Blog: The Motherlode

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. Paths of Victory, hiked from The Times They Are A-Changin’
  2. Seven Curses, doomed to be unreleased in 1963
  3. Mama, You Been On My Mind, forgotten in 1964
  4. Love Is Just A Four Letter Word, ****ed off in 1967
  5. On A Rainy Afternoon, never properly dried off in 1966
  6. She’s Your Lover Now, kissed off from Blonde on Blonde
  7. The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar, jilted from Shot of Love
  8. Abandoned Love, left on the doorstep of Desire
  9. Foot of Pride, stamped out of Infidels
  10. Blind Willie McTell, overlooked from Infidels

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!

100 Days of Adventure: Equinox Update

Way back, you may remember, I resolved to aim for 100 Days of Adventure in 2021. In the spirit of accountability, I thought I’d better report back on how it’s going. So here’s my Spring Equinox DOA impact report, starting with THE HARD STATS.

Cumulative Days of Adventure so far: 1 (one)

No surprises here: I am well behind schedule. It’s been a frighteningly quiet start to the year in terms of adventures—primarily because, here in the UK, we are still under a ‘stay at home’ order. As a result, I have been staying at home—not the most adventurous of places, unless you count my daring habit of wearing the same shirt four days running.

My single day of adventure this year was a cheeky visit to the New Forest for an afternoon of drawing. I didn’t want to have nothing to report, but, to be honest, I’m not even sure it counts as adventurous under my own definition:

Did I spend a significant chunk of the day outside on an adventure?

It did feel significant, but maybe that was because I hadn’t been further than five miles from my house in months. If I’m stuck on 99 come 31 December, I’ll count it.

Positivity

April is looking much more optimistic. The ban on staying overnight somewhere fun in the UK is lifted on 12 April and so on 12 April, all being well, I will go to Dartmoor for a week of walking—possibly even with friends!

This kind of excitement has been unheard of since December, so I am indeed excited. I’m following Dartmoor with my first weekend of outdoor instructing work and then immediately going into a five-day bushcraft course.

Without wanting to tempt fate, I spent a happy five minutes sketching out how this year might look, if I were to meet my goal of 100 Days of Adventure:

  • April: 12 (already booked!)
  • May and June: 12 each
  • July and August: 20 each (hopefully cycle touring)
  • September: 12
  • October, November and December: 4 each

Of course, it’s perfectly possible that everything will go pear-shaped and we’ll spend the next six months honing our indoor adventure game. But it’s also perfectly possible that, confined for so long, this could be our greatest year of adventure ever.

If you’re hoping to be more adventurous this year, I’d love to know—how are you getting on? Anything planned for unlockdown?

The Art of Skateboarding Mild cognitive impairment and the beginner’s mind

Last weekend, I did a marathon. Not all in one go—that would be such hard work—but I did cover 46 kilometers in the 48 hours I granted myself as time off. (Don’t ask me off what?)

There wasn’t any good reason for the Weekend Marathon, aside from a desperate need to spend some time outside the box, doing something active, something new that stands half a chance of standing out in the time swamp.

That’s the same reason why I’m going to cut my own hair later tonight: something needs to change around here and I’ve already reorganised my spice rack.

You see, yesterday marked a year since a remarkable night on Merseyside, when Liverpool were knocked out of the Champions League by Athletico Madrid.

It was remarkable not because of the astonishing number of shots missed by the Reds (32), but because of the 52,267 people crammed into Anfield, including thousands from Madrid only two days before the Spanish government declared a national State of Alarm over this thing we rather quaintly called Wuhan Novel Coronavirus.

The UK government would fatally wait ten days longer to annouce our own lockdown, but I’m not concerned here with their incompetence. I’m concerned with the state of your brain. In the UK, for most of us, it’s a year since our brains were challenged with the everyday normality of negotiating the world.

A year of ‘mild cognitive impairment’

It’s easy to forget how much our brains need normality. It’s easy to forget how much our brains get out of navigating street traffic on the walk to work. It’s easy to forget how much exercise our brains get in awkward social situations. Heck—it’s straight-up easy to forget.

A year on, don’t you feel like you’re ‘walking around with mild cognitive impairment’?

I know I do.

That’s why we’ve spent lockdown frantically picking up new hobbies and hurling ourselves into pointless challenges like my weekend marathon, right? As neuroscientist Mike Yassa says:

Based on everything we know about the brain, two of the things that are really good for it are physical activity and novelty.

Everyone’s a runner now and everyone’s got their lockdown thing: knitting, veganism, family history, ukelele, cryptocurrency, kimchi, drawing, baby-making, gardening, podcasting, online poker, online yoga, online dating, online anything, please god, no more online anything.

Whatever you’ve got into over the past year, it’s given you a chance to tap into the beginner’s mind: that healthy headspace where you give yourself permission to fail hard and learn hasty.

And there is no hastier fail curve than slamming your body onto concrete and taking pratfalls in public. I’m talking, of course, about the art of skateboarding.

Skate at 38

You may say that 38 is too old to learn how to skateboard. You may say that my sense of equilibrium is shot, that my bones are too fragile and my courage too frail. And you would be right. But no one forgets a bruise: they are an excellent way of marking the time to unlockdown.

My skateboard came from the back of a cupboard in Dulwich, a relic of flatmates long-gone. When I took it to a skateshop in Boscombe last weekend, the shopkeeper nodded: whoever had owned the board knew how to skate. The nose, the tail beat up in memory of far-off skateparks, the trucks scarred from years of railing.

Time hadn’t been good to the bearings: the wheels barely turned. That wasn’t a bad thing for a beginner, who could never build up enough speed to fall too hard. But I got them replaced anyway, and bought some fatter wheels to give much-needed stability.

Since then, I’ve been skating most days, including a fair few kilometers of that weekend marathon. The slips and falls have become notably less frequent and I’ve started learning to ollie in my kitchen, as I wait for the kettle to boil. (Progress so far: I can almost balance with both feet and all four wheels on the floor.)

Learning in public

Skating is perhaps unique in its possibilities for public embarrassment. Thanks to its well-known California-inspired subculture, people expect skaters to look cool. The British, however, have a highly developed sense of hubris and I suspect most people secretly hope to see something spectacular and exceedingly uncool.

I am usually happy to oblige. It’s okay, I tell myself as I admire once again the sheer speed at which my board can disappear from beneath me, I am Learning In Public.

As well as publicly learning how to fall spectacularly (tip: buy wrist guards), I have also learned how to get the board moving, how to ‘carve’ around gentle corners and obvious obstacles, how to stop without always throwing myself into the undergrowth and how to annoy dogs (that one’s easy: skate). I am yet to learn how to stop crapping myself on even the gentlest of downhills.

Why am I telling you all this? Simply in the hope that it encourages you with the small idea that, even in these slumbrous hours of late-stage pandemic survival, the beginner’s mind can lift our spirits, make our days stand out on stalks, and help lockdown leave its mark in a good way. And also in a bruises way. Rad!

What me and my body learned from 324 days of isolation veganism—including blood tests

Does veganism make you anaemic? Boost your testosterone? Make you B12 deficient? Lower your cholesterol?

It’s been almost a year since I decided to give veganism a try, so last week I bought myself a late Christmas present: a battery of blood tests covering 58 different biomarkers. Not everyone’s idea of fun, but, as a self-confessed data freak, definitely one of mine.

If you’ve ever been curious about what veganism does to an otherwise healthy 38 year old male with Hashimoto’s hypothyroidism, then, boy, are you in for a treat!

Step One: Finding dietary deficiencies

For the two weeks leading up to my blood tests, I also tracked my diet using a web app called Cronometer. It’s got a huge database of different foodstuffs—yes, including maca powder and pea protein—and you can create your own recipes. As easy as it is to use, however, I really can’t be bothered to do it for more than two weeks.

This is what I learned about my current vegan diet.

Don’t be shy to add protein

Without the meat-eaters carnal reflex, vegans can get distracted by the delicious rainbow of vegetables and end up eating less protein than they need. This was something a perspicacious friend noticed after my diet swerved to consist of nothing but incredible curries from Meera Sodha’s Fresh India.

In response to the data, I’m now drinking the odd protein smoothie for breakfast, particularly on days when I do press ups and kettlebell swings. Depending on the exact recipe, that gives me at least 45g of protein before I’ve even started the day.

Tofu and tempeh, beans and lentils are other popular vegan sources of protein and easily added to any recipe that’s otherwise missing that particular macronutrient. Other easy tweaks include exchanging white rice for British quinoa and preparing a 100g bowl of nuts and seeds to graze on through the day.

It’s worth noting that these vegan sources of protein cost 2-5p per gram of protein, a similar range as meat proteins (beef mince costs 2p/g; chicken breast 3p/g; beef steak 5p/g). Tempeh can cost a little more—my source is 7p per gram—but it’s delicious so I’m happy with that.

I have also dabbled with textured vegetable protein (TVP) and even defatted peanut flour—both much tastier than they sound and both excellent value for money at only 1p per gram of protein.

Eat these superfoods every day

One very cool thing about Cronometer is that it gives you a breakdown of where you’re getting your various nutrients from. That means you can easily discover your own personal superfoods: those foods that you should eat every day to make sure you’re getting the full spectrum of vitamins and minerals without having to resort to supplements.

For me, tahina is a superfood. It’s high in Omega-6, iron, saturated fats, vitamin B1, calcium, selenium, manganese and zinc, as well as protein. Plus it’s easy to hide in a meal or spread on toast or tortillas.

Flax, chia and hemp seeds are also superfoods for me. They’re high in Omega-3, vitamin K, manganese, zinc, selenium, magnesium, iron, vitamin B1, as well as protein. I can mix 15-20g of each into my morning oats or into a protein smoothie. Seeds are also a big part of my Bread of Life recipe.

A colourful daily salad is also a superfood, made up of vitamin-rich yellow, red and green leafy vegetables (kale, spinach, okra). However: a daily salad is also a bit of a faff. If it’s too much of a faff (and recently I confess it has been) then I can downgrade this to an emergency carrot, which makes sure I get enough vitamin A so that I can see in the dark.

Another red flag in my Cronometer data is calcium. On only one day in the past fortnight have I managed to hit 100 percent of my recommended daily allowance. That was Pancake Day because I used a fortified oat milk to fuel my flipping overdose. I really should be eating green leafy vegetables like kale, spinach and okra every day. Or, when I’m thrill-seeking, dried figs.

Dr Greger’s savoury blend of ten different spices is also worth a mention in the superfoods column. One teaspoon offers a neat little dose of B vitamins, vitamin K and zinc—and will bring the zing to any lifeless snack.

Finally: nuts. A wee bowl of mixed nuts is fabulous for B vitamins, vitamin E, iron, magnesium, manganese, zinc and the full spread of amino acids. Brazil nuts deserve a special shout out for giving me all the selenium I could ever dream of, as well as a dose of that easily-overlooked calcium.

Vitamin supplements

As a vegan, the Cronometer data confirmed that I must supplement with Vitamin B12 and Vitamin D. Simple as that. I also take a daily multivitamin, which covers all bases, just in case.

More interestingly, I have also been taking a creatine supplement of about 3-5g per day. Creatine is an amino acid found only in meat muscle and is great for intense exercise and building testosterone.

Step Two: What does the blood say?

Now comes the part you’ve all been waiting for: the results of those 58 blood tests.

Drum roll, please… Ta-dah!

No diabetes, no gout!

I don’t want to blind you with data, so here’s a very brief summary of what the blood told me:

  1. I’ve been ill recently: my immune system was stressed.
  2. I have a thyroid autoimmune disease. Nice to know that the NHS hasn’t been gaslighting me all these years.
  3. Otherwise: all good! That is to say: the remaining 56 biomarkers were all within the normal range.

It turns out that, after almost a year of veganism, I have a healthy liver and kidneys, healthy levels of inflammation, protein and vitamin D. My cholesterol profile is ‘excellent’ and I don’t have diabetes or gout. My homones, including testosterone, are also completely fine.

Side story: Normal testosterone reference levels are different between the UK and the US. Apparently, testosterone has been falling in men for decades and, rather than untangle the environmental factors that may be behind this—stress, noise, pollution, antibiotics—medical scientists have instead been revising down their definition of ‘normal’. This is called shifting baseline syndrome and is also the reason why, as generation cedes to generation, we have been gradually downgrading our expectation of the number of songbirds in our garden. For example.

However: the doctor who interpreted the tests for me did mention that my B12 levels were on the low side. He recommended that I take a further test to check for any underlying problems, such as pernicious anaemia, which is fairly common in patients with Hashimoto’s hypothyroidism.

Then, when I shared my results on a semi-reputable Hashimoto’s internet forum, someone stepped in to tell me that my iron levels were also pretty low for a man. Apparently, people with autoimmune conditions like Hashimoto’s can have trouble absorbing nutrients like B12 and iron. All the more reason to stuff down that kale.

Step Three: What about my day-to-day feels?

It’s all very well analysing dietary and blood data, but what about my day-to-day feels?

Obviously, the past year has been WEIRD. Pandemic isolation was one of the main logistical reasons why I was able to make the leap to veganism in the first place, but the accompanying onslaught of weirdness is also a confounding factor when trying to decide whether I’ve felt stronger in mind and body since changing my diet.

Bearing that in mind, in short, I don’t think I feel any different. I don’t feel awful, but nor do I feel superhuman. And I think I’m still just as much of a hypochondriac as I was before—you can imagine my delight when I saw that the blood tests supported my assertion that I’ve been feeling run down over the past few months.

One thing that has definitely been a huge improvement since going vegan is how much more fun I’m having in the kitchen. As I mentioned earlier, the gift of recipe book Fresh India pretty much changed my eating life. I’ve also really got into baking bread, including tortillas and naans. Veganism has helped me enjoy making an effort—even when that effort is waiting three weeks for kimchi that would last only a weekend.

However, I’m not the only person in the world who has, over the past year, been forced to familiarise themselves with the interior life of hearth and home. If it wasn’t for my whimsical experiment with isolation veganism, would I perhaps be writing to you today about the wonders of knitting? We will never know. But it’s lunchtime now and I’ve got a loaf in the oven—bon appétit!

BREAKING NEWS

I have decided to experiment with a dietary change even more radical than eating more kale. Yesterday, I bought and ate 90g of Dorset lamb liver. Yes, I know what you’re thinking: yuck. Also: that’s not vegan. Both excellent observations.

The problem is that there are no wholefood vegan sources of B12. All vegans can do is eat supplements, either in pill-form or in fortified processed food. Even then, I’d need to eat 31 teaspoons of B12-enriched yeast flakes or an entire jar of Marmite to match what I’d get from one serving of liver.

Lamb liver is extraordinarily high in B12 and iron. According to Cronometer, that one portion of lamb liver gave me 2,868 percent of my daily allowance of B12, as well as 93 percent of my iron. Take that, poor absorption!

B12 with a side of iron: lamb liver, kale and spinach with a lemon dressing—the vitamin C helps with iron absorption, apparently

After reading Spoon-Fed, epidemiologist Tim Spector’s most recent book, I am prepared to at least entertain the idea that eating meat might be better for my body than eating pills.

Side note: I’m pretty sure that eating meat will be worse for the environment, but I am slightly comforted by the thought that the lambs lived very locally and that no one else will eat the liver anyway. Maybe?

B12 is water-soluble and the body doesn’t store much in reserve, which means that I need to get enough B12 in my diet every single day. My liver-vegan experiment will run for the next two months and I intend to eat one portion of lamb liver every week, split over three meals, take high strength B vitamin supplements every day, and continue to add a teaspoon of B12-enriched yeast flakes to my food.

At the beginning of May, I’ll test my levels of B12 and iron again and see what, if anything, has changed.

Rumours circulating on the Hashimoto’s forums indicate that this all-guns-blazing intervention might raise my B12 and iron to the point where I can drop the liver and return to a normal vegan diet. We shall see.

~

If you’re curious, I got the Ultimate Performance blood test from Medichecks. It’s usually £200, but often discounted. I got mine for £180, including an appointment with a nurse to take the blood.

Word of the day: Waldumrauscht

The word of the day is Waldumrauscht, a rare German word found in the 1854 dictionary of the Brothers Grimm. Appropriately enough for lexicologists famous for their collection of fairy tales, Waldumrauscht means to be surrounded by a rustling forest.

I learned this word from Heimat by Nora Krug, a graphic memoir about a German family coming to terms with the shame of World War Two. I was surprised to read that the author, now living in New York, still encounters mistrust and prejudice and still feels a strong sense of personal shame.

Whenever I travelled abroad as a teenager, my guilt travelled with me. ‘Just say you’re from the Netherlands,’ my aunt Karin told me before each trip. I should have taken her advice. […] It doesn’t help that […] I am spat at while speaking German with a friend in a Russian neighbourhood in Brooklyn, or that an American fellow student at the school where I study refers to another as a ‘Jewish pig’ behind her back, hoping for my German sympathy.

I was surprised because, when I searched my soul, whatever vestiges of blood guilt that run through the decades have been washed away by more recent history: the compassion shown by German politicians towards refugees since 2015, the drive towards decarbonisation of the world’s fourth largest economy, and of course the overwhelming kindness that I have always received while travelling through the forests of Germany.

Recounting the history of the tragic past is important because it gives us the determination to write happier histories for now, for the future.

