Blog: The Motherlode

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Trespassers Welcome

From The Book of Trespass by Nick Hayes

The majority of the English countryside is out of bounds for most of its population. 92% of the countryside and 97% of rivers are off limits to the public.

Private Keep Out signs are a personal hatred of mine. In England, we forget that private ownership of the land is an abomination in most of the rest of the world.

Private ownership without allowance for public access is the deoxygenated water in the poisoned pond that we swim in: so ubiquitous that we don’t even know what we’re doing to ourselves.

But there are other ponds. And we can clean our own water. Even in Scotland, public access to private land is a right enshrined in law.

Nick Hayes is an illustrator and writer who has recently published The Book of Trespass, which charts the human stories, history and politics of land enclosure. At its heart is a passionate campaign to extend the Right to Roam in England, currently under threat from the Conservative Party who want to make trespass a criminal offence punishable with imprisonment.

If that happens, then I don’t know how many of our outdoor adventures would end in gaol time, but probably about 92 percent. 97 percent if you like to swim, paddle or kayak.

If, like me, you have found sanctuary in our countryside during the pandemic, then please join the campaign.

During lockdown, perhaps the issue of crowded parks and footpaths was not so much people flouting the rules, but very simply the lack of space available to people taking their daily exercise. Covid-19 has demonstrated that access to space is very visibly, very viscerally, linked to social wellbeing.

The Shock and The Reason

In this postmodern, information age of imagination, the pandemic is a confrontation with realities—both the one we have created over the past fifty years and the one that was always there, bleeding behind the screens.

The reality we simulate

In The Utopia of Rules, David Graeber described an historical shift since the 1970s in the development of technology, away from physical objects and towards simulated projects:

What technological progress we have seen since the seventies has largely been in information technologies—that is, technologies of simulation. They are technologies of what Jean Baudrillard and Umberto Eco used to call the ‘hyper-real’—the ability to make imitations more realistic than the original.

If you doubt the essential truth of this broad assertion, then consider your life in 2020. Many of your human activities, I’m sure, have been reduced to their simulations:

  • WFH instead of with colleagues in the office
  • Email instead of love letters
  • Dating apps instead of meeting strangers
  • Sport, drama, comedy on television instead of in the crowd
  • Video calls instead of birthday parties
  • Emojis instead of touch

These simulations are only possible because of the development of information technologies. They’re not the real thing, but they’re the best we can do at the moment and I’m sure many of us are very grateful.

But these simulations didn’t come out of nowhere. As Graeber continues:

The technologies that emerged were in almost every case the kind that proved most conducive to surveillance, work discipline, and social control. … Information technology has allowed a financialisation of capital that has driven workers ever more desperately into debt, while, at the same time, allowed employers to create new ‘flexible’ work regimes that have destroyed traditional job security and led to a massive increase in overall working hours for almost all segments of the population.

The evolution of this society has been like boiling the proverbial frog: change has been so gradual that few people notice until it’s too late.

But this year, without warning, the hyper-real dropped the ‘hyper’ and became pretty much the only reality left to us. This abrupt shift to a life entirely mediated through screens has confronted us with what, perhaps, we might otherwise have forgotten.

The reality that bleeds

Conspiracy theories notwithstanding, Covid-19 is caused by a virus—a virus with what I’ll call a ‘bleeding reality’.

The virus is no simulation. It is not a threat that leaps out at us from behind a screen, like bankruptcy, trolling or slow broadband. It is a real and present danger of the kind that, in wealthy societies, we are not used to confronting, personally, daily.

The threat of pandemic has shown us our direction of travel, from bleeding to simulated reality. It’s zipped us to the end of the hyper-real and asked, Do you really want this? When bleeding reality is stripped away, what are you left with?

It’s the same discombobulation caused by technological revolution, as described by Marx and Engels in the Manifesto of the Communist Party:

All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

It took millennia for physicians to dream the idea that intangible viruses could kill humans. Funny that something we can’t see, smell, taste or touch should be what cuts through the imaginary play of light to show us what is real.

The Shock and The Reason

The pandemic has shown us that bleeding reality still matters deeply, and in a way that the simulated worlds of surveillance capitalism never will.

We hear of a vaccine and realise that real science matters. We read a book and realise that real art matters. We climb a tree or swim a river and realise that real nature matters. We sit alone in our houses and realise that real community matters, and that fairness, justice and equality really do matter too.

Your life isn’t meaningless. It’s not postmodern or ironic. It is real. Your life matters, desperately.

The pandemic has been a shock, but that shock has helped us come to our senses. As Marcel Proust wrote:

Some moments after the shock, my intelligence, which like the sound of thunder travels less rapidly, taught me the reason.

Unsponsored Content: Going Rogue

Joe (L) and Maria (R) Granville, Rogue Welsh Cake Company. Credit: Alex Jones

This week your humble writer is brought to you by the Rogue Welsh Cake Company, a mother and son hot-plating duo, flogging morsels of ‘is-it-a-bread-is-it-a-biscuit’ goodness to astonished foodies in the South Wales area.

The menu boasts nine audaciously rogue flavours, from coconut and mixed spice to Marmite and cheese. The young company’s Head of Fancy Dress, Mr Joseph Granville of Penarth, tried to explain what on earth they were thinking to a local newshound:

We’re all massive food lovers, literally everything revolves around food in our house. You know how some people taste with their eyes? We really do taste with our mouths. We care about flavours.

At a time when most people are really struggling, in life, love and laverbread, the Granvilles have become the nation’s undisputed Welsh Cake Barons, the hottest thing in baked goods since Mr Kipling first burnt the icing on his fondant fancies.

But the Rogue Welsh Cake Company’s despotic laughter is benevolent: over half term, the company have been doling out free dollops of doughy delights to frazzled families and their offspring.

But, Dave, what is the secret to the Rogue Welsh Cake Company’s meteoric success? I’ll let the company’s Y-chromosome mansplain:

It’s just me exploiting my mum’s talents really.

Now that’s what I call rogue.

If you would like to order some Rogue Welsh Cakes, DM the family on Instagram. Joe will come round your house dressed as a Welsh peasant girl and feed you cake. NOTE: Delivery currently only in the CF area—but they are experimenting with postal deliveries so if you swamp their DMs they’ll have no option. Class.

If you have any heartfelt products or services that you want to share with an audience of discerning and beautifully dressed mammals, then let me know by replying to this email.

Nowstory to history

Welcome to the 311th day of the 5520th year of human recorded history. I know it’s going back a bit, but do you remember, five thousand years ago, the furore surrounding the Pharaonic election of the unifier of Upper and Lower Egypt, King Narmer AKA The Raging Catfish?

Phew-ee! I mean, I know the mace-wielding despot brought reliable taxation to the civilisation of the Nile Valley and I know he re-established Egyptian military authority in the Lands of Canaan, but man!

Five gets you ten that there was a forgotten faction, a rival party, shoved to the sidelines in the pomp of Narmer’s coronation, drowned by posterity in the literal column inches of the King’s tomb inscriptions.

Humans have come a long way, baby.

Two questions

What is most important in your life? And where do you actually put your attention? The answers to these two questions, ideally, would be the same. They rarely are.

For example, friends, family, creativity and larking about outside are pretty much the most important things in my life.

But a disproportionate amount of my attention disappears into the screen, indoors, alone, fighting the swell of current events, the course of which I can’t even begin to control.

2011

Without thinking too hard, what are the first things you remember from 2011?

If you’re anything like me, then it’ll be personal events, coloured with the purples of intense emotion:

  • Cycling around the coast of Britain.
  • Spending Easter in Shropshire with my then-girlfriend.
  • Dislocating my shoulder cycling into a dog (the dog was fine).
  • Playing guitar on stage for the first (and last) time.
  • Squatting the Gaddafi family home in West Hampstead.
  • The death and funeral of my nan.

Before doing any deeper interrogation of my memory banks, one major political event surfaced: the so-called riots after the murder of Mark Duggen by police in London. But even this traumatic national memory I saw as through a glass darkly.

Of course, a lot else happened in 2011 and perhaps you remember more than I did without prompts:

  • The UK voted to reject the Alternative Vote electoral system. The campaign put strain on the already uneasy Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition (remember them?).
  • The Arab Spring revolutions threw out three dictators: Ben Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya (with some assistance from British, French and US airstrikes).
  • The Syrian Civil War began, precipitating the flight of more than 13 million people.
  • The News International phone hacking scandal dominated headlines and ended careers, newspapers and the life of one former journalist in a bizarre marquee erection accident.
  • Tony Blair finally appeared before the Chilcot Public Inquiry into British involvement in the Iraq War.
  • The UK severed diplomatic relations with Iran.
  • Barack Obama (remember him?) announced the killing of Osama Bin Laden.
  • Mobile internet use reached 50 percent of Britons (I waited another five years).
  • The UK enjoyed its second warmest year on record, in its warmest decade, on a globally warming planet. Yay.

From this list, 2011 looks like a disaster. At the time, it probably felt like a disaster. It certainly presaged disaster. And yet, in my own personal memory, it wasn’t so bad.

Experience Spectacles

Human beings see the world through two very different pairs of Experience Spectacles, and we switch between the two depending on whether we are thinking about current events or thinking about past events.

Our current experience spectacles tend to give us laser focus on the bad shit, while blurring out the good stuff. Our past experience spectacles have the opposite effect. They tend to filter out the horror, smooth over the ugly, and focus on the good shit.

We switch between these two very different prescriptions for excellent evolutionary reasons. After all, Bad News Now could imminently threaten our lives and livelihood.

(I won’t labour the obvious point about how modern communications technologies have radically altered the availability and quantity of Bad News Now, but suffice to say that, if we wanted, we could find a different awful thing to think about every minute of our lives. Whether you see that as a healthy contributor to your own experience is none of my business.)

Conversely, there’s not much evolutionary benefit to holding onto Bad News Then because we have, by definition, survived it. That’s why not many of us are still bitter about King Narmer’s Nile Valley power-grab in the fourth millennium BCE.

As with my memories of 2011, we are better off remembering things that make us feel good or continue to offer meaning to our lives: completing my first epic bike ride, a painful shoulder that still pops out on me, the kindness of my grandma.

Correction

The thing is that we all know that our experience of present and past is coloured by these two very different pairs of spectacles, but we could do a lot more to correct their alternately dystopian and utopian lenses.

On the one hand, we would do well to spend more time fishing upstream in the meandering river of history to modulate our Pollyanna memories. Reminding myself of the tribulations of 2011 not only reassures me that even awful events are survivable, but also offers understanding of what was to come, and of what is perhaps still to come.

In December 2011, Prime Minister David Cameron vetoed a European Union treaty that was designed to address the on-going eurozone crisis (remember that?). The Conservative party was behind Labour in the polls at the time and this anti-European veto gave him a popular bounce. However, Conservative newspaper The Sunday Telegraph ran an independent survey that found a majority of voters now wanted a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU.

I’m not alone in my memory of the vote to leave the EU in 2016 being a surprise campaign of disinformation and violence. But five years before Brexit, the drums were already beating.

Equally, we should make much more of an effort to place Bad News Now into a broader historical narrative. We’re so wrapped up in 2020 that we forget everything that’s ever happened and everything that ever will.

The antidote is to check that whatever is important to you is where you’re putting your attention. Stay focussed on your place in history, not your gut reaction to Bad News Now.

2020 is a terrible year. Too many people won’t be here for the future. But, for most, even 2020 is a survivable moment if we stick to what we do best: community. What counts now is not the bad news, but how we help each other through, until our memories do their opiate work of erasure and we can hold hands again.

Shankly’s Life and Death Food banks not football

This might look like a story about football, but it’s not. It’s a political parable with a footballing backdrop.

Misquotes

Folkloric Liverpool Football Club manager Bill Shankly once said:

Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.

Except he didn’t. He didn’t say that at all. What he actually said was:

Somebody said that football’s a matter of life and death to you. I said, ‘Listen, it’s more important than that.’

And this line was not—as is so often assumed—a piece of swaggering braggadocio delivered at the height of his championship-winning fame. This was Shankly speaking four months before his death and expressing an intense regret that he’d put football above even his own family.

Watch this short clip for a sense of the man’s passion for football—and the sincerity of his regret he’d allowed it to overwhelm everything else in his life.

Breaking the holy trinity

According to the COVID Symptom Study, the city of Liverpool currently has a COVID-19 incidence rate of about 1.6 percent—about double the rate of southern England, where I’m writing from.

It was bad enough to put Liverpool into tier three local lockdown ten days ago. Pubs and bars are closed and residents must not socialise with others outside their household or support bubble.

There are more important things in life and death than watching live sport, but football fans can’t watch the game in stadiums, they can’t watch on a big screen down the pub and now they can’t even have their mates over to watch Liverpool on the telly.

It’s in this environment that nineteen of the twenty Premier League clubs (credit to Leicester City) decided, together with broadcasters BT Sport and Sky Sports, to start charging additional one-off fees for a total of 150 league matches.

The Pay Per View charge of £14.95 per game comes on top of the cost of television subscription services, on top of the cost of season tickets, on top of the cost of the pandemic and on top of desperate—and pre-COVID—deprivation in Liverpool.

According to a 2018 parliamentary research briefing, nearly 30 percent of children in Liverpool were living in poverty. In 2019, Liverpool was ranked as the third most deprived Local Authority in England.

One neighbourhood is ranked inside the top ten most deprived in England. That neighbourhood is a five minute walk from Anfield, the home of Liverpool Football Club.

Liverpool 019C, according to government statistics, the tenth most deprived neighbourhood in England

The Pay Per View scandal reminds me of one of Bill Shankly’s slightly less famous quotes:

At a football club, there’s a holy trinity—the players, the manager and the supporters. Directors don’t come into it. They are only there to sign the cheques.

How times change.

Choosing a different direction

Times might change, but collective action can still dictate its direction.

Last Saturday, Liverpool played a game against Sheffield United. I won’t mention the score, because, as Shankly was trying to say, some things are more important than football.

The match was significant because it was Liverpool’s first that was only legally available on a Pay Per View subscription. But it was a night when fans chose a different direction.

Fans Supporting Food Banks (FSFB) is a joint initiative launched in 2015 by rival fans of the two Premier League clubs in Liverpool, Everton and Liverpool, to fight food poverty in the city. For the past five years, FSFB been responsible for about a quarter of all food bank donations in Liverpool. It’s a story that belies the narrative of the brainless, chauvinistic football fan.

FSFB and Liverpool fan groups, including the Spirit of Shankly Supporters Trust, urged Liverpool fans to divert their Pay Per View subscription to food bank fundraising. Rather than pay £14.95 to watch Saturday’s game on Pay Per View, fans who wanted to support people, not profiteers, helped FSFB raise over £125,000 for food banks in Liverpool.

This isn’t an isolated case. The weekend before, Leeds fans raised £57,000—doubling annual food bank donations in only five days. In protest at the Pay Per View game before that, Newcastle fans raised more than £60,000.

Almost every supporters group in the country has put their voice behind the boycott and so far football fans have raised over £300,000 for desperate people in their communities.

Liverpool Football Club have given me a lot to be meaninglessly proud about, over the last two years in particular; it’s nice to feel proud about something meaningful now too.

Food banks: a Tory problem

Of course, it’s not the responsibility of the Premier League, the football clubs or the supporters to feed people who are struggling due to the erosion of the social fabric of human society. Another organisation already has that job: the government.

According to the Independent Food Bank Study, food banks are a ‘post-2010 phenomenon’. Coincidentally, that is the very year that the Conservative Party first came to power.

A decade after David Cameron first pushed open the door to Number 10, food banks are giving away millions of meals to people who are struggling to support themselves. In many cases this is because of failures in the benefit system—but the primary reason people are referred to food banks is because of low income: they have jobs, but the wages don’t cover their diets.

This is data from 2019, before the pandemic, which, according to Scotland’s independent food banks, has already doubled demand.

So no: it’s not the responsibility of the supporters to help feed their fellow humans, except insofar as the supporters are also citizens, who will take responsibility. That’s what human beings do when they see other people struggling around them, especially after hearing their elected government throw off responsibility, not with excuses, but with insults.

This doesn’t merely belie the popular image of the selfish, loutish football fan; it belies the Conservative death wish that society is best served by individuals and families looking out for themselves. That individualist, familial model doesn’t work. And the strength of its cooperative alternative has been amply demonstrated, in this case, by the most tribal section of modern society: its football fanatics.

Common cause

The government, the Capitalist Media and even the club owners themselves like to forget that football, even the multi-billion pound business of Premier League football, is first and foremost a community event. That’s why the teams have names like Liverpool and Everton (a district of Liverpool) and not names like Standard Chartered FC and Nike FC.

Anfield Stadium is a community building, set in a neighbourhood of ordinary terraced housing on Anfield Road. Look: a middle-aged bald man loads up his van, a white hatchback parks on double yellow lines, someone opens a window to air their living room on a pale spring morning.

This is Anfield. Terraced housing on Anfield Road, neighbouring Liverpool Football Club. (Google Streetview)

Everybody knows that there is a lot of money in football, but most of it is tapped from its millions of supporters. So if the Premier League clubs and broadcasters won’t do the right thing, then football fans must—and will.

In the past couple of days there have been signs that the Premier League and broadcasters might decide to reduce the swingeing price tag of the PPV subscriptions. It’s bad for their image, they say, and the viewing figures have been ‘disastrous’.

I’m sure it’s already too late.

More than most, football fans know what can happen when thousands of people are united behind a common cause—the team wins trophies. Now we have seen what can happen when thousands of people are united behind a common political cause—food banks filled, families fed, governments shamed, politicians held to account and fans radicalised.

Communities taking charge

I said at the top that this might look like a story about football. It’s not, of course. The stage scenery is football, but what we have here is a story of a community taking charge when they have been failed by central government. It’s a story that inspires others to take seize power in their own communities and use the collective will to do the right thing.

Other managers won more trophies, but Bill Shankly, a socialist, holds a special place in Liverpool folklore for building the football club on the solid rock of its community. A football club is only as strong as its supporters; a nation is only as strong as its neighbourhoods.

Together we can do the right thing when our government is wrong; together we can lead when our government is feckless. As Shankly might have said:

Politicians don’t come into it. They are only there to sign the cheques.

Addendum

By the way, I have no problem with footballers making millions of pounds from their short careers. The money is obscene, of course, but I’d start by pointing the finger elsewhere.

According to the 2019 Global Sports Salary Survey, the average annual salary for a Premier League footballer—the best of the best, in other words—is £3.1 million. That’s still less than the average annual salary of the ‘best of the best’ businessmen in the UK—FTSE 100 CEOs—who are paid 117 times more than the average worker earns in their businesses.

