when they are new statements.
Even with preposterous stories and urban legends, those who have heard them multiple times are more likely to believe that they are true.
If an individual is already familiar with an argument or claim (has seen it before, for example), they process it less carefully, often failing to discriminate weak arguments from strong arguments.
This is a good example of what I think is a fairly healthy general principle for approaching scary news: zoom the fuck out, then zoom the fuck in.
Today’s story is the statement of the bleeding obvious.
Stuff is hard.
Anything worth doing is a struggle.
We know this.
To pick up on last week’s story (co-written, in a way, by Mohammed Salah): the struggle is the process, the only way to do anything worth doing.
The struggle is where the value is at. So why does the struggle have to feel like such a struggle?
Well, it doesn’t.
It’s A Mindset Thing
As I’ve written before, we have two mindsets and we jump between them like monkeys between the trees of a forest.
Our fixed mindset:
Skills aren’t learnt; they’re natural talents
You can’t teach an old dog new tricks
This should be easy; if it’s not easy, it’s impossible
Better to avoid completion than to risk exposing ourselves as frauds
Deal with problems and setbacks as we’d wish them to be
Results above all
Our growth mindset:
All skills are learned (some are just learned so young that we’ve forgotten how)
If anything, old dogs have an advantage, building new tricks on old foundations
Value patience, persistence, perspiration and process over defeatist ‘shoulds’ or impossible ‘can’ts’.
Better to admit our ignorance and learn by asking for help
Deal with problems and setbacks as they truly are
Process above all
It’s not that our brains are all either 100 percent fixed or growth, by the way — if you think that, then you’ve got a fixed mindset about mindsets.
You will access both mindsets at different times in your life, in different domains. Maybe you’re a creative in the kitchen, but a despot at your desktop.
That should be enough to show that you can choose between them.
Anything worth doing quite often shows up first as a fixed mindset struggle: an obnoxious obstacle to be effortlessly overcome by our natural genius.
In this case, only success can be a success.
But we can also frame it as a growth mindset struggle: a roll in the hay, a game to play.
In this case, taking part — stepping into the arena and grappling with what’s before us — that is the only success.
Our two mindsets make such a difference to our lived experience that switching between the two feels like switching between alternate realities.
Imagine travelling to Paris for the first time in your life with a fixed mindset:
You can’t learn a word of French because your language ability is fixed at zero. Alternatively, you feel you ought to be good at French because you got an A at GCSE, but you don’t risk crashtesting any actual conversation because you might get something wrong.
You’ve not got much to report when you get home, besides a desultory slideshow that might have well have been Xeroxed from your thinly used copy of Lonely Planet Paris.
An otherwise identical traveller with a growth mindset might as well be in another universe:
You don’t know a word of French, but that doesn’t stop you trying and failing repeatedly, slowly improving over the weekend, but never really getting beyond good-humoured willingness.
Some Parisians visibly wince when you say ‘Bon-jaw’, but others laugh kindly and help you translate the menu of the irresistibly crowded brasserie that you stumbled across on your late night ramble across town.
Your new friends show you a secret tunnel that leads down into the catacombs and, when you get home, everyone’s badgering you to tell that story again about your night dancing to a Brazilian funk band in the bunker underneath Saint Lazare station or the grisly tale of what you found in The Room Of Cats.
A Game We Never Want To End
Our fixed mindset is quite often based in a false world of apriori paradigms, often learnt by rote in childhood: a world of imagined shoulds and oughts.
Only if you think you can, will you. If you think you can’t, well, you won’t.
By contrast, our growth mindset is rooted in the real world of a posteriori experimentation: a world of constant trial and error.
Whether you think you can or you think you can’t yet, you will try and try again.
The difference between the two realities of the fixed and growth travellers is the difference between (our worst possible definition of) work and (our best possible definition of) play.
The best games make us curious, experimental, vulnerable and willing to learn.
They make us willing to play again, over and over, building on and testing our skills, enjoying the pleasure of the flow more than the endgame of victory or defeat.
The very best games we never want to end at all.
From inside a growth mindset, life itself feels like a game we never want to end.
The Only Winning Move Is Not To Play?
And now: a warning against pointlessness.
It’s an astonishing fact that almost every time we do anything, we probably could have got away with doing nothing at all.
In some cases, we would have been better off doing nothing at all.
Sometimes, when I publish this newsletter, I end up with fewer subscribers than I had before I sent it.
Was it worth my while putting hours of work into writing the damn thing?
Kottke quotes from a remarkable-sounding book called Disclosing New Worlds: Entrepreneurship, Democratic Action, and the Cultivation of Solidarity by Charles Spinosa, Fernando Flores and Hubert Dreyfus:
Business owners do not normally work for money either. They work for the enjoyment of their competitive skill, in the context of a life where competing skilfully makes sense. The money they earn supports this way of life. […]
Saying that the point of business is to produce profit is like saying that the whole point of playing basketball is to make as many baskets as possible. One could make many more baskets by having no opponent.
What this means is that the value of almost everything we do comes down which mindset we apply: are we focussed on fixed results or growth process?
So the motivation of my writing this story cannot be found in what value it might hypothetically bring for an unknown number of readers, sometime in the future.
That would be a fixed mindset idea of value.
The motivation — and immediate value — is found in what the process of writing does for me, at this very moment.
That sets the growth mindset in play. The pressure’s off. I can enjoy myself, experiment and be curious about what I learn next.
I don’t need you to love every word, but, all the same, I hope you found something to take away with you today.
or one of the 99 percent of the population whose lives are in some way affected by results, through the miserable or euphoric emotional scars they leave on the 48 percent.
For years, I’ve shied away from writing this piece because I thought it would be numbingly boring to people who aren’t sports fans.
But I’ve come to realise that, in the non-words of semi-mythical Liverpool FC ur-manager Bill Shankly: ‘It’s more important than that.’
Both sides of the 48 percent divide got in touch with me about the match on Wednesday — one half to help manage the behaviour of fans who put football before family and the other half to help manage the pit of despair that an adverse result had thrown them into.
As my Arsenal-supporting co-thinker (👋) put it:
[I] definitely need to take a leaf out of the David Charles book of How to Be a Zen Football Supporter
So here we are.
I think today’s story has something for anyone who has ever found themselves emotionally over-invested in the lives of strangers — or for those seeking to understand and support those of us who do find ourselves getting into mental muddles over events completely out of our control.
What Bill Shankly Actually Said
Bill Shankly was the charismatic manager and coach of Liverpool Football Club between 1959 and 1974.
Shankly was the man who ‘created the idea of Liverpool’ by binding players and supporters together in a socialist pact where everyone works for each other and everyone shares in the rewards.
Under Shankly, Liverpool fans adopted their pop-song anthem You’ll Never Walk Alone and invented the concept of crowd participation through song, something fans all over the world do today.
In the 60s, 70s and 80s, this unity between players, club and fans turned Liverpool FC into a titan of the sport: a position they still hold sixty years after Shankly arrived.
There’s an enduring myth that Bill Shankly once declared that football is more important than life and death.
He never said that.
Shankly said only that the game had been more important than life and death to him — and, speaking months before his death, he confessed that he regretted his decision to put football above the suffering of his own family.
And, the thing is, Bill Shankly’s results as Liverpool manager weren’t even that good.
Don’t get me wrong: he was successful, but his Liverpool sides didn’t dominate in the manner of later Liverpool managers in the 1970-80s, Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United in the 1990-2000s or Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City today.
Yet there is no one more important at the club, even today.
I tell Shankly’s story to help put two things together:
Putting football over family is always a bad decision — not only for fans, but also for those managers and players who couldn’t be more integral to the game.
Results, especially trophies, are only a small part of how even the greatest are remembered.
So how did Shankly end up in a position where football, for him, was more important than life and death?
And how did the rest of us get to a place where we’re nodding along with the mythologised version of Shankly’s Regret:
Some people say that football is a matter of life and death. I say they’re wrong. It’s more important than that.
Sublimated Passions, Escapist Self-Regulation
Sport, especially, in the UK, football, is often seen as a ‘safe’ social container for the sublimation of passions whose expression is otherwise unacceptable.
The story goes that sports give supporters the cathartic opportunity to express tribal aggression, screaming joy and tearful heartbreak in public, and — taboo of British taboos — share those emotions with strangers.
We could say that watching a football match is an intense ninety minute practice of emotional self-regulation.
Our team scores a goal. Can we enjoy the moment, the dopamine, the pleasure, the release, the aesthetic experience, without becoming dependent on more?
But hold on — the video assistant referee is checking the goal for a very tight offside. Can we ride our anxiety into excitement or will we let it take over and become a jibbering mess?
After a five minute wait, our team’s goal is disallowed. Can we absorb the blow without being floored, can we recognise that the call was tight and that the aesthetics of the non-goal still stand as a moment to enjoy nonetheless?
Our team concedes a goal, despite what we thought was a blatent foul in the build-up. What will we do with all this anger, the burning sense of injustice, that’s suddenly arrived?
Despite all their efforts and energy, our team loses the match. The referee blows their whistle and we’re hit by a taunting, humiliating, triumphant roar from the opposing team’s fans. Can we nevertheless say ‘thanks for a good game, well played’, comfortable in the knowledge that, although this may be disappointing for the players, this isn’t an important life event for us, only practice for those times when, despite all our efforts and energy, things, perhaps genuinely important things, don’t go our way?
Most of the time, unfortunately, supporters (including myself) don’t look at it like this.
We don’t realise that our over-investment in sports is the perfect training ground for our real life emotional triggers and subsequent behaviour.
A Word On Catharsis
I believe that sports offer one significant advantage over other art forms when it comes to the psychological benefits of catharsis, the emotional release that comes with the satisfying release of emotion.
You see, generally speaking, the storytelling arts — novels, film and theatre — do the catharsis for you.
When you go and watch a play, you’re taken on an Aristotelian journey of conflict and resolution and, assuming the author has done their job well, even when the story is tragic you leave the theatre feeling in some way torn to pieces and made whole again.
This is where sports have the edge. They’re not a pre-designed cathartic story. There is no author.
They’re actually more like a slot machine or Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates: you never know what you’re gonna get.
The conflict is there, but there’s no guarantee of a satisfying resolution — exactly like life. It’s the perfect training ground.
But, far from helping us self-regulate outside the game, our failure to recognise the spiritual practice of spectator sports can mean that, when results don’t go our way, we try to soothe ourselves with yet more ineffective escapist forms of emotional self-regulation: binge drinking, comfort eating, black moods and (let’s not forget) domestic violence, which peaks around football matches.
None of these tactics work, of course, because we are seeking control over something beyond our control. We are addicted to the slot machine.
If anything, approaching sport in this typical and fanatical way is actually damaging to our ability to self-regulate our emotions in real life.
After a bad defeat, only the footballers get the chance to put it right. Spectators don’t.
We either practice Zen Fandom or we lash out.
So where next?
The Dead End Of Giving Up
It’s worth saying that giving up is an option.
It must be liberating to drop that emotional load: to realise the truth that none of this sports circus ever mattered and none of it ever will.
How we use our precious time on earth is a hideous exercise in choosing to not do an infinite number of other wonderful, worthwhile things.
The hours I pump into being the spectator of football matches is necessarily time not spent in realms of connection where I am an active participant and can influence the outcome one way or another.
We must choose between spectating the living experience of celebrity strangers, or participating in the living experience of our own close community.
We can’t have both. 🤷
The temptation to quit altogether is strong. But also, I believe, a bit of a psychological dead end.
Firstly, the idea of giving up spectator sports ignores the fact that football is deeply embedded in UK culture and is extremely hard to disconnect from, especially for those of us with a lifetime of fandom behind us.
Secondly, quitting the sport would be a missed opportunity for growth, especially when a lot of the emotional investment is wrapped up in teenage shame, humiliation and dominance.
Fanatical Teenager Energy
When Liverpool win, I am transported (in a symbolic kind of a way) back to school.
I can hold my head up high, look my classmates in the eye and maybe dish out a few crowing remarks to that weekend’s losers as I swagger into the classroom.
In the real world, of course, there is no school and there is no classroom and there are no classmates.
Being a Liverpool fan as an adult has no bearing on my social status whatsoever.
Worse, actually: my chosen designation as a Liverpool fan, despite the hours I put into the role, is functionally meaningless.
There is no higher power here. There is no grand, unifying purpose — of either sport or club — to which I can align myself in daily life.
Liverpool is one of the most ideologically motivated clubs in the world, yet I struggle to see how I can apply the holy commandment ‘pass and move, it’s the Liverpool groove’ to either my writing or my relationships with family and friends.
It really is only a game.
But a part of us stubbornly remains that fanatical teenager — and that’s not a bad thing in itself, if we strive to direct that energy usefully.
And this is where I turn for inspiration to the players.
This is typical of what the actual participants in a sport will do: break the game down into components small enough that they can hope to inflence their outcome through the skillful execution of their process.
Winning a league title is an outcome way beyond the ability of any one team, let alone player or manager, to control. A league title is one possible consequence of winning many games in a season.
Hence the cliché ‘take every game as it comes’.
But even the outcome of a single game depends on far too many interrelated complexities for any team, player or manager to control.
Instead, players focus on the tiny things that they can control: their training and preparation and the minute-by-minute execution of tactics and skills.
Nevertheless, winning a single game is only one possible consequence of even perfect execution of the game plan.
That’s why, in defeat as much as in victory, the participants of a game will obsess, not over the result, but over what really matters: process, process, process.
In other words: the opposite of what we as fans do.
We are the ones with the least control over the outcome and we are the only ones who allow ourselves to wallow deep in the disappointment of our team’s defeats and joyride the crest of euphoria long after victory.
That’s the paradox of fandom.
What Would Salah Do?
If a footballer gets too wound up after a heavy defeat, it will have a huge detrimental effect on their performance in the next match and, consequently, everything that they are working towards.
That’s why they train not only their body, but also their mind: so that they can deliver excellence on the pitch no matter what state the game is in.
Imagine — if we spectators could adopt pretty much any modern footballer’s approach to the game, then we might actually enjoy watching!
One of Liverpool’s greatest players, not just of the current team but of all time, is an Egyptian called Mohammed Salah.
Not only is Salah a practising Muslim who marks every goal with the sujud prayer, he’s also been known to celebrate on the pitch by doing a bit of yoga.
Imagine, in the explosion of joy that erupts around you, with your teammates, coaching staff and 50,000 supporters going crazy in your ears, taking a moment to be here:
This celebration, one of several that Salah chose to dedicate to his meditation and yoga practice, came after he scored in the 5-0 win over Huddersfield in April 2019.
The result took Liverpool back to the top of the league table in a season where they would obliterate the all-time record for the most number of points recorded by a team finishing… second.
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it
Salah is sending a message to any supporter who will listen: calm the fuck down.
In varying degrees, scoring that goal, winning that game and, certainly, winning that 2019 league title were all out of Mohammad Salah’s control. And he was the one on the pitch kicking balls.
This is nothing more than another moment in our lives, Salah was saying.
Soon enough, it will all be over, so let’s breathe, shall we, and leave space to relish what we have, here, now.
The Spiritual Practice Of Spectating
Now, look: this wouldn’t be a practice if it was easy.
If becoming and remaining a world class striker isn’t easy for Mohammed Salah, why should becoming and remaining a world class spectator be any easier?
The emotions around being a football spectator are real and can be gut-wrenching. But we already know, if we’re frank with ourselves, that we grow fastest through adversity.
The harder our emotions are to process, the harder the struggle — and the better we can become as humans. That’s how spectating can become a spiritual practice.
In theory at least, the sports fan should be the best-trained person in the room to manage the hot emotions of anger and injustice of a brewing conflict, or the bitter disappointment and shame of getting fired, or even the temptation to add insult to injury when we triumph over our foes.
We’ve been there so many times before watching our team play, we should be pass masters at this.
But we’re not.
Becoming The Intro-spectator 😂
To turn this around, we need to flip the focus: we need to morph from passive spectator to active intro-spectator.
We should be not so much interested in the consequences of a heavy defeat for the business of The Liverpool Football Club And Athletic Grounds Limited with whom we have zero investment besides this inexplicable and inconsequential emotional attachment, so much as with the consequences of that heavy defeat for our own spiritual growth and emotional stability.
This isn’t about them any more, this is about us.
Any football score, good or bad, is our cue to, yes, feel our emotions, but not allow them complete mastery over us.
In that way, like Mohammad Salah, we better learn how to ride the vicissitudes of life.
If Shankly’s message is a warning about the spiritual danger of becoming over-invested in sport, then Salah’s is a gentle reminder of what we have to gain.
Salah works hard to train his mind for performance on the pitch; his performance on the pitch gives us the opportunity to work hard to train our minds for performance in the world.
Intro-spectating is zero-stakes training for healthy emotional self-regulation in the truly high-stakes moments in our own lives.
Every game we’re drilled on our responses to pleasure, anxiety, excitement, anticipation, goodwill, dread, generosity, anger, graciousness, injustice, gratitude, humiliation and magnanimity.
So let’s practice them.
Special thanks this week to DRL (👋) and CW (👋) for the conversations and provocations that led to this ridiculously long piece.
This action is encouraging and it’s good to remember that oodles of Dartmoor remains open to backpack camping, a sign that landowners too stand by our right to the night sky:
Camping is free in these areas by permission, rather than by right, with landowners receiving an annual fee of £300 in return (although some have indicated that they will donate the fee towards conservation).
You’ll see from the map that camping isn’t generally allowed off the main roads onto Dartmoor.
This is, I guess, to discourage ‘fly camping’: people piling out of cars, spilling onto the moor with paper cups and beer kegs.
But I’m afraid that it only serves to discourage (as I wrote in 2021) people ‘not like us’.
The outcome […] is that campers who are not white, wealthy and middle class enough will be discouraged from communing with one of our last expanses of wilderness.
We need education not litigation. We need more access, not more control.
Learning is what humans do best: we are (in the words of anthropologist Clifford Geertz) unfinished animals. Meanwhile, access to nature gives us somewhere to practice being what we are.
With education and access, our human footprint is lightened and distributed and generations will rise up, ready to take their place in nature, as one of nature.
Even with my experience and resources, I’m far from being an expert in the ways of the moor.
I still haven’t found the perfect campsite: the open moor is exposed to wind that bends the laws of meteorology, wraps itself around my ears, rattling the brain and shuddering me from sleep.
And, yes — this is a call out for recommendations!
I’ve been back home for less than a day and I’m already yearning to return for another night on the moor.
For, even in the long sleepless delirium, there is a moment, perhaps two a.m., when you brave the elements for a wild pee, look up at the fast clearing sky and see, returning your awed look, Gemini’s twins, Castor and Pollux.
A quiet strong voice rose beside me in the darkness:
While we’re stargazing, the stars are people-gazing.
Special thanks this week to the breath of Dartmoor and my companion beneath the stars.
Anna (👋) says ‘Good morning’ to people on her morning runs and reports a better than fifty percent return rate. Paul (👋) shared the ‘two finger smile’ of Ajahn Brahm — a thoroughly silly morning habit that helps transcend the gap between consciousnesses.
This week, we’re going to get serious. With science and everything.
This is not my assertion, but the findings of psychologists Gillian Sandstrom and Erica Boothby from their mini meta-analysis of seven studies that looked at our (annoyingly interrelated) stranger-danger fears:
We fear that we won’t enjoy the conversation, that we’ll find it awkward or pointless
…that our conversational partner won’t enjoy the conversation
…that either ourselves or our partner lack good conversational skills
…that we won’t like our partner
..that our partner won’t like us, will find us boring or straight-up reject us
The good news is that Sandstrom and Boothby found that we’re most anxious about our partner enjoying the conversation and not finding us boring.
We’re not so worried about our partner turning out to be as enthralling as a table lamp.
More proof that, yay, we’re self-obsessed humans!
What else are we?
Sandstrom and Boothby also looked at personality differences between those of us more or less fearful of opening a conversation with a stranger.
There are a few relevant divergences in type (openness, extraversion, self-esteem, conscientiousness), but the one that really jumped out at me was on a measure called SOCIAL CURIOSITY.
(Dunno why I put that in all-caps. Seemed fun at the time.)
There are actually two types of social curiosity: overt (asking people questions = good) and covert (gossiping, snooping or spying on people = bad).
Sandstrom and Boothby found that the more socially curious you are, the less worried you will be about speaking to strangers. Surprise!
Unfounded opinion incoming…
I think overt social curiosity is important because it throws the attention away from oneself (Oh god, am I boring? I’m boring you, aren’t I? Boring boring boring beard bus boring) and shines it back on the world-at-large and, in this case, the other person.