BBC Radio Foiled: 2017-2021

In a year of tumult, it’s been a tumultuous week, all commotion and confusion. Everyone is dealing with their own personal bucket of uncertainty at the moment: for me, that bucket was dumped pretty much all on one day. A fingers-crossed job interview, a month in Bristol cancelled, an injection flooding my bloodstream.

But, like the little story I’m about to tell you, I’m hopeful that this week of tumult will end on optimism and action.

Foiled is over! No, like, over over

Last Monday, the final episode of this series of Foiled was aired. It was a nerve-wracking moment. We had a lot of problems with the sound while we were recording back in December and I was worried that the episode wouldn’t do itself justice. But the producers pulled a rabbit out of the hutch and one listener even said that it ran episode two a close second for her favourite show this series (thanks, mum).

Phew.

Then, on Friday afternoon, I got a phone call from co-writer Beth Granville. In the afterglow of another successful series, the news came that, after eight hours of comedy content, Foiled would not be recommissioned by BBC Radio Wales.

Every year we gird our loins for this kind of news. The reality is that radio sitcoms rarely get commissioned for two series, let alone four. As the commissioners explained in their Dear John letter, as fantastic as Foiled has been, they have to make space for new writers.

Nevertheless, despite our tightly girdled loins, the news came as a shock to me. Why? Maybe because, after four years, I had been lulled into a sense of false confidence. Maybe because this past year has been so filled to the brim with shock that, our brims overflowing, every bump in the road hits us hard in the feelies.

But maybe it’s also because of the way we’ve had to write and record Foiled this year: in a remote state of dreamlike disconnection.

From room to remote

Beth and I write Foiled as a team and, although we no longer live in the same city, we have always made time to write together in the same room. Sometimes, we’re lucky enough to run away to a deserted beach house where no one can distract us from the important work of long walks, cooking and sandart.

But, of course, in 2020, we could snatch only moments together, in between lockdowns. And that shift from room to remote had a deleterious effect on both our writing process and—speaking for myself at least—my mental health.

Side note: I spent some of this week writing a commissioned article about how many hours it takes to write a sitcom. So I know exactly what the data says about working remotely during a pandemic: it won’t take you longer to do your job, but it will feel more like hard work.

There is something ineffable about creative writing. The hours Beth and I spend together on long walks, cooking and sandart is unstructured playtime, and often the source of our best ideas—not because we are thinking or talking about Foiled, but precisely because we’re not.

Mourning the ghosts of ideas we never had

I’m sure you’ve all had brainwaves while you’re in the shower or doing the washing up: unplanned, often inconvenient, bubbles of creativity that quickly pop unless you jot them down. These are the moments that are critical to the writing process. They are what transform the march of letters and punctuation into a cavalcade of light entertainment.

Although this kind of inspiration does still happen when we’re working alone, the company of another writer amplifies the effect. Rarely does a sandart idea arrive fully formed: it comes rather as an ephemeral ghost. If you’re with another writer, holding a shell or some other beach flotsam, you can tentatively voice the ghost.

Your co-writer will jump on the idea (probably grateful that somebody’s finally said something useful) and together you’ll spin the ghost into something real and manifest. Often, these fleshed-out ghosts make it directly onto the page, even if the sandart scaffolding is eventually cut down.

In 2020, because of the way we had to work, we manifested few of those spirits. Unstructured playtime simply doesn’t happen on video calls. After we finished recording, Beth told me that she ‘mourned’ for all the ideas that we never had this series. It was a poetic way of saying that, although this was probably our best series, who knows what it could have been if we’d written together in the same room.

Next time will be different

Many of you know that we usually record Foiled in front of a live audience. The two days of recording are always the two best days of my year. Naturally, this series we couldn’t do that. We couldn’t even be with the other actors this year.

I’d like to make it very clear that I’m not complaining. At a time when many people lost their jobs, I was incredibly lucky to have any work at all last year.

I was grateful that the producers found a role for me so that I could at least listen into the recording and help Beth set up her home studio (think wardrobe, think duvets, think lamps dangerously close to duvets). But helping to produce the show in a borrowed house was also pretty stressful: Would the microphone arrive in time? Would the recording save properly? Would the duvets catch fire?

And there was none of the usual sense of celebration when we finished. No after party dinner and drinks. None of the release of tension that everybody needs after the completion of a stressful, year-long project. Just the remains of a falafel and a sprint for the train.

The pandemic has reminded us all that we must never again take anything for granted. The day the pubs closed, we all started dreaming of how next time would be different, how we would embrace our friends harder, laugh louder and drink it all in (literally and figuratively).

It was the same throughout the Foiled writing process in 2020. Every time we found ourselves struggling, Beth and I would comfort each other by saying that next time would be different. Next time we’d write together, next time we’d record together, next time we’d celebrate together.

And this is the real reason why I think the news that Foiled wouldn’t be returning for a fifth series came as a shock.

We will never have a next time.

Or will we?

No.

I said (through gritted teeth): ‘Or will we?’

Actually, do you know what? There was a Foiled before the BBC. Why can’t there be a Foiled after the BBC?

At the very least, we should celebrate the remarkable ride we’ve had on the good ship Foiled over the past five years. At the very least, we should scoop up all the friends and fans of the show, everyone who has supported us and laughed and cheered, and say a huge thank you.

Oddly enough, the Prime Minister’s psychotic roadmap might offer us a donkey on which to pin a tail. Whisper it quietly, but, this summer, couldn’t we get hold of a hair salon for an evening? Couldn’t we fill it with friends and Welsh cakes and invite the actors we’ve worked alongside to come and perform a staged reading of Foiled?

Just one last time.

And, if that’s a success, well then…

~

You can catch up on the last EVER BBC Radio series of Foiled on BBC Sounds.

The thing is dead, long live the thing!

ps: Tom O’Brien, director of the 2016 Edinburgh Fringe edition of Foiled, recently launched himself into the world of online acting and performance coaching. As a ridiculously talented director and dramaturge, Tom’s work remains a huge part of the characters and world of Foiled. If you know anyone looking to massively upgrade their creative work, I recommend Tom in the strongest possible terms.

Drawing on the power of nature How art outdoors can help enhance gains in positive wellbeing

Last week I mentioned the research of Miles Richardson and the Nature Connectedness Research Group at the University of Derby. Specifically, I was intrigued by their recent study, which suggests that it’s ‘moments, not minutes’ that influence how we feel after our encounters with nature. It’s quality, not quantity.

Richardson et al. suggest that ‘simple everyday activities’ that help us notice nature, like birdwatching or smelling flowers, are what drive down our scores of stress, anxiety and depression. So, this week, I decided to take them seriously.

On Tuesday afternoon, I dug out a blank notebook, grabbed an HB pencil and stomped up to Branksome Gardens (one of my recent nearby nature discoveries). I wandered around a bit, scoping out a quiet place where I could do my dirty work in peace.

I sat down on a bench. But it only offered an open vista: churned mud, a chain link fence, a stand of denuded birch around a foetid pond. I needed something I could get lost in. So I stood up again, stomped over the mud and squelched down to the pond.

I rested my notebook on the rotting timber of the fence and scrutinised the bark of a silver birch. After a few seconds, my eyes adjusted around the curves of ivy against the peeling ash of the shadowy scrolls of bark. And I began to draw. Badly.

Left: Ivy on birch, Branksome Gardens. Right: Two angles on a holly leaf.

It’s worth confessing right away: yes, I can see that these are pretty crap. But that’s not the point. For the thirty minutes they each took to draw, I could forget everything that’s happened in the past year and suspend judgement over everything that is yet to come.

Art has been shown, independently of nature, to be strongly associated with, not only positive mental wellbeing, but healthy eating and physical activity. Drawing has also been used to stave off burnout in medical students. So, even if my crap drawing doesn’t enhance my experience of the natural world, hopefully the creativity has its own rewards.

But how did I feel as I tramped back down along the prom, wind in my hair, notebook in my pocket? I’m not sure. It’s hard to separate out the effects of nature, the effects of a half hour break and the effects of the so-called artwork. But I definitely felt lighter—elevated, somehow.

I’ve been out drawing every day this week and I already look forward to the creative hiatus in the merciless pings of the workday. Drawing is a convenient excuse for a freelancer always looking for productive value. I’m not aimlessly gawping up into a tree (although that is always worthwhile), I’m creating something real and I’m learning something new.

And, boy, have I got a lot to learn. I have deliberately started with nothing more complicated than a very small notebook and an HB pencil. With these two tools, I hope to grasp the fundamental skills of drawing before I ever contemplate anything more ambitious.

Inspired by Bob Ross, a friend of mine has really got into painting over lockdown. For him, it’s a relaxing way to spend an hour or two away from laptops and smartphones. I got excited about the idea, watched a couple of wonderful little episodes, but was ultimately put off by all the kit I’d have to buy—easels, acrylics, brushes, canvasses, oils. I wanted art supplies that I could pick up, put in my pocket and take out into the wild.

(Side note: Bob Ross seems to exclusively paint bucolic landscapes of rivers, forests and mountains. Art and nature make a hell of a pair.)

Oil painting might be a step too far, but the crap landscape I drew on Wednesday, looking between a mess of pines out to the wave-washed sea, might have benefitted from a few coloured crayons. Once I’ve graduated through the shades of pencil, I might look into what I can learn about colour. And I’m lucky that I won’t have to search far for inspiration.

Earlier this week, a talented friend of mine kindly shared her ‘study of tree mentors’. Here is Naomi Pratt’s drawing of a pair of copper beeches that stand in the cemetery at the end of her garden:

A pair of copper beeches by Naomi Pratt

Now there’s something to aspire to! I feel like I could stare at this drawing all day—it’s almost as good as resting there among the quiet gravestones. Here’s what Naomi says about her friendly neighbourhood copper beeches:

Their height makes you feel very small in a comforting way and they have a tremendous foliage. I tried to capture this in a drawing last summer, but it is a challenge to draw a tree—there is so much going on!

You can admire more of Naomi’s wonderful drawings of the natural world on her website.

Perhaps one day I’ll be able to create drawings half as beautiful as hers. And, even if I can’t, I mean to persist with my scrawlings because, as Naomi wrote in the email that accompanied these images, drawing ‘is an activity which allows me to look more deeply at the world’.

And that’s exactly what Miles Richardson et al. were hoping for.

~

The Nature Connectedness Research Group at the University of Derby have created a pile of Covid-19 nature resources to help us ‘find a friend in nature’. Still want more? Join me on their free online course. (Thanks to G.C. for those links.)

How connection with nature beats time in nature for your happiness and wellbeing Unexpected adventures in the millionaire's jungle ravine

You’d have thought that, living alone for a year in a medium-sized town without access to powered transport, I would have explored every corner of greenspace within a five kilometre radius of where I live.

Not even close. This week, by opening my eyes and following my nose, I discovered pockets of unexplored nearby nature less than 1,500 metres from home.

My range of easy exploration: a 2km circle around home (via Map Developers)

It’s so easy to slip into patterns of movement, always taking exercise along the same well trodden paths. I don’t think this problem is exclusive to beachside locations, where it’s easy to feel penned in by the town and the ocean. This is going to sound ridiculous, but it took me three years living in New Cross, London before I discovered this river called the Thames—and that was only 1,100 metres from home.

Earlier this week, a friend took me on a nighttime ramble over the clifftops, ending up on a promontory overlooking the white noise breakers and distant cruise ships of Poole Bay. It was a contemplative spot for a new moon, the stars of Orion the rapist high above and the twinkling of brake lights in the car park far below.

There’s no reason for anyone to climb up to this lookout: the road has a gentler gradient to the town and the ocean acts as a magnet, drawing people down on the shortest electrical pathway. I have walked along the promenade here uncountable times in the past year. If you must have statistics, then, according to Strava, I have run past this spot on no fewer than 184 occasions, without once looking up and noticing.

There are two memorial benches here, dug into the sandy, salty soil among the steadfast pine trees. Better yet: someone has thrown a wooden rope swing over the lowest branches, still four metres overhead. We swing in the silence and I know that this discovery will become a part of my day-to-day.

Finding unexpected adventure in the millionaire’s jungle ravine

Yesterday I took a wrong turn, taking a right when all historical data indicates I should have carried straight on along the sea front. But the arctic wind was blowing at my back and I didn’t want to become one of those I saw on the return journey, walking into the gale with face masks pulled down to protect themselves from the spitting sand.

So I took a right turn, into what felt like a ravine, with sheer loamy walls underpinned by pines. The concrete path flowed gently upstream with Victorian ironwork overhead and rough cut steps laddering up to the hidden turrets of expensive villas.

The footpath coasted left and I could see two young mothers pushing prams down towards me—towards the wind-backed ocean. But I didn’t want to leave the pines yet and the canyon continued invitingly ahead, a quiet, ancient, grass-dried river, promising overgrown adventure and restoration.

As I walked on, the ravine closed in, the pedestrian pathways disappeared up beyond the canopy, the grassy floor gave way to thistle and thorn. Rhododendrons greedily clutched at scraps of sunlight. Black bin bags had been thrown down from on high and stood at the side of the path, waiting for collection. A supermarket shopping trolley sank into a thin layer of mud, a long way from home. The path—I think it was still a path—twisted over and around roots and stumps, leading me on into the darkening underworld.

Somehow, against all odds, I had found something that made me feel something. Senses on stalks. In the silence, I could hear my heart in my chest and my blood in my ears. The secret ravine had me gripped by the seat of my being.

I didn’t bring a phone on this walk so I can’t show you any photographs. And I’m glad. Not only because my smartphone can get in the way of my connection with nature, but also because, ducking under the out-thrust bough of a denuded beech, I realised that photography would be an invasion of privacy.

I was not alone. For here, at the butt-end of the ravine, overlooked by the views from million pound properties, was a clutch of six forgotten tents. I stood still, breath short, straining my senses for signs of strangers. Who lives in a place like this? But the camp was silent. Its occupants, presumably, out on business.

As I moved through the camp, the tents became more ambitious until I reached the premium pitches at the back of the canyon, where the goat track was finally choked out by thorny scrub.

Here, two large tents faced each other, guy ropes pulling the canvas taut against the branches of overgrown rhododendron. A table was folded out between them and two tarpaulins stretched over as a canopy to protect the patio space from rain. A bicycle was locked up against a pole of a tree. I could smell the tang of human sweat and the faintest memory of a campfire.

I thought about leaving my card, but had none to leave. Perhaps they’ll see my bootprints and wonder who dropped by. Perhaps they had been watching me all along, assessing friend or foe.

I tried to bushwhack my way past the tents, through to the ruins of Skerryvore, where Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Kidnapped, longing for escape from the ‘slow dissolution’ of England, ‘Land of Counterpane’. But, scrambling up the mud side walls, I was stopped short by a chain link fence and a line of garden sheds.

I slipped back down into the shelter of the ravine and retraced my steps, back through the undergrowth, past the shopping trolleys and the tents. The path widened and opened. I could hear the burbling of a water main, squirrels leapt from under my feet. A mother and her daughter pushed their bikes over the iron wrought bridge as I passed beneath.

How connection with nature beats time in nature for happiness and wellbeing

Earlier this year, Miles Richardson and a team from the University of Derby published a paper suggesting that the restorative benefits of nature come from ‘moments, not minutes’.

The study found that how long we spend in nature wasn’t sufficient to explain significant increases in our happiness and sense of living a worthwhile life or reductions in our feelings of ‘illbeing’—depression and anxiety.

According to Richardson, what really counts is how connected we feel to nature and whether or not we actually notice the natural environment around us. This noticing happens through ‘simple actions’: relaxing in a garden, watching bees and butterflies, smelling flowers, listening to birdsong, collecting shells or pebbles, drawing, painting or photographing a beautiful plant—or perhaps celebrating a new moon by climbing the clifftops.

I have been very lucky this week to enjoy a few of these moments, from swinging among the pines to beating through the ravine undergrowth. I find it immensely encouraging that we don’t all have to be like Henry David Thoreau, who couldn’t be content without at least ‘four hours a day … sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements’.

So when we’re out in nature this weekend, let’s all—pause—sit—notice—the green life growing around us.

How to notice nature: use this calming sensory meditation

A great way of noticing nature that I use is the classic 5-4-3-2-1 sensory meditation. Find a comfortable spot, ideally surrounded by nature, but allow whatever your environment allows.

  • Notice 5 things you can see.
  • Notice 4 things you can feel.
  • Notice 3 things you can hear.
  • Notice 2 things you can smell.
  • Notice 1 thing you can taste.

This meditation can take five minutes; it can take five hours. Completely up to you. Let me know how you get on!

~

Thanks to L.H. for the starry nighttime ramble along the clifftops.

Win Google PageSpeed: Score 99% with your WordPress blog in under 15 minutes

On Tuesday, I took the mobile version of my WordPress blog from a Google PageSpeed score of 65% (super slow) to an almost perfect 99% (super fast).

My 99% Google PageSpeed score after converting my WordPress blog to AMP and removing Google Fonts

The only thing that Google has left to suggest is that I upgrade my server. Awesome. What’s even more awesome, is that this leap in speed took me barely fifteen minutes and, by following this short guide, you can do it even faster.

    1. Why go faster?
    2. How to convert your slow WordPress site to superfast AMP
    3. How to remove pointless Google Fonts
    4. How to find unexpected speed gains within WordPress
    5. Finally: choose luxuries to treat your readers!

Before I dive in to show you exactly what I did to improve my blog speed, I want to quickly explain why I wanted to up my PageSpeed score.