And, of course, a top CEO might spend 20 years earning that kind of salary, with another couple of decades at lucrative positions lower down the ladder too. A top footballer is lucky if their entire career, from teenage star to journeyman pro, lasts 15.

Footballers, by and large, are working class men and women who couldn’t afford to buy their way onto the top table. And, unlike the executives who herd into high paying jobs from a place of privilege, Premier League footballers bring joy to millions all over the world.

That football’s highest earners—Marcus Rashford, Raheem Sterling and Trent Alexander-Arnold to name but three—are using their position to lead conversations around social justice shows that they too understand that their strength is the strength of the community.

Leave no trace: don’t drop banana skins

If we want to leave no trace when we’re out in the countryside (and we do!) then we should never (ever) throw our banana skins into the undergrowth. Banana skins are a big problem for conservation: especially in natural beauty spots haunted by humans.

I don’t want to make anyone feel bad: I’ve definitely been guilty of this faux pas on many occasions. More than anything, it’s a problem with how we educate ourselves about littering (and the ways that nefarious forces tamper with that education).

The problem with bananas is that their rubbery skins take up to two years to decompose—and when they finally do, the high levels of potassium throw off the nutritional balance of the local ecosystem. We’re effectively poisoning the soil. On top of that, animals have trouble digesting the skins—bananas aren’t a native diet for British wildlife.

So let’s take our banana skins home with us and either compost them or throw them into a smoothie and eat them (seriously).

If we can’t do either of those, then let’s take different snacks on our walks, ones we can devour in their entirety: berries, nuts or dried fruit. My number one hiking snack is apples—and I eat the core!

Whatever you do, leave no trace.

A message from a refugee stuck in the Napier Barracks

This heart-rending message was written by a young Iranian man I met in Samos last year. I first met Nima when he was volunteering at a restaurant that helped to feed hundreds of other refugees trapped on the Greek island.

Nima already had his travel documents: he could have left Samos any time. But he was prepared to wait months and months for the bureaucracy to approve papers for his best friend, Omid, so that they could travel onwards together.

Omid and Nima were inseparable. Brothers in a world without family.

The day before I left Samos last October, Omid was granted his papers. They celebrated with a dinner party in the restaurant. A moment of hope on an island of despair.

A year passed. Omid and Nima finally reached London, as they’d always promised, together.

It was in London where I was given the freedom and opportunity to feel normal again. After all this time I felt like a human, no different from every other human.

Normality was brief. A few days ago, Nima was thrown into a camp called Napier Barracks.

Alone.

The only thing I asked for was for Omid to come with me. Don’t leave me alone. Please. We made it this far, together. Why wouldn’t we continue together? It’s not my journey. It’s our journey. And doing it without him translates into emptiness. An emptiness that doesn’t fit inside me.

Thought for Food #1: Making an effort

Making an effort with simple flapjacks, sweetened and bound with dates and banana

If I’ve learned one thing about eating vegan in the past six months, it’s that I need to make more of an effort if I’m not going to die—not of malnutrition, but of boredom. I’ve often thought of this as a bad thing, but it’s actually an extremely good thing. (When I can be arsed.)

Non-veganism made me lazy. Any ragtag collection of roasted vegetables could go from gross to gourmet in the time it takes to grate half a pound of Davidstow. Strip out the dairy, however, and the vegan remains are revealed for what they truly are: hastily thrown together and technically edible plants flavour-masked with lashings of chilli sauce.

The only response, short of depressing vegan junk food, is to improve my cooking combinations, by practising flavoursome recipes. This is mildly profound: I’ve always been happy putting time into cooking for others, but now I have to acknowledge that me, myself and I are worth cooking well for.

So I bought a cookbook: Dirty Vegan by former professional skateboarder Matt Pritchard. (Two series of Dirty Vegan are also available on BBC iPlayer)

One of the issues with veganism is the paucity of fatty treat foods. The human brain loves two kinds of foods above all else: fats and carbs.

Thousands of years of human ingenuity have created dairy fats prepared and packaged into delightful forms for our brains: cream, cheese and cream cheese, to name but three. Vegan fats are manifestly not. Things are improving—step forward Naturli vegan block, the affordably tasty butter-killer—but there is a long way to go.

The temptation for vegans, then, is to depend on carbs. But, because there’s only so much bread that you can eat, sugar starts to creep into the diet. More raisins, prunes and dates; bananas, apples and berries; biscuits are a temptation for the first time in years. Sugar creep is the only reason I’ve ever wondered whether my vegan diet is any healthier for me than my old dairy diet.

The solution is the same: make an effort. I can’t slop a quart of cream into a bowl with oats and nuts as a dairy treat. Instead, I need to spend an hour making a tray of ‘no-sugar’ vegan flapjacks or maltloaf. And that’s a good thing. It’s good for me, it’s good for the planet and—this is the kicker for me—it’s good for other people.

You see, not many other humans would put up with a daily diet consisting of roasted vegetables (no matter how much cheese) and a bowl of cream. If I want to delight my friends, then I need to become the sort of person who puts time and effort into making tasty, satisfying and healthy food. And preparing food for others has to begin in the workshop, preparing food for myself.

Last weekend I made a full Bristolian breakfast for a friend’s birthday: five guests around the table, some vegan, most not. Scrambled tofu, garlic mushrooms, smokey beans, spinach, toast and mimosas. That it was vegan was irrelevant; it was nutritious and delicious.

Well worth the effort.

Making an effort with breakfast: garlic mushrooms and scrambled tofu—labelled by my collaborator as ‘a triumph’. Recipes by Dirty Vegan (since this photograph, I’ve also made his smokey baked beans and they’re banging)

Swallow the rainbow

In the greengrocers, I met an elderly man who’d ‘spent the last week in bed’. He shook his head at me as he fumbled for the word ‘avocado’. The Platonic Form of an avocado floated in his mind—‘Rough, green…’—but the abstraction stayed maddeningly out of reach. ‘Kiwi!’ I guess.

He shook his head again, this time at the world around him. ‘What do you make of it, bud? What a mess we’re in.’ I made some optimistic comment like, ‘We’ve survived worse’ and I was surprised by his abrupt reversal: ‘Oh yes, my man,’ he said with feeling. ‘Believe me, I’ve survived worse!’

This man was probably born the wrong side of the Second World War and remembers well the food shortages and fuel shortages. I found out today that there was a timber shortage in the 1960s and the door frames of our apartment were built with metal. The strength of this survivor’s feeling as he shopped for avocados and groped for words gave me a glimpse of our privilege.

The sun shone and we are surrounded by a rainbow of colours: striped pumpkins and carmine tomatoes, tricolour peppers and blanched potatoes, pale celery and deepest broccoli, gaudy bananas and russet apples, wine dark berries and chestnut mushrooms, blonde figs and treacle dates. The shop manager fills the man’s bags with colour and loads them up onto his mobility scooter.

‘Oh yes,’ the man chuckles to himself, shaking his head. ‘Haven’t we been through worse?’

At work, I’ve been covering a conference about big data in agriculture. One of the conference organisers, the environmental scientist Dr Andy Jarvis, made this comment about the pandemic:

We were all expecting a food system collapse—people were panic buying and didn’t have confidence in the food system and in our farmers. But the farming community has worked incredibly hard, the food system has stood up, and we’ve all remained well-nourished through this crisis. A big thank you to all the farmers.

Next time you’re in your local greengrocers, look around you at the colours on display. Look more closely and see the fingerprints of the farm workers who planted the seeds, the soil, light and water that grew the plant, and the robust food system that brought these colours to your high street.

Buy the freshest food you can, make something delicious and swallow the rainbow.

Falling profits for climbing

My local climbing centre, The Project in Poole, is back open—huzzah! There’s only one snag in the celebrations: because of the pandemic, they’re running at an unsustainable loss. Hm.

Government Covid-19 safety guidelines dictate that they can ‘only’ have 155 people climbing in the centre at any one time. Which would be totally fine, but climbing is dangerous enough as it is without adding a high risk of catching and spreading the virus.

Even before Covid-19, the capacity of the centre was ‘only’ around 150 people. I’ve been there when there’s been about 100 people fighting for wall space and I can tell you it is FULL. To be precise: it’s an elbows-out jostling bunfight. Not what you want in a global pandemic.

So, after boggling their minds at the fanciful government guidelines, the team running the centre got together and decided that 60 climbers could sensibly enjoy the walls while preserving a safe distance from others. 60—that’s less than half the government figure!

But this means that The Project is running at about 60 percent of their usual business—poof—there goes their profit margin.

So why are they open at all? The manager shrugs: ‘Well, at least we’re all back climbing, aren’t we?’ And he’s goddamn right: there aren’t many other places still open for people to go and let off steam (and, in my case, dislocate their shoulders).

It made me wonder: how many thousands of small, community-minded businesses like The Project are running at a loss simply because the fabric of society is built on small businesses with small profit margins?

Unless we speak to the people running our favourite places, we might not realise what’s really going on because, superficially, ‘we’re all back climbing again’. But that’s plaster work over foundational cracks.

We need these places more than ever; let’s back them more than ever.

Tintin versus the foo fighters (not those ones)

Panels from The Seven Crystal Balls by Hergé, Methuen English edition 1962

When I saw these panels in the Tintin adventure The Seven Crystal Balls, I confess to thinking, ‘Gah, I hate it when Tintin goes all sci-fi—I much prefer it when he’s fighting real baddies!’

As this particular bande dessinée was first published while Belgium was under Nazi occupation, I can understand why Hergé went for a vague, supernatural kind of an enemy, but still. Give me The Blue Lotus, with its vile business tycoons, opium wars and belligerent Japanese, any day.

At the end of my particular library edition, however, there was a section that explains to the reader the source of Hergé’s inspiration for the story. And I was astonished to read that the ball of lightning depicted in these fantastical panels hadn’t stretched Hergé’s imagination past breaking point.

Ball lightning is… real?

An engraving of ball lightning that Hergé might himself have seen (Wikipedia)

~

Although rare, ball lightning is well-attested throughout history. On Sunday 21 October 1638, during a violent thunderstorm, four people died and scores more were injured when ball lightning wreaked havoc through the parish church of Widecombe-in-the-Moor, Dartmoor.

A ‘true revelation’ published at the time reported that:

The extraordinarie lightning came into the Church so flaming that the whole Church was presently filled with fire and smoke, the smell whereof was very loathsome, much like unto the scent of brimstone.

Some said they saw at first a great ball of fire come in at the window and passe thorough the Church, which so much affrighted the whole Congregation that the most part of them fell downe into their seates, and some upon their knees, some on their faces, and some one upon another, with a great cry of burning and scalding, they all giving up themselves for dead.

The revelation makes for delightfully grisly reading, particularly on the demise of one ‘Warriner unto Sir Richard Reynolds’:

his head was cloven, his skull rent into three peeces, and his braines throwne upon the ground whole, and the haire of his head, through the violence of the blow at first given him, did sticke fast unto the pillar or wall of the Church ; so that hee perished there most lamentably.

I know what you’re thinking: what is a ‘Warriner’? It’s someone who keeps rabbits. And, if you’re anything like me, you’re also thinking that Hergé let Tintin and Captain Haddock off lightly.

~

But can we really trust the ‘true revelation’ of 1638? Might it not have been embellished for popular effect? After all, this was the century of Shakespeare and nobody looks to his Antony and Cleopatra as a reliable source for the toxicology of the asp.

If you are wont to ascribe hysteria to the medieval denizens of Dartmoor, then perhaps you are more convinced by the reports of U.S. airforce pilots, who spotted ball lightning during the Second World War.

In a mission debriefing on the evening of November 27, 1944, Fritz Ringwald, the unit’s S-2 Intelligence Officer, stated that Meiers and Ed Schleuter had sighted a red ball of fire that appeared to chase them through a variety of high-speed manoeuvrers.

These meteorological freaks were not so rare that the pilots weren’t moved to give the terrifying phenomena a more colourful name. They called them foo fighters.

(Actually they called them fuckin’ foo fighters, but that kind of nomenclature won’t earn you twelve Grammys and four Brit Awards. Any excuse…)


~

But if even the U.S. airforce are too hysterical for you, then how about this couple from Gwinn in Michigan, whose home was invaded by ball lightning in the late 1980s while they were entertaining friends. How rude.

A bright blue and white sphere the size of a football floated across the party room before imploding on the television set. As the hostess described:

It was just a very loud bang and—poof—it was gone. And everybody’s kind of standing there, staring at each other.

Slippery Nipples all round.

And if an ancient anecdote delivered by a camera-shy, cocktail-loving couple from the American midwest doesn’t convince you of the reality of ball lightning, then, frankly I don’t know what will.

Oh, actually, maybe I do—science!

~

During a thunderstorm on 5 August 2014, a red ball of fire 40 cm in diameter was witnessed entering an office through an open window at the local Water Conservancy Bureau in Xinjiang, Shanxi, China. The ball lasted for less than one second and then exploded loudly. Five computers in the room were damaged, which is a direct result of high-power microwaves.

That account is from a 2017 paper published by Hui Chun Wu from the Institute for Fusion Theory and Simulation at Zhejiang University in China. In the paper, Dr Wu proposed what he calls ‘a comprehensive theory for the phenomenon’ of ball lightning:

At the tip of a lightning stroke reaching the ground, a relativistic electron bunch can be produced, which in turn excites intense microwave radiation. The latter ionizes the local air and the radiation pressure evacuates the resulting plasma, forming a spherical plasma bubble that stably traps the radiation.

Huh?

Don’t panic: here’s a video demonstration of the effect and an explanation of the theory, using a microwave oven and a grape.

In this video, a microwave gets trapped inside the ‘bubble’ of a grape and creates plasma. Fun. What Dr Wu is suggesting is that ball lightning is what happens when a microwave gets trapped inside a bubble of plasma. Epic.

Wait. What is plasma? According to the writer’s saviour, WordWeb, plasma is:

A fourth state of matter distinct from solid, liquid or gas and present in stars and fusion reactors; a gas becomes a plasma when it is heated until the atoms lose all their electrons, leaving a highly electrified collection of nuclei and free electrons.

Great. So we now have a theory of ball lightning that we kind of understand and that sciencifies the fantastic plotline of The Seven Crystal Balls. But Dr Wu has more revelations in store for us.

~

Dr Wu’s theory not only shows how ball lightning could pass through aeroplanes and glass windows, but might also give credence to the bloodboiling injuries of the poor Warriner unto Sir Richard Reynolds back in 1638:

Theoretical analysis reveals that rapid temperature rise leads to a thermoelastic expansion of tissue, which launches an acoustic wave travelling by the skull to the inner ear.

Enough to make a brain explode? Dr Wu confesses that he didn’t pump quite as much energy into his balls (err…) as a lightning strike, but does state:

In our theory, the microwave reaches ~1 J/cm2 for the ball formation, which is enough to induce both microwave hearing and nerve damage on witnesses.

~

So there you have it: an entirely plausible explanation for the ball lightning phenomena witnessed by Tintin et al. in Hergé’s thoroughly researched comic science book, The Seven Crystal Balls.

Hold on—what’s that you say? The rest of the plot depends on a ‘mystic liquid’ found in coca that puts people into instant comas and the use of voodoo spells to punish wrongdoers thousands of miles away? Oh for pity’s sake…

Britain: Dope Capital of the World

Possession of cannabis for personal use is illegal in the United Kingdom—OBVIOUSLY. Our doctors can’t even prescribe it for proven medical use—OBVIOUSLY.

So it’s perhaps surprising to learn that the UK is the world’s biggest producer and exporter of legal cannabis. Say whaat!

Oh yes: we’re not messing around. We are the big boys.

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—289.5 tonnes in 2018, the last year for which we have data. Dopey old Netherlands, by contrast, produced a measly 10.2 tonnes.

We are Steppenwolf’s poetic vision:

You know the dealer, the dealer is a man
With the love grass in his hand

That’s us. We’re dealing a whopping 75 percent of the love grass.

If you’re wondering why Britain grows so much cannabis when we have one of the most restrictive legal structures on its use in the world, then all I can tell you is that, apparently, cannabis seed makes good bird feed.

In 2018, the UK also produced 2.3kg of psilocin—the active compound found in magic mushrooms. The INCB called this ‘the largest quantity of the substance ever manufactured in a given year’.

Needless to say, psilocin—along with all the other psychedelic compounds, including ones that grow in our fields around this time of year—is stupidly illegal. Picking and sharing the wrong kind of mushrooms with your friends is the most illegal thing you can do in this country, short of murder.

If you’re starting to get annoyed that our government is saying one thing to its citizens and then doing the complete opposite behind our backs, well, hold up, soldier. Maybe that’s a good thing.

There are some things that for some reason (I’m looking at you, Daily Mail readers) are ‘politically impossible’ for our governments to achieve. The decriminalisation of cannabis is one such.

The most popular illegal drug in the country was briefly downgraded in illegality from Class B to Class C under a Labour government in 2004—a decision that was labelled a ‘mistake’ and reversed by the same politicians in 2009. This despite the fact that the science and hospital admissions show that, as a compound, cannabis is much less dangerous than alcohol.

So it’s kind of nice to know that, behind the headlines, politicians are secretly doing the ‘politically impossible’ anyway. It’s just a shame that, for a taste of Great British dope, we have to go abroad.

P.S. This week Future Crunch pulled this story out of The New York Times, which illustrates a parallel point. Governments, no matter what they say or feel it is politically expedient to say, are as much in thrall to the tide of history as anyone:

During the first term of the most coal-friendly president in American history, 145 coal-burning units at 75 power plants have been shut down, eliminating 15% percent of the country’s coal-generated capacity. This is the fastest decline in coal capacity in any single presidential term, far greater than the rate during either of President Barack Obama’s terms. #MAGA

Stroke Values

My sister is a speech therapist who works with people who have suffered a stroke. A stroke is what happens when the blood supply to your brain gets cut off, usually by a blood clot but sometimes after the bursting of a blood vessel.

By the way, the etymology of the word ‘stroke’ is completely unrelated to that thing you do to cats. It’s from the same root as ‘strike’: a blow delivered, such as the stroke played by a top order batsman to a half-paced delivery outside offstump. It’s use is metaphorical in the medical case.

Whatever the etymology, being struck by a stroke is not a good thing. The longer the blood supply is cut off, the more extensive the damage to brain cells, damage that can be long-lasting and even permanent.

Hence the international information campaign to improve public recognition of the signs of stroke:

And hence why victims of stroke sometimes need speech therapists like my sister to help them re-wire their damaged brain to cope with the loss of the cells that used to manage language and communication.

What has this got to do with values?

Not a lot, but also everything.