This is exciting news. We might be able to dampen our social fears through the disarming curiosity natural to two people meeting for the first time.
What stands out about this person before you? If nothing stands out, then — even more curious — what are they hiding?
I’m not suggesting that you turn every conversation into a social interrogation, but, fuck it, suppose that you do: few would describe even the most casual chat with MI5 or the FBI as ‘boring’.
If overt social curiosity might get us over the hump of opening a conversations, what happens next? Well, according to Sandstrom and Boothby:
Conversations with strangers not only go better than expected, but generally go quite well.
Aw. That’s cute.
Even better, Sandstrom and Boothby offer a few practical suggestions on how to get past our (false) expectations around connecting with strangers.
1. Go back to conversation school
Getting a few tips on how to have good conversations with strangers increased people’s beliefs that both the stranger and themselves would enjoy the conversation.
I don’t know what tips appeared in the studies that Sandstrom and Boothby analysed, but here are a few I’ve picked up over the years:
Deliver a sincere compliment: ‘Cool shoes!’, ‘Delicious cakes!’, ‘Mad skillz!’
Add a question to your compliment: ‘Where did you get them?’, ‘What’s the recipe?’, ‘Can you teach me?’
Comment on your shared context (bonus points for positivity, gratitude and avoiding the weather): ‘This is the best playground’, ‘The quinoa salad is superb’, ‘Tuuuuuuuuuune!’
Ask a question (non-invasive): ‘That book any good?’, ‘Ooh, is that the quinoa salad?’, ‘Mind if I take this seat?’
Address the elephant in the room: ‘Sorry I’m so sweaty — that hill is a bitch’, ‘It’s crazy busy in here — come and join our table’, ‘You’re in a good mood today!’
Such anxiety-reducing tips probably make a conversation more likely to happen, but they didn’t improve the actual experience for study participants — because such conversations with strangers tend to go well anyway!
2. Notice the good stuff
Taking the time to reflect on a positive conversation with a stranger, not surprisingly, reduced anxiety about future conversations with strangers.
The more positive experiences we have — and the more vividly we acknowledge that they have indeed happened — the better we’ll feel about seeking out more.
What you don’t want to do is have a shitty conversational experience. That’s a bad thing and, Sandstrom and Boothby found, will likely set you back significantly, especially if you have a tendency to ruminate on upsetting situations. (Like I do.)
Obviously, a shitty experience is not always in your control. What is under your control is putting in the reps.
Have faith in the science that tells us that, not only are we exaggerating our own fears, but that, on balance, positive experiences will vastly outweigh the negative.
Easy said than done, I know. But this is us.
3. Permission granted!
Sandstrom and Boothby also stumbled over a tantalising possibility for a cheap intervention that could lead to more conversations between strangers: simply give yourself permission to talk.
You know this already: there are scenarios where not speaking to strangers is abominably rude.
At a mutual friend’s birthday party, for example, we all have implied permission to conversate with complete unknowns and generally, given enough booze/vol-au-vents/dancing, that is exactly what we do.
But what if we granted each other permission to speak in almost any situation we might share with a stranger?
I’m not saying that a ride on the Underground is exactly the same as attending your friend’s birthday party. But I’m not saying it isn’t a bit the same.
This is all well and good, but what I’ve come to realise is that, while connecting with strangers is (usually) a beautiful thing, what perhaps we need most is the courage to connect with the people we already know best: our friends.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but I’m certainly not the only one who has: we seem, as a species, to be becoming less tolerant to anything that impinges on our own control of our time.
And that includes connecting with the greatest people in our lives.
Why aren’t I constantly hanging out with my best friends?
Oliver Burkeman, in his zeitgeist-busting must-read Four Thousand Weeks, nails it with characteristic precision:
We might be […] guilty of […] treating our time as something to hoard, when it’s better approached as something to share.
Burkeman argues that our Twenties’ desire to excercise tyrannical control over our time on earth leads directly to ‘the loneliness of the digital nomad’.
The more flexibility we have over our schedules and our living and working lives, the less likely we are to randomly hang out with the same people over and over again, including our very best friends, whose suzerainty over their own schedules leads them to make totally different, autocratic decisions for their living and working lives.
Somehow we never quite align and the less we align, the more fear we have about ceding time-control to others, and the more fear we have, the less we align.
Have you noticed this too?
Many years ago, in a move that I thought would finally grant me total power over my own existence, I chose the path of the keyboard-wrangling freelancer.
Whether it was co-writing a sitcom or interviewing a Nicaraguan agriculturalist on Zoom, I became, on the face of it, independent.
But independence doesn’t mean only independence from the annoying things about working with others — early mornings, deadlines, interruptions, printer jams — it means independence from everything about working with others.
I became independent from the messy business of ‘other people’. You know the ones: the ones you can never fully bring under your control; the ones that, in the final analysis, bring you all the joy.
I may have reduced my dependence on others, I may have reduced interruptions, but I could never eradicate them. Interruptions, as Burkeman irritatingly points out, are inevitable.
In fact, the closest thing to a guarantee in this life is that you will, just as you think you’re really getting somewhere, be interrupted.
And of course, one day, you’ll be interrupted — from an idle daydream, a conversation about something important, or maybe just from the washing up — for the final time.
So, I agree: we need to cede control. Not only control, but our delusions of control.
Especially when those delusions only stop us from relishing, nay, encouraging interruptions of joy.
Stakes is high low
Our anxiety towards strangers is small fry compared to our worry-worry about interrupting — a synonym for ‘spending time with’ — our greatest friends.
That anxiety comes from a false belief that the stakes are high, that we risk irritating our friend and being ourselves rejected:
We don’t answer the phone to a friend because we fear that, by doing so, we are somehow committing to an hour-long phone call that might take over our day.
Nor do we phone our friends, not only because we ourselves fear long conversations, but also because we fear we’ll be interrupting them from something more important.
We don’t drop round a friend’s house because that’s not what’s done these days. What if they’re out? What if they’re busy? We have phones, we could phone them, but instead we send a text and the moment goes unanswered.
If we do phone them, they don’t answer because See Above and See Above.
In all cases, reaching out makes us vulnerable to rejection and, frankly, we’re not sure we can handle that.
What we need to do right now is to lower the stakes massively and show that we risk nothing by reaching out to connect.
We do that, not by interrupting our friends less, but by interrupting them more — much more.
As Sandstrom and Boothby showed, only repeated positive experiences can reduce our anxiety over future interactions. And this finding was true of strangers: imagine how powerful the effect with our best friends.
So, let’s give our friendships a new tendency.
Everything good in life is an interruption from something else. It’s just what you choose in the moment.
Expect, and welcome — even demand — friendly interruptions. Many of us are buried deep by habit in lifeless, controlling communication strategies: you will probably need to order your friends to interrupt you. Give them permission.
These are your friends: if you’re in the middle of something you can’t pause, tell them so. In a nice way. You are not rejecting them because you’ll interrupt them back later. Or, even better, if you’re struggling with something, tell them so. They love you, so why not rope them into helping?
If you interrupt a friend and they say ‘not now’, this is NOT rejection. Chances are, they’re doing something else, possibly with other people. It’s still NOT rejection.
If we’re honest, it’s this fear of rejection that often stops us from connecting in the first place. Respond with more reps. Invite people to connect more often, not less, and the sensitivity to rejection will lessen.
Don’t write off all your friends because one turned you down on this occasion. Try another. If you run out of friends, say hello to a stranger (see last week).
Favour ringing their doorbell over ringing their phone.
Don’t use text, voice or video messages for anything that could be a live rendezvous or a phone or video call. Text, voice and video messages are not and will never be the main story: they’re explanatory footnotes, appendices or DVD extras. They only work as an adjunct to the existing foundation of person-to-person synchronous communication.
Show your friends that it’s okay to have a two minute phone call. It’s okay to stop by their house merely to exchange pleasantries on the weather. Stakes is low.
If you live apart from your friends, interrupt them remotely.
If you can’t find friends near or far, interrupt a stranger. It’ll go better than you think.
Whatever you do, interrupt. Loudly, proudly, interrupt, gloriously.
Thanks to DRL (👋) for sharing the Sandstrom and Boothby paper with me. Thanks to GC (👋) and LH (👋) for the friendship interruptions chat (and lunch). Thanks to Oliver Burkeman and CW (👋) for bringing it all together.
I get so much from conversations with friends-who-happen-to-be-readers and I hearwith grant you full permissions (without expiry) to comment or email me back with your own experiences or anything at all that pertains to this or any past and indeed future story (or potential future story if you want to start giving me ideas).
As close readers among you will know, I’ve spent much of the last week in France, visiting friends (👋) in Paris and Chamonix.
If you’ve never been, Chamonix is a terrifying place where people don practical clothing and highly impractical footwear and then throw themselves off actual mountains in a variety of increasingly outlandish ways — strapped to two metal prongs or a single fibreglass plank, dangling off a rope, sometimes deliberately not dangling off a rope, tied with string to an enormous silk bedsheet or, for the truly deranged, wearing nothing more than a big coat with flappy bits, before launching themselves into the sky.
Suffice to say, I did not do any of that. To be honest, even the cable car was a bit much, at least on the way up.
On Monday, however, we took a genteel train (firmly on rails, I noted) from Chamonix up to Montenvers, where the tail of the Mer de Glace shyly uncurls from behind a mountain, spitting out skiers and snowboarders in a gruntling manner that even I confess looks rather fun from a distance.
We ate sandwiches in the sunshine and then hiked back down to town through the snow.
But that’s not what this story is about at all. This story is about being overtaken by excitement in the company of strangers.
Nose pressed against the window of the train, moving slowly enough to catch the eye of passing pedestrians, passengers in crossing trains or midday quaffers at cafés, I started doing this thing that I’d forgotten I do — waving ecstatically, grinning like a loon and throwing out rapturous thumbs up and fist pumps.
Reactions were mixed.
It’s not standard behaviour for an adult, see. Not even for one wearing a bobble hat. Strangers don’t know quite what to do with the incoming data.
Shock and the moving train quite often left no time for any response, but my friend and I enjoyed watching those of relaxed and nimble mind move quickly from confusion, through panic and shyness, to why-the-fuck-not-wave-back?
A bolt of electricity passed between strangers and thus a moment was shared.
I learned this trick off a Polish bear-of-a-man called Marko who I met learning Arabic in Tunisia back in 2008. He was a charismatic fabulist with a thousand and one nights’ worth of tall stories and almost as many uses for the neat vodka in his everyday carry hip flask.
I was never quite sure how much of what he told me was true and how much of it didn’t matter that it wasn’t.
But I’ve never forgotten his audacity and penchant for giving strangers in the street a mighty white smile, thumbs up, high five or, indeed, shoulder bump.
It’s all about being deeply uncool, as confident-lunatic as you can be. And if it works in cooler-than-cool Chamonix, it works anywhere.
Even in London.
Flashback to 2013…
Way back in 2013, I was writing a book called You Are What You Don’t, about the art and science of positive constraints, imaginative twists on the unwritten rules of life.
I experimented with living without things like mobile phones and supermarkets, but also without abstract concepts like borders and walking. It was all about breaking my previously unexamined habits to learn what was really going on underneath (and whether, in truth, it’s more hygienic not to use toilet paper).
Then I decided to transgress that most London of social injunctions: There shalt be no smiling eye contact between strangers.
It all started halfway through reading the following convoluted sentence from the introduction to Mark Boyle’s second book, The Moneyless Manifesto:
While collectively taking off the lens called ‘How much can I get?’ and putting on another labelled […] ‘How many people can I make smile today?’ […] wouldn’t by itself cut the Gordian Knots of climate chaos, […] it would make for a crucial starting point.
Suitably inspired, I started logging smiles on my Nokia’s rudimentary spreadsheet function. I already kept track of all the money I spent, why not log smiles too?
‘I bet I can get a smile out of this’
The first sign that this was a project worth pursuing was on day one when I saw a man in his sixties help a woman with her heavy bag up the steps at Winchmore Hill station.
A few minutes later, I found myself walking behind the man towards my friend Beth’s house (👋). The path was too narrow to overtake comfortably, but he sensed me tripping on his heels, so he turned around and said something like, ‘You’re too fast for me nowadays.’
Normally, I would have just muttered a thanks and walked on, but this time I thought, ‘I bet I can get a smile out of this.’
So I slowed down to his pace and we chatted pleasantly, until we were both bowled out the way by a couple of kids hurtling down the path at us. We shared a smile and a laugh, and I added one to my spreadsheet.
What gets measured, gets motivated.
An oxytocin-fuelled haze of euphoria
I garnered a tidy eight smiles that first day and was pretty pleased with myself, fully expecting future days to hover around a similar mark or lower, considering I spend most of my life cloistered away in my lonely writer’s garret.
Little did I suspect that this innocent smile-gathering game would take total command of my life in an oxytocin-fuelled haze of euphoria.
The game lured me into doing pro-social smile-based deeds, like buying biscuits for an entire indie band I only vaguely knew (four smiles), and pressed me to turn rudimentary human interactions into fully-blown friendly encounters, including the somewhat risky manoeuvre of making my neighbour smile at the urinal.
There was no social opportunity too private to squeeze a smile from a stranger and I learnt that it’s even possible to smile down the telephone: the other person can always tell and, almost imperceptibly, the conversation lightens and brightens.
The Smiler’s Credo
By the end of the first week, I was regularly hitting twenty and thirty smiles a day and I’d developed a full-on smiler’s credo.
Remember, I told myself, even a single shared smile is infinitely and immeasurably precious. A moment spent smiling with another is a moment spent in the company of the divine.
Smiling, I decided, is defiance in the face of the hostility of the universe: it’s how we humans thumb our noses at the vanishing unlikelihood of fate that we should end up existing at all, never mind here and now, together in the same space-time.
If I knew that I could make a stranger smile as I passed them in the street, then surely I had an overwhelming responsibility to do so, without delay.
I’d catch people unawares as they walked from the station to work, sneaking smiles into their commutes. I’d change seats on the train once I’d smiled at all those around me: another carriage awaited my beneficence.
I knew nothing of these people’s lives, but I knew what a surprise smile from a stranger sometimes meant to me. On a dull day when the clouds cover our spirits, sometimes all it takes is an unexpected smile and the whole day can turn around.
‘I felt like the universe was falling into place for me’
One miserable evening, a wonderful friend (👋) was dumped by her now-verifiably-silly boyfriend.
My friend was devastated.
We sat together on my sofa as she cried on my increasingly soggy shoulder, but nothing would console her: neither sympathy nor indignation — not even chamomile tea.
But the next day, with hope in her eyes, she told me how she’d been on the tube, still desolate with her agony, when the man sitting across from her gave her a smile.
‘I felt like the universe was falling into place for me,’ she said, ‘That it was supporting me, right at the moment when I most needed it.’
Smiles are powerful, healing magic spells that we’ve all got, stacked up, waiting, ready to go, inside of us.
Infinitely renewable, sometimes they’re tapping on our teeth, bursting to get out, other times they’re lurking deep down somewhere next to our kidneys and it takes all our pushing to birth them into the world.
But please don’t let them fester from underuse — they’ll only grow mouldy down there and you might end up with some kind of infection.
It’s imperative we use them, throw them out with careless abandon, because none of us can ever know who will need our smile-of-the-moment most desperately.
You — little old you with the creaky knees and the occasional patch of eczema — you could be the nudge that makes the nigh-infinite universe fall into place.
A little jolt to the heart
One random Tuesday, I was smiling at people on the escalator, as they came up and I went down. Most stared dully back, or snapped their glance away like frightened marmots, but one woman smiled back and I felt an instant shot of pleasure.
I bounced off the end of the escalator, beaming: smiles beget smiles.
It wasn’t much, this little jolt to the heart, but it was something: I felt seen and acknowledged by another member of the human race and it felt very good.
These moments didn’t happen every time I won a smile, but they happened often enough and, without buying a ticket, you can never win.
If we fill our days with these moments, and recognise that by doing so we are also filling other people’s days with such micro jolts, then perhaps we can spread the revolutionary idea that life is, despite everything, at least occasionally worth living — not because everything is rosy and all our problems are solved, but because someone else, a stranger, is there with us, on our side.
It’s a Team Human thing.
How quickly can we change the culture of an entire city?
After a couple of weeks of smiling my head off, I decide to ramp things up. I start saying good morning to random people on the street.
The pleasure I feel, that jolt when another person responds in kind, intensifies.
Instead of turning inwards when the day starts badly, I turn outwards with a smile and a cheery, ‘Good morning!’
I become insufferable.
But I don’t care: it works. A greeting is even harder to dodge than a smile and my spreadsheet numbers jump up again. The positivity of connection electrifies and energises me for longer. I live for this shit now.
It doesn’t matter at all to me that the other people are strangers. In fact it seems to help: the smile or greeting is completely without precedent, free of social obligation, a completely unearned and unaccounted gesture of goodwill, no strings attached.
No strings, perhaps, but every smile puts out a slender filament, like the exploratory hyphal tip of an underground mycelial network.
A smile, you see, is contagious. A smile, even from a stranger, can override the control we have on our facial muscles: we simply can’t stop ourselves from smiling back.
So when someone makes me smile, I carry that smile along with me for a while, until it bursts out from me to someone else. And so it is that the levity of a smile travels from host to host through my neighbourhood to who-knows-where beyond.
A smile at a stranger communicates that you are not afraid, that you know they are friend not foe. It communicates to them that their community is around them and that their neighbourhood is relaxed, content and ready to support.
This sense makes me wonder about how quickly we could change the culture of an entire city.
Be more Egyptian
I’ve been lucky enough to spend a good chunk of time in a few different countries, with very different cultural norms when it comes to interacting with strangers.
Two stand out in my mind: Egypt and Andalucía, Spain.
In Egypt, it is considered rude not to personally greet everyone when you enter a room, whether you know them or not. Try that next time you go down The Red Lion.
Those Arabic greetings are also much more meaningful than their desultory English equivalents (‘Alright’, ‘Hi’, ‘Morning’).
The polite greeting in Egypt translates as ‘Peace be upon you’, which is lovely, but pales beside the standard morning greeting, which comes as a call-and-response:
‘Morning of Goodness!’ you say.
‘Morning of Light!’ I reply, or perhaps ‘Morning of Flowers!’
It’s really rather pretty, when you think about it.
In Andalucía, I found that it’s customary to greet people as you sit down next to them on the bus. Public transport becomes an everyday opportunity for a good natter, whether they’re a stranger, a neighbour or that bloke you’ve seen about town who wears the hats — you know the one.
I returned from both trips a more polite, more gregarious citizen and I wondered: why is London not like this?
Even in Cairo, a city two or three times the size of London and infinitely more polluted, chaotic and stressful, people still greet each other as they cram onto or dangle off the side of the microbuses that weave in and out of thick traffic.
In London we keep ourselves to ourselves, and even folks from Andalucía know to keep their traps shut on the Underground.
A culture, evidently, dictates certain actions to its citizens, so that they ‘fit in’. These actions become habits: walk fast, head down, elbows tucked.
Whenever the possibility for human interaction becomes a real and present danger, hide your eyes behind your phone or, in extremis, behind a copy of the free newspapers that the authorities hand out on the street for that exact purpose.
These habits engrain themselves into our character, whether we want them to or not. We become avatars of the keep-yourself-to-yourself culture, and in so doing we help pull outsiders into alignment.
Changing a culture means changing the habits of its citizens, which starts with changing their actions: hard to do against the pull of the tide.
Recommended Daily Allowance
After a few weeks of counting smiles, I can pin point exactly how many I need per day to feel good about myself: twenty.
Less than twenty and I can feel a little grouchy and listless at the end of the day.
I can handle more than twenty, but a lot more can feel overwhelming. And no wonder: according to reports of a study funded by Hewlett Packard, a good smile (the highest scoring was Robbie Williams’s) can be as stimulating as two thousand bars of chocolate or £16,000 in cash.
Even if these scientific studies stretch and break the limits of their validity, wouldn’t you still rather live in a world where the wildest extrapolations of the power of smiles hold true?
For a month in 2013, I was there, in that world.
And, whenever I remember to do this thing that I forget I do, I’m back: in the forgotten world behind the rain and the umbrellas and the washed-out faces, behind the make-up and the masks.
The only thing we need to access this world, anytime, is the secret password. No one can change the password because the password is the same the world over — a smile.