Why go faster?

Quite simply: Google uses PageSpeed to decide where to rank your site on its search pages. Annoying, but totally fair enough: their business depends on giving users the best possible search results.

Most of that comes down to the quality of your content, but the user experience on your page is also important. How many times do you click away from a site because it takes forever to load? If your site is one of those, you will slink, slip and slump down the rankings.

I’ll keep an eye on my stats to see if I start to creep up Google’s search rankings now I’ve got world-beating site speed. But even if I don’t, all my readers (and me) benefit from a much, much improved experience.

Okay, so now on with the how-to.

How to convert your slow WordPress site to superfast AMP

  • Time: 5 minutes
  • Difficulty: (Ridiculously easy)
  • Potential PageSpeed Boost: +15

AMP is an open-source HTML framework that makes webpages load faster. Much faster. Especially on mobile devices.

If you want to understand more about AMP, then I can recommend this very readable paper by Jun et al. (2019). But the tl;dr is that AMP should reduce the time it takes to display one of your pages by at least 60 percent.

Converting my site to AMP resulted in a huge boost (+15) to my Google PageSpeed mobile score. It made no difference to how my site looked to readers, only that the pages were loading almost instantly. Best of all, the conversion to AMP was incredibly simple.

  1. Download, install and activate the official AMP WordPress plugin.
  2. Run the plugin’s AMP Settings Wizard.
  3. Check your site looks great.
  4. Test your site’s Google PageSpeed again.
  5. Cry tears of joy.

NOTE: I initially went for the ‘Reader’ template mode, which generates both AMP and non-AMP pages for your site. This was because the AMP Settings Wizard told me that my theme (TwentyFifteen) was incompatible with AMP. This turned out to be untrue, so I switched the template mode to Standard. My site is now 100% AMP.

How to remove pointless Google Fonts

  • Time: 5 minutes
  • Difficulty: (Ridiculously easy)
  • Potential PageSpeed Boost: +10

Most WordPress themes include a few Google Fonts by default. In theory, all this does is make your site look 0.5% prettier. In practice, because these fonts need to load before your site displays properly, your readers have to wait around for an extra second or so.

Annoyingly, there is no way to remove Google Fonts without getting very technical (trust me, I learned this the hard way). Luckily, clever people on the internet have created plugins to do the work for you. I used one called OMGF.

  1. Download, install and activate the OMGF plugin.
  2. Open the OMGF plugin settings.
  3. Click on the Detection Settings tab.
  4. Switch Google Fonts Processing to Remove Only.
  5. At the bottom of the page, click Save Changes.
  6. Check your site looks great.
  7. Test your site’s Google PageSpeed again.
  8. Cry tears of joy.

How to find unexpected speed gains within WordPress

  • Time: 5 minutes
  • Difficulty: (A tiny bit harder)
  • Potential PageSpeed Boost: +5

Hopefully by now your WordPress site is enjoying some pretty sensational speeds. I found another few Google PageSpeed points by sniffing around the ‘Opportunities’ section of my PageSpeed results.

Depending on your site, this might require a little ingenuity and detective work on your part. But here are two very easy things that anyone can do to speed up their site:

  1. Turn off Gravatars in your comments section by going to your WordPress Discussion Settings. Scroll down to the bottom and untick the box that says Show Avatars.
  2. Deactivate any plugins that you don’t use or could do without. I deactivated Easy Custom Auto Excerpt (no idea what I was using that for), Print My Blog (excellent, but not currently required), Simple Yearly Archive (cool, but unnecessary) and Worth The Read (very cool, but also unnecessary).

Whenever you make changes to your site, check back with Google PageSpeed to make sure things are going in the right direction. It’s worth saying, however, that your ‘initial server response time’ can vary so take that into account when tracking changes to your PageSpeed score.

Finally: choose luxuries to treat your readers

Once your site scores over 90% on Google PageSpeed, you can shift your focus away from speed to other features that might improve the reader experience.

For example, re-activating the Worth The Read plugin, which gives readers a useful heads up on how long an article takes to read, knocks my PageSpeed score down from 97% to 95%.

I’m not great at maths and I know that 95% isn’t quite as much as 97%, but it’s still pretty darned high. Hopefully by now you too have got the wiggle room to include a few luxuries for your readers.

You’ll find one of my luxuries right below this sentence – a signup form for my awesome weekly newsletter!

Meet your tree mentor

I think everyone can use a mentor. Someone to listen, support and guide you when times get rough or the way ahead is shrouded in confusion.

Mentors are usually human beings, older and wiser than you. But what being could be older or wiser than a tree that has stood firm through wind and rain, fortune and misfortune, for perhaps many decades in your local neighbourhood?

So here’s something a bit different: a practical exercise to meet your local tree mentor and start getting the nature feels that I wrote about last week.

Spoiler: this exercise is part of my free Rewild Your Job workshop later today (16h00 GMT, Friday 5 February 2021).

Prepare to meet your mentor

1. Identify a tree mentor (or likely candidate) in your nearby nature

Google Maps does an excellent job at showing you nearby nature, but switch to satellite view and turn off those ugly labels. Click the menu button (three ‘hamburger’ bars in the top left), select ‘Satellite’ and deselect ‘Labels on’.

These are both views on Google Maps. The one on the left is pretty much useless for finding nearby nature! Other online mapping tools are available.

Another great Google Maps integration is this circle drawing tool. Here you can plop a 3km circle around your house and find nearby nature within range. You can also throw down another circle around your friend’s house to find nature that’s nearby for both of you.

If you’re based in the UK, then check out the OS Maps ‘Greenspace’ layer. This overlay highlights all your local greenspace—and even shows you where the pedestrian and vehicle access points are. Also in the UK, you can plug your postcode into the Woodland Trust search bar to find your nearest tree party.

If you live in a famous city, then check out Treepedia, which uses Google Streetview data to show you where your greenest streets are. Note that this does not include parks.

See if you can find two or three clusters of greenspace that you haven’t visited before.

2. Choose a name for your tree mentor

Personaly, I think it’s a bit rude to go into your meeting without knowing what to call your mentor.

Taking my inspiration from Jack Cooke’s The Tree Climber’s Guide, here are some suggestions: The Peacock Roost, The Tree of Knowledge, The Royal Perch. Don’t overthink it. If you can’t come up with anything right now, call it Dave and see how you go.

3. Block out time in your calendar for your one to one

Seriously. Put it in your diary. You’ll want at least 20 minutes for this first session, excluding travel time.

All done? Great!

AGENDA: Get to know your mentor

When the time comes for your scheduled one to one, I’ve drafted an agenda for you and your mentor. Feel free to pick and choose elements and leave plenty of time for A.O.B.

  1. What species is your mentor tree? Bark, buds and (fallen) leaves, seeds or flowers can solve the mystery. The British Trees app by the Woodland Trust can help you if you’re based in the UK or northern Europe. Elsewhere, or if you need more help, give PictureThis a whirl—it includes tree ring analysis!Note: Using your phone while out in nature can undo its beneficial effects so don’t get sucked into this agenda item. You can also pick up a fallen leaf to help with your identification back at home.
  2. What does your tree feel like to touch, smell, admire? Try staring up into the branches for 60 seconds to enjoy the fractal patterns and develop ‘soft fascination’.
  3. How old is your wise mentor? Measure its girth at shoulder height and refer to this rule of thumb method of calculation—or this chart if your mentor is a grand old oak tree. (Note: obviously the PictureThis tree ring analysis is no good here—please don’t chop down your mentor, not now.)
  4. How healthy is your mentor? Does it have any cool scars?
  5. Who lives here—can you spot any birds or bugs? Fun fact: oak trees can support up to 2,300 other species, the most neighbourly of any tree in Britain.
  6. Are there any other trees nearby? Does your mentor have any friends to play with?
  7. Hypothetically speaking, how would you climb it?
  8. Practically speaking, and if you can—go ahead and climb your tree! Cling to its branches, sway on the boughs and feel its roots become your roots.

I hope you have some fun and make this a regular check in with the wise trees of your local neighbourhood. Did you feel any improvement in your stress levels? Or notice any bursts of creativity? I’d love to hear how you get on.

No more indoor species! Get outside and live longer, healthier lives

That first kiss of cold air on skin makes me whimper in pleasure. It’s not long before I’m galloping down the zig-zag to the beach and throwing myself into the waves.

After seven days of four walls and stale breath, the sensory wealth almost overwhelms me. Opening the windows, standing at the sill in the sun, and running shuttles the length of my hallway could never replace the 360 degree embrace of even the shortest walk in nature.

Don’t get me wrong: I know seven days is nothing. I tested negative for coronavirus and, after a few days of headaches and a sore throat, I felt absolutely fine. But still: seven days of isolation, going nowhere but inside, mentally and physically, showed me the paramount value to our health of nature and the outdoors.

An indoor species

It’s hard to get solid data on exactly how much time we spend in nature, but a 2018 study found that 894 office workers in the UK spent, on average, only an hour and ten minutes outdoors on work days. Monday to Friday, on average, these office workers spent 95 percent of their time indoors or commuting.

On Saturdays and Sundays, the office workers typically spent two and a half hours outside—much better, but that still means that 90 percent of their time was spent indoors. Here’s the kicker: this data was only collected on rain-free days in the warmest months between April and October. Taken over the whole year, 90 percent is surely a low estimate, even on a weekend.

If you’re thinking that this only applies to pasty-faced office workers, then I should point you in the direction of a two-year study that followed the daily acitivities of more than nine thousand randomly selected people in the United States. The study participants reported spending 93 percent of their time inside either enclosed buildings or enclosed vehicles.

It’s fair to say that statistician Wayne R. Ott’s comment in his 1989 review of activity patterns research holds up today:

We are basically an indoor species. […] In a modern society, total time outdoors is the most insignificant part of the day, often so small that it barely shows up in the total.
~ W.R. Ott quoted in Klepeis et al. (2001)

A pandemic-shaped mirror

What’s fascinating is that we don’t realise what we have become. A 2018 survey of 16,000 people across North America and Europe found that fewer than one in five of us can believe we spend so much time indoors. But we do—and no more so than now, during this thing that’s happening.

One study, published last August in the Journal of Urban Ecology, found that the pandemic has reduced the usual recreational activities of ‘outdoor enthusiasts’—particularly those living in urban areas. I can certainly vouch for that! But what about the rest of humanity?

By analysing Strava data in Oslo, Venter et al. estimated that the number of people enjoying the great outdoors shot up by 291 percent after lockdown in March, with walkers, runners and cyclists favouring routes with green views and tree cover.

Both studies are backed up by research from Pennsylvania State University, which found that, while ‘specialised recreationists’ found their outdoor playtime cut by half a day per week on average, everyone else was outdoors half a day more every week.

Lockdown is nothing like a free pass to go and play outside, however: a survey of 604 people in post-lockdown Ireland reported that, on average, participants spent only 8 percent of their time in the great outdoors.

It’s possible that the urge for the outdoors is simply because there’s bugger all else we can do. But it’s also possible that it’s an instinctive, therapeutic response to something bloody awful happening. And we’d be correct.

What has the outdoors ever done for us?

A comprehensive review published in January 2020 found that as little as ten to twenty minutes outdoors in nature can have significant positive effects on our mental wellbeing, reducing our heart rate, blood pressure and feelings of depression, anger, fatigue and anxiety, making us feel calm, refreshed and reinvigorated.

Because of these stress-busting effects, merely living in a greener neighbourhood makes you live a longer, healthier life—no matter what your socioeconomic status—and reduces the risk of preterm birth, type II diabetes, asthma, stroke and, er, ‘all-cause mortality’. That’s amazing.

As Mitchell et al. write in a badass follow up to the ‘longer, healthier life’ study referenced above:

If societies cannot, or will not, narrow socioeconomic inequality, research should explore the so-called equigenic environments—those that can disrupt the usual conversion of socioeconomic inequality to health inequality.

Nature is that disruption. Green space is a political ‘screw you’ to those who want a society of haves and have-nots.

But the miracles of nature don’t end there. The natural world can also make you feel more generous, more grateful and less selfish. Exercise in the outdoors can increase your creativity (both divergent and convergent, since you ask), your memory and your attention, as well as protect against cognitive decline as you age. Wordsworth was a neuroscientist when he wrote:

Books! ‘tis a dull and endless strife:
Come, hear the woodland linnet,
How sweet his music! on my life,
There’s more of wisdom in it.
~ From The Tables Turned (1798)

In Toronto, researchers discovered that living in a neighbourhood with just ten extra trees made people feel as good as if they were given $10,000 or magically made seven years younger. Spending time outdoors can even roll back the effects of myopia in school children.

In conclusion: we love going outside because that’s where miracles happen. As the grandmaster of nature research Qing Li writes in his 2018 book Into The Forest:

There is no medicine you can take that has such a direct influence on your health as a walk in a beautiful forest.

‘We’re all in the same boat (except your bit of the boat is on fire and our bit has caviar) (oh and we lied: they are entirely different boats)’

A popular catchphrase of the pandemic propagandists is ‘We’re all in this together, we’re all in the same boat.’ As a sworn relativist, the only time the phrase ‘We’re all in the same boat’ applies is when we are, indeed, all present in the same water-bourne vessel.

It’s certainly not a fair way to compare the lived experience during the pandemic of the wealthy billionaires who saw their assets increase by more than a quarter last summer and, shall we say, the ‘unwealthy’ immigrants unable to work during lockdown who are being discouraged from accessing welfare support and threatened with punishments by the Home Office if they do.

Likewise, we are not all in the same boat when it comes to green space. Evidence from Portugal and Germany found that the poorer a neighbourhood is, the further residents have to travel to access green space—and the fewer amenities (toilets, benches, cafes and so on) they find when they get there.

In the UK, nearly 34 percent of the wealthiest citizens live in the greenest and most pleasant of our land. The comparible figure for the country’s poorest citizens is less than 4 percent. Access to green space is directly correlated to wealth, amplifying the evils of health inequality, at a time when people can’t travel outside their local area.

Not the same boat.

Comfort from 226 CE

Hopefully that’s got you all fired up to go and fill your lungs up with ozone, plant some trees in deprived neighbourhoods and generally blast away at the great outdoors. But I’ll leave you with one last pandemic-shaped thought from the famous historian of The Three Kingdoms.

In Weilue, Yu Huan compares himself to a fish living in a small stream that cannot comprehend the vastness of the Yangtze, or to a mayfly, who, living so briefly, cannot know the changing of the four seasons. The superficiality of his understanding, Yu Huan writes, is like ‘living in the puddle left in the hoof print of an ox’.

As the Roman Empire was to Yu Huan, so, gradually, becomes the rest of the world to those of us living in confinement—especially those self-isolating or shielding, but also the rest of us who have found our horizons greatly foreshortened over the past year.

I exaggerate, of course, but I found in Yu Huan’s 1,800 year-old words an inspiring coda that encourages me to keep striving even though I feel like I too am living in a hoof print:

It has not been my fate to see things first hand, travelling with the rapid winds, or enlisting swift horses to view distant vistas. Alas, I have to strain to see the sun, the moon and the stars, but, oh, how my thoughts fly!
~ Yu Huan, Weilue

Rewild Your Job: Workshop on Nearby Nature for Knowledge Workers

I am degenerating into a machine for making money. I must break away and get out into the mountains to learn the news.
~ John Muir

Are you worried that you are ‘degenerating into a machine for making money’? Do you feel the urge to ‘break away’, but find all your plans blocked by the pandemic? Do you wish that you could somehow rewild your job?

At a time when we most need the restorative power of the natural world, I’m one of many who cannot ‘get out into the mountains to learn the news’. The solution is to go deeper into local pockets of nature and bring the outdoors indoors by rewilding our homes and work spaces.

This one hour workshop will show how nature can:

  • reduce your anxiety and work-related stress, while increasing your work performance (in as little as 40 seconds)
  • boost your immune system and help you sleep better
  • improve your creativity, the quality of your ideas and your memory
  • make you feel $10,000 richer and 7 years younger (really)

And, if you are in quarantine or self-isolating, we will learn five ways you can bring the power of nearby nature into your home.

During the session, I will introduce you to the scientific evidence and help you put your rewilding strategies into practice:

  • Locate your own nearby nature
  • Rewild your workstation
  • Schedule a one-to-one with a local tree mentor

If you or anyone you know might be interested in the Rewild Your Job workshop, whether individuals, businesses or WI groups, please leave a comment below or contact me.

Feedback from Rewild Your Job participants

I think we all know that nature is important, but I didn’t know that there was so many scientific studies to prove it. Thank you so much for opening our eyes!

I’m a nature photographer and I interact with nature pretty frequently, but even then I wasn’t aware of so many diverse aspects of nature that you have pointed out. So it was absolutely mind-blowing!

Note: This was my first workshop over Zoom so began with the customary technical faff. To skip all that, please fast forward to 4m50


Rewild Your Job was part of the 2021 Ness Labs Creator Spark Accelerator. Many thanks to Anne-Laure Le Cunff and the Ness Labs community for their support. Joining Ness Labs was the best £37.90 I’ve spent in a long time.

Foiled Series 4: On air


Episode 1 of Foiled, a radio sitcom written by me and Beth Granville, airs on Monday.

