Blog: The Motherlode

A Sense Of Adventure Psychologists at the University of Bhunkum have found that adding the words ‘at night’ or ‘by moonlight’ to any activity increases its AQ (Adventure Quotient) by an incredible 308 percent.

Leaving the car at the Picket Plain viewpoint, I stumbled quickly through heath and gorse and mud, using the light of the moon to see the pathshine and feeling my way over the contours.

I worked my way over the valleys and into the woods, the fractals of the trees in their winter coats standing brilliantly against the sky.

As the year scribbles its way to a close, and penned in by the invisible boundaries of good health, I’ve spent the last week sketching out adventure close to home.

I’m often asked what kind of experience counts towards my 100 Days of Adventure challenge. The answer isn’t very satisfying: you know an adventure when you have one. You can’t always predict it; it’s something you feel.

That’s why we call it having ‘a sense of adventure’.

Darkness definitely eases back the threshold of adventure. Indeed, psychologists at the University of Bhunkum have found that adding the words ‘at night’ or ‘by moonlight’ to any activity increases its AQ (Adventure Quotient) by an incredible 308 percent.

  • Getting lost in the woods: annoying
  • Getting lost in the woods at night: adventure
  • Climbing a tree: fun
  • Climbing a tree by moonlight: adventure

See? This is why wintertime is the best time for adventures: darkness falls in late afternoon, leaving ample time for adventure before cocoa and bed.

This reframing turns our usual seasonal preferences on their head: the long summer evenings are a barrier to adventure, not an opportunity. Winter is where we get our kicks, sunset marking time to shut the laptop and pull out the map.

Equal parts terror and wonder

Feeling the sublime sense of awe is pretty good for us humans: falliable scientific experiments have shown that these wow-experiences can make us happier, healthier, brainier, humbler and kindlier.

And nature is the ultimate awesome experience, equal parts terror and wonder.

That’s what I thought as I rambled through the Purbecks on a foggy Sunday night, anyway.

The Purbecks are famed for their crumbly white cliffs, dropping sheer into the rocky water from the pleasant and abrupty terminated grassy heath above.

On a clear day, it looks a lot like this:

For daredevils, there is a narrow spit of land connecting to a lonesome chalky pillar. The cliffs tumble away either side and you can look down into your doom and see it swirling in the foam below.

On a clear day, it looks a lot like this:

On a wintery night, when the sea fog has rolled in after dark, it doesn’t look anything like this at all.

All I can see, as I creep out into the void, is the ghostly white of the chalk and the angry foam of the waves.

I lie down, nothingness either side of me, wind howling above, sea raging below, and I laugh. This is why they named this place for the devil: Old Harry Rocks.

Cut off from the solid ground of the heath, I imagine a shadowy figure looming at the end of the lace thin path. Cackling with delight, I crawl back on my hands and knees.

That’s awe.

Ignore your smoke alarm and look up

Of course, awe is much more safely experienced by simply looking up on a clear night. The key word there is ‘night’. This cannot be done during the daytime. Score another point for winter’s early evenings.

(Yes, ‘clear’ was also a key word. Unless otherwise stated, assume all my words are key.)

I’m sure we’ve all stared up into a wintery sky and felt very small. Nothing turns burning the toast into the insignificant annoyance that it is faster than boggling over the number of stars in the universe.

So ignore your smoke alarm for a second and imagine: how many stars are there in the Universe? More than there are grains of sand in the world.

Having said that, more prosaically, on a night like tonight, using the eyes that evolution gave you, you might see anywhere up to 4,548 stars — although that number will depend greatly on light pollution.

Starry views from (L) Dark Sky reserve and (R) city centre. Source: Stellarium

Each one of these stars is its own solar system, each one is home (potentially) to billions of lifeforms, each one enjoying the unfathomable richness of your own earthly experience. Take that in for a second.

Now switch off your smoke alarm.

Given that it’s nighttime, the closest star you can see in the northern hemisphere is Sirius, the Dog Star, about 81 trillion kilometres away.

The furthest star that humans have ever clapped eyes upon is called Icarus, and it sits in the night sky about 5 billion light-years away from Earth. A light-year is more than 9 trillion kilometres.

Our galaxy, the Milky Way, holds about 300 billion stars and the billions of other galaxies scooting along around us mean that there are about 70 billion trillion stars in the observable universe.

Beyond that..?

Silence, Senses, Solitude

But the value of nighttime is not only the ghoulish darkness or the Mills & Boon soft celestial lighting: nighttime, especially in winter, is also a time of solitude.

I met no earthly being but horses during two evening rambles through the New Forest and the Purbecks this week. On two similar daytime adventures in the Forest and the Heath, I could hardly move for chirpy off-schoolchildren and professional dog walkers.

That solitude brings with it the gift of silence — which is itself the gift of sensory abundance, for even the most silent night is full of sound.

The stochastic comforts of matter moving through matter. The crackle of boots through leaves. The percussive snap of twigs under weight. The creak and rustle of unseen insects laying a trail.

The darkness sharpen other senses too: I smell the moss-sucking damp of the bog before my boots get wet. Movement, real or imagined, is enhanced in my peripheral vision. My skin tingles, every follicle straining for sensory input.

I followed the stars of Cassiopeia out of the woods and back up towards the A31. The mud on my jeans gave me away to the petrol station attendant.

I feel a sense of adventure.

How to navigate… in fog… at night

Your sense of adventure can be sharpened, in order of descending visibility, by haze, mist and — as I enjoyed on Sunday night in the Purbecks — fog.

As the waves of the English Channel hurled themselves onto the white cliffs below, clouds of water vapour condensed around the flecks of salt in the cold air.

I was navigating towards the obelisk of Ballard Down. To give you some idea of visibility, here’s what that imposing monument looked like at ten paces:

The Obelisk: a 19th century souvenir taken from a church near Bank, London

Definitely a night to practice my navigational instincts.

  • Use all your senses, starting with your common sense. Foot feel is your most reliable feedback system in fog. Sound, smell and sight are also useful and sometimes combine to make an inexplicable sixth sense: if you get a funny feeling that you might be going wrong, pay attention.
  • Fog is low-lying cloud, so if you need to use a torch (generally you don’t if your night vision is switched on), then hold it at hip height or lower, otherwise it’ll just reflect water vapour back in your face.
  • Contour lines are your best friend: you can feel them through your feet and if you’re walking up a steep hill or along a ridge you can often see a change in shadow below the line of the fog.
  • If you really can’t detect anything, not even a contour, lie down on the ground and see if the view is any better from there. If you’re worried about cliff edges, a crawl is safer than a walk.
  • Expect a discombobulating sense of vertigo if you stare into the fog for too long: keep your eyes moving and check in with solid ground every now and again.

Seven Superb Books I Read Despite 2021

I’ve read 43 books so far this year, 21 fiction and 22 non-fiction. This is a slight decline on last year, but still the second highest total since records began in 2013.

For some bone-headed reason, I always finish the fiction I start reading, but there are 4 other non-fiction titles that I started and gave up part-way through.

14 of the books I’ve read this year were by female or non-binary authors, another was by a collective of non-binary, female and male authors. 6 of these female or non-binary-written books were fiction; 8 were non-fiction.

All of the books I gave up on were written by men. Make of that what you will.

The stand-out worst book I read all year was the horribly racist and sexist Neither Here Nor There by Bill Bryson. If you were being generous, you could say that it was ‘of its time’. In the same way that slavery or the guillotine was ‘of its time’.

Moving rapidly on.

The meaningless average year of publication was 1994 — meaningless because I read zero books published in 1994. (But a stunning hattrick from 1995: Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson, High Fidelity by Nick Hornby and Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh. Wonderful.)

The mode (most frequent) year of publication was, surprisingly, 2021. I don’t think of myself as a hot-off-the-press kinda guy, but this is a symptom of my lockdown habit of buying books instead of waiting for the library to open, as well as an attachment to certain authors, including friends.

Here are the seven books I’ve read that were published this year:

Although all were highly enjoyable and/or instructive, only one of these books also appears in my list of seven absolute corkers that I read this year. Tension.

So here, finally, is that list.

The Chinese zodiac might insist that 2021 was the year of the ox, but for me it was the year of the wolf, as I devoured To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Woolf and Feral by George Monbiot.

Naturally I had to follow that pack of wolves with the splendid The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd.

Heimat by Nora Krug taught me history, A World Without Email by Cal Newport taught me technology and Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez taught me perspective.

You could do a lot worse than putting any of those seven books on your Christmas list, but, in the generous spirit of overdelivering, this year I also re-read two books that I remember enjoying decades ago, way back, before I had a beard.

I was relieved to discover that both A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S Thompson are indeed appealing and enduring works of the highest order.

Dare I re-read Catch-22 in ‘22?

Drawing Out

The nights are officially drawing out — we are rattling lungs-first into the long mosquito summer, people of the northern hemisphere!

Here in Bournemouth, the earliest sunset of the year passed last Sunday, at 16.02. We are already five days into the race for rebirth.

But, David, I hear you roar — what about the winter solstice, isn’t that supposed to be the shortest day in the northern hemisphere on account of the tilt of the earth on its axis?

Keep your macs zipped — it very much still is. In Bournemouth, we’ll scrape a mere 7 hours 57 minutes and 32 seconds out of next Tuesday, a full 54 seconds less in the barrel of time than today. That’s enough time to boil an egg. (And get food poisoning. five minutes, people, five minutes.)

So why, for the love of daylight, do I insist that the nights are drawing out?

Ah. Because, my dear friends, a day is not the twenty-four hours our capitalist calendars would like us to imagine. Twenty-four hours is but an average. (And not a particularly accurate average either, hence leap years.)

An average?

Yeah, I know. It’s like learning that you don’t get paid £13 for every hour you work, but rather on a pay schedule designed by Byzantine Emperor Justinian ‘the slit-nosed’:

Okay, so when you clock in, you’re on about £10 per hour, but that quickly drops to nothing until the caffeine from your first three mugs of tea have kicked in. By lunchtime, however, you’re cock of the roost at £16 per hour, before getting whacked by the dreaded afternoon slump.

I don’t know what’s in your 3pm choccy-biccy, but it’s probably against some sort of substance misuse company policy because, come Happy Hour down the Dog & Duck, your wage is topping £30 per hour.

Unlikely as it seems, this rollercoaster of a wage structure averages out to about £13 per hour and, frankly, HR works off that figure because, by this point, they need a lie down.

Anyway. That’s what days are like.

Actual solar time compared to mean solar time (i.e. 24 hours)

Solar days are measured as the time between the solar noon of one day and the solar noon of the next.

Because of the elliptical shape of the earth, these solar noons are pretty much never exactly twenty-four hours apart. In fact, the precise ‘time’ of solar noons fluctuates throughout the year. Right now, solar noon in Bournemouth is 11.56 — and every day it’s getting later.

That explains why, even though the amount of daylight in a day is still going down, the exact time of sunset is already drifting out, following the later solar noon.

For the first time this winter, the minutes and seconds being shaved off our daylight hours are not being taken from earlier sunsets, but only from later sunrises.

In fact, dawn lags more than two weeks behind: the latest sunrise of winter doesn’t roll around until New Year’s Eve. It’s almost as if the sun wants us to stay under the covers a little longer.

So celebrate our later sunsets, celebrate (on Tuesday) the returning of our star from the Tropic of Capricorn, and ignore the astronomers who say that winter is yet to begin…

Fire!

Over the past few years, I’ve become a much more qualified arsonist.

Back in 2009, I remember footling around with a grate and some matches for about three hours, before a consummate fire-starter dragged a toothpick along an emery board for an instant conflagration.

Here are a few of the cheats I use today:

  • Cotton wool balls rubbed in Vaseline make for excellent lightweight, multi-purpose and fragrance-free starter fuel.
  • Stop using cigarette lighters and matches. Start using a torch. Not those kind of torches. These kind of torches, the ones with a steady, focussed blue flame that you might use to cremate a crème brulée. I’ve started fires with wet tinder using this. Definitely cheating.
  • Use an axe, penknife or saw to cut your fuel down to the right size for whatever stage of fire building you’re at. From bundles of finger-width twigs to hefts of wood block.
  • Make sure there is enough draft under your fuel. Oxygen is the forgotten force in the fire trinity of fuel, heat and air.
  • Don’t waste your breath on breathing life into your baby fire. Fan the flickers by using a piece of card, a scrap of bark, a book or even a t-shirt. You’ll get a much steadier draft and won’t pass out from smoke inhalation.

The solitude of stars

One of the consolations of winter is the growing role of the moon and stars in our lives. Last night, I watched the moon rising in a fine crescent over the sea, backing into the inky gap between Jupiter and Saturn.

Together with Venus, these are the easiest planets to spot at the moment because, at dusk, they form a nice easterly curve up from the horizon in the southwest.

As the night deepens, you’ll be able to pick up the constellations ever present in the northern night sky: the two Bears, Cassiopeia, Cepheus and Draco the serpent or dragon.

The first three are important to the nightwalker: the constellation of Little Bear holds the North Star and, when you know how to read them, both Cassiopeia and Big Bear point the way north.

Fascinatingly, the head star of Draco was the pole star for the ancient Egyptians, who constructed their pyramids so that the serpent’s head should be visible from the entrance passage.

Because the stars are slowly parading through our night sky, Draco’s head will once again shine forth as our pole star in about 21,000AD. Assuming we make it that far as a species.

In winter, we get the starry show of every child’s favourite pattern of stars, Orion the hunter, who draws his deadly bow in the east.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that winter is the finest time to explore, not only the celestial firmament, but also terra firma.

The weather is nowhere near as bad as we fear and the darkness brings the twin balms of silence and solitude.

I hiked about 72km over four days while on Dartmoor and saw no more than eight other human beings the whole time — and only one group of four who were close enough to bid good day.

The only action that broke the peace were military manoeuvres: four helicopters ploughing furrows in the sky over my head for half an hour.

Hiking back up to the car park, following the North Star with Jupiter at my back and Orion by my side, I saw two headtorches bobbing in the distance. I passed an empty tent.

Thought for Food #3: Vegan Dark Chocolate Hobnobs Hobnobs are vegan. Chocolate Hobnobs are not, thanks to the inclusion of something called ‘butter oil’ or ‘anhydrous milk fat’ in the chocolate coating.

Hobnobs are vegan. Chocolate Hobnobs are not, thanks to the inclusion of something called ‘butter oil’ or ‘anhydrous milk fat’ in the chocolate coating.

This recipe began as your humble author melting a load of proper dark chocolate (naturally vegan) over a load of ordinary Hobnobs.

Delicious. Especially when sneezing one’s head off on Dartmoor.

However: as soon as one starts perusing lists of ingredients, one can’t help wondering whether one couldn’t do better one’s self.

Do those ordinary Hobnobs really need palm oil, sugar and partially inverted sugar syrup? I suspect not. Hence: this recipe.

Hob, nob, is his word; give’t or take’t
Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

Ingredients

Makes a baker’s dozen of large-ish vegan dark chocolate hobnobs.

  • 150g oats (small grade, not jumbo)
  • 75g flour (plain or wholemeal)
  • 80g rice syrup (about 4 tablespoons)
  • 75g vegan block
  • 1/2 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
  • 100g proper dark chocolate — I used 85%
  • Optional: pinch of ginger
  • Optional: tablespoon of coconut oil

The Biscuit Phase

Adapted from BBC Good Food

  1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (fan). Next time I’ll experiment with baking them for longer at a lower temperature — maybe even as low as 150°C.
  2. Line a large baking sheet with that brown parchment baking paper stuff.
  3. Beat the vegan block until it starts to behave. Add the rice syrup and mix well.
  4. Combine the flour, oats and bicarbonate of soda in a separate bowl.
  5. Add the dry mixture to the wet mixture a bit at a time, ensuring you mix well to incorporate all the ingredients together.
  6. Next time, I’ll wrap this dough in cling film and put it into the fridge for as long as I can bear — this recipe promises crumblier results.
  7. Roll the mixture into 13 little balls.
  8. Smoosh each ball into round biscuit shapes onto the baking sheet. Repeat until mixture is all used up.
  9. Bake in the oven (middle shelf) for 13 minutes or until golden brown. They’ll still be a bit soft, so don’t be fooled — they’re done.
  10. Allow to cool completely. 40 minutes is more than enough (I forgot about them).

The Chocolate Phase

The key here is to avoid un-tempering the chocolate — tempering is how it stays solid at room temperature. It’s not a complete disaster if you mess this phase up, you’ll just have sticky fingers during the eating phase.

The following, rather delicate, method was adapted from eHow, of all places. You might prefer to melt your chocolate with a tablespoon of coconut oil in 30 second blasts in the microwave, as per this recipe — but be careful not to overheat the concoction.

  1. Put only two-thirds of the chocolate into a glass vessal (I use a measuring jug).
  2. Put that vessal into a saucepan of water and gently heat the whole kit and kaboodle.
  3. Allow the chocolate to melt gently, without stirring, until it is nearly melted.
  4. After a gentle stir, allow the chocolate to continue melting.
  5. When the chocolate is fully melted, carefully remove the glass vessal from the saucepan and slowly stir in the remaining chocolate a few pieces at a time, stirring with each addition, until it’s all completely melted.
  6. When all of the chocolate has been incorporated, dab a small amount of the chocolate onto the inside of your wrist. If the chocolate is slightly cooler than your body temperature, it is ready to use.
  7. Add a pinch of ginger if you’re feeling that way inclined
  8. Pour the chocolate over the top of the biscuits or dip the biscuits into the chocolate — whichever makes more sense to you.
  9. Leave the biscuits to cool. In theory, if you’ve tempered the chocolate correctly, the coating will become solid at room temperature. I whacked mine in the fridge because I was desperate.
  10. Whatever you do, make sure that you either leave the biscuits on the parchment paper or you wipe the melted chocolate away from the base of the biscuits, otherwise they’ll stick to the tray and break when you attempt to scoff them into your mouth.

The Eating Phase

Compared to normal Hobnobs, these taste quite savoury, but quite delicious.

In reality, I’m not sure how ‘savoury’ these biscuits really are.

They might have nearly 30% less sugar content than a McVities, but there’s still 3.2g of sugar per biscuit from the rice syrup and another 1g or so from the dark chocolate coating.

We’re down to slightly shy of one teaspoon of sugar per biscuit!

Actually, that’s still loads, isn’t it? Enjoy!

Litigation not education on Dartmoor

Dartmoor is the only place in England where wild camping is allowed without seeking permission from the landowner.

Unfortunately, reactionary forces are trying to ban camping in many of the most popular places on Dartmoor, including around the quarries of Foggintor, where I spent my first night’s wild camping on the moor in 2020.

It’s a beautiful spot and, crucially, it’s easily accessible from the road on foot or bike.

It’s an area where many people like myself will have had their first wild camps before building the confidence and the skills needed to safely camp in the more extreme environments of the open moor.

I understand the reasons why the Dartmoor National Park Authority are trying to curtail our right to the land: humans inevitably damage the environment they travel through.

But the popularity of Dartmoor after the easing of lockdown restrictions in the summer of 2020 need not be the trigger for ranger patrols and keep out signs.

First time or inexperienced campers can be the most destructive because they simply don’t know how to behave in the outdoors yet.

So teach them.

(Did I mention that I’m an outdoor instructor?)

The Dartmoor National Park Authority has also identified a problem with ‘fly camping’ — disposible dump and run campers — as well as with hordes of revelling ravers.

These problems crop up where there is immediate road access. So is there reallly any need to change the byelaws when camping within 100 metres from a road is already banned? Not to mention the byelaws that prohibit noise disturbance.

Even so, similarly popular areas near to roads, towns and rivers have also been removed from the proposed camping map. It amounts to an 8 percent cut in the allowed camping area.

This doesn’t sound like much, but if those areas are where first time campers are most likely to be able to access, then it’s a huge barrier for people ‘not like us’.

The outcome of these proposed changes is that campers who are not white, wealthy and middle class enough will be discouraged from communing with one of our last expanses of wilderness.

How depressing.

Other proposed changes to the Dartmoor access byelaws include:

  • A clear ban on van or car-based camping, and even the occupation of a parked vehicle after 9pm. So I can’t prepare a bit of night nav or stargaze under some of the only dark skies in England?
  • A ban on tents of more than 3 people and groups larger than 6 people. So what — no families, no school groups, no Ten Tors expeditions?
  • A ban on hammocks suspended from trees. Fair enough. I’m not sure this needs to be in place for the biologically dead pine plantations, but byelaws aren’t built for nuance.
  • A ban on the gathering of fuel, as well as the lighting and tending of a fire. Camping stoves are still fine. I get it, but this is another byelaw that falls under the heading of ‘litigation, not education’.
  • A ban on mass participation activities involving more than 50 walkers or 30 cyclists.
  • A clarification and extension of the ban on paid guides and instructors. This inexplicable byelaw is ignored by almost every single school expedition, but hey.
  • A ban on the use of drones. At last! Now if they could only ban those blasted military helicopters who strafed my peaceful walk up Cocks Hill…

88 Percent Perfection The raw data for my Every Dylan Album formula comes from a personal rating, on a five point scale, of every Dylan song.

One significant highlight of the past seven days was calculating a formula that tells me exactly where each of Bob Dylan’s 39 studio albums lies in relation to the others.

Cue spreadsheet geekery…

The raw data for my Every Dylan Album formula comes from a personal rating, on a five point scale, of every Dylan song.

  1. SKIPPER. I’d skip this song more times than not. Actively unpleasant.
  2. FILLER. I’d probably leave this song on, but might skip. Unmoved either way.
  3. BOPPER. This song would get me moving pleasantly and possibly singing along.
  4. BANGER. I’d be singing by now. A thoroughly enjoyable experience (the song, not my singing).
  5. KILLER. My life would not be the same without this song. I’d stop what I’m doing to listen and probably rewind when it gets to the end.

WARNING: This scale can only represent my feelings about a song at a particular moment in time. It excludes one very important category: the GROWER.

One example of a Dylan grower is Make You Feel My Love, from Time Out Of Mind. It’s as slushy as you would guess from the title and, until the summer of 2011, was a firm skipper.

Then Adele’s cover of the song came on the cafe radio as I sat waiting for breakfast, utterly exhausted from one of my first bivvies, a long way from home with a long road ahead of me, a couple of weeks after a painful break up. The tears rolled into my sausage and beans. Now it’s an easy banger.

The Secret Formula

I’m tempted to tell you that the Colonel’s formula is top secret, but it’s the first time I’ve ever used the LARGE function (proud!) so here it is in full:

=SUMPRODUCT(LARGE(($'All Songs'.D$2:$'All Songs'.D$1000=B2)*($'All Songs'.H$2:$'All Songs'.H$1000),{1,2,3,4,5}))

This formula, as I’m sure you’ve all effortlessly deduced, returns the total score of the five highest rated songs from any particular album.

This is then multiplied by the average song score for the whole album and converted into what I call the ‘Percentage Of Perfection’ — or POP.

See what I did there.

The POP Scale

On the POP scale, Bob’s albums range from a zenith of 88% to a nadir of 11%, with an average of 43%.

That might sound quite low, but remember the five point scale. An album of mostly twos and threes — a not unpleasant, if unmemorable, experience — would score 30%.

A POP score of 43% could be an album that’s got one killer track, a couple of bangers, a couple of boppers and the rest filler. That’s a decent album in my book.

I’ve not got as much raw data on any other artist (and I don’t have time to go through all thirteen Beatles studio albums), but let’s use Arctic Monkeys as a reference:

(Side note: these are four of the six albums that Arctic Monkeys released in their first twelve years of operation. By that time, Dylan had released thirteen. Just saying.)