Treating someone who’s had a stroke isn’t like treating someone who’s got frostbite. I’m not one for body-mind dualism, but for most people our brains are a significant contributor to what makes us us. And the importance of correctly parsing and producing language is absolutely ru8gia;;AKL

At a stroke, a stroke can completely transform the person we thought we were. It’s a cataclysm—and an opportunity.

In the three months after a stroke, as the body madly tries to heal itself, the brain enters a period of heightened neuroplasticity. This is when speech therapists do the bulk of their work, which begins by exploring the patient’s values—those invisible through-lines of a human’s psychology and behaviour.

Philosophers, theologians and self-dev gurus are prominently conscious of their values. The rest of us tend to cruise through life with our values in the driving seat, blissfully unaware we’re a passenger until something forces us to take the wheel for a second.

Like when we have a stroke and a meddling psychologist asks us a bunch of damnfool questions in a desperate bid to figure out the kind of brain they’ve been tasked to put back together.

Enter my sister…

There are two ways to look at stroke recovery. It’s an opportunity to change the values you’ve always lived by because they’re not working for you. Or it’s an opportunity to hold onto your old values, as one solid anchor at a time when everything else in your life has been turned upside down.

So my sister starts her sessions with stroke survivors by exploring their values. It’s a deceptively simple task: read through a list of words like ‘courage’, ‘creativity’ and ‘curiosity’ and pick out the ones that resonate with you most.

I say deceptively simple because, as my sister explains, when your language and cognition have been banjaxed by a stroke and you have no understanding of abstract concepts like ‘courage’, picking words from a list is nigh on impossible. It’s the speech therapist’s job to help people communicate across the opening chasm.

But when they’re pinned down, these six words, these six values, give the survivor a foundation on which to build the rest of their post-stroke lives.

As my sister says:

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.

If Janet decides that one of her values is generosity, then she can apply those values as easily to her post-stroke existence as she did before. Maybe she can’t work any more and can’t afford the big money gifts she used to dole out to friends and to charity—but generosity as a value is independent of wealth. It’s up to Janet to decide what generosity means for her now.

In this way, human beings can find meaning in any situation by foregrounding and following their values instead of focussing on the mental, physical and material capacity they might have lost.

This remains true even if the only value left to them is the ability to bear suffering with fortitude. If you’re dubious, see Viktor Frankl. And if you haven’t had a stroke recently, please don’t check out because…

Ratiocination incoming

As human societies the world over are wracked with The Virus, we’re showing all the signs of a metaphorical stroke. Bear with me.

We can’t do the same things as we could a year ago—we can’t even think the same thoughts. We’ve become estranged from society and alienated from the world. Our future horizon has shrunk unpredictably: tomorrow is another day, but only probably.

Doesn’t it feel, metaphorically speaking, like we’re stumbling around half paralysed, thinking through the sludge of a million dead brain cells? Not really, no. But also: yeah, a bit.

Without downplaying the complementary cataclysms of either stroke or global pandemic, I think there’s something in twisting my sister’s words to the scenario:

You might not be able to play touch rugby, find gainful employment or buy toilet paper during a global pandemic, but you can always live by your values.

~
FWIW: When I went through the Russ Harris values worksheet yesterday, I settled on no less than thirty-one values that were very important to me. It was sweaty work narrowing it down to six, but I ended up with adventure, creativity, curiosity, generosity, intimacy and—the one ring to rule them all—connection.

Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.
E.M. Forster, Howard’s End (1910)

~

P.S.: Fund the NHS!

This Means Moor

Dartmoor demands from its ramblers an ancient glossary: kists, reaves and leats; logan, staddle and bond stones; clitter, cleaves and clappers; growan, pluton and tors. The map could be read as a found poem; the land invites explorations historical, geological and botanical.

Here you’ll find not only the eponymous moorland, but also featherbed bog, heathland and ancient oak forests. At least 13 rivers arise on Dartmoor. Rivers arise—wonderful.

Waterfall on the East Dart River, one of the many that arise on the moor

If you live in the southeast of England, then you don’t have ready access to wilderness—and you haven’t done since the Industrial Revolution. The closest for many is Dartmoor: 368 square miles of granite, an intrusive layer of plutonic rock; crystallised magma cooling into geology a sprightly 280 million years ago.

Wilderness is a charm. I write these words sitting in a box. Natural light does shine through the transparent panes on one edge of the box, but I’m isolated from the outdoors: not even a scent of nature can penetrate my sealed box. I had to buy an atomiser to pump out the restorative smell of Scots Pine.

My senses are no use inside the box, they can only cause discomfort—like when the rubbish truck goes past or the gardeners turn on their leaf-blowers. Inside the box, textures are polished smooth and geometry is planed square: these cushions, the carpet under my feet, the wood of the desk.

Unless I’m cooking, eating or bathing, this box holds my senses in suspension so that I can tether myself to the abstractions of the knowledge economy. The painted box makes me feel pinned, as in T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock:

When I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin?

Well, I say that Prufrock should begin by leaving Middle England. Dartmoor, ho!

Wild camping among the ruins of Foggintor quarry, granite from which helped build Nelson’s Column

Wilderness is where we go to unbox ourselves. It’s where our senses can hardly believe their luck: gorging on stiff smells and stubborn ground. It’s where we revel in the full breadth of our human faculties: endurance, strength, ingenuity, forbearance, comradeship, imagination and foresight.

We seek the wilderness for respite from the human mania for order and abstraction. The welcoming wilderness of Dartmoor, all jagged sights and weathered touch, feels orders of entropy more chaotic than my little box—but even this alien wasteland isn’t there in spite of us humans; it’s there because of us humans.

A distinctive Dartmoor contradiction of ancient stone circle surrounded by modern pine plantation, Fernworthy Forest

Ten thousand years ago, I wouldn’t have found the barren land I trudge through today. Instead I would have been thrashing through the darkness of vast oak, hazel and elm forests, thorns clutching at my sides. It’s hard to believe, but this blasted heath once wore a technicolour dreamcoat of trees, covering all but the highest tors over 460m.

Indeed, the richness of the land and its warmer-than-now climate drew Mesolithic, Neolithic and then Bronze Age farmers and Dartmoor was once busily populated with industrious agriculturalists.

It was these happy-go-lucky folk who did the hard work of forest clearance, setting fires to burn clearings in the canopy for crop fields, which they parcelled off with stone wall reaves. On the high moor, where agriculturists fear to tread, cattle and sheep were grazed, happily gobbling up any green shoots of recovery in the forest.

These civilisations were a triumph, each successive generation a right winner. Writing of the landscape transformation in England more broadly, Oliver Rackham in The History of the Countryside goes so far as to claim:

to convert millions of acres of wildwood into farmland was unquestionably the greatest achievement of any of our ancestors

But with every tree cut down, landscape erosion tilted the ecology toward invisible processes that couldn’t be handled with the woodcutter’s axe. Over thousands of years of human occupation, the soil gradually acidified and the decaying vegetation of the dying trees became the peat bogs for which Dartmoor is now famous.

The climate changed, becoming wetter and colder, and gradually the people abandoned their huts and longhouses. And what they left for their ancestors was a wasteland: bare scraps of ancient oak woodland in an exposed landscape that is playground to the west wind.

The classic view of Dartmoor: pony, clitter (rubble), Bronze Age menhir (standing stone) and an awful lot of exposed moor and heathland. And the television tower

But our forebears left something else behind as well. Something special. Today we recognise how special this special land is with a scattering of special titles: we call them Special Areas of Conservation.

There are 256 Special Areas of Conservation in England and Dartmoor boasts no fewer than four of them: Northern Atlantic wet heaths; European dry heaths; blanket bogs and old sessile oak woods—the latter includes the stunted oaks and layered lichen of venerable Wistman’s Wood.

English oak growing among the moss-coated clitter of venerable Wistman’s Wood. Moss grew so thickly on the trunks that we found filmy ferns thriving at head height

If our forebears hadn’t stripped Dartmoor, would any of this wilderness be here? Would we find rare stag’s-horn clubmoss on the heath or Sphagnum imbricatum growing on the bogs? Would we have this sanctuary for the otters, the cuckoos and the horseshoe bats? And would I be here, unboxing myself?

On average, there’s two and a half times more rainfall on the moor than on the nearby Exe Estuary; I had four days of solid sunshine, only one where the weather got ‘a bit thick’.

I told you I was lucky.

Above: Maidenhair spleenwort, a wee fern, growing between the cracks in an old stone bridge across the Cholake River

Happy Global Day of Climate Action!

This is a takeover! Legendary school strike movement Fridays For Future have declared today a global day of climate action. As Eric Damien from Fridays For Future Kenya says:

The pandemic has shown us that politicians have the power to act quickly and consistent with the best available science. But not even amid a pandemic is the climate crisis on hold. No measures have been taken to lower worldwide greenhouse gas emissions in a sustainable and just manner. The billion-dollar-investments that are now made to tackle the pandemic and its aftermath must be in line with the Paris Agreement.

My action—aside from sending this email, which unhappily costs the planet approximately 1kg in carbon dioxide equivalent emissions—is to spend the week in Dartmoor. I’m training for my Hill and Moorland Leader qualification and need to get some quality walking days done before the winter lockdown sets in.

Watchful in Wistman’s Wood, Dartmoor. Photo by legendary photographer and all round nice guy, Ben Queenborough (his words, not mine)

It might not sound like much of an ACTION, but spending more time in nature and helping others do the same is a significant element of the change we need to make.

Out on Dartmoor, the ‘environment’ isn’t a hypothetical entity beyond your screen. It’s coming at you from all angles, undeniable and awe-inspiring. We protect what we value, but we can only value what we know ourselves, first hand.

Wistful near Devil’s Tor, Dartmoor

Helping teenagers spend a couple of days immersed in nature—especially those who’ve never hauled a backpack into the woods or held a map the right way up before—makes it a little more likely that they’ll be sympathetic to radical economic and ecological change, not only when they grow up, but now.

A 2009 study from the University of Rochester found that exposure to mere photographs of natural landscapes nudged people to value their community and human relationships. On the contrary, exposure to images of man-built cityscapes made people more focussed on wealth and fame.

Focussed on wealth and fame, but also focussed on not falling arse over tit on a massive trip ladder

In an attempt to explain why this should be, study co-author Andrew Przybylski suggested that nature helps us connect to our authentic selves.

Nature in a way strips away the artifices of society that alienate us from one another.

This is worth pondering. What kind of environments, in this fragile moment, should we choose for ourselves and our children? It doesn’t have to be Dartmoor: as the Rochester study showed: images work a little; plants work a little more.

What does your immediate environment look like today? What can you do now to turn your environment into action for the climate?

Plant wisdom in the ancient forest

Make adders count

Last weekend I saw my first adder. I didn’t take a photograph because I was instructing a group of teenagers and we don’t do screens when we’re outdoors. Instead we watched in awe as it slalomed across the sandy path and into the tree root undergrowth.

We were lucky: adders are a conservation priority species in the UK and 90 percent of adder sites now have only small populations—and numbers are falling. The Amphibian and Reptile Groups of the UK (ARG!) found that, unsurprisingly, the human rampage was doing nothing for the peace and tranquillity of Britain’s most infamous serpent.

You might not have much sympathy for the adder personally, but they are an indicator species: if adders are struggling, then so too are unheralded species who share the same habitat.

While no one wants to be bitten by a snake, adders are not aggressive animals and adder venom toxicity is relatively low compared to other vipers. There have been 14 fatalities from adder bites in the UK since 1876, and none since 1975.

If you’re bitten, seek medical attention immediately: there’s a buffet of at least eight different antivenoms to enjoy.

Feel the Fear… And Give Future Readers a Hard Time By Not Referencing Your Sources Anyway!

I’m currently reading Feel the Fear… And Do It Anyway, a classic of the self-help genre, by Susan Jeffers. It was written in a fever of enthusiasm back in 1987 and you can kind of tell.

Although there’s plenty of practical wisdom in there—clearly inspired by the Stoics I might add—there are also moments of sweeping generalisation and unsubstantiated assertion. All good fun.

I’m reading the revised edition, published in 2012, and very much enjoying the fact that she felt no need to update the references to ‘audio cassettes’ and ‘portable CD players’. More annoying, however, is her tendency to quote other writers without attribution or without context.

In the chapter ‘Filling the Inner Void’ Jeffers presents a long quotation from George Bernard Shaw. I wanted to share his idea of ‘feverish selfishness’ with you, but also wanted to give some context. So I looked it up on the internet—something Susan Jeffers can kind of be forgiven for missing out on in 1987, but not in 2012.

Irrelevant fact: Bernard Shaw and Bob Dylan are the only artists to have been awarded both an Oscar and a Nobel Prize. Life goals.

It wasn’t easy sourcing this supposed Bernard Shaw quotation. It seems like most of the internet has slavishly copied out the words as they appear in Jeffers’ book, but I’m more demanding than that. The internet is full of ‘inspirational’ quotes spuriously attributed to dead white men: I want to see the words printed by a reputable publisher, ideally in Bernard Shaw’s very own blood.

Plugging the first words of Jeffers’ quotation into DuckDuckGo, I quickly traced them to the dedication at the beginning of Bernard Shaw’s 1903 play Man and Superman:

This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.

I note that Jeffers edited the text slightly, changing ‘you’ to ‘me’ at the end and excising the excellent ‘scrap heap’ clause. (For pity’s sake, Susan, there are ellipses in the title of your book, why not use them in quotations?)

But even ignoring those minor quibbles, this text is scarcely half of what Jeffers had presented as a continuous quotation. Where’s the rest? Cue more frantic searching, but the words are nowhere to be found in Man and Superman.

DuckDuckGo had to work hard to earn its crushed biscuits this time. Mainly because the second part is uncontextualised reported speech quoted at the very end of George Bernard Shaw: His Life and Works, a 1911 biography by Archibald Henderson:

“I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community, and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatsoever I can.

“I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no ‘brief candle’ for me. It is a sort of splendid torch, which I have got hold of for the moment; and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.”

Jeffers was a little more free with the translation here: her source—clearly not Henderson’s biography—less precise. This makes me think that she was given this quotation as it’s presented: the two parts as a whole.

Looking back at how Jeffers presents the quotation(s), I can see the disjunction in the two texts. The first, written by Bernard Shaw himself, is a single sentence with a transcendent idea concisely expressed from three different angles. It was this first sentence that I wanted to share with you (and now look what’s happened).

The second passage you can tell is reported speech. It’s no less than five sentences, including two half-thought fragments. It’s both more wordy and a little cliché. With all due respect to Archibald Henderson, you can tell it’s not the drafted and re-drafted work of Bernard Shaw.

Anyway, the point is: always reference your sources. Oh, and please be ‘a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy’. Nice one.

Maybe we’re doing okayish

In his book There Is No Planet B, Mike Berners-Lee bemoans the ironically glacial pace of international action on climate change:

We have had decades of warning about climate change. But we have wasted that time through our denial, first of the problem itself and then of the nature of the solution that is required, and through the unspeakably clumsy way in which we inch towards the kind of global agreement that might actually help. In the Anthropocene, we can’t rely on every challenge giving us so much warning. We’d better practise our global governance because we might need to respond to something just as intangible as climate change on a far shorter timescale.

This was a funny thing to read in the middle of a global pandemic because it made me reflect that, for the most part, humans are actually doing okay this time around.

Yes, nearly a million people have died from Covid-19. That’s awful. Perhaps millions more will die in the months and years to come. That’s also awful.

But the response, which is what Berners-Lee is talking about, has been rapid, global and, most importantly, cooperative. Given the difficulties—or perhaps because of them—there has been a surprising shortage of denial, clumsiness and ‘inching’.

Of course we can all point to individuals who dig sandpits of denial, others to whom clumsiness is a kind of elegance, and still more whose rulers are still dreamily scored with Imperial Inches.

But if we ignore the bombast of our elected politicians… What have we seen?

  • As individuals, we have all taken part in rapid and compliant social lockdowns to slow the spread of the virus. More importantly: we haven’t torn our social fabric in the process. Indeed, research from 28 countries suggests that people may be feeling slightly less lonely now than they were before the pandemic. Well done us.
  • For all the post-truth opprobrium aimed at the ‘so-called experts’, the response to Covid-19 from the scientific community has been instantly impressive. To take vaccines alone, there are 321 candidates in development, with 39 already going through clinical trials. A process that usually takes years is being compressed into months—despite the difficulties of social distancing in a laboratory. Well done science.
  • Last year, the number of worldwide deaths from AIDS fell to its lowest level since 1993—and incidence of the disease is at its lowest since the epidemic began. (Wait, you’ll see how this is relevant in a second.) The UN estimates that the total amount of money needed for the global response to an AIDS epidemic that will kill another 600,000 people in 2020 is only £22bn. (Okay, here we go.) By July—i.e. only four months into their response to Covid-19—the UK government (alone) had spent £15bn on PPE (alone) for NHS staff (alone). That gives us some idea of the scale of our response to Covid-19.

Two points arising from these three observations:

  1. The AIDS epidemic is much worse than you think and still horribly underfunded. In the last thirty years, we’ve lost 32,000,000 lives to the disease—that’s the population of Australia and Denmark put together. An even larger number are living with AIDS today.
  2. No matter how shit Covid-19 is and no matter how much shitter things get, I don’t think humans should beat themselves up about their response. We can—and we will—do more, but maybe we’re already doing okay.

Finally, this isn’t to undermine Berners-Lee’s point about climate change. Note that he says ‘we might need to respond to something just as intangible as climate change’. Covid-19 is far from being intangible: as I’ve pointed out, human beings are very good at dealing with imminent threats to life.

As Daniel Gilbert wrote in his article ‘If only gay sex caused global warming’:

Like all animals, people are quick to respond to clear and present danger, which is why it takes us just a few milliseconds to duck when a wayward baseball comes speeding toward our eyes. The brain is a beautifully engineered get-out-of-the-way machine that constantly scans the environment for things out of whose way it should right now get.

Sadly, the brain is nigh-on helpless when faced with the inexorable logic of generational climate change. But perhaps Covid-19 is helping us rewire our Neanderthal instincts, showing us how, when the chips are down, we can do this rapid, global cooperation kind of thing.

And that maybe, perhaps, we’ll do okayish.

Death of an anarchist

David Graeber, author of one of the most influential books I’ve ever read—Debt: The First 5,000 Years—died earlier this week.

David Graeber may have been professor of anthropology at Yale, Goldsmiths and finally the London School of Economics, but he was always conscious that his work must not be allowed to stifle in the deoxygenated air of academia.

He was a practical and public intellectual who faced down the big social inequalities of our time and has given thousands of people the tools to build an alternative.