Bleach for the Stars is thriving under the guidance of local baguettes entrepreneur Tariq. But the baguette mogul’s new world order is seriously threatening Tanisha and Richie’s historically lax working life. Will they be able to oust Tariq and convince Sabrina to take her salon back, especially now she’s flourishing in her new role as Head of Baguettes?

I’m excited and nervous to listen to the show—excited because we think the scripts are brilliant; nervous because the poor actors had to record those scripts while hiding under their duvet and/or inside a wardrobe. Oh, 2020…

Veganaury: Two flash-in-the-pan breads

The Bread for Life that I shared a while ago is still my daily loaf, but here are two very entertaining breads that can be made in a few minutes using your hob.

1. Proper corn tortillas (with thanks to L.H.)

For this recipe you will need:

  • Masa harina (maize flour)
  • Warm water
  • Cling film or greaseproof paper
  • Chopping board or similar flat, bigger-than-tortilla-sized, weighty object
  • Rolling pin or similar rolling object—I use a measuring beaker
  • Frying pan
  • Optional: salt or other spices

Instructions:

  1. Get your frying pan ready on your hob: you want it nice and hot.
  2. Mix the masa harina with warm water in proportions of 4:3—i.e two cups of flour to one and a half cups of warm water. This recipe is so quick that it hardly matters if you make too much or too little. Chuck in your salt or other spices if you’re going down that road.
  3. Use your hands to mush the mixture into a doughy ball. Split the big dough ball into mini balls.
  4. Tear off two sheets of cling film. Lay one down flat on the counter top and put your first mini dough ball in the middle. Lay the other sheet of cling film over the top. You can also use greaseproof paper, but it’s slightly more sticky so I find I have to be extra careful on stage 6.
  5. Flatten your mini dough ball into a circular disc shape using a chopping board and your body weight. You can also use a tortilla press, but who has one of those? To get the tortilla really thin you can gently roll it out using a rolling pin or similar—but be careful because the masa harina is really fragile.
  6. Carefully peel off the top layer of cling film. Flip the tortilla over and use gravity to gently unpeel the tortilla from the other layer of cling film. If you use greaseproof paper, you can actually cook the exposed side of the tortilla while the second piece of paper still attached—it’s easier to peel off after the tortilla is cooked a little.
  7. Lay the tortilla onto the hot frying pan. Cook for 30 seconds and then carefully flip to the other side for another 30 seconds. Keep on flipping until the tortilla is cooked through. It should be soft enough to roll without falling apart. You’ll get the hang of it.

2. Vegan naan bread

I stole this recipe from Loving It Vegan. Naan bread takes a bit longer than tortilla because the dough needs to rise. I leave it for an hour in an airing cupboard. For that authentic naan flavour, I also add nigella seeds while the bread is cooking on the hob.

The Great Whatsapp Stink: Q&A

The Great Whatsapp Stink inspired many excellent questions from readers. As they roll in, I’ll post my responses here. Special thanks to F.R. for an inspiring email exchange.

My Whatsapp contacts already have my number and all my old messages, how does that affect my privacy after I leave?

On Whatsapp you have to trust that all your contacts don’t share your messages – just as you would have to on Signal. Neither Whatsapp nor Signal have access to the content of your messages.

In that regard, nothing changes and there is no difference between the apps – it’s only a difference in how they implement the security. (And all the research I’ve done says that Whatsapp’s implementation is fundamentally less secure.)

If you delete your account, then I believe that – yes – your Whatsapp contacts would still be able to download your messages, unless you delete them, either individually or: WhatsApp Settings > Chats > Delete All Chats.

I haven’t done this yet, so would have to check how much sender’s data remains on the device of the recipient. Hopefully nothing but downloaded media – photos, videos, voice notes, etc.

If I delete Whatsapp, but my contacts don’t or can’t, will I still suffer indirect surveillance? If so, is my leaving the system worthwhile when the system never leaves me?

You’re right: you can leave the system, but the system never leaves you. Unfortunately, this is true even of people who have never ever had a Whatsapp or Facebook account, but who are still touched by Facebook’s web surveillance: pages with like buttons, for example.

There is no escape from that level of data collection – except by using a technique like browser isolation, which makes the data functionally useless (you could even generate deliberately misleading data if you’ve got loads of time on your hands!).

Will we be vulnerable to indirect surveillance after we’ve left Whatsapp? I don’t know exactly. I would also guess, given that no one seems to be able to find a definitive answer online, that no one knows exactly!

It’s worth repeating that Whatsapp only collects our metadata (so far as we know). Furthermore, for those of us who live in the EU, UK or other territories with half-decent privacy laws, that metadata is not matched with our Facebook profile data.

Regardless of what happens to the data held by your contacts after you delete Whatsapp, the biggest benefit of deleting the platform is that you will no longer be adding to that data the corporation hold on you. I think this is an important point, perhaps overlooked.

For example: if you’ve been regularly messaging from a device located in Berlin, then Whatsapp could make a guess that you live in Berlin – and they will continue to hold that data even after you delete the platform. But if, one day, you move to Brussels, then that old data will become as good as useless. No (further) harm done.

My view is that taking even one conversation out of Whatsapp and over to Signal is worthwhile progress. A tiny chip in the wall, maybe, but still worthwhile.

What do I gain from leaving Whatsapp?

This depends whether you think your metadata is a fair exchange for a ‘free’ messaging app. Do you mind Whatsapp having access to your metadata and using that to sell stuff to you and your contacts? Especially bearing in mind that this is part of a long-term business plan for Whatsapp.

At the moment, Whatsapp is not profitable for Facebook: they simply have to earn more money from Whatsapp and they will do that by selling user data. Both the original founders of Whatsapp quit (in 2017 and 2018) because of concerns over privacy, security, advertising and the sale of user data by Facebook.

This is the direction Whatsapp is going and I don’t want to stay with it to find out what happens next. So my answer to this question is that our metadata is clearly not a fair exchange for a messaging app, given that an excellent alternative exists.

Signal was setup by one of the original Whatsapp founders as a direct repost to what he saw as a betrayal of the app’s values. Signal is a not-for-profit, open source organisation and can never be bought by a capitalist engine like Facebook.

Everyone is already on Whatsapp so shouldn’t we should concentrate on better privacy regulation?

I accept that there are many users on Whatsapp – 2 billion worldwide – but I don’t accept that this means we shouldn’t all install Signal (as well as Whatsapp if need be). That’s like arguing that, because there are over a billion fossil fuel cars worldwide, we shouldn’t install charging points for electric cars.

It’s not an either/or problem. Yes, we should legally prevent corporations from exploiting our data AND yes, we should install and use platforms that don’t (and can’t) exploit our data.

Aren’t you forgetting all the people who need Whatsapp for important, even life-saving, services?

Firstly, I have no problem with people keeping their Whatsapp accounts, whether that’s because they need it to communicate with their doctors or because they simply love the app. I’d just like to help more people understand the Facebook business model and, based on that understanding, install an alternative that opens up the space. Every conversation switched onto a secure platform is a win.

For many people, Whatsapp and Signal will work in tandem, exactly as Brian Acton, founder of both companies, himself imagines:

I have no desire to do all the things that WhatsApp does. My desire is to give people a choice. It’s not strictly a winner take-all scenario.

I also have no problem with installing and drifting between several messaging apps. I’ve got 89 apps installed on my smartphone; another one doesn’t make any difference to me. For some overwhelmed people, I’m sure, one more app feels like one too many. I’d still like to convince them otherwise, but they have every right to tell me to shut up!

I’m also lucky that I’m not tightly bound to Whatsapp. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve seen a lot of my contacts switching to Signal, enough to make me believe that, for me, leaving Whatsapp permanently is an option. I’m surprised, gratified – and certain that I’m far from typical.

Even with 80 percent of my contacts on Signal, I’m still not sure that I’ll delete Whatsapp. My life might not depend on Whatsapp, but some of my volunteering work does. Naturally, I see no reason why these volunteering groups shouldn’t also migrate, either to Signal or to some other more appropriate, non-surveillance tool, but I’m aware that the migration won’t be easy. It will depend on people like me making a strong case for privacy and that case may well fail. But it must be made.

These conversations and conversions might be uncomfortable, but they are impossible unless we take that first step to install Signal or other alternatives. The transition away from the surveillance economy will be a lengthy process, especially when we consider the legal fight for stronger privacy regulation, but I believe that we now have momentum.

Switching apps is egotistical!

This misses the point. My argument is that mass migration away from Whatsapp isn’t merely good for the individual (I’m not actually convinced that it makes a huge difference for most individuals, depending on how they use the app and which country they live in), but it is good for the entire user base and – given that the user base makes up a quarter of the planet – also good for our societies as a whole.

Quick aside: how it could all go horribly wrong

No one in China uses Whatsapp. Access is totally blocked. The popular equivalent is an app called WeChat. Where surveillance at Whatsapp is covert, WeChat is subject to overt censorship. Dan Wang, an expert on technology in China, recently wrote:

WeChat blocks sensitive keywords, which today includes ‘decoupling’ and ‘sanctions’. It’s now pretty inconvenient to use the app for professional conversations, and I’ve been pretty insistent to my contacts to use Signal instead.

I’m not saying that this is the direction that Whatsapp is going in, but why should we even leave that roadmap on the table?

Back to the question

Fundamentally, the question is: why wouldn’t you install Signal, if only to offer a non-capitalist, non-surveillance alternative to those of your friends and contacts who prefer – or need – that approach for their communication?

For those of us lucky enough to live in countries protected by decent (ish) privacy laws, we are (seemingly) safe from further exploitation of our Whatsapp metadata by the rest of the Facebook corporation. But, by not installing Signal, we are exposing our unprotected contacts in the rest of the world to an unsafe platform for their communication with us.

Or we are ignoring them altogether. China is not the only country where Whatsapp is banned: North Korea, Syria, Qatar, Iran and United Arab Emirates have also blocked access to the app. We need alternatives.

Sticking rigidly to one platform: now that sounds egotistical to me.

~

What do you think? Send me your questions or comments. Thank you for reading!

The Great Whatsapp Stink

If you’re one of the two billion people who use Whatsapp, then you have probably noticed the new terms of service. You might already have accepted them. You might also have heard that these new terms of service consolidate and extend Whatsapp’s surveillance of your behaviour. You might be worried.

I think you’re right to be.

This article is primarily focussed on Whatsapp and Facebook, but many of the observations apply equally to other tech corporations who profit from surveillance of our data, especially Google. This article is also pretty thorough and might take you a while to work through at 2,800 words. But it’s split into four parts so please feel free to skip around:

  1. What do these new terms of service mean for you?
  2. Understanding surveillance capitalism
  3. Is there any hope?
  4. Four things you can do now

Right, let’s go!

What do these new terms of service mean for you?

There’s been one hell of a stink about Whatsapp since the announcement that the corporation will delete our accounts if we don’t accept these new terms of service.

First, to avoid any confusion, there’s one thing that the new terms of service are not: Facebook cannot now exploit the content of your messages. They are still encrypted. Everything else about your usage of the app, however, is up for grabs.

Despite this popular confusion, I think the great media stink has been very useful because I don’t think any of us should be using Whatsapp—or any Facebook product, for that matter. But I also think that we should temper our shock—not because Whatsapp isn’t a stinking rotten app, but because, since its acquisition by Facebook in 2014, it has always been a stinking rotten app.

Forbes cybersecurity correspondent Zak Doffman puts it well:

This isn’t about WhatsApp sharing any more of your general data with Facebook than it does already, this is about using your data and your engagement with its platform to enable shopping and other business services, to provide a platform where businesses can communicate with you and sell to you, all for a price they will pay to WhatsApp.

What the stink has usefully done is confront us with some important questions that we must answer before moving on with our lives:

  1. Do you want the Facebook corporation scraping the metadata from your Whatsapp messages to sell to their business partners who will then use that data to reach you, your contacts and other people like you inside Whatsapp?
  2. In other words: are you happy to participate in the development of the Whatsapp marketplace, where you and your data are the commodity, sold by Facebook to third-party businesses?
  3. Is that a fair price to pay for a service that offers ‘free’ messaging? HINT: No, it’s not. Not when actually free and secure alternative messaging services exist.

This great stink has brought Whatsapp’s corrupt business model to broader public awareness, so let’s take a look.

Surveillance capitalism

Whatsapp is part of the biggest surveillance operation the world has ever known: the Facebook corporation collects more data about its users than even the most dystopian science fiction writers ever imagined. The new Whatsapp terms of service will permit the sharing of your metadata—that is data about your messages, but not the content of your messages—across the Facebook corporation.

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that metadata is unimportant: your device ID, your user ID, your contacts, your purchase history and financial activity within Whatsapp and your location is more than enough data to build a detailed consumer profile and connect you to you—even if you don’t subscribe to the open surveillance of a Facebook account.

The change in the terms of service is to facilitate the encroachment of third party businesses into your private messaging. It’s classic surveillance capitalism: the Facebook corporation collects and sells your data for profit. That’s why their apps are ‘free’; our data is their business model.

They’re not alone, of course. Surveillance capitalism is a popular business model for many tech companies, including other social networks like Twitter and LinkedIn, but also Amazon, Apple and even Pokémon Go. But only two corporations have the far-reaching scale of surveillance to use our data to manipulate entire democracies: Facebook and Google.

In a group chat on Whatsapp, a friend asked whether as individuals we had anything to fear from mass surveillance capitalism. Another friend replied, saying:

I guess it depends who makes the laws? At the moment we’re not in much danger, but if we lived in Russia, for example, and wrote an article critical of the government, we’d be in more danger if our data wasn’t secure. And we do keep unexpectedly electing dictator-y people…

I love that last sentence. For decades our only defence against the dangers of mass surveillance has been ‘Yes, but that could never happen here!’ I wonder how many people still believe that.

But even if we stay relatively safe on an individual level, there is also a much broader societal risk. As another friend in the group put it:

At a national level, there are implications for private companies knowing more about a population than even the government, e.g. Facebook / Cambridge Analytica / Brexit.

Starting in 2014, and with the complicity of the Facebook corporation, Cambridge Analytica harvested the data of millions of Facebook users and analysed behavioural patterns in order to find, target and ‘infect’ the most susceptible demographics with a particular political ideology, and from there spread the contagion to the rest of the population.

Cambridge Analytica were used by both Donald Trump’s first presidential bid and the Vote Leave campaign during the UK’s referendum on membership of the European Union in 2016. Both campaigns, you’ll have noticed, were successful—an odd word to use given the four years of shit-fuckery that have ensued.

If you’re anything like me, even as an individual, the unregulated interference into and destabilisation of our democracies is a huge price to pay.

Side note: The aforementioned Whatsapp group, I’m pleased to report, has now migrated to the non-Facebook and genuinely secure messaging platform Signal—but more on that later…

Is there any hope?

That’s enough depressing content for now. The Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal broke years ago—hasn’t anything changed? Isn’t there any hope on the horizon?

Well, not really, no. But there are three points that offer Whatsapp users not so much hope as doubt that could easily be confused with hope and keep us wedded to a fundamentally unwell platform.

Firstly, in the European Union, GDPR law means that, legally, Facebook aren’t allowed to connect the dots between Whatsapp and the rest of the corporation. Despite leaving the EU, the same GDPR regulations apply in UK law—although the UK now has the independence to change those regulations.

However, as a friend keen on digital privacy commented:

Facebook will do what they want and pay the fine later. They are not on the side of good. IMHO.

In 2019, Facebook were ordered to pay a fine of $5 billion for privacy violations after the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data breach. This sounds like a lot of money, but the fine was described by observers as ‘a favour … a parking ticket’, ‘a mosquito bite’ and ‘a Christmas present five months early’. For scale, between 2016, when the worst effects of the data breach took hold, and 2019, when the fine was announced, Facebook increased their annual revenue by more than $43 billion.

Secondly, a terms of service update in 2016 gave existing users an ‘opt-out’ from the automatic sharing of their Whatsapp metadata with the rest of the Facebook corporation. Of course, this doubt/hope is only relevant if you joined Whatsapp before 2016. If you joined the corporation after 2016, then your metadata is already at the mercy of Facebook’s rapacious appetite.

Side bar: If you want to find out whether you took advantage of this opt-out, then you’ll need to request your account information by going to Settings > Account > Request account info. It takes a few days.

Facebook have said that they will continue to ‘honour’ this 2016 opt-out. But what does that mean? And can we trust Facebook to act on honour? Not if history is any guide: in 2018, when GDPR law came into effect in the EU, the corporation simply moved 1.5 billion non-EU Facebook accounts to servers outside the new privacy law’s jurisdiction. Facebook aren’t the only surveillance corporation to do this, by the way: LinkedIn did the same.

Thirdly, on 8 December last year, the US Federal Trade Commission and 46 of the US states launched an antitrust lawsuit arguing that Facebook’s acquisition of Whatsapp and Instagram has created a monopoly in social networking. The plaintiffs hope to force the Facebook corporation to break up again into smaller companies. This, they say, will be for the good of consumer choice—not, you’ll note, for the good of consumer privacy. The business model of selling our data is not under threat.

But how long will that lawsuit take? And, even if it’s successful, why would an independent Instagram and Whatsapp take any less of a surveillance capitalist attitude to our data? If you want to learn more about this lawsuit, BBC Sounds Briefing Room has a 28 minute discussion of Facebook’s ‘monopoly problem’.

Things you can do now

I think that’s enough exploration of the terrain. What can we do right now?