In short, over 60% POP is a sublime album — and Dylan’s done seven of them, as you can see from this chart:

Note: I haven’t scored Columbia’s 1973 rogue outtake album, nor the trilogy of songbook albums Dylan released between 2015 and 2017 because a) I haven’t got them and b) I’ve heard they’re not worth the entry fee.

Scraping The Barrel

You can all guess the highest scoring albums; the real fun is found scraping the barrel at the bottom of the scale.

No surprises to see the universally panned Knocked Out Loaded and Saved down there, but as bad as these (or worse) was an album described by Rolling Stone as ‘a stunning recovery of the lyric and melodic powers that seemed to have all but deserted him’.

Nope. Not in my world. Infidels (1983) is shite. Yes: even Jokerman. I don’t get it.

Instead of leaving you on a downer, I’ll leave you with three pearls cast into the swineyard of three otherwise scarcely redeemable Dylan albums:

On Sneezing What can you do a hundred times a day at a thousand kilometres per hour?

There’s a folkloric myth that does the rounds at this time of year and I’m going to start this article by busting it.

Humans do not lose an inordinate amount of heat through our heads.

The amount of heat lost through your face and scalp is entirely proportionate to the size of your head.

The idea that we lose 40-45% of heat through the head is a myth, based on a dodgy military experiment in the 1950s.

Your face and head are more sensitive to changes in temperature than, say, your shins, but this doesn’t translate to more rapid cooling from an un-hatted bonce.

However: if the rest of your body is well-insulated with woolly jumpers and thermals, then — yes! — the absence of a similarly-insulated noggin will result in a surprisingly rapid drop in your core temperature. But, I repeat, this is only if the rest of you is wrapped up warm.

Rapid cooling through the head might happen for two reasons:

  1. A cold head alone doesn’t trigger the shiver reflex (which slows the rate of cooling). Strange, but true.
  2. There are a lot of blood vessels very close to the surface of your scalp and face. When exposed to cold air, the blood passing through your scalp cools quickly and this cold blood gets pumped around the rest of your body. Brr.

In fact, it seems that the primary role of networks of blood vessels close to the surface of the skin is for dumping heat (AKA thermoregulation). In humans, these ‘radiators’ are not just on our face, but also on our feet and, most prominently, our hands.

Conclusion: keep the hat, but don’t neglect the rest of your winter wardrobe — particularly not winter socks and mittens.

Strenuous sternutation

November is the official snuggle-up-warm time of year because a mere twenty minutes of cold exposure can more than double your chances of getting an actual cold.

Even when I don’t have a cold, I sneeze a lot. It seems to happen as a reflex response to getting a bit chilly, particularly my feet. And then, sometimes, the sneezing doesn’t stop.

As I spent the week on Dartmoor, I, and particularly my feet, got cold. During the course of a beautiful four and half hour walk on Thursday, I sneezed a grand total of eighty times.

There would appear to be two possible explanations for my heroic record of sternutation (you didn’t think that medicine would call a sneeze a sneeze, did you?):

  1. The trigeminal nerve in my nose is hyper-sensitive to stimulation (in this case, fluctuations in temperature).
  2. The sneezing centre in my brain’s lateral medulla has a low threshold for triggering explosive exhalations.

I could perhaps moderate the first using a steroid nasal spray. The second might have developed as a result of a work-shy allergy to dust and might be influenceable by some kind of Jedi mind trick?

Frankly, I’m speculating / making things up. Let’s get back to the science.

Counting one’s bless-you-ings

I’m a huge fan of The Boring Talks and, as a sneezer, the most memorable for me is #11: Sneezing.

It’s narrated by Peter Fletcher, a man who logged every single sneeze he ever snozed between July 2007 and June 2018.

To take my mind off my explosive sternutations, I decided to give Sneezing another listen.

I was shocked to discover that I sneezed more times on Thursday than sneeze-meister-general Peter Fletcher ever recorded in a month across eleven years of monitoring (95 in March 2008).

My twenty-four hour sneeze count topped out at 127.

You can see from this chart that peak sternutation occured while walking the windy wilds of Dartmoor, between about 10am and 3pm, before settling down in front of the cosy bunkhouse fire and stopping completely after I fell asleep.

Why sleep sneezing is impossible

A sternutation is a physical reflex to external stimuli. When we sleep, our body does two things to prevent this reflex from happening.

During non-REM sleep, our cerebral cortex and thalamus get together to massively raise the waking threshold for incoming stimuli. Without registering the irritating stimulus, there is no sneeze reflex.

During REM sleep, we also go into a state called REM atonia, during which our motor neurons are inactive. As sneezing is a physical reflex, this sleep paralysis prevents the coordination of muscles necessary for a jolly good wachoo.

If, while you were soundly sleeping, I were to tap your knee with one of those silly little hammers, you’d just lie there and take it. (Unless I give you a proper whack, that is.) No reflexes; no sneezes. Mercifully.

How often does the average person sneeze??

It turns out that my epic sneeze count means that I am in high demand. At least, I would be over on Sneeze Fetish Forum. Oh yes. There’s a forum for everything.

The photic sneeze reflex, caused by bright light, is pretty common. Less common are the snatiation reflex, caused by a full stomach (‘snatiation’ is a portmanteau of ‘sneeze’ and ‘satiation’), and, yes, sneezing at the point of orgasm.

To satiate your curiosity, here’s a selection of Sneeze Fetish Forum responses to the question, ‘How often does the average person sneeze??’:

  • Unfortunately, I seem to sneeze once a week at most.
  • People who sneeze seldom have the nicest wettest sneezes in my observations. My old girlfriend was one of those types.
  • For a long period of time I was inducing sneezes to create content regularly and during that time I would rarely naturally sneeze.

Things I’ve learnt from my undercover sneeze fetish research:

  1. Some people yearn for sneezes.
  2. Wetter sneezes are better sneezes.
  3. Sneezes are CONTENT.

Before I fire up the old webcam for an Only Fans, here is the scientific answer to the same question on sneeze frequency: 95% of eighty people in one experiment sneezed and blew their nose fewer than four times per day on average.

More than half of those people averaged less than one sneeze per day over the two weeks of the experiment. Now, that is boring.

What can you do a hundred times a day at a thousand kilometres per hour?

Maybe my whole life I’ve been thinking about my violent sneezes all wrong. Maybe I’m special.

Maybe my sneezes are some kind of super power — what can you do a hundred times a day at a thousand kilometres per hour?

Maybe, maybe my sneezes are divine omens from the gods.

This makes complete sense, as ancient Greek philosopher Aristo pointed out, because the sneeze is a direct message from the lungs, the most profound and holy part of the body.

After all, the great poet Homer once sang of the mighty sneeze of Telemachus, son of Odysseus, and of how patient Penelope interpreted this awesome sternutation as a divine omen that her depraved suitors would be vanquished by the mysterious stranger:

Telemachus sneezed so loudly that the whole house resounded with it. Penelope laughed when she heard this, and said to Eumaeus, ‘Go and call the stranger; did you not hear how my son sneezed just as I was speaking? This can only mean that all the suitors are going to be killed, and that not one of them shall escape.’

So next time you see me, tremble before my almighty sternutations and weep!

Bygone Bicycles There’s something exquisite about unfolding the worn creases of a forgotten map and following, again, the inky lines where my pen once traced the turning of my wheels.

Unfolding The Map Shelf: Northern Scotland, 2011

There’s something very relaxing about not being able to type. In my case, not being able to type means not being able to work, at least not in the hyper-productive sense. It means more slow time for things like organising one’s map shelf. (You do have a map shelf, don’t you?)

When I did exactly that earlier this week, I found the old map of Northern Scotland, much tattered, which I’d used when cycling around Britain back in 2011. (Did you know you can read the book of the ride?)

You can see where, at the end of every day, tucked up against the trunk of a tree, I inked in my anticlockwise route. If you look very closely, you can also see where I camped every night — X marks the spot. If you look with a magnifying glass, you can even see where I had to double back to Alness to fix a tyre that exploded with shotgun terror on the Black Isle.

A map is a wonderful souvenir for an adventure. (So wonderful, in fact, that Alastair Humpheys once told the story of a pilgrimage along a sacred river in India using the medium of map.)

It’s all very well having our memories of adventure saved forever and ever amen in the databases of apps like Komoot or Strava, but there’s something exquisite about unfolding the worn creases of a long forgotten map and following, again, the inky lines where my pen once traced the turning of my wheels.

The Happening: Britain to Bordeaux, 2009

While planning the 2022 edition of Thighs of Steel’s London to Athens adventure, I had reason to go even further back in time, to 2009 and the diaries I wrote on my very first cycle tour: transporting my friend’s Halfords Apollo from our childhold home in Oxfordshire to his new home in Bordeaux.

So I loaded up, told my parents I was going some place and cycled out of the garage. They waved and took photos, did all those nice things, and then closed the garage door behind me. I turned left, then left again…

Mercifully, the rest of the diaries aren’t a turn-by-turn account. Re-reading them today, as a seasoned cycle tourer, I recognise all the aches, pains and unpleasantnesses of days on the road.

By day four, I’d already suffered a broken rack, brake failure (which, knowing nothing about bike mechanics, I ‘fixed’ with tape) and the hell that is Basingstoke.

Also: knee pain, stomach cramps, lips chapped like the ‘crust of an old baguette’, a bed-stricken fever and a sore neck that meant I couldn’t turn my head past 10.30 and 1.30 on the clockface.

The experience of being unable to raise one’s royal behind from the throne without excruciating agony gave me an insight into old age that I do not wish to experience again until a more appropriate age, when I shall have had the foresight to install some sort of pulley system, ramp or catapult.

It’s a wonder that I ever went back to bikes. But the diaries also show glimpses of my first ecstasies of unbounded exercise:

On the road, no one can hear you scream, shout, sing, snort. Storming fury, shouting defiance. Leaving the trapdoor of emotions far behind on the road.

As well as more pleasant postcard images, the ones all cycle tourers collect as they roll through strangers’ lives:

A group of elderly Frenchmen playing petanque, one of them wearing a stripy jumper. I feel like I’ve won the lottery in a game of I-Spy

The final day’s ride, from Saintes to Bordeaux, was spectacular in that it featured a solid eight hours of rain:

Steady streaming hissing rattling rain, seeping, steaming through the grey wall, piercing, prodding, poking as I ride, going left some, going right some, but mostly going right on ahead, into the misty wet, hopelessly putting one foot forward, the other chasing it endlessly. And all I pass are closed patisseries.

By this point, I’d got the brakes more or less working — in the dry, that is:

My brakes deteriorate so quickly in all this rain that I can only shake my head and shout ‘no!’ when a car pulls across my path.

Yikes.

Needless to say, I didn’t become another statistic for the mortuary (although my friend nearly did after I removed my brake tape fix without telling him). Somehow, I fell enough in love with cycle touring for it to be the least worst option for getting around Britain a couple of years later.

The clue for why is found in the diary too:

Too long waiting, too long waiting for something to happen. It’s only when something does finally happen that you realise how it was happening all along, just outside your front door, only you didn’t know how to see it, didn’t know how to feel it, didn’t know where to put your feet — didn’t know how to become the happen.

I discovered that, besides chapped lips, riding a bicycle along an open road also gifts us a euphoric sense of optimistic opportunity. Less than ten miles into the unknown of a 547 mile journey, I wrote this:

The Sun was starting to win, the grass was filling my nose and that open green lane was rolling out under my wheels. There was just something about it, something that said: ‘Yes. This is going to happen.’

A Road Poem

My first three long bike trips were all done alone and I would entertain myself by building poems over the rhythm of the pedal strokes. Here’s one from the Bordeaux diary, sung to the tune of ‘I Once Swallowed Three Hatpins’:

I once caught a bluebottle
Right between my teeth
When I tried to unlodge it with my tongue
It buzzed right underneath

Now I’m sick with fever
And I’m sure the fly’s to blame
But I’ve tried every medicine going
And my stomach just isn’t the same

It wouldn’t be much of a problem
But cycling over a bridge
I wish I’d paid more attention
When invaded my nostril a midge

So listen to this little poem
And remember my tale of woes
Wear a mask when you’re cycling the country
Cos if it isn’t the mouth, it’s the nose!

Can you tell I was running a fever? :))

Policy versus society

According to the Pew Research Center, the proportion of citizens who say that having people from many different ethnic and religious backgrounds makes the UK a better place to live has increased since Brexit from 75 to 85 percent.

The proportion rises to 92 percent among the under-fifties and reflects a broader increase in support for diversity around the world.

This is at least suggestive that racially divisive policy doesn’t have to correlate with a racially divisive society. Thank fuck.

Brownsea Island: Gorse Gawping Screen eyes down in the soil, keyboard fingers plunging into the minutiae, uncovering the new worlds of stubborn gorse, plucky heather and squishy puff ball fungi.

Brownsea Island is a nature reserve — nature refuge more like — adrift in Poole Harbour on the south coast of Britain.

If you’re an avid reader of these pages, you’ll know that I’ve written before about my conservation work with Dorset Wildlife Trust on Brownsea: bruising bracken so that we could clear the forest floor, making breathing room for the pretty little heathers that do so much for carbon capture and biodiversity.

Yesterday, we were scrabbling around in the gorse, using loppers to remove the prickly bush that dominates the springy heather.

Our job was to dive into the needles, gloves first, and trace the tight curls of the white-stemmed gorse back to its root while sparing the delicate red-stemmed heather.

The job was part exterminator, part detective. See if you can spot the strands of heather suffocating in the grip of this flowering gorse:

The patch of Brownsea that we were working on had been tucked away behind fences, meaning that gorse-trimming rabbits couldn’t keep the growth back to the forest floor. The fences hadn’t deterred the deer, however, and their dietary browsing had encouraged the gorse to become thick and bushy.

Over the course of four hours, a team of twelve volunteers cleared an area the size of a large living room. About forty huge bags of gorse went on the fire that billowed smoke signals on a southerly wind.

One of the surprising elements of the ongoing conservation project on Brownsea is the mass felling of trees.

This winter, 3,000 trees will be cut down, chopped up and carted off the island. The felling isn’t indiscriminate: the National Trust and Dorset Wildlife Trust have carefully identified individual trees whose felling will do most to promote a stronger ecosystem.

This happens in two ways. Firstly, by thinning the woodland, there are more nutrients available to the remaining, healthier, trees. One of the knock-on effects of this is that the nut harvest for Brownsea’s famous red squirrels will be, not smaller because fewer trees, but greater because those trees will be much more productive.

Secondly, fewer trees means that more sunlight will hit the forest floor and it is this sunlight that nourishes the ecologically important heathland. The soil under heathland captures more carbon per hectare than the soil under forests does. As I’ve said before: surprising, but true.

I find conservation work to be patient, a steady tempo in a companionable silence. Arriving on Brownsea after such a busy week (and a stressful near-ferry-missing cycle, teeth into a strong sea breeze) was better than a rest cure.

Screen eyes down in the soil, keyboard fingers plunging into the minutiae, uncovering the new worlds of stubborn gorse, plucky heather and squishy puff ball fungi.

Reality and the Metaverse In a virtual universe designed by humans, humans know it all. The beauty of the real universe is that, the more we learn, the more we realise the vastness of our ignorance.

This segment is inspired by two superb newsletters that dropped earlier this week. So before I go any further, hats off to Mike Sowden of Everything Is Amazing and to Nikita Petrov of Psychopolitica.

Todays newsletter is about the stories we tell each other about current affairs — popularly known as ‘the news’.

First up: the Metaverse.

Did you see this? If not, I’ll let Mike Sowden do the dirty work of introducing you to what can only be credibly comprehended as the feverish gibberings of Mark Zuckerberg in the afterglow of a wet dream:

A few days ago, Facebook’s parent company (also called Facebook) changed its name to Meta, and Mark Zuckerberg released a video outlining his vision for what he calls the Metaverse: a seamless network of virtual experiences that’ll try to create the perpetual illusion you’re “inside” the Internet while you’re online.

The Metaverse is full of ideas like virtual businesses running on Zuckerberg-owned cryptocurrency, cartoon avatars slightly more handsome than you, virtual screens that float in front of your face and augmented reality glasses.

Zuckerberg reckons this Metaverse is about 10-15 years away.

You can take your pick, but, for me, the most chilling part of Zuckerberg’s 75-minute presentation video is where he tawddles about privacy:

Privacy and safety need to be built into the Metaverse from day one. You’ll get to decide when you want to be with other people, when you want to block someone from appearing in your space — or when you want to take a break and teleport to a private bubble to be alone.

Because god forbid that you’d want to ever actually leave the Metaverse. After all, inside your own private bubble, no one can hear you scream.

The beauty of ignorance

I don’t know how you learned about Zuckerberg’s Metaverse announcement (maybe it’s from me, right now — the honour!), but I’m glad I got the news from Mike Sowden because, for a newsletter with the title Everything Is Amazing, the Metaverse comes as an existential threat.

It’s not just that a Zuckerberg-designed virtual reality is a terrifyingly advertising-strewn prospect, it’s that it will be bounded by human limitation in a way that reality reality is not.

In a virtual universe designed by humans, by definition, humans know everything. The beauty of the real universe is that, the more we learn, the more we realise the vastness of our ignorance.

I’ll leave you with Mike’s beautiful conclusion:

Virtual worlds are most definitely designed by humans. This means they’re limited to what the human imagination is capable of cooking up, and the human-made computing hardware that can make it happen. In every way, a virtual world is anthropocentric. It’s by, & for, human beings.

The actual world, on the other hand, has a wonderful and occasionally disturbing tendency to ignore our wishes and surprise us in its unfathomable complexity, boundless novelty and awe-inspiring beauty. It is a mystery that we will never get to the bottom of, and most days, that’s kinda why life is worth living.

REALITY: The antidote

The antidote to the Metaverse, as Mike Sowden suggests, is reality. But perhaps not the REALITY of Nikita Petrov, author of the Psychopolitica newsletter.

Petrov’s REALITY is a work-in-progress YouTube show in which the most outrageous news stories of the day are read out in a dispassionate voice by an alien Bodhisattva journalist.

REALITY’s first story is about a German YouTuber, extremely popular with teenagers, who has inspired what psychiatrists are calling the world’s first ever mass sociogenic illness induced and spread by social media alone.

Jan Zimmermann, the YouTuber in question, launched their channel in February 2019. According to psychiatrists at Hanover Medical School, Zimmermann’s videos are peppered with ‘countless number of movements, vocalizations, words, phrases, and bizarre behaviours’ that he claims are tics caused by Tourette syndrome.

The only issue is that these tics are only stereotyped ‘mimics’ of symptoms that ‘lay people typically associate with Tourette syndrome’.

Yet Zimmermann’s atypical behaviour is being copied by teenagers in Germany, UK, US, Denmark, France, and Canada, making it an illness seemingly induced by the viewing of entertaining YouTube videos.

Flying sharks and stress relief

This is how the Hanover psychiatrists introduce the new illness:

Affected teenagers present with similar or identical functional “Tourette-like” behaviours, which can be clearly differentiated from tics in Tourette syndrome.

These teenagers basically start acting up when confronted with disfavoured tasks like schoolwork.

All patients presented with nearly identical movements and vocalizations that not only resemble Jan Zimmermann’s symptoms, but partly are exactly the same such as shouting the German words … “Du bist häßlich” (English: you are ugly), and “Fliegende Haie” (English: flying sharks) as well as bizarre and complex behaviours such as throwing pens at school and dishes at home, and crushing eggs in the kitchen.

Meanwhile, the Tourette-like behaviours mysteriously disappear when the teenagers are engaged in more pleasurable tasks. Like watching YouTube videos, maybe…

But why?

According to the Hanover psychiatrists, these behavioural tics are a response to societal stress:

They can be viewed as the 21th century expression of a culture-bound stress reaction of our post-modern society emphasizing the uniqueness of individuals and valuing their alleged exceptionality, thus promoting attention-seeking behaviours and aggravating the permanent identity crisis of modern man.

It’s weird. It’s REALITY.

You can read more about Petrov’s plans for Reality over on their Psychopolitica Substack.

These stories are all very interesting, but what’s the point?

Good question. This segment has two points. The first point is that I heard the news of both the Metaverse announcement and the new social media-induced functional Tourette syndrome contagion from non-traditional news sources.

This made me reflect on the stories we tell each other about current affairs (AKA ‘the news’).

I’ve chosen to trust these two writers with telling me their news stories and both arrived directly into my inbox. I’ve been subscribed to Psychopolitica for over a year now, whereas this was my first edition of Everything Is Amazing.

Mike Sowden’s story, about technology in the shadow of climate change, is a desperate appeal to fall in love with reality reality again — before it’s too late.

Broadly speaking, Nikita Petrov’s REALITY is a satire on newscasting, but the story he’s chosen to read is a dispassionate account of what can happen (functional Tourette syndrome) when we mistake artifice (the YouTube storytelling of Jan Zimmermann) for reality.

Stories — whether wittingly or unwittingly — teach us lessons and both of these are lessons worth learning and re-learning.

I’ve been following my no news diet for five years now and these are the questions I ask myself on the regular:

  • Who are you letting tell you the news? Are these active or passive choices? Signing up to the newsletter of a trusted writer: active. Listening to the 5-minute news segments that appear between songs on a radio station: passive.
  • What kind of stories are they telling? You can even pin down the genre: is this a horror story? A thriller? A rom-com? A tragedy? A farce?
  • What lessons are you learning? This might take some digging because, as Nikita Petrov shows us, the storytelling of journalism is often concealed behind a supposedly dispassionate delivery.
  • How do you feel afterwards? Do you feel empowered? Do you feel alienated?

That’s the first point of this segment. The second point is simply to say thank you for allowing me the privilege of telling you the news today.

Coconuts Versus The Climate

As an eater of a primarily vegan diet, and with COP26 in the news, I thought it was time to address a challenge that is occasionally thrown down in my direction:

Does the impact of imported vegan alternatives outweigh the environmental benefits of not eating meat?

There many, many angles on this question and I’ll only consider a couple in any detail: food miles and water.

I’m more or less ignoring the significant effects of land use change (chopping down old growth forests to plant oil palm trees is really bad) as well as the use of pesticides and fertilisers (which does nasty things to ecosystems). But there we go. I can’t do everything.

Bear in mind, while reading this piece, the following comment from Joseph Poore, a researcher at the University of Oxford who studies the environmental impacts of food, speaking to the BBC in February:

Nothing really compares to beef, lamb, pork, and dairy – these products are in a league of their own in the level of damage they typically do to the environment, on almost every environmental issue we track.

Kiwis, lambs and apples

‘Coconuts!’ someone shouted at me last week. ‘Coconuts only grow in the tropics and have to be transported thousands of miles to get to your selfish vegan plate!’

I’m paraphrasing, but it does sound logical that exotic coconut oil (mmm) would have a higher carbon footprint than European alternatives like olive oil.

But it’s not necessarily true, as I’ll demonstrate with a story about lambs and apples.

A famous 2007 study found that lamb from New Zealand had a quarter of the carbon footprint of Welsh lamb, despite travelling 17,840km around the world to our shop shelves.

Obviously, lamb is of little interest to a vegan or even a vegetarian – but the study also found that British apples had carbon emissions almost 50 percent higher than their Kiwi counterparts.

This is so counter-intuitive that, to be honest, it hurts my brain.

An apple a day…

Digging deeper into the data, it turns out that the Kiwi advantage only holds if British eaters want apples all year round. (Which I suspect we do.)

The study authors report that the carbon cost of transporting apples around the world after harvest in the southern hemisphere is almost identical to the carbon cost of putting apples into cold storage for six months after the British harvest.