Occupy debt

Graeber came to my attention in 2011 as something of a doorman for the Occupy movement. He opened doors we thought were permanently locked and showed us entire suites of rooms that we never could have imagined were there.

Reading Debt: The First 5,000 Years, I often laughed.

I learned that systems of credit and debt, far from being the pernicious invention of modern capitalists, are how human societies have managed their economic affairs for millennia. But I also learned that we are perhaps the first society to orgy in credit and debt without having in place the checks and balances that protect the poor from catastrophe.

Graeber traces how these checks and balances came into being in ancient Sumer:

In years with bad harvests especially, peasants would start becoming hopelessly indebted to the rich, and would have to surrender their farms and, ultimately, family members, in debt bondage. Gradually, this condition seems to have come to a social crisis—not so much leading to popular uprisings, but to common people abandoning the cities and settling territory entirely and becoming semi-nomadic ‘bandits’ and raiders. It soon became traditional for each new ruler to wipe the slate clean, cancel all debts, and declare a general amnesty or ‘freedom’, so that all bonded labourers could return to their families.

Biblical prophets also formalised this system of ‘Jubilee’ and cancelled all debts every seven years. This was how humans arranged things for centuries: all debts cancelled, every seven years.

Its simplicity and justice still makes me laugh.

Graeber dared us to wonder why our society couldn’t declare regular jubilees, write off all debts and protect the poor against the wealthy? There’s no reason why not. It’s a choice.

As you can imagine, this colour of politics was too much for the fine upstanding Yale University and we were lucky that Graeber decided to move to London—in fact, he joined the university over the road from where I lived: Goldsmiths.

On bullshit jobs

Graeber taught a number of my friends at Goldsmiths and I attended a few of his public seminars, where we got to discuss and share ideas in an atmosphere of open debate. It’s hard to overestimate this guy. He was like a rockstar to me and my friends.

In fact, Graeber’s 2013 article On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs came about after a friend of mine, STRIKE! magazine’s Vyvian Raoul, asked Graeber whether he had ‘anything provocative that no one else would be likely to publish’.

Oh yes he did. It was an idea that would call into question the value of entire industries, let alone jobs—including, perhaps, his own.

This was his original thesis of ‘bullshit jobs’:

Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it.

The article hit such a nerve that it crashed the magazine’s servers multiple times and was copied and republished (frequently by bullshit companies) across the known world. In 2018, Graeber expanded his ideas and the polemical article became a more carefully researched book.

The bullshitisation of work

In his book, David Graeber details a taxonomy of five varieties of bullshit job, each with its own identifiable features. Before explaining further, Graeber stresses that there can be no objective definition of a bullshit job: if an employee asserts that their job is bullshit, then bullshit it is.

Likewise, however, it’s very hard to argue against someone who believes that their job isn’t bullshit. So don’t be offended if you recognise your job as one of those broadly categorised as bullshit. Maybe it’s not for you.

Nevertheless, the response to Graeber’s book seems to suggest that people know when what they’re doing is worthless—even if they’ve buried that sense deep down inside.

  • Flunkies: people whose only purpose is to make someone else look important. Doormen, concierges, some receptionists and personal assistants.
  • Goons: those people whose job has an aggressive element. The military, but also most lobbyists, PR specialists, telemarketers, and corporate lawyers.
  • Duct tapers: employees whose jobs exist only because of ‘a glitch or fault in the organisation; who are there to solve a problem that ought not to exist’.
  • Box tickers: ‘employees who exist only or primarily to allow an organisation to be able to claim it is doing something that, in fact, it is not doing’. Bureaucrats, in-house magazine writers and the unfortunate authors of unread government commissions.
  • Taskmasters: these employees come in two types. Type 1 Taskmasters are the opposite of Flunkies: ‘unnecessary superiors rather than unnecessary subordinates’. Type 2 Taskmasters are the bullshit generators: those whose ‘primary role is to create bullshit tasks for others to do, to supervise bullshit, or even to create entirely new bullshit jobs’.

Ring any bells? I recognise plenty of my past jobs in this list—and even a few of the ones I force myself do now I’m self-employed. I’m not alone in having thoroughly absorbed the logic of the bullshit economy.

The antidote

As well as describing the boundaries of bullshit, Graeber also suggests an antidote, reasoning that nothing can be called bullshit if it’s concerned with caring.

Now, maybe there are arms dealers who ardently believe that they’re in a caring career, but even so I think we can agree with Graeber that some jobs are more naturally compatible with caring: nurses, cleaners, teachers, mechanics and electricians (of the non-duct-taping variety) to name a few.

By choosing a non-bullshit career as a member of what Graeber calls the ‘caring classes’, you almost certainly won’t be rewarded financially. There is an inbuilt inequality in our society that seems to imply that bullshit jobs are so sociopathically awful that they need to be highly paid otherwise no one but sociopaths would be masochistic enough to take them.

The book summarises the results of a study by the New Economic Foundation that looked at the social return generated by various different jobs. See if you can identify the bullshit ones:

  • City banker – yearly salary c. £5 million – estimated £7 of social value destroyed for every £1 earned
  • Advertising executive – yearly salary c. £500,000 – estimated £11.50 of social value destroyed per £1 paid
  • Tax accountant – yearly salary c. £125,000 – estimated £11.20 of social value destroyed per £1 paid
  • Hospital cleaner – yearly income c. £13,000 (£6.26 per hour) – estimated £10 of social value generated per £1 paid
  • Recycling worker – yearly income c. £12,500 (£6.10 per hour) – estimated £12 in social value generated per £1 paid
  • Nursery worker – salary c. £11,500 – estimated £7 in social value generated per £1 paid

See any injustice there? It was something that was deeply felt at the Occupy protests—indeed, Graeber describes the Occupy movement as the ‘revolt of the caring classes’. He observes that the most common complaint heard at the protests went something along these lines:

“I wanted to do something useful with my life; work that had a positive effect on other people or, at the very least, wasn’t hurting anyone. But the way this economy works, if you spend your working life caring for others, you’ll end up so underpaid and so deeply in debt you won’t be able to care for your own family.”

But of course the Occupy movement wasn’t enough. That’s why Graeber wrote this book: in the hope that it would offer millions more flunkies, box tickers and duct tapers the intellectual courage to quit and join the ranks of dissenters.

Funnily enough, though, the only reason STRIKE! magazine—and Graeber’s original polemic—ever existed at all was thanks to a bullshit job.

Bullshit origins of STRIKE!

Last year, I interviewed Vyvian Raoul for a review of Bullshit Jobs that I never finished writing. He told me how, back in 2013, he’d been working as a communications officer for a big charity in London. A classic bullshit job.

‘It was basically internal PR, jeeing up the troops,’ he explained. ‘People hated us. We should have been spending the money on more nurses.

‘One time I corrected the grammar on a blogpost that the CEO wrote,’ Raoul said. ‘It was the only useful thing I ever did there—and I got a bollocking for it.

‘From that point on, I’m coasting,’ he continued, ‘and I started setting up STRIKE! in my spare time at work.’

Raoul remembers exactly where he was when he first read On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs:

‘I was reading it in Vauxhall Park in the sun when my boss walked past. We reluctantly greeted each other,’ Raoul said. ‘I knew, in that moment, that I was going to leave the job—and maybe jobs full stop.’

The first issue of STRIKE! was paid for out of his redundancy pay from that bullshit job. Graeber’s article was published in the third issue of the magazine and was only posted online as something of an after thought. It went viral: office workers around the world nodding their heads and beating their desks.

‘We got quite a few people emailing in to say thanks for publishing the article and that they’d left their jobs on the basis of it,’ Raoul told me.

I like the circularity of this story. Severance pay from a bullshit job liberated Vyvian Raoul and gave him the independence he needed to start a radical newspaper that published a tract against bullshit jobs, which has itself inspired another generation of bullshit employees to quit and revolt.

Raoul finished our conversation about Bullshit Jobs in a reflective mood: ‘Perhaps liberation is more of a process than a grand, Utopian, revolutionary moment,’ he suggested. ‘And maybe that’s the point of the book?’

~

All I can add is encouragement for us all to continue our process of liberation. All of David Graeber’s books and many articles are available for free online at the Anarchist Library.

Besides his writing, David Graeber was an excellent public speaker and many lectures and discussions will outlive him online:

If you’d like to support the ongoing publication of David’s work then check out Anthropology for All and buy some ‘politically challenging’ books from Anthropology for Kids (content suitable, nay important for all ages).

Above all, please, please make sure that you really give a damn about what you’re doing. Do yourself a favour and care.

I raise my cap to a proper public intellectual. Someone who grappled with politics and ideas in a way that made sense and was immediately useful. Rest in power.

Why do we theorise a conspiracy?

This episode of BBC CrowdScience looks at why people believe conspiracy theories and how empathy is a better approach than argument when trying to understand and talk these people into a different reality.

Even better: the episode also tells how the modern concept of the contemptible ‘conspiracy theorist’ was created by an actual conspiracy of tobacco companies to discredit people who claimed that cigarettes cause cancer. Sometimes they are out to get us!

Similarly, in How to destroy surveillance capitalism, Cory Doctorow offers up this explanation for why outlandish conspiracy theories like QAnon have become so popular:

What if it’s the material circumstances, and not the arguments [of conspiracy theorists]? What if the trauma of living through real conspiracies all around us—conspiracies among wealthy people, their lobbyists, and lawmakers to bury inconvenient facts and evidence of wrongdoing, commonly known as “corruption”—is making people vulnerable?

In a more honest society that looks after all its citizens, perhaps we have fewer people wasting their energy on finding laughably convoluted reasons for why they’re being dicked on.

Why do we theorise a conspiracy? Maybe because there is a conspiracy, but it’s not the one you’ll find in obscure corners of the internet. Like the idea of sucking smoke into your lungs being healthy, this conspiracy is almost depressingly obvious—but the antidote is in our power, from putting a tick in the right box to banners, boats and brass bands. And mass arrests.

Hair loss

I’ve cut my hair off!

I started growing my hair long back in the summer of 2011—coincidentally the last time I cycled around Britain. My central reason for donating my hair to make wigs for children with cancer is, as you could guess, guilt.

But it wasn’t guilt felt for the injustice of being a healthy and hair-lthy adult when there thousands of kids undergoing chemotherapy while still in primary school.

No: I felt guilty for taking the piss out of a friend for growing his hair long. It was only after six months of gentle, yet persistent ribbing that he turned to me and said: ‘So what are you doing for kids with cancer, Dave?’

Over the past nine years, I’ve donated my golden locks no less than five times. My reason for doing so has morphed from that schoolish guilt into no-brainer logic:

‘My hair is growing anyway, so why the blue blazes would I not donate it to charity, if it’ll do some good in the world?’

Now, sadly, the time has come to hang up my hairbrush and put away the conditioners. I have been advised that my male pattern baldness may have become too extreme to pull off long hair a sixth time.

But, you know, two of my favourite comedians of all time are Andy Zaltzman and Bill Bailey so never say never.

Above: Two handsome style icons.

If you decide that you might as well let your hair grow so that kids can get cancer wigs, then look up the Little Princess Trust. They’d love your long locks, ideally anything upwards of 11 inches. This time around I went out with a record-breaking 16 inches.


Philoxenia around Britain Huge thanks to everyone who hosted me or simply made me smile

Philoxenia is the Greek idea of generosity and friendship towards strangers. During my cycle ride around the south of Britain in the summer of 2020, I was the happy recipient of many, many acts of generosity. This page is so that I can thank some of them publicly.

Thank you!

Part 1: The Southeast

On departure

Huge thanks to everyone who is helping to make this ride feel even remotely possible. Special thanks to A.C. for the ideas and company, The Tim Traveller for disturbing Youtube AUDIENCE advice, the Thighs of Steel family for oodles of inspiration and for the Wahoo, Documentally for my birthday microphone, and, of course, thanks to the Charles Family for the sense of home to which I will return. Insha’allah.

Week 1

Huge thank you to everyone who has made the last week such a friendly place. Especially to Yes Tribe Michelle, Rob Wills and Annette Coppin for heartful hospitality in Brighton and Hastings.

Week 2

Thank you, thank you, thank you this week to my hosts and hospitable friends, old and new: Tom and Claire, Anna, Thom and Anna, Claire, Naomi, Ben, Annie and Poppy, Fern and Beth and Lucy.

Major major thanks to Anna Hughes, who not only guided me to a peaceful sleeping spot in Epping Forest, but also took the time to record a great interview about Flight Free UK—only for me to mess up the recording. Sorry!

Week 3

Huge thanks to the hospitable friends and strangers who have made the last seven days such a delight: Pandora, the Wickers family, Sarah and Chloe, John the ferryman, Lesley the artist, Debbie and Steve, Duncan of the incredible Dunx Cycles, Peter Langford the world record holder, and the extraordinary, expecting Matt and Lisa.

Thank you also to all the patient woodland creatures who put up with me wild camping in their homes. Even the ants.

But I reserve extra extra special thanks for my final hosts on this tour of southeast England: Documentally and his wonderfully generous family. Camping in a friend’s back garden was a celebratory end to this part of my journey and I was overwhelmed with too many kindnesses to mention.

Part 2: The Southwest

Week 4

Huge thanks this week to: David and Margaret, esteemed parents of The Tim Traveller, for a lovely cup of tea – only nine years delayed. David, a retired Anglican vicar, told me how Covid-inspired Zoom services are now spreading The Word to people who wouldn’t be seen dead in a church. In every crisis, an opportunity.

Thanks to Will and Daryl, the two tourers from Lincoln, who brightened my day with enthusiasm for life on the road. And then slagged off Exeter cathedral: ‘It’s not fit to wash Lincoln’s boots!’

Above: Three cycle cap models and, in the background, an okay cathedral.

Mighty, mighty thanks to Exeter Paul, a truly generous host who saved me from a thunderstorm and revealed the true meanings behind what I called ‘the racist elephant’.

Thanks also to the many other people who have shared fleeting wisdom and encouragement along the track. You enrich my days.

Finally, and above all, to the family Charles for a mid-cycling holiday in the heat.

Week 5

Enormo-thanks this week to Andy and family for hosting me in Mevagissey and for keeping me company on an eventful ride to Helston: two ferries and a change of tyre.

Gigantic thanks also to the Granvilles of Helston for two nights of warmth and record-breaking hospitality. As ever.

Thanks also to the highways and byways of this southwest corner of Britain. We’ve been safe together so far – long may it continue!

Week 6

A short list of deep gratitude to the people who were inordinately kind to a lost and bedraggled stranger:

  • Ricky the first-day-back otherwise-empty bus driver who took me and a very sorry-state Martin from Chew Magna to Keynsham.
  • Paul and Annie (and the two dogs) for goose-field camping, nettle wine, a pick-n-mix feast, with cups of tea looking out into cloudbursts. I found this loving home on Warmshowers.org—a community of legends who open up their doors to touring cyclists all over the world.
  • Peter and family (and two further dogs) overlooking the stormy Somerset Levels, who shared their medieval banquet and gave me a night’s dominion over their piano room and airing cupboard.
  • The wondrous people of Tudor Road in Bristol who warmed my cockles and combed my hair when all was tangled.
  • Storm Francis also made me feel welcome, blowing me all the way up the north west of the country to refuge. Bus shelters, cafe awnings and spreading oaks became dear friends.
  • Final thanks to the Granvilles, who teach me more about philoxenia every time I bugle my way into their presence. Big love.

Cycling around Britain: Why is this happening? 2,210km DONE // Southeast and southwest Britain COMPLETE

On Tuesday, I kind of rolled into Bristol, after cycling 1,012 kilometres around the southwest of the country. That means that, since the easing of lockdown, I’ve pedalled the whole of the south of England: from Britain’s most easterly point at Ness Point in Lowestoft to its joint-most photographed signpost at Land’s End.

Combined, the two halves of the tour—southeast and southwest—have gobbled up 2,210 kilometres’ worth of tyre tracks. But one statistic is suggestive of the difference in my cycling experience. In the east of the country, my thousand-plus kilometres involved a little over 6,000 metres of climbing. In the west, my thousand kilometres dragged me up over 10,000 metres.

Update: Strava data puts my southeast ride at 7,742m of elevation and the southwest at 15,444m—almost exactly double the climbing over a slightly shorter distance. This data is much closer to my felt experience, but then I would say that!

The take home message is tourers beware! Komoot, Strava and RideWithGPS each appear to use very different maps to calculate elevation data, with variations of up to 50 percent in some parts of the world. That’s huge. This StackExchange post from 2013 concludes that Strava was the most trustworthy of those apps tested—but that might well depend on where you’re riding.

Devon and Cornwall are hilly: 10,000 metres is a Ben Nevis on top of a Mount Everest. But the statistics don’t really tell the full story either: these hills are sharp, up to 33 percent in places, on narrow, winding roads, with descents too dangerous to build momentum for the next.

Hence my twin fascinations this week with a) proper bike gears and b) everything happening for a reason. Hopefully the promise of b) will keep you reading even if a) makes your eyes twitch with boredom.

My round Britain rides since 17 July. You can scan more detail on Komoot

Why me, why now?

Eighteen kilometres from the finish line, riding in merriment along the shore of Chew Valley Lake. I was making good time—a friend called to ask would I be in Bristol for lunch?—and the rain, hard on my heels, flogged and foaming at the head of Storm Francis, was for now holding off.

The road alongside the lake had recently been resurfaced and there was a temporary 20mph speed limit to stop the loose gravel spitting out of car wheels and giving pedestrians and cyclists brain damage.

A car passed me at forty. I had scarcely finished my impotent admonishments, when my chain locked up. This wasn’t a mere clumsy shift: my cranks could spin neither clockwise nor anticlockwise. I skittered to a stop, looked down and saw a pretty pickle:

Among bicycle mechanics, this is technically known as ‘a right mess’. The rear mech has twisted at a screwy angle to the chain: like it had melted under tension.

At this point—so near and yet so far—it’d be easy to curse the heavens. I hadn’t cycled 1,000 kilometres over the past two weeks to finish like this!

But what if this frankly tour-ending disaster was all happening for me, not to me?

After all, I was lucky. This could have happened an hour ago, as I aquaplaned through rocky off-road puddles in the Mendips, a soggy trog from all civilisation. But it has happened here: around the corner from a cafe. I could eat some chips, call some friends and find a solution.

The cafe was closed.

But the toilets were open. Swings and roundabouts. I laughed. Then called some friends. We found a solution: I could unmount the rear mech, break the chain, remove half a dozen links and turn my bike into a fixie: a one gear wonder.