Thanks to RK (👋) for hosting me in Chamonix and for joining me in lunatic connection with strangers. Thanks to CW (👋) and the whole MMT team who inspired the germ of this story — and thanks to my 2013 self (👋) for writing most of it a decade ago!
David was doing a mad project where he took a monkish vow of silence, sat in a live-streamed cell and wrote short stories based on publicly-sourced prompts for 100 hours straight.
David took my prompt 95 hours into the project so he was understandably suffering from reality hallucinations, but I loved what he did with the title, transmuting it into a sci-fi parody about an interstellar civilisation that ‘went wild with the credit card’ on Finusian Champagne.
Another story about debt, with some sort of space bank on the tail of the Glaxon High Command:
“They’re repossessing everything. The bases, the ships… even Deckard. Apparently galactic law still regards him as a thing not a person.”
Goldeous Kline and the Borrowful Glaxons by Aelius Blythe is a treasure trove of profound insights and mind-bending ideas that challenge our understanding of reality and reveal the intertwined nature of science and spirituality.
If you say so.
It’s worth noting too that, where David Varela’s Goldeous Kline was a daring woman space badass, ChatGPT’s is a male scientist.
In fairness, Aelius Blythe’s novel does sound pretty cool:
Through the interwoven stories of Goldeous Kline, a human scientist, and the Borrowful Glaxons, Blythe draws upon the profound insights of quantum physics to explore the connections between science and spirituality, illuminating the subtle and intricate dance between matter, energy, and consciousness that lies at the heart of existence.
Well, actually, it sounds like exactly the sort of book that former complexity scientist and founder of The Psychedelic Society Stephen Reid would love to read.
In lieu of any source material, ChatGPT will fulfil fantasies.
A lot of pixels have been spilt over the threat and promise of AI — and you’ll be glad to hear that I’m not interested in stuffing your brain with any more of that speculation.
But what David Varela and ChatGPT have reminded me is that every moment is a prompt and that we can choose to write and rewrite from an infinite, imaginative supply of stories everytime we answer that call to adventure.
In the end, Goldeous Kline and the Borrowful Glaxons is not only a thrilling adventure filled with scientific intrigue, but also a testament to the unifying power of curiosity, wonder, and trust in the face of uncertainty.
Besides the separation of church and state, the abolition of child labour and the right of employees to run their own businesses, the Commune also passed a law that postponed commercial debts and abolished the paying of interest on those debts.
I mention this because I was recently asked to write a short piece for the next issue of Red Pepper Magazine about David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years.
The idea that ‘we should always pay our debts’ has become the self-evident moral foundation of our economic and political relations, but — as David Graeber shows inside the first four pages of Debt — that idea is total bollocks.
Always pay our debts? Really? Tell that to the bailed out banks, extractive, polluting industries and tax-avoidant billionaires and transnationals.
As David pointed out, debts are obligations that can be precisely quantified. That’s a critical distinction: debt is only one, deeply alienating, expression of how we manage our relations with others.
Whereas debts are precisely impersonal financial instruments, we can see the more general concept of obligation as a chain of generosity: gifts and favours of similar, but crucially not identical value, to be granted, not immediately, but at some appropriate time in the future, according to the needs of the recipient and resources of the obliged.
Obligations bring us together as a community; debts divide us.
This Quanta story by Marta Zaraska follows the classic doomspreading journalistic model so you’ll have to scroll right to the bottom to find the work that is being done to help support people who feel chronic loneliness, but, if you can avoid getting caught in the cheap attention trap, it’s an interesting read.
Example of anxiety-inducing sensationalist doomspreading:
10 hours without social contact is enough to elicit essentially the same neural signals as being deprived of food 🤮
Example of constructive storytelling, from the last two paragraphs in the article:
While interventions such as cognitive behavioural therapy, promoting trust and synchrony, or even ingesting magic mushrooms could help treat chronic loneliness, transient feelings of solitude will most likely always remain part of the human experience. And there is nothing wrong with that, Tomova said.
She compares loneliness to stress: It’s unpleasant but not necessarily negative. ‘It provides energy to the body, and then we can deal with challenges,’ she said. 🥰
In the last 432 words of their 2,000 word article, Marta Zaraska covers four possible solutions for chronic loneliness (which I’ve bolded) and offers a comforting arm around the shoulder for the rest of us.
But how many people will read that far? The first 1,500 words are, by and large, doomspreading, explaining why chronic loneliness is a terrible thing and how difficult an emotion it is for scientists to study, let alone treat.
Take note, journalists, all — writing constructively isn’t hard. It doesn’t even mean removing the darker details, but why not put solutions and that arm around the shoulder up top in the lede? Why wait until you’ve beaten us up already?
I sort of don’t want to know the answer to that question.
If you notice a journalist who opens with doomspreading, do yourself a favour and skip ahead to read the final paragraphs first.
Today’s story is little more than the smashing together of two fancy words that I learned recently.
(And, actually, one of them I made up.)
Schismogenesis is the word for a process where apparently close neighbours somehow end up defining themselves in direct opposition to the other.
Protestant and Catholic, Conservative and Labour, Mods and Rockers, Reds and Blues: despite sharing so much, we lurrrrve to amplify our divisions and differences.
In Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), social psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson show how tenaciously we tend to cling onto our sides of the argument (or indeed angle on reality), no matter what evidence or alternative is put before us.
It describes a positive feedback loop of action and self-deception by which slight differences between people’s attitudes become polarised.
Fuelled by cognitive dissonance and the confirmation bias, that’s (at least one element of) schismogenesis in action.
Antischismogenesis is my made up word for the reverse process: a divided people finding — and building upon — common ground.
(Or at least the ability to notice where difference exists and retain the openness of mind to continue to listen.)
While antischismogenesis does happen naturally — chuck a couple of reasonably open-minded, relaxed humans together and it’s surprising what common ground they’ll find. What, you love pizza too?! — it can seem that schismogenesis is the weightier force, particularly insidious as (for most if not all people) it rarely happens with malice aforethought.
What we need is a concept that will guide us towards, not malice, but benevolence aforethought…
There so are many different ways of ending up with similar-looking results that it’d be INSANE to judge anyone because they aren’t doing it exactly like you or because they don’t look like you or talk like you or even think like you.
Sometimes you’ve got to let them do it their way.
In fact, you could say that the spirit of equifinality is exactly what we need to find in order to rebuild our communities through antischismogenesis.
What we need is a mouthful: antischismogenetic equifinality.
Go on, give it a try — if nothing else, it’s fun to wrap your tongue around.
How we actually do antischismogenetic equifinality is another matter entirely.
The Discerning Traveller’s Comprehensively Empty Guide To Antischismogenetic Equifinality (On A Shoestring)
As it’s a concept that I just made up, there is no behavioural toolkit for antischismogenetic equifinality, but I bet it’d include all the usual tricks of the communication trade:
Learn about the ordinary human tendency for schismogenesis between in-groups and out-groups. Done ✔️
Notice where schismogenesis has nurtured division in your own life. What kind of people are in your circle of friends, colleagues and nodding acquaintances?
Notice when you are actively manufacturing division from others. Don’t forget that division isn’t all blazing rows and fisty-cuffs. It’s most often as mundane and insidious as silent prejudice.
What’s your internal monologue when you pass a member of the out-group in the street? How about when you hear your favourite worst enemy on the radio or read about their latest egregious behaviour in the news? If you’re anything like me, you’ll despatch with relish the three Ds: dismiss, deny and denigrate.
Learn about and notice your own susceptibility to the cognitive biases that make us all think that we’re not only the best, but also sparkling exceptions to any and every rule. Cognitive biases, our mental blind spots, are like a baseball bat to the knees of equifinality.
Interrupt the opening of any division with extra-ordinary behaviours, which usually begins with you reaching out in a spirit of curiosity. Nonjudgemental curiosity is the practical precursor of equifinality.
Ask open questions (instead of leading questions), listen for what others want to communicate (instead of what you want to hear) and check that you have understood others as they want to be understood (instead of how you’d like to label them).
Employ random acts of kindness to set spinning a virtuous cycle of connection between strangers.
But I bet you’ve got a million other ideas and I’m totally here for them. Hit the comments.
While discussing the relationship between my favourite Heraclitus quote and cycling around Britain for the second time, a two-time acquaintance suggested I read a short article by psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion.
The four pages of Notes on memory and desire (1967) are clearly written for the psychoanalyst, but are fertile ground for anyone hoping to write a bicycling memoir.
‘Memory,’ Bion declares, ‘is always misleading as a record of fact.’
Meanwhile, opines Bion: ‘Desires distort judgement by selection and suppression of material to be judged.’
Again, horribly accurate: the halo effect being just one of a panoply of cognitive biases where our desires corrupt our conclusions.
Memory & Desire = Bad Bad?
Bion is pretty damning about the effect of memory and desire on the workings of psychoanalysis:
Memory and Desire exercise and intensify those aspects of the mind that derive from sensuous experience.
However inconvenient the distortions of memory and desire may be for psychoanalysts, they are good things for the writers of bicycling memoirs.
Cycling around the coast of Britain is indeed a sensuous experience and anything that intensifies that experience can only help the sensationalist storyteller.
Stories would be pretty dull if the writer’s fallible memory didn’t trim the facts, nor desire distort, select and suppress.
However: where Bion gets interesting is in his discussion of the ride itself, especially for those of us who repeatedly cover the same ground.
Staying Present = Improv?
Bion uses the metaphor of the psychoanalytic session, but I’m pretty sure he was talking about cycling around Britain twice when he wrote:
Every session bike ride attended by the psychoanalyst bicyclist must have no history and no future.
What is ‘known’ about the patient Britain is of no further consequence: it is either false or irrelevant. […] The only point of importance in any session bike ride is the unknown. Nothing must be allowed to distract from intuiting that. […]
The psychoanalyst bicyclist should aim at achieving a state of mind so that at every session ride he feels he has not seen the patient Britain before. If he feels he has, he is treating riding the wrong patient ride.
Staying present is not only the work of the psychoanalyst, but also the bicycling memoirist and, of course, our old friend Heraclitus:
No man can step into the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.
Every landscape, every town, every human and beastly interaction is happening for the first time, every time, and the ride is an embedded, embodied improvisation: ‘Yes, and…’
Improv, like a good bike ride, only works when you’re open, creative, responsive and curious — four ways of saying the same thing — to what’s inside you, what’s around you, and to your partners and props on the stage.
Keith Johnstone, who taught so many actors, directors and comedians the games of improvisation, died last week.
There are people who prefer to say ‘Yes’, and there are people who prefer to say ‘No’. Those who say ‘Yes’ are rewarded by the adventures they have, and those who say ‘No’ are rewarded by the safety they attain.
The point is to help your partner in the improvisation, not to try to screw them up. A lesson worth holding onto. Thanks, Keith.
Staying Present With Notes
The only difference between a good improviser and a writer is that the writer takes notes. Which Bion would have hated.
Somewhat grumpily, Bion declares that notes should be ‘confined to matters that can be recorded’, i.e. bugger all.
Instead, Bion commands us to obey his number one rule:
Do not remember past sessions bike rides. The greater the impulse to remember what has been said or done, the more the need to resist it. […]
The supposed events must not be allowed to occupy the mind. Otherwise the evolution of the session bike ride will not be observed at the only time when it can be observed — while it is taking place.
Here, from time to time, the bicycling memoirist must respectfully disagree.
Writing, on my typewriter, eyes up, following the fluency of my fingers, helps me observe and recall my experience of the world around me in more detail, not less.
Like this, from my ride diary back on 2 August 2020:
Sunny lanes. Pandora told me about how Airbnb is ruining Athens so she can’t live in the areas she used to. She also told me about Halloween Alley Cat Races.
We detoured through a prison and passed another group of cyclists.
‘What were those cyclists pointing at?’ she asked.
‘They’re turning right,’ I said.
Nothing serves noticing more than notating. And nothing serves the reader more than writers who notice.
From Desire To Curiosity
I’ll leave you with a note on how Bion’s desecration of desire pertains to the bicycling memoirist.
Bion’s second rule for psychoanalysts is this:
Desires for results, ‘cure’ or even understanding must not be allowed to proliferate.
My initial response was YES. Desire for a particular result takes us out of an experience.
I teared up reading the end of Mark Beaumont’s book about his round the world record attempt, but that was the tension release triggered by the climax of a hard-fought result. His desire for the world record overtook any sense of experience: I remember nothing of his ride and I suspect he scarcely does either.
The reason I rode around Tunisia the year after I first cycled the coast of Britain was precisely because I wanted to take it more slowly and prove to myself that I could indulge experience over ‘getting there’.
Irritatingly, Bion would seem to be correct again: desire interferes with experience.
Then I paused: is this not a cop-out?
Freed from spontaneous impulses of desire, the bicycling memoirist is also excused from courage to retreat into their shell of individual experience.
A sign pointing the way to Twatt Church. A conversation overheard. A rumour passed around of a quarry camp. The salt wash scent of the ocean. The intriguingly lengthy queue for a hot stone bakery.
Are these petty squirts of desire not also the ripe ingredients of adventure?
There is nuance to Bion’s declaration. Yes, desire for a particular result takes us out of an experience, but it must be distinguished from our healthy desire to experience more: it must be distinguished from our curiosity.
Desire is forcing our way into a house: never going to end in anything better than a cricket bat to the belly. Curiosity is gently pushing on the door and seeing whether it opens, with a smile.
There’s train strikes this week: 40,000 rail workers united to protect their pay and working conditions against extraction by private shareholders.
In January, rail minister Huw Merriman admitted that, not only would it have been cheaper to settle the dispute months ago, but that the negotiations were being used to suppress the pay of all public sector key workers, including teachers and nurses. Ouch.
But that’s all by the by.
For the purposes of this story, the train strike merely explains why I was in my car at Southampton Airport Parkway and why vehicle delivery driver Arthur was standing on the M27 slip road holding his red trade plates.
I checked my mirrors and thought, ‘That’s a crap place to hitch,’ before pulling over and hitting my hazards.
Arthur ran up, pulled the door and chucked himself into the passenger seat.
He’d forgotten about the strike and found himself stranded after delivering a Motorway car to their depot in Eastleigh.
‘I don’t normally hitchhike,’ he said. ‘It was only fifteen minutes, but I had a bad feeling standing there — I’m very grateful.’
Arthur’s next job was to pick up a Hyundai Ioniq from an industrial estate outside Poole and take it up to Tamworth — a 180 mile drive in an electric car with 106 miles’ charge.
‘Normally I don’t touch electrics — something always happens and you’re left sitting around for hours. I didn’t clock this one.’
Seeing as I was on my way back to Bournemouth anyway, it was easy to save Arthur any more trouble. And I got to learn a little about the vehicle delivery trade.
For Arthur, it was all about supplementing his pension and getting him out of the house. A long day for £230.
This isn’t his usual patch. He normally operates in the band of territory south of Birmingham and north of London — ‘It’s much easier when you know where you are. I haven’t been to Poole since my honeymoon, 1975.’
Arthur’s phone rang: ‘Yes, love?’
His partner, Chris, was checking in and I got to hear Arthur’s take on his morning.
‘No, thanks, love, I’m fine, it’s all good now. This chap’s picked me up and I’m on the move. Good thing too — I was feeling a bit down back there, stood on the side of the motorway. Then along comes this miracle.’
I laughed. Not a bad way to start my day, being called a miracle. But it also made me wonder how we’ve come to be ruled by sceptics.
Arthur was standing on the side of a road rushing with cars driving his way. Every single one could have picked him up. It should be no surprise — much less a miracle — that someone stopped for him inside quarter of an hour. And yet he’d been anxious.
Sceptics are those who doubt their own humanity and the humanity of others.
Sceptics are those who believe that we’re not all in it together, that we’re not all playing for the same Team Human, that, contrary to all evidence, we’re not sociable animals, our nervous systems constantly regulating to each other.
I’m currently reading David Graeber and David Wengrow’s The Dawn Of Everything. It’s a remarkable work that will transfuse into my stories over the coming years. But one idea jumped out today: we humans are only fully self-conscious when we’re talking, laughing, rolling, relating with others.
But sceptics would rather believe that we’re each autonomous and independent economic units, acting in our own self-interest to the exclusion of others, certainly others beyond our immediate genetic milieu.
They couldn’t be more blatantly, even biologically, wrong, but somehow their scepticism has cast a spell over society.
Fearful sceptics have bewitched us into believing that it’s absurd to believe in humanity, their perverted tyranny twisting our minds such that a show of solidarity from a stranger is ‘a miracle’.
The good news is that the journey from false sceptic to true believer is no more than a single step.
All you need do is pronounce the believer’s creed: ‘I believe in my own humanity and the humanity of others’ and you’re ready to perform what those ridiculous sceptics have convinced us are fantastic miracles.
Of course, we can’t be miracles to everyone we cross, not all day every day. But keep your eyes open, hold out a hand, drop a smile and, from time to time, be the miracle.
This is a story about two songs, both written by men about women they met in New York, inside and outside the Chelsea Hotel.
(Before you switch off, I’ve also included one of the women’s side of the story. It’s hilarious.)
The Chelsea is famous for its residents and the work they created there: Dylan Thomas, Jack Kerouac, Edith Piaf, Jane Fonda, Allen Ginsburg, Patti Smith, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix — and, of course, Leonard Cohen and Janis Joplin.
Leonard Cohen Meets Janis Joplin
In the late night spring of 1968, Leonard Cohen and Janis Joplin met in the Chelsea Hotel lift, going up to the fourth floor.
She said ‘Yes, I’m looking for Kris Kristofferson.’
I said, ‘Little lady, you’re in luck, I am Kris Kristofferson.’ Even though she knew that I was someone shorter than Kris Kristofferson, she never let on.
By the time the lift reached the fourth floor, the love affair was on, a tribute to courage — if only for a couple of hours.
The next day, Joplin tracked down that handsome devil Kris Kristofferson, who sweetly sang to her the song that would become her biggest hit.
It took a couple of years for Janis Joplin to record her bootshaking version of Kristofferson’s Me And Bobby McGee (Spotify | YouTube), on 1 October 1970.
Three days later, she was dead.
Shortly after, Leonard Cohen started writing a new song, which he eventually released in 1974 as Chelsea Hotel #2 (Spotify | Youtube).
Here’s how it opens:
I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel,
you were talking so brave and so sweet,
giving me head on the unmade bed,
while the limousines wait in the street.
Now, to be fair to Leonard Cohen, the story he tells is more complex than these first lines would suggest, but it’s not Cohen’s song that I want to write about.
Jeffrey Lewis Meets A Woman In Glasses
In 2001, New York antifolk songwriter Jeffrey Lewis released his first single, an extended riff on Leonard Cohen’s song, which he called The Chelsea Hotel Oral Sex Song (Spotify | Youtube).
Before you get too excited, this is not a song about oral sex. As Jeff Lewis explains:
Life doesn’t work out the way it does in old songs
That’s why we sing new ones to say what really goes on
So what really went on?
Well, if Jeff Lewis will allow me to summarise his seven minute masterpiece:
Late one night, ‘tired and alone’, Jeff is walking past the Chelsea Hotel
He overhears a conversation about Leonard Cohen between a woman in glasses and her two, possibly gay, friends
Jeff gets ‘uncharacteristically courageous’ and interrupts the strangers
Jeff and the woman in glasses chat for ‘a minute or two’ about Leonard Cohen’s song, Chelsea Hotel #2
The three strangers stop to look in through a pub window
Jeff says good night (though he hadn’t quite meant to)
The woman in glasses mysteriously says, ‘see you later’
That’s it. That’s the entirety of the narrative action: they never saw each other again; they didn’t even swap names.
The song is three times as long as the encounter it describes.
What About The Oral Sex?
In that two minute conversation, the woman in glasses told Jeff Lewis that Leonard Cohen’s line about getting a blowjob ‘made her want to do naughty things’ and Jeff heard the ‘faint knocking of opportunity’:
Right about then I should have asked if she knew
What the Chelsea charged if we got a room for two
But he didn’t. He got shy, waved goodbye, went home and wrote this song instead.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad he did write this song — for two reasons, actually.
The first reason is, quite simply, this, the greatest rhyming couplet known to science:
If I was Leonard Cohen or some other song writing master
I’d know to first get the oral sex and then write the song after
The second reason I’m glad he wrote this song is because the narrative action of Jeff Lewis’s street encounter ends only five minutes into the song: what happens in the last two minutes transcends the self-deprecating story into a moment of connective awe for us all.