As well as seeing their local advantage wiped out, the British apples not only suffered from higher pesticide and fertiliser use, but a fuel efficiency per tonne that’s almost four times as profligate as apples from New Zealand.

This means that, even when British apples are in season, the difference in carbon footprint between apples from the two hemispheres is negligible. Astonishing.

Food miles might be an easy metric to measure a food’s environmental impact, but it’s not a very useful one. Local doesn’t necessarily mean better for the planet.

(It’s worth saying that the cited report is 14 years old and was published by a New Zealand university. You may also, of course, have considerations beyond environmental impact.)

But what if we’re talking about produce that doesn’t require storage in massive fridges for six months of the year? Surely then we’d be better off eating locally, wouldn’t we?

To answer that question, we’ll go back to our oily death match between the coconut and the olive.

Coconuts versus the climate

According to a 2014 study led by Peter Scarborough at Oxford University, the production of coconut oil creates less than half the greenhouse gas emissions of olive oil — and this data takes into account transportation from the tropics.

How can this be true?

Coconuts might come from far away, but – like lambs and apples – they’re transported here by sea, not by air.

That’s an important point because sea freight is so fuel efficient that the last hundred miles, by lorry from port to supermarket, can make up the largest contribution to a commodity’s transportation carbon emissions.

The good news is that almost all of our food is transported to Britain by sea. This is why, on average, transportation counts for only 11 percent of our food’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Great. That explains why coconut oil doesn’t come with a hefty carbon pricetag – but it doesn’t explain why olive oil is so bad.

What-a, wat-a, water surprise!

Olive groves, unlike coconut plantations, are incredibly thirsty places and all that water comes with a high carbon pricetag. Boom. That’s why olive oil is so bad compared to coconut oil.

But it’s not just the carbon cost of irrigation that’s makes a high water footprint bad for the environment.

Here in Britain, beef and milk are the main foodie contributors to our water footprint.

You might think that that’s not such a big deal – after all, we don’t seem to have much of a problem with our freshwater supply. I myself can bear soggy witness to another ample delivery only this morning.

But having healthy rainfall doesn’t mean that high beef and dairy consumption don’t cause problems with our water supply.

Pesticides, fertilisers, sewage, farmyard slurry and even waste products like dairy whey all easily find their way into our rivers, causing eutrophication – dangerously high levels of nutrients – that depletes the water of oxygen, suffocating fish and creating a dead zone inhospitable to life.

Fooled by paddy fields

On the other hand, some countries do have a real problem with their supply of freshwater and the effects of climate change are only going to make this worse, leading to desertification if we’re not careful.

This means we should be mindful about the water footprint of the food that we import. Vegans should watch out for olive oil, coffee and chocolate from arid countries.

Surprisingly, rice only sucks up about the same amount of water as wheat. Don’t be fooled by all those sloppy paddy fields.

Nuts typically use a lot of water, but they’re not all completely awful. Almonds and cashews should probably be avoided – especially from regions like California that are suffering from extreme drought.

Shelled nuts are a lot worse with water than unshelled nuts — but who buys unshelled nuts? Chestnuts are great.

Time for a little perspective: in terms of litres per kilocalorie, nuts aren’t much worse than chicken, better than lamb or goat meat and much better than beef.

No, you’re nuts

In fact, nuts often have a carbon negative impact on the atmosphere for the obvious-when-you-think-about-it reason that THEY’RE TREES.

Favour peanuts (AKA groundnuts) and hazelnuts over almonds and pistachios. ‘Pastes’ are more carbon intensive than their wholefood parents, but peanut ‘paste’ is still lighter on the carbon than raw almonds.

Peanuts are also lighter on the water supply. And higher in protein. If you want to slightly reduce your impression, then buy in bulk and make your own peanut butter.

It’s worth bearing in mind, however, that almonds are still a less water-intensive source of protein and calcium than olives, oats and rice.

Above: The carbon footprint of hazelnut, peanut, pistachio and almond products, including packaging, processing and transportation. Volpe et al (2015)

Or you could simply pick your own acorns. It’s a mast year, after all.

Yeah, but what does all this mean?

When it comes to considering carbon emissions caused by transportation, the only thing we need to worry about is whether our food is transported by air.

For someone living in the UK, a kilo of fresh asparagus from Peru has a higher carbon footprint than a kilo of chicken or pork. Yowzas.

Check your food labels, but a decent rule of thumb is to avoid fresh greens and soft fruit grown abroad.

If asparagus and raspberries are in season in Britain, then fill your boots. If they’re not: don’t eat them — or buy them in season and store them in your freezer.

In terms of your water footprint, vegans could dial down on the almond and cashews and maybe switch out the coffee and chocolate. Substitute with peanuts, tea and, er, locally foraged liberty cap psilocybe mushrooms?

I leave you by once again repeating the words of Joseph Poore, speaking to the BBC in February:

Nothing really compares to beef, lamb, pork, and dairy – these products are in a league of their own in the level of damage they typically do to the environment, on almost every environmental issue we track.

Exploiting scarcity with my 100 Days of Adventure experiment

I’ve been pleasantly surprised by this year’s 100 Days of Adventure experiment: 81 days and counting.

I’m already well past the 67 Days of Adventure of last year and, thanks to the self-imposed scarcity of the deadline, I feel genuinely motivated to somehow wring another nineteen Days of Adventure from the dirty dishcloth of 2021.

Bearing in mind that I’d only managed to collect a quarter of the adventures by the end of June, I think I’m doing bloody well.

I could find excuses for the slow start — a lockdown, winter weather — but the same thing probably would have happened under any conditions. That’s how deadlines work: we fritter away our time during periods of abundance and only when time is running out do we knuckle down and commit to completing the project.

One solution to the last minute panic effect could be to make the deadlines come around quicker. Rather than giving myself a year-long deadline, I could work in seasons of three months each, perhaps aiming for 40 Days of X.

This is actually a much stiffer target (160 days over a year), but with more regular deadlines I will be held more closely accountable. There’ll still be last minute panic, but the panic will be less daunting. Maybe.

Whatever I end up doing, I’ll definitely be reporting my progress in this newsletter. Having a public forum of accountability is almost as good as having a deadline!

~

There are only seventy days left in 2021. Cast your mind back to January. What did you have planned for this year that you haven’t finished yet?

Time is running out.

Get on it.

That Whooshing Noise All of the people feel scarcity some of the time, but some of the people feel scarcity all of the time. Understanding the psychology of scarcity enables a leap of empathy.

Deadlines are great. They’re the reason why I’ve sent this email every week for the past six years. They’re the reason why, at the halfway mark, I’d only bagged 28 of my 100 Days of Adventure — four months later, with time running out, I’m on 81.

Deadlines are the reason why Beth and I have written an Edinburgh show and four series of radio comedy — and the reason why the beginning of our writing process is so expansive and the final weeks so intense.

Deadlines are great because they generate a scarcity, in this case, of time. Humans respond to scarcity with hyperfocus. When you’re trying to complete a project, this hyperfocus is really useful.

(Unless you’re Douglas Adams: ‘I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.’)

When good deadlines go bad

But hyperfocus comes at a heavy cost. Under conditions of scarcity, we enter a single-minded tunnel that excludes everything outside our immediate goal.

In the blinding heat of those final weeks before a deadline, we get the work done, we get the script finished — but when we come up for air and our tunnel vision fades away, we realise that we’ve neglected our diet, sleep, exercise, electricity bills, friends, family and houseplants.

Basically, everything that isn’t scriptwriting goes to shit.

And this isn’t just the experience of a hapless scriptwriter; this is a replicable scientific observation.

According to research collected in a clever book written by clever people, human brains work less well when they sense a lack of something, whether that’s time, money, food or friendship.

That clever book is called Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, written by two clever people: psychologist Eldar Shafir and economist Sendhil Mullainathan.

In an interview with the American Psychological Association, Shafir explains that the pair started out with the assumption that the money-poor were neither perfectly rational economists (none of us are) nor that they are uniquely afflicted by stupidity, loose morals and myopic planning (that’s all of us).

They believed there was something else going on…

Over time, we started getting more data and observing cases where the poor seemed to be making more extreme errors than those with greater means. That gradually led us to the idea that there’s a very particular psychology that emerges when we don’t have enough and that this psychology leads to very bad outcomes.

Very particular psychology

Just like busy people under deadline start to neglect their houseplants (I’m so sorry!), people who are money-poor become hyperfocussed on their economic situation and start to neglect the spheres of life that float outside their tunnelled vision.

The stark difference is that my deadline will come and go, but it’s much, much harder to get out of poverty.

This matters — a lot — because, according to the research, the cognitive penalty of living with a scarcity mindset is a temporary penalty of ten IQ points. Ouch.

All of the people feel scarcity some of the time, but some of the people feel scarcity all or most of the time. Understanding the particular psychology of scarcity is slightly terrifying, but it also enables a leap of empathy.

As Shafir says:

What’s most striking is that these findings make a very strong case for the idea that people who look very bad in conditions of scarcity are just as capable as the rest of us when scarcity does not impose itself on their minds.

So the next time someone says or does something stupid, maybe ask if they’re worried about paying a parking fine or meeting a deadline.

Cut them some slack.

Cardiff With Camus

It’s been a busy first week here in Cardiff. Mushroom-picking, market-hopping, Greek-nighting, poker-dealing, date-walking, theatre-laughing, frisbee-throwing and, of course, play-writing. I might have ended up lying in bed with a pulled hamstring, but it’s been a well-worthwhile week of most living.

Camus would be proud.

In The Myth of Sisyphus (a shortish treatise that I’ve written about before), Albert Camus wrote:

what counts is not the best living but the most living

As an absurdist, Camus found it impossible to pin down a single ‘correct’ way to live. To summarise his philosophy:

  1. Humans like us are desperate to find meaning in our lives, to give us a clear direction, to tell us the right thing to do.
  2. Unfortunately, the Universe doesn’t give a shit. There is no ‘right thing’ to do with our lives. No right and no wrong. Else how could the supposedly ‘best lived’ lives of the ancient Greeks (think the honourable blood-feuds of Achilles) follow a code of living so starkly different to the code followed by the supposedly ‘best lived’ lives of today (think the rapacious avarice of Jeff Bezos)?
  3. Without rules, life, therefore, is absurd. So, rather than struggle with the wretched task of perfecting our ‘best lives’, the logical response to existence is to pack our brief conscious flowering with as much experience as possible. Ergo: choose most living over best living.

Camus uses the ancient Greek myth of Sisyphus to illustrate the logic of absurdity.

According to legend, Sisyphus had a persistent habit of irritating the gods. After escaping the Underworld not once but twice, Sisyphus was eventually brought to justice and sentenced to spend eternity pushing a heavy boulder up a steep mountain.

Shortly before Sisyphus reaches the summit, however, the enchanted boulder slips from his grasp and rolls right back down to the bottom, where the whole charade resets and resumes. Forever and ever. If the myth is to be believed, Sisyphus is still out there today, shoulder to boulder.

In terms of frustratingly thankless tasks, Sisyphus’ punishment is right up there with discussing historiography with a Mormon elder, but Camus had a different take.

Camus argues that it wouldn’t take too many mountain reps for Sisyphus to realise he is being pranked by the gods. Knowledge of his eternal fate matures into acceptance and, far from being a source of despair, Sisyphus’ acceptance of the absurdity of his unique struggle becomes meaningful.

Sisyphus, proletarian of the gods, powerless and rebellious, knows the whole extent of his wretched condition: it is what he thinks of during his descent. The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory.

Human life, for Camus, is as absurd as Sisyphus pushing a boulder up a hill for eternity. Once we accept that inherent absurdity, our struggles are no longer so desperate. They can become joyful.

The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

You might think that this is a bit extreme, but Camus’s theoretical musings are paralleled in the couldn’t-be-more-practical experience of Holocaust-surviving psychiatrist Viktor Frankl.

In Man’s Search For Meaning, Frankl writes:

If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. … The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails … gives him ample opportunity … to add a deeper meaning to his life.

Of course, acceptance of the struggle is only the beginning. Atop this foundation, both Camus and Frankl build the possibility for lives rich in more traditional human virtues, such as creativity, love and frisbee.

But such most living begins with the acceptance of the absurdity of best living, so let’s join Sisyphus at the bottom of the mountain, put shoulder to boulder, and laugh.

It’s a whortleberry, whortleberry, whortleberry’s world

All great comedies start with a hundred-mile detour for a whortleberry cream tea.

At least, there is no clear evidence that Oscar Wilde didn’t start writing The Importance of Being Earnest after a hundred-mile detour for a whortleberry cream tea. Is there?

Propitious omens indeed for Beth and I as we tuck into a jammy scone on Exmoor before we tuck into the writing of a proper, full-length stage show edition of Foiled, our immortal comedy, set in a Welsh hair salon.

Foiled, incredibly, is entering its second decade. There are some who would bandy around such equine idioms as ‘flogging a dead horse’ and ‘one trick ponies’ to describe mine and Beth’s continued relationship with Sabrina, Tanisha, Richie and the hapless clients of Bleach For The Stars.

But the reality is that, even after two plays and four radio serieses, there are still over 7.9 billion people yet to be balayaged by the staffs of Clipadvisor’s highest ranked salon and spa (thanks, dad).

And even those who already have seen, heard and/or enjoyed Foiled, miraculously, come back for more.

So give the people what they want!

That hundred-mile detour ended me up in Cardiff: the first time since 2017 that Beth and I have lived in the same city.

Last night I ate non-fish and chips at her clifftop manor, before jumping on the bike and whooshing down the hill to a rented room in Splott. Even when we did both live in London, with its galactic dimensions expanding into infinity, we couldn’t really do things like that.

I’ll be here for a whole month, osmosising the rhythms and dithums of Wales and photosynthesising them into words on the pages of a script.

By the end of October, we’ll have… more than we have today. The idea is to set the play on its feet sometime late next year, an immersive theatrical experience in a found space with barebrick walls, full length mirrors, runnng water and live bottles of bleach.

First we must breathe life into its bones and reanimate the salon with an incantation of words.

We have stockpiled hundreds of pages of Foiled scripts from the last decade so, tonight, we’re gathering around the kitchen table to read our Collected Works.

We’ll mark pages and make notes, then steal our own best jokes before weaving together the strands of the story that will become Foiled 2022.

And we’ll never forget that it all started with a hundred-mile detour for a whortleberry cream tea.

Self Portrait (1970)

Recorded over the space of a year and bloated with old-time cover versions and obscure live takes of the hits, Self Portrait must have come as a shock to fans of both Dylan the Folkslinger and Dylan the Rock’n’roller.

In Rolling Stone magazine, Greil Marcus welcomed the 24-track LP into the world with the famous words:

What is this shit?!

Let’s give it a listen, shall we?

Above: The author, ten years old, on a family holiday in Dartmoor (April, 1993)

A Note On Random Chance

If you’re wondering why I’m starting my review series with Dylan’s most vilified album, it’s because I used a spreadsheet to select the order at random.

If you’re wondering why I’ve just shown you a photograph of me aged ten, well… Dylan has released 39 studio albums, which is one for every year that I’ve existed.

So, for no obvious reason at all, I’ve decided to pair every Dylan review with a corresponding photo from my forgotten past. Hence, for Dylan’s tenth album, a photo of myself aged ten (see above).

Anyway, back to the music.

The Music

It is, by and large, shit. So let’s get a shovel and start digging. Can we unearth an album worth the listening?

Of the 24 tracks, I say that we can immediately dispense with the three live recordings.

Putting aside their variable quality (Like A Rolling Stone: flat-out terrible; She Belongs To Me: passably interesting; Quinn The Eskimo: entertainingly rompish), their place is not on a studio album, but on a greatest hits compilation (which is exactly where Quinn is plonked a year later).

So we’re down to 21 tracks.

Of those, 16 are covers, leaving just five Dylan originals. It’d be unfair to completely dismiss the cover versions, but I’ll set them aside for a moment.

The Five Originals

Actually, three of the five are instrumentals and it’s hard to say quite how much songwriting Dylan himself did. Certainly the most successful, Woogie Boogie, relies heavily on the talent of the blues band soloists. Dylan never learned the sax.

There are, apparently, some interesting musical goings on in All The Tired Horses, but mostly I hear the twiddlings of a guy who’s just discovered a few new gadgets in the recording studio. Hard to listen to, even by accident.

Wigwam summons the atmosphere of Dylan’s consistent preoccupations: Cowboys and Indians, Mexico and the Mariachi. For that reason, I give it a free pass.

That leaves just two Dylan originals with words. Not exactly a prodigious output for the voice of several generations. In fact, now we come to listen, we realise that Minstrel Boy was plucked from the famous Basement Tapes that Dylan recorded with The Band back in 1967.

That leaves Living The Blues as the last remaining Dylan original on Self Portrait.

It’s not bad.

The 16 Covers

Where do we start with this mess? First, let’s split them into traditional and contemporary.

9 Contemporary Covers

There are nine songs on Self Portrait that were written (or re-popularised) in the 1960s or 1950s by people other than Dylan.

Given that the median Dylan album contains only ten tracks in total, why ram this Self Portrait with an albumful of songs written by his contemporaries?

There seem to be two reasons for these covers:

To Show Off His Crooning Voice

The crooning category contains I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know, Let It Be Me, Copper Kettle, Blue Moon and Take Me As I Am.

Vocally, these songs sound like the inspiration for Nashville Skyline, which Dylan had released the previous year. But, stripped of Dylan’s Skyline smile, they come across as utterly humourless.

Perhaps with the exclusion of Let It Be Me, we can dispense with the whole lot without fear of recriminations.

To Have Fun

Into this category we put Early Mornin’ Rain, Gotta Travel On and The Boxer (yes, the Simon & Garfunkel song).

I can’t think of any reason why these cover versions should exist, other than Dylan had fun singing them. No harm in that. Except that at least one of the covers is simply horrible. I’ll leave it to you to work out which.

The Everly Brothers’ Take A Message To Mary seems to fall into both categories, which is FINE.

A brief mention is due to Thirsty Boots, a splendid Eric Anderson song that Dylan recorded in a bombastic rendition for Self Portrait, but chose to exclude from the album. More on that sort of shenanigans in a bit.

7 (or 4) (or 5) Traditional Covers

Here, Dylan is on more solid ground. So solid, in fact, that he steals the songwriting credit in the liner notes.

Ever since Bob Dylan (his first album), Bob Dylan (the singer) has been a jukebox of the American folk and blues tradition.

His special talent has always been one of interpretation and, often, the appropriation of melody for his own lyrics. See Blowing In The Wind, The Times They Are A’Changin’, etc..

It’s what he’s best at and, when it works, it’s genius. When it doesn’t work, it’s In Search Of Little Sadie.

The Little Sadies / Sadists

In Search Of Little Sadie is purportedly the sound of Dylan trying to find an interpretation of the traditional folk song Little Sadie. I say ‘purportedly’ because the musical chaos has been carefully written and practised. This is not a rehearsal. This is — what else? — a joke.

I’m sure it’s very clever, very funny and very Dylan, but it’s not particularly fine listening.

Two songs later, we get the actual Little Sadie. Jaunty. But even here, mystifyingly, the producer cuts late and we hear the sound of a tape machine clicking off and a guitar clanging.

In some ways, these two songs are the beating heart of Self Portrait. This album was written and produced to sound like a band warming up. The sound of Dylan behind the shades: an honest self portrait.

The question is: why be honest? We’ll never know for sure, but we all have guilty pleasures (Gangsta Rap, Bryan Adams) and — guess what? — Dylan does too. Just no one ever dreamed his would be this embarrassing.

Trad Today Gone Tomorrow

Okay, so we’ll cut the Little Sadies, but what about the other trad songs?

It’s a mixed bag.

The album begins and ends with two almost identical versions of the traditional blues song Alberta — one in double time, one in triple time.

Alberta is a great song and both performances crackle — but why did Dylan think we needed both takes? Perhaps, taking his own lyrics literally, he really was ‘going through all these things twice’.

Days of ‘49, credited to American folklorists Lomax, Lomax and Warner, is another triumph, driven on by the menacing drum kick and the rolling warmth of the piano.

It Hurts Me Too is insipidly unnecessary. Even if Self Portrait wasn’t already overlong — 74 minutes, really?! — It Hurts Me Too would still be unnecessary.

Thanks to the 2013 Bootleg Series release of Another Self Portrait, we know that Dylan recorded at least four superior trad songs that were ultimately cut from the album:

  • Pretty Saro
  • Railroad Bill
  • This Evening So Soon
  • House Carpenter

In fairness, no accurate self portrait of Dylan would be complete without leaving a few of the best songs off the album. Blind Willie McTell, Abandoned Love, Seven Days, Seven Curses, Series of Dreams, Red River Shore — it’s a classic Dylan move.

The Disappearing Act Of Belle Isle

That leaves one final song that did make the cut: Dylan’s take on Belle Isle. Marc Bolan was a huge fan:

Belle Isle brought to my memory all the moments of tenderness I’ve ever felt for another human being, and that, within the superficial landscape of pop music, is a great thing indeed.

Bolan’s right that Belle Isle is a beautiful song, even if, personally, I feel like the campfire guitar clashes with the strings as the song reaches a climax. With its soaring strings and matinée crooning, Belle Isle doesn’t even sound like ‘Dylan’. He’s not there.

On which note, it’s time to return to that famous Rolling Stone review:

There is a curious move toward self-effacement; Dylan removing himself from a position from which he is asked to exercise power in the arena.

Is that all this is? A kiss-off to the Folkslingers and Rock’n’Rollers who didn’t get the message after Nashville Skyline?

Maybe, but humour me for a moment…

Is Self Portrait a buried classic?

If I were compiling a ten-track Dylan album from the bloated ruins of Self Portrait and Another Self Portrait, this is what I’d come up with:

  1. Alberta #2
  2. Days of ‘49
  3. Early Mornin’ Rain
  4. Let It Be Me (or Take A Message To Mary if you prefer)
  5. Pretty Saro
  6. Woogie Boogie (Wigwam if you need to cool off)
  7. Belle Isle
  8. Railroad Bill
  9. Thirsty Boots
  10. Living The Blues

And, blow me, if that isn’t a great album. A 32-minute Self Portrait of which anyone would be proud. Even my ten-year-old self, face down in a swimming pool in France:

They need us more than we need them

Cars are needy little creeps, aren’t they?

I was feeling pretty good that I hadn’t needed to use mine for a Vernian eighty days and got a wonderful cosy feeling when, on clunk-clicking the door on Wednesday morning, I found the interior covered in cobwebs.

But the Corollavirus didn’t feel the same. He wouldn’t start. So, for the second time since I took ownership six months ago, I had to call out the breakdown mechanics because I hadn’t been using up enough fossil fuels to keep the vehicle functioning.

Needy.

Luckily, the mechanic sorted me out within half an hour and I managed to get to the Chilterns for the above-mentioned work.

But then I had the temerity to drive home. At night. With the headlights on. Ever since, the battery has given me not a flicker.

Somebody told me that I need a trickle charger. But I suspect a better solution would be to sell the car…

The Parisian adjunct mayor for transportation and public space seems pretty rad:

The redistribution of public space is a policy of social redistribution.

Fifty percent of public space is occupied by private cars, which are used mostly by the richest, and mostly by men, because it’s mostly men who drive, and so in total, the richest men are using half the public space.

So if we give the space to walking, biking, and public transit, you give back public space to the categories of people who today are deprived.

Rad.

And, if I drove in Barcelona, maybe I could trade the Corollavirus in for a bus ticket.

Rad.