1. Delete Whatsapp, obviously

A lot of people, including me, have been trying alternative messaging apps recently. Signal has been the primary beneficiary of the great Whatsapp stink, becoming at times the second most downloaded app on the Apple App Store.

Signal is everything that we fooled ourselves into believing Whatsapp was: a totally secure messaging app with no ifs, no buts. Signal has all the features of Whatsapp—groups, video calling, voice notes—without any of the leaky surveillance data.

Simply put: none of us need Whatsapp and we should all leave today.

Of course, it’s not as easy as that. A messaging app is only as good as its user base—but that’s exactly why we should all install Signal, even if we continue to use Whatsapp during the transition.

I appreciate that, for some people, deleting Whatsapp is akin to having a surgical lobotomy and removing half a decade of memories. Luckily, we can save these memories. There are two steps to archiving your entire Whatsapp history:

  1. Save all of your downloaded Whatsapp photos, video and voice notes in one fell swoop by copying the Whatsapp Media folder from your phone to your computer. (Yeah, I’m amazed how insecure this is too!)
  2. Export the text content of your messages by going to Whatsapp Settings > Chats > Chat History > Export Chat. There’s no need to download the media files again because you did that in step one. However, because the text content is encrypted, you’ll need to do this second step manually for each of the individual or group chats that you want to save.

If you’re struggling with saving your message history, digital human rights organisation Witness wrote an excellent guide: How to export content from WhatsApp. If this process is too laborious for you, then all I can say is that I appreciate it can be hard to let go, but that there is also beauty in ephemera. Let it go.

I know that some people can’t be bothered to run multiple messaging apps. If you find that your friends are split across different platforms, like mine are, then Documentally recommends we embrace the diversity and ‘live in notifications’.

What does that mean? Typically, a message alert appears in your phone’s notification bar and tapping on that alert will automatically open whichever app the message came through. So it shouldn’t matter if you have one messaging app or twenty-seven: you access the messages in the same way, through notifications.

(BONUS: Using your phone in this way should also reduce the number of times you open your apps ‘just in case’ someone’s messaged.)

It’s worth saying here that, if you have a Facebook or Instagram account, then I genuinely don’t know how much you personally will gain from deleting Whatsapp alone. Whatsapp’s metadata merely compounds the surveillance operation led by those two other broad spectrum spying tools.

However, by installing Signal you will certainly be helping your friends who want to divest from the Facebook corporation altogether. And we really appreciate good neighbours!

2. Use different web browsers for different surveillance corporations

This is what security expert Rob Braxman calls ‘browser isolation’. Surveillance corporations collect their data using your unique browser fingerprint, so by using different browsers to isolate the various surveillance corporations, we can restrict the reach of their spying algorithms.

The two major surveillance corporations are Facebook and Google, so for Braxman that would mean we need three different web browsers:

  1. Google Chrome for nothing except our Google apps—Youtube, Gmail, Google Docs, Google Drive and so on. (Incidentally, Braxman suggests using DuckDuckGo for search, rather than Google.)
  2. A completely different browser for nothing but Facebook corporation apps—Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp. (Worth saying: Braxman strongly advises deleting all your Facebook accounts!)
  3. A third browser for everything else—Braxman suggests a clean install of Firefox.

Note that this protection only extends to desktop or laptop computers. Mobile devices, including tablets, are more complicated—not least because most Android devices are locked into Google’s surveillance engine.

3. Get a burner phone to run Whatsapp

Sadly, there are more mobiles in the UK than there are people—I’ve got three phones myself! Use that waste to your advantage: either you or a friend will have an old smartphone or tablet knocking around. Use that old smartphone or tablet to run Whatsapp and Whatsapp only.

Here is where I get a little out of my depth in terms of surveillance knowledge. At the moment, I run Whatsapp on my old smartphone without a SIM card installed. Day to day, I rarely carry my smartphone around—so how much data am I leaking to Whatsapp? But I do also use the Whatsapp Web client on my laptop—how much data does that leak? I don’t know.

Safer perhaps would be to get hold of a cheap SIM card and set up Whatsapp with a dumbphone. Some dumbphones, like the Nokia 2723 or 8110, can even run Whatsapp on the device. But with these you’ll be restricted to the hard-to-type keypad because there’s no way of scanning the QR code needed to launch the Whatsapp Web client on your computer.

You could, however, use an Android emulator like Bluestacks to use Whatsapp on your computer. It’s nowhere near as user friendly as the Whatsapp Web client and, again, I don’t know how much data would leak from your computer.

Is there a clever workaround involving putting your burner SIM card into a smartphone, setting up Whatsapp Web, and then transferring the burner SIM back to the dumbphone? Possibly, but I very much doubt it because the Whatsapp Web client is only a mirror of the Whatsapp app on your phone.

It’s worth saying that Whatsapp regularly drop support for older phones. At the moment, the app won’t work with iPhones 1-4 and Android phones released before 2010, for example.

Again, these burner phone options are only really worth exploring if you don’t have a Facebook or Instagram account. If you have other Facebook corporation products, then Whatsapp is the least of your problems—the tip of your data profit iceberg.

4. Uninstall Whatsapp without deleting your account

This is what I did when I went on my Catswold Way walk before Christmas. Four days of blissful radio silence.

It’s a great option to test leaving the platform and I found it completely pain-free:

  1. Take a backup of your Whatsapp account: Settings > Chats > Chat Backup. You can store the backup either locally on your device or encrypted in the cloud using Google Drive.
  2. Delete the app.
  3. Enjoy an indefinite period of surveillance-free life.

If you want to advise people that you’re going offline, you can—or you can change your profile status to something helpful, like, I dunno, maybe: ‘OH MY GOD WE’RE ALL BEING SPIED ON ALL THE TIME’.

When you’re ready to return, reinstall the app, restore the backup and you’re good to go. Let the surveillance resume!

A couple of warnings if you want to try this. I’m not a huge user of Whatsapp, but after four days of absence I came back to 235 unread messages (although more than half of them were from one group). Also: an unknown number of messages sent during my offline period didn’t get delivered to me afterwards and I don’t know why.

See you on Signal

Phew—I told you this was long! Hopefully you found something useful here. If you have any questions, you can reply to this email or find me on Signal.

Many thanks to the Jolly Rogers, Documentally and B.G. for the creative discussions that inspired this article.

UPDATE: Your questions are answered on The Great Whatsapp Stink Q&A.

Brutal! Look what happens to a bike after 18,000 miles On the importance of stuff

It is with some pride that I announce that Martin, my 2011 Marin San Anselmo touring bike, has finally met his match. At some point in the last few months, the chain stay of his frame cracked and snapped in two.

The fact that neither I nor a professional bike mechanic noticed anything wrong apart from a strange skipping in the chain is testament to how amazing bikes are. Martin was literally snapped in half and I was still more or less happily pootling around.

It’s impossible to say how far Martin and I have travelled together since I bought him in 2011, but a rough estimate using data from various bike computers suggests somewhere in the region of 18,200 miles—more than enough to qualify as a ride around the world.

The first picture I have of Martin, only a few hours old. Look how shiny!

Martin: A timeline of adventure

Note: if you’re not at all interested in bike touring or my holiday snaps, then feel free to skip ahead to the next subtitle…

Our first journey together, nine years ago, was around the coastline of Britain. Two months of putting one wheel in front of another, wild camping together in fields, under hedges, in forests and on canal towpaths.

A year later, we repeated the trick in Tunisia, cycling through olive and palm groves, between salt lakes, past Roman ruins, and through two different kinds of desert to the sand seas of the Sahara.

The largest salt pan in the Sahara: Chott el Djerid in south Tunisia. Martin took me there in 2012.

In the wet summer of 2016, Martin (now officially christened Martin) rode in duet with a vintage racer called Joy from London to Vienna. We matched tracks from the South Downs to the Bavarian Plateau, from the banks of the River Thames to the vineyard sprawl of the Danube. Our accommodation, still wild, upgraded to hilltop castles and monasteries.

Camping at Stift Melk, Austria. The abbey is famous for its 18th century frescos and the 11th century tomb of Saint Coloman of Stockerau, an Irish pilgrim mistaken for a spy, tortured and hanged. Martin took me there in 2016.

More recently, Martin found true companionship in the community of bikes that is Thighs of Steel. In 2018 and 2019, we covered over 2,000 miles together across Europe, discovering new countries, new friends and new talents. Martin got himself a chainring downgrade which helped us over the mountains. In Athens, he even got himself a blue tattoo, of which he is still very proud.

Climbing up into the mountains of Romania with Thighs of Steel in 2018. Martin carried me there.

Finally, in our swansong year, Martin learnt the healthy pleasures of daily rides during a catastrophic pandemic, playing his part in the incredible Around the World project that raised over £130,000 for refugees. And, of course, in the lockdown-lifted summer, Martin came full circle: imprinting the south coast with his tyre tracks exactly nine years after he last toured Britain.

Lands End 2020 (L) and 2011 (R). Martin carried me there—twice.

Consumerism gives stuff a bad rep

I don’t want to blow this out of proportion: we’re living through a pandemic. My old bike is broken. I’ll get another one. It’s no big deal. But I’ve never had nearly as much fun with any other object as I’ve had with Martin.

When I flipped him over and saw the thick black crack against his mud and sand-flecked white skin, I felt like I’d slipped into an alternate universe.

A broken frame was nothing more than we deserved: nine years of high-impact, heavyweight touring caught up with the partnership. It was bound to happen one day or another. I was lucky that it didn’t happen while I was out touring—although, on reflection, maybe it did.

Throwaway consumerism has, I think, dirtied the purity of possession. Many people, myself included, have hankered after ascetic minimalism: a glorious rejection of the waste and want that modern capitalism has brought us.

But it’s worth remembering why certain convivial objects are precious to their owners—and perhaps to hold all our purchases to a similar standard of value.

What did Martin ever do for us?

A bicycle extends our human frailties. We become bionic, able to move many times faster and further than we ever could on foot, and much more efficiently. I have done things with Martin that would have been unimaginable without him.

I’m thinking, of course, of the life-altering adventures I mentioned earlier, but I’m also thinking of our day-to-day. Martin made it possible for me to live an expansive twenty-first century lifestyle without ever needing a car or taking an aeroplane flight.

Every week, without complaint, Martin lugs my heavy shopping bags five kilometres across town. Together we’ve visiting sixteen different countries, excluding England, Scotland and Wales. Every day he teaches me something about perseverance, self-reliance and community.

Martin’s made me oodles of new friends and ridden me to work, school and social events—especially during my years in London, where the cost and patchy provision of transport makes travel in the city such an unequal battle. (Hence why The Bike Project gives free bikes to refugees.)

But at what cost?

You won’t be surprised to read that I’ve run the numbers… The original Marin San Anselmo cost me £488.99—still the most I’ve ever spent on a single item. But I’ve spent many times more on maintenance and spare parts over the years. To be precise, over his entire lifetime, owning and maintaining Martin has cost me £3,323.

That’s a heck of a lot of money, but—get this—counting from the day I bought him to the day he broke down at the end of my cycle around southwest Britain comes to exactly 3,323 days. Martin cost me one pound for every day that I owned him. Or about 18 pence per mile.

That, to me, is incredible value. There aren’t many other possession that have given me so much. Certainly some of my books, my Alphasmart Neo2 typewriter, yoga mat, guitar, teapot, plants and running shoes. Not much else that I can think of.

What about you? What possessions bring outsized value into your life? I’d love to hear from you—especially if you hold all your purchases to this standard.

On the naming of things

It is only right that we celebrate our most highly prized possessions—and, yes, give them petnames. I never loved Martin so much as when he was baptized Martin and grew a personality. My girlfriend at the time misread the brand name ‘Marin’ and contrasted his blocky functionality with the sleek lines of her own vintage racer.

Giving names to inanimate objects might sound silly, but I think it helps combat throwaway consumerism. A name and a personality is the beginning of a story and, when we tell stories about our favourite possessions, we honour, not only their service, but also the ingenuity, engineering and natural resources that went into their construction.

And this ingenuity and engineering is what’s so beautiful about the design of a bicycle. When Martin’s chain stay snapped, what did I lose, exactly? Why didn’t I feel this way after the rear mech sheared off, or all those times my chain snapped or wore out?

Indeed: what is left of that 2011 Marin San Anselmo that I bought from the Cycle Surgery in Camden Town nine years ago? Nothing more than the handlebars, forks, frame and rack. Everything else has been replaced—even the name.

Stuff has a soul

This reminds me of the ancient philosophical conundrum known as the Ship of Theseus: if you replace, one by one, all the planks of a ship until there are none left of the original, is it still the same ship?

The same metaphysical question is asked of Abraham Lincoln’s axe, which needed its handle and then its blade replacing. It’s a question that could be asked of ourselves: we shed our skin every few weeks and every ten years we get a new skeleton.

But as well as posing an insoluble philosphical question about the persistence of identity over time, the Ship of Theseus prompts us to think about what happens at the end of our stuff’s life.

Aristotle decided that the fully-replaced ship was indeed still Theseus’s. And if a yes is good enough for one of the more practical ancient philosophers then it’s good enough for me.

A great ship is a great ship forever. A great axe is a great axe forever. A great bike is a great bike forever, even as the parts are replaced one by one. Because well-designed stuff has something about it that endures. We could call it a soul.

So I’ll keep what I have of Martin—the original handlebars, forks and rack, as well as all the other components I’ve bought more recently—and replace the broken frame as I have replaced bent wheels, snapped chains and worn brake blocks.

The bike is gone, long live the bike!

What now for Martin Jnr?

Thankfully, a friend has very generously leant me her spare bike to ride (thanks GC!) until I’ve found a new frame for Martin Jnr. One of the more alluring options is the idea of spending this lockdown building my own bamboo bike frame.

I first came across the Bamboo Bicycle Club ten years ago, when I had neither the money nor the cycling experience to justify investing £300 in a wooden bike. But now… Now they do ‘home build kits’—surely it’s meant to be!

VIDEO: Four Quartets Featuring TS Eliot, Alec Guinness and a cat named Furniss

I made you a New Year present! It’s a kind of a poetic slideshow of photographs and audio from the Four Quartets walk that I did before Christmas. Words by T.S. Eliot, narrated by Alec Guinness.

Quick, said the bird, find them, find them,
Round the corner. Through the first gate,
Into our first world

Enjoy!

100 Days of Adventure

As you know by now, I love this time of year because of the artificial opportunity for self-reflection and, above all, STATS. One of the difficulties of STATS, however, is making sure that the thing you are measuring is a genuine correlate of the thing that is actually important.

For example, it’s easy for me to throw out a STAT like, ‘Last year I spent 2,117 hours on my computer’, but does that shockingly high number actually tell me anything shocking about how I spend my time? Only maybe.

I do a lot of things on my computer and, although some of my screentime is complete garbage and makes me hate myself, some of it is actually very important to me—like writing you this letter.

So yesterday I struck upon another metric that was relatively easy to collect from my diary and directly measures something that is extremely important to me. In many ways, it’s the equal and opposite to my existing measure of time spent in front of screens. Ready?

Introducing: Days Outside on Adventures (DOA)

DOA is simple to calculate. Every day of the year gets a binary Y/N score: did I spend a significant chunk of the day outside on an adventure? Then you count the Ys and—voilà—you have your DOA score for that year.

SIDE NOTE: ‘Outside’ is deliberately wide open because I’m a firm believer that adventure can be found anywhere. ‘Significant chunk’ and ‘an adventure’ are both deliberately relative because DOA is a simple binary measure that should work for everyone.

‘An adventure’ for an experienced touring cyclist will look very different to ‘an adventure’ for someone who’s never camped before. Likewise, ‘a significant chunk of the day’ could be a very different timespan for a freelancer with no dependents, compared to someone with a 9-5 job and two kids. The point of DOA is not competition between adventurers, but a measure of outdoor adventure against your past and future selves.

Oh, and, yes, I am aware that DOA also stands for Dead On Arrival, a definition only metaphorically compatible with the very best adventures.

DOA 2020

In 2020, my DOA score was 67. To give you an idea of what qualifies as adventure for me, those 67 DOAs included:

This was about 18 percent of my days in the three months pre-Covid and, happily, about 18 percent of my days in the nine months post-Covid. Hopefully that proves that days of adventure aren’t impossible to find, even in a pandemic world. We just have to choose our moments carefully.

67 days also compares favourably with 2019, when my DOA score was approximately 56. I say ‘approximately’ because these things are difficult to measure in retrospect and, depending on my definition, I could easily add many of the 50 days that I spent travelling in Italy and Greece.

DOA 2021

However you measure them, I would like more of them. In fact, I would like a lot more of them. How many more? I hear you ask. Do you really expect me to be that silly?

If there’s one thing that 2020 has taught us, it’s the utter absurdity of ever expecting plans to turn out how you imagined.

So here goes nothing!

In 2021, I would like to have 100 days of adventure. If you like, that could be a slogan: 100 Days of Adventure.

I’m going to stop writing now, before I get carried away and do something silly like buy the domain name or design a logo.

I hope that your 2021 is ram-packed with days of adventure— and I hope too that our adventures intersect, or that we can at least share stories with each other.

52 things I learned in 2020

I love looking back over time past, especially as a writer, when my follies are etched in permanent print for all to admire. On 3 January this year, for example, I wrote the following:

My 2020 is—absurdly—already mapped out.

I went on to predict that Foiled would be broadcast this summer and that I’d then be cycling off on an epic group bike adventure across Europe, before finishing up in Athens.