‘For The Love Of Other Folks That They Barely Knew’
In those last two minutes, Jeff Lewis turns his gaze onto the audience, as if to say, ‘Hold on, nothing happened with this woman outside the Chelsea and yet this song did happen, is happening, and, what’s more, you’re all still listening — what does that mean?’
In Jeff’s words, it means something wonderful:
That all around the world there may be folks singing tunes
For the love of other folks that they barely knew
This bit of the song usually gets a laugh because it’s so ridiculous. No one writes songs like that.
Except they do. The woman in glasses would laugh at this bit too — the laughter of giddy recognition.
And we can enjoy that same note of giddy recognition for ourselves right now, even without a gawky folksinger writing a love song for us.
Remember You Remember Me Well Too
Think of all the people you’ve ever interacted with. Go on: all of them.
Okay, okay — too much. How about just the ones who made you ‘sing’?
If you’re like me (and Jeff), they’ll fall into two camps:
There’ll be people still in your life who already know that you remember them well. Your best friend who taught you self-esteem as a teenager or the mentor who modelled how to change career late in life.
But there’ll also be people in your past who will never know that you remember them well. The Albanian plumber-mechanic who showed you the true meaning of hospitality, or that lost classmate in college who didn’t realise he was teaching you how to be funny.
Firstly: make a note to go and tell everyone in Camp 1 exactly what they mean to you. You can never do this too many times.
Now turn your attention to the people in Camp 2. This is where the magic happens.
Look at your list and ponder: there must be hundreds of fleeting moments in your life where a complete stranger made you sing and you will never be able to let them know.
Take a moment to acknowledge the ripples in the water, stones skipped by strangers.
Now flip it around in Jeff’s next lines:
[…] the next time you’re feeling kinda lonesome and blue
Just think that someone somewhere might be singing about you
A laugh again: fantastically unlikely. But it isn’t.
If you remember a hundreds strangers well, remember that a hundred more strangers remember you well too — they just never got the chance to tell you.
When you realise how even a brief interaction can connect and change us, that’s pure wonder. Never forget it.
The Other Side
Okay — reality check!
Songwriters like Leonard Cohen and Jeffrey Lewis are really good at turning their lives into stories: pinning the emotion that helps them process the encounter.
It’s a beautiful defence mechanism — transmuting their personal vulnerability into universal meaning.
As Jeff Lewis says, it’s much easier to write a song than it is to risk rejection.
You might think that vulnerability to rejection doesn’t apply to Leonard Cohen, but I’m not so sure.
We’ll probably never know what story Jeff Lewis’s woman in glasses would tell of their encounter, but Janis Joplin wasn’t one to stay in the shade.
Sometimes you’re with someone and you’re convinced that they have something to tell you. So maybe nothing’s happening, but you keep telling yourself something’s happening — innate communication. […]
So you keep being there, pulling, giving, rapping. And then, all of a sudden about four o’clock in the morning you realise that, flat ass, this motherfucker’s just lying there. He’s not balling me.
Leonard Cohen and Jeffrey Lewis would seem to offer two different approaches to a fleeting connection between strangers:
either we are courageous enough to stop and feel out the depths of the exchange
or we are sensitive enough to walk away and still find meaning in the moment
But it’s not a choice: we can be both.
As Jeff says:
Life doesn’t work out the way it does in old songs
That’s why we sing new ones to say what really goes on
So let’s sing a new song: a song where we enjoy both Leonard Cohen’s earthy physicality and Jeffrey Lewis’s abstract transcendence.
Let’s recognise that any connection with a stranger, in the lift, on the street, can go both ways.
We might flex our courage and take things further, but, when we don’t — and most often we won’t because we’d never get anything else done — let’s remain sensitive that the moment was meaningful.
And occasionally, occasionally, a connection that we didn’t explore, years before, can, in the most unlikeliest of plot twists, come back around a second time.
Then we are both.
I’ll leave the last word to Jeff Lewis:
So who knows if I’ll ever see her again? Maybe we’ll see
This whole time she could have been singing about me
Probably not — but it could be
ps: Just as I was finishing the final read-through on this piece, a woman snuck up behind me on the train and said in a loud voice, ‘Ahh, I LOVE that song.’
I turned around with a thump and realised she was talking on the phone, to someone else. But I hope that one day, by some serpentine logic of the universe, she gets to read this story, listen to the music, and say again, ‘Ahh, I LOVE that song.’
Thanks to Leonard Cohen, Janis Joplin, Jeffrey Lewis and CW for showing me how it’s done.
This is something that I actually drafted in an email to a developmental editor. It’s my attempt to describe what I’d like to achieve with a book tentatively titled Coasting: Cycling Around Britain (Twice).
At the moment, I am strolling across an open field and I could yet turn this project in any direction.
Please switch on your critical creative mind — I am quite seriously interested in your response. Cheers!
Coasting: Cycling Around Britain (Twice)
I first cycled 4,110 miles around the coast of Britain over a couple of months in 2011. I left two days after my nan’s funeral and a week after my girlfriend left me. I’d just turned 29.
It was a solitary ride, figuring out stuff like confidence and courage, with a handful of nan’s last words bouncing around my mind: ‘Do it while you can.’
I wrote a book about this journey, called Life To The Lees. You can read it, if you like. I printed a few copies, mainly as a tribute to my nan, interleaving memories of her with the narrative of the ride.
Here’s a bit from the end:
I bump up onto the pavement and let Martin come to a silent stop. I climb off and lean the bike against a gas meter. Then I just sort of stare about me, marvelling at the new person who stands here, where I stood fifty-eight days ago.
I look around for nan’s ghost, waving from the rose bushes, but there’s nothing there, not even the roses. I barely recognise the house and gardens at all. You can’t go back. The tide comes in and will erase everything. All we can bring back, when the path returns us to our beginning, is memories. Everything is the same as it was, and everything has changed.
We all walk uncertain into our shared future, each of us making the other a little more human, each of us collecting a little more of the other, until that moment when there is as much of me in you as there is of you in me. And then we realise that our only regret is regret itself: Do it while you can.
And while I can, I swear, I will.
Flicking back through Life To The Lees now, there’s a lot to love about the text, but it’s a personal story: insular, isolated, individual.
My isolation on the ride didn’t bring me into contact with much of Britain. I felt like I was cycling around Britain, but not among Britain. The book doesn’t really do what I would want a story of cycling around Britain to do: connect.
The second time I left to cycle around Britain was after lockdown restrictions lifted in summer 2020.
As you know, this journey is ongoing. I’ve been riding in stages and have now covered more than 3,100 miles, clockwise around to Liverpool in the west and anticlockwise as far as Inverness in the northeast.
Ten years older, I give far fewer fucks as a human being and that means many more entertaining and meaningful hi-jinx with the people I meet — such as that time in Hastings when I got embroiled in a fake kidnapping.
I’m also a much more experienced writer (four BBC Radio series and a bunch of other random credits) and I’ve been sharing cycling stories with the wonderful readers of this humble newsletter, as well as keeping a diary — neither of which existed back in 2011.
This makes for a much richer palette of stories from which to paint.
But I don’t want to forget 2011: it’s an integral part of today’s story and I think there’s something stupendously powerful about what we lazily call ‘doing the same thing twice’, melding stories from both 2011 and the 2020s into one book.
This dual narrative would not only offer a unique saddle-eye view of Britain either side of austerity, Brexit and a pandemic, but might also say something interesting about how a human being can flourish over the course of a decade.
While I can identify the experiences of 2011 as ‘mine’, I barely recognise the lead character. Like who is this guy, too embarrassed to stop for takeaway pizza in Southend on that first sixty-mile ride out of London?
My hamstrings are quivering and my stomach is rumbling on empty. I cycle back along Marine Drive, looking in at the neon fast food joints, predating on Sunday night drinkers, but I can’t bring myself to stop. I feel their blunt stares. I’m a stranger on an overpacked bicycle, underdressed in swimming shorts and sandals, trespassing through their town. […]
I’m shrivelled and half-starved; all my reserves of fuel are flashing red. I haven’t eaten properly since that sausage and eggs at Ben’s. I struggle with the cookies, but can’t get into the damned packet. I curse myself for not stopping in Southend for a proper feed when I had the chance. As it is, I’m too tired to even brush my teeth.
Second time round, eating at neon fast food joints where people look at me funny is my number one reason for cycling. It starts conversations and connections.
My second time round Britain is blatantly inspired by the philosopher Heraclitus ‘The Obscure’, who held that everything is forever in flux.
Heraclitus’s number one smash hit aphorism deserves its own block quote:
No man can step into the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.
That means I could easily write the story with two very different narrators:
2011 David feels fearful, lost and hurt, in dire need of the ride’s healing power, hoping only to survive the journey, at times desperate for it all to be over.
2020s David feels lucky, open, curious, bursting to get back out into the world, thriving on the chaos of misadventure, dragging out every mile, seeking a kind of immortality in a ride that may never end.
Perhaps I could juxtapose stories from each narrator, not only to show how the river has changed, but the man too.
First time round, Hastings left zero impression. Zero. Here’s the totality of what I wrote about Hastings back in 2011. Ready?
Retirement seaside towns skip by in a summer’s breeze of tea rooms and stately homes: Eastbourne, Hastings, Rye.
That’s it. It’s not a bad sentence, but stretching for poetry to make up for emptiness of content. Did I stop in those tea rooms, did I admire those stately homes? No.
My experiences of Hastings in 2020 were more like pages ripped from a James Joyce stream-of-consciousness.
Besides the kidnapping, it’s where I bought my BBC-famous touring bugle, from a junk shop for £13. I haggled them down from £20. If I’d known then what that bugle would become later, I’d have paid £40.
I suppose I’m wrestling with how to entwine the two rides without getting bogged down.
Help me: what’s the story here?
Is the story about how Britain and I have changed between 2011 and 2023? In which case, the balance of the two rides should be pretty even.
Or is the story simply the rippping-est yarn that I can spin? In which case, 2011 will play a much smaller role.
To minimise 2011 would seem like a waste of something that makes my perspective unique. Yet, if I were to include 2011, then there is almost too much material and I risk diluting the whole for the sake of the concept.
This feels like a weird way to approach a story about a couple of bike rides. Maybe that’s a good thing, I don’t know.
But I would appreciate fresh minds working on the problem with me.
Thanks to everyone who shared and messaged about last week’s story, The End Of Doomspreading — it’s already my sixth most-read edition of this newsletter.
My drive is to help us develop more effective ways of connecting with people who start on the other side of an apparently deep divide and turn difficult conversations into connective conversations — like the one I had in the sauna yesterday.
From the other side of the bench, another man piped up: ‘I don’t think you’ll get many people who disagree with immigration in theory,’ he said, ‘at least, not for people who are here to work hard and contribute to the economy.
Alternatively, a previous iteration might have felt angry, so angry that I might have spent the rest of my sauna time simmering in outrage, completely incapable of forming a coherent response until much later. We’ve all been there.
But yesterday, I was curious.
I could tell that the man was doomspreading and doomsplaining: not only passing on ‘the world’s all going to shit’ propaganda that he’d swallowed, but also pushing his pessimistic moral opinion that there are deserving and undeserving human beings.
Because I recognised that he was doomspeaking, I knew that this man needed empathy, not argument.
So I listened for the underlying fears and emotions. What I heard was confused resentment, fuelled by a deep sense of injustice.
I also hate injustice so it was easy to empathise, not with the content of what he was saying, but with his emotion of confused resentment and his unmet need for justice.
Although we only had a few minutes before I fainted from heat exhaustion, we quickly found some common ground.
‘If they’ve got all this money lying around for five star hotels,’ the man said, ‘why don’t they look after the people who are already here, instead of giving it to people who just arrived?
‘Why don’t they use it to end homelessness?’
Zing! Why not, indeed?
From our opening statements, this man and I were apparently entrenched on opposite precipices of a gas-powered flaming canyon, where even a single step towards each other would get us burned alive.
But now I can see how easily we could work together on something we both believe in.
Even if we radically disagree on freedom of movement (at one point he suggested that the government should’ve bought up all the decommissioned cruise liners to keep refugees offshore), he urgently wants to end homelessness.
I can get with that, so that’s where we can start.
A couple of weeks ago, I met a young man who lived in a world of confusion, threat and mistrust.
Within a couple of minutes of meeting, he was telling me that he felt like straight men ‘like us’ were on the bottom rung of society’s ladder.
He followed this up with a story about the deliberate derailment by the US government of a train carrying nuclear waste, an act of state-sponsored vandalism that would create a Chernobyl-like exclusion zone across Ohio.
‘You can look it up anywhere,’ he said. (So I did.)
He was in despair at the state of the world, at how big business and governments are conspiring to wreck the planet, and he explained his plan to raise enough money to buy some land in the country where he could build his own community from scratch, a safe haven for those like him who had ‘woken up’ over the past couple of years.
Before you misunderstand me, this is not an eye-rolling-at-bonkers-conspiracy-theorists moment.
Please believe me when I say that this person had very good reasons to see the world the way they do.
And, while I don’t necessarily share his view of current events, I sympathise deeply with the underlying emotions of confusion, threat, mistrust, fragility and despair and with his urge to escape to a utopian community where everything is perfect.
We Need New Words For This
We all know what manspreading and mansplaining are, right?
Manspreading: Typically of a man: to take up more than their fair share of space, either physically or metaphorically in conversation, etc..
Mansplaining: Typically of a man: to explain (something) needlessly, overbearingly, or condescendingly, especially (typically when addressing a woman) in a manner thought to reveal a patronising or chauvinistic attitude.
Love em or hate em, neologisms identify stuff in the world and the best of these new words can also facilitate change.
Since being able to name and frame the behaviour, I have become more aware of my own tendency to take up space. Sometimes I shut up or pull my legs in a bit.
(Incidentally, the man- prefix isn’t such a neologism as you might imagine. Manswearing — to be guilty of perjury or oath-breaking — goes back a thousand years. I love that.)
Credit to whoever came up with these man- neologisms and I hope they don’t mind me appropriating the -splaining and -spreading pattern for my own purposes.
But it is, and should remain, an acute pain reflex.
When that reflex is combined with the chronic negativity of a planet’s worth of bad news gunge, the only reasonable responses, once we’re saturated and burnt out, are crippling despair or reductive paranoia.
Despair is pretty much the only appropriate response if your brain takes a stab at fully understanding and empathising with the depth of misery generated by more than a day’s worth of headlines.
It cripples our belief in our strength to make meaningful change and our drive to leave the world a better place as we depart than when we arrived. In our despair, we retreat, disconnect and close the door to strangers, even friends.
Paranoia solves for despair by reducing the overwhelming complexity of human existence to an easily comprehensible, if false, explanation.
We’re controlled by a cabal of Satan-worshipping elites who run a child sex ring and there’s nothing we can do but escape into a fantasy world with our dwindling allies.
Despair and paranoia are two extremes of rational response to overwhelming complexity and I’m sure you’ll recognise yourself at some point on that miserable line.
Doomspreading And Doomsplaining
That’s why I believe we need new words to swiftly identify — and interrupt — the disempowering, alienating discourse that happens when doomscrolling, whether our own or others’, bleeds into our ways of being, our actions and our conversations.
The aim is to strengthen our belief that we can influence events, make meaningful change and grow a better life for all beings.
So may I introduce to you two new words:
Doomspreading: to dominate a conversation with the perspective that everything is going to shit.
Doomsplaining: to explain how everything is going to shit, especially in response to the alternate perspective that things are kind of going okay.
I told a friend (👋) about the concept on Monday and was thrilled to get this message from her on Wednesday:
I think we need this.
We need to be able to notice what’s happening when it’s happening and we need to be able to step in and stop the drift towards despair and paranoia at source.
Somehow, we need to find a way of throwing ourselves a lifeline to a better world.
Stopping The Doomspread
The way we stop the spread is not to engage or challenge and certainly not to block the superficial content of doom, but instead to hear and empathise with the underlying emotions.
The chap I met at the start of the story was upset because he felt like he wasn’t being heard, that he was being lied to by government, and that businesses he couldn’t control were destroying the planet. All he wanted was the security of his own home and the warmth of an understanding community.
Goddam, I hear that!
Once I’d heard that, this man, this ‘tin foil hat’ (his words) conspiracy theorist, was ready to hear how I see the world.
We parted, each trusting the world a little more.
Ironically, by expressing his beliefs to someone who didn’t believe them, this man’s desire for an understanding community became possible without going through the hassle of setting up a countryside hermitage.
Remember that this method applies as much if not more to ourselves as to others.
If you find yourself doomspreading, pause, and see if you can dig down below the ‘facts’ and instead express your underlying concerns and your unspoken needs.
What do you really need from this interaction? Reassurance? Understanding? Safety? Fairness? Honesty? Choice? Acceptance? Friendship? Help?
This expression of need will be so much more relatable than your rant about Prince Harry and so much more likely to lead directly to a solution that you can actually act on.
The world is complicated. I have so much empathy for people who find it too much — I do too sometimes.
But, as much as we’d love to, we can’t ever fully control; we can only fully collaborate.
The wonderful thing is that, through collaboration, we build trust and this trust creates resiliant and loving communities.
Resiliant and loving communities solve their own problems and, suddenly, our lonely despair and paranoia is replaced with cooperative strength and courage.
So let’s all start by calling out doomspreading: it doesn’t help.
David Charles’s IMDB profile informs us that he has appeared in shows such as Grange Hill, The Bill, Doc Martin, The Crown and something called High Hopes, in which, pleasingly, he played Prince Charles.
6. David Charles, Professor of Philosophy and Classics at Yale University
No doubt a notable fan of Aristotle, but, seriously, who’s looking this far down the list?
There was a brief summer where both David Charles and I were engaged at Oxford University: he as professor and I as messenger boy. No wonder he felt like he had to move abroad to make a name for himself.
Among The Weeds
That’s it for the first page on Google, but I can’t help myself diving deeper:
David Charles, psychic who does Youtube readings for the Royal Family and ‘red hot lucky lottery numbers’
David Charles, legal counsel at McKenna & Associates, Pittsburgh
David Charles, Account Executive at Alan Boswell Group, an insurance brokers
David Charles, Head of Risk and Compliance at Calibrate Partners, a wealth management hedge fund
David Charles, Teaching Assistant Professor at EdD, Organizational Change and Leadership, University of Southern California
David Charles, teacher at the University of Havre Normandie with an interest in nineteenth century French literature
David Charles, an internist at a clinic in Rockville, Maryland
David Charles, solicitor at Darby & Darby in Torquay
David Charles, Principal Engineer at Kingfisher IT Services in Olney
David Charles, cofounder / CEO of The Strive Initiative, Pasadena
David Charles, Client & Market Development Manager at Clifford Chance, Frankfurt
David Charles, psychologist in Louisville, Kentucky
And — pass the oxygen — deeper:
David Charles, a farm vet in Derby
David Charles, Programme Director at the Disclosure and Barring Service (I regularly update my DBS certificate — has my paperwork ever crossed his desk?)
David Charles, Head of Climate Action at University of Strathclyde (congratulations on recently handing in your PhD, sir!)
David Charles, Partner at Bickerdike Allen Partners LLP, an architecture and planning company in London
David Charles, an accountant in Glasgow
David Charles of David Charles Ministries, producer of hits like Standout Christian, Thank You Father and God Sent Riddim, with as many as 30 monthly listeners on Spotify
Okay, too deep now.
Or, wait — not deep enough — the CEO and Founder of David Charles Ministries is none other than David Burkley.
What the actual hell? Can everyone just keep their hands off our name, please?
Spitting feathers at the gamesmanship of these masquerading charlatans, I turn my attentions to that bastion of knowledge, Wikipedia, an encyclopaedia with a redoubtable test of notability embedded in its editorial code.
People are presumed notable if they have received significant coverage in multiple published secondary sources that are reliable, intellectually independent of each other, and independent of the subject.
Selecting only the David Charleses who are (probably) still alive, what do we find here?
British drummer, recording engineer and record producer, most notably for The Charlatans 1997 album Tellin’ Stories. Last active: unknown.
So, in summary: there are six notable and living David Charleses recorded on Wikipedia. Two of them aren’t bone fide David Charleses and another three are, by all accounts, long retired.
The only one who stands is David Charles, our favourite professor of philosophy, who, famously, languishes not one but two places below me in the Google rankings.
The Search Concludes
And I’m afraid that this is where we must call a halt to our search.
Yes, I could plough on through the 48 David Charleses on IMDB. But only two of them are notable enough to have pictures and both are spurious: David Leach (AKA ‘David Charles’) and David Charles Rodrigues.