Turkish Delight falls out of the sky If a picture speaks a thousand words, then each one of those letters yells a poem.

There are only three more days of cycling left before we finish spelling out Refugees Welcome in the largest bike-powered GPS drawing the world has ever hypothetically seen.

After 1,905km and 24,118m of climbing elevation, this is what we’ve got so far:

We’ve done ‘we’, we’ve done ‘u’. There’s only ‘me’ left.

If a picture speaks a thousand words, then each one of those letters yells a poem.

Where Refugees was all about doing the distance and spreading the word, Welco has been all about other people, other cyclists and other fundraisers.

Georgie and I have been thrust into the background, supporting artists of an all-star ensemble cast. Humble van drivers, camp strikers, porridge stirrers.

We’ve hosted 27 cyclists so far, with another 27 to join us on the M and the final E. The energy of all those humans makes everything and anything possible. Whether that’s quite literally climbing Steep Hill…

Or dealing with the aftermath of an ominous popping sound when changing lanes on a dual carriageway…

This was first thing on Monday morning, ten minutes after waving off the ‘O’ cyclists at Falmer Station. I was hungry and needed the toilet, but felt like the first thing I should do is report the incident to the RAC.

I barely had enough time to find a toilet and buy a cuppa before Mark rattled up in his roadside recovery vehicle.

Mark’s ‘little trick’ involving a ball of steel wire didn’t do the job, so he towed Calypso to the inestimable PJE Automotive. But, as I watched Calypso and all our camping kit vanish into the pale distance, six hungry mouths were cycling inexorably towards a forest camp, expecting tents, clothes and a birthday dinner.

I walked back to Kemptown, where Thighs Core Team stalwart Bobby lived in a former Pupil Referral Unit. Bobby lent us a backup backup van (Harold) and he quickly talked me through its vagaries — the fuel pump, the shoulder shove to unlock the back, the steering wheel lock.

As I was pulling out of the Pupil Referral Unit, Bobby added one final warning: ‘Don’t panic if Turkish Delight falls out of the sky. A friend of ours hid thousands of them in every nook and cranny of the van and they have a habit of appearing unexpectedly.’

I screeched off into the Brighton traffic, only realising halfway into a snarl up that I hadn’t eaten lunch and it was almost four o’clock. At that very moment, braking into the red lights, a packet of Turkish Delight fell from the overhead mirrors.

I made it to PJE Automotive about half an hour before closing. Calypso was already being worked on. Three mechanics swarmed her undercarriage in a flurry of fixingness.

This was a heartening sight, bar one minor detail: Calypso was three metres up and I needed, not only everyone’s tents and bags, but also two cooking rings, an incredibly heavy gas canister, the crockery and cutlery and three crates of food, including a surprise Colin the Caterpillar birthday cake for Georgie.

So began an impressive recovery operation of an altogether different kind. As I shouted vague instructions from ground level, a tottering mechanic on an extendable ladder liberated as much of our kit as he could get his hands on.

It would have to do. I threw almost everyone’s tents, practically all of their bags and pretty much most of the cooking stuff into the back of Harold and, finally, headed for the forest.

A couple of hours later, Georgie was blowing the candles off Clive the Caterpillar (IT WAS A FAKE!) among a circle of friends — many of whom were at least partially dressed in their own clothes — as if this was exactly how we’d planned it all along.

This is what Thighs of Steel is all about: the collective pushing those pedals. Doing things that we never thought we could.

The clutch now moves ‘like butter’. I can hear the sound of chopping knives from the kitchen. Bobby has lit a fire on the beach. We’re ready for the last rides of the summer.

Brighton Palace Pier at sunset. At dawn, we ride again…

Talking politics with strangers Approaching a stranger to ask for their signature and contact details is pretty daunting when you think there’s a 50/50 chance that they’ll hate everything about you.

On Wednesday, we stayed with the wonderful Christine and Hayden in Alton (home of Sweet FA). We shovelled down a spectacular dinner in double quick time: Christine had invited a circle of friends to listen to our stories from the road.

I hadn’t prepared a Powerpoint, so instead I gave a impromptu bugle recital and a depressing speech about the Nationality and Borders Bill.

One of the high points of this bike trip is having conversations about immigration and asylum with the people we meet.

It’s great that everyone knows at least vaguely what’s going on in Afghanistan at the moment, but not so many people understand how our government is ripping up the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees.

So here’s my bullet point digest for you to share with friends:

  • The new Nationality and Borders Bill is in direct contravention of the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees. This strikes me as a bit of a shame, given that the UK was one of only ten original signatories of this landmark document.
  • The new Bill creates a two-tiered asylum system that distinguishes claims based on the means of entry to the UK rather than by whether the human being entering is actually in need of asylum. This prejudice is explicitly forbidden by Article 31 of the 1951 Convention.
  • Should the new Bill pass, the only admissable refugees will be the few who arrive here on painfully limited resettlement schemes. For example, the government has committed to resettle 20,000 Afghans over ‘the coming years’.
  • The UK currently stands in nineteenth place in the European league table of asylum applications per capita of population, below Greece, Germany, France, Spain, Sweden, Belgium, Slovenia, Switzerland, Austria, Malta, Italy, Finland… You get the point.
  • Even if the government’s resettlement promises can be trusted — which they manifestly can’t — the new Bill would send the UK spiralling even further down the list of safe nations for those fleeing war.
  • Furthermore, under the new Bill, those who enter the UK ‘irregularly’ — i.e. without a passport and visa — will have their asylum cases deemed ‘inadmissable’ and the government will try to deport them.
  • If you are a refugee, it is essentially impossible to enter the UK with a passport and visa. Do you imagine those fleeing Afghanistan had time to apply for a visa on their way out? The result: the asylum claim of every refugee coming to this country under their own steam will be ‘inadmissable’.
  • If the government simply can’t get rid of them (because their freakin homes are on fire!), then these people will be allowed to apply for asylum… but…
  • Even if these irregular arrivals are ultimately awarded refugee status, they will never be given the right to settle here and will be regularly reassessed for removal. Again: this prejudice is explicitly forbidden by the 1951 Convention because it’s manifestly unfair.

The British were very successful at promulgating the myth that their Empire was founded on good will and fair play. This was always a gargantuan lie, but it’s a lie that this government seems particularly eager to expose with the extraordinary cruelty and arbitrary injustice of its Nationality and Borders Bill.

Every time we stop the GPS for a bike break — lunch wraps, punctures, bedtime — we need to get our logbook signed off by a member of the public. This means that we talk to a lot of people about what we’re doing.

At the beginning of the trip, we were both a bit worried about discussing refugees with any old stranger on the street.

The anti-immigration, anti-asylum right wing press is the most popular in the country and, naturally, we thought that these newspapers would reflect the views of their readers. Not only that, but the elected government of this country is run by a man that the BBC can, without fear of slander, describe as ‘a liar and a racist’.

Therefore, basic probability told us that a good chunk of our unsuspecting witnesses would hold strong, negative views on the right of refugees to claim asylum in this country.

Approaching a stranger to ask for their signature and contact details is pretty daunting when you think there’s a 50/50 chance that they’ll hate everything about what you’re doing.

As the trip has gone on, however, we’ve come to the heartening conclusion that The Daily Mail and the Conservative Party can’t possibly reflect the real views of the people of this country.

We’ve not done a survey, but it’s statistically fantastic that zero of the 114 people in our witness book neither read the country’s most popular newspapers nor vote for the most popular political party.

Yet the vast majority of people we’ve met on this bike ride show great compassion towards those forced to flee their homes. Indeed: most people tell us that they think the government should be doing more to help.

This government, and the billionaire-owned press that goads them on, are not only heartlessly vindictive, but they foment a social atmosphere that divides us and makes us scared to share our true political beliefs with each other.

This trip has not only given me the strength to approach strangers and open up political conversations, but also the confidence that they won’t rip my head off. Far from it.

If we are going to defeat the Nationality and Borders Bill — and the countless others that this government are yet to write — then we need to be able to trust each other.

This bike trip has shown me that we can.

So let’s.

How To Break Things: An Update

  • Days Cycling: 11
  • Distance Cycled: 842km
  • Everests Climbed: 1.54 (13,601m)
  • Tiramisús Devoured: 3
  • Guinness World Records Surpassed: 1

I can’t technically say that we’ve broken the world record because the ride isn’t over yet (nor the record verified), but Thighs of Steel have definitely surpassed the previous record and, with every day that passes, the world’s biggest bike-powered GPS drawing gets even bigger.

Since I last wrote, we have rounded off the ‘f’ in Exmoor, cycled the Jurassic Coast of the ‘u’ and passed the world record distance out on the Somerset Levels of the ‘g’.

As we crossed into Glastonbury, Mayor Jon Cousins met us to sign the logbook and mark this momentous occasion with a nice cup of tea. Georgie had Guinness — what else?

Speaking of tea: if you ever have the fortune to be cycling across Exmoor, make a stop at the Poltimore Arms to meet publican, politician and raconteur Steve Cotten. He looks and sounds a lot like comedian Bill Bailey.

Georgie had only stopped at the top of the hill to wait for me to catch up, but we were soon sitting down for a hot drink with Steve and the pub cat, Frederick Albert Hitler.

‘I never charge for tea or coffee,’ Steve told us. ‘Some call it bad business, I call it good manners.’

As we arrived, Steve had just received a parcel containing white jodhpurs and a pair of leather riding boots.

‘They won’t let me drive — I’m half blind — so I got myself a crazy horse,’ he explained. ‘Everyone says that horse will be the death of me, but I know all the local elite dressage trainers so I’m going to learn dressage and win Olympic gold at the next Paralympics.’

He must have seen the doubt in our eyes because the next thing he said was: ‘I’m serious. People don’t believe me, but they didn’t believe me when I said I was going to run for parliament and see what happened there.’

He points behind us to a massive canvas poster of Steve on the campaign trail: ‘A vote for Steve Cotten is a vote for North Devon’.

‘I set out to fail,’ he said, ‘and I nearly ended up winning.’

Putting the ‘f’ in Exmoor

I’ll restrict myself to three other highlights of the past week: homemade tiramisú, campfires and unbridled generosity. These recurred with pleasing regularity along the ride — or all together at once in the case of one memorable evening with Laura and Jon at Bulstone Springs.

What more could a steely thighed cyclist need? Courtesy of Bulstone Springs’ gorgeous new glamping grounds

Open hearted generosity is a feature of cycle touring. Not only from our wonderful hosts who welcome us into their homes, but also from many of the people we meet along the way.

Yesterday, six friends-we-hadn’t-yet-met donated in cash quids, fivers, tenners and even twenties. This makes Wiltshire by far and away the most generous county we’ve cycled through and it’s inspired me to spend my day off making a donations bucket to strap to the front of the bike.

I’d better get cracking actually — my bike suffered a mechanical yesterday and I don’t fancy testing the limits of my frayed gear cabling on the White Horse hills. With fair winds and good fortune, the next time I write, we will have finished writing ‘Refugees’.

Until then: choose love,
dc:

Admin or Admiration?

We are now 4 days into our 27 day bike-powered GPS drawing of Refugees Welcome and it’s no coincidence that all the roads around here incorporate the word ‘Hill’.

Copstone Hill, Cuckoo Hill, Polson Hill, Beech Hill Cross, North Hill Lane. (There’s also a Cockrattle Lane, but that’s a different story.)

Since our departure from St Austell on Tuesday, we’ve climbed over 6400m: coast to coast to coast through Cornwall, followed by a loop-the-loop of Dartmoor.

For those of you catching up, Thighs of Steel (of which I am a mere cog) are attempting to create the world’s largest bike-powered GPS art by riding a serpentine route around the south of England that spells out the words ‘Refugees Welcome’.

If we are successful, it will break the current world record by a completely unnecessary 1500km.

But, as they say, it’s all for a good cause. We are fundraising for Choose Love, a charity that re-distributes donations to dozens of grassroots refugee projects in the UK and abroad.

These projects have been hit hard by the pandemic and would be completely unable to offer any services at all without the generosity of hundreds of individuals making small cash donations.

What’s great about Choose Love is that they can send the money wherever it is needed NOW.

As you may have gathered from the news, forced migration happens suddenly and it’s often the small grassroots projects that are best able to respond fast enough to help people when they need it most.

Thank you for all your donations – they are powering both our thighs and (more importantly) the work of these refugee support projects.

These first four days (we hope) will be the toughest of the whole tour, certainly in terms of distance and elevation, and I would be lying if I said that, at times, I have not reflected unfavourably upon my life choices.

Such as on Wednesday, when we cranked our way up two irrelevant hills to form the inlet of the ‘R’, only to return over the same exact same hills to finish off the tail.

And these are not hills in the sense that you might imagine if you live in the Home Counties, East Anglia, or even Scotland. These are Devonshire and Cornish hills. Road builders here seem to delight in driving you perpendicular to the contour lines. Not a zig-zag in sight, just a sheer wall of asphalt.

But the consolation in those absurd moments of repeated routing is not what we are doing, but why.

At the end of our hill reps on Wednesday, in the very butt of the R, a man called Ray Christmas signed our logbook. Ray Christmas!

Wait – the logbook? Ah, yes, the logbook! Every World Record Attempter’s nightmare – literally.

I swear, two nights ago, I dreamt that Philip Schofield agreed to sign our logbook in exchange for sexual favours.

Schofield, aside, the logbook is the evidence Guinness need to verify our record. Every time we stop, we have to write that information into the logbook: date, time, distance travelled, location – and get that information signed off by an independent witness.

It’s a lot of admin. Stop the GPS, check the time, check the distance, enter the time, enter the distance, add up today’s distance to yesterday’s total distance, eat half a flapjack, cast around for a human being who looks like not-a-dick.

Then we launch into The Spiel – ‘Sorrytobotheryoudoyoumindmeaskingafavourwearetryingtobreakaworldrecord’ – all the while gauging their eyes and frown lines for signs of curiosity and generosity or suspicion and derision.

No, this logbook is more than admin – it’s a total ballache.

But, I confess, these witness signing ceremonies are often the highlight of our day.

The vicar of Holy Trinity, St Austell, who prayed for our steely thighs.

Luke and David at Bodmin steam railway, who donated £5 and a Thomas the Tank Engine flag.

The family in the wind and rain who donated halloumi fresh from their barbecue.

The woman wearing the Choose Love t-shirt in Boscastle – how could we not stop her?

The inestimable Janet Downes who carted us from R to E and donated homemade cheesy flapjacks.

Margitta and Nick and Lee and Laura and Pippa and Rolf and Bri and Penny who have hosted and roasted us in their warm homes.

Ian the accordian player from Of Stone And Earth in Chagford.

Debbie and Rob from the village shop in South Brent, who insisted on doing a Facebook Live with us and donated £10 and a bag of dark chocolate gooseberries.

The volunteers at Spreyton community shop who donated two pieces of Bakewell Tart.

Gordon Ramsey.

Wait, what? Yes – TV celeb chef Gordon Ramsey. Spotted by Naomi out on a bike trail, enjoying a quiet cup of tea. At least he was enjoying a quiet cup of tea until Naomi fell off her bike in shock and I went up to him shouting ‘Are you Gordon Ramsey?’

To be fair, he took it pretty well – better than I would have done if someone had come up to me and shouted ‘Are you Gordon Ramsey?’

He signed our logbook, wished us well and gave me a fistbump. What more can you ask?

So, the logbook: yes, it’s a chore, but it’s also given us the moments that make this bike ride like no other bike ride.

This experience has made me want to make a logbook, a sort of a guestbook, for all my future rides too. How wonderful to make these connections as we pass through these villages and towns, how lucky.

I suppose it’s all about how you look at the world, isn’t it? My feelings about this baleful world record lurch, moment to moment, from admin to admiration.

Open minds, open hearts, open logbook.

‘We identify ourselves as human beings’ If it passes without amendment, the Nationality and Borders Bill will put UK law in direct opposition to the 1951 Geneva Convention by criminalising people who arrive on these shores without a visa — even when they have a legitimate claim for asylum under international law.

On Monday I will hop onto a train and then into a car and travel down to St Austell for the beginning of the second longest bike ride of my life and the first that has required more than a few days’ planning.

Spell It Out, a 2,400km world record-breaking ride across the south of England, began as a hypothetical exercise during the Thighs of Steel Adventure Inventor application process back in March. Finally, after five months of intense communication, organisation and logistics, the cycling begins.

It’s a huge relief.

Compared to the uncertainty of sitting in front of a computer screen trying to convince people to go on a long bike ride, actually going on that long bike ride will feel like a doddle. Even when the elevation chart looks like this:

Since we launched the Spell It Out fundraiser in May, over fifty cyclists have collectively raised more than £24,600 for Choose Love. We’re still some way off our target of £100,000, but I can feel the momentum building: we’ve raised nearly a grand in the past twenty-four hours.

~

I had an interesting chat this morning with a friend who works for Fat Macy’s, a wonderful social enterprise currently raising funds to open a new training academy in East London.

We were talking about how charities, social enterprises and other projects that do what we called ‘meaningful work’ get funding, bemoaning the fact that it often depends on the indulgence of wealthy individuals or companies.

‘High net worth’ funders are the lifeblood of many charities and their directors and trustees will spend a significant amount of their time schmoozing with those who have spent their lives earning the big bucks and now want to ‘give something back’.

Thighs of Steel has always been different. We don’t actively seek wealthy backers and we deliberately set our ticket prices low, widening participation to include people who are unlikely to have high net worth networks of privilege.

We think it is important that we have ninety cyclists with big hearts rather than ten cyclists with deep pockets.

Because human beings are important.

~

Researching this story earlier today, I was struck by the words of lawyer Jack Pelele, writing on Refugee Action about his experience as a refugee in the UK asylum system:

We must remember that behind our numbers and the fateful journeys we go through, we are people who have dreams, identify ourselves as human beings who were once useful to ourselves and our communities and can still be. Our value and worth do not end in victimhood or burden to those from whom we seek sanctuary.

Hang on — ‘we identify ourselves as human beings’ — I’m sorry, but how othered do you have to feel before you find yourself forced to assert your very humanity?

Well, funny you should ask. You see, Spell It Out has taken on a whole new level of urgency in recent weeks, as the government pushes forward with its barbaric overhaul of the asylum system.

If it passes without amendment, the Nationality and Borders Bill will put UK law in direct opposition to the 1951 Geneva Convention by criminalising people who arrive on these shores without a visa — even when they have a legitimate claim for asylum under international law.

In practice, there are no legal routes to asylum in the UK. And the only alternatives to legal routes to asylum are illegal. This government, and the right wing press, depend on this tauntology to justify their existence.

Tightening border control forces people into ever more desperate and dangerous routes to safety and the proposed bill will not only criminalise refugees themselves, but also any organisations or individuals who try to offer them safe harbour — including the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.

And this comes on top of an asylum system that is already founded on detention and destitution.

How’s that for othering?

~

Thighs of Steel aren’t politicians, we’re not law-makers — we’re cyclists.

Over the next month, forty more cyclists will hit the road and help us create the world’s largest ever GPS drawing, on a route that spells out ‘Refugees Welcome’ from Cornwall to Kent.

Without big money backers, our ninety-plus cyclists depend on a solidarity network of hundreds, thousands of friends and followers stumping up £5, £10, £50 of their hard-earned.

It’s true that one millionaire can single-handedly transform the fortunes of a struggling project stripped of funding by the pandemic.

But thousands of small-time donors generate enough energy to show the world that the people of Britain still believe in compassion to those facing tragedy.

We think that’s important.

Because we also identify as human beings.

DONATE HERE

~

Many thanks to everyone who are making Spell It Out possible: the hard-working Thighs of Steel clan; the hosts we’ll be staying with, from Warmshowers and Workaways to farmers and friends; St Austell Holy Trinity Church for helping us with our Grand Depart and Migrant Help for meeting us at the finish line in Dover.

And, of course, bottomless thanks to the ninety-plus Thighs of Steel cyclists — and their donors — who are doing what they can.

Join us, if you can.

Laughter Lines My advice is nothing more than reassurance that the dream still fits the plan. The more people do this sort of thing, the more people do this sort of thing.

Through the window, as I write, I can see rusty-coloured containers, rusty-coloured cranes and rusty-coloured clouds. We must be approaching Southampton Central.

This week I’ve transitioned from bikes to trains, clocking up over thirteen hours on one or other of these coupled carriages, entertaining myself by reading books about Trainspotting and Breath, or estimating the proportion of mask-wearers in the population.

(FWIW: Mask-wearing varies wildly depending on time and location, from about 30 percent on the morning platform at Bournemouth to an impressive 80 percent on the London Underground in rush hour, before crashing to 5 percent on the train home after kicking out time at the pubs.)

Thank you so much for all the lovely comments on the last two weeks’ worth of stories from Wales. Stories in the Lamplight is already the ninth most-read post in these archives, so thank you to those of you who shared it around.

I’m glad the stories resonated: it feels like passing on the chain of connection, from the lives I crossed in Wales, through my brain, to yours—and after that? It’s up to you.

I passed along a few morsels of bike touring advice to Documentally this week. Tomorrow, he’s setting off on the longest ride of his life and asked me a few questions about route planning and lightweight tents.

As always, my advice feels like nothing more than reassurance that the dream still fits the plan. Quite simply: the more people do this sort of thing, the more people do this sort of thing.

Besides: the student has already outdone the master (ha!) with both the title of his tour—Cycling Hertz—and the generous fundraising he’s inspiring throughout his network.

Documentally and about fifty other cyclists who give a damn have managed to raise over £22,000 for Choose Love with Thighs of Steel this year. That’s enough love and solidarity to run a refugee drop-in centre for three months, or to pay for an expert caseworker to support unaccompanied refugee children for a whole year.

At a time when proposed changes to the asylum system are at risk of criminalising humanitarian organisations like the RNLI—our seaside lifeguards—it is important that we show the whole world that Britain still welcomes those fleeing persecution, conflict and terror.

This money is precious. This money sends a message.

We’re not finished yet. There is still space for you to join us, either as a DIYer like Documentally or as part of our supported Guinness World Record attempt.

This, somehow, is a bike ride.

Together with co-conspirator Georgie Cottle, I’ll be cycling more or less the whole 2,400km world record route, all the way from Holy Trinity Church in St Austell on 16 August to the Port of Dover on 18 September.

We leave in less than ten days so I’ve been frantically calculating elevation stats, ordering crates of chocolate and ginger flapjacks, and panic-phoning bike shops trying to source a 22T chainset.

The first four days’ cycling are each over 100km, with more hills than you’d get climbing from the sea to the summit of Ben Nevis. I thought Wales would prepare me. I was wrong.

The white-haired woman across the aisle announces to a disembodied ear that she’s on the train, on the way back from a funeral. A young man in headphones confirms the next stop to the dark eyes, dark curls peering over the seat in front. Two more bikes, belonging to unseen, potbellied cyclists, are strung up with mine in the vestibule, swinging on their meat hooks.

Hiya everyone! This is your onboard catering crew, Angela and Adam. If you’re feeling a bit hot and clammy, we’ve got a selection of cold drinks available. Water, wines, OJ, beers, Prosecco. We’re also happy to have a little chat if you’ve been watching Love Island or the Olympics—with one person at a time in the buffet car.

A funeral, an ear, headphones, dark eyes, potbellies, lifeguards, cold drinks, sweet dreams, used tickets, worn tyres. The seams between all these lives run like laughter lines across the face of our experience.

~

If you’d like to support this kind of thing, Georgie and I have made a fundraising page. I’ll be writing stories to you right here in your inbox, but you can follow more visual daily updates on the Thighs of Steel Instagram and Facebook. Maybe even on Twitter.