I laughed again: the wind whipped the sound up into the hills. Over the summer I’ve met a lot of people more or less new to cycling. These gentlefolk are often the beneficiaries of a forceful rant about the witless cupidity of bicycle manufacturers.

A forceful rant

As far as I’m concerned, any cyclist who wants to preserve their knees-up-Mother-Brown talents absolutely must have a bike with gears. Many gears, yes, but more importantly the right gears.

Gears are at least half of the miracle of cycling. When they were first invented, gears were banned at the Tour de France. They made the race too easy in the sadistic eyes of the demented organiser.

But most of us, our yellow jerseys faded in the wash, want cycling to be as damn easy as possible—and that means getting the most out of the genius of gears: a tiny front chainring and a decent spread at the back.

These are the kind of gears designed so that even the steepest hill can be tackled in the saddle, giving you and I about another twenty years of squatting potential before knee surgery.

But these are precisely the kind of gears that the big bike builders ignore in favour of a set that suits the show-off accelerate downhill suicide slalom brigade. Who will pay more for their wheels.

And the lack of education around gear mechanics means that your everyday common or garden cyclist also ends up chasing the wrong metric when buying a bike. Instead of thinking hard about the physics of bicycle locomotion, people are eased in the direction of a simpler rubric: kilograms.

Almost understandably, bicyclists believe that a lighter bike will be easier to ride. It might be, but the difference will be scarcely noticeable and cost a lot of money. Ease is in the gears.

It’s frustrating when friends ask me about spending hundreds and thousands (not the cake topping) on lighter frames when all they need to do is switch to a smaller chainring. Shaving a couple of kilos from your bike’s waistline is nice, but won’t give you the massive mechanical advantage that better gearing will.

Rant over.

Sorry—nearly over.

If you’re not a cyclist, do yourself a favour: learn more about gears. When you realise how easy cycling can be on all topography and terrain, maybe you’ll come around.

If you are a cyclist, do yourself a favour: learn more about gears. Hill climbing is no harder than cycling on the flat—slower, maybe, but not harder—so long as you have the right gears and know how to use them.

In Exeter, I did a quick hill-climbing test with a friend of mine, comparing the gearing on his bike with the gearing on mine. We found a short, sharp incline outside his house and I got him to ride up on his bike in the lowest gear.

‘Actually, this is pretty easy,’ he said as I watched his legs push hard down through the pedals.

‘Try mine,’ I replied, shifting it into the lowest gear. He swung himself onto the saddle, eased his feet down onto the pedals—and nearly fell off.

The gear ratio on my bike was so extreme that the cranks turned with barely any pressure: my friend had never dreamed that such mechanical advantage could make hills so comfortable.

Seriously: Alee Denham on Cycling About has a fantastic series of articles on the subject. Read them all.

Back to the story

As I pulled the ugly twisted metal that used to be Martin’s rear mech away from the hanger, I realised that it was still attached to the frame by the (new) shifter cable. I had no wire cutters and my teeth aren’t what they used to be. I inspected the scissors and wood saw options on my penknife. My penknife hid itself at the bottom of my bag and tried to look busy.

Then a man pulled up in a small white van: he was down here from pest control in south Wales to check on the toilets. ‘Sorry to bother you,’ I blurted at him, ‘I don’t suppose you’ve got a pair of wire cutters or pliers, have you?’

Smiling like the Mona Lisa, the workman ducked into the back of his van and rattled around among his miscellanea. A pair of wire cutters appeared in the palm of his hand. ‘Take them,’ he said. I laughed: this was going to work.

All set to go, I washed my hands in the conveniently located toilets, and wobbled triumphantly back past the Chewy ducks.

Getting in a fix with a fixie

The problem with building a fixie bike, I discovered, is that the chain needs to fit perfectly: neither too tight, nor too loose. This is hard to achieve on the road: I don’t even know if it’s possible.

My fixed chain was on the loose side. When I arrogantly decided to shift up to a larger chainring, the chain pulled taut over the cogs, the limber flex vanished and every turn of the pedals became a grinding tug of war.

My bike was, to put it politely, fucked. But the unlikely fix had held the couple of kilometres to Chew Magna and I rolled gently to a stop outside the Cooperative Food supermarket.

I knelt down and got my hands oily. A man, on his way to an eat-out to help out pub lunch with his girls, leant over my shoulder: ‘You alright? What’s the problem?’

The man lived over the road and offered me tools and spare parts; his two talkative young girls eagerly me a deathmatch game of Dobble.

I thanked them and decided that what I really needed was a peanut butter sandwich.

~

On my knees outside St Andrew’s Church, a rotating cast of onlookers sympathised with my plight. An hour’s worth of oil under my fingernails, busted chain links scattered on the holy ground, and I was ready to ride again.

Two hundred metres onward, my second technically incompetent foray into bike mechanics auto-aborted and the chain snapped. This time there were no conveniently located toilets.

Swings: Storm Francis loomed over the horizon.
Roundabouts: so too did the number 683 bus to Keynsham.

And this is how I met Ricky.

A broken bike on a deserted bus

Ricky: Everything happens for a reason (or: you can’t deny that everything happens, so you might as well look for any reason that makes sense of it all)

‘It’s my first day back on the job since February,’ was Ricky’s opening line after taking my fare. For the twenty years before lockdown he’d worked as a coach driver, taking kids out on school trips mostly. Of course all that work has evaporated, like a skein of summer rain on his widescreen windscreen.

Now. I’ve spent the vast majority of my time cycle touring engaged in a battle of curses with other road users. That’s a horrible exaggeration, of course, but remember those Devonian and Cornwallian hill roads? They’re steep, narrow and windy—in both its whine-dy and win-dy phonemic forms.

Definitively not the kind of roads happily shared by both fossil fuelled and peanut-butter-sandwich fuelled modes of transport.

To be fair, most drivers are as considerate as can be given the anti-convivial infrastructure. There are plenty of passing places where either the on-rushing driver or the on-panicking cyclist can pull over. Waves, thanks and thumbs ups can then be cordially exchanged and both parties can put their feet to their respective pedals and hasten onward to their doom.

But some drivers…

Climbing up from a ravine beach in the sleeting sideways rain, up a 33 percent gradient, I was confronted head-on by the broad beam of an expensive Land Rover.

For context, a 33 percent gradient is about as tough a climb as a human-powered bike can manage. Climbs at the Tour de France rarely peak at such a steep incline. And those riders aren’t encumbered with an extra twenty kilos of camping kit (they don’t even carry their own peanut butter).

As I sweated up the incline, salty rivulets on my handlebars, the Land Rover ahead resolutely budged not. Something of a stand-off, except we were both sitting down—albeit at slightly unequal degrees of comfort.

There was no bike-sized gap on either side of the vehicle’s wing mirrors, which poked into the nettle-strewn hedge. But I’d be a poltroon of the highest order if I was going to turn around and cycle back down this Eiger impersonation so that this climate-controlled tourist could save himself the hassle of reversing thirty metres to the passing place behind him.

So I stopped and waited, catching my breath, until the man reversed and we could all get on with our tiny lives.

~

Now, though, I was on the other side of the glass, listening to Ricky talking about carting schoolkids round down the back lanes of the West Country.

‘Some cyclists,’ he started, ‘not you, like, but some of them…

‘I was behind this one cyclist, on a straight main road—and he had every right to be there, course he did—but there was about a mile of traffic backed up behind me. I could hear them beeping at him to move over, right?

‘A coach takes a long time to build up speed, see. I need a long straight to accelerate enough to overtake, right? But this road had double white lines down the middle. I can’t legally cross those white lines to overtake. Not with forty kids in the back, I can’t—I simply can’t do it.

‘So there I am, crawling along at ten, twenty miles an hour, and we come to a lay-by—a proper long lay-by, mind you, good surface and all—easy for this cyclist to pull over and let me and this mile of traffic behind me pass.

‘You know what? He carried right on cycling.

‘Course he had every right, every right to do that,’ Ricky finishes, ‘but that’s why some drivers get upset.’

~

So this is why I’m here. What would I have learnt from another eighteen cycling kilometres on top of over two thousand? Chances are, I’d only have got stressed out fighting through the kind of city limits traffic I’ve fought hundreds of times before.

But on this otherwise empty number 683 bus to Keynsham, Ricky’s passed on something worth passing on. And it wouldn’t have happened at all if something shit hadn’t happened to me and my bike eighteen kilometres from home.

‘I’ll tell you what, mind,’ Ricky adds, ‘white vans are the worst. I don’t lose my rag and tell them to eff-off—I leave that to my schoolkids!’

Cycling around Britain: Detours

Welcome to Wadebridge, pride of the Camel Trail – a former railway line that’s been converted into a busy cycle path, following the gentle curves of the estuary from Padstow. It’s most glorious for families pulling trailers of toddlers and for tired tourers who win respite from the havoc of the Cornish verticals.

Views from the calm Camel Trail

While sitting here, a father and son duo pulled up on their laden touring bikes (father carrying double his coffee-deprived son). We swapped the usual news: they are heading back the way I’ve come, along the Camel Trail to Padstow and then climbing up to Newquay, St Ives and, in a couple of days, Land’s End.

They aren’t from this country and are only here because America is closed. ‘So we will have to spend some more time in your country,’ says the father.

‘But we weren’t expecting so many hills,’ he adds, ‘and they are so steep. We are doing Devon and Cornwall so everything else after this will be easy!’

Tackling the slopes alone – with only the occasional ‘that looks hard’ or thumbs up from a passing road user – it’s gratifying to halve my efforts with another tourer.

Especially with these two. Where are they from? Switzerland.

~

Having said all that, earlier today, like Robert Frost, I came to where two roads diverged. Both were marked on-road cycle paths, both bore a sign to Padstow, which pointed the way to my second breakfast (the first taken under a bus shelter during a downpour).

But one sign said Padstow 4 miles, the other Padstow 7 miles.

‘Long I stood, and looked down one as far as I could, to where it bent in the undergrowth’.

Making the most of technology unavailable to Robert Frost, I even checked the contour lines on the OS Map on my phone. Naturally, the longer route also afforded me another climb or two.

But the longer I tarried, the clearer it became to me: as the poet took the road less travelled, so I should take the road more difficult.

Any hesitation, really, is a clue. Adventure doesn’t happen on the straightest line from A to B.

What would have become of the Hobbits if there’d been a motorway or a flyover, taking them across the mountains of Mordor without stopping to admire the scenery or mingle with the locals?

Adventure occurs in the margins, in the moments I take to pause in a place – like my greetings of the Swiss – or in the detours.

The reward for my morning’s detour

It doesn’t mean anything to arrive (besides a sit down and a cup of tea), so take the harder, longer road. There will always be one moment that makes me agree that was all worthwhile – if only because, as Robert Frost puts it:

‘knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back’

Upon my arrival, I become the sum of all those momentary decisions of which cycle path to take (or which ‘ego tunnel’ to explore). Future me would rather that I’d taken the longer, the harder road, the road less travelled.

Looking back on these moments of decision, the left turns of life that we take for no good reason, we see that it’s the detours that make ‘all the difference’.

~

Indeed, this has been a week of detours. Here are two videos, one from a detour to Dartmoor and one from a detour to Land’s End.

 

Cycling around Britain: Leave no trace

Once I’ve recovered a faculty or two, I’ll be cycling across Dartmoor to a wild camp spot at Foggintor Quarries, following the trail of two awesome tourers I met/accosted in Exeter.

Will and Daryl have cycled the opposite way to me, down from Liverpool, around Wales and through Devon and Cornwall. It was a real joy to share stories and compare insect bites while they drank coffee and I ate a spectacular kimchi and tofu sandwich from The Exploding Bakery Cafe.

The past three days of riding have exhausted not only my sweat glands, but also my supply of adjectives. East Devon is not a designated Area of Outstanding Beauty for the purposes of a practical joke.

The Jurassic Coast at Sidmouth

In this case, both words and photography are inadequate to the task of inserting you into the scene, but hopefully they might cement you in your budding opinion that, yes, you will leave your house and step outside to feel the rivers, glades, and pastures that quietly surround you.

Doreen’s Garden, Branscombe

In the absurdly pictogenic village of Branscombe, a strip of thatched cottages and rose petals that conspire before a cobblestone church, sits a garden that unrolls into the valley. From the top, you can see carefully tended beds and meditative benches and a sign that says: ‘Doreen’s Garden, open to visitors all year round’.

I didn’t meet Doreen, but I put a pound into the collection bucket for the Devon Air Ambulance with a prayer that Doreen is merely the spade-head of a new movement to open up ‘private’ space to public enjoyment.

As someone ‘wild’ camping around England, a place where such guerilla accommodation is technically illegal without the permission of the landowner, the concept of public and private space is very important to me.

I’m reassured by the old folks I meet on the road, the salt-of-the-earth types who have lived round these parts for years. They say things like, ‘Don’t worry about the No Camping signs – they’re only there in case a whole hoard of people move in and won’t shift.’

Despite this reassurance, wouldn’t it be nice if the default legal position was that leave-no-trace, short term camping is permitted so long as it doesn’t disturb livestock, wildlife or agriculture. Why not?

And you don’t have to look far for that legal structure. The Scottish Outdoor Access Code protects the right to camp responsibly: in small numbers, for two or three nights in one place, avoiding enclosed fields of crops or farm animals as well as buildings, roads and historic monuments.

In England, Wales and Northern Ireland the law and the perceived attitude to wild camping are very different. But I’ve been open about my accommodation choices and have met no one who has opposed them or even expressed disapproval.

So perhaps the public perception of wild camping is ahead of the law in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Perhaps that means we can change it. Perhaps it is already changing.

Maybe because of its long association with the military, the right to wild camp is protected on Dartmoor (very convenient because that’s the direction I’m heading).

In the Lake District National Park, the National Trust now ask that people avoid lowland areas and head to the higher fells – and of course to leave no trace.

The spirit of leave no trace is absolutely non-negotiable.

Leaving anything but an impression in the grass will have an adverse effect on the wildlife – and reduce the chances that wild camping, legal or illegal, will be tolerated in the future.

Leaving no trace in an empty field in Dorset.

The pandemic has brought millions of people out into the countryside – a glorious rediscovery of the natural beauty and medicine of this island – but an unfortunate minority have conservation-shaped holes in their outdoors education.

Recently, the Guardian reported that a throwaway ‘festival’ culture has been brought into certain popular wild camping spots and the damage caused means that local rangers are having to clamp down on all overnighters.

Of course, clamping down is not the solution: the problem doesn’t seem to exist in Scotland, with its long history of outdoor access. Because it’s part of their birthright, Scottish campers also inherit an inkling of how to camp responsibly.

In England, it’s as if we’ve only just discovered an enormous lake of ice cream and we’ve jumped straight in, boots and all, without regard for spoiling the dessert that we share. Education, beginning with leave no trace, is the spoon that everyone should be given, long before their stomachs start rumbling.

We need a change in the law. And we need more spoons.

I told you I’d lost a faculty or two.

Cycling around Britain: Bikes are horses too!

Every single day I’m on my bike there are moments when I think: ‘I could have been killed there.’

Cars passing at speed too closely is the most common one. Yet, every now and again, I come across a horse and rider enjoying the same country lanes as me and watch in awe as these same lethal cars slow right down, pull over to one side or stop until the horse has passed.

I wish that our nation’s car drivers understood that cyclists are as vulnerable (and as unpredictable) as horse riders. We sometimes swerve to avoid potholes that you can’t see; we sometimes are blown around by wind that you can’t feel. And our flesh tears as easily as any horse’s, I promise you.

While riding, I daydreamed of starting a cycle-protection campaign: Bikes are horses too!

Then I learnt that the government are currently consulting on a raft of changes to the Highway Code that would recognise the vulnerability of cyclists, pedestrians and horse riders to inadequate or inattentive drivers.

It can’t come soon enough.

So please, if you’d like to see fewer human or animal carcasses on your roads (or bodies taking up space in your hospitals), take five minutes to respond to the government consultation here: Changes to The Highway Code: improving safety for cyclists, pedestrians and horse riders.

Cycling UK has summarised the changes that will protect cyclists, but it’s worth adding that the proposed ‘hierarchy of responsibility’ will also establish in law the duty of all road users to protect pedestrians—and that means cyclists should ride considerately too.

Finally, if you see someone driving dangerously then please (when safe) make a note of the vehicle’s registration, colour, make and model (a quick photograph works well) and report the incident to the police on their non-emergency number 101. It takes a few minutes and your phone call could save lives. The AA has more information on how to make a report.

I don’t know why drivers think they can get away with dangerous overtaking manoeuvres when their numberplate identifies them so conspicuously. It’s like a bankrobber politely presenting their passport to the teller before pulling out an uzi and screaming, ‘Open up the safe, bitch!’

If only attendance at the Ogmios School of Zen Motoring was compulsory…

Cycling around Britain: A cheese sandwich in a rainstorm Finding philoxenia in modern Britain

Sunday evening. It was getting late to find a camp spot. I’d run out of water and I only had rice cakes in my panniers for dinner. Southwold was full, with queues for chips snaking down one-way street pavements.

My last hope for an open shop was a rumoured ‘filling station’ in Wrentham. I rolled to a stop in the empty village. A woman was picking weeds from her driveway. Debbie.

After some hand-wringing over the likelihood of an open shop on a Sunday evening in the Suffolk countryside, I spilled: ‘The thing is,’ I said, ‘I’m running a little low on water.’

Debbie looked surprised: ‘Well, I can fill up your water bottles!’ She led me around to the gate before adding, ‘Are you okay with dogs?’

~

In Coviddy Britain I don’t like to ask people for favours that might put them under uncomfortable pressure to accept. And filling my water bottles is a fairly intimate act unless there’s a hosepipe in the garden.

After ushering me through a remarkable garden living room (with a barbeque made from a North Sea pipeline!) and setting the kitchen tap running, Debbie invited me in. She leaned on the back of a chair and looked at me over her full moon glasses: ‘I wish I had more to offer you, but there’s nothing in the fridge.’

Then she had a revelation: ‘Would you like a hot shower?’

~

Debbie’s kindness was part of a noble tradition of hospitality for passing travellers. Over the past few years, I’ve met this generosity countless times, cycling through Europe with Thighs of Steel.

In Albania last year, for example, every single day at least one cafe owner would refuse payment for coffees, give us free chocolate bars or flag us down on the street to offer us a cold drink.

The concept has a rich history in Ancient Greek mythology—the famous Trojan War was triggered by an abuse of hospitality when Trojan Paris stole Menalaus’ wife Helen while staying with the Greek. Not cool.

Modern Greeks still have a word for this tradition: philoxenia, unquestioning kindness to strangers.