Yes, I could investigate the ten David Charleses listed on Discog, the music database, and I could sign up to Facebook or LinkedIn and continue my trawling there, but I think we have enough data, don’t you?
And I’m sure you’ll agree with my conclusion: yes, I am indeed the most notable David Charles in the universe.
But you knew that already. That’s not what’s interesting.
Shamefully, I’ve spent hours this week trawling through dozens of internet biographies of other people called David Charles and what I’ve found is that we’re all, in some way, notable.
Who am I to argue the superiority of my name against the achievements and efforts of the Principal Engineer at Kingfisher IT Services? The Principal Engineer, for pity’s sake —
An enthusiastic and expert Technical Leader with an impressive track record of design and delivery of innovative and robust solutions to demanding business and technical challenges.
No, I don’t know what any of that means either, but it tells me that notability is in the eye of the beholder, certainly to ourselves, but also to loved ones, students, teammates, psychic clients and both human and veterinary patients.
Utterly Irrelevant / Utterly Essential
This search has simultaneously made me feel utterly irrelevant and utterly essential.
David Charlesing is a team game and we are all making our contribution, each in its own way notable.
That is our goal, if we needed one, and, if we needed an exemplar, then who better than David Charles of Somerset, former President of The British Beekeepers Association?
I only got to know and speak with David on a small number of occasions, in particular at the National Honey Show, and at all times found him to be a warm and friendly person, who would put himself out to assist you in any way he could.
All David Charleses, we all play our part.
Some of us look after bees. Some don’t.
Some of us will spend our lives with you. Some of us you’ll only get to know and speak with on a small number of occasions.
But however a David Charles comes into your life, that’s still notable, both for you and for us.
That’s all part of the harvest.
The kicker, of course, is that, despite my lofty appearance on Google, I don’t appear anywhere at all on the search engine I personally use, DuckDuckGo.
It simply doesn’t matter.
(And, yes, I am an admirer of Dave Gorman. I’m not him.)
And, to be honest, I’m not bothered about learning the deep roots of yoga — I’m sure it’s a worthwhile world of study, but it’s not why I’m here.
I’m here to improve my flexibility to the point where I can poo comfortably in the wild. In other words (literally): I’m here to stretch.
Yes, I got a lot of my stretch moves from what were called yoga books, classes or videos, but, if I’m honest, my main justification for using the term is because it’s a short word that fits into a narrow spreadsheet column.
So I’ll add five characters and call it by its name: stretching.
1a. The English Language And Cultural Appropriation
This is not going to turn into a story about cultural appropriation, but it’s worth noting that the English language holds a special place in global culture.
This comes with an astonishing array of benefits for native speakers, but also a few things that we need to look out for.
To stick with the cricket example, imagine if Indian cricketers adopted new rules that meant you got eight points for a six (but it was still called a six for reasons that everyone else has forgotten), you had to hit the ball with a hammer and there was no afternoon tea break. 😱
The England and Wales Cricket Board would be appalled — cricket is our sport, first played on our lawns over five hundred years ago, with the first laws of the game written down by our Grace the Duke of Richmond and the Second Viscount Midleton for two matches played in Surrey and Sussex in July 1727.
A warm welcome with cold hands clasped about a flask.
My blood responds to caffeine with what could be called an excess of vim, so I feel a pang of envious exclusion when I recall the arcadian utopianism of the Coffee Outside movement:
Aeropress. Bialetti. Briki. A kelly kettle or a coffee bag. Java drip, filter, press pot or percolator. A Moka pot and wanderlust for al-Makha. Perhaps you’ll gather twigs and light a fire for cowboy coffee or forage, roast and grind a beech nut substitute coffee. Or maybe you’ll simply carry your cup from kitchen to sunlit garden and sit for a while, caging the minute within its nets of gold.
Coffee Outside is an alchemical substitution, the transference of addiction to connection, but, as an enforced tea guzzler, my tastes are milder.
Then — eureka! — why can we not Movemberise this very month and reclaim these four weeks for the triumphal trinity of kettle-boiling, flask-filling, tongue-scorching?
Arise, unite, and light a fire for Fe-brew-ary!
Thunderstruck by genius, I was.
Turns out, of course, that the punmaster general of the Cystic Fibrosis Trust got there long before me. Naturally, too, the Brewers Association of Maryland.
But that won’t stop us, no. Doorstep, garden, beach and wood await your gentle brew.
It’s dark outside and the windows are misted up with rain. Our tans have faded and even our steely thighs have turned to jelly.
As all but the freshest or most cursory reader will know, I’m one of the infamous community of cyclists that make up Thighs of Steel and every year I help organise what is almost certainly Europe’s longest charity bike ride.
Last summer, our 93 cyclists not only rode 5,428km from Glasgow to Athens, but also raised a record-breaking (for us) £114,632 in solidarity with grassroots refugee projects through charity MASS Action.
I know that many TDCN readers contributed to the pot, so thank you: £114,632, including £12k in Gift Aid, is such a significant amount of money.
It means that MASS Action have been able to give a big YES to no fewer than sixteen solidarity projects, covering pretty much every aspect of the movement for migrant social justice:
Community centres offer everything from nourishing meals and legal support to bus tickets and hot showers in Thessaloniki (Wave Thessaloniki), Samos (Just Action) and Athens (Khora)
Several projects provide accommodation or work to improve living conditions in Sheffield (ASSIST Sheffield), Glasgow (Scottish Asylum Seekers Resident Association) and Athens (Chamomile and Mazi x FORGE For Humanity)
The Babylon Project offers drama, storytelling, film-making and dance in the UK, while Musikarama connects people through music in Athens
Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group supports people during and after immigration detention
Hakoura Organic is an ecological cooperative farm established by refugees in the countryside northwest of Athens
No Evictions Network, No Borders Network and Calais Migrant Solidarity take direct action to support the rights, safety and dignity of people on the move in the UK and France
In Scotland, LGBT UNITY is a peer support group made up of LGBTQIA+ refugees and asylum seekers in Glasgow and Bike For Refugees runs cycling community hubs in Glasgow and Edinburgh
Phew! Hard to believe what a couple of months’ cycling can achieve.
It’s so significant that we couldn’t even display every project on one pie chart, so please hurry along to The Reason and read more about what all that money is doing out in the world.
And — YES — this isn’t even the whole pie. There’s still £7,445.23 for MASS Action to distribute after this summer’s ride, wherever the need is greatest.
We open for signups on Friday 17 February at 6pm — but ONLY if you’re on our special secret early access email list.
The most popular weeks sell out minutes after going live, so get on it!
Humanity is a team game. We don’t have to do it all — we can’t — but we can choose to play our part.
I’m lucky that my part, right now, is to help put on a bike ride that makes space for others to shine — not only the ninety-odd cyclists who surprise themselves with their own strength, but also the people and projects making change happen on the ground.
Everything we do in life either brings us one step closer together or pushes us further apart.
Since December 2019, I have recorded 772 at-home yoga sessions, at an average of 16 minutes per day (currently more like 8 minutes).
I’ve been amazed at what a difference this investment of 1 percent of my waking time has made to my flexibility.
The fact that I can get into the Asian squat position is a minor miracle considering that, three years ago, I couldn’t sit cross-legged on the floor.
But there is a gross story about why I started stretching on the daily — you want to hear it?
In summer 2019, I cycled with Thighs of Steel from Paris to Bordeaux and then from Ljubljana to Athens.
Every night for four weeks, we’d wild camp — along with everything that entails.
Sleeping under a scrap of canvas, washing in rivers or lakes, eating high-carb meals under the stars as the sun set and dawn rose.
And, of course, pooing into a freshly dug hole in the ground.
This isn’t where the story gets gross.
At first, the pooing was fine.
My flexibility wasn’t up to much, so I wasn’t able to position myself over my poo hole very comfortably, but that didn’t seem to matter so long as I dug the pit near a tree against which I could balance myself.
But then all that high-carb food caught up with me and I got a touch of constipation.
Constipation is uncomfortable enough, but, with a relaxing toilet seat unavailable and physically unable to squat, I found myself straining harder than I usually might.
And this is where the story gets gross.
One morning, after porridge at a beautiful riverside camp spot in Croatia, I strained so hard that I slightly tore my anus.
The discomfort stayed with me for the rest of the ride — and I can tell you that one thing you really don’t want while cycling for ten hours a day is even a slightly torn anus.
When I got home to the UK, I vowed that I would do something about my inability to defecate comfortably without a throne.
So began my daily yoga sessions — and now look at me. Not only can I take wildly adventurous poos, but I can even write gross stories to you while crouching in a kettlebell-supported squat.
Belinda was expedition manager on the BBC 2 series Beyond Boundaries, in which eleven men and women trekked 220 miles across the Nicaraguan jungle and desert, dodging bandits, wading through crocodile infested rivers and summitting a live volcano.
In short: one heck of an adventure.
What’s this got to do with me and my knee cartilage?
The eleven members of the Nicaragua expedition included two in wheelchairs, one deaf, one blind, one double foot amputee, two arm amputees, one with spina bifida and three single leg amputees.
I read this as a gentle reminder that we all, all the time, have to ‘start from where we are’.
It’s not much use me dreaming of all the things I used to do or mourning for all the adventures I’ve had to cancel over the past month.
Better to start from where I am today and accept that hiking across Dartmoor or cycling through the Lake District just isn’t going to work for me right now.
That doesn’t mean everything else is off the table as well. Far from it.
But I must start from where I am, not from where I used to be or from where I think I should be or from where I would one day love to be.
The first challenge for me today is not to swim with crocodiles, but to interrupt an alienating cycle of inactivity.
Here’s my current pattern of thinking:
Rest my knee ➡️ Limit walking and exercise ➡️ Stop going outdoors much ➡️ More work, more screentime ➡️ Low mood, poor sleep ➡️ Stop doing much of anything and head back indoors ↩️
It’s a slippery slide, especially when I’m clinging onto the hope that this won’t be forever, that the knee pain won’t last and things will return to normal soon.
I mean, they probably will — I spoke to a very reassuring physio on Wednesday — but still, no.
I don’t believe that the best first response to any problem is to suck it up and wait it out. That’s not me.
Not only does such a solution fail to reflect the reality of where I am, it also spits on the unbelievable good fortune of every minute of my existence.
Instead, I’ll start from where I am and honour the time I have now — not mortgage it against some contingent future.
So this week I’ve instituted a new rule: no screens until I’ve done at least three beautiful things for the good of my today self.
This list of ideas is still growing and welcomes new suggestions. A ✔️ indicates what I’ve done since Wednesday:
Read a book ✔️✔️✔️
See or phone a friend
Go outside and watch the goats eat breakfast ✔️✔️✔️
Chancellor of the High Court Sir Julian Martin Flaux supported the plaintiff that wild camping was not ‘open air recreation’ — despite the breathless adventures of generations of school groups, Scout troops, Duke of Edinburgh and Ten Tors expeditions, and the countless escapades of a multitude of ‘commoners’, as we’re known.
To be fair to the judge, I’ve spent more than a few nights out on Dartmoor and not all of them have fallen neatly into most people’s definition of ‘recreation’.
But, for me, nothing beats shivering the night away through nine hours of wind and fog until murky dawn ekes across the mire and it’s almost safe to pull on drenched boots and quag out into the sopping halflight.
If that’s not recreation, then I don’t know what it is. We’re not all into pheasant shoots and deer stalking.
Perhaps the objection rests more on the ‘open air’ part of the phrasing.
But, when you can see your own breath crystallise, it doesn’t matter that a skin of canvas blocks out the worst of the weather, that, to me, is ‘open air’.
My friends know me so well that I had, in fact, already heard the news from the Right To Roam campaign newsletter:
Wild camping is pitching a tent when your body is tired and allowing the landscape to hold you where you belong, it’s learning about yourself and nature and it’s being inspired by looking up at the cosmos like we have done for millennia.
We will not back down. We will not let [..] entitled, misanthropic behaviour destroy the only remaining scrap of land where we are permitted to sleep freely under the sky.
This news was important, not only to me, but to society at large and it has provoked an instant response.
The first thing to say is that the Dartmoor National Park Authority have already struck a deal with The Dartmoor Commons Owners’ Association.
This agreement swiftly restored the right to wild camp on some parts of the Dartmoor Commons and, if your interest in this story is only tent peg deep, then you can stop here.
But if, like me, you’re unnerved by the summary dissolution of long-held rights by a single judgement — transatlantic echoes of the US Supreme Court decision on abortion last year — then please read on.
1 Pleasure Permit, Please
While, in a practical sense, wild camping on Dartmoor was only illegal for a few days, the legal judgement has dealt a huge blow to the spirit of our land.
Wild camping is allowed now only by the grace of the landed gentry.
That means, not only that the area for permissive wild camping is restricted, but that campers must now follow a code of conduct as a condition of their presence on the land.
Don’t get me wrong: much of the code of conduct is eminently sensible and is currently identical to pre-existing national park guidance.
But who knows what might be added to this code in future?
The nature of permission, of course, is that it is conditional and may be withdrawn at any moment — indeed, this hasty agreement only lasts twelve months.
Adding injury to insult, the Dartmoor National Park Authority must now pay landowners for the privilege of allowing access. Money that they do not have.
And You Want Us To Be Grateful?
Interestingly, Friday’s legal challenge was brought by a single landowner, a man scornfully described in the Guardian as a ‘veteran City fund manager’, for the broader narrative of this story — and the reason why it’s worthy of your attention — is the greed of the super rich against the freedom of the commoner.
As Guy Shrubsole from the Right To Roam campaign told the BBC:
The public have just had their right to wild camp summarily snatched from them by a wealthy landowner — now we’re expected to be grateful to landowners who grant us permission to wild camp, and pay for the privilege. It’s a ransom note.
But the law protects wealth and it is very difficult to challenge the super rich in court, on their home turf.
So Right to Roam are also organising something more embodied, on the veteran City fund manager’s actual turf: a mass gathering tomorrow afternoon to ‘summon the spirit of Old Crockern, Dartmoor’s ancient defender against greed’.
From the panicked tone of the event page, they are expecting a lot of support.
Which Side Are You On?
If, like me, you can’t get down to Dartmoor tomorrow, I urge you to go again (and again), alone, with friends, with lovers, with enemies, and camp on inalienable soil.
This isn’t about judiciary interpretations, this is about that ancient socialist incantation: Which side are you on?
Are you on the side of the alienating privilege that would threaten with force your quiet enjoyment of land, river, forest, stars?
Or are you on the side of what I’ve learned to call Team Human?
Do you listen to Douglas Rushkoff’s podcast Team Human? He recently wrote a book based on the fact that loads of the world’s richest people have hired him as a consultant to tell them how to stay safe in a societal breakdown. His answer is the same as yours: humans.
Little did I know that following this trail would be like stepping away from a jigsaw and suddenly seeing how the pieces fit together.
Our 260,000 Year Winning Record
Media theorist Douglas Rushkoff’s basic premise is that there are two competing approaches to solving the catastrophes of late-stage capitalism — two teams, if you like.
There is the team led by escapist billion- and trillionaires, who propose technological solutions for every planetary and societal ailment and who believe that their wealth can isolate them from the misery that their ways of life and business has helped cause.
You know the ones: those who think that the way out of the climate crisis on Planet Earth is to set up a plutocratic colony on Mars.
Whatever his problem was, his victory is Pyrrhic: he has only made things worse for himself.
In contrast, the Team Human playbook declares that the only way to solve our problems for everyone, including veteran City fund mangers, is not with alienation, but with closer community, mutual aid, and human interdependency.
Making Power Irrelevant
My friends know me well: I really do avoid all news media.
It’s worth reading in full, but here’s the part that leapt out at me:
[The] more resilient and self-sufficient we can become on a local level, the less pressure we put on […] larger systems and decisions.
The more sustainable our local economies, the less brittle will be their response to a sudden influx of immigrants or Covid-related business closures.
The more quickly and efficiently we can assist each other during extreme weather events, the less dependent we’ll be on […] centralised authorities for cash.
Such cooperation may actually require that we reduce our exposure to the most inflammatory messaging coming from our for-profit news opinion shows and Internet platforms, which work hard to undermine the collaborative spirit we need to face the challenges ahead.
Until I read these words (and heard them at the beginning of this episode of the Team Human podcast), I’d never really understood why it was so important to me to restrict my exposure to news media.
I always knew there was something going on, that undirected consumption of news media had a deleterious effect on my soul, but I’d never framed that as part of the wider struggle for our future as a species.
Douglas Rushkoff showed me how the pieces fit together.
Connection and cooperation on a local level — human to human, here and now — makes the relentless negativity of the news media, and the power it represents, not only harmlessly avoidable, but ultimately irrelevant.
Team Human Very Rarely Loses
It may feel like we have a long way to go to establish social justice through connection and cooperation — and we do.
But it begins with a small decision that we take today to play on Team Human.
The good news is that Team Human has a roster of billions and all we have to do is take our place on the field.
A united response to one man’s interpretation of the law renders that interpretation irrelevant: a mass camp-out will not, cannot be budged by the threat of violence.
Repeated camp-outs, combined with other citizen responses, will, inevitably, repeal that interpretation and create new laws that protect access to nature.
The high court’s decision over wild camping on Dartmoor is a setback, but I can now see that it is an invitation to make The Choice.
Will I choose Team Privilege and plan in vain my escape from humanity and the common life, or will I take the side of Team Human and, not only join the fight to repeal this judgement, but keep on fighting until we have extended the right to roam across the whole of England and Wales, as it is today in Scotland?
It’s a choice for us all.
Perhaps the right to roam isn’t your home ground, but humanity is a team game and we need everyone to pull on a shirt and play.
So, whatever position you find yourself in, whatever special powers you bring onto the field, Team Human needs you — right now.
Thanks to Dan Sumption for pointing me in the direction of Team Human. Dan writes a concise, conscious newsletter over at The Mycoleum.
If you have any suggestions on how I can expand my mind, I’d be very grateful if you’d take a minute to reply to this email with a book, a podcast, an article, an intellectual or a musician that changed your paradigm.
The big reason I keep going back to sauna is stories.
Conversations with a revolving cast of regulars and passing trade always make me think or feel something.
Sometimes I think those conversations are worth writing down and sharing.
So here you go: four short stories from sweating it out with strangers.
#1: Put Your Money On Humanity
The other day I had a meeting with my investment managers —
Wow, what an opener. That’s sauna life for you.
— and I asked them, where can I put my money so it’s safe?
And they said nowhere.
Isn’t that remarkable? There is nowhere that the professionals can say will be 100 percent safe for your money right now.
Even gold, they said, even gold.
Sorry for the depressing conversation —
No, no, it’s fine —
This is me speaking nowbecause I’m actually finding it a reassuring conversation.
This man is learning the truth that money can’t actually do anything for you. Only humans can.
And machines built by machines built by humans.
But mainly humans.
Maybe, instead of finding somewhere for his investments to live happily ever after, this man should put all his money on humanity, the stewards of the land, community, the carers and growers, and society, the builders, dreamers and changers.
In the future, we might not have money, but we’ll certainly have each other.
#2: Socialist Rather Than Progressive
I met a man in his fifties, I’d guess, who was anxious, scared and angry, all because of what he’d seen on TV.
What’s happening in Afghanistan, in Iran and in China, he told me. Terrible, terrible things.
When I pointed out that there wasn’t much he could do about that, he replied: You’re right. It’s no better here with the clowns we’ve got in charge.
You know, a few years ago I watched that Plantagenets programme — and nothing changes. It’s the same today, right? The rich get everything and the working classes get nothing — we’re serfs to them, that’s all. Serfs.
When I suggested that this world view might have been influenced by the same bad news he caught from TV and that some things might have changed a bit, he said: I’m with you, but I need more convincing.
The idea that things haven’t changed since the death of Richard III in 1485 strikes me as a little defeatist and surely more likely to result in things not changing, even if we would dearly love them to.
In the past 537 years, we have at least in the UK built a society where education and healthcare is free to all, without financial, ethnic, gender or class barrier.
If nothing changes, then why are so many people fighting so hard to keep it that way?
#3: You Only Live Once
You Only Live Once was his mantra. On his lips and, tattooed, on his shoulders.
He worked in fintech and talked about the price of gold and the US dollar. (Bearish.)
His plan, not this year, but next, was to fly to Cape Town and, from there, five or six hours by plane to Antarctica, with another two internal flights to tour the white continent.
It’s not cheap, but it’s a once in a lifetime trip, isn’t it? Four days with only fourteen other people on board.