If you live somewhere near the route, we’d love for you to come out and support. Hot tea, custard creams, calf massages, bugle solos. Whatever moves you moves us.

Stories in the lamplight

Welcome to Liverpool – the world’s eleventh least stressful city, according to research commissioned by a CBD vaping company.

Make of that what you will, but, of the remaining British cities, only Manchester and Edinburgh made it into the top forty.

After all, with its literary riverside, leafy parks and leftie communities, it’s not impossible that Liverpool is a less stressful place to live than Amsterdam, Sydney and Lisbon. The Beatles certainly seemed like a cheerful bunch of lads.

Talking of the Fab Four (plus a few more), this morning I visited Penny Lane. Mainly because it was on the way back from the charity shop where I’d bought a much-needed pair of brown corduroy flares to make myself respectable around town.

I know that this is Liverpool and that, fashion wise (more than one person has remarked), anything goes. But my blue checkered Speedos – somewhat appropriate for the beach after a hot day’s cycle – were beginning to make me feel a little self-conscious around town.

Penny Lane itself is an unprepossessing street elevated to such lofty legend that its old painted sign has to be put behind protective perspex.

I spent a happy hour listening to the stories of Julie Gornell at the Penny Lane Development Trust, which was set up to save a derelict corner of the lane from developers. Now there’s a garden, a memorabilia shop, a mural called the ‘wonder wall’ and – what else? – the original yellow submarine.

Note 1: The name ‘wonder wall’ has nothing to do with Oasis. It was a 1960s psychedelic film for which George Harrison wrote the score.

Note 2: The original yellow submarine was built in 1966 as a functioning submersible by Arthur Johnson of Grimsby for his daughter. Nothing to do with the Paul McCartney song of the same name. Wild.

Note 3: Penny Lane is not (or definitely is) named for James Penny, a man who, in 1788, vehemently defended the Atlantic slave trade to Parliament with the astonishing claim that, on his ships at least, the slaves were not only ‘amused with Instruments of Music’, but also rubbed down and given cordial whenever the weather got a bit sweaty.

Note 4: Peaking at number two, McCartney’s Penny Lane (alongside its psychedelic twin, Lennon’s Strawberry Fields Forever) has the honour of being the song that broke The Beatles’ run of ten consecutive chart-topping singles in the UK.

Talking of strawberries: I’m eating one.

Welcome, after two weeks of camping, 1,181km of cycling and 13,106m of climbing, to Liverpool.

Note 5: That’s the same distance as London to Poznan and the height of one and a half Everests. If only all fortnights were this productive.

Working backwards, I took lunch today with three bike touring friends. In this Olympic year, I’m passing on the torch: as I finish, they begin, cycling off on full stomachs and their own ‘rolling equipment’.

Ghandi Manning is probably in the top two most-prepared cycle tourers I have ever met. He packed light for this Shropshire ride: only his hammock instead of a tent and none of his drone photography kit. But he still found room for a Swedish numberplate, a curved handle walking stick and, of course, Meg the Leg.

Meg the Leg is a leg that is also a lamp. What more do you need?

Suddenly, my stylishly eccentric bugle (which, I may add, brought a lot of pleasure to tourists on the Mersey Ferry yesterday) looks like the lightweight affectation of someone yet to fully commit to Saddle Life. I have much to learn about packing for pleasure.

Note 6: Ghandi is beaten into second place by a man we once encountered on the Danube whose bike was so fully-laden that he had to walk alongside, pushing.

As touring cyclists, we measure our days in meals, and breakfast was shared with two new friends I made out on the road yesterday.

Swept along on a tailwind from Abergele to Birkenhead, I gave Dan and Jonah the benefit of my GPS navigation. In Liverpool, Dan and Jonah gave me beer and a place to sleep.

This didn’t seem like a fair exchange, so I footed the bill for three rounds of eggs, avocado, beans and mushrooms on sourdough, which set them on their way home to Halifax.

Scrolling back through my timeline of the past week, I see more of these flashes of light.

There’s Mike, the Connah’s Quay cafe and heritage centre chef who sells egg baps for £1.50, grows tomatoes in raised beds on the harbourside and can feel the presence of three resident ghosts.

A Napoleonic-era sea captain marches up and down the museum in his three-cornered hat, disappearing through walls and the like. Mike often hears the laughter of a good-natured little girl ghost, who’s got one side of her face burnt off. But woe betide you if you cross an evil spirit who lives upstairs, pinches bottoms and tells you to fuck off when disturbed.

Back in the realm of the living, there’s Richard, hipster patisserie chef and owner of the last working windmill on Anglesey, who saved his cafe staff’s jobs over lockdown by pivoting to the production of chocolate, gin and Mônuts – doughnuts so popular that the queue starts an hour before opening (not that I’m bitter I missed out).

There’s another Mike, of Dolgellau Bikes, who – you might remember – once spun me around and set me back on the right way round Britain. Now his business is all hire bikes and, when I called in, ten years after that first visit, he looked hot and harried with twenty plus bikes out back, waiting for Covid disinfection. He dreams of retirement and more time for his true love: windsurfing.

There’s Dylan and Joy, who have retired, to the quiet foothills of the Rhinogydd, a steep climb east from Harlech (the steepest climb in the world until the Guinness Book of World Records had a rethink). They chose this remote location because, they told me, neither are people people.

These non-people people welcomed me in for tea on their hayloft balcony overlooking the blue mountains of the Llyn, filled my water bottles, invited me for breakfast and told me how they volunteer as part of the community rescue team that has saved Harlech swimming pool from shutdown. My kind of non-people people.

There’s James the fundraising canyoneer, Ffi the marbling postie, and Dafydd the trig-chasing wifi engineer: all Warmshowers hosts who took care of me when I needed a friendly face and a dunk in the hot, soapy stuff.

My ride, I realised somewhere on the mountain road between Machynlleth and Dolgellau, isn’t about me. It’s as if my bicycle is fitted with a lamp that illuminates brief moments in the lives of others.

It’s up to me, if I can, if I dare, to make sense of the images that flicker first here, now there, before moving on without interpretation to the next un-narrated scene.

There are lessons, I’m sure, in the memories like shards lodged in my brain: the van driver who silently raised his fist as he drove down and I rode up the Llyn; the white-haired woman who tooted her horn and shouted thank you as I pulled over to let her past on Anglesey; even the one-hand-on-the-wheel lorry driver whooshing by too close, whose spare claw was more gainfully employed in digging out his left nostril.

CYCLIST DIES, MAN CLEARS BOGEY

Even that headline is an image churned into the whole of what has already been pasturised and labelled: Round Wales 2021 (on both Komoot and Strava).

Waking up this morning, on a saggy mattress in a bare room in a dusty musty student house emptied out for the summer, I couldn’t help but grin.

What about? Finishing the ride – is that it? I looked around for some sign, some image that I could interpret, that would sum up in a moment the whole of the last two weeks.

A framed poster had fallen from the ex-student’s wall and smashed: MISTAKES ARE PROOF THAT YOU ARE TRYING.

That line doesn’t work as an epitaph for this bike ride. Here’s another that doesn’t work either, spoken to me by the guy whose house I’m staying in tonight:

You’re the first adventurer we’ve had stay. Most people just come here, get pissed one night and go home.

We try to make sense of the scenes illuminated in our lamplight, but really there’s nothing out there but an unbroken string of stories, some told by me, some told by you.

Whatever you do, do it while you can.

Wiener brecwast

I’m writing this from the west coast of Wales, as the wind picks up its suitcase and prepares to shake out the contents onto the bed of land that I ride through. Storm’s a-coming.

Talking of inclement weather, and continuing the Bob Dylan theme of the past couple of newsletters, today’s letter is inspired by A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall.

Dylan once said that every line in that apocalyptic song was just the first line of a whole other song that he worried he’d never get around to writing before music itself was wasted by nuclear winter. Take these lines from the first verse:

I’ve stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains

I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways

I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests

I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans

It’s evidence of the density of the writing and the concision that we’re sometimes forced into by the sheer fact that to write it all would be to fill six volumes – and who has time for that?

So, without wanting to stand my scribblings shoulder to shoulder with Dylan’s Nobel Prize winning catalogue, imagine that behind every sentence there are stories that I don’t have time, space or skill to expand right now. Just like the weather, the last week has been thick.

We cycled too far and forced stops in the churchyard stocks, following the hay trucks billowing dust in the wheat-gold afternoon.

We walked into a welcome as warm as the sundown, plated up salad, that coleslaw, barbeque and hair-dryer damaged paddling pool.

We ate stacks of Rogue Welsh Cakes: stacked and loaded with ice cream, before lying in the shade of an ancient Cypress that’d seen a hundred summers like this one.

We sought out the most southerly point of Wales, slipped our feet into the sea, and watched two women carry home two huge bags of rubbish, left by campers in the nature reserve built up around a former lime works.

We played Uno. We played rummey. We looked into the night and watched as the moon grew full and fat.

We ate melted flapjack on the cliff edge, while overheating sheep sheltered behind a dry stone wall.

In Bridgend, I replaced cycle shorts that had grown obscenely thin in the decaying tropical miasma.

We collapsed from the heat at the top of a deer park, the smoke stacks of Port Talbot pluming on the horizon, and slept in secluded splendour.

We sat in the shadow of Lidl, one of us breakfasting on salad with pomegranate and cashews, the other trying to make a meal of cold frankfurters and smokey cheddar slices. We will always have Lidl.

Swansea came and went in a slow afternoon of tea and company, piecing together tired muscles, sea swims punctuating the hills and rocks of Mumbles and the Gower.

We stayed with a UFC fighter and his family of seven dogs, wife and young baby, lying in the hot bed while he built up flat-pack garden furniture outside.

We rode the coastline fast, baking our backs in the desert sands, while 4x4s make like Jesus in the shallow water.

We wade out to sea and dip our heads before one last climb together, bicycles being now the instrument of our purpose.

At Carmarthen, heart hurting under cool canopy of oak, I cycle on alone.

That Wales ends; this Wales begins. Tens of metres become hundreds; hundreds become thousands: climbing, always climbing. Then coasting, always coasting.

The flying ants burst from the ground. One insect draws blood. A sheep runs out into the road. I chase it back to the flock.

Distant memories return, of a flick comb souvenier, bought at a gift shop in Tenby thirty years ago. I drink tea served by a woman whose legs are cut off below the knee.

I meet Ana, a cyclist from Ukraine who once rode from Luton to John O’Groats with no money, spending two months on the hospitality of strangers.

At St David’s I meet a woman who, in the 1990s, cycled 3,500km over the Andes on a £90 mountain bike.

I watch the glow of the dying sun through the ruined wheel window of St Davids Bishops Palace. I remember this moment from ten years before.

I climb and keep climbing. A man sitting in his garden leaps to his feet to applaud at the top of the hill: ‘Not many make it,’ he says, ‘but you’re past the worst now.’ I tell him that seems unlikely, as I’m bound for Snowdonia.

I collapse into a field of hospitality, exchanged for three barrowfuls of soil, and watch the red sun burn up into the Irish Sea. I sleep long and wake to fresh winds and tea and cereal from a new-found friend.

Too much more to come, but now it’s time to ride again, up towards Aberaeron, where I hear legend of an ice cream shop not to be missed.

Plumb lines and cockpits The upshot of my visit, on a hot June day, to Neil’s upstairs studio was spending a penny to save a pound. Reader: I needed not a larger frame. I needed data.

Of plumb lines and protractors

A couple of weeks ago, I thought I needed a whole new bike—or at least a whole new bike frame. The Dunx chassis that I’d driven a ridiculous distance to collect came out bigger than my old Marin and I worried that my pedal position was more torture rack than action settee on a thousand-mile ride.

Knowing the knee-clicking importance of a well-fitted bike, I was fully prepared to drop another undisclosable sum of money into the laps of the aluminium founders.

But first, fearful of returning to square zero, I needed confidence on exactly what size of metal triangle would best accommodate my thorax, levers and abdomen. So I booked a professional fitting with Neil of Fit To Ride, Poole.

The upshot of my visit, on a hot June day, to Neil’s upstairs studio was spending a penny to save a pound. Or spending £110 to save at least £500. Reader: I needed not a larger frame. I needed data.

Data worth ~£400

I perched astride Martin, fixed in place to a roller with a fan blowing hot air into my hair, distracted by a motionless wall-sized panorama of the Alps; Neil tinkered around me with plumb lines, rulers and protractors.

He’s used to tuning up road bikes for max power. I warned him not to laugh.

The most important thing I learned from Neil, however, was that frame size is much less important than I thought. In the hands of a professional, dramatic micro-adjustments of the seat post, saddle rails, handlebar stem, angle and rise can admit even the most monstrous of riding positions.

I ride upright—a position so unaerodynamic that I must be at least twice as fit as Mark Cavendish. I had managed to achieve my absurdly erect posture by cranking an adjustable handlebar stem way past its vertical limit for the utmost rise and utleast reach.

The effect was, in Neil’s words, cramped and hunched; in my words, relaxed and comfortable. Although, now he mentioned it, a folk memory arose from tours past: a shooting stiffness in the shoulders that only hypodermic massage could relieve.

After raising the seat post an inch and shuffling the saddle back a few mill, Neil proved his point with a protractor. My lower back was indeed of the military persuasion, but my handlebars were so close to my belly that, from the fourth thoracic north, my vertebrae had no choice but to volte-face, kink and plunge.

The results of such a posture are not only painful in the neck, but also, Neil assured me, inefficient in the muscle groups engaged in forward propulsion.

Neil’s response was to exchange my over-wrought stem for one that did the diametric opposite, one that pushed my fingers far over the front wheel. The knock-on effect was to straighten my back and edge the angle between spine and shoulder closer to its biomechanical sweet spot.

I’ve been riding with this new setup for the past couple of weeks, but Neil warned me that it could take five hundred miles before my body works out its new muscle memories. I haven’t had knee pain while cycling for many years: any change to my pedal practise, even change dictated by protractor, is a gamble.

Tomorrow, I leave for a thousand kilometre ride around Wales. Soon I will learn whether the gamble has paid off.

Of cockpits and cash

As anyone who owns a bicycle well knows, the goddess of the highway giveth with one hand and taketh away with the other. The money I hypothetically ‘saved’ by not buying a whole new frame, was spent with thrilling liquidity on an array of instruments for what Neil persisted in calling my ‘cockpit’.

Ever since I’d been struck dumb in Romania by the enviable cockpit of a moustachioed Steely called Bertie, I have wanted aerodynamic tri bars on my touring bicycle. Goaded on by Neil—‘All the long distance cyclists have got them these days’—I have finally taken the swallow dive.

As the owner of a flat-bar touring bike, my life has already been transformed once by the addition of end bars (credit to John in Newcastle for that innovation). Could it be transformed a second time with these sleek arm rests? Time shall tell.

But that is not the only new member of my cockpit crew. I have also succumbed to bikepacking fashion and acquired a handlebar bag—supposedly of ten litres, but I’m not about to waste perfectly good drinking water checking that. In my case, this handlebar bag is nothing more than a robust dry bag zip tied to my bars.

The pièce de résistance of my pimped up cockpit is a brand new GPS computer—the admirably typo-ridden Wahoo Elemnt Bolt. This frighteningly loseable piece of hardware is a tiny, yet incredibly detailed world atlas, onto which I can superimpose the turn-by-turn instructions for my intended route.

The first time I cycled around Wales, back in 2011, I used a road atlas for navigation and, with no digital Hermes to guide my wheels, I furiously spent many hours lost, as this extract from my bicyclogue of the journey reveals:

Through Harlech, with its men, to Barmouth, where I cross the mouth of Afon Mawddach. Happily swishing through the fields and woods of the hills, I’m expecting to hit the seaside again soon. I’m constantly looking ahead, around this bend, over this hill, through this wood, soon I’ll hear the swish of the sea, soon.

Then I hit a town that shouldn’t be there. I cycle along vaguely, bewildered by my map. It’s a pleasant enough town, with grey slate and flint buildings and a few people enjoying the gap between rainstorms. It’s just that none of it should be here. Eventually, after dawdling through the town, trying to find a comprehensible road sign that might indicate where the hell I am, I find a bike shop. I tie up and go inside.

‘Excuse me,’ I ask the vigorously tanned bike mechanic. ‘You couldn’t tell me where I am, could you?’
In fairness to him, he would be well within his rights to look at me now as if I’m insane. But he doesn’t. He just says something like: ‘Dththgththaye.’
A look of panic flickers over my face. I check my map. ‘Erm, where?’
‘Dththgththaye,’ he repeats, patiently.
I panic again. He takes pity, turns the page on my road map and points: Dolgellau. There is no way we can be there.
‘Are you sure?’ I ask before I can stop myself.

Now he is looking at me as if I am insane. Somehow I have managed to cycle north-east, when I should have been going south-west. For eight miles. After all my anxiety about avoiding Anglesey and other diversions, I feel strangely liberated from the tyranny of Knowing. Not Knowing, I’m not worried about where I am, where I’m going or how fast I’m going wherever it is that I’m going.

That was then, but how now will I suffer this year, at the mercy of the all-knowing Wahoo? A Wahoo that, all being well, shall, by the end of the summer, be a world record holder, no less. Will I pass muster? Or will I long for the days of unknowing?

~

Thanks to Dunx Cycles and Fit To Ride for their help putting together Martin II.

If you’ve got any recommendations of places to explore in Wales, then please let me know. Likewise, if you live in Wales and fancy joining me for a turn about the hills.

100 Days of Adventure: Solstice Update

What is this?

I’ll begin this six-month, solstice update on a downbeat note. Earlier this week, I was scheduled to instruct my first Duke of Edinburgh Award Silver Expedition.

I was very excited about this event, not only because I’d be working in the G.O.D. (Great Out Doors) with more experienced, enthusiastic young people, but also because it was in the New Forest, a wilderness I’ve not much explored (despite the fact it’s only forty minutes down the road).

Unfortunately, there was an outbreak of Covid at the school and they had to cancel. A shocking reminder that shit is still very much going down and we are lucky to be able to get outdoors whenever and however we can. Make the most of it, people.

Cumulative Days of Adventure so far: 28

According to my optimistic Equinox Update, I’d been hoping to get through 36 DoA by this point. Given that four days of outdoor work have been cancelled over the past couple of weeks, I’m not too far off my ambition.

July to September

This is where the battle will be won and lost. On 17 July, I’ll be resuming my Round Britain cycle, riding around Wales for a couple of weeks. My vague route is on Komoot.

NOTICE: If you live in Wales or have any recommendations for the route, please reply to this email or leave a comment. Thanks!

Then, in August and September, I’ll be part of the core team for Thighs of Steel’s epic world record-breaking Spell It Out ride across the south coast, helping make Refugees Welcome. (You’re invited too, btw.)

By the time I get home, I could be on 75 DoA. That still leaves a pretty stiff target of eight days for each of the winter months—but I’m hoping that my soon-to-be-booked Hill and Moorland Leader assessment will light a fire under my efforts to get outside a-venturing.

Do it while you can.

Masquerading with Bob Dylan Through the changing colours of his chameleonic career, Dylan has shown exactly how ferociously that work ethic must be defended against the ossifying effects of wealth and fame. Let’s put on our creative masks and show up for work. Let’s masquerade.

Last week I wrote about one ancient Bob; this week I’ll write about another.

On Monday, I took my usual seat on on my usual cross-legged cushion for my usual Chess Club match-up with my confederate-cum-competitor. There are only three rules of Chess Club. The first rule of Chess Club is snacks, but the second is music.

Yann Tiersen, Ludovico Einaudi, Nick Mulvey. That sort of thing.

I wasn’t expecting Bob Dylan.

Between the years of about 2004 and 2015, I listened to very little other recorded music but Bob Dylan. Then, on his seventy-fifth birthday, I played a couple of his songs live. Overnight, my life changed. And I stopped listening to Bob Dylan.

A fool such as I.

Back in May, Bob Dylan turned eighty and, on Monday, I was turned on again.

His Bobness will always be an important artist for me, not because of what he is—not because he’s the Voice Of A Generation or a Nobel Prize winner (although he is certainly one of those things)—but because of what he is not.

He’s not a great guitarist. He’s not a great singer. He’s not even a great harmonica player. He’s not a great poet. He’s not a great painter. He’s not a great prose writer. He’s not even always a great lyric writer.

And yet his life could be an instruction manual on how to get the most out of what you’ve (not) got.

Work fucking hard!

In 1965, Bob went to Newport Folk Festival and plugged in his electric guitar. He made such a racket that people booed. In fact, his entire electric tour of North America and (most famously) England got booed and heckled.

This all culminated in his performance at Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1966 where, just before playing the last track (Like A Rolling Stone), a man stands up and shouts, ‘Judas!’

Dylan sneers back, ‘I don’t believe you.’ His voice rises in hysteria: ‘You’re a liar!’ Then he turns to his band and screams—‘Play it fucking loud!’

Grammarians: Good spot—I’ve changed tense because you can hear all this for yourself, as if live, on The Bootleg Series 4: The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert Disc 2.

I tell you this little side story because the entirety of Dylan’s artistic method boils down—if I can paraphrase the man himself here—to one maxim: work fucking hard.

How many songs?

When he didn’t include Blind Willie McTell on Infidels, one of the diabolical albums he released in the 1980s, Bob Dylan justified himself thus:

Relax. It’s just an album—I’ve done thirty of them.

Bob’s record record now stands at an impressive thirty-nine—and that’s just the studio albums.

Some are exquisite (Bringing It All Back Home, Blood on the Tracks, Oh Mercy, Time Out of Mind); some are execrable (Empire Burlesque, Infidels, Saved, Shot of Love, Knocked Out Loaded); but you can deny the existence of none.

Wikipedia reckons Bob has written or co-written 736 songs, lending credence to his claim to ‘write ten songs a day and throw nine of them away’.

Empire Burlesque seems to exemplify this philosophy—just without the throwing away part.

Nine overproduced synth-laden atrocities are wholly justified by Dark Eyes, a sublime Bob plus guitar plus harmonica love song. Don’t get me wrong: the musicianship on Dark Eyes is Dylan-level incompetent, but the song itself is wonderful.

You could make a superb album from the songs that Dylan actually did throw away. How about this?

  1. Tomorrow Is A Long Time, abandoned to eternity in 1962
  2. Seven Curses, doomed to be unreleased in 1963
  3. Paths of Victory, hiked from The Times They Are A-Changin’ in 1964
  4. Mama, You Been On My Mind, forgotten in 1964
  5. I’ll Keep It With Mine, kept for himself in 1965
  6. On A Rainy Afternoon, never properly dried off in 1966
  7. She’s Your Lover Now, kissed off from Blonde on Blonde in 1966
  8. Love Is Just A Four Letter Word, ****ed off in 1967
  9. I Shall Be Released, never released in 1967
  10. Up To Me, left up to someone else in 1975
  11. Abandoned Love, left on the doorstep of Desire in 1976
  12. Seven Days, hidden under cover of night in 1976
  13. Series Of Dreams, never woken up in 1989
  14. Blind Willie McTell, overlooked from Infidels in 1983

In fact, since 1991, Colombia Records have been releasing, not one, but a dazzling series of albums from abandoned songs such as these. And, arguably, the so called Bootleg Sessions series, now into Volume 15, are a grander setting for many songs than the albums they might have once adorned.

How many gigs?

On June 7 1988, Bob Dylan went on tour with his band and, basically, never stopped playing shows.

In the three-odd decades since, Dylan has, according to the frighteningly forensic histories of Olof Björner, played no fewer than 3,064 shows. That’s roughly 100 shows a year.