This bike trip has been a lesson that philoxenia is alive and flourishing in Britain too.

~

After inviting her husband Steve to join the gathering, Debbie offered me a plastic garden chair and the three of us shared a local ale.

Facing a barrage of relentless hospitality, I finally accepted a cheese and pickle sandwich that Debbie wrapped in tin foil for later. She put a Diet Pepsi on the table too.

As they told stories, it became clear that this was far from the first time Debbie and Steve had opened their hearts, minds and doors to strangers.

One night, not long ago, Steve met a trio of ex-army lads in the pub. They were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and were on a therapeutic camp trip to work out some of their problems. One of the party was hyper, another was withdrawn. So Steve invited them over to the house for breakfast the next morning. When they didn’t show up, Steve drove out to the campsite and dragged them back for their egg and sausages.

Philoxenia.

~

As I stowed my water bottles for departure, thanking her again and again for her kindnesses, Debbie insisted that it wasn’t anything unusual.

‘It’s nothing,’ she said. ‘A few bottles of water and the end of loaf of bread!’

‘When you put it like that,’ I replied, ‘it doesn’t sound like much. But it’s not about the water. Most people wouldn’t give up their time so readily to strangers.’

I can imagine multiple scenarios that could have played out when I first approached Debbie outside her house. She could have been sympathetic and wished me luck finding a shop. She could have brought out water so that I could fill them from her driveway. She could have invited me in to fill the water bottles and then bid me safe travels.

And those are the positive scenarios. We’re living through a global pandemic for heaven’s sake—strangers are dangerous.

I imagined precisely zero scenarios where I left her house with a cheese sandwich, a Diet Pepsi, a bellyful of ale, a head full of stories and a heart full of tenderness.

‘Maybe this crisis has changed the way people think about others,’ Debbie said. ‘Maybe it’s brought us all closer together.’

~

As I reached a beautiful beach to camp on, the rain clouds swarmed down. Scrambling the tent up in record time, I lay on my airbed in the gloom and unwrapped the tin foil: four neatly cut squares of a cheese and pickle sandwich.

Do you know what? I think Debbie might be right.

Philoxenia in action

Over the past three weeks I have been the grateful recipient of thousands of acts of philoxenia, large and small.

Huge thanks to the hospitable friends and strangers who have made the last seven days such a delight: Pandora, the Wickers family, Sarah and Chloe, John the ferryman, Lesley the artist, Debbie and Steve, Duncan of the incredible Dunx Cycles, Peter Langford the world record holder, and the extraordinary, expecting Matt and Lisa.

Thank you also to all the patient woodland creatures who put up with me wild camping in their homes. Even the ants.

But I reserve extra extra special thanks for my final hosts on this tour of southeast England: Documentally and his wonderfully generous family. Camping in a friend’s back garden was a celebratory end to this part of my journey and I was overwhelmed with too many kindnesses to mention.

Somewhere around midnight, Documentally captured this video of me attempting to pin down the difference between this cycle trip around Britain and the last, nine years ago.

I can wholeheartedly recommend Documentally’s own newsletter. You can read his take on my visit in the latest edition here. Cheers!

Vegan update: Ahead of the curve?

Cycle touring as a vegan is, well, tricky. I didn’t have the heart to ask Debbie for a salad sandwich, for example. I’ll go out of my way to eat vegan when I’m in charge of the food, but there are times when the most gracious thing to do is to eat a bit of cheese—particularly as my reasons for veganism are more straightforward (and selfish) than ethical.

Quite simply: I have the sense that, as a species, we’re moving inexorably towards a meat-free future and I reckon that it’s better to be ahead of the curve than behind.

So, during lockdown, I wanted to know whether I could hack a plant-based meal plan (the answer is yes, quite comfortably). Eating vegan makes me more resilient to the future. That’s reassuring.

But when will this meat-free future arrive? Well, it’s already creeping up on us: this Bloomberg article reports how meat production has declined for the second consecutive year for the first time in recorded history.

That’s good news for the planet (and for human survival) so we might as well get ahead of the curve, right?

Cycling around Britain: Nine years

What were you doing nine years ago? Please, have a think. What’s changed? How have you grown?

I know exactly what I was doing: cycling around Britain. There is something physically, intellectually and spiritually potent about repeating a ‘once in a decade’ journey. The same routines of cycling and camping give ample space for reflection on how much has changed between then and now.

It’s the same journey, familiar, but by no means similar. As Heraclitus observed:

No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.

On this day in 2011, I was cycling from Tentsmuir Forest to Perth in Scotland. It was a short day’s ride of 48 miles. By this point in the journey I’d already cycled over 100 miles on two of the fifteen days and taken only one day off—to replace my old bike with the new one I still ride today. On 31 July, I broke through the 1,000 mile barrier.

This time around, I’ve cycled 444 miles and already taken four days off. My longest day’s ride has been 55 miles—and that was only so long because I took ages finding a camping spot in the Mad Max wastelands of Sheppey.

The Isle of Sheppey: part industrial wasteland, part nature reserve.

My first cycle around Britain was largely undertaken in a state of mild panic. Nine years ago, very close to where I sit now, here’s one small example from the story of that first round Britain adventure.

Six in the evening, somewhere outside Basildon, forty miles around Britain. I’m hauling myself down the hard shoulder of a fast dual carriageway, the direct route to Southend-on-Sea, when there’s a popping sound. The weight shifts and slings my bike lurching into the road. A car swerves past, horn blaring. My feet hit the ground, skidding to a stop. I scoot myself to safety. I look back: my bag has slewed off to one side and is now dragging halfway down the wheel. One of the bungee ropes has given way. I climb off and fix it up again, double wrapping my spare bungee tight around the rack. I cycle away, heart shaking, checking the bags with every paranoid turn of the pedals. I wonder vaguely how close I was to death. If a bungee had caught in my spokes, if the wheel had locked, if that car had been closer…

I’d never done anything like this ride before—and I knew nobody who had. I knew nothing about cycle touring, nothing about bikes and bike repair, and nothing about wild camping except that it was illegal. I’d only started cycling regularly a year earlier and my most recent day trip had ended with a dislocated shoulder.

Half an hour later, the rack itself snapped. Some of my panic was justified.

~

Panic in large part explains why I finished that first 4,110 mile journey in 58 days, with only four days off in the whole two months. Scared of what might happen if I was discovered, I cycled from the moment I awoke in my bivvy at dawn to the moment I thought it safe enough to hide in the shadows at dusk.

I was also scared that I couldn’t finish the journey so was driven on, addicted to doing one more mile before nightfall. This meant I wouldn’t take detours and was frustrated whenever I got lost, sticking to well-marked Sustrans cycle routes or the B-roads between towns.

Worst of all, I was scared to speak to the people I passed along the way. I thought they’d be disgusted by a sweaty, stinky cyclist who clearly didn’t know what he was doing. I hesitated before going into cafes and kept my head down when I did. Thank god for the few, precious friends I knew who lived or met me along the way: Ben, John, Zoe, Dani, Patrick and my parents.

~

This time is very different. I have done plenty of cycle touring now, including the confidence-building community adventures with Thighs of Steel. Now I know loads of people who do exactly this sort of thing. We share stories, laugh about our mishaps and revel in the unexpected.

This time, I know that I can cycle long distances, lugging my home behind me. I know how to diagnose and fix the most common things that can go wrong with my bicycle. I’m confident wild camping and have faith that nothing bad will happen even if I am discovered.

This time, I can’t worry about getting lost because I have my phone. The app I use for navigation, Komoot, has an active online community of cyclists who recommend places to visit along the way. It’s how I’ve been finding beautiful woods to camp in.

This time, I know that finishing the journey is the worst that can happen. This makes me slow down and, in slowing down, find the detours and adventures that make the road worth travelling.

Best of all, this time, I have friends. I’ve already stayed or shared tea with friends in Brighton, Hastings, Margate and London. And I’m no longer afraid to make new friends and talk to the people I pass—like the Yes Tribe adventurers who I stayed with in Brighton.

Or like the man I met shortly after passing this sign:

I was waylaid in Sandwich marketplace by Mark Daniel, who spied from my baggage that I was a fellow cycle tourer. Mark had been forced by Covid-19 to delay his departure on a two-year around the world bike ride and we chatted for a while about our bikes, our kit and our plans.

It was this idle conversation with a stranger that helped me appreciate the value of the passage of time.

In the nine years since I last cycled around Britain, I could easily experience how much I’d grown. Not only in my confidence with cycle touring, wild camping and talking to strangers, but in almost every area of my life: the friends I have, the work I do, the hobbies I hob, the places I’ve been, the people I’ve helped, the lessons I’ve learned. The length of my hair.

But then Mark Daniel told me something that blew my mind. He told me his age.

He was 62.

That puts 24 years between us—or 2.67 times nine years. If I can have grown this much since 2011, then what growth lies ahead in the next nine years? And in the nine years after that? And by the time I’m Mark Daniel’s age?

And, after all those 24 years of experiences, adventures, friendships and growth, then I could still cycle around the world? That is a wondrous thing to contemplate.

For many people, myself included, lockdown seemed to collapse time and shut down the optimistic vista of future opportunities. This adventure is doing the opposite for me—and I hope you too will take a moment to reflect on how much has changed in the last nine years in your world and how much could still be done in the time you have left.

There is still time for action and optimism. But that optimistic future depends on something that my nan said to me before she died, shortly before I left on that first cycle around Britain in 2011:

Do it while you can.

~

UPDATE: Throwing nine years ahead, Scott Ludlam has written us a letter from 2029 and it’s pretty exciting.

Cycling around Britain: Let’s go to Mordor

It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.

The Lord of the Rings is one of the great works of twentieth century travel literature and, cycling and camping over the Sussex Weald, I could very well be in Hobbiton.

Sunday was a mizzling day, so I was happy to fall in with the Yes Tribe tourers that I mentioned in last week’s update. They were riding to Brighton; I was riding to Brighton, so I switched off my phone and followed the tyre spray of fellowship.

Lockdown has opened up unexpected narratives for all of us and I’m still re-sourcing my conversational voice with company. At one point, over a menu in a Lebanese restaurant, it was gently pointed out that I was shouting.

In Fishbourne, I met a construction contractor who’s lost tens of thousands of pounds, with minimal support from the government, and has been forced to lay off his workers while trying to plant 76 lamp posts in 48 hours.

But I’ve also stayed with a fabulous Hastings-based performer/marine biologist who’s found a growing audience of kiddies and adults to introduce to sea creatures. In this video, I have a chat with the one and only David Annette-borough:

I’ve met adventurers, artists, office workers and people of all persuasions shrugging their shoulders and, by and large, following the one-way system of life.

While in Brighton, I stayed with fellow Thighs of Steel alumnus Rob Wills, a natural storyteller in multiple artforms: graphical and musical as well as conversational. He kindly gave me permission to record one of his songs for you.

So, without further ado, hit play on the audio up top and enjoy The Hobbit Song. Oh, and I’ve bought a bugle so you can also enjoy my bugling. If you’re subscribed to my Youtube channel then you can listen there too (sadly without my bugling at the beginning…)

You can get your dirty little mitts on Rob’s beautiful animal, astrolabe and poetry inspired art in the form of absurdly affordable giclée prints, greetings cards and story books on Folksy.

Finally: another huge thank you to everyone who has made the last week such a friendly place. Especially to Yes Tribe Michelle, Rob Wills and Annette Coppin for heartful hospitality in Brighton and Hastings.

Cycling around Britain: A proper adventure

‘That looks like a proper adventure.’

At the precise moment this gentleman bestows ‘proper’ adventure upon my travels, I am picking sludgey flecks of porridge out of my jersey and arm hair. It’s not the most adventurous moment of the past two days, but perhaps sums up what really happens behind the scenes on even the most proper adventure.

Which, I hasten to correct, cycling around post-Brexit, mid-Covid and pre-Apocalypse Britain almost certainly isn’t. I’m only thinking one week ahead, so at the moment this bike ride still feels like a haphazard jaunt along the south coast, which is exactly what it is.

I’d been trying to cook porridge using an Alpkit Brukit (like a Jetboil, but cheaper) and, although technically successful, the clear up job was nigh-on impossible. Copious litres of graveyard tap water only served to turn the mutinous porridge into glutinous gobbets.

When I shook out my dishcloth, these turned into oaty missiles, which respectfully sprayed themselves across the cemetery, coating me head to foot in properly adventurous porridge.

~

I’m writing this now on the Hayling Billy cycle path. A steam train used to chuff up and down these tracks, with the wind blowing in its face and views across Langstone Harbour to the big city big lights of Portsmouth. They used to catch oysters here too. Now people charge up and down on their bikes—earlier I saw a guy pulling a surfboard on a trailer.

For more adventure stories, subscribe to my Youtube channel. I’m already getting better at doing these to-camera pieces. I think this one worked out pretty gud:

I’m now sitting atop a spectacular hill, moments away from sunset, with a vegetable jalfrezi sitting, in its turn, uneasily in my stomach. Next up is a short ride to my woodland campground, where I’ll sleep the sleep of the thoroughly windburnt.

This is not a bike ride Cycling around Britain again?

In an alternate reality, right now I’m preparing to join Thighs of Steel on an adventurous detour through the wilds of the Carpathian Mountains as we wend our way from London to Athens.

In this reality, however, our epic fundraising adventure has long been cancelled and instead we spent May and June riding remotely, collectively raising over £110,000 for refugees hit by this thing called Covid-19.

I’m grateful that I haven’t been sick, that I’ve been able to continue working and that we’ve still managed to do some good for those less privileged. But lockdown does funny things to the brain and seeing my summer plans cancelled wasn’t a very nice feeling.

So back in April I promised myself that I would do Something Else. I drew up a few different options, which naturally depended on the state of the pandemic when July 2020 rolled around.

Top of the list was to cycle around Britain. Again.

~

2011 was the year of the Arab Spring. Barack Obama was in the White House (and ordered the assassination of Osama Bin Laden). Amy Winehouse died.

On 17 July that year, a few days after my nan’s funeral, I left home on a 58 day, 4,110 mile bike ride around Britain. It was my first huge bike tour and I knew next to nothing about bikes or the psychological challenges of riding so far. That ride gave me a wellspring of resilience that has stayed with me ever since.

Next Friday, exactly nine years later, I’m leaving home on my bike again to not cycle around Britain. Despite everything, I feel much better prepared. This time I know that this is not a bike ride. These are the tentative first pedal strokes into a physical, psychological and social unknown.

I’m not expecting anything. I’ll board my bike, fully laden with camping and recording kit, and do nothing more than turn the pedals to see what happens.

~

At the time of writing, cycling and camping in England is deemed safe by the government. How it will feel when I’m actually out there is a different question altogether: I’m acutely aware that camping in both Scotland and Wales is still forbidden.

2020 is not 2011.

It could be that the government, the virus or I decide that one day’s riding is more than enough and I come home on Saturday morning.

It could be that I enjoy cycling for a week, coasting between friends in the south, from my nest in Bournemouth to the concrete smoke of London. Maybe that’ll be enough. Maybe I’ll barely have time to catch a train to safety before the dread second wave winds through our communities.

It could be that I cycle on through East Anglia, pursuing the old roads to Lincoln and Durham and—if Scotland decides it’s safe—even onward to Edinburgh and Elgin. Perhaps the clouds will roll over and I will cycle on for six weeks and come back sunburnt in September with a sack of stories to keep me busy for another decade.

If Covid-19 has taught us anything, it’s to hold the future lightly. As the future tense in Arabic goes: insha’allah.

~

Under ‘pacing’ in my report card from 2011 you’ll find the words ‘could do better’. I cycled all day almost every day for nearly two months. I was permanently exhausted (my skin shrivelled up whenever I took a day off) and my encounters with Britain were more fleeting than I would have liked.

This year I’m taking the pace right down, concentrating more on the stories than on the distance. At a leisurely (!) 60km per day, six weeks is about enough time to trace half the country. If the tour is still safe and fun, I can continue with the second half in 2021. No rush.

The energy for this bike ride does not come from the physical challenge. It comes from a desire to understand the changes that have shaken this country. There’s a lot that confuses me in 2020 Britain:

  • What has lockdown done to our communities? What are we learning?
  • What state are we really in after ten years of Conservative rule? Are our politicians helping us build the society we want? Where are we succeeding and where are we failing?
  • How and why did we vote to leave the European Union? How are people taking this opportunity?
  • How awesome are bikes? What are bikes doing to bring communities together?
  • What, where and why is the north-south divide? And could Scotland thrive outside the United Kingdom?
  • Do Britons really believe that Black Lives Matter? Mark Duggen was killed by police while I was cycling in 2011 and I remember watching the news footage at a hostel in the Shetland Isles. Is this time different?
  • Are we turning the tide on climate change? Or is the tide turning us?
  • How has life changed since I last cycled this way nine years ago?

I hope to hear all kinds of interesting perspectives from people I meet along the way, which I’ll bring to you… somehow.

Although Covid-19 has made planning a last minute affair, I have been preparing the ground for more of a multimedia experience of storytelling this time around.

There will certainly be words; there may also be video and audio. Whatever happens, I’ll let you know right here.

~

Finally: huge thanks to everyone who is helping to make this ride feel even remotely possible. Special thanks to A.C. for the ideas and company, The Tim Traveller for disturbing Youtube AUDIENCE advice, the Thighs of Steel family for oodles of inspiration and for the Wahoo, Documentally for my birthday microphone, and, of course, thanks to the Charles Family for the sense of home to which I will return. Insha’allah.

I know this mailing list is full of awesome people. If you’d like to offer support, please please please reply to this email. Any cycle tour leans heavily on the goodwill of strangers and I’m grateful for anything and everything—from kind words up!

If you’d like to catch up on the story of my first cycle around Britain, I wrote a book about the journey called Life to the Lees. Get 10 percent off with code SAVE10 if you order today.

May we all lead responsibly adventurous lives.

Insha’allah and praise be to science-based risk assessments.

What if this is happening not to me, but for me?

I’ve been trying to exploit the wisdom of this trite little question this week.

What if this is happening not to me, but for me?

Late on Monday night, driving home from visiting my sister, I missed my motorway exit. The missed junction added ten minutes to an already delayed journey. I hit the steering wheel in frustration and then, somewhat sarcastically, asked myself whether this curséd calamity was instead happening for me.

Once I’d calmed own, I noticed that the rest of the journey would take me through Reading, along a route I first travelled as an eleven year old schoolboy more than two decades ago. Annoyance turned to grateful nostalgia.