He hates being around other people, you see.
He hated Prague. He had to get up at 6am to walk across the Charles Bridge because of The Masses.
He believes in working first and going away after. He only wants one or two weeks a month for Euro breaks. Then one longer trip at the end of the year, when he’d earned it, you know.
Before Christmas, he did the German Christmas markets. He flew Lufthansa on two legs of the trip, from Berlin to Munich and from Munich to Prague. (Which he hated.)
At this point, our investor from the first story asks, mildly: Do you ever consider trains for these short hops when you’re in Europe?
He only lived once, you see.
#4: Changing Lanes
He introduced himself as an HGV driver from Ewelme.
His daughter stayed on the lower shelf. His wife stayed in the hot tub. His son stayed quiet.
He used to be a chippie — the woodworking sort not the fish frying sort — decades in the trade. Eventually, he quit. It was doing his head in.
He retrained as an HGV driver. A big gamble for a fifty-year-old with a young family. Big gamble.
But he didn’t take to the hours at the wheel, the days of asphalt-induced solitude. Too lonely. Misses shop talk.
Now he works a couple of days on the HGVs, but does a nice sideline as a skip driver and waste refuse operative.
They’re a proper team. He loves it.
And look at him now, five years later on New Year’s Day, staying with his young family in a spa hotel on the south coast.
If you’re unhappy, I suppose, you’re never too old to change lanes.
I’d like to begin by saying thank you for having me.
2022 was a year of unprecedented growth for The David Charles Newsletter — there are 67 percent more of you here today than there were on this day a year ago.
For this humble director of a one-person media empire, that’s pretty exciting.
Before we go any further, I’d like to acknowledge that a whole blob of you found my work via Mike Sowden’s Everything Is Amazing. What’s amazing me right now is that most of you have stuck around. HONOURED.
For elsewho that stumbled across my pages elsewhence, please do inspect Mike’s stories. They really are very good.
A Short Tour Of The Forgotten Elses
elsehow (obsolete exc. dialect): In some, or any, other way.
elsewards (rare): In the direction of, towards some other place.
elsewhat (obsolete): Something or anything else.
elsewhen (obsolete): At another time, at other times.
elsewhence (archaic): From some other place or quarter.
elsewither (somewhat archaic): To some other place, in some other direction
elsewho (obsolete): Anyone else
elsewise (in current use — really?!): In some other manner; in other circumstances, otherwise.
Back in the hushed corridors of TDCN HQ, it’s been another busy year of publication, with 48 editions bringing us up to 342 since we first opened our doors in whenever it was. Wow.
This is also our third year publishing on Substack and I’d like to pause here for a short round of applause for our paying subscribers —
Andy, Claire, Tudor, John, Harri, Becky, Illia, Joanna, Maryla, Cass, Georgie, James, Joe, Libby, David, Tessa, JMJ and Geoff. And shout out to those of you who have paid in the past — I haven’t forgotten you 💚
(Director yelling over thunderous applause) Thank you, thank you! (Pumps chest and points out to individual members of the cheering audience, now all on their feet) Okay, okay, settle down, settle down — thank you!
If you’d like to join this merry band of paying pranksters, please come on in:
So now onto the hard numbers. What have our analysts learned from a stocktake of deliverables this year?
It comes as no surprise that the most opened email of 2022 was Man Sloth Mode, which was also the story that reached furthest outside this little bubble, with mostshares, and the one that drove the highest number of new readers — welcome, friends!
Here’s a snippet to remind you…
For about a year, I did nothing.
From November 2016 until October 2017, I was in what I have learned to call man sloth mode.
Honestly, apart from writing the first radio series of Foiled (which I never would have done without the impetus of Beth Granville), I can’t remember a single thing I did in that entire year.
This was also the post that I had most engagement with and it’s one that I’m proud to say still starts conversations today, nine months after publication.
Thanks to everyone who contributed and who is contributing still. And props to those people who have triggered a positive change in themselves and their communities.
(Ironically, the email that had the least reach outside this little bubble was the follow-up story: The Man Sloth Diaries. It’s still totally worth a read, IMHO.)
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.
Going a little deeper, average open rate over the year was 46 percent, but with very little deviation to my untrained eye.
What might be useful is to compare the three most opened email titles with the three least opened. See if you can spot which list is which:
Were these three most opened?
The Talented Mr Whippy
Bytes in Bitcoin
Progress Through Process
Or were these?
Room Service & The End Of The End Of History
The Cataclysmic Event Hypothesis
Unlocking Your Anxiety Archive
Now, personally, this director thinks that, as a title, The Talented Mr Whippy is a nuanced gem of inspired genius, but it seems that you luddites prefer a blunt instrument.
So expect more of that kind of cheap journalistic chicanery in 2023.
Actually, as we’re on the subject, what should you expect from TDCN in 2023?
It feels as if we are at something of a crossroads.
Although newsletter growth has been mightily encouraging, a quick run of the numbers suggests it would take another ten years of similar growth before I could draw reasonable remuneration for my work.
Woah, hold on, hold on. Put your fistycuffs away. Right up front I should say that I get far too much out of writing for you folks to boil it down to something as cheap as money.
But still… My writing hours do feel constrained by the economic imperative.
Helping to organise Thighs of Steel, which miraculously qualifies as a Proper Job, rightly demands much of my week-to-week brainpower, not to mention a large slice of the summer pie.
My scriptwriting work at Chalk & Charms Productions is also a priority and, after a year off post-BBC, already going places in 2023.
At the same time as that, writing these stories is still a generative process for me. At its finest, it manifests the abstract and brings into being new ways of seeing the world.
It is worth doing for its own sake, let alone for yours. (Although without you, TDCN is nothing.)
But at the same time as thaat (I told you it was a crossroads — how rare it is that people use all four exits when operationalising that metaphor), writing TDCN can feel directionless.
There is no unifying signpost propping up this newsletter and there is nothing to hold onto when the wind blows hard.
Perhaps that is why I am writing this as an imaginary shareholder review.
But perhaps it’s not an imaginary shareholder review.
Perhaps this is exactly it: perhaps YOU are the unifying signpost.
Successful newsletter writer Max Read has the following advice about what makes a successful newsletter:
Write about stuff you’re obsessed with and make your readers not wish they were dead.
So here are four things that I’m obsessed with, which I’m thinking of doing in 2023. Let me know if any of them make you wish you were dead:
Start a PAID newsletter called Round Britain Twice* about cycling (and other stuff) around Britain twice. It’ll have a bunch of free content, but the big idea is that, in a couple of years, all the paying subscribers will have effectively crowdfunded the writing and publication of a shiny book. TDCN would still exist, but it’d play second fiddle to this more focussed operation.
Do the same as above, but with my unpublished 2016 popular science-y memoir You Are What You Don’t. This has the added attraction (to me) of having two years worth of unpublished content just waiting to be edited and uploaded. The work is (90 percent) done.
Transition TDCN into a season format, like what you get on TV, with a proper publication schedule that includes breaks. Say eight weeks of newsletters followed by two weeks off to recharge and rewrite myself. These eight-week blocks could have recurring themes within them, such as Days of Adventure, that would serve as mini signposts along the way.
Do what much cleverer and more successful writers have been telling me to do for YEARS. Hammer a bold signpost into the TDCN soil: pick a niche and write into it, hard. Here are four ideas that wouldn’t make me want to kill myself:
Connectivism: a newsletter about all the ways we connect (or don’t). With ourselves, with each other, with our screens, with nature. With the COSMOS. (I also like that the ‘-ivism’ chimes with ‘activism’.)
100 Days of Adventure: a newsletter about transformation through whatever it is we call adventure.
You Are What You Don’t: a newsletter about what we learn through contrarianism and swimming against the current (not literally — I’m a bad swimmer).
Man Sloth Mode: a newsletter about the fight against male apathy in the home, the heart and the (w)hole wide world. (Yeah, I need a word that means ‘society’, but begins with ‘h’…)
So, my fellow shareholders. What do you think? What direction should we take in 2023?
My year started with dancing and Dancing Ledge, followed by an assault on a wardrobe, and then finally getting all the results back from my Zoe personalised nutrition experiment.
Data! — what a wonderful start to the year!
This Zoe experiment measured my blood sugar control, blood fat control and the contents of my guts. And, as a confirmed hypochondriac, the results are actually quite embarrassing.
What I was vaguely hoping for was some sort of blood or fecal explanation for my inherent recalcitrancy, soporific laziness, and, of course, those violent depressive episodes following any use of the letter ‘u’ in ‘sentences’ such as ‘what u up 2?’
Yes! — I have a SHOCKING diversity of microbial species living in my gut!
No wonder I’m completely broken as a human being — frankly, it’s a miracle that I’m even able to sit here and type these wor— Oh, wait.
Apparently, Zoe have discovered that there’s actually a ‘more powerful’ measure of gut microbiome health than mere species diversity, one based on the ratio of ‘good’ to ‘bad’ bugs in my tumtum.
Turns out that my constitution is bullet proof. How irritating.
Oh well. Let’s put that aside and look instead at what all this data might mean for my eating habits.
For data nerds (and, if you’ve got this far, that’s you), this is where the fun begins.
Zoe rolls all those delicious data points together, feeds them into an algorithm and spits out a score for every single imaginable foodstuff that you might put into your gaping maw (except, for some conspiratorial reason, strawberries).
These findings are not earth shattering — who knew that scoffing cake might be suboptimal for your diet? (But if you are going to scoff cakes, scoff these…)
Personalised nutrition is more about tweaking the little things, making subtle improvements through substitution or combination.
My personal takeaways (TAKEAWAYS) from this experiment thus far are:
Eat kale, broccoli and peas every day — green stuff, basically (mind blown, eh?)
Go mad on apples, oranges, avocados, passionfruit, cherries and grapefruit, but avoid dried fruit (except semi-dried prunes) and, while I’m in the fruit aisle, not much point in picking up bananas either (interesting)
My protein is, predictably, going to come from lentils, beans and tempeh (basically beans) — mind you, I haven’t been (BEAN) eating much of this sort of thing and my daily nutritional intake (which Zoe also calculates) has been totally fine without it
Swap out peanut butter for almond butter (that’s gonna get spenny) and balsamic vinegar for white wine vinegar
Eat bulgar wheat or pearl barley instead of rice, pasta or potatoes (and if I have to eat potatoes, go for sweet potatoes)
Add extra virgin olive oil, olives, hummus, nutritional yeast, kimchi and all kinds of seeds to everything (even the Welsh cakes)
When eating carbs, make sure to combine them with fats
Let’s see food combinations in action as we build the arch-hipster uber-brunch, smashed avo on toast, starting with just plain toast on the left:
See how one tablespoon of EVOO transforms that slice of rye sourdough toast from a worrying score of 45 (‘enjoy in moderation’) to a handsome score of 75 (‘enjoy freely’).
Smash some avo on top and — BOOM — 86 points, which I think translates to ‘gorge horrifically’.
So that’s how the Zoe program works. I won’t keep going on about it in this newsletter because it is, by definition, personalised to me.
It is also extremely expensive — £450 in total for the testing and four months of working with the data (that’s what I’ve started this week) — and most of you have much better things to be doing with that kind of money.
But I hope this little tour has helped you ponder a little about what’s going on inside you (and perhaps only you) when you put things inside yourself.
There are some predictable and unavoidable generalities — eat your greens daily, save your cake for special occasions — but your microbiome, like mine, is unique and will behave differently with everything you eat.
If you are interested in trying the Zoe program, then I have an invite code that will get you instant access (otherwise there’s a waiting list). Hit me back and I’ll send it over.
And, by all means, I’d be happy (possibly a bit too happy) to go into excruciating detail about anything else you’re curious about. Just wind me up and set me going.
I have one last question: anyone know how to make sourdough from gram flour?
ps: Oh, by the way, I am also extremely grateful to my little bugs for being so goldarned healthy. It makes me wonder what effect the past couple of years of more-or-less veganism have had on the little blighters. Doesn’t seem to have done much harm, anyway.
pps: I’m also thrilled to see my uncool attraction to Emmental backed up by the data. Number one, baby!
One of the projects we supported this year was Calais Migrant Solidarity, a No Borders activist group that I worked with when I first went to Calais in 2014. It’s remarkable that they’ve been a constant presence there, challenging the noisy narrative of our deadly border and organising with people on the move, since 2009.
It was great for us to be able to find such a wonderful funding organisation who would support our work without asking us to compromise our beliefs or messaging.
Man Sloth Mode is a temporary ‘depressed’ (low energy, low affect, low arousal) state of being, usually triggered by specific environmental factors, to which men are particularly susceptible. Man Sloth Mode was my most widely read, shared and commented story of the year, so it was great to join a Men’s Circle in Bournemouth, full of people eager to take their place on earth.
I’m one of 27 percent of people who rarely or almost never think about what I might do five years or more from now. I tried to fix this with a floor plan. Not sure it worked, but it was fun. I also learned that setting SMART goals and seeking high levels of accountability might be doing me more harm than good. Better to set up — and then appreciate — life-enriching processes.
The course I took in Nonviolent Communication (NVC) opened my eyes to the power of identifying what needs I am expressing when I realise that I’m feeling (say) frustrated, excited or overwhelmed. More on this topic in 2023, but for now here’s a quote from the founder of NVC, Marshall Rosenberg:
When the sole energy that motivates us is simply to make life wonderful for others and ourselves, then even hard work has an element of play in it.
Imagine we never felt anxious. Sure, we’d be mellow as fuck, but there’d be no adventures, no laughter, no stories to tell our grand kids. I’m anxious — GREAT. My body is priming me to get shit done. So let’s do it.
Perhaps another 2,500km to ride before my round Britain twice tour is completed. Or perhaps not…
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?
My 100th Day of Adventure started with me trying to discourage the local dogs from chewing up our cyclists’ helmets that’d been left scattered around camp after a long day’s ride. The year ended with a staggering 127 Days of Adventure.
It’s impossible to acknowledge, let alone thank, all the visible and invisible kindnesses that made Thighs of Steel possible this year. Philoxenia, the love of strangers and travellers, is alive and thriving.
I’m really lucky to have shared adventures this year with over a hundred wonderful people. You know who you are, but special mention to my mum who stomped through the clag with me on the twenty-five mile trail of Eliot’s Little Gidding.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time
I saw or spoke with 54 friends and family (-3 vs 2021) across the course of 957 interactions (+119 vs 2021) this year. 17 of those friends and family (31%) accounted for 700 interactions (73%). However, among the 12 most important of those friends and family, year on year interactions went down by 117 and I managed to increase my contact with only 3 of those people this year. On the plus side, I made 2 new friends this year, while 4 old friends also made a welcome comeback.
It feels like I have friends everywhere I go. I also realised that I love hosting people: this year I welcomed my first pair of Warmshowers cycle tourers (and promptly passed one of them onto my friends in France).
Instead of ‘minding your own business’ or jacking up on virtual propinquity through your phone screen, look to strengthen the connections you have with the beings immediately around you. You never know when and how they might need you — and you might need them.
Nothing creates the impression of limitless time as having nothing to do. Not because I’ve done nothing, but because I stopped when I’d done the important things.
In Italy, instead of making small talk about the weather, denizens prefer gastronomic tittle-tattle: ‘What did you cook last night?’, ‘What did you have for breakfast?’, ‘Terrible year for aubergines — but how about dem courgettes, eh?’
As we sweated up to the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière, one of the cyclists remarked: ‘I can’t wait to go on more adventures like this, now I know what I’m capable of!’
I had to disagree with her: ‘No you don’t. That’s the 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.’
The Beatles: statistically not as good as Dylan. Plus you can still see Dylan perform. Whether you enjoy the experience might depend more on what you believe is the purpose of live music: to recreate the recorded material or to create something new, specific to this place, these people and this moment in time.
Going to the sauna is a keystone habit for me: not only good for my physical health, but also a big screen-free reset button for my mind. I never know who I’m going to meet or what 80 degree conversations I might have: the Egyptian owner of a local nightclub, a woman who runs psychedelic sacred spaces… my childhood babysitter?!
I never imagined that investment in a digitised cartoon could set in motion a chain of events that end here:
I took 38 car trips this year, driving a total of 5106 miles — the distance from Bournemouth to Beijing. This is slightly less driving than in 2021, but still the equivalent of 48.3 mature trees’ worth of carbon. My average trip distance was 135 miles, less than the average range of even the cheapest electric cars. Hm.
Climate Action Tracker rates the UK as having one of the most effective net zero policies in the world. Even so, that policy is still ranked as only ‘almost sufficient’ to limit global heating to 1.5C. Must do better.
But I also have the misfortune to be a fan of certain sports — or, rather, I find myself seeking out sports news as a sort of soothing medication for certain twenty-first century maladies of the soul for which a lasting cure would risk rupturing the fabric of my fragile ego.
The last month, then, has been ripe for medication.
My dissatisfaction with sports-soothing was particularly acute when I was cycling from Edinburgh to Inverness a few weeks ago (stories here and here) — especially as the icy weather and early darkness would lure us indoors, often into places where the football was showing on screens large and small.
I found these ghostly attractions hard to resist and the vacant escapism of watching other people literally play out their lives in the desert heat of Qatari sports grounds created in me a strong sense of cognitive dissonance.
Subsuming myself to a screen is the very opposite of the connections of propinquity that I say I most value, and those I say I seek, most especially when I travel.
Either I’m a useless hypocrite or else nnnguhhhhhh?
What Cost Sports-Soothing?
I didn’t know what to do with this uncomfortable cognitive dissonance until, early this morning, at home in bed, I found myself switching on the radio to catch the last rites of the England men’s cricket team winning in Pakistan.
I could have been night-dreaming, day-dreaming, or even just listening to the whine of tinnitus in my left ear canal.
Instead I was lying in the dark, listening to someone else describe what they’d seen someone else do on a patch of lawn 6180km away.
Once I’d finished revelling in the statistical playground that was England’s ‘historic’ (what does that even mean?!) victory, I was sobered by an uninvited soul-searcher:
What opportunity cost am I absent-mindedly paying for my addiction to sports-soothing?
I’m sure you’re familiar with the idea of opportunity costs — they’re the things you could have done instead of doing the thing that you went and did.
When you start thinking about opportunity costs, it can rapidly spiral you into needing-a-lie-down-time.
Like: I studied Egyptology at university AT THE COST OF EVERY SINGLE OTHER DISCIPLINE, INTEREST, VOCATION, CAREER and, indeed, EXISTENCE.
Gosh. Thanks, Dave. Massive FOMO. Just what I needed more of.
Woolly Mammoths & Butterfly Wings
The way I see it, there are two species of opportunity cost that arise from our life choices.
There are the woolly mammoth costs, like not choosing a degree in radiology, fine arts or Xhosa and the careers thereby closed off forever.
Psychologically, the woolly mammoths are actually fairly manageable. They are so big that we tend to commit one way or another: interminable regret or indignant justification.
And, being egotistical fipple-flute humans, we tend to go for the latter.
Even if the decision is fairly arbitrary (I was always more Indiana Jones than Star Wars as a kid), it’s our decision so we don’t usually find it too hard to make peace with our chosen path.
Like the actual woolly mammoths, the psychological pain associated with massive and obvious opportunity costs tend to go extinct pretty quick. Definitely within 800,000 years, anyway.
But our daily lives are brimming with minute decisions that bear almost invisible opportunity costs that take their power from accumulation: our habitual opportunity costs, the butterfly wings that become the hurricane.
And our habitual opportunity costs aren’t just any common or garden butterfly.
They are none other than Papilio antimachus, the African giant swallowtail, which oozes a deadly poison called ouabain that kills by cardiac arrest.
Despite being smaller than a chequebook, these are the ones you need to be worrying about.
Masked in a cloak of apparent insignificance, we don’t tend to notice the cumulative cost of our chequebook-sized habits until we look over our end-of-life accounts and marvel at how much we’ve spent.
Whereas woolly mammoth costs loom large and fade rapidly, butterfly wing costs loom almost invisibly small, but simply won’t stop growing, dammit.
What’s the opportunity cost of choosing to take the bus to work instead of cycling?
Well, maybe not much on Day One, but come Day Four Thousand And Forty Seven, you might realise that you are still not a confident cyclist, not able to fix a puncture, not as fit as you once were, not as stoic in a rain shower and maybe not even in such a good place psychologically.
103 Lost Moments
Picking a random week in the past month, from my web history I can see that I scrolled through 103 unique BBC Sport stories.
That’s fourteen stories a day and doesn’t capture the number of times I refreshed the headlines, only the number of times I clicked through.