For comparison, between 2014 and 2019, modern chart-toppers Arctic Monkeys played about 50 shows a year. About half the work rate of an eighty-year-old.

Dylan’s hyperactive schedule has been called the Never Ending Tour—a title Dylan himself rejects because it romanticises instead of normalises the hard work that goes into being a touring musician.

Does anybody call Henry Ford a Never Ending Car Builder? … These days, people are lucky to have a job. Any job. So critics might be uncomfortable with my working so much. Anybody with a trade can work as long as they want. A carpenter, an electrician. They don’t necessarily need to retire.

For some reason, a lot of musicians get to a certain point and stop writing and performing. Maybe life gets in the way. Maybe they run out of money. Maybe they get bored. Maybe the fame that comes with musical success was the end goal. Who knows? It’s none of Bob’s business.

Bob Dylan sees his music as a job. One that he’s lucky to have. So he does nothing more than what a person lucky to have a job does: he shows up for work every day. If he were a carpenter, he’d plane wood and make dovetail joints. Instead, he writes songs and plays them.

How many masks?

Dylan prickly reaction to the Never Ending Tour media moniker hints at something he has fought against from the beginning: the desire of journalists, fans and even fellow musicians to burden him with responsibilities and expectations.

You only have to watch a few of Bob’s interviews to see how doggedly he evades the ribbons and bows that journalists want to pin on him.

Take this example from 1986:

MR JONES: What about being a role model for so many of the people who are doing music today?

BOB DYLAN: No, no, no. Not a role model.

MR JONES: What are you, then?

BOB DYLAN: I’m just me.

Creativity isn’t a fixed trait. It’s not something that you are born with. It’s not something that you have or don’t have, like electrical current running through a lightbulb. It’s not that.

It’s something else. Something more ethereal, something that would suffer under the weight of responsibilities and expectations. Dylan seems to know that, if he accepts and believes media titles like ‘Voice of a Generation’, the creativity would vanish.

Instead, throughout his whole career, Dylan has played a succession of roles. Just when an interviewer thinks they’ve pinned him down as a protest singer, he goes electric. When they’ve finally caught up with the rock’n’roller, he’s a Nashville country singer.

And so it goes, through a dizzying repertoire of acts that encompasses carnival ringleader, born again Christian, Delta bluesman, big band crooner and even Christmas entertainer.

Being noticed can be a burden. Jesus got himself crucified because he got himself noticed. So I disappear a lot.

Dylan told us the secret back in 1964. While getting ready to play If You Gotta Go, Go Now at a concert on Halloween at the Philharmonic Hall in New York, he messes up the tuning and hits a bum note:

Don’t let that scare you! It’s just Halloween. I have my Bob Dylan mask on. I’m mask-erading, ha ha ha!

Dylan defends his creativity against the frozen fixities of responsibility and expectation by masquerading, playing a succession of characters behind the chrysalis of the Bob Dylan mask.

Everything else—the genius, the mystery, the doctrinaire Platonism so beloved of outsiders—he determinedly and consistently downplays, much to the annoyance of the press.

From the same 1986 interview I mentioned earlier, this is how he answers a question about why his work has meant so much to so many people:

I guess it’s been inspiring. I know it’s been inspiring for me to write it. Outside of that, I wouldn’t know.

When the hapless journalist presses Dylan on the matter, the mood turns to frustration for both parties:

I don’t know. I just don’t. I’m still trying to make sense of it to me.

Dylan’s honesty is too simple, too personal, too Stoic.

Back in the sixties, there was a mania to understand Dylan’s ‘message’. In Dont Look Back, a documentary filmed on Dylan’s 1966 tour of the UK, one journalist asks him what his ‘real message’ is.

‘My real message?’ Dylan replies. ‘Keep a good head and always carry a lightbulb.’

For me, Dylan’s real message is that there is no such thing as personal creative genius, only persistence and hard work.

And, through the changing colours of his chameleonic career, Dylan has shown exactly how ferociously that work ethic must be defended against the ossifying effects of wealth and fame.

Let’s put on our creative masks and show up for work. Let’s masquerade.

~

This piece emerged from something I wrote about a hundred years ago called What Bob Dylan Means to Me in Twenty-Five Words. If you’d like me to rewrite this 10,000 word masterwork, then you’d better become a paying subscriber or email me or something.

Oh, and, no, I’m not telling you what the third rule of Chess Club is.

UPDATE: 16 July 2021

For those of you asking for my all-time favourite Bob Dylan songs, I found two lists that I made during what I’ll call The Rabid Dylan Years. The first, made in 2009, turned Dylan’s songs into a knockout tournament. These songs made up the semi-finals:

  • Idiot Wind
  • Maggie’s Farm
  • Subterranean Homesick Blues
  • Tangled Up In Blue

Two songs from Bringing It All Back Home; two from Blood on the Tracks. It was impossible for my 2009 brain to pick a winner.

Then, in 2012, I compiled a list of my most played Dylan songs, going back a year or so. This was the top four:

  1. Things Have Changed
  2. Tell Ol’ Bill [Alternate Version]
  3. Dirge
  4. Blind Willie McTell

Two things to note. Firstly, only three years later, the list is completely different. Things have changed indeed. In fact, none of the four from 2009 are among the twenty most played songs of 2012. Secondly: both lists would be completely different again in 2021.

As a topper, only three of these eight songs make the top thirty of this 2020 Rolling Stone list and two of them don’t even make the top hundred. The catalogue is fathomless.

Zero carbon is already here (it’s just not very evenly distributed) And, in the jumbled futures of a planetary ecosystem that doesn’t distinguish by nation state or border, the consequences of that inequality are shared

Since December 2019, for all bar the first month of lockdown last year, I’ve been enjoying the sonic fruits of the labour of two large construction sites.

First a purple-hued Premier Inn crunched its way to the skies on our northerly face, an 18-month auditory treat that climaxed with a midnight road resurfacing so stimulating that I simply couldn’t sleep.

As that vast undertaking drew to a close, the ageing hotel to our west decided that what it most needed to get beach body ready was a three-month-and-counting refurbishment, clawing itself clean from the inside out.

It’s 8.30am and I count no fewer than thirty-three vans and trucks parked opposite. Fluorescent tabards flicker in the sunshine, fluttering from flagpole scaffolding. I’m listening to the sound of drilling.

The concrete funnel around us means that the sounds bounce up to the eighth floor with a clarity that sometimes makes me want chip in on workers’ conversations or sing harmonies when they do karaoke.

The rest of the time, I fantasise about the whisper of an electric, zero carbon building site—like this one, in Norway.

On a ‘historic day’ last week (and not just because it was my birthday), the twenty-seven EU countries enshrined in law the target of zero net emissions by 2050, including a 55 percent reduction by 2030.

The UK is not Norway. The UK is not part of the EU. Cyberpunk writer Bill Gibson once said: ‘The future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed.’

It’s a great line, but misses the kicker. In the jumbled futures of a planetary ecosystem that doesn’t distinguish by nation state or border, the consequences of that inequality are shared.

Let’s do this.

400-year old Bob

I spent last weekend in the company of, among others, a 400-year old called Bob.

Bob’s Oak in the Ashridge Estate: 400 years young

400 years is a lot of years—something we can rarely grasp when thinking about trees.

To put Bob’s antiquity into perspective, 1621 saw the invention of these things called ‘Thanksgiving’, ‘Gothenburg’, ‘the violin’ and ‘the merry-go-round’. John Donne and Thomas Middleton were still breathing; Shakespeare had only just kicked the bucket. The Palace of Versailles and bottled mineral water did not yet exist; the Royal Mail was still exactly that—for royal use only.

400 years is a long time to be alive.

But did you notice that cleared ground around Bob’s feet? That’s the result of something called ‘halo-release’. As trees age, they become less tolerant of shade and so rangers at Bob’s home on Ashridge Estate in the Chilterns are thinning out the canopy competition around the oldest residents of the forest.

400 years is a long time to be alive but, remarkably, halo-release could extend Bob’s life by another hundred years or so.

Imagine still being alive in 2121.

In a few weeks, we’ll all be gawping in admiration at the sweat and tears of the planet’s fastest, strongest athletes at the XXXII Olympiad in Tokyo. In the summer of 2121, Bob’s Oak will still be around to hear the synthesised pants and grunts of the artificial athlete robots competing in the LVII Olympiad taking place on Moonbase One.

A lot can happen in a hundred years.

Halo-release costs about £500 per tree. You might think that’s incredible value for a century’s life extension. But there are an estimated one thousand veteran and ancient trees in the Ashridge Estate woodland and £500 per tree escalates fast.

It’s no small irony that Ashridge Estate is in the heart of the territory being stripped to make way for HS2, the new high speed railway line between London and Birmingham.

Research by the Woodland Trust has found that 108 ancient woods—and untold numbers of trees like Bob’s Oak—will be damaged or felled during the construction of the railway.

Although HS2 Ltd. are committed to planting seven million trees and shrubs to mitigate the environmental devastation, there is no quick fix for the loss of 400 years’ growth. Can you imagine a world without bottled mineral water, Gothenburg and the merry-go-round? Exactly.

Ancient trees are special in ways that ecologists are barely beginning to understand. One example: ancient trees are a critical part of ecosystems that sequester more carbon than young growth forests.

The Woodland Trust’s State of the UK’s Woods and Trees 2021 report found that Britain’s ancient woodlands store 36 percent of our tree-bound carbon, despite only making up only 25 percent of our forest cover.

The government itself recognises that these ancient woodlands are ‘irreplaceable’ and yet here we are.

Earlier this year, famously, I bought a car. That doesn’t stop me thinking that cars are a pretty selfish way of getting around—often one that we are forced into, rather than freely choosing, because of a lack of viable alternatives.

We need to invest heavily in low or zero carbon public transport. The budget for HS2 now stands at £98 billion, so I can’t say that money isn’t being spent… But the Woodland Trust put the contradiction plainly:

Any transport system that destroys irreplaceable habitats such as ancient woodland can never be called ‘green’.

~

Side story: When I realised how close our expedition was to the HS2 felling sites, I had the fine idea to walk the entire railway route and document what we are losing. Then I discovered that Extinction Rebellion and Stop HS2 did exactly that last year.

Stop HS2 is full of terrifically depressing news, such as the felling of the woods that inspired Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox, despite serious doubts over the legality of the licenses issued by Natural England.

April 4th, 1984

Today was the fifteenth anniversary of the #1984Symposium, convened by Documentally to celebrate Eric Blair’s birthday.

Even without his bronchial difficulties, it seems unlikely that Orwell would ever have lived to see today—his 118th birthday—but, as we sat around the blooming roses on his grave, we couldn’t help speculating on what he might have made of the political world that we have (in the mot du jour) ‘co-created’.

Nineteen Eighty-Four is famous for its depiction of a totalitarian society held in a state of perpetual war, all citizens constantly under surveillance and swiftly and invisibly punished for any break from orthodoxy.

You had to live—did live, from habit that became instinct—in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinised.

The irony is that, while Orwell imagined the imposition and central control of surveillance by ‘Big Brother’, what we actually have is a kind of popular surveillance.

We freely choose, even pay for devices and apps that monitor much of our lives and that data is used in inscrutable ways by basilisk technology companies. In return we get to know exactly how many steps we’ve done in our new running shoes. It’s pretty cool.

~

Surprisingly, there’s not much in the published work of George Orwell on the subject of refugees. Perhaps that’s because refugees were a more established and less maligned demographic during the violent decades in which Orwell wrote. Certainly his view of Russian refugees in Paris was by-and-large positive:

In general, the Russian refugees in Paris are hard-working people, and have put up with their bad luck far better than one can imagine Englishmen of the same class doing.

The longest Orwellian passage I could find on the topic of forced migration is not in any of his journalism, but actually in the first few pages of that enduring novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Winston Smith is at home in Victory Mansions, where the electricity is cut-off during daylight hours and where the hallways smell of ‘boiled cabbage and old rag mats’. Upstairs in his flat, Winston hides from the all-seeing eye of Big Brother by tucking himself into an alcove designed for a bookcase and begins to write an illicit diary.

April 4th, 1984.

Orwell tells us that Winston writes in a ‘sheer panic’, vomiting out onto the page the ‘interminable restless monologue’ that he’s been carrying around inside his head for years. Capital letters, grammar, full stops are lost in Winston’s literary blood-letting. It’s an assertion of humanity, a purging of sin—for which, ultimately, he will pay.

It’s also a film review.

Last night to the flicks. All war films. One very good one of a ship full of refugees being bombed somewhere in the Mediterranean.

Seventy-five years split the writing of that sentence and today, with a shocking resonance. In his work and war, Orwell met countless refugees and, as both citizen and BBC propagandist, would have seen countless reels of cinema footage of people fleeing violence.

Audience much amused by shots of a great huge fat man trying to swim away with a helicopter after him, first you saw him wallowing along in the water like a porpoise, then you saw him through the helicopters gunsights, then he was full of holes and the sea round him turned pink and he sank as suddenly as though the holes had let in the water, audience shouting with laughter when he sank.

Orwell was a journalist who wrote novels. What events inspired Winston’s diary? And what history have we made that ships full of refugees today inspire similar contempt in the comments section of our major media?

then you saw a lifeboat full of children with a helicopter hovering over it. there was a middle-aged woman might have been a jewess sitting up in the bow with a little boy about three years old in her arms.

Both during and after the Second World War, many thousands of Jewish refugees crammed into often leaky boats and were set adrift on the Mediterranean. Their reception wasn’t always welcoming.

In 1947, the SS Exodus, carrying 4,500 Jewish refugees, was stopped by British authorities off the coast of Palestine and the ‘illegal immigrant’ passengers returned to camps in Germany.

little boy screaming with fright and hiding his head between her breasts as if he was trying to burrow right into her and the woman putting her arms round him and comforting him although she was blue with fright herself, all the time covering him up as much as possible as if she thought her arms could keep the bullets off him. then the helicopter planted a 20 kilo bomb in among them terrific flash and the boat went all to matchwood.

~

Like all humans, Orwell was very much a product of his age and upbringing. Despite his BBC career, the only extant footage of the man is as a schoolboy, playing the Wall Game at Eton College. Enough said.

Orwell may have spent the majority of his career fighting the war of words ‘directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism’, but his age and upbringing also invested him (for example) with what fan-boy Christopher Hitchens called ‘a marked dislike of the Jews’.

This tension between solidarity and hate ran through British society in the 1940s and, I would argue, that it runs yet deep. Not only with regard to Jews—I use that as a specific example in Orwell’s work—but with regard to the whole question of the alien outsider, the migrant, the refugee.

With the twin benefits of both posthumous and historical distance, Orwell is a valued and objective observer of our modern times. See if you can draw parallels between the internment of the refugees in Orwell’s 1940 and what is happening in our name, in this country, today:

Naturally, every thinking person felt that it was his duty to protest against the wholesale locking-up of unfortunate foreigners who for the most part were only in England because they were opponents of Hitler. Privately, however, one heard very different sentiments expressed.

[…] A very eminent figure in the Labour Party—I won’t name him, but he is one of the most respected people in England—said to me quite violently: ‘We never asked these people to come to this country. If they choose to come here, let them take the consequences.’

Even today, we can still hope that every thinking person in Britain feels it’s their duty to protest the detention, destitution, deportation and death of ‘unfortunate foreigners’.

But what shall we do about the violent suspicion, the daily hate and the perpetual war on outsiders, from the highest ranks of The Party to the lowest feed in your timeline?

~

Thank you to Documentally and all attendees, intentional and serendipitous, for creating the #1984Symposium and allowing these conversations to evolve.

Spell It Out

This summer, I’ll be cycling about 2,400km with Thighs of Steel, following a route that quite literally makes REFUGEES WELCOME, while fundraising £100,000 for Choose Love.

This is the route we’ll be cycling

In a bold attempt to get loads of mercenary publicity for the cause, we’re also aiming to break an official Guinness World Record along the way.

You are invited to join us for 100km or more. I know of at least three readers of this humble newsletter who are committed. Together we can do more.

If you’d like to donate, then go ahead and click here (put your solidarity archetype into the comments!). Your money will go straight to grassroots organisations offering refugees the warm welcome that our whiffy government withholds.

 £10 could pay for culturally appropriate food supplies (including fresh fruit and veg) for a family of 4 for a week

 £50 could pay for destitution support for an asylum seeker, helping with essential costs like food, sanitary products, bus tickets and a phone top-up

 £250 could pay to run a drop-in centre for a day, providing vital, free legal support to asylum seekers

 £500 could contribute to the salary of an expert caseworker supporting unaccompanied children as they start to rebuild their lives in the UK

What’s your solidarity archetype?

This Sunday is World Refugee Day: the one day of the year when we all gather around the solstice firepit to remember that there are essentially NO safe and lawful routes into Europe or the UK for people fleeing terror and persecution. None.

To claim asylum in the UK, you first need to get to the UK. There are no visas for asylum seekers and the UK is an island nation with a militarised border. Ergo there are no safe or lawful routes to the UK for refugees.

After six years of what can only be described as ‘frugal’ hospitality, David Cameron’s ‘Vulnerable Persons’ scheme stuttered to its conclusion in February, having technically fulfilled the former Prime Minister’s 2014 promise to resettle 20,000 refugees in the UK.

Although we must remember and celebrate the stories behind each of those 20,000 lives, we must also bear in mind that this parsimonious figure is less than two percent of the number welcomed by Germany over the same period.

David Cameron’s largesse vanishes into the fractions when considered alongside the 5.6 million Syrians still living in precarious conditions in Turkey, Lebanon and other neighbouring countries.

What of the future? Surely today’s government couldn’t be any less welcoming, could it? In its first month of operation, the bastard son of the Vulnerable Persons scheme resettled 25 refugees—a tenth of the number ushered over our electrified border under its predecessor.

Millions, thousands, percentages, fractions, tenths: it’s easy to wallow in statistics instead of doing more to change them.

FREE QUIZ: Discover YOUR solidarity archetype!

The Capitalist

Refugees are great for the economy. Free movement of labour could double the global economy. Refugees in particular are overwhelmingly of working age and, if they’re allowed to work for heaven’s sake, quickly pay more tax than they hypothetically absorb. Germany’s pension pot, for example, has been given a real shot in the arm with the injection of 1.1 million refugees into the workforce since 2014. Heck: this analyst argues that Germany needs half a million immigrants a year.

The Gregarious

Did you know that Jesus was a refugee? And Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google? And Albert Einstein and Freddy Mercury? Talented, resourceful people coming to this country? Yes please! Plus we LOVE falafel, don’t we! And pizza. Ooh—and Phở. Who do you think brought all that delicious food over here, Deliveroo?

The Idealist

Borders don’t actually exist. We invented them not that long ago and we reserve the right to uninvent them any time, right about… NOW. They were developed as an unwieldy and temporary solution to a problem that scarcely existed—and certainly doesn’t exist today, in the frictionless Internet Age. The humans we label as ‘refugees’ or ‘asylum seekers’ or ‘immigrants’ or ‘migrants’ or ‘economic migrants’ have as much right to roam the world as we do and we have an obligation to defend their rights.

The Compassionate

There are 82.4 million displaced people in the world, living in daily fear of torture, violence and persecution. Shouldn’t we help them if we can, however we can?

The Paranoid

WE ARE NEXT. Maybe you’re not black, Jewish, Muslim, Christian, homosexual, transgender, disabled, neurodivergent, German, French or Huguenot. Maybe, for you, it’s always been THEM. But you can bet your last penny it’ll be YOU next. Wouldn’t we sleep easier now, knowing that, when the brownshirts come a-knocking, we have built up a solidarity network that might save us?

The Wealthy

We have so much more than we need. The wealth of the world is so unevenly distributed that it gives me a migraine. It wasn’t fair when we were born, it won’t be fair when we die and it’s certainly not fair now. But, while we’re alive, we must do more to balance the books and give every human being as good a chance as possible to do great things. Starting with those who have lost something we didn’t even think could be lost: their country.

[[…INSERT YOUR FAVOURITE ARCHETYPE HERE…]]

And then do more to live it out.

Bracken bruising and the moth tree Walking along the Avon, from a distance, the trees ahead were possessed with a shimmering sheen, not quite crabapple blossom, not quite the silver of a birch. Something wilder, more of the night

Today, after an absence of four months, I finally made it back to Brownsea Island to help with the bracken bruising. Bracken is a bit of a pest on the island: completely taking over the understory and blocking light from reaching the gentler heathland species.

Armed with metal-tipped sticks, we spent the day wading through the chest-high bracken, swishing our weapons of destruction with abandon: backhand, forehand, overhead smash.

The idea of ‘bruising’ is to damage the bracken without breaking the stems: to inflict a wound, but not a mortal one.

Bracken grows from rhizomes—subterranean plant stems that send out roots and shoots from beneath the earth. Once it’s taken hold, bracken is bloody hard to control and can easily take over a forest, throttling other species with its persistence and resistance.

Rather than killing the shoots outright, bruising encourages the rhizome mothership to funnel its energetic resources into repairing injured shoots, rather than colonising the rest of the planet with new roots and shoots.

Bracken is incredibly resistant: it will grow back after bruising. We found shoots that had been whacked a month ago, smashed to the ground—but the growing tip had somehow found the energy to curve back from death’s door, up towards the sunlight, putting on a foot or more of new growth. Bracken will always grow back, but, with its resources drained, only more feebly.

We use bracken’s greatest strength against itself and, in so doing, hope to bring new light to the forest floor, where heather and other marginal species can flourish. Or, as one of the volunteers said: ‘Killing nature in the name of conservation.’

The best solution, as to so many of life’s gnarlier problems, is pigs. Pigs love eating bracken and, during the winter, when nature’s larder grows bare, they will even rootle around in the soil and dig up the rhizomes. Dorset Wildlife Trust hope to have swine in residence on Brownsea in Spring 2022. I can’t wait!


But the creepiest experience of the week goes to the dread moth tree:

Shelob’s lair, anyone?

Walking along the Avon, from a distance, the trees ahead were possessed with a shimmering sheen, not quite crabapple blossom, not quite the silver of a birch. Something wilder, more of the night.

Moving closer, the brain doesn’t trust the eyes and it becomes horrifyingly clear that something really isn’t right. A cluster of trees are not themselves: these mighty, long-lived beasts of carbon and chlorophyll have been usurped by thousands upon thousands of tiny caterpillars.

Ermine moths live in communities of thousands and, every spring, club together to weave layers upon layers of silken webbing over every inch of their host tree. It’s protection for their babies from birds and other predators.

Beneath their safety net, the growing caterpillars have free range over the tree’s larder of leaves. It’s shocking to see spring’s bounty stripped before summer, but at least someone’s eating well.

With every leaf throttled, every twig shrouded in silk and the bark crawling with life, it’s a challenge to identify the victim: I think a bird cherry. Partly because the leaves of neighbours look similar, partly because of the riverside location, and partly because one species of small ermine moth LOVES to call the bird cherry home.

Despite their horrifying aspect, these poor cherries should make a complete recovery over the summer. Ermine moths rarely pick on the same tree twice.

~

Thanks to H.S. for hosting and introducing me to the wondrous moth tree!

No more ‘hostile environment’ We need to tell Priti Patel and this government that our country will always stand for tolerance and compassion and that we will continue to offer a safe haven for those fleeing their homes

Spell It Out is a 2,400km bike ride along the south coast of Britain that follows a quixotic route which will spell out the words—well, I’ll let you see for yourselves:

Yes – that is an actual bike route. Credit: GC and OKH!

The ride, organised by Thighs of Steel (obvs), is a direct response to our government’s creation of a ‘hostile environment’ for refugees.