I’ve no idea where this ‘for you not to you’ idea came from. I first heard it on a Tim Ferriss podcast, but Jim Carrey puts it well:

And when I say, “Life doesn’t happen to you, it happens for you,” I really don’t know if that’s true. I’m just making a conscious choice to perceive challenges as something beneficial so that I can deal with them in the most productive way. You’ll come up with your own style—that’s part of the fun!

~

UPDATE: When I mentioned this idea to a friend, he nodded calmly and added: ‘Or what if every that happens is happening with you?’ After all, each of us are only superficially different expressions of the same universal consciousness, right?

Love Litter Or: How corporate litterbugs shamed us into taking the blame

A thought crossed my mind as I walked through town yesterday: I’ve never knowingly littered. Then I doublechecked my thought: it’s completely wrong. I have.

I used to chew gum: Wrigley’s peppermint to be precise (never spearmint—I’m not a monster). When I was in school, I often enjoyed the satisfaction of spitting the gum out and volleying it into the middle distance. Wherever it should so land, there wouldst I litter.

After nearly hitting a bald man directly on the pate, I graduated to flobbing the offending masticatory latex down kerbside drains. Out of sight, out of mind: still littering.

Since the 1960s, chewing gum hasn’t been biodegradable—it’s made of plastic, for heaven’s sake. Did you know that? I had no idea. Thanks to its durability, local councils are estimated to spend £60m a year on cleaning up our spat out gum.

~

Littering is one of those antisocial behaviours that make people furious. Usually furious at the person littering; rarely furious at the companies that make the products most thrown away. This is upside down.

Let’s take as an example the planet’s most littered product: cigarettes. 766,571 metric tons of cigarette butts are thrown away every year—that’s the same weight as more than 60,000 double-decker buses or 4,000 blue whales. In the UK, ‘smoking-related litter’ was the most commonly found detritus in the 2018 Litter in England survey, present at 79 percent of sites.

No one knows how long cigarette butts take to biodegrade, but the filters contain cellulose acetate microplastic so it’s going to be a very long time. Those used butts also contain thousands of chemicals with poisonous effects on humans, other mammals, rodents, birds, insects, fish and even plantlife.

The European ban on single-use plastics will not extend to cigarette filters. Meanwhile, biodegradable filters have been described by the tobacco industry as ‘unmarketable’.

Have you ever thought what responsibility cigarette companies are taking for that environmental damage? I hadn’t.

~

In their superbly titled 2010 study Covering Their Butts, Elizabeth A. Smith and Patricia A. McDaniel from the University of California looked at industry and media data from the past 50 years and concluded:

The tobacco industry has tried and failed to mitigate the impact of cigarette litter.

The researchers also found that tobacco industry anti-littering efforts were motivated by potential restrictions on sales rather than care for the environment:

[T]he industry was concerned about the “potential for anti-smoking groups to seize [the litter] issue to attack cigarettes.” In 1997, Philip Morris (PM) research found that “litter can move ‘neutral’ non-smokers to ‘negative,’” creating more tobacco control supporters.

Indeed, far from being an environmental concern, tobacco bosses sought to take advantage of the ‘litter issue’ in order to ‘undermine clean indoor air laws’. According to Smith and McDaniel:

PM [Philip Morris, the producers of Marlboro cigarettes] explored whether litter, as one of the “dysfunctions of smoking outside,” could be used to convince business owners to maintain or reinstate indoor smoking policies.

Breathtaking. In more ways than one.

~

But even more audacious was how, not only cigarette companies, but capitalism as a whole has successfully foisted the blame for littering onto the citizen.

Using cigarettes as a common example of standard commercial practice here again, Smith and McDaniel found that the tobacco companies’ priority was that they were ‘not held practically or financially responsible for cigarette litter’:

[T]he industry argues that “the responsibility for proper disposal lies with the user of the product.”

This approach resulted in what Smith and McDaniel call ‘industry-acceptable solutions’, including volunteer clean-ups and the installation of ashtrays. Both these focus on what the community to can do to manage litter, instead of preventing the harm caused by production of the litter in the first place.

In the US, the tobacco industry helps fund the nationwide litter-picking campaign Keep America Beautiful. The campaign was made famous by a 1971 television advert, which featured a tearful indigenous American. The campaign slogan left viewers in no doubt where the blame for litter lies:

People Start Pollution. People Can Stop It.

The campaign was and still is a media triumph, with Smith and McDaniel finding that ‘stories that mentioned [Keep America Beautiful] were also more frequently positive toward the tobacco industry.’

Remember that my use of cigarettes here is only one example. If this is how the tobacco industry is treating our environment and our ‘consumer choices’, then imagine how other companies with a vested interest in our throwaway culture are behaving.

~

In the UK, we have Keep Britain Tidy, which was set up in the 1950s by the Women’s Institute and is now what they call an independent charity.

Forgive my cynicism, but ‘Keep Britain Tidy’ is a difficult message to swallow from an organisation that is 35 percent funded by the same companies we find most often littering our streets, parks and beaches: Coca-Cola (Britain’s most dumped), Greggs, Costa, McDonalds, KFC—and, yes, you’ve guessed it: my old chum Wrigley’s chewing gum.

Keep Britain Tidy does good work monitoring littering in the UK and organising litter-picking activities—but a lot more good would be done if these companies stopped creating litter. Otherwise, the campaign smells faintly of corporate ‘greenwashing’.

Bearing in mind the positive media that tobacco companies in the US got from supporting Keep America Beautiful, it’s surprising to see Keep Britain Tidy boasting about how in 2015/16 the campaign generated 4,645 news media articles worth £24.2m in advertising. I wonder: advertising for whom?

Not for the first time, the blame for an environmental disaster has shifted from industry to the citizenry. So, next time you’re on a walk, take a look at what litters the ground. Instead of thinking about the person who dropped it, notice the companies who produced it.

~

This is something you get a lot—god damn little single packets of ketchup. That’s barbeque dip. Someone’s eating barbeque dip from a little plastic coffin. Garbage.

In a walk with Claire Balding, David Sedaris, writer and legendary litter picker, developed his theory that the products most thrown away are the things we’re most ashamed of: takeaway boxes, junk food wrappers, sugary drinks bottles (often filled with piss), cigarette packets, empty vodka bottles, used condoms.

As they pick litter along the verge of a country road in West Sussex, Sedaris speculates what compels people to throw rubbish out of the window of a moving vehicle:

Maybe they’re afraid that they’re doing something they weren’t supposed to be doing, and someone’s going to find evidence of it and they have to get rid of it.

We hide our shame and drive on. Am I ashamed now of my chewing gum littering days? Yes. Was I at the time? Perhaps—but I never would have admitted it. Because we hate talking about our shame, it rarely motivates us to change.

~

Although I stopped spitting my balls of sticky plastic down street drains a long time before, I didn’t stop chewing gum until 2015.

Why did I stop? I noticed that the behaviour wasn’t doing anything for me. It was a dependency and, like all dependencies, it was a little shameful. So, together with my partner at the time, I quit. I quit the chewing and I quit the littering.

I never once thought to blame Wrigley for either my dependency or for my littering. That piece of gum that I almost volleyed onto that man’s bald pate twenty-five years ago? It’s still there, ground into the asphalt of a railway station car park, perhaps less than ten percent through its centuries-long process of decay.

Even in later years, when I managed to find a bin, there are gobbets of my gum in landfill sites all over the country, decomposing no faster.

I’m not saying we should run a civil disobedience mass littering campaign (although that might get some attention), but we should shift the shame away from the users to the producers, away from dependent citizens disgusted at their consumer choices and towards those who should be disgusted: those most guilty of industrial-scale littering, our junk corporations.

Only when we’ve correctly apportioned the blame, can we hope to change the behaviour of our worst corporate litterbugs.

Two Georges on art as activism

After about 10 hours, I’ve come to the end of George the Poet’s inspired piece of radio. One couplet particularly struck me and has stuck with me:

When artists become advocates
The audience become activists

I wouldn’t call myself an artist, but this message captures the best of what my writing can achieve. Worth remembering when it feels like pissing in the wind.

George’s line reminds me of how George Orwell explains his motivation in his 1946 essay Why I Write:

My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art’. I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing. But I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience.

Three years later, Nineteen Eighty-Four was published. Art is at its best when it motivates action.

Stress and the search for the antischedule

The last three weeks of lockdown have been difficult. I know there are people who have been and still are in much worse situations, but Covid-19 gave me 90 straight days without human contact and nothing to do really other than work and exercise—a reliable recipe for stress-related illness.

And for three weeks up to last Wednesday, I delighted in a wide range of symptoms, from wanting to sleep the whole time (and not feeling rested when I did) to brain fog, mouth ulcers, diarrhoea and IBS. Not pleasant.

Luckily, I’ve been able to take the whole week off (birthday week!) and spend time with other human beings, both socially distanced and in a bubble with my parents. The rest has released the pressure, the symptoms have largely disappeared and I feel restored.

This is all good: everyone needs human contact and a break from work every now and again. Ordinarily I might leave the insights there, but lockdown is encouraging me to reexamine the way I do everything.

What if there was a way of working where holidays weren’t medically necessary to cure my mouth of ulcers and clear my body of stress hormones?

The problem

As a freelancer, I’m paid by the hour. Time, sadly, is money. According to Jeffrey Pfeffer and Dana Carney, workers who have an ‘economic mindset’ about time—i.e. people who are paid by the hour—report higher levels of psychological stress.

One reason for this elevated stress might be because hourly workers spend less time socialising with friends and family. Gutted. If time is money, then we are constantly locked into a (subconscious) hedonic calculus: is seeing my friends for an hour really worth another hour’s work?

The answer is almost always yes, but salaried workers don’t have to answer this question, not even subconsciously.

Orthodox solutions

Look on the internet or in self-help books for how to reduce ‘time-stress’, you’ll read a lot of advice about efficient scheduling.

For example: the Ness Labs newsletter popped into my inbox this week with an article about how to manage stress. Perfect timing! One of her suggestions was, yep, better time management.

Anne-Laure Le Cunff’s approach is typical of the genre. This is her opener:

Except if we end up inventing time travel, we need to accept the fact that there are only 24 hours in a day. In order to achieve our goals, we need to be smart about how we allocate our time to different tasks and activities.

Anne-Laure’s suggestion is ever more precise calendar use, with everything scheduled down to the last hour, including breaks and spending time with friends.

On the face of it: great advice—and I’m sure it works for her. But what if I already have a killer schedule? What then?

My current orthodox solution

My current schedule is managed on two spreadsheets:

  • One acts as my calendar and reminds me about deadlines and such like
  • Another tracks what projects I’m working on and for how long

Here’s how it plays out:

  1. In the evening, I check my calendar and lay out the work I’ll do the next day, building a to do list text file.
  2. In the morning, after yoga and breakfast, I get to work. I set a timer for 90 minutes and begin. Thanks to the timer, I find it very easy to prevent procrastination and slip into work mode, no matter how reluctant I was feeling before the clock started.
  3. When the 90 minutes is up, I write down my hours in my working spreadsheet, which automatically tells me how much work I’ve done and, if it’s hourly paid work, how much I’ve earned.

It sounds like a great system and, for the most part, it is. I get plenty of work done, on time and with minimal fuss.

But if it’s such a great system, why did my body break down with time-stress? What if scheduling by the clock created my time-stress?

I suspect that this is more than an idle what-if question.

Taking on time in an arms race

The orthodoxy posits that the solution to time-stress is ever more precise time-scheduling.

But that sounds to me like an arms race, where there is no end until one side or the other blows up. In this case, I can guarantee that time isn’t the one that’s going to blow up…

My scheduling system probably could be improved with time-management techniques from high achievers on the internet—but I suspect only marginally. I haven’t found any advice online or in self-help books that offer the radical changes that I suspect would materially reduce time-stress.

If we guess that my system is already, say, 80 percent efficient, then the effort needed to eke out the last 20 percent of efficiency gains might only add to my time-stress.

I’d argue that time management in itself can be very stressful, especially as it becomes more and more precise. Time management forces us to think about time with a stressful economic mindset—especially if we are paid by the hour.

Side note on Covid-19

Of course, I’m not the only person who has found the last three months psychologically difficult. The World Economic Forum discovered that the number of people in Belgium at high risk of toxic stress had increased to a quarter of the population during the Covid-19 pandemic, up ten percentage points compared to last year.

I think a lot of my time-stress goes away when I’m able to whinge about stuff to friends. Nothing like a good old whinge. Isolated from these friends thanks to Covid-19, I’m not getting my quota of whinging.

But what kind of a time management system is founded on whinging? Not a very good system, if you ask me. I think we can do better. But how?

I propose a pincer movement:

  1. Shift away from orthodox time management that promotes a stress-inducing ‘economic mindset’
  2. Introduce activities that expand perception of time

I’ll explore these in reverse order, finishing with the antischedule.

Playing with time perception

Time is immutable, but humans aren’t embodiments of pure physics and we can play around with our perception of time.

Humans have an internal clock that beats ‘time’ throughout the day, but different activities are counted at different paces. Sometimes time crawls, sometimes it flies. When you’re asleep, for example, your time perception goes right out of the window.

Time-stress is what happens when we feel that there isn’t enough time to do everything we want to do. Time is real, but we should forget that time-stress is a feeling.

If we do more activities that make us feel like we have oodles of time, then we reduce our sense of time-pressure and so reduce our time-stress.

But what are those activities? They probably vary from person to person. Here are some of mine—a few of which have had their time-expanding properties documented scientifically.

You’ll have your own ideas. What makes you feel like you’ve got endless time?

  • Reading books
  • Taking a bath
  • Chatting to friends
  • Playing games
  • Exercise: walking, swimming, running, cycling (without clock-watching)
  • Sunbathing
  • Taking psychedelics
  • Cooking and eating
  • Spending slow time in nature, especially awesome nature
  • Watching the sun rise or set
  • Walking more slowly

These are ways we can trick our minds into dialling back time-stress. If I’m walking slowly to an appointment, I might arrive 30 seconds later, but I’ll be in a much more restful state of mind.

If you’re not sure you can spare those 30 seconds, that’s a classic symptom of time-stress. I prescribe Relax for the same result by Derek Sivers.

Now we’ve expanded our sense of time, we can try to reintroduce work in a way that doesn’t trigger the economic mindset.

The antischedule

The only article that I found on radical alternatives to the time-management orthodoxy was this piece by Dr Adam Bell.

A typical junior doctor on a tyrannical schedule, Bell found inspiration in a tweet by Naval Ravikant:

The single best productivity hack that everyone should aspire to—don’t keep a schedule.

So Bell stopped tracking time and keeping a schedule. The effect was transformational for him:

My inner tyrant had left his post, and so too had any sense of time pressure. Now there was an abundance of time, rather than a perpetual scarcity of it. And there was no inner voice barking orders anymore.

It’s a terrifying prospect, to work—or live at all—without my calendar, to do list, timer and working diary. How will I stay on track?

But. Wait. What kind of a track am I on? One that gives me mouth ulcers and diarrhoea? What kind of a masochist wants to stay on that track?

Some other ideas

My holiday ends on Sunday: what will I do when I start work again on Monday? I haven’t committed to adopting the antischedule. I’m scared.

Besides chucking out my orthodox scheduling tools wholesale, there are a few other options I could explore.

  • Seven week sabbaticals. This idea from Sean McCabe was one I adopted with relish before Covid-19 struck. The idea is simple: six weeks of scheduled work followed by one week of unscheduled, unstructured time—a mini sabbatical. For some reason, I thought Covid-19 meant I couldn’t take sabbaticals. Stupid.
  • Switch from a countdown timer to a countup timer. Hitting start on a timer is a great way to shortcut procrastination, but there’s no reason why that timer can’t count up instead of down. I’ve started experimenting with SpaceJock’s free TrackAMinute software, designed for freelancers like me but useful in most computer-based lines of work.
  • Sacrifice time-accuracy for reduced time-stress. I have to track my time because I must invoice for my work hourly. But I don’t have to track that time myself: what if I invoiced based on passive time-tracking software like RescueTime? It might be less accurate, but surely a reduction in accuracy is a good sacrifice to make for the sake of my oral and gastric health!
  • Find satisfaction from completing worthwhile projects, rather than from stacking up hours of work. This is a tricky one. On the one hand, tracking the hours I spend on my projects takes out the mystique of creativity and production. I know now that writing a BBC Radio series is simply a matter of showing up and putting in the hours: that’s tremendously liberating. On the other hand, sometimes the hours I put in can get muddled up with whether or not the work is taking me in the direction I want to go.
  • Decide on and stick to my boundaries. When is enough enough? Putting in the hours is all very good, but how do I know when to stop? Should I stop work at 6pm? 4pm? 2pm? I could take weekends off—or only work a half day on Wednesdays. I had some success with this approach a couple of months ago, working for 4 hours or so in the morning and then taking the rest of the day ‘off’.
  • Use technology less. I run everything through my spreadsheets, even my time-expanding activities like reading and exercise. I could use pen and paper much, much more—even if only to add the data in batches at the end of the week.
  • Say no more. Say no more.

~

Have you found a way of avoiding time-stress? Do you use clocks and watches and timers? Are you acutely aware of time—or not? I need help!

Join us for World Refugee Day

They say that every dog has its day—and some marketing departments take that literally. Next Friday, for example, is Pet Sitters International’s Take Your Dog to Work Day.

A quick scan of the internet tells me that Tuesday was Bloomsday (I’m listening to Ulysses at the moment as it happens). Wednesday, meanwhile, was World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought and yesterday was National Freelancers Day (I took it off work).

Today is World Sickle Cell Day. A sprinkling of sickle cell facts: sickle cell diseases are most prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa and kill over 100,000 people a year—but the sickle cell trait offers some protection against malaria. An iron fist in a velvet glove.

But tomorrow is World Refugee Day. Ah—that explains my headline!

Why should I care?

If you’ve ever crossed a border without being beaten up, then, in my own personal opinion, you are in credit. The closest I’ve come is a hard stare from a Serbian border guard. I owe it to my passport to care.

There are now nearly 80 million displaced people in the world, including nearly 30 million refugees. That’s a lot of people—but not in a Daily Mail kind of a way. Pretty much zero of those people have come to the UK.

Okay, not zero: precisely 0.43 percent of the world’s refugees have found sanctuary on this ‘sceptred isle’. For comparison, Turkey hosts nearly 13 percent of those humans.

Uganda, a country with a GDP a hundred times smaller than the UK, hosts ten times as many refugees. I don’t know about you, but I did not know Uganda was that poor—or the UK so rich.

I don’t think we’re doing our bit, do you?

Yay, progress! (Except not for people fleeing war, sorry)

You might not believe it from the headlines, but many indicators of global quality of life are improving: the number of people escaping from extreme poverty, for example, or the number of girls accessing education, or child mortality rates.