So it’ll be deep September before I have time for anything radically new. Already, then, January 2020 is about planning for 2021 and beyond.

Suffice to say that January Dave looks pretty foolish to December Dave. And this is exactly how it should be. Our plans are a starting point from which we always diverge; what counts is how we diverge.

No matter what you’ve been through this year and how many plans you’ve cancelled, replanned and recancelled, you’ve still grown as a human being and learned many new things from many new experiences. Don’t forget that.

As January Dave put it:

It’s easy to miss that we’re constantly putting down bedrock.

… Even when all your plans are scuppered and rescuppered by a global pandemic.

So without any further ado, here’s a list of things that I’ve learned in spite of being totally mugged off by 2020.

LOCKDOWN

  1. I’m incredibly lucky. Astonishingly, unfairly lucky. I’ve had four tests for Covid-19 this year (as part of the Zoe COVID Symptom Study) and have come up clean each time. As a writer who works a lot online anyway, my business hasn’t been hurt too badly by the pandemic. Although my outdoor instructing did take a hit, I was still able to get out in the autumn to help three groups through their Duke of Edinburgh Award Bronze expeditions. 2020 has been a lot of things for me, but above all it’s been lucky.
  2. Having said that, I don’t deal with the loneliness of isolation very well. Without the release valve of human contact, I gradually get more and more stressed, almost without noticing, until everything has to stop immediately. Good to know.
  3. 2020 was the first year since 2015 that I spent more than 28 days in one place. This came out after asking myself 52 questions before leaving lockdown.
  4. Video calls are great—and I have the data to back it up. Despite a three-month lockdown, despite social distancing and despite the infamous Rule of 6, I’ve had as much contact with friends and family as I would do in a normal year. In fact, looking at my closest friends and family, I’ve actually had significantly more.
  5. I learned how to write four episodes of a BBC Radio sitcom during a pandemic. There’s no real secret: just hours and hours of hard work.

    FOOD

  6. Veganism is totally fine. I was worried that it might be difficult: physically, logistically and socially. It’s not. It’s fine. In fact, it’s a great way to trigger habit change across your whole lifestyle (should you wish!).
  7. I learned how to make kimchi, or rather how to wait for kimchi. I more or less followed this recipe by Emily Han.
  8. I also learned how to make the high fibre, high protein bread of life. Follow the recipe on my website.
  9. Cholesterol is possibly not as demonic as it’s often portrayed. Late night consumption of cholesterol is converted into testosterone in the early hours of the morning and testosterone helps men protect against cognitive decline, increase bone mineral density and fight off depression.
  10. Borborygmus is the technical word for stomach rumbling.

    TREES

  11. Lichen is not one organism, but two.
  12. I learned how to plant a tree—a Victoria plum, to be precise. There was no harvest this year, but come back in a dozen seasons and help yourself at developed.fallen.obviously.
  13. Until the late nineteenth century, the area that is now Christchurch, Bournemouth and Poole was a ‘vast, desolate heath’. Read more about the planting of Bournemouth and the health benefits of pinenes on my blog.
  14. Much as we all love trees, sometimes cutting them down is the right thing to do for both biodiversity and carbon capture. Read more about the heathland conversion I’ve been involved with on Brownsea Island.
  15. In a cold, pre-lockdown Oxfordshire woodland, I learned how to build a warm, stormproof shelter from branches and leaf litter. Thanks to Woodland Ways for that.

    THE WONDERS OF NATURE

  16. The famous constellation of the Plough is actually a small part—an asterism—of Ursa Major, the hind quarters of a much bigger beast that rears menacingly over the night. A mother protecting her cub, but only in deep darkness. In most of our lamplit skies, the fearsome monster is reduced to an outmoded piece of farmyard machinery.
  17. Slavonian Grebes can swallow fish whole and eat their own feathers.
  18. There is only one ocean. We think of The English Channel as a body of water distinct from, say, the Indian Ocean, but it’s not. It’s merely convenient geographical nomenclature. Convenient, but dangerous. We have only one ocean; let’s look after it. Credit: David Annette-borough.
  19. Hammocks rule. Mainly by facilitating the absorption of low- to mid-range fractal dimensions that coax me into a ‘wakefully relaxed’ brain state.
  20. Spending a minute staring at a tree is surprisingly hard. But committing to spending 30 minutes every day outside in nature can do wonders for your happiness, sense of fascination and even your vitality.
  21. At a certain point in the future, the next thought you have will make your brain melt. (Don’t worry, it’s ages away.)

    POLITICS

  22. The Conservative government is trying to criminalise the currently civil offence of trespass. The difference between criminal and civil law is essentially the difference between the class of crimes that affect the whole of society—things like murder, fraud and sexual assault—and the class of crimes that only affect the rights and property of individuals or organisations—such as divorce, breach of contract and, unless the Conservative landowners get their way, trespass.
  23. TS Eliot was himself a renowned trespasser and advocated the ‘destitution of all property’.
  24. The Jewish word for financial giving is tzedakah—not ‘charity’, but ‘justice’. Read more about giving what we can on my blog.
  25. More bombs were dropped on Cambodia by the US Airforce than by Allied forces on Germany during the whole of World War II. The locals are still clearing up.
  26. Most chewing gum isn’t biodegradable and local councils spend about £60m a year cleaning it up. We should point the finger, not at litterbugs, but at business. Also: we shouldn’t throw banana skins into the undergrowth.
  27. Two thirds of the 361,000 people who originally came to the UK as asylum seekers have been here longer than the 11.5 million British children under 15. How ‘foreign’ are these asylum seekers, really?
  28. According to the 2020 International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) technical report, the UK produces no less than three quarters of the world’s legal cannabis.
  29. The first British people were black. With blue eyes. Also lactose intolerant. Cool.

    BOOKS

  30. Thanks to spending a lot of time cooped up indoors, I’ve read 50 books this year, although that figure does include seven of Hergé’s Tintin comics. Still, one mustn’t ignore the bequiffed one’s fascinating contribution to the public understanding of extreme weather.
  31. Reading a book relieves stress, can help you empathise with others, and builds your vocabulary, which may help you manage your own mental health by giving you a larger palette of emotions. Read more about how awesome books are on my blog—or, better, go and read a book.
  32. David Graeber died.
    But his ideas, which opened the field of political action to millions, will survive. To mark his death, I read Graeber’s book on bureaucracies, The Utopia of Rules, and it changed the way I think about capitalism and the pandemic. All of David Graeber’s books and many articles are available for free on The Anarchist Library—but not the footnotes. For that, you’ll need a real book.
  33. After cycling around the coast of southwest England, it was inevitable that several people would suggest I read The Salt Path by Raynor Winn. I eventually did. Superb.
  34. But no book of nonfiction captured me more this year than Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake. If you’re quick, you can still catch Merlin reading excerpts for BBC Radio 4’s Book of the Week.
  35. Marcel Proust’s 4,215 page masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time, is an absolute banger.

    They buried him, but all through the night of mourning, in the lighted windows, his books arranged three by three kept watch like angels with outspread wings and seemed, for him who was no more, the symbol of his resurrection.

    You can download the ebook or do as I do and listen to this spellbinding audiobook, read, abridged and even partially translated by Neville Jason.

    PERSONAL SELF-DEVELOPMENT

  36. You might not be able to feed yourself, climb the stairs or recognise your relatives after a stroke, but you can always live by your values.
  37. People pleasing is a bullshit excuse my subconscious uses to avoid taking responsibility for my choices. As Edith Eger wrote:

    We can’t spend our lives hanging out under someone else’s umbrella and then complain that we’re getting wet.

  38. We can accomplish a heck of a lot in nine years. And there’s a lot we can learn from looking back on history—which is why I write these end of year newsletters!

    HIKING AND BIKING

  39. On my cycle around the south coast of Britain, I learned that the people who live here are incredibly generous and talented folk. Thank you!
  40. Bike are horses too!
  41. Everything happens for a reason. Or, at the very least, you can’t deny that everything happens, so you might as well look for any reason that makes sense of it all.
  42. The wilderness is where we go to unbox ourselves. The four Special Areas of Conservation on Dartmoor are a bloody great option.
  43. During the first UK lockdown, Thighs of Steel and Help Refugees joined forces with hundreds of awesome cyclists to attempt to cycle 24,901 miles ‘around the world’ in 40 days. We ended up doing two and half revolutions and raising over £130,000 for refugees across Europe. Thank you to everyone who supported us!

    SCREENS & NEWS

  44. This year, I spent about 2,117 hours on my computer—that’s 88 days straight or about a quarter of my time on earth in 2020. Chuck in another 500 or so on my mobile phone, plus factor in that I sleep about eight hours a night, and the proportion of my waking time spent on screens goes up to about 45 percent. Is that too much? Or is that the famous ‘new normal’?
  45. This year, I visited approximately 64,120 webpages. That’s an 8 percent increase compared to 2019. In my defence, 2019 didn’t have a three-month period where I wasn’t allowed to leave the house.
  46. 2020 was the fourth year of my ‘No News is Good News’ media diet. Excluding sports, this year I read 150 BBC News stories, nearly three times my total for 2019. Half were me trying to find out information about coronavirus. Most of my other visits to the BBC News pages were for research, but I did also read current stories about Black Lives Matter, the campaign against food poverty and, in total, five articles about the US presidential election.
  47. Contrary to popular belief, and thanks to decades of extremely hard work, most bad things are getting better: the number of people living in extreme poverty, the number of young women in education, global life expectancy. However, some things are bad and still getting worse. For example, the number of displaced persons around the world has more than doubled in the last ten years.

    SPORT, EXERCISE & GAMES

  48. I don’t have the perfect media diet: this year I mindlessly clicked on 2,705 BBC Sport stories—mainly because Liverpool FC won the league for the first time in thirty years.
  49. With the pandemic, Black Lives Matter and the fight against food poverty, this was the year that footballers got properly political.
  50. Regular press ups help protect my shoulder against dislocations. If I want to keep climbing—or indeed hugging people—I need to keep that habit up!
  51. I learned how to solve the miracle Sudoku. As Ben Orlin says:

    You’re about to spend the next 25 minutes watching a guy solve a Sudoku. Not only that, but it’s going to be the highlight of your day.

    FINALLY: YOU

  52. You lot are great! Seriously. I know you’ve had a hard year, but somehow you’ve found the time to read this newsletter and sometimes send me very kind replies. Your emails always make my day. Some of you have even decided to dip into your pockets and support financially. I can’t thank you enough! Knowing that you good people are out there is honestly what’s kept me going this year. I hope that the words I’ve put down for you have sometimes helped you a bit too.

Still want more?

Really? You’re insatiable!

52 things I was thankful for in 2020

This is a massive list of 52 things that I was thankful for in my newsletters of 2020.

  1. The man in the panic-buying supermarket who, after staring aghast at the empty shelves, turned to the shop assistant and beseeched him: ‘Do you not have any… pistachio oil?’
  2. The refugee in Turkey who emailed my mum, urgently asking whether our family were okay.
  3. The NHS and everyone who took part in the spine-riffling Clap For Carers. I really didn’t think Bournemouth would be much into it, but I could hear claps, cheers, whistles and whoops echoing all around town, from pier to pier, from neighbours near and far.
  4. Fossilisation. On Bournemouth beach (I spent a lot of time marching up and down Bournemouth beach) there is a tree fossil that is 140,000,000 years old. You can see the impression of the bark and the roots and run your hands over another epoch. Puts another twist on time.
  5. Viruses that infect other viruses. I don’t know why, but I find it comforting to know that obnoxious little snotrags like Coronavirus can themselves catch a virus. In fact, this is how all life began. We are nothing but an ecosystem of symbiotic relationships, including fungi, bacteria and, yes, viruses. You’ve heard of the human microbiome, and perhaps even the fact that there are more bacteria in our gut than stars in the galaxy, but now it’s time to learn about the human virome.
  6. Everyone who has had, is having, or will have a birthday during lockdown. This may well be the most contemplative anniversary you’ve celebrated yet. (24 June, thanks for asking — save the date.)
  7. The moon and sun. Hasn’t the moon been spectacular, keeping us company on the bright nights? One of my favourite sights this year was a spectral gibbous moon rising against a cobalt sky. The sun too has played its part, especially with the spring haze that gives soft focus to the horizon and draws the song of the birds closer. It’s like listening with headphones on.
  8. Portugal. In response to the coronavirus, Portugal has given refugees and asylum seekers full citizenship rights. Unfortunately, this liberation will last only until June 30, so rather than full marks perhaps it’s more like a B-. But still: this move shows how easily human lives can be loosed from their imaginary chains, with the merest stroke of a pen.
  9. Everyone who’s found their way up onto a rooftop. Give us a wave!
  10. Usama and Omar. Two kids who were stuck in their school accommodation in Bournemouth during lockdown, making the most of the extra English practice while they wait for flights back to Palestine. Except, of course, there are no airports in Palestine, so they’re waiting for flights back to Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt — or pretty much anywhere.
  11. The postal service, which made many of my days this year in both the sending and receiving of gifts Thank you, posties. (And special thanks to the cross-stitchers of this world.)
  12. Rain after a dry spell. Much as I enjoy the sunshine, full marks go to rain showers for making the trees happy.
  13. Over in Cholsey, full marks to my little tree, which sprung some flowers in spring.
  14. Paul Powlesland. The barrister rescued 1,000 oak saplings from a nursery that had to abandon their plans to plant 750,000 of the trees due to a change in government policy and our old friend the coronavirus.
  15. The Zoe Covid-19 symptom tracker app. Every day, along with a couple of million other people, I’ve been logging on to the Zoe Covid-19 symptom tracker. The data is fascinating and shows predictions of how the disease is progressing. Every week, the scientists behind the project give a public webinar to explain the science.
  16. Robigus, the Roman God of Wheat Leaf Rust, who could destroy a year’s harvest if displeased. As Salman Rushdie wrote: ‘Most of what matters in our lives takes place in our absence.’ The moment of our conception, the arcane decision-making processes of university exam boards and, not least, governments, but also the diseases that gather on the periphery until the day they strike at our daily lives. The Romans went in for dog sacrifice, but I wonder what offerings we could make to the invisible powers that circle our lives?
  17. The NHS — but not (only) for the obvious reason. Twelve years ago an NHS GP told me that I wasn’t unfit, lazy and bored of life; she told me, rather, that I had an underactive thyroid. It was that NHS GP who first looked at my pathetic jumble of symptoms and recommended a blood test. An NHS phlebotomist took the sample. An NHS lab analysed the results. An NHS endocrinologist lost his trousers with excitement and diagnosed me. And NHS pharmacists have been packaging up prescription drugs for me ever since. Thank you for keeping me alive.
  18. Kimchi. Packed full of enough microorganisms to defeat an invading army, vegans may take my cheese, may take my yoghurt — but they will never take MY KIMCHI!
  19. I’m gonna say it: Zoom. Yeah, I know about the security flaws, but as well as hooking me up with pub quizzes galore, Zoom connected me with family flung out all over the world.
  20. Sensible World of Soccer… 2020. After listening to Quickly Kevin’s interview with game developer Jon Hare, I had to look up to see how teenage timesink Sensible World of Soccer was faring. I wasn’t expecting to find a vibrant community bringing the game, first published in 1994, into the twenties. I can reveal that SWOS is as much of a timesink as it was 26 years ago.
  21. Riding for speed. The long evenings mean I can do a full day’s work, a full afternoon’s reading and still have time for a sundown cycle, riding hard and fast to Sandbanks and back. Buzzing.
  22. My friend Alex King for making a film about conditions in Greek refugee camps under Covid-19.
  23. Thighs of Steel for making the best of a bad show. Instead of cycling from London to Athens, we cycled 2.5 times around the world and raised over £130,000 for Help Refugees. Epic!
  24. Down time. As sleep researcher Sara Mednick explains, an afternoon nap is as restorative as a full night’s sleep. She also proposes that, for our productivity and health, we should not only take every Wednesday afternoon off work, but also take unlimited holiday, ad libitum. I wonder what she thinks of our enforced furlough?
  25. Charities helping refugees beat tech inequality during lockdown. Can you imagine not having the internet right now? Staff and volunteers at Bristol Refugee Rights are calling up to a 100 elderly asylum seekers, single mothers, people with disabilities or mental health issues a week to provide wellbeing services and combat isolation. You can help fund their work.
  26. Better protection for cyclists and pedestrians. The UK government has promised us £2bn to help make cycling and walking—let’s be honest—safe. This includes £250m for emergency protection for cyclists and pedestrians while we still have to observe social distancing regulations.
  27. The Israeli billionaire trying to solve Gaza’s water crisis—say whaaaat?! According to this Times of Israel report, Michael Mirilashvili ‘hopes to deliver enough units to meet the Strip’s daily needs within a year’.
  28. Your second self. Good Habits, Bad Habits by Wendy Wood introduced me to the concept of the ‘second self’, the notion that our habits are so powerful and so estranged from our executive function that they deserve equal acknowledgement alongside our autobiographical, conscious ‘I’ or ‘ego’.
  29. Khora. Huge shout out to everyone volunteering at Khora, helping deliver thousands of free meals to refugees and other vulnerable lockdowned humans in Athens and beyond—especially in 38 degree heat!
  30. The 2,500 council volunteers in Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole. I helped a man with a gammy leg in Westbourne who needed someone to top up his electricity meter and pop to the shops for him.
  31. The inventors of the bicycle. We’ll never quite know the names of all the inventors who’ve contributed to this near-miraculous feat of engineering, but I thank them all the same. Especially as a bizarre ankle injury meant I couldn’t run for a spell.
  32. Marcel Proust. In Proust’s own words: ‘In reality, every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable him to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have experienced in himself. And the recognition by the reader in his own self of what the book says is the proof of its veracity.’ Quoted in How Proust Can Change You Life by Alain de Botton.
  33. Ness Labs, James Somers, John McPhee and, above all, the lexicographer Noah Webster for introducing me to ‘the right dictionary‘.
  34. Protestors. No one would choose the global outbreak of a deadly disease as the ideal moment for a mass civil rights movement, but Covid-19 has certainly brought our disastrous social inequalities to the surface. The effort to protect people from Covid-19 is an extraordinary global collaboration, mustering extraordinary financial, academic and political resources. But where is the extraordinary collaboration, financial, academic and political, to fundamentally change the way this unequal society operates? Is it coming?
  35. The bacteria in my kimchi. The only problem is that, while it takes at least two weeks to ferment one jar of kimchi, I can eat the contents in less than five days.
  36. Lakshmibhai Pathak. Founder of Patak’s—a brand of Indian-inspired cookery foodstuffs. Specifically, Patak’s manufacture an excellent chilli pickle that has been entertaining my tastebuds for the past few months. Pathak was a refugee from Kenya.
  37. Wyclef Jean. Fugees’ 1996 album The Score was the sound of David Charles realising, not only that some people had a very different experience of the world, but that they could put that experience into words and invite the rest of the world in. I never thought of this before, but the clue’s in the name, really: Wyclef Jean was a refugee from Haiti.
  38. M.I.A. Born in the UK to Tamil Sri Lankan refugees, I’ve got to include big thanks to M.I.A. here. Mainly for her song Borders.
  39. George Orwell and the #1984Symposium. On George’s birthday, as usual, Documentally hosted a leisurely picnic of ideas around Orwell’s gravestone. 25 June every year, Sutton Courtenay. Find us on Atlas Obscura.
  40. Mamihlapinatapai. According to Wikipedia, mamihlapinatapai is a Yaghan word meaning: ‘a look shared by two people who want to initiate something, but neither start’.
  41. Train station staff. After taking my first train in three months and arriving back to the chaos caused by the thousands of holiday-makers who swamped Bournemouth in the summer, I have a new respect for the workers who must deal with the consequences of our government’s, shall we say, leadership.
  42. Old Father Thames. There’s nothing like a river swim. I love the sea, but sometimes I crave the certainty of the river. While tranquil, still the river knows well its direction.
  43. Cows. Relaxing in a cradle of oak roots, reading my book as the sun fed through the leaves, a herd of curious cattle mowed the grass to my feet, where one adventurous soul decided to ruminate on my shoes.
  44. Gifts. It really is the thought that counts. Thanks everyone!
  45. The antischedule. I’ve been using pen and paper more often and my timer is lying in pieces on the desk—I think it knew its time was finally up.
  46. The English language. My current toilet reading is The English Language by David Crystal. Published in 2002, the book traces the history of English from ancient to modern. But contemporary language is volatile. While Crystal clearly relishes sharing the millennial vocabulary of new technology with his readers, when was the last time you called anyone a ‘cybersurfer’, ‘netizen’ or—my personal favourite—‘nethead’?
  47. Cycle lanes. Can we have some more please?
  48. The River Thames and navigation in general. In the summer, I spent a glorious couple of days on a widebeam, slowly cruising down the Thames from Laleham to Windsor. Most river vessels or canal craft, whether barge, narrowboat or widebeam, move scarce more swift than pedestrianism: the ponderous pace of my thoughts. ‘Canal mania’ and the golden age of riverine industrial navigation may have lasted less than a lifetime before surrendering to the locomotive, but its legacy was savoured in the soft drizzle.
  49. Big trees. Cruising along the banks of the Thames, I was constantly awed by the gigantism of the riverbank trees. Perhaps it was because our eyes were at duck level, perhaps it was the fertility of the water, but the sinuous ash, the weeping willow and the London plane loomed quite magnificently.
  50. What if this is happening, not to me, but for me?
  51. Playing Out is a great campaign led by parents who want their kids to be able to play safely out on the streets. Like in olden times. The idea is that communities club together to agree a block of time when they won’t drive on the roads.
  52. And of course, all the people who to everyone who hosted me on my cycle around the south coast of Britain – or simply made me smile.