What were the opportunity costs for each of those 103 stories? It’s really hard to say without context.
So here’s context: I lied. That wasn’t a random week in the past month: that was the week I cycled from Edinburgh to Inverness.
Now what was the opportunity cost of those 103 disconnected moments?
Those moments when I could have been watching, listening, speaking, breathing, sharing and connecting with the landscape, society and stories around me, I was instead reading up on the ‘frightening depth’ (what does that even mean?!) of Gareth Southgate’s squad.
Fear & Soothing In Las Dave-gas
Now. I don’t want to beat myself up too much here, but I do think it’s worth plunging my Marigolded hands into the dirty washing up bowl of my mind, just once, to see if I can scoop out the gunk that’s been blocking up the drain of my mind and triggering my mindless sports-soothing.
If I can locate the trigger behind all the tabs, then I might be able to soothe those triggers in a way that doesn’t leave me feeling disconnected and all cognitive dissonancey.
Firstly, let’s get this myth out of the way: I’m certainly not triggered by a need for information when I click over to BBC Sport.
And this probably goes for you too, whatever your medication be. We seek information in a specific and timely way, we don’t go browsing for it.
Ah! But what’s this, dredged up from the deep, mottled with mould and crawling with lice?
Two triggers that get right to the base of my ganglia: fear and reward.
This trigger is a fear of what might happen if I permit my brain a moment without focus.
It’s not boredom. It’s not yet boredom.
It’s a state of pre-boredom. My brain flags the end of one activity and rapidly steps in with another, even if vacuous, to fill the void.
Over the past thirty years of maturation, my brain has somehow morphed into the encephalous version of an early Victorian preacher declaiming hellfire and damnation, for an idle mind is the devil’s workshop!
So I scroll over to BBC Sport and soothe my fraught neurons with talk of how French goalkeeper Hugo Lloris texted England’s Harry Kane after the latter struck a penalty kick, if anything, a little too well.
A despised manager gets the sack, a rival loses heavily to a lower league team, a goalkeeper in amateur football scores with a goal kick.
Once in a month, the one-armed bandit shells out and a deal is struck: my mind’s association between BBC Sport and pleasure is stuck.
The next time I finish writing a paragraph, I reward myself with the BBC’s analysis of Ben Doak’s career prospects.
The outcome when I satisfy triggers of both fear and reward is a soothing of the mind. Rather than staying with the end of a task, I soothe my agitation with sport.
A Wave Of Brilliance
If my BBC Sport habit isn’t working for me, then what can I replace it with?
However: it’s very difficult to replace a habit of doing something with a habit of doing nothing. That’s why they call them Zen Masters and not Zen Easypeasers.
That’s also why I’ve struggled with using distraction-taming apps like Freedom or Unpluq: they simply block your access to such and such a website.
They don’t offer any alternative, except sometimes a homily about taking a moment to breathe or some other patronising guff that doesn’t come close to meeting my desperate underlying need for soothing.
If I can’t have nothing, then what I need is something that promotes connection through novelty, something that rewards and soothes, and something that, through its randomness, might INSPIRE something in me instead of leaving me with the uneasy knowledge that Ronnie O’Sullivan compared his snooker opponent to Mr Bean.
Then, in a flash, I realised that there must be a way of programming my web browser to redirect every BBC Sport page to the Wikipedia Random Article page!
Within seconds, I’d found the Redirector add-on for Firefox and my sport-soothing days were over.
Ironic, then, that Wikipedians, like me, seem to have an overwhelming obsession with sports…
There are 6,590,624 articles in the English Wikipedia, about half of which are stubs containing nothing more than a couple of sentences.
This week, prompted by an app called Zoe, I have been experimenting with my morning repast.
On Tuesday, I ate a single bagel, then nothing for three hours. On Wednesday, I devoured a bowl of nothing but avocado. Thursday was (glory be) avocado on a bagel and today was a plain bagel immediately followed by a 30-minute brisk walk.
And here’s what those diabolically calibrated breakfasts each did to my blood sugar:
Note: The yellow line is when I ate breakfast. The blue shaded area is the three hour test period.
Plain bagel: blood sugar spikes and gradually descends — but remains higher than my typical baseline for this time of day. 5/5 on the hungry scale (ravenous).
Pure avocado: blood sugar doesn’t rise at all. 4/5 on the hungry scale (wolfish).
Bagel + avocado: blood sugar rises, but only after a 30-minute delay and it never goes as high as on Tuesday. 1/5 on the hungry scale (I could eat).
Bagel + walk: again, blood sugar rises, not as high as on Tuesday, but followed by a more steeper and deeper decline. 2/5 on the hungry scale (peckish).
One of the things I find interesting about these breakfasts is that there is no place for protein.
I’d always thought that protein = satiety, but it turns out that combining carbs and fats also = satiety. Even a brisk walk = satiety! How can a walk fill you up? Mind blown.
I was also struck by how much fat Zoe recommended I eat with my bagel: 200g. That’s two whole avocados — a lot more than you’d get on your smashed avo in a hipster cafe.
So that’s a couple of things I never knew about my body. I’m looking forward to learning more, particularly about what times of day I deal with food best — my glucose levels seem to struggle in the evenings.
(Note: Your blood and guts might respond to this kind of experiment very differently. There’s a reason why this is called ‘personalised nutrition’. See how you go!)
Tomorrow, breakfast will be a bowl of avocado, a 10-minute pause, and then the bagel.
I don’t know how Musty turned such a bleak tale of broken NGOs, broken borders, broken asylum systems and midlife breakdowns into such an enjoyable romp, but she did. She really did. Served with an unexpected twist of metaphysics. Buy it.
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller: A reread of one of my favourite novels of all time, in honour of ‘22. So good that I dedicated one of this year’s stories to the ideas therein.
Bullet Train by Kotaro Isaka: Picked up in Bologna, I was looking for a novel that would transport me. A pageturner about assassins on a train was perfect. Now a Major Hollywood Motion Picture, but don’t let that put you off.
The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac: Another reread. There are some books that grow roots with a second look. I don’t think this is one of them, really. Still good, but without the shuddering impact of my first time round.
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys: What an atmosphere! The flip side of Jane Eyre. What is real, what is truth? Like all the best novels, short, but lingering.
The Art of Losing by Alice Zeniter: Colonial and postcolonial Algeria through the eyes of a first generation French-Algerian woman. Unromantic historical fiction inside an unprecious family saga.
WINNER: Free by Lea Ypi
The personal story of a childhood in Albania as it clattered from socialism into capitalism, written by a woman who was there, a woman who is now a professor in political theory at London School of Economics. A healthy tonic for your arguments with neoliberals.
Wonderworks by Angus Fletcher: Strong exegesis on why and how stories affect our psychology. A little repetitive with enthusiasm of various story ‘inventions’, but that’s probably me being British.
Poverty Safari by Darren McGarvey: A tour of childhood poverty in Glasgow that illuminates the failings of activism on the left, how identity politics can exclude the working class, and why we should take personal responsibility rather than blaming The System.
How to Change by Katy Milkman: Behavioural psychologist tackles impulsivity, procrastination, forgetfulness, laziness, confidence and conformity. Another cracker recommended by Mike Sowden. Having said that: I remember nothing of this book, not even the chapter headings that I copied out and reprinted above. Time for a reread.
Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake: Wondrous. I read half this book in pre-print. It’s worth reading in full, twice. Everything is connected.
100 Acts of Minor Dissent by Mark Thomas: A comedian’s job is to show us the world as it really is, instead of how we assume or are told it is. Only a great comedian would put their dignity on the line and actually try to change that world. Such a comedian is Mark Thomas. Infectious, riotous. National Treasure.
Dare To Lead by Brené Brown: Ah, Brené! The doyenne of shame brings vulnerability to the workplace. Pairs well with a barrage of free resources. Do the work.
Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg: Simple guidance for anyone who wants a framework to understand what’s really underneath the feelings that they’re having. Genuinely life-challenging. More on this next week.
BONUS: One Category-Winning Book That I Didn’t Read (And Probably Never Will)
Speak to silence, speak of fire and fire, to the zero future of ice light
Future of fire and ice, with broken silence, speak to love
Speak, broken country, of love and roses, cold wind, gifts and night
Future of ice and fire, in broken night, speak to laugh
Fire to ice, speak to silence — bring love on,
And the fire and the roses make one.
Over two days earlier this week, mum and I walked 45km from Peterborough Cathedral to a tiny church hidden by trees in a tiny place called Little Gidding.
Little Gidding — named for the madness of divine possession — is the toponymic title of the fourth of TS Eliot’s Four Quartets, a collection first published 1936-1942.
Last winter into spring, you might remember, we walked from the first of the quartets to the second: Burnt Norton to East Coker.
It was a journey of no particular end, but at least in its beginning was its end.
This week’s hike had no such defined beginning. As the house painter at our guest house said: ‘Why Peterborough?’
I’ll leave an answer to Eliot himself, from the first part of Little Gidding:
Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfilment.
Swan carcasses, evensong, rotting sculptures, masked graffiti, community tree planting, heron flights and invisible medicine — all before leaving the bounds of Peterborough.
What is your own description of what the songs on ‘Love and Theft’ are about?
You’re putting me in a difficult position. A question like that can’t be answered in the terms that you’re asking. A song is just a mood that an artist is attempting to convey. … I really don’t know what the summation of all these songs would really represent.
… I don’t consider myself a sophist or a cynic or a stoic or some kind of bourgeouis industrialist, or whatever titles people put on people. Basically, I’m just a regular person. I don’t walk around all the time out of my mind with inspiration.
Over fifty years of interviews, Dylan is enduring in his intention: he’s nothing more than a ‘song and dance man’, trying to capture a mood.
Whatever meaning you take from that mood, well that’s up to you.
Just reading and repeating those words makes me come up short: that’s not what it’s about. Not for me, anyway.
That’s the danger of reading the critics.
Good for them for spotting all these biblical references in the text, but I am Dylan The Relativist when it comes to poetry: I don’t want to be told what something means.
(Not even by George Orwell, who thought Four Quartets was a bit of an Anglo-Catholic, Royalist, political let down. Even so, as Orwell goes on to say: ‘To dislike a writer’s politics is one thing. To dislike him because he forces you to think is another.’)
I don’t know whether Eliot was of a similar mind to Dylan when it came to the interpretation of his work, but I know as a writer myself that part of what makes writing so magical is precisely the batshit readings that some crazies put on your work.
Writing scripts for radio means putting words into the mouths of actors. But it’s not a one-way track.
A great actor takes those words and spins them in a direction the writer never dreamed. And when it works: gold.
Not only does fantastical interpretation make my work easier (and make me look much cleverer than I am), in some sense, creative interpretation is the goal of my work.
I write down images, you recreate them in your head.
Sometimes, if I’m lucky, those images land as significant — but never forget that it’s your recreation that generates the significance.
At best, I can be credited with nudging your thoughts in the vague direction that my own were heading.
Just as often, I’m sure, my words send you off another way altogether. And that’s fine.
(Of course, our efforts are usually a footnote in your lives and, all too frequently, our words scarcely survive as CONTENT, passing by your eyeballs for a moment’s distraction.)
But it’s right and noble for a writer’s words (or music) to be nothing more (or less) than a prompt for your own creativity.
That’s what Eliot does for me: his poetry prompts.
In this case, it prompted a hike.
Now: I suspect that a hike is not what Eliot had in mind as he laboured over his poem, while ‘highly civilised human beings’ flew overhead trying to kill him.
But my creative response is none of his business.
Altered In Fulfilment
I’m not saying that intended meaning isn’t important for everyday communication.
If I say something to you, I usually have a clear intention to communicate some kind of meaning to you. If you get it wrong and I find out, it’s likely that I’ll try again.
What I am saying is that, when it comes to poetry, interpretation is far more important than intention.
Art is what an artist puts before an audience. The work is done. It’s gone. There’s nothing more the artist can do about that. The monkey is out of the cage and the work stands alone.
That’s not to say that artists have no right to try again (and again) to capture and convey the mood they have in mind.
That must be what has powered Bob Dylan across eight decades of creativity: striving to capture and convey some element of ineffable human experience.
Otherwise why bother writing another bitter lover jilted ballad after Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright (1963), a song so successful that it’s been recorded 237 times since?
Why should Dylan follow that up with One Too Many Mornings (1964), I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met) (1964), Mama, You Been On My Mind (1964), Like A Rolling Stone (1965), One Of Us Must Know (Sooner Or Later) (1966), She’s Your Lover Now (1966), Dirge (1974), Idiot Wind (1975), If You See Her, Say Hello (1975), You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go (1975), Most Of The Time (1989), Love Sick (1997) and Forgetful Heart (2009) — to name, off the cuff, thirteen of my favourite songs, not only in the bitter lover jilted ballad genre, not only of Dylan’s, but in the whole of recorded musical history?
Dylan is trying to convey the ineffable. With great songs — or poetry — we get it. And each time we get it, we get it in a slightly different way, bringing our own past, present and future to the poem.
Bob Dylan consistently rejects the labels that other people want to put on his occupation and on his lyrics.
And I’ll do the same with Little Gidding.
We Shall Not Cease
Situations have ended sad
Relationships have all been bad
Mine’ve been like Verlaine’s and Rimbaud
Both Eliot and Dylan were influenced by the poet Arthur Rimbaud, the poet whose inept gun-running granted Ethiopia the arms to defeat the colonising Italians and remain the only unfettered nation in Africa.
Rimbaud was once lauded as France’s greatest poet. Novelist Henry Miller decided that ‘contemporary French poetry owes everything to Rimbaud’.
Here’s a snippet of Rimbaud to give you a flavour:
It has been recovered.
What? — Eternity.
It is the sea escaping
With the sun.
I can see both Dylan and Eliot waiting to burst free.
But the word ‘Poet’ is nowhere near Rimbaud’s gravestone. It’s Arthur Rimbaud, Adventurer*.
Maybe that is some validation of my interpretation of Eliot’s poetry as a call to adventure (yes: it’s not Abyssinian gun-running, but even a hike in Cambridgeshire can be adventure).
It’s right there in the poetry of Little Gidding, too:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Time is cyclical. Creation is cyclical. Sunrise to sunset.
In My End Is My Beginning
So let’s read the batshit opening of today’s story again — and know it for the first time:
Speak to silence, speak of fire and fire, to the zero future of ice light
Future of fire and ice, with broken silence, speak to love
Speak, broken country, of love and roses, cold wind, gifts and night
Future of ice and fire, in broken night, speak to laugh
Fire to ice, speak to silence — bring love on,
And the fire and the roses make one.
This nonsense poem definitely means something to me, something about walking through midwinter England with poetry on my mind and my ma by my side.
If I’m lucky, it might mean something to you. Something strange, maybe.
But if you know your Eliot and Dylan, it might mean something altogether else. If you look closely. Look closely.
Fire to ice, speak to silence — bring love on,
And the fire and the roses make one.
It might entertain you to know that my little poem was written using only the fifty-two words found in both Eliot’s Little Gidding and Dylan’s Love Minus Zero/No Limit.
What does that mean?
Nothing at all — except that the little poem now exists in the world and maybe it means something to me and maybe it’ll mean something to you.
Besides, I got nothing else to do, man.
*I got this detail from an interview given by Bob Dylan to journalist Jonathan Cott in the January 26, 1978 edition of Rolling Stone. It’s not true. Rimbaud’s grave credits neither poetry nor adventure, only the resigned words ‘Pray for him’.
But I was really struck by something that the first speaker, Emma, shared during her re-telling of a Christmas adventure on the Carretera Austral in Chilean Patagonia.
The Carretera Austral is a 1240km road that runs dead south through one of the most wild and remote places on the planet, with the Andes mountain range to the east and the Pacific ocean to the west, in a region populated by fewer than one person per square kilometre on average.
It’s a forbidding road to cycle alone: hundreds of kilometres of undulating hills, with scarcely any of the demographic distraction of towns or villages — or even any opportunity to make a turn left or right.
When, in the distance, Emma saw a sign that said 18km to her campspot for the night, she rejoiced. When, close up, she saw that the sign read 48km, she despaired.
But the relentlessness of the ride worked over her psyche in the way that only physical exercise can. Her mental landscape gradually turned with the wheels she pushed.
The road is here. The hills are here. I am here.
I chose — and I choose — to be here.
In such a situation, dread for the road ahead is, well, pretty absurd.
636km in Winter
On Wednesday night, I fell asleep in Inverness and woke up in London.
(Full marks, incidentally, to the Caledonian Sleeper — cheaper and far more convivial than a day train.)
I was on my way back from completing the sixth stage of my second tour around Britain, covering 636km from Edinburgh to Inverness across nine days.
Last week I wrote about how we should rebrand November as Yes-vember and shift our wintertime adventuring mindset away from ‘cold, miserable’ to ‘crisp, magical’.
(For those of you wondering: nope, I never solved the problem of cold feet. Not even the mysterious air-activated chemical foot warmers that G kindly bought me did the job. Next time: get sponsored by a heated sock company?)
What I heinously failed to mention last week was my dread.
Without really meaning to, I might have given the impression that I decided to go cycling in Scotland at the end of November and then that’s what I went and did.
It wasn’t that simple.
In the run-up to the ride, I wasn’t feeling my best and I went through the motions of preparation on autopilot.
Mechanically, I filled pannier bags with sleeping kit and warm clothes and fitted Martin (my bike) with water bottles, snack bags, tool kits and all the other accoutrements of cycle touring.
I did just enough work to get myself into a position where I could still go up to Scotland.
But even as I was driving crosscountry to meet G, who kindly offered to give me a lift up to Glasgow, I was still not convinced that I would go — that I should go, even.
Who cycles around Scotland in the frosted tip of November? Shouldn’t I rather stay at home, bed down for winter and work? Wouldn’t I rather take saunas and watch the World Cup?
At This Point…
Huge thanks are in order to G, without whose logistical and psychological support I wouldn’t have had the gumption alone to get my ass up north.
Somehow, she made adventure the path of least resistance.
We all need allies like that: thank you!
But Still: Dread
Even after we’d arrived in Glasgow, even after a day of rest and recovery, I was still hesitant to catch a train to Edinburgh and begin the ride.
Breaking inertia is always the hardest part of doing anything. Going from zero to one: The Doorstep Mile, as Alastair Humphreys calls it.
Why not stay in the warmth and maybe leave tomorrow?
Or, actually, there’s no need to push myself to ride at all.
I could find somewhere to work from Glasgow and enjoy the company of my friends up here for a week of warmth instead of cycling alone around the cold coastline.
In the end, I was decided by the gentle persuasion of my own preparations, bolstered by memories of past experience with inertia and a growing sense of expectation from those around me that I was here to ride.
And the weather forecast signed rain for tomorrow.
Best would be to start today, now, this evening, with a few hours of night-riding to camp, across the water from Edinburgh on the northern shore of the Firth of Forth.
There was nothing left to do but get moving. And with decisive action, dread dissolved to thrill.
The road is here. The hills are here. The cold is here.
I chose — and I choose — to be here.
Fortune Favours, Erm, Me Sometimes
As you can hopefully see from my photos, my choice was paired with fantastical fortune.
Aside from two hours of drizzle through the morning of my first full day’s ride and a hail squall near Carnoustie, the weather was clear sunshine, unbroken but for the long nights, which were filled by the light of more distant stars and an otherworldly crescent moon.
Such fortune went untarnished by yet another snapped chain — I wonder what I’m doing wrong? Probably just cycling too much.
My nine days of sunshine and stars couldn’t have been in more extreme contrast to the experience of a fellow tourer I met on that sleeper train from Inverness.
Nurul had cycled from the west instead of the east. Her ride had been a battle of winds and rain, off road or main road, through the central highlands.
Originally from Malaysia, Nurul is one of those ordinary humans going about doing extraordinary things while the rest of us are writing emails and washing duvet covers.
Her ride began when she woke up one summer morning to the realisation that she was vanishingly alone in the world: no ancestors, no descendents. Everyone who had ever cared for her was dead.
So Nurul quit her job and flew to Amsterdam, determined to start connecting with some of the other seven billion humans on this planet.
I’m lucky that one of them was me.
Fuelled by a dim memory of how much she loved the freedom of cycling when she was a kid, Nurul’s original plan was to spend a couple of weeks riding from Amsterdam to Hamburg.
But a chance meeting with some Danes led her further on, and, once in Denmark, why not keep going?
Eventually, in the long light of Sweden, she met a Dutch guy who was cycling back home to Amsterdam.