Priti Patel is right now rushing through an overhaul of UK asylum law that will put us in direct opposition to the 1951 Geneva Convention on refugees, closing down legal routes to the UK for those fleeing political and religious persecution as well as those who are trying to join family and friends already in this country. What does she think these people will do instead?

It’s a complete horror show.

We need to tell Priti Patel and this pettifogging government that our country will always stand for tolerance and compassion and that we will continue to offer a safe haven for those fleeing their homes. We are stronger together and the tide will turn.

Join us any time—12 June to 26 September

If you would like to join Spell It Out as a fundraising cyclist, then hop on over to the Thighs of Steel website. You can sign up to ride any of the letters (100-240km each), with anyone you like, at any point between 12 June and 26 September. The more people who take part, the bigger our voice and the bigger our positive impact.

If you would like to show your support, then please share the website or crack open your wallet / PayPal and donate to my fundraising page (live now!). All of your money will go directly to organisations that offer refugees the warm welcome that our government withholds: legal advice, psychological counselling, vocational training, language lessons and more.

What’s this about a Guinness World Record?!

The 2,400km route will also be the world’s biggest ever GPS drawing by bike, smashing the previous record by about 1,600km.

We’re still thrashing out the logistical details, but please reply to this email if you’re interested in helping us break a world record—we’ll need cyclists, van drivers and overnight hosts across the south of England. Watch this space…

Unexpected tea room The unexpected tea room is my favourite part of any English journey. The tea room that hoves into view at exactly the moment it shouldn’t, in exactly the place it shouldn’t, but, inevitably, must.

[Poetry is] a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating

The walk ended, as all walks must, at an unexpected tea room in East Coker, being persistently undercharged for an homemade fig quiche, a vegan hot dog (with red onion pickle) and pots of tea in the sunshine.

The unexpected tea room is my favourite part of any English journey. The tea room that hoves into view at exactly the moment it shouldn’t, in exactly the place it shouldn’t, but, inevitably, must.

The contradiction, you would think, must be unprofitable for these scions of Douglas Adams’ Improbability Drive, where the laziest deus ex machina is our hard-working deity in a world predicated against the odds.

But this contradiction is exactly why these unexpected English tea rooms thrive and, being so unexpected, can be utterly relied upon.

Unexpected Four Quart£!5

Like Douglas Adams, T.S. Eliot also understood the unexpectedness of the English journey. Burnt Norton, East Coker, The Dry Salvages, Little Gidding: the titles in Four Quartets are themselves a journey.

Burnt Norton, East Coker and Little Gidding are old time English thatch and stone, dependable, ecumenical, wrapped in a comfort blanket of bucolic countryside.

The Dry Salvages, a garbled hearing of ‘les trois sauvages’—‘the three savages’, are a rock formation off the coast of Cape Ann, Massachussetts, infamous for wrecking fishing vessels in violent storms. The unexpected.

Four Quartets was written as Eliot entered later middle age and discovered that, contrary to the disinformation put about by stairlift manufacturers, there is nothing of value in the ‘autumnal serenity and … wisdom of age’.

Elders, Eliot reports with growing consternation, have no great secrets to hand down to us, passing on only a ‘receipt for deceit’, and their age begets, not wisdom, but folly, fear and frenzy.

‘It was not,’ Eliot writes, ‘what one had expected’.

Unexpected walk

There is, it seems to us,
At best, only a limited value
In the knowledge derived from experience.
The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies,
For the pattern is new in every moment
And every moment is a new and shocking
Valuation of all we have been.

My knowledge, derived from experience, of the fields and byways of the English lowlands and its villages, deceived the unfamiliar into the familiar.

Garlic, beech and bluebell

Evercreech, in Thursday’s six o’clock electric heat, is Midsomer by another name. The church, the stone, the inn, the fields cut about with hedgerows, ageless villagers taking a turn or pottering at the gate, jumpers folded over shoulders. It’s a pattern I’ve seen repeated in villages from Burnt Norton in the high Cotswolds, all the way through Gloucestershire and into Somerset.

 

In a warm haze the sultry light
Is absorbed, not refracted, by grey stone.

But there is no pattern, for the pattern is new in every moment.

Walking in summer is not like walking in winter. Over four days of almost unbroken sunshine, I wasn’t expecting to get my feet so sodden that they wrinkled pink. But the lush young grass and cow parsley up to my ears conspired with the dewy mornings to drench my boots in a refined distillation.

With untroubled views over open country, garlic, beech and bluebell, I wasn’t expecting navigation to be so hard. The footpaths were untrampled, unreadable in places. Every field a question mark, as rights became wrongs of way, running into deadend brambles, thickets of thistles, shin-raking nettles or electric fences of cattlebeasts.

Unexpected cattlebeasts

In the field, human or beast, winter is a time for hibernation. But the hot stink of early summer, human or beast, tickles the hormones. The key is to distance yourself from biologically inaccurate catch-all terms like ‘cow’ and to correctly classify your cattlebeasts—before unlatching the field gate.

Dairy mothers are placid, calmly curious, watchful in the afternoon. But adolescents, the heifers, are troubled, unsupervised, driven to distraction from distraction by distraction—and keen to test their herd immunity against interfering walkers.

Chased, chastened and thrown over another indeterminate field crossing. Walkers 0, Heifers 14

Unexpected performance

All this time, I’ve been talking backwards, from tea room in reverse.

The journey actually began on Wednesday evening in Bath, where I had been to see Ralph Fiennes give a highly improbable performance of Four Quartets.

What were the chances that a famous actor would alight upon the idea of a staged reading of a remote poetry cycle, written by an author long-dead, performed in a socially-distanced theatre only a quarter full, in a town where I had elected, before Christmas, to break my pilgrimage walk based on the titles of that same obscure poem?

The chances, both Adams and Eliot concur, were so improbable as to be almost certain.

Having listened to Alec Guinness’s somewhat sententious BBC recital, I wasn’t expecting something so conversational. But Fiennes made total sense of Eliot’s variations and abrupt shifts in tone. Like someone trying to explain the ineffable. Which is exactly what he was. For the first time, lines I’d never fully understood came swimming into clear focus.

I think he was a little ill, however. 75 minutes into the 77 minute performance, shining with rheumy fever, Fiennes took a seat at a table and you could almost see the finish line reflected in his mind’s eye. He galloped onward through the final stanza—

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started…

—and then he stopped.

A dramatic pause, we thought. He closed his eyes. A very dramatic pause. A pause so dramatic that it burst beyond the confines of the auditorium and bent the laws of space-time.

Then he began muttering the lines to himself, trying to regather the unspooled thread. The most famous line, perhaps, in the whole poem. Brainwaves pulsed from audience to actor. One man could bear the tension no longer and cried from the stalls: ‘And know…’

Fiennes opened his eyes, switched on.

Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Fare forward, voyagers!

~

Huge thanks to mum, who joined me for the last couple of days of the walk. Thanks for sharing the footpaths, the poetry of T.S. Eliot, your snacks and your company!

‘Not too far from the yew tree’: The Church of St Michael and All Angels, East Coker, where Andrew Eliott was baptized in 1627, before emigrating to America and progenerating the line that led, eventually, to T.S.

PPF3: Grey-sky thinking PPF3 is an awful acronym that stands for Past, Present, Future and Far Future

While walking the Jurassic Coast last weekend, I had an idea for how to think about sharing our lives with others.

Introducing PPF3!

PPF3 is an awful acronym that stands for Past, Present, Future and Far Future. The idea is simply to exchange with your interlocutor one meaningful memory, moment, occurrence, coincidence, problem, hope, fear, ambition, dream, day-dream or impossible dream from each of these time periods.

In doing so, I think we’d learn a lot about what’s really important to each other. Maybe in ways that wouldn’t come out in normal conversation.

Here’s something I might share:

  • PAST: It’s amazing to remember that I once cycled over four thousand miles around the whole of Britain. It feels like I’ve seen everything—and nothing.
  • PRESENT: I’m really lucky that I get paid for hiking around the countryside with funny/interesting/weird young people. Facilitating those encounters between human and nature feels like worthwhile work. The problem is how to extend this to schools who can’t afford to hire the company I work for.
  • FUTURE: One day, I’d like to run free outdoor experiences (hiking? cycling? running? camping? firelighting?!) for people typically excluded from the outdoors. Given my background, refugees would be an obvious starting point.
  • FAR FUTURE: I’d like to be involved in a project that finally bans cars from town centres and plants forests over all the concrete car parks.

How about you?

‘The literary equivalent of gold dust’ Or: How hard is it to publish a novel?

Back in the winter of 2017, I went on a novel-writing course with literary agency Curtis Brown. For me, it was a way of forcing a decision point: do I really want to get any deeper into the world of publishing? The answer, as it transpired, was ‘no’.

The reality of the industry is that authors work extremely hard, often alone, typically for several years, without reward. At the end of this purgatorial period, a successful author might be paid a retrospective minimum wage for their work. An unsuccessful author will, of course, get nothing more than an RSI.

As much as I enjoy writing books, I much prefer the higher pay, shorter deadlines, tighter feedback loops and creative collaboration of writing for radio or theatre.

Occasionally, however, an author will get everything their work deserves. One such is Kirsty Capes, a fellow student on that novel-writing course three years ago. Her book, Careless, was published last week to great critical acclaim. Benjamin Zephaniah called it ‘the literary equivalent of gold dust’.

To give you some idea of the work that goes into writing a novel, Kirsty came to that Curtis Brown course with over 100,000 words of the story that became Careless. I remember reading and critiquing a couple of the chapters she’d written.

I say ‘critiquing’—really my feedback was nothing more than an appeal for more of the same. It was clear that Kirsty’s writing was destined for the big time: an exciting, young voice, telling an important, often untold, story about social care. Even so, it took her more than three years to edit the novel and get it into press.

Comparing the opening lines of Careless with the opening lines I read all those years ago, I was fascinated to see that not a great deal has changed. The framing has been tweaked and moulded, yes, but the imagery not materially altered.

The long and short of it is this: it’s the kind of day where the heat sticks plimsolls to tarmac and I’m standing in the toilet in the Golden Grill kebab shop with a pregnancy test stuffed into my backpack.

Novel writing is not for everyone. It’s not only about talent. It’s about hard work and sheer bloody mindedness. Well fucking done, Kirsty.

Now, finally, I can get my hands on the rest of the book!

Buy Careless wherever you can—ignore where it says ‘pre-order’, it’s already out.

Head in the clouds This week I learnt how to interpret a synoptic chart. Well. I say that. What I mean is I learnt what the heck a synoptic chart is…

Since we last met on these pages, I’ve spent a day learning about the weather with the Met Office.

I learnt how to interpret a synoptic chart. Well. I say that. What I mean is I learnt what the heck a synoptic chart is

Hands up who knows what the geostrophic wind scale is?!

Nah—to be fair, the instructors were great. I learnt, at least temporarily, loads of potentially useful meteorological gubbins. I never knew, for example, that veering and backing have technical definitions: veering is the shifting of winds clockwise around the compass and backing is the opposite.

I even learnt what most of those funny black lines on the map mean. The thin black ones without the triangles or semi-circles are called troughs. They predict vicious showers, squally winds and thunder and lightning, particularly in summer when there’s more energy in the atmosphere.

Squall! Another word that I never realised had a technical definition. Whereas a gust of wind is a short, sharp increase in wind speed, a squall is a sudden increase in wind speed of at least 18mph that lasts at least a minute. When you’re out walking on the hills, squalls are those strong winds that stop as suddenly as they started and make you, leaning into the wind, fall on your face in the mud!

Other useful things I learnt:

  • Never sit at the mouth of a cave to admire a lightning storm. Do sit and admire this clever map of lightning strikes around the UK.
  • The closer you are to the centre of an area of low pressure, the higher chance there is that the weather forecast will be radically wrong.
  • If your cloud has defined edges, it’s made of water droplets. If your cloud has fuzzy edges, it’s made of ice crystals. Your cloud is not made of water vapour, which is invisible.
  • In the northern hemisphere, if you stand with your back to the wind, then the atmospheric pressure is low to your left and high to your right. This is called, mystifyingly, Buys Ballot’s Law. I have literally no idea how this is useful. I should look that up.
  • In the UK, all rain begins its life as snow.
  • Amazingly, there was a man called Mr Buys Ballot. Sadly, he was Dutch so it probably isn’t pronounced the amazing way.

I’m looking forward to sharing vaguely knowledgeable meteorological facts with my expedition group tomorrow. It is somehow comforting to look up at the drizzle and say, ‘What ho, chaps, looks like this nimbostratus is settling in for the long haul!’

Make the woods your home

Firstly: thanks for all the lush comments on last week’s bushcrafting story, Forget the kit list. And my sincere apologies to those of you who I made spit out your tea in mirth. I’m happy you found my failure amusing.

But I also didn’t mean to leave you with the impression that I had an entirely miserable time. Once I got my fire going, the rest of the week was an unalloyed delight—so much so that, after only five days in the woods, it felt distinctly weird to be indoors.

For someone who lived in London for the best part of sixteen years, it’s really saying something to declare that I now find Bournemouth ‘too hectic’.

Last Friday, I was welcomed back to the sleepy seaside town by an extraordinary chorus of construction as asbestos recyclers drilled their way through the guts of the hotel opposite. Lugging my firesmoked bushcraft backpack across the car park, a phalanx of gardeners advanced on me with roaring hurricanes.

But it wasn’t just the terrorising leaf blowers employed on the denuded concrete that put me on edge. It was the silence.

#Boxlife

Mucking about in the woods and sleeping in an arctic lean-to, I had been open to the elements for five days. Perhaps the most obvious difference between living indoors and living outdoors is the untidyness—hence the urbanite’s obsession with leaf-blowers. But the most striking fact on my return to ‘civilisation’ was the change in acoustics.

Even our most cherished homes are, unromantically, nothing more than a box. We live the days of our lives tightly enclosed by the six sides of a cube. Most of us have completely adapted to this foreshortened life and would never suspect what we sacrifice for the vaunted comforts of interiority.

But after a week in the woods I could literally hear the tightening of the trap. Even in the silence after the leaf-blowers, I could hear the shrinking of my acoustic horizon. Everything closed in. Like a bat in a belfry, my senses, even my thoughts, seemed to reverberate at an uneasy frequency off the close walls. Also like a bat in a belfry, I felt a bit lost.

Wall-less woods

The woods have no walls. Sounds travel for miles and you can hear the openness and opportunity. Of course, the unimpeded travel of noise is the bane of my delicate ears in the city, but in the woods the noise is restorative. The wishful hoot of an owl, the crackle of a Vaseline-induced fire, the slip-slap of rain against the deep thatch of a watertight shelter. (Ahem.)

I don’t think I would ever have noticed this acoustic variation if I hadn’t made my home in the outdoors for a week. A long sojourn in the woods felt good for my brain: disconnected from the attention-sapping digital workday and restored by birdsong, the antibacterial air of pinenes and the dappling of sunlight through the fractal canopy.

David Strayer, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Utah, calls this the ‘three day effect’. In 2012, Strayer and his colleagues discovered that multi-day backpacking adventures led to a huge increase in creative thinking and insight problem-solving. As he explained in an interview with Florence Williams:

If you can disconnect and experience being in the moment for two or three days, it seems to produce a difference in qualitative thinking.

Riotous dawn

I’m back in the great outdoors this weekend, getting paid to help kids go on big walks. It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it. For these expeditions, the young people are usually forced to camp overnight on the Saturday, cooking their own stove-top dinner and learning how to put up a tent (and with each other).

This weekend, however, they get to go home on Saturday evening. This is great news for me because it means I’ll also get to sleep in a nice warm bed, but both me and the kids will be missing out on something important.

Without the direct connection to the environment that camping brings, outdoor expeditions can easily just feel like a walk in the woods—wonderful in itself, but missing much. We usually think of ‘nature’ as a leisure destination to travel through before returning to civilisation, but bushcraft is the art of making the outdoors a comfortable home that you never want to leave.

Last Thursday, in the woods, I rose before dawn to sit in a quiet spot, camouflaged with my back against a western red cedar. I hoped to watch the hares, fallow deer, pheasants and robins as they shook off their sleep and foraged for breakfast. An hour later, frozen stiff, it was almost comical how little wildlife I’d seen. One crow in the mid-distance.

But what I heard, that riotous dawn, was something else. Chitter and chatter, cackles, calls and caws, hoos, honks and hoots, yips and pips. By the time I stumbled back to camp, on a swell of brainwaves, sunlight was sneaking across the understorey.

Saturday. Back in Bournemouth, back in bed, back in the box, I was awoken by a wild beast. Chuffing, rumbling, huffing, clanking. A bin lorry. I checked the time: 5:50. A riotous dawn. A headache.

If the woods taught me anything it’s that the sum of my experience is far more than the naming of my senses. What possibilities do we not realise through decades of habituation to boxlife? Let’s learn some skills and make the woods our home.

Forget the kit list

The biggest clue was right there in the course title:

5 DAYS SURVIVAL

I don’t know what I was expecting from a five day survival bushcraft course in an Oxfordshire woodland, but, on reflection, I should have packed more Hobnobs. Or any Hobnobs, for that matter.

I started to fall behind halfway through day two. You may remember the triumphant shelter that I built on the Woodland Ways bushcraft course that I took last March. This time, flying high on the arrogance of experience, I decided to eschew the tried-and-tested thermal A-frame shelter and went for the more al fresco arctic lean-to.

My problem wasn’t so much the construction of the lean-to, but rather my decision-making during the construction process. And the fact that we only had three hours to build something that would keep us warm and dry as the rain clouds rolled in.

After spending half my allotted time building one shelter, I decided to tear it all down and start again between two different trees. I now know why building sites have architects as well as bricklayers.

Part of a massive arctic lean-to shelter

Ultimately, the decision to move turned out to be a good one, but it meant that my shelter was only three-quarters finished by the end of the day and, psychologically, I felt under pressure.

And what do I do under pressure? I comfort eat.

Unbreakfast

Comfort eating wouldn’t ordinarily be a problem, but a five day bushcraft survival course isn’t designed to be ordinary. On day three, we were expected to be cooking for ourselves, on our own fires that we’d lit ourselves using nothing but a fire steel and birch bark. That pesky ‘survival’ word again.

Naturally, on Tuesday afternoon, in front of the instructors, I’d had no problem at all in getting the tinder-dry birch bark to burst into flame with nothing more than a few strikes of steel on cerium. Wednesday morning, waking up with my feet in a puddle after a night’s steady rain, was a different matter entirely.

Suddenly, my bundle of soggy dead nettles and rotting strip of birch looked much less promising. But there is literally no other way to turn a baggy of flour into a damper bread breakfast than to add water and fire.

Without really meaning to, I’d built my shelter far from the other students on this survival course slash death camp so I couldn’t even commiserate with my fellow inmates. Instead, I imagined them all merrily tucking into their hearty breakfasts, feet up and toasting in front of the bonfires they’d all lit with careless competent ease.*

After spending two hours of showering the woodland with 3,000 degree sparks, I was feeling somewhat dejected. So I dipped into my snack pack for the last of my dark chocolate trail bars. That’ll pick me right up, I thought.

Reader: the last of my dark chocolate trail bars was nothing more than the evanescence of a memory, shrouded in the empty plastic wrapper that crumpled around my grasping claws.

Fire by friction

Needless to say, I did not dine on a breakfast of damper bread that morning. I hastily filled the empty hole with my penultimate banana and half a pack of corn cakes smothered in peanut butter and ran to the main camp for the morning demonstration session: fire by friction.

The fire by friction demo was led by Ian Nairn. The thing you need to know about Ian is that he loves a wisecrack. Whether you need a basket weaving-based innuendo or an impression of a muntjac in heat, Ian’s got gags and bon mots for every occasion.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that Ian boasts more quips than Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace if you took every one of the Russian epic’s 587,287 words and replaced them all with the word ‘equipment’. He’s quippy as fuck. That’s what I’m saying.

Anyway, as I was struggling to light my fire, I felt justified in asking Ian for what I described as ‘some expert advice’. Without missing a beat, Ian replied:

I’m not an expert. An ‘ex’ is a has-been and a ‘spurt’ is a drip under pressure.

Coming from a man who can make fire using a hand drill in the snow, the quip buried a lesson that I needed to learn—and wouldn’t.

Patience and perseverance

Ian demonstrated two fire by friction methods: the hand drill and the bow drill. The idea of both these methods is to use a simple stick of wood to drill through another flat piece of wood called the base board.

The drilling action shaves tiny fragments of wood from the base board and the friction between the two pieces of wood generates enough heat to turn one of those fragments into an ember: the embryo of fire.

It took Ian a couple of minutes to ‘bang out’ an ember using the hand drill—usually considered much the more difficult of the two methods. As the name suggests, Ian was using only his hands to twizzle the drill into the base plate.

The bow drill is a little more complicated, but if you’ll allow me to paint a picture with words, then imagine a Robin Hood longbow twisted around a wooden drill and then using a sawing motion to get the drill to twizzle into the base board. If you prefer pictures with pictures, then this video of Ian bow drilling in Sweden will do the job.

The mechanical advantage bestowed by the bow drill means Ian can boast that, under pretty much any conditions, he can ‘bang out’ an ember in under a minute.

For some reason, however, during the demonstration, Ian struggled. For some reason, for twenty minutes or more, his embers weren’t banging out like they should.

But he didn’t struggle like I did. There was a lot less swearing, a lot less cursing of bad luck, bad tools, bad birch bark. There was a lot less finger pointing and he didn’t comfort eat, not even once.

Ian struggled with patience and perseverance. That twenty minutes was a calm demonstration of strategic problem solving.

Instead of raising a sweat, sawing away at a base board that wouldn’t give up its embers, he paused after each failure, reassessed the situation and tweaked his approach. He tried different drills and different base boards; he tried cutting new notches to catch the wood shavings and tried working with a larger ember pan to protect the heat from the cold earth.

Eventually, Ian’s tweaks paid off. Wisps of smoke rose from the base plate and, among the coal black shavings, the ember glowed like mined ruby. Ian cupped the jewel into a bundle of tinder and blew it into fire.

Later that night, Ian shared how embarrassed he’d felt that the so-called instructor had been seen to struggle. But his virtuoso demonstration of patience and perseverance was a far more valuable lesson than mere demonstration of mechanical technique. Would that I could learn that lesson.

Monkey see, monkey throw shit at walls

Suitably inspired by Ian’s methodical struggles, I trudged determinedly back to my camp to light my fire. Not by friction, but by any means necessary. If I’d thought there was a time imperative for making my breakfast, the deadline of twelve o’clock for lunch was far more pressing. I had ninety minutes.

Ninety minutes later, I had run through the last of my snacks and my hands were red raw from gripping the cold fire steel in the rain. I staggered, hypoglycaemic, back to the instructors to collect my lunch ‘ingredients’: one pigeon (deceased).

I may have spent the last year as a vegan, but even I know that pigeons are most nutritious after the application of a heat source.

After taking out plenty of my frustration during the butchering process (sorry pigeon), I shuffled over to Ian, shame-faced, and told him that, nearly twenty-four hours after collecting my fire steel, my fire still wasn’t lit.

The other instructor, Jay, later told me that, in that moment, I looked ‘utterly dejected’. I can assure you that Jay was being surpassingly polite in his assessment of my mood.

Wet feet, no fire, no breakfast, no hot tea, no snacks—and we’d barely reached the halfway point of the five days’ survival.

I suggested to the instructors that, for now, perhaps I should cook my lunch at the main campfire. Ian and Jay told me to sod off back to my own camp and light my own damn fire.