Distraction by distraction Four Quartets (Part The Second)

Last week, I quoted a section of Four Quartets in which TS Eliot bemoans how easily human beings can be distracted (by ‘men and bits of paper’), away from our real business of connecting with the universe.

At least, that’s my reading of these (shamefully truncated) lines from Burnt Norton:

Here is a place of disaffection
[…] neither daylight
Investing form with lucid stillness
[…] Nor darkness to purify the soul
[…] Neither plenitude nor vacancy. Only a flicker
Over the strained time-ridden faces
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration

Both daylight (plenitude) and darkness (vacancy) can reveal to us the wonders of the universe, but in a ‘place of disaffection’—later Eliot specifically refers to London—we are more likely to turn instead to the distraction of meaningless fripperies.

In 1936, the great enemy of concentration was ‘bits of paper’. Today I can think of a surely greater distraction that spends a lot of time in our pockets, but much more time in our hands, causing neck pain without respite.

Eliot’s antidote to the alienation from nature caused by modernity is ‘destitution of all property’ and ‘evacuation of the world of fancy’. Walking through day and night with provisions and accommodation on my back, while not as extreme as Eliot’s asceticism, was a timely reacquaintance with what’s most important.

For me, that means noticing: noticing the details in my existence. Like this moment, described by TS Eliot a hundred years ago, but which the universe brought to me only on Monday:

Now the light falls
Across the open field, leaving the deep lane
Shuttered with branches, dark in the afternoon,
Where you lean against a bank while a van passes

A moment of stillness, once noticed, that enriches the whole. Until my belly starts to rumble and I need a pee.

Burnt Norton and the Catswold Way Four Quartets (Part The First)

Shouldering a much-too-heavy backpack, I finally set foot in the Cotswolds on Monday afternoon. Four days, and 131,000 metres of claggy stomping later, I arrived at Bath Abbey.

It was sort of a pandemic-friendly hiking of the Cotswold Way national trail, skirting the Tier 3 troubles of South Gloucestershire. An alternative trail demands an alternative name: I’m going with the Catswold Way.

His name was Furniss and he can be snuggled with at the foot of the hill leading up to Belas Knapp Longbarrow.

Four Quartets (Part The First)

This week’s tramping of the Catswold Way was originally conceived as the most pretentious of walks. I originally intended to connect, by way of pilgrimage, the locations that inspired each of TS Eliot’s Four Quartets.

For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about: TS Eliot was a poet. His Four Quartets are a collection of four poems, written between 1936 and 1942, in which he tries to figure out humankind’s relationship to time and the universe.

If that’s not pretentious enough for you, then let me add that Four Quartets opens with two quotations from Heraclitus, the Ancient Greek philosopher. Untranslated.*

τοῦ λόγου δὲ ἐόντος ξυνοῦ ζώουσιν οἱ πολλοί ὡς ἰδίαν ἔχοντες φρόνησιν

ὁδὸς ἄνω κάτω μία καὶ ὡυτή

And, I hate to tell you, in all that follows there ain’t much rhyming.

Having said that, although Four Quartets might represent something of a high watermark for pretentious poetry, it’s still bloody marvellous. This, for example, is one of my favourite passages of poetry, rhymed or not, by anyone, anywhere:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

* Asterisk

I’ll save you a search and translate those fragments of Heraclitus. One note: ‘logos’ is what the Ancient Greeks called the divine principle that animates the universe. It’s often ill-translated as ‘reason’ or ‘logic’, a translation that renders Heraclitus’s aphorism pretty much meaningless. On with the two translations:

Although the logos is universal, the many live as if they had a wisdom all of their own

The way upward and the way downward is one and the same

Huge fan of Heraclitus, me.

Your turn

You can read Four Quartets for yourself here. But poems are meant to be read out loud, so you might as well get Alec Guinness to read them for you. That recording gave me goose-flesh (admittedly, that might have been because I was hiking through a muddy field in winter).

BBC 4

Conveniently enough for travel writers looking for destinations, TS Eliot titled each of his four poems after the specific location that inspired the verse.

After a little research, I learnt that the Burnt Norton of the first quartet is a manor house sitting at the northern end of the Cotswold Way. The second quartet is named for East Coker, a village in Somerset. The final poem takes its title from a village in Cambridgeshire: Little Gidding.

So far, all so very Merrie Englande. I gleefully imagined the highbrow BBC 4 series that would surely follow, as I made a learned pilgrimage between Thomas Stearns Eliot’s four poetical inspirations.

The television cameras would focus on a boot splashing into a muddy puddle, scattering a reflection of the stars, as my voiceover gently muses on how Eliot’s masterpiece, penned during a world war, can help modern humans make sense of time and the universe during a wholly different kind of calamity.

Then I looked up the third of the poems: Dry Salvages. Dry Salvages? What the actual fuck. It’s in Massachusetts, USA.

Walk

Picking through the wreckage of my documentary dreams, I reassembled some semblance of the idea. Scaling down the grandeur of my vision, I decided instead to walk from the manor of Burnt Norton all the way through to East Coker, where TS Eliot’s ashes are interred.

As you can tell, I haven’t finished this walk yet. From Bath Abbey to the church at East Coker, another 80km awaits (restrictions permitting) after Christmas.

So it was that I began: stepping off a train, then stepping onto a bus, before finally stepping off the bus (a few miles further on than I should have done) and onto the road from Chipping Campden to the stately manor of Burnt Norton.

My pack was full (inadvisedly so), my bivvy bag was dry and my feet were not yet hobbling, not yet throbbing.

Burnt Norton

It turns out that, for someone who does it on the regular, I’m a bad trespasser. Burnt Norton, you see, is privately owned.

Now, you might not think of TS Eliot as being particularly anti-establishment, but a century ago, he wilfully ignored the PRIVATE KEEP OUT signs that guard Lord Harrowby’s property and took a leisurely turn around the rose garden with his lover. (Side note: under a proposed new law, Eliot might today have been criminalised.)

The famous rose garden even made it into the poem:

Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.

Absenting the lover, I would still follow in Eliot’s footsteps and discreetly trespass. There followed a nerve-jangling yomp through quiet woodland that crackled underfoot, doubtless alerting the trigger-happy gamekeepers to my intrusion.

This felt nothing like Eliot’s ‘cheeky’ trespass. In the poem, his walkers are drawn on into the garden by ‘the deception of the thrush’:

dignified, invisible,
Moving without pressure, over the dead leaves,
In the autumn heat, through the vibrant air

I felt neither dignified nor invisible. The pressure over the dead leaves of this galumphing hiker made crispcracks that, at every footfall, had pheasants yawking up into the trees in a fluster of wings.

The path sank slowly into thick mud and wound past a gallery of shooting lookouts: would my backpack be mistaken for the hind quarters of a deer?

As it turned out: no. The trespass was all absolutely terrifying and all absolutely fine. In fact, the only thing that went wrong was my map-reading and I ended up parading up and down the Lord and Lady’s expensively-filled car park, in full view of their drawing room windows.

So much for discretion.

Burnt Norton manor house, as captured through the branches of a fallen oak by a nervous trespassing photographer

The $3 Stories of Mr Aki Ra

A colonnade at Angkor Wat, the City of Temples, in Northwest Cambodia (2001)

Back in the summer of 2001, I spent a week exploring the temple complex at Angkor Wat. It was a short scooter ride from where we stayed in a village on the outskirts of Siem Reap.

Side note: For many years, I treasured an amber ring that my Cambodian scooter-guide had given me as a parting gift to celebrate our ‘marriage’—until a girlfriend accidentally, symbolically, smashed it, more, she protested, in play than in anger.

If you enjoy wandering around ancient ‘rems’ and wondering on the lives of our ancestors, then there is scarcely a better place on earth than the temples of Angkor.

But I’m here to talk about a more modern type of ruin.

Human skulls at the Killing Fields, Cambodia (2001)

All but essential

I was in Cambodia only a year and a half after the final surrender and dissolution of the Khmer Rouge—the party, led by Pol Pot, that perpetrated the genocide of about two million people in the 1970s.

Before I left the safety of Bangkok, my dad suggested that I look at the UK Government guidance on travel to Cambodia. It advised against all but essential travel.

My response was to rig up a DIY money belt, which promptly fell off in the streets of Phnom Penh, leaving me with no money and no credit card. The absurdity of this precaution was made embarrassingly apparent when I returned to Phnom Penh after my tour of the temples, and someone ran up to me in the street and handed back my wallet.

I haven’t paid much attention to UK Government advice ever since.

Nevertheless, the Cambodia I found in 2001 wasn’t exactly a haven of political stability. It was only three years since the death of Pol Pot. Two and half since two former Khmer Rouge generals made a ‘perfunctory’ apology for the genocide. And only two years since the capture of Ta Mok, the last of the unrepentant Khmer Rouge leadership, a man known prettily as The Butcher.

These final death throes of the Khmer Rouge genocidalists were overseen by Prime Minister Hun Sen, who himself only retained his position thanks to a coup d’état in 1997. Incidentally, but perhaps not surprisingly, Hun Sen still holds the reins of power.

In 2001, it was in no way obvious that Cambodia would steer clear of the violence that characterised so much of the history of the region in the twentieth century.

World War II: the forgotten 45 years

Geographically, Cambodia is cradled for over 1,000km by her neighbour, Vietnam. Only 200km separates the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, and Vietnam’s most populous city, Ho Chi Minh City.

The Vietnam War is well remembered in the West because of the tragic invasions and occupations of the French and US militaries between 1946 and 1975.

Cambodia is the forgotten victim here: between 1969 and 1973, the US Airforce dropped at least half a million tons of bombs on the country, making it ‘one of the most heavily-bombarded countries in history’, exceeding the Allied bombardment of Germany during World War Two.

But just because exogenous armies eventually left Vietnam and Cambodia, doesn’t mean that violence in the region was over, merely that what followed is less well remembered—despite this next phase of conflict matching or even exceeding the Vietnam War casualties.

In 1975, the Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia and launched their systematic genocide. In 1978, the Vietnamese military invaded. A ceasefire was only agreed in 1991—well within the bounds of living memory for this author, and a mere ten years before my visit to the country.

For Southeast Asia, the Second World War didn’t end until Bryan Adams was top of the charts and another four million people had died.

The horror of the conflict is remembered at the Cambodian Landmine Museum, set up on the outskirts of Siem Reap City by a former child soldier, a man who fought on all sides of the war and who now works clearing the mines he once helped to lay: Mr Aki Ra.

Introducing Mr Aki Ra

I confess that I was in Cambodia for ancient history, not bleeding history. But one evening, in the garden of the small guesthouse where I was staying, I got chatting to a young couple, who urged me to take a trip into the more recent past and to visit Mr Aki Ra.

Mr Aki Ra opened his museum in 1999 and filled it with all the military junk that he found while clearing some of Cambodia’s untold millions of landmines.

I had many guns such as AK47s, Kalashnikovs, M16s, M60s, small pistols, machine guns and large rifles. I had rocket launchers, mortars, grenades, gas masks, CS gas canisters, bombs and even uniforms. On one occasion, I found napalm but it was too heavy for me to carry alone so I had to leave it.

Surrounded by his collection of decommissioned weaponry, Mr Aki Ra offers visitors an inconvenient juxtaposition to the peace and tranquillity of the monuments of Angkor.

I have always lived in Siem Reap province in Northwest Cambodia and have spent most of my life surrounded by guns, artillery and most of all, the horrors of the landmine.

Not long ago, he explains, the temples we coo over were live military bases. The Khmer Rouge held the famous jungle-invested Ta Prohm, while the Vietnamese set up in Angkor Wat itself.

The Vietnamese were responsible for destroying many of the precious statues in and around the Angkor Wat area as they used to take potshots at them when they were bored. They looted many ancient and valuable artefacts from the temples and they have never been found.

Suitably chastened, I paid $3 for a stapled-together 17-page pamphlet of Mr Aki Ra’s stories. It’s those stories that I’d like to share with you today, finally fulfilling a promise that I made twenty years ago.

The stories of Mr Aki Ra

The $3 stories of Mr Aki Ra

After both his parents were killed when he was about five years old, Aki Ra was brought up as an orphan soldier of the Khmer Rouge. Everyone lived in a state of ‘virtual starvation’ and Aki Ra remembers sneaking out of camp to catch insects to eat.

It was a midnight feast that not everyone survived.

My friend went to the pig trough and stole some scraps and quickly ate them. The next morning, when the Khmer Rouge were carrying out their usual faeces check, they noticed that one lot was different from the others and asked who it belonged to. My friend said that it was the pigs, but there were tell tale child’s footprints beside it and the Khmer rouge accused the child of lying and killed him.

Villagers were encouraged to betray their neighbours and those accused of any petty crime ‘would have their throats slit very slowly with palm fronds’ while the rest of the village was forced to cheer and clap the murder.

To the Khmer Rouge, life was cheap and they did not care who lived or died during their years of brutality.