‘But this is Sweden! How do you get to Amsterdam from here?’
By the time Nurul got back to Amsterdam, she realised with a shock that she only had four days left on her 90-day EU visa — too much of a scramble to get her bike packed up and a flight home.
So she cycled across the Netherlands and hopped onto a ferry to Harwich.
(I’d never considered how handy Britain’s exit from the EU is for long distance cycle tourers!)
Nurul’s plan was to take a few days in London to sort her travel back to Malaysia, without the pressure of a four-day deadline.
But you’re getting a good idea of what happens when Nurul makes plans…
Yep: she cycled a thousand kilometres up country to Inverness.
Nurul still hasn’t learned her lesson, though. Worried, perhaps dreading, the onset of winter, she now, finally, plans to fly home.
I get it: Malaysia is a tropical country. Even if it wasn’t, hell, I myself was dreading the prospect of cycling in the UK in November.
I wouldn’t blame Nurul for returning home. But that didn’t stop me, as we said goodbye at Euston station, from beseeching her to tilt her handlebars southwest.
Midwinter in Cornwall is no worse than Scotland in November, I told her, certainly not the November she’d experienced, with its freezing hail and sub-zero temperatures.
Come stay with me, come ride with me. There is so much more to see, so many more of the seven billion here to meet.
Three Shifts: Statistical, Logistical, Psychological
Since 2020, when I left home to cycle the first stage of my second round Britain ride, I’ve cycled a total of 5,109km over 73 days.
The biggest statistical shift between this multi-year, staged journey and the first time I cycled around Britain is how far I travel each day.
In 2011, I averaged 50km per daymore than I am cycling this second time round. Madness.
The biggest logistical shift is from doing the whole thing in one 58-day sprint in the summer of 2011 to splitting the ride into nine stages, spread over five years.
Half a decade. Wonderful.
But the biggest shift between this journey and the first is the shift in my internal and external outlook, from isolation to connection.
This, as some of you will certainly know by now, is my second time cycling this way.
Back in 2011, this section of my 58-day circumcycle of Britain took me six summer days.
This time around I’ve been on the move three days already and I’m less than a third of the way to Inverness.
Well, actually, I got to Perth yesterday lunchtime so that’s only half a day and I left Edinburgh on Tuesday as the sun was setting athalf past three. So that was only four hours’ riding in darkness and mist.
Wednesday was a full day’s ride, but a full day’s light in November in Scotland is less than eight hours. A scarce comparison to July 2011, when the light lasts more than twice as long.
I guess this is why November — the end of November, no less — is not the typical time of year for a bonnie bike tour.
It also explains why I haven’t seen any other tourers on this ride so far. Only swaddled commuters and university students pushing around Saint Andrews.
All the fun, but none of the heaviness of Christmas. Mince pies and Christmas cake, but not yet wall-to-wall East-17 and Mariah Carey.
All the amazing kit. Okay, I acknowledge that kit does cost money and it helps that I basically do this sort of thing professionally now, but… Proper winter kit is thrilling for what it can do for your comfort. Key items so far: insulated sleep mat (£££), thermal base layers (£), quality lights for hours of night riding (££).
The weather can never disappoint you. It’s winter: you’re expecting cold and rain. It doesn’t always happen. Rejoice. (In fact, it’s only drizzled for two hours out of the 18 that I’ve been riding.)
PS: Aren’t You Cold?
97.2 percent of me: absolutely not. While I’m cycling, even in the drizzle, I’m cosy from helmet to heel.
The solution to cold feet doesn’t seem to lie in layering. I’m wearing two pairs of socks (one waterproof), plus two sets of overshoes (one thermal).
Layering isn’t the solution because trapping warm air doesn’t seem to be the problem.
The problem is inactivity — an odd thing to say given how much exercise I’m doing, but hear me out.
Cold feet aren’t a problem when I’m hiking through snow, for example, where my feet are active players, flexing this way and that.
This only happens when I’m cycling in winter, where my feet are nothing more than terminal platforms; contact elements between piston thighs and crank pedals.
They are the selfless heroes of the journey: closest to the upspray from the wet road, toes to the wind, sixty times a minute pushing on the pedals, and with every pounding what warm blood remains further condensed and crushed.
The problem might not be layering, but I’m determined that my toes know how grateful I am.
So yesterday I went out and bought not one but two more thermal layers for my poor phalangeal platforms — and my shoes are in the oven.
What are you most fearful of or what stops you from bringing every part of yourself to a relationship and sharing your whole heart, warts and all, with your partner?
I’m a newish member of a Men’s Circle, a group of guys who meet every fortnight to listen (and talk). We also drink tea and eat biscuits, but mainly we listen (and talk).
Every meeting is an inspiration — not because we all sit around patting ourselves on the back, but because everyone, every week, has So. Much. Going. Down.
No one’s behaviour is perfect all the time, of course, but the circle leaves me feeling that it’s outright miraculous how generous, loving and, well, functional everyone is most of the time, given what’s going down in our lives and in our heads all the time.
And the people around this circle aren’t special (no offence). Every person I meet on the street, in the library or at the sauna will also be wrestling with just as many demons, internal and external, I’m sure.
The circle changes the way I see the world:
Someone’s rude? Wow, sorry. You’ve got a lot going down right now. (Probably needs a circle…)
Someone’s kind, despite everything that’s going down right now? Double wow — thank you. (Probably needs a circle…)
Everyone — in the circle and beyond — is doing their best and, transcending the banality of the motivational poster, we really are all in this together.
Popping The Question
The question at the top was a prompt brought to this week’s circle by one of the men.
But it wasn’t his question. It was a question he’d been given after asking several women another question:
If you could put just one question to a whole group of guys, what would you ask?
Unanimously, every time, this was their answer:
What are you most fearful of or what stops you from bringing every part of yourself to a relationship and sharing your whole heart, warts and all, with your partner?
Big question, huh?
But what was really interesting was the unanimous response from men around the circle. We threw the question right back:
Wait a second — are you sure you’re ready to hold space for me to be vulnerable with you?
Depth Or Distrust?
It’s not that men didn’t also want a deeper level of connection in their relationships, but I think it’s fair to say that we all shared past experiences where our partners haven’t always welcomed male vulnerability or seen it as a strength.
Without breaking any confidences, many of us had been burned in the past when we have tried to share wholeheartedly and found our vulnerability rejected or pushed back, a shaming experience that contributed to the breakdown of several relationships.
Hence the distrust around the circle: if we feel that we’ve been punished for showing vulnerability in the past, what makes you different? Why should we trust you when you ask us for wholeheartedness?
I refuse to conclude from this apparent impasse that our partners might be saying they want one thing when they secretly want another — that sounds pretty patronising to me.
I reckon there’s something much more interesting going on here.
You’ll Need A Surgeon For Open Heart Surgery
(Note: I’ll be talking in terms of ‘men’ and ‘women’ in the context of heterosexual relationships here because that’s how it was framed in our discussion and, as a cis heterosexual male, I don’t feel qualified to talk across the whole rainbow of humanity’s wonderful combinations and pollinations.
I’d be super interested to hear how it plays out from your perspective if you fancy replying to this email.)
I think it’s perfectly possible that a woman can desire more wholeheartedness from their partner, while, at exactly the same time, the man in this relationship finds that his wholeheartedness isn’t always positively received.
These two experiences are not incompatible.
One of the distinctive traits of Man Sloth Mode is that men, particularly those in relationships, become increasingly dependent on their partner — another experience that was echoed around the circle.
It’s more than likely that your partner really does want you to be more vulnerable with them. It’s also highly likely that it’s neither healthy nor possible for them to carry the weight of being your only emotional support network.
It’s one thing to open up to your partner, it’s quite another to tear into your flesh, rip out your ribcage and spill blood and guts in the hope that they can perform open heart surgery.
(Note to self: you’ll need a surgeon for that.)
Shooting Ourselves In The Face (As Per)
In general, women survive relationship breakdown much better than men, primarily because, well, for example:
The analyses reveal that women have larger networks and receive supports from multiple sources, while men tend to rely on their spouses exclusively.
Once again, the support systems that men fail to put in place around themselves, in combination with an overreliance on one (let’s be honest) caregiver, is shooting ourselves in the face.
(I say face rather than foot here because, frankly, I’ve always wanted to start a new idiom. But it’s also a more graphic reflection of the damage we’re doing to ourselves, not to mention the messy clean up job required of other people.)
Women want more vulnerability from their men, but men don’t trust that they will be held, most probably based on past experiences where they have become overreliant on a single partner.
It’s a heartbreaking cycle that will only be broken when men find emotional support from outside the pair bond.
Your Boat Needs A Crew
Reluctance to share wholehearted vulnerability comes from a deep-rooted fear of rejection.
In answer to your question, women, that’s what we’re most afraid of.
But — but but but — that fear only looms so large for us because, most often, you and you alone represent at least, ooh, 80 percent of our entire emotional support network.
No wonder we’re petrified of rejection. Your acceptance is (almost) everything to us.
And that, my friends, is an INSANE way to live our lives.
It’s totally unrealistic to expect one person to carry such pivotal weight in someone else’s life — no wonder sometimes our vulnerability is rejected. It’s too much to bear.
The solution is to create an independent emotional support network — like a Men’s Circle — that can nourish us with the affirmation, acceptance and assurance that we need to feel heard.
(Hint: a network is not one person. Shoot for twelve and you might get six.)
High up in the rigging of love, with that net beneath to catch us, the rejection of one person, however important they may have once been, is not the be-all and end-all.
It’s just one person who couldn’t accept your wholehearted beingness.
And that’s a muuuuuch easier lesson to accept if you’ve got your whole crew beside you on the harbourside, friends and comrades who’ll buy you fish and chips, help re-pack your sea chest, and wait with you until your ship finally comes in.
What are we really looking for when we’re really looking for something?
That was the question I found myself asking as I tore onward through the sodden undergrowth, shredding myself on brambles and pulling myself up on slippery fern roots and inquisitive cables of rhododendron.
I reached the top of the bank covered in liquid soil, faced with a thick hedgerow and a stand of barbed wire. From the comfort of his finely mowed paddock, a horse stared back at me, through the mizzle, over this impassable fence.
I was looking for a footpath — clearly mapped, I might add, right here. But the map is not the territory. In this case, the territory is the thorn.
I slid back the way I’d scrambled.
With three days to spare between two activities inside the M4 Corridor, I decided to drive through to the old red sandstone mountains of the Brecon Beacons, ostensibly on a mushroom-hunting escapade.
Given that my mushroom identification skills are almost non-existent — there is only one species I can name with any confidence — the hunt is rarely more than an excuse to spend time foraging the humid air.
In that sense, I found exactly what I was looking for.
When we look for something, anything, we usually start with something in mind. And so it is that these grades of knowledge also frame the context of our search:
Unknown knowns: unconscious competence, flow, mastery — but also unconscious bias, blind spots, invisible privilege, systemic violence, racism, etc. (Žižek’s example was the US military’s atrocities at Abu Ghraib)
Known knowns: conscious competence and confidence, closed mind, fixed mindset, our comfort zone
Known unknowns: conscious incompetence, growth mindset, learning, open mind, self-awareness, the wisdom of Socrates, managed risk, beyond our comfort zone
Unknown unknowns: unconscious incompetence, adventure, mystery, faith, more blind spots, unmanaged risk, recklessness, the danger zone
If we start our search with our minds filled with knowns (whether known or unknown), then we’re unlikely to find much besides the thing we are looking for.
As of 2020, mycologists had named about 148,000 different species of fungus. The current best guess is that there are at least another 2.65 million more to be stumbled upon.
At the absolute most, my ignorant, but open-minded walk unwittingly uncovered 0.0001 percent of fungal diversity.
For every one of those beautiful waxcap mushrooms that caught my eye in the wet grass, dozens more species were growing hidden in the soil beneath my feet — the overwhelming majority unknown to even the most prolific mycologist.
This brief peer behind the taxonomic curtain gives us but a glimpse of the fathomless possibility of what we could be ‘looking for’ if we open our minds as well as our eyes.
Imagine searching for a tin needle in a haystack — and missing that each blade of straw is solid gold.
What are we really looking for when we are really looking for something?
Perhaps life is at its most wonderful when we acknowledge that we don’t even know ourselves.
I’d spent a pretty sleepless night trying to discourage the local dogs from chewing up our cyclists’ helmets that’d been left scattered around camp after a long day’s ride.
We were all still feeling pretty tender from our brush with some kind of Montenegrin lake-bourne vomiting bug.
Considering that, only two nights previously, I’d half-slept on a trolley in A&E, I felt incredible on yesterday’s ride.
Powering up the shady steep slopes of the Albanian Dajti and swooshing untrammelled down the other side, zipping through sixty kph mountain tunnels, out and over metalwork spans over thousand metre drop gorges.
I’d felt incredible, that is, until lunch.
Then things went rapidly downhill. Luckily, the last thirty kilometres of yesterday were indeed rapidly downhill.
So, although I woke up on Friday morning feeling okay, I was glad to be spending the day in Calypso, our twenty-year-old Ford Transit support vehicle*.
We waved the cyclists off, packed up camp and drove onward, over the Korab Mountains and into North Macedonia.
At the border, we discovered that we didn’t have valid vehicle insurance for countries outside the EU and would not be allowed to continue until we bought a 14-day insurance pass for €50.
Love that no border guards had cared about such legal niceties in Albania.
In 2019, as one of the conditions of their accession to NATO, the Republic of Macedonia agreed to adopt the geographical qualifier ‘North’, appeasing Greek political concerns.
As Calypso chugged into her ninth country of the tour, I noticed that someone had peeled away the cheap sticker that had announced the country’s new name, revealing the old beneath.
Together we flew over the border mountains to Lake Debar and followed the Black Drin all the way to Lake Ohrid, through pine forests and beside glittering water, marvelling at the beauty of the day’s ride from the hot cabin of Calypso.
We found camp on the shores of Lake Prespa and started to cook two tonne carbohydrates, with the moon rising over the distant blue of the Baba Mountain.
But we had no phone reception on the lakeside beach and, as time ticked on, somewhere out there in the gloaming, most of our dehydrated, delicate cyclists were climbing a mountain.
I climbed back into Calypso and drove the sharp zigzags to the top of Galičica, nerves rising with each switchback and no one in sight. Did they have lights? Had they run out of water, food? Or worse?
Then, somewhere near the summit, a dozen sweat-stained cyclists drifted like ghosts from the gloom before me, spirits high.
Sucking with relief, I refilled their waters and handed out lights and fleeces for the long descent.
Then I followed them down, headlights flickering against reflective cycle tape. The stars played on the lake below.
That day was my hundredth day of adventuring in 2022.
215 Days of Adventure (And Counting)
Last year, I wanted to spend more time outdoors and less time in front of the computer. To make sure that happened, I set a target to have 100 Days of Adventure.
This is my definition of a Day of Adventure, a simple yes or no: did I spend a significant chunk of the day outside on an adventure?
‘Significant chunk’ and ‘an adventure’ are both deliberately relative because I want DOA to be a binary measure that works for everyone. What’s significant and adventurous for you will feel different to everyone else: maybe dangerous, maybe dull.
After a slow lockdown start, I ended 2021 with 102 DOA, a healthy increase so far as I could tell from the years before.
The project was such a success that I decided to keep it rolling into 2022.
Today, we are 308 days deep into the year and I’m proud to say that I’ve spent over a third of that time outdoors, adventuring: 113 days.
A Big Year
I always knew this was going to be a big year: I was scheduled to spend 46 days on the road this summer with Thighs of Steel, cycling from Glasgow to Milan and then from Dubrovnik to Athens.
Days of Adventure are not necessarily biased towards these kind of exotic foreign epics: after all, I spent 35 days cycling around southern England in 2020.
But there’s no question that this big year owes much to the relaxation of pandemic lockdowns and border controls, allowing me to adventure abroad.
In fact, there was so much adventuring going on that I had no time to celebrate passing my 100 day target. So that’s what I’m doing today.
(Seriously, I mean that: yay 🥳)
Although my definition of adventure is flexible enough to encompass almost anyone doing almost anything, I know that it’d hard for most people to hand over a third of their year to adventuring.
(Besides the fact most people wouldn’t want to!)
100 days in a year is ambitious. 113 days (and counting) is straight-up ridiculous. When I stop for half a second to think about it, I feel very lucky.
For some reason, tracking my Days of Adventure is really working for me. This story is about why that’s the case and how something similar might work for you.
It’s a story that begins with a cautionary tale.
Goals Are Dangerous
My old philosophy tutor told us of a friend of his who had a long-time dream to collect a first edition of every record put out by a ridiculously niche record label.
(I think the label was some 1970s Americana psychedelic weirdness, but that’s not the cautionary part of the tale.)
This was back in the days before eBay and Amazon so tracking down the records meant trawling through secondhand junk markets across the world.
There were only about twenty records to find, but the search took him decades. Every LP that he finally found only raised the rarity of the next.
By the late-nineties, we were told, he had found all but one of the records. It’d been six years since he’d added to his priceless collection, but for as long as he hadn’t found that last LP, the game was still on.
Then he found it.
What a moment. What a feeling that must have been, after so many years of searching, to have finally completed the set, to have won the game.
To our tutor’s enduring incredulity, his friend never bought that last record.
He picked it up in the shop, flipped it over and read the sleeve notes. Then he slipped it back onto the shelf, went up to the desk and sold the lucky shopkeeper everything he’d worked to collect over the past twenty years: the entire back catalogue of this ridiculously niche 1970s Americana psychedelic weirdness label.
That’s the cautionary part of the tale: even an extremely difficult goal will, with dogged human persistence, be completed.
And then what? Emptiness.
Once he’d found the final piece, there was nothing more for our collector to do but scrap the lot, like breaking up a jigsaw puzzle.
That’s the danger of goal-setting — and that could be the danger inherent in a project like 100 Days Of Adventure.
But there’s something different with the design of that game, a difference best illustrated by another project of mine — now permanently shelved.
The Country Game
Back in the early 2000s, I had a friendly competition with pals to see who could travel to as many different countries as possible.
(Okay, it wasn’t always friendly — Monaco and the Vatican really got people’s backs up.)
The only rule was that the visit had to include at least one overnight stay and at least one activity of cultural interest. In other words: travelling across borders on the night train did not count.
It was a great game because I was usually winning (especially after making up a rule that added the Canary Islands and Gibraltar to the list of officially recognised countries due to something or other about non-contiguous borders and nautical miles).
And therein lies the problem with this game: the joy, for me, was in winning the game, not the experience of taking part.
Contrast this with the DOA project: I didn’t even notice that I had ‘won’ the game. I was too wrapped up with the experience until I sat down to write today.
It wasn’t that I took The Country Game particularly seriously, but the nature of the game mechanics generated serious discussions about how to reduce duplicates (each country could only count once) and how to maximise border-hopping with every trip.
To the spitting jealousy of the others, one competitor snared six countries in a single holiday to the Baltics. All within the rules.
In contrast, there’s no way to ‘game’ the DOA project without lying to myself.
I can’t score if I haven’t been outdoors for a significant chunk of the day doing something vaguely adventurous.
That kind of point-scoring is all about experience: it’s a reward that is intrinsic to itself. It’s found within, not without.
The problem with The Country Game is that its rewards were extrinsic, with no reference to the quality of experience within the game.
Quite simply, the reward of visiting a new country was to score one point.
And after that?
Visit another country, score another point.
And after that?
Visit another country, score another point.
And after that?
Visit another country, score another point.
And so on until there is no more ‘And after that?’, only the emptiness of the completed record collector.
Protect and Prioritise
I know I’m lucky to work the jobs I do, but over the past two years, my DOA score has been more than a mere coincidental symptom of my work and lifestyle.
Even this year, even with those 46 days (technically hard at work) with Thighs of Steel, I still wouldn’t have reached 100 Days of Adventure without making an effort to clear my diary to create space.
The DOA project has made damn sure I protect time for my priorities.
It’s taken me outdoors when outdoors seemed a long way distant — particularly at the short end of last year, when I was scrambling for days, a time that generated some of my most cherished memories that winter.
6 Thighs of Steel London Cycle Club rides and 4 New Forest Off Road Club rides
1 day hiking and 1 day mushroom picking on the Purbecks, plus another day doing conservation work on Brownsea Island
18 days’ travelling overland to spend time with friends in Paris, Rudenoise, Chantilly, Bayonne, Madrid, Lisbon, Barcelona and the inside of a long-distance coach while trying to stifle a heavy cold during a pandemic panic