Please note: Ian and Jay said nothing remotely like this. They were hugely supportive the whole week through. But my hungry brain was in the midst of what can only be described as ‘a wobbly’. My brain didn’t want a learning opportunity; it wanted pizza.

I know it sounds ridiculous, but, standing there in the rain with dead pigeon breast in my hand, I honestly felt like I was losing the fight for survival. After precisely fifty hours in an Oxfordshire woodland. Ridiculous.

No prizes for going hungry

Back in reality, Ian and Jay did me the biggest favour they could as instructors. They didn’t give my wobbly brain an easy way out. They didn’t let me cook over their blazing campfire and they didn’t schlep up to my camp to light my fire for me.

Instead, after some gentle words of encouragement, they showed me, not an easy, but an easier way out of my cold fire syndrome. One that still allowed me the satisfaction of solving my own problems.

Side note: This can’t be an easy teaching moment for instructors faced with a hangry student who’s run out of trail bars. Sorry Ian and Jay! In my defence, all I can say is that snack fear is real, people.

Ian told me to grab an ember from the main campfire and carry it over to my gaff—transporting fire in exactly the way cavemen would have done. And do you know what? I made a fucking fire and I ate my fucking pigeon.

From that moment on, I learned how to keep a fire going. I learned that, when the fire goes out, I can blow up a fire from an ember. I learned that, even when there are no embers, I can use the heat from the ash to get a flame from my own tinder supply. Sod collecting wet dead nettle stems: my tinder was toilet paper coated in the petroleum jelly that I’d brought for my chapped lips.

It might have felt like cheating, but, as the instructors liked to say: I was using all the resources at hand. Vaseline and a lighter might not be the way they teach in all the show-off bushcraft books, but there are no prizes for going cold and hungry.

Turning point

And what a difference a fire makes. I could boil a billy can of water! I could make a flask of tea! I could warm my feet!

For the first time, I understood the identity of ‘hearth and home’. Despite the fact that the instructors were periodically handing me dead animals to cut up and eat, I genuinely felt a little bit self-reliant. The fact that I’d picked a campsite far from the other students became a source of pride, rather than anxiety.

Rising before dawn yesterday morning, I propped myself against a western red cedar and listened to the chorus of birds greeting the new day. Then I went back to my camp, blew up a fire from an ember, and baked myself a massive banana Welsh cake.

Life is good.

Did you see that asterix earlier?

* In the woods, I’ve learned, my imagination is an enemy. It turned out that my fellow students were all struggling, each of us in our own way. One student spent their first night lying in a steadily expanding pool of rain water and, soaking wet, was eventually forced to swap shelter for tent at three in the morning, cackling with incipient hypothermia.

I think every one of us resorted to lighters or meths to get our fires going at one time or another. If only I’d pitched up next to them, I thought to myself, I would have been reassured by our shared struggles. But I’d never have realised the satisfaction of self-reliance and, above all, the patience and perseverance needed to earn that self-reliance.

In spite of—no—because of my mid-week struggles, the Woodland Ways 5 Day Survival Course is highly recommended. After a farewell fry up and a billy can hot shower on Friday, I really didn’t want to leave this beautiful, comfortable, hospitable woodland.

There are still nine places available on the October intake. Forget the kit list: pack your patience and perseverance.

Getting my bushcraft brew on – finally!

Invisible Women // Caroline Criado Perez Exposing data bias in a world designed for men

Although Invisible Women supplies women with an enormous cache of ammunition to use to fight for justice at home and at work, the people who really need this book are men.

I say this after a conversation about the book with a female friend who said that she found the book rather repetitive: each chapter—excellent in isolation—drills home the same central idea over and over and over again: that there is a systematic gender data gap that not only inconveniences women, but actually kills them.

I observed that repetition into submission is exactly what men will need before they’ll get the message.

I imagine that a lot of women will find Perez’s barrage of statistics tremendously validating, but I don’t think many women will be surprised to learn that, globally, females do twice the unpaid childcare work and four times the unpaid housework compared to their male counterparts.

Nor will it comes as a surprise to women that this unpaid care work, irrefutably essential for the smooth running of society, is not accounted for when designing transport systems, workplaces and public services. Bus routes that don’t connect the places women need to go, insufficient and poorly paid care leave, a tax regime that penalises women’s economic activity.

None of this will come as a surprise to any human woman—and that’s kind of the point of the book.

The gender data gap is there because fifty percent of data isn’t collected and fifty percent of stories aren’t told. The pervasive ‘default male’ approach scientific research, product design, news media and the arts means that, most often, women simply aren’t consulted.

I could rant on, but I’ll leave you with one powerful contrast that nimbly demonstrates the yawning gap between women’s experience and the design of our societies.

‘Staring, touching, groping, ejaculation, exposing genitalia and full rape’: women get sexually harassed on public transport. A lot. A 2016 survey of 6,000 French women found that 90 percent had been victims of sexual harassment while travelling on public transport.

From conversations with female friends, I knew that men had a serious problem with sexual violence on public transport, but I had never truly grasped the extent of our problem. I’m beginning to now.

The powerful contrast that Perez draws is this: although I’m better informed about sexual violence against women on public transport, I still have no idea how to go about reporting this criminal behaviour. For a violation so serious and affecting so many people, I have never once seen any public information posters or heard any announcements telling victims and witnesses what to do.

This lack of clear information goes part way to explaining why, according to Transport for London’s estimates, ‘90% of unwanted sexual behaviour on London transport goes unreported’.

On the other hand, as Perez points out:

Most authorities seem to have managed to install clear signage about what to do in the event of spotting a suspicious package.

In the case of the UK’s ‘See it, say it, sort it’ anti-terrorism campaign, with its frequent loud announcements at every train station and on every train, it’s almost impossible to evade knowledge of what to do.

I would love to compare the number of victims of sexual violence with the number of victims of terrorist attacks on public transport over the past ten years. But I can’t because one of those statistics only affects women and thus isn’t properly collected.

Rather than terrifying the populace about the occasional abandoned backpack, our society would be much better served by public information campaigns that aim to eliminate the constant daily abuse suffered by half our population.

Tonight is World Book Night. Men: do yourself a favour and buy Invisible Women.

~

Thanks to G.C. and N.C. for the inspiration.

We need you to trespass

We have been banned from our land for too long.

Tomorrow is the 89th anniversary of the mass trespass on Kinder Scout in 1932, when three coordinated groups of ramblers converged on the Peak District’s highest point to protest the exclusion of the common people from the common land.

Although walkers’ right to roam on common land and uncultivated upland was not legally protected until the Countryside and Rights of Way Act in 2000, the mass trespass on Kinder Scout became a potent legend that showed avaricious landowners that they wouldn’t have it all their own way.

Today, in 2021, we need trespass more than ever.

Criminalising the countryside

As I have written about in previous newsletters (here and here), the government is currently trying to force through legislation that will make trespass a criminal instead of a civil offence.

Outside of the landowners and their cronies in government, it is hard to find anyone in favour of this new law. Not even the police are in favour of powers that would have made TS Eliot liable for a prison sentence.

My MP assures me that this will not affect white middle class ramblers (he didn’t use those exact words, but he didn’t have to) and is only designed to exclude and incarcerate poor people who choose to live their lives closer to nature: Travellers.

The key word there is ‘designed’. Laws have a nasty habit of getting used for the convenience of those in power. Designed to imprison Travellers, used to imprison protestors. Why not?

What’s so depressing about this law is that the ruling minority even feel like they need the open threat of violence to keep us in our place. The vast majority of the land—our land—is already off limits.

Law breakers are law makers

92 percent of the countryside—our countryside—is already shut away behind PRIVATE KEEP OUT signs and, when I see one of those signs, personally, I keep out. Whoever put that sign up is clearly a bit of a dick so why would I want to risk bumping into them?

But access to the countryside is an inalienable right for all. Not only for the few who can afford to buy country estates or who have inherited titles thanks to ancestors who slaughtered peasants.

White middle class ramblers should stand up to support the Travellers who are rightly fighting to defend their livelihoods, but we should also take this moment to open up on all fronts.

As we’ve all found over the last year, that last scrap of land, that 8 percent, is not enough for us. We are not only a few, we are tens of millions. We want more and, to get what we want, we are going to trespass and trespass and trespass until the law collapses under its own weight. Law breakers are law makers.

It’s not even that we ask for much. We only ask that the Countryside and Rights of Way act be extended to include the right to roam on private land. This is already the law in Scotland. Scotland!

The Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 (which came into force in 2005) gives everyone rights of access over land and inland water throughout Scotland, subject to specific exclusions set out in the Act and as long as they behave responsibly.

Our land, our law

To mark tomorrow’s anniversary of the Kinder Trespass, Extinction Rebellion is calling on every citizen to trespass ‘wherever and however they can’. I hope you will join them. Whether you join the trespass or not, Right To Roam and Extinction Rebellion have created some very useful materials that I think are important for us all to read.

  • Trespasser’s Guide

    Many land workers report abuse from ramblers, people who are expressing frustration at the iniquity of the landownership system towards the people who also labour under it.

  • Everybody Welcome sign to paste over PRIVATE KEEP OUT signs

    As long as you respect that this is Mother Nature’s home: feel free to wander; you have the Right to Roam.

  • Letter to Landowners

    For our environment to survive, for our society to thrive, our countryside cannot simply be the preserve of those fortunate enough to own it. We want to be a part of the countryside; we urgently need to reconnect to nature. And until we can have a conversation about how best to make this happen, respectfully, we will keep coming back.

Will I be taking part tomorrow?

In a beautiful coincidence, I’ll be spending tomorrow out in the countryside, helping a group of young people take some of their first steps in the great outdoors.

As this is a professional engagement, I certainly won’t be encouraging my students to trespass, but I will ask them to help me count the number of PRIVATE KEEP OUT signs we see that seem to bar us from land ripe for roaming.

Our young people, no less than ourselves, need the natural world for the sake of their physical and mental health, but also—I learned this week—we need access to nature for the sake of our continuing existence on planet earth.

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

These were the findings of a Spanish study published earlier this month. Spending time in nature is the keystone of a healthy society and, in England and Wales at least, there is not enough nature to go around.

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

Trespass with us

I think it’s fitting to end with the final words of this video posted by Nick Hayes, one of the minds behind Right To Roam:

We want a deeper relationship with nature and each other.
We don’t want to break the law. We want to change it.

A World Without Email? It took only a week to lose the potential productivity gains of email

I took far too many books away with me this week, including three about the people and places of Dartmoor—but I only read one: Cal Newport’s A World Without Email.

Newport’s provocation was supported, not only by numerous case studies of organisations that have eliminated email, but also by psychology research and, most interestingly for me, history.

I was startled, for example, by the discovery that email overwhelm and inbox bankruptcy wasn’t merely latent in the system, but already evident from the very beginning, as this anecdote from the book shows.

When Adrian Stone implemented the new email network at IBM in the 1980s, he carefully estimated the number of emails that the server would need to handle, based on the number of telephone and paper messages that were passed between IBM employees on a typical working day.

Email was seen as a significant leap in efficiency for the company, removing the logistical complications of both synchronous communication (pinning someone down for a phone call or meeting) and asynchronous communication (delivering a pen and paper message).

Unfortunately, as the cost of communication dropped to zero, the number of messages the employees exchanged shot up and, within a few days, they’d blown the email server with the superfluous cc’ing of colleagues into endless back-and-forth email threads. Sound familiar?

As Stone puts it:

Thus—in a mere week or so—was gained and blown the potential productivity gain of email.

When IBM discovered this fundamental flaw with email, of course, they abandoned the experiment and everyone went back to communicating face-to-face, person-to-person in the old, slow, productive fashion. Oh, no, wait…

Luckily, in the second half of A World Without Email, Newport suggests alternative workflows that don’t provoke the misery-inducing ‘hyperactive hive mind’ of email and instant messaging.

I’m conscious of the irony of recommending this book in an email newsletter, so—before you unsubscribe—it’s worth saying that the title of Newport’s book is, by his own admission, more marketing hype than practical proposal.

Email still has a (drastically limited) role to play as a versatile, snappy, cheap tool for asynchronous communication. Inspired by the Reach Out Party, if I could declare one inviolable rule for every email interaction, it would be this:

Make your recipient’s inbox a better place to hang out.

Broken in Finding suppleness of mind and body in post-lockdown Dartmoor

Here in the UK, this was the week that we unlocked a little more. As I write, a paraglider drifts past my eighth-floor window. On my run this morning, the promenade was spilling over onto the sand and the bucket and spade buccaneers were doing a fast trade.

I’m late coming to you this week because I spent the last five days getting sunburnt on Dartmoor. As some of you know, I’m slowly working my way towards my Hill and Moorland Leader Award, chipping away at the forty logged walks needed before my assessment.

But the weather was so good this week that I worried my four hikes weren’t particularly good practice for the ultimate examination that will doubtless be undertaken in the filthy conditions for which Dartmoor is famous. Nevertheless, I’ve got only sixteen more training walks to go!

All my Dartmoor hikes. Map created thanks to Jonathan O’Keefe’s amazing Strava integration. Incidentally, you can see the pros and cons of car ownership: helping me access more remote parts of the moor, but forcing circular routes.

What I really valued about this week, however, was the feeling of breaking myself in again after a winter of semi-enforced inactivity. The sun rising over the horizon every blue-sky morning took on metaphorical overtones as I stood out in the chill dawn with a mug of tea and the birdsong.

Day three was the one that really did it for me. On day one, a fifteen kilometre tramp to the rising of the Avon river, I was powered by first day enthusiasm. But my enthusiasm drained overnight and, on day two, my feet dragged. I only survived a tour of Bellever and Laughter thanks to the morning addition of a hearty walking companion.

Resting atop Bellever, we watch a young boy hopping around the enormous boulders of granite, chasing the family dog. Mother, leaning back after lunch and looking up to us for solidarity, says: ‘Be careful—remember he’s got four legs, not two.’ But boy scrambles after dog. ‘These are too easy,’ he complains. ‘Can we find harder ones?’

Out loud, I suggest Great Mis Tor and the Devil’s Frying Pan, but what I’m wondering inside is whether I’ll ever have that boy’s energy again.

I perked up later in the evening after lighting the wood burner, but I was concerned for day three: did I have the strength to hike alone for four or more hours? Especially as, for some unknown reason, I’d decided to hike up the steep face of the moor’s highest peak, Yes Tor. It was yes again to my friend’s sound advice: ‘Go slow and take plenty of breaks.’

Trundling up the slopes from Meldon Reservoir, I ran into packs of army recruits, themselves making the most of a lifting lockdown. But as I clumped down the other side of High Willhays, I had the moor to myself, with nary a sheep to be spotted.

Somewhere between the solitude and the sunshine, the air and the exercise, I noticed that I hadn’t felt better in months. The stiffness of my mind and body had given way to suppleness, broken in.

When I made it back to base, after five and a half hours, eighteen kilometres and over six hundred metres of climbing, I felt stronger than when I’d left that morning.

The next day, we stopped at Haytor Rocks and spent the heat haze of Friday afternoon clambering around a mini version of the Ten Tors. Five hours down the trail, number ten on the horizon: from my lookout post in the clear blue sky, I see myself leaping from granite to granite, forever young in springtime.

Thanks to G.C. and B.Q. for fine company and penguin packets.

The sun rising over Bellever, seen from Powdermills

Abnormalising, adulting and The Corollavirus Coming to terms with car ownership in an age of carbon crisis

The last three months have been.

And gone.

The last lockdown in England neatly followed the passing of the financial year, so I thought I would look back and share a little of what happened with Dave in the final quarter of 20/21.

WARNING: STATS AHEAD!

In the last three months, I spent about 50 hours less on my mobile phone than I did the preceding quarter. I also managed to read more, meditate more, do more yoga and a lot more press ups—3,049 more, to be precise.

I spoke to almost exactly the same number of friends at a rate of 2.7 per day. But I also visited 4,000 more unique web pages and spent 90 more hours staring at my computer screen: a whole hour per day more. Urgh.

Looking back over my diary, since the turn of the year, I have played (and lost) ten games of online poker and learned how to skateboard (badly). I also started a new job with Thighs of Steel and said goodbye to Foiled on BBC Radio Wales.

I made three new friends, one I met hula-hooping in the woods, another is the youngest woman to have cycled around the world. I have reached out to twenty-one people and have received some amazing responses.

I volunteered for half a dozen marshalling sessions at my local vaccination centre and am now waiting for my second jab. I learned how to drive a golf buggy.

I’ve been really tired. I got a load of blood tests. A lot of people I speak to have been really tired too. Something’s going around; something I hope will lift with the lifting of restrictions. I feel more alert when I can see over the horizon.

I put up some bunk beds and bought a secondhand car. It’s a Toyota Corolla: see if you can guess its name…

The Corollavirus

I feel bad about the car, actually.

(Side note: I’m not saying that you should feel bad about the car just because I do. We all make deals to get through life. Your deal is your business.)

Until this year, the balance for me was always against owning a car.

They are expensive to buy and expensive to maintain. They pollute the air we breathe and cause direct harm to landscapes around the world. They are bulky possessions and are an eyesore on the driveway. They can, and frequently do, kill and maim.

It’s ironic, then, that the balance was tipped this year in favour of car ownership by—of all things—my new job as an outdoor instructor.

This job involves getting around fairly remote places and depends on ninety percent of instructors having vehicles to shuttle between campsite and trailhead, or pursue errant schoolkids across the countryside.

(Side note: Even somewhere as suburban as Bracknell Forest counts as ‘fairly remote’—the quickest route by public transport from where I live takes 3 hours 47 minutes and involves two buses and three trains—plus an overnight stay if I want to get there for an 8am start. For comparison, from flat to forest, the drive takes less than 90 minutes by car.)

Depressingly, in this particular job, promoting the unpolluted wonders of nature is only possible with possession of a polluting car.

‘Possession’, really, Dave? Yeah. I borrowed my parents’ car for the expeditions I led last year—saving me from the burden of ownership, but fruitlessly adding a couple of train journeys to the carbon footprint of my work.

Abnormalisation

As a secondhand petrol car owner, I want to be the best secondhand petrol car owner imaginable.

I don’t want to normalise my car ownership. I don’t want to forget that every time I use a car I am striking a deal: my personal convenience (including valuable things like time, opportunity and money) on one side and the environment we share on the other.

(Side note: You might think I’m being unnecessarily severe on myself. As someone who doesn’t fly and who eats little to no dairy or meat, my carbon footprint is lower than the average EU citizen’s. But I can’t dodge the fact that my carbon footprint is rising at a time when everyone else’s is falling. Not a good look.)

To that end, I’m recording each of my car journeys, noting details like mileage and carbon emissions, and reviewing them every week, in the same way that I monitor my finances, my conversations with friends and the number of press ups I complete. These numbers tell me, unequivocally, whether I am the person I like to think I am.

So far, over the course of seven car journeys and 763 miles, I have racked up a 165kg carbon debt compared to taking the same journeys by public transport. (Yes, I exclude from the public transport carbon estimate those journeys I would never have made had I not owned a car.)

But what the heck is 165kg of carbon? Let’s make this real: it’s the average annual carbon sequestration of six or seven mature trees. Six or seven trees. I can picture them. In fact, I have pictured them:

Seven mature trees, West Cliff

(Side note: I’ve been surprised that public transport isn’t as expensive as I’d always assumed. The petrol cost of driving has so far hovered around 75-85 percent of the train fares I could have bought. Of course: that is still scandalous, but it’s not as extreme as I thought.)

Adulting

Perhaps one definition of adulthood is taking responsibility for tough decisions and living with the consequential reality.

As a lapsed historian, I’m well aware that, in my part of the world, my generation has had it easy with tough decisions up to now. Go back a generation or twelve and adults like us were expected to make properly tough decisions:

  • Hey honey, wanna try for another kiddo and risk killing you in childbirth?
  • I’m rather parched from a long day slopping out chamberpots for my lord and master, but I’m also not totally convinced that this Medieval water supply is safe.
  • In Napoleonic warfare, it’s very much blunderbuss or be blunderbussed and—I do declare!—this handsome young French soldier is raising his weapon…

(Side note: I feel like the pandemic has been an exercise in tough decisions: at what point is the risk of transmitting the disease to others outweighed by our personal desire for toilet roll? Many of us haven’t had much practice with such properly tough decisions and the heaviness of day-to-day life has taken its toll.)

But what excites me about adulthood is what comes immediately before we take our tough decision: our imagination. Every tough decision is an act of imagination. Right before we decide, we visualise based our past experience (and usually a huge dollop of misguided optimism). What might our future be like under Scenarios A, B and C?

Owning a car enables a future where I can work as an outdoor leader and help introduce others to the natural world I cherish. But it’s not the only future I can imagine. It’s just Scenario A. Imagining Scenarios B and C are the exciting part.

The onus is on me to imagine a carbon-free scenario for my outdoor work, to take responsibility for making that future a reality—and to acknowledge with grace the incongruous unease I feel during this intermediate transition.

This has been quite a serious article so I’d like to end with some optimistic news.

Between 2005 and 2019, the United Kingdom reduced its territorial emissions by 37 percent, while increasing its GDP by 21 percent.

From Absolute Decoupling of Economic Growth and Emissions in 32 Countries on Breakthrough.org.

You can argue about whether this counts as ‘decoupling’—where are China and India on that chart?—but you can’t argue that it looks optimistic.

p.s.: If you enjoyed seeing the UK performing well on a chart for once, then you’ll also enjoy the latest Greenness of Stimulus Index.

Reach Out Party! Adventures in networking

Yesterday, at exactly 14:27, I sent an email to Alee Denham at CyclingAbout to say thank you for his articles about bicycle aerodynamics and touring weight. The internet is ram-packed with incredible writing that helps me make thousands of daily decisions and occasionally changes the course of my life. It felt good to say thank you.

For the past three weeks, at exactly 14:27 every work day, I have been privileged to be a part of the Reach Out Party, a Zoom room of people encouraging each other to send little gifts to friends, colleagues and total strangers. Total strangers like Alee Denham.

It might not sound particularly exciting, but there is real magic in knowing that almost everyone on planet earth—from your auntie Jean to your head of state—is only an email away.

  • What one question would you ask your first primary school teacher?
  • What is the greatest piece of advice football megastar Megan Rapinoe ever heard?
  • What is the one book that David Attenborough would bury in a time capsule for future generations?

Thanks to email (and social media, the telephone, postal service, etc.), we can—we really can—ask burning questions of the people we most admire. They might not reply, but that’s why the Reach Out Party is based primarily around the idea of giving gifts.

Our email inboxes are frequently little more than ‘a to do list that anyone can add to’, so Molly Beck and Carly Valancy, founders of the Reach Out Party, suggest we premise our reach outs on the following question:

How can I make so-and-so’s inbox a better place?

We have the power to make each other’s inboxes healthier, happier places: let’s use that power.

Over the past three weeks, I’ve sent emails to all kinds of people. As well as thanking Alee Denham, George Monbiot, Lisa Feldman Barrett and Andy Zaltzman, I’ve also emailed and messaged friends, particularly friends I haven’t heard from in a while.

My favourite response so far was actually my first ever reach out. I emailed Florence Williams, author of The Nature Fix, thanking her for the influence her book had on my career swerve towards outdoor work.

A few hours after sending the email, Florence replied—she replied!—saying that my email had made her day—had made her day!

Although most of these ‘cool reach outs’ to strangers haven’t had a reply (yet!), the past few weeks have shown me that a day with a reach out is better than a day without a reach out. It’s as simple as that.

Rather than typing words with my fingers, I made this video about my reach out experiences during week one of the Party. Enjoy!