Primary education

When he was about ten, the Khmer Rouge gave Aki Ra his first AK47, a weapon almost bigger than he was. He was also taught how to fire rocket launchers, lay mines and make simple bombs.

In a way, these weapons were like toys to us children and we used to play games with them. Some small children were not familiar with guns and the Khmer Rouge would give them loaded guns with the safety pin off. One of my friends shot himself in the head accidentally because he did not understand how the gun worked.

The Khmer Rouge taught Aki Ra only one letter of the Khmer alphabet per week.

They had my innocence in their hands and were able to warp it any way they chose. I thought that the whole world existed like we did and the brutality and hardship, the starvation and all the guns, became my normal world.

At an age when I was making the transition from Primary to Secondary School, Aki Ra was captured at gunpoint by the Vietnamese army and conscripted to fight his former overlords.

Secondary education

By this time, both the Vietnamese and the Khmer Rouge armies were desperate for recruits and started to treat people better. The Vietnamese promised Aki Ra good food and money, as well as rank and power.

But life with the Vietnamese wasn’t so different: the soldiers were still hungry, constantly scratching around for food. Many times, Aki Ra would have to pee into a bag of rice to soften the grains for eating.

At this point, I still knew nothing of what was going on the outside world and continued to imagine that this kind of life was normal.

When he was fourteen, Aki Ra’s unit found themselves outnumbered by Khmer Rouge fighters and had to run for their lives.

While we were running, we dropped ammunition from the magazines of our AK47s onto the ground. These appeared to be loaded with ammunition. However, we had added poison to the bullets so that when the guns were consequently fired, they would give off a toxic gas. We later returned to find the Khmer Rouge choking on the poisonous fumes and we killed them all.

There were no rules of engagement: each side did whatever they must in order to kill and survive.

I was very lucky during all my time spent with the various different armies and had many lucky escapes.

Learning a trade

In 1993, a United Nations peacekeeping force arrived in Siem Reap and Aki Ra answered their call for people to start clearing the fields of landmines. He remembers his astonishment on visiting Siem Reap city for the first time:

When the UN put a huge cinema screen up in the town, the people came to wonder at the film. When the cars and tanks moved on the screen, many people ran away as they thought that they were going to come right off the screen into the audience.

Landmines were used on both sides of the war in Cambodia and, being small and light, were especially suited for armies of child soldiers.

Many people between the years 1984 and 1990 were killed or injured by landmines. The hospitals were far away and there were few civilians or soldiers who had first-aid knowledge to help.

The quantity of unexploded ordinance left in the country is hard to even estimate. In the first six months of 2020, according to the Cambodian Mine Action Centre, more than 20,000 explosive devices were found and destroyed.

In his stories of landmine explosions, Aki Ra paints a picture of terrifying randomness, tragically paired with desperate corruption.

It was […] common for villages to have to make huge payments to the Vietnamese army, if a family member or their animals stepped on and detonated a mine.

A landmine explosion is usually enough to rip off a leg, but often not enough to kill someone. If the victim survives, then they face a lifetime of torture—not only from the physical wounds, but from the wounds inflicted by society.

Many of the soldiers who were victims of mines were evicted from the army and then left to find badly-paid jobs, such as road cleaning. Many resort to begging to this day.

Making this country safe for its people

Since the 1990s, Mr Aki Ra has had only one ambition in life: to make his country safe for its people.

There are still hundreds of people killed or injured every year by landmines, many of them civilians working in the fields who come across them while clearing the land.

Profits from Aki Ra’s museum go towards funding his landmine clearance NGO and supporting children who, like him, have become orphans.

Despite an ambitious government target for the country to be landmine-free by 2025, Aki Ra thinks it will take 50-100 years to find and clear every single mine.

You can help us by informing people in your country about the problems we face in Cambodia and hopefully we will eventually get enough support to assist us to speed up making this country safe for its people.

In 2018, Mr Aki Ra was arrested and the museum shut down. Despite his protests that the weapons were all perfectly safe, the authorities suspected that he was building a private arsenal.

Luckily, he avoided a conviction and I’m pleased to report that, today, Mr Aki Ra is still out there, clearing landmines.

~

You can read more of Mr Aki Ra’s stories on the website of his NGO: Cambodian Self Help Demining.

The Solidarity Files

It’s December, which means that many people are thinking about making charitable donations. As you’ll know if you’ve been following closely, I really don’t like to call my financial donations ‘charity’. I much prefer the word ‘solidarity’.

This shift in vocabulary leads to an interesting shift in mindset that opens up potentially more impactful uses for my money. Many groups doing great work can’t afford (in money, time, privilege or expertise) to become official charities, but they have as great if not greater need for donations.

1. Cooking On Gas

Wednesday was Khora’s birthday. To celebrate, I bought them a month’s worth of gas.

What the hell am I talking about? Re-e-wind.

This week, Khora Community Kitchen celebrated one whole year of its latest incarnation. The kitchen couldn’t have re-opened at a more critical time and has continued to serve a thousand meals a day to refugees, migrants and people in need living through lockdown in Athens, Greece.

A thousand meals a day doesn’t come for free, of course. Funded by solidarity donations from across the world, Khora gives everyone the chance to contribute by chipping in for cooking oil, vegetables or even a month’s worth of gas—‘You buy the food, we serve the meals.’

You can help Khora by buying them washing up liquid (€4), tea for a day (€10) or bread for a week (€100) in their online ‘store’.

It’s a remarkable project that you can now see for yourself in this epic video of Kareem and the crew preparing Palestinian maqluba (mmm!) for about 950 people. You can also follow them on Instagram or Facebook.

2. Happy Anachistmas!

You might have seen the wonderful Dope magazine being sold by street vendors around the UK. If you haven’t, then it’s basically a better version of The Big Issue (better for readers, better for the vendors), but it’s not a charity—and deliberately so.

Dope is completely free for vendors and the vendors keep all of the £3 cover price. The writing, design, printing and distribution of Dope is funded by solidarity contributions on Patreon and people buying copies of the magazine directly from publisher Dog Section Press.

In contrast, The Big Issue costs vendors £1.25 and they make only £1.25 profit per issue sold. The Big Issue makes a big noise about how their 1500 vendors made £5.5m in profits last year, but that’s only £3,700 for each vendor on average—nowhere near enough money to even begin to think about a life off the streets. And, with a 50/50 profit share, it means that The Big Issue itself made £5.5m in profits.

This is not to say that The Big Issue are necessarily doing bad things with that money—I honestly have no idea—only that they could be helping people much more directly. If Dope had similar distribution and sales, vendors would be making an average of £8,800 each. Now, this is not a fortune for anyone, but it is just enough money for vendors to support themselves, on the streets or off.

Vive la solidarité!

What about you? I’d love to hear of any other non-charity contributions that this little newsletter community makes or would recommend.

He’s not the messiah, he’s an ethically ambiguous cut of lab-grown meat

Yesterday, a friend sent me a Guardian article that announced the regulatory authority approval in Singapore of lab-grown meat. It’s news that has been met with cautious optimism.

Unlike livestock, lab-grown meat doesn’t need to be injected with antibiotics, which—quite apart from being healthier for meat-eaters—would also help protect even non-meat-eaters against what the World Health Organisation calls ‘one of the biggest threats to global health, food security, and development today’: antibiotic resistance.

If lab-grown meat replaces animal-grown meat consumption, then it could also reduce the amount of land used to raise livestock and thus remove one of the biggest drivers for land use change, a major contributor to the current climate and biodiversity crises.

Reading this news article more closely, it becomes clear that it is still a story of ‘ifs’ and ‘coulds’:

The small scale of current cultured meat production requires a relatively high use of energy and therefore carbon emissions. But once scaled up its manufacturers say it will produce much lower emissions and use far less water and land than conventional meat.

My question is: how far would lab-grown meat have to come before it could challenge a plant-based diet for lowest environmental impact?

Even if it does, it’s far from a given that lab-grown meat actually would replace animal-grown meat. What if the only market for lab-grown meat turns out to be people currently eating a plant-based diet for ethical reasons and animal-grown meat continues to rise unabated?

Surprisingly, a 2019 study that examined dietary data from 137 countries around the world found that the level of meat production has a bigger influence on what we eat than our appetites: the more meat that is grown, the more we eat. So what if lab-grown meat makes us more dependent on animal meat rather than less?

The study also found that the two biggest drivers of rising global meat consumption are income and rate of urbanisation. Given that the rate of urbanisation is highest in countries like Uganda, Burundi, Liberia, Laos and Afghanistan, what reason is there to think that these people would have access to expensive lab-meat factories?

The word ‘news’ comes from the Latin ‘novus’, which means ‘unusual’. News stories, like this Guardian article, are stories that are unusual. Most of the time, that means there is a more mundane, less ‘newsworthy’ story. In this case: a surer way of reducing landscape use change and our vulnerability to antibiotic resistance is to lose our taste for flesh, however it’s grown.

How to write a BBC radio sitcom during a global pandemic

Beth Granville and I started working on the scripts for Series 4 of our BBC Radio sitcom Foiled at the end of March, making use of the uncertainty of the first lockdown to produce first drafts of three of the four episodes. We worked remotely, of course, and although we shared script ideas and weekly phone calls, we wrote more or less independently during this first phase.

(For the writing data geeks among you I spent 75.5 hours working on the project over those three months of sunny loneliness.)

We took a hiatus over the summer months and then, slapped with a November deadline, took up our keyboards again at the beginning of October.

I don’t mind sharing with you the fact that our producer hated two of the draft episodes we’d handed in. It’s hard to say whether that was down to the distance between Beth and I, the distractions of the health crisis or—I think most likely—the natural process of writing anything.

This second, autumnal phase was marked by much closer collaboration, with phone calls every other day and the luxury of ten days of in-person time, spread over three blocks. There was a lot of work to be done.

But gradually, as the hours totted up, the scripts, as they do, started to fall into place. We got great feedback from the producer, first on one episode (‘Oh my giddy aunt this is wonderful’), then on another (‘Hoorah! This is fucking WONDERFUL’) and finally on the series closer (‘I think this is the best episode you’ve ever done’).

There was just one problem: we’d been hired to write four episodes, not three. Episode 1, that big bang series opener, didn’t exist yet. This was last Tuesday, the last Tuesday in November. Our deadline was the first Tuesday in December.

We made that deadline.

I don’t know how, but we started, muddled and finished a 30-page radio sitcom episode in a week. Actually, I do know how: by spending a lot of time writing.

(Precisely 30.5 hours from my side, plus more from Beth and a day with comedian Adam Hess. Incidentally, this episode broke last year’s three-week record for fastest ever script—but the number of hours spent writing were identical.)

On Wednesday, we heard from our producer: ‘This is fucking great. Funny, feasible, surprising but makes sense—it’s ticking all my comedy boxes.’

Finally, 8 months, 213.5 logged writing hours and a global pandemic after we started, we have (almost) finished.

(This compares with our experiences last year. I estimated that Series 3 took about 50 hours per episode, but that excluded time spent talking through story with Beth. The ~54 hours per episode this year includes most of that time. Although our 2020 writing process has felt quite different, the amount of effort has been identical.)

Foiled is due for broadcast on BBC Radio Wales and BBC Sounds in late January. I hope you enjoy listening as much as we’ve enjoyed writing. There really is no substitute for putting the hours in.

What do brains and politics have in common?

According to research from the University of Haifa, the discovery of creative solutions is a collaboration between two very different parts of the brain. One brain region is responsible for original ideas; the other for assessing whether the idea is realistic.

The ability of the brain to operate these two regions in parallel is what results in creativity. It is possible that the most sublime creations of humanity were produced by people who had an especially strong connection between the two regions.

It struck me that the sociopolitical breakdown between supposed ‘idealists’ and ‘realists’ is a tension embedded in our own individual brains.

When there isn’t what the researchers call a ‘strong connection’ between the associative and the conservative regions of our minds, our ideas aren’t as creative as they could be.

Likewise, when the idealist and realist sides of a society aren’t strongly connected, then that society’s political ideas aren’t as creative as they could be. And we all suffer.

~

After fighting on the losing side during the 2016 EU Referendum, political campaigner Eddie Barnes became interested in how we can form stronger, more collaborative connections between people with radically opposed politics.

Politics will always divide people; indeed, division is necessary in a functioning democracy.

Barnes argues that mature democracies divide in ‘mostly civil ways’ because citizens on either side of the chasm have a ‘basic emotional and empathetic grasp of how the other side thinks and feels’.

If that’s the basic requirement for a ‘mature’ democracy, then the UK is definitely a screaming, sulking, stomping adolescent.

~

But Barnes is optimistic that we can find a way back to creative collaboration. He works for Our Scottish Future, a think tank founded by Gordon Brown that was (until Covid-19 intervened) trialling ‘community assemblies’ of citizens with very different political world views.

These assemblies were designed to help people understand each other and move past their differences to find solutions acceptable to everyone.

One element of each assembly involved having to listen to another person for 90 seconds without interrupting. … It was intriguing to see people’s surprise that they shared common priorities and values with each other. We also witnessed groups reaching fresh conclusions about how to navigate some of our thorniest problems.

~

This, of course, all sounds very familiar: the community assembly is a basic unit of anarchist decision-making.

I, like many others, was first taught the principles of anarchist decision-making by creative, collaborative activists from the feminist movement. And I have seen these ideas working in practice everywhere from the streets of Cairo to the steps of Saint Paul’s.

Now—lo and behold—Our Scottish Future have also found that these open assemblies are much better at bridging political divides than either ignoring or shouting at each other.

There is hope—and I couldn’t offer up a more striking image for this hope than asking you to imagine one half of your brain as Gordon Brown and the other half as a band of anarchists.

Creative, collaborative decision-making facilitated by Codepink activists in Cairo, 2009

This piece was written using a process I learned on the Ness Labs Content to Creator course.

Thought for Food #2: Bread of Life

Egyptians use the same word for bread as they do for life: عيش—‘aish. Bread, quite literally, is life. Street bread in Egypt عش بلدي—‘aish baladi—translates just as well as ‘rustic loaf’ as it does ‘live my country’.

More broadly in Arab culture, عيش وملح—’aish w melh, bread and salt—is used to celebrate an alliance of gratitude between two people. Breaking bread together in any culture is symbolic of friendship. For Salvador Dalí, bread was a subject of fetishism and obsession.

If you like your bread leavened, then you’re at the mercy of burping microbes. This episode of BBC CrowdScience follows the fabulously unlikely story of how humans found yeast that actually tastes good.

Besides walking upright, gripping a hand tool and moaning about the weather, baking bread is the closest modern humanity comes to the lived experience of our Mesolithic ancestors.

If you’re uncertain about your status as a flesh and blood human being, what more direct way of communing with our evolution than to bake and break a loaf of bread?

Perhaps that’s why so many people have turned to their ovens during this pandemic. In a very literal sense, we knead bread.

Now I too have joined the baking legions, with a loaf that might consume your soul, but won’t consume your time. My bread of life recipe doesn’t need any kneading because there’s no gluten and no added yeast. It doesn’t need fancy weighing scales or even a loaf tin. You simply mix up the ingredients, leave it to rest (or don’t) and bake it.

Credit where credit’s due: I pinched the bones of this recipe from the back of Bauckhof’s gluten free, organic, vegan bread mix packets. I have also found this similar recipe by Sarah Britton, which gives a great explanation of how this bread works without the binding gluten of flour, and what kind of substitutions you can play around with.

Bread of Life: Ingredients

  • 155-215g wholemeal rolled oats
  • 185-245g of your favourite whole seeds (not ground). Bauckhof use (in descending order of quantity):
    • Pumpkin
    • Sunflower
    • Linseed (= Flax)
    • Sesame
  • 2 tbsp Chia seeds
  • 3 tbsp Ground psyllium husks (important!)
  • 1 tsp Fine grain sea salt

Play around with the ratio of oats to seeds (or go crazy and add a few nuts) for a total weight of about 430g for all the dry ingredients.

If, like me, you don’t have weighing scales, then simply measure out the dry ingredients using a measuring jug. You want to fill it up to about the 700ml mark.

Please don’t worry too much about precision: you’ll soon be able to tell when you mix the dough with water whether you’ve done too much or too little, whether it’s too wet or too dry.

Bread of Life: Method

  1. Put the mix into a bowl and add 360ml cold water
  2. Mix well and leave to stand for a few minutes
  3. Mix again. It should be sort of sticky, but still hold its form
  4. Form the dough into a loaf and put onto a greased baking tray. You can also use a well-greased loaf tin if you have one
  5. Leave for as long as you can. I leave it overnight, but don’t sweat
  6. Bake for 70 minutes at 200C. I use a fan oven, but every oven is different so keep an eye on it. It’s ready when tapping the bottom sounds kinda hollow
  7. Take out of the tin and leave to cool, about 20 minutes

What you’re left with is a nutritious loaf that, per 100g and depending on your ratio of oats (higher carb and fibre) to seeds (higher fat), delivers:

  • 15-17g fat (supermarket wholemeal comparison: 1.8g)
  • 17-21g carbs (37.8g)
  • 12g protein (10g)
  • 8-9g fibre (6.8g)

NOTE: This is not the Chorleywood Process, so forget any notion of airy vapidity. This recipe makes a dense loaf, an equal partner in a meal rather than the merest carbohydrate envelope for your sandwich fillings. Bauckhof note that ‘oat grain fibre contributes to an increase in faecal bulk’—great for happy guts!

Lockdown complete.