In fact, take a few minutes to play around with all the good news using the awesome Gapminder tools. It’ll put a smile on your face. Then come back for the bad news…

Things are getting better. Source: Gapminder.

Unfortunately, for refugees, the world is a more hostile place today than it was a decade ago. As the latest UNHCR report states:

Over the last decade, only four million refugees were able to return to their native countries, compared with 10 million the previous decade. Roughly 0.5 per cent of the world’s refugees were offered resettlement in 2019.

0.5 percent?! Wow. We need more than one day to solve this problem. But let’s face it: there are other problems in the world, so…

Seeing as we’ve only got a day—let’s ride our bikes?!

This Saturday, in solidarity with refugees all over the world, Thighs of Steel and Help Refugees are riding their bikes all the way from London to Khora’s home in Athens—about 2,000 miles.

I’m asking—nay begging—for your support. As cyclists, as donors, as megaphones.

If you or your friends would like to join us for the day, then you can set up your own fundraising page here: https://help-refugees.secure.force.com/aroundtheworldsignup

Or you can easily join in without setting up your own page by sending your lovely donors to the main fundraising page here: https://help-refugees.secure.force.com/aroundtheworldmain

The theme for this year’s World Refugee Day is Every Action Counts. Whether you ride 1 mile or 100; whether you raise £1,000 or simply chuck in a tenner from your own pocket, every action really does count.

It’s only one day of the year, but your contribution tomorrow could make a real difference to refugees—people who truly understand the meaning of the trite saying ‘out of the frying pan and into the fire’.

What will happen to the money?

We’re fundraising for Help Refugees, a grassroots organisation that grew out of the upsurge of empathy for migrants in 2015. Here’s what they say about how they spend the money raised:

Together, we are supporting hundreds of thousands of people—with access to medical care, sanitation, food, emotional support, and much much more. This isn’t the world we want to live in, and we are working to change it, but while refugees are forced to live like this, we will be there for them. Thank you so much for making this possible.

Thighs of Steel is the major donor to Khora, a voluntary organisation in Athens that exists to support displaced people, refugees, asylum seekers, homeless people and vulnerable groups in general.

During the Covid crisis, Khora volunteers have been preparing and delivering food to around 2,200 vulnerable people every other day. All this extra support costs money—as much as £24,000 per month. This remarkable act of solidarity relies entirely on money given by strangers.

Imagine…

I’ll finish with this little poem from Lemn Sissay, which the legends at Refugee Week are sharing as the jumping off point for the first of eight Simple Acts you can take to stand with refugees.

I will not limit myself
I will not be afraid
If it were not imagined
How else could it be made?

If it can be imagined, it can be made. Another world is possible.

This isn’t the world we want to live in, and we are working to change it, but while refugees are forced to live like this, we will be there for them.

Join us. Thank you.

Giving what we can

This post is 2,000 words long, so here’s a brief summary:

  • Every year I give 10 percent of my gross business income to organisations that I believe promote equality and justice.
  • The Jewish word for financial giving is tzedakah—not ‘charity’, but ‘justice’.
  • Financial giving isn’t virtuous do-gooding; it’s an acknowledgement of what I owe for benefiting from often invisible inequalities.
  • For every hour I work, even modest financial giving could more than double the daily earnings of two people living below the extreme poverty line.
  • By committing to giving 10 percent of my income, tzedakah is not only part of what I earn—but part of why I earn.

Giving what we can

A few weeks ago a friend suggested that I write about financial giving. Although I appreciated her suggestion, I decided that sharing the reasons why I give money to charities and other organisations might really piss people off. No one likes a preacher.

Since then, I’ve been taken aback by astonishing demonstrations of public generosity, as ordinary citizens seek to challenge injustice with their money:

Covid-19 seems to have stirred a spirit of social consciousness. I might still piss people off, but I’ve changed my mind on writing about financial giving.

I’m far from being an expert—and I’m sure that many of you are way ahead of me in both thought and action—but this article is why and how I structure my financial giving to promote equality and justice.

Not charity

I’ve written before about the distinctions between charity and solidarity, so I won’t repeat myself but, quickly, here’s why I don’t like to call financial giving ‘charity’.

‘Charity’ includes giving that does little or nothing to promote equality and justice.

Giving money to a nominally charitable institution like a church so that they can fix their damaged roof is very generous, but I’m not convinced it does much to help those who need support most.

Sometimes registered charities (sometimes even churches) are worthy recipients of cash, but sometimes the world would be better off if we granted that money to community groups, online movements, small businesses, entrepreneurs or simply people we believe in.

The word charity also excludes the possibility that we actually owe this money to others.

Giving as repayment on debt

Charity, caritas, is one of the seven virtues of Christianity, but Medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas had in mind a definition closer to universal love than to financial largesse.

Unfortunately, the sense of virtue has stuck to charity’s modern definition. But the story of slave trader Edward Colston, whose statue was recently torn down by Black Lives Matter protestors in Bristol, reminds us that charitable giving is far from a guarantee of ethical good standing.

In his career as a dealer in the lives of humanity, Colston was a member of the Royal African Company and, over the course of twelve bloody years, played his part in trading 84,000 African men, women and children. It’s estimated that 19,000 of these people died on their journey to the Americas.

Colston made a lot of money from this business, which he later gave away to found various charitable institutions in Bristol. But Colston’s financial giving had nothing to do with virtue or universal love; it was a debt that he owed—and one he could never fully repay.

So it seems to me quite right that Colston’s statue was torn down: debtors aren’t usually celebrated in bronze. (Otherwise, where are the millions of plinths dedicated to payday loan victims and university students?)

Invisible debt

I’m optimistic that I don’t have quite as much blood on my hands as Colston, but living as I do in a highly developed country, I still owe some sort of debt for my position.

My quality of life is founded on almost invisible inequalities and injustices that existed long before I was born.

The seductive invisibility of these inequalities makes me vulnerable to self-flattery, giving myself far too much credit for my good fortune. I’m not alone: this is a well-studied psychological phenomenon called the attribution bias.

To me, it felt like I worked hard to do well at university. It felt like opportunities came my way only after years of hard work for little or no reward. It feels like I work hard for the money I now earn.

The most I’ll concede is that there has been an element of luck.

But it’s not luck: it’s inequality and injustice.

The truth is that other people in my local neighbourhood, my country or elsewhere in the world simply didn’t, don’t and never will have the same opportunity to be rewarded so richly for their hard work.

Side story: cacao farmers in Cameroon

In my work for the Center for International Forestry Research, I’m lucky enough to speak to people all over the world about their lives.

I’m currently working on a piece about ecology and socio-economics in forest villages in Cameroon. One of the indicators that the researchers collected is called the Household Food Insecurity Access Scale.

Despite great success growing cacao as a cash crop for international markets, only 21 percent of households in the Cameroonian village of Bokito were considered food secure. In the poorer village of Talba, that figure dropped to 12 percent.

Four families out of five in these villages said yes to questions like: Did you or any household members go to sleep at night hungry because there was not enough food?

Despite working long hours on cacao plantations, these families are unable to feed their children, with all the knock-on effects that has on health, education and life opportunities.

All of a sudden, it doesn’t feel like I worked particularly hard.

30 percent of all people in Cameroon live in extreme poverty. If they lived in the United States, that means they’d be surviving on less than $1.90 per day.

Coincidentally, that’s about how much I’d spend on a quality bar of the chocolate the people of Bokito and Talba help grow. Something to think about the next time I bite into a bar of Green & Blacks.

Here’s something else: in Judaism, charitable giving is called tzedakah, a word that better translates as ‘justice’. I really like that translation. Financial giving is not virtuous charity, it’s an attempt to balance the books of justice.

Giving as politics

When someone sets up a charity, community project or social enterprise, they’re saying: I believe the world can be a better place in this specific, measurable way.

The enterprise doesn’t work unless they bring people along with them: the founders must become politicians for their vision. Donors and volunteers are their citizenry, who vote with their money or their time.

Together, these third sector politicians and citizens can change the world. Last month, a small charity that didn’t exist three years ago won a high court challenge to a vile government policy that prevented working migrants from accessing welfare support during Covid-19.

I’m not saying that governments can’t do much more to make the world a fairer place. Economist Joseph Stiglitz makes a strong case that politicians could do a lot more to fight inequality by forcing multinational companies to pay tax at a global minimum rate, for example.

But when governments fail us or when we disagree with the general drift of our politicians, it’s amazing that enterprising citizens stand up and say: no, we believe the world should be more like this.

And we, operating independently of our politicians and the state, can give money and say: yes, we’re behind you.

As we’ve seen so strongly over the past few months, we can’t rely entirely on the state to balance the books of justice. We all give tzedakah. The only remaining question is how and how much.

Quick reminder…

In this article I’m only talking about financial giving, but there are of course many other ways that we all try to promote equality and justice.

  • Voluntary service, including advocacy
  • Political action
  • Paid work
  • Work in kind
  • Raising and educating the next generation

Our giving in these different areas naturally fluctuates over our lifespan. For many, many years, I didn’t do much financial giving. I’m not beating myself up about that fact.

With that said, here is what I do now, along with the resources that inspired me.

Taking the pledge

In July 2017, I took the Giving What We Can pledge to donate 1 percent of my earnings that year to effective charitable organisations. I promptly forgot all about this pledge and have, instead, donated 10 percent of my earnings every year since.

The 1 percent pledge, it turned out, was a classic ‘foot in the door’ sales tactic. Once I’d made the decision that I was the sort of person who would give in a structured way every year, 1 percent felt insignificant.

I don’t have any dependents, I live in a country with a more or less functioning welfare system that includes free healthcare, and I come from a home-owning family. All this means that I feel more comfortable committing to 10 percent.

For clarity: that means 10 percent of my business income before deductions:

  • Before tax
  • Before National Insurance
  • Before business expenses
  • Before living expenses

This detail is important to me. When I formalised my financial giving in 2017, I wasn’t earning a huge amount of money and calculating from my business profit would have meant years of zero contributions.

Social problems like inequality and injustice get exponentially worse and harder to fix as time move on. I wanted to start giving immediately and, more importantly, get into good giving habits on the off-chance that I do one day start earning millions.

Working from gross income is also a lot less complicated to administer.

The mechanics

I’m freelance so I have a separate bank account for my business income. At the end of the financial year, I siphon 10 percent of the balance into another bank account dedicated exclusively to financial giving.

This creates a fund from which I give over the course of the next financial year. If there’s anything left in the account from the year before, I usually grant that money out after doing my tax return—or it rolls forward to the next year.

What difference could I make?

Median income in the UK is £18,630. I fall some way below that, but globally I’m in the top 11 percent of all earners. Even after giving away 10 percent of my income, I’m still in the global top 12 percent.

Yep: we live in a very unequal world.

Apologies for the excessive use of italics, but I find it hard to get my head around the following fact:

My 10 percent giving is enough that, for every hour I work, I could more than double the daily earnings of two people living below the extreme poverty line—perhaps two of those cacao farmers I’m writing about.

That shows what could be done with whatever sum a citizen in a wealthy country can afford to give.

Working for justice

By committing to structured giving, I can almost always say yes when friends ask me to donate to social causes that they believe in.

If I’m paid £300 for a writing job, then I already know that £30 will go toward promoting equality and justice.

This is a huge relief: no more awkward moments, worried I can’t spare another twenty quid. I know I can afford to give because it’s baked into every penny I earn.

Financial giving is part of what I earn—but it’s also part of why I earn.

As a writer, working in the highly theoretical field of abstract thought can make me feel disconnected from the injustice of daily life for farmers on cacao plantations in Cameroon.

Without overplaying my modest contribution, my work feels more meaningful now I know that a sliver of justice is served every time I sit down to write.

~

My contribution, however modest, only began when I stumbled across the Giving What We Can pledge in July 2017.

Much of what I’ve written here has been said more eloquently and with more academic rigour by the philosopher Peter Singer, one of the foremost thinkers on financial giving.

Singer’s book, The Life You Can Save, helped create the Effective Altruism movement behind the Giving What We Can pledge. In a new edition for 2019, The Life You Can Save is available as a free audiobook download.

Finally, thanks to TD and DRL for conversations that inspired this piece!

The trees knees A walk in the gardens of Bournemouth — once desolate heath — now home to famous sequoias, cedars and cypresses

Did you know that trees can grow knees? A Bald Cypress in sunshine, Central Gardens, Bournemouth

I grew up in a swathe through beech forests so it’s no wonder that I find the pines, redwoods, sequoias, cedars and cypresses of the south coast alluring.

Today, Bournemouth is famed for its vigorous tree culture — famous enough in 1948 for poet laureate John Betjeman to take the piss out of the modernising town clerk who longs to build blocks of flats over the town’s clifftop pine woods:

I walk the asphalt paths of Branksome Chine
In resin-scented air like strong Greek wine
And dream of cliffs of flats along those heights,
Floodlit at night with green electric lights.

My view from the eighth floor of one of those ‘cliffs of flats’ is dominated by city and canopy, a testament to a centuries-old commitment to greening and salubrious landscaped woodland.

But it could all have been so different.

From heath to health

Meyrick Park, Bournemouth, ~1897 (from The Pines of Bournemouth)

Two hundred years ago, Bournemouth was at the arse-end of what Thomas Hardy imagined as ‘the Great Heath’ and described as follows in Return of the Native:

A place perfectly accordant with man’s nature – neither ghastly, hateful, nor ugly; neither common-place, unmeaning, nor tame; but, like man, slighted and enduring; and withal singularly colossal and mysterious in its swarthy monotony!

Other critics were less kind. The History of Bournemouth: 1810-1910 portrays the area in the years before habitation thus:

At that time, stretching right away from Christchurch to Poole was a vast, desolate heath, covering an area of probably twenty square miles.

Meanwhile, at some point before 1875, a contemporary writer nailed Boscombe as ‘a scene of indescribable desolation’.

The turning point for the blasted land came in 1809, when, out of nowhere, a pub appeared. Where there is booze, retired army officers shall not be far behind and Lewis Tregonwell and family became the first official residents of the budding hamlet in 1812.

Latching on to far-fetched rumours that ‘pine-scented air’ was beneficial for popular nineteenth century maladies like tuberculosis, Tregonwell and Sir George Ivison Tapps, the owner of the pub, conspired to cover the heath with hundreds of pine trees, all the way down to the seashore.

Over the ensuing decades, these two wily entrepreneurs somehow transformed Hardy’s inhospitable heath into a miracle pine health spa.

Invalids’ walk, Bournemouth ~1895-1905 (Wikipedia)

But what’s almost more remarkable about this story is that those rumours about the health properties of pine were bang on the money.

Pine trees vs cancer

The scent of pine trees comes from its resin and specifically from two isomers of pinene. If you’ve ever used turpentine: it’s the same chemicals and the same woody smell. (Enjoy responsibly.)

Pinenes are a type of chemical called phytoncides. You might recognise the -cide ending there. Yep: pinenes kill stuff. It’s the pine tree’s all-natural antimicrobial killer defence spray.

And it works on us too.

Qing Li, an immunologist at Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, has been investigating the effects of phytoncides on the human body since the early 2000s.

In one, frankly astonishing, 2009 study, Li invited 12 men to come and stay with him for three nights at an ‘urban’ hotel. If that sounds dodgy, wait until you hear what happened next: every night, he pumped vapour from the pinene-rich oil of Hinoki cypress trees into their bedrooms.

At the end of the study, the poor men showed a significant increase in the activity of their natural killer immune cells (this is good: these cells kill cancer) and a significant reduction in noradrenalin (AKA norepinephrine), which usually increases when we’re stressed or in immediate danger.

They also reported feeling less fatigued compared to a control hotel stay that lacked the vaporous phytoncide air.

And so back to Bournemouth, where the tradition of ‘taking the tree air’ continues with the council’s healthsome Tree Trail. (Betjeman’s town clerk was fired, I hope.)

Untold riches — of Redwoods, Cedars and Cypresses

The trail is heralded as ‘a two hour circular walk through Lower, Central and Upper Gardens’, but so far I’ve spent over four hours and have only rather shakily identified half of the 14 mapped trees.

I could spend two hours alone at the foot of Bournemouth’s Dawn Redwoods, a species once believed to be extinct, forgotten for five million years, rediscovered in its native China during the Second World War, and now lording it over the social distancing picnickers and parkour traceurs of the Upper Gardens.

Or I could cosy up for an afternoon with the Blue Atlas Cedars, re-seeded from the mountains of North Africa and now almost shyly gathering around the Hedgehog Kiosk, as if waiting to be invited for ices.

I must find time enough too, far from their Mississippi swamplands, for the Bald Cypress, those of the tree knees, whose canopy has that fibrous quality of ferns writ large, leaves that are hardly there, yet diffuse the sun into soothing colour.

And this walk of almost infinite discovery scoots over the single greenway of Bournemouth’s central gardens. The verdant chines — of which Betjeman’s Branksome is but one — are a tree trail tale for another day.

The English Channel from Alum Chine. A. R. Quinton postcard circa 1910 (From Winston Churchill, RLS, and the Literary Chines of Bournemouth by David A. Laws)

~

Thanks to A.T. for discovering and then sharing the Bournemouth Tree Trail with me!

Credit also to Winston Churchill, RLS, and the Literary Chines of Bournemouth by David A. Laws and The Pines of Bournemouth.

Introducing Questionable Meetings

On Thursday 5 June 2014, at Sanford Housing Cooperative, I called what I believe was the first ever Questionable Meeting: a meeting in which participants are only allowed to speak in the interrogative mood.

Questions have a habit of generating unexpected ideas. It is very hard to come up with good ideas if you’re just asked to come up with good ideas, but if you’re asked to come up with good questions, then the ideas flow naturally.

In life there is no such thing as a final answer, only better questions.

Rules of the Game

“All games have rules; it’s what distinguishes them from real life.”
T.P. Ruount

There is only one rule at a Questionable Meeting:

Participants may only speak in the interrogative mood, i.e. they may only ask questions.

There is, of course, one exception that makes the rule:

Participants may also use the exclamatory phrase, “Good question!”

Why?

“A child who is always asking “Why? Why? Why?” shows not their ignorance, but their wisdom.”
Dr Ros Wandkalf

a. Meetings are often charged with “know-it-all” ego-driven solutionising. The truth is that the best answers are very rarely those thought of on the spur of the moment. By removing the possibility of any instant answers to any questions, we remove snap judgements and improve the likelihood of a reasoned, thoughtful, considerate response outside of the meeting.

b. Meetings can be dominated by those who enjoy speaking, showing off how much they know or how important they are. In a Questionable Meeting, no one can speak without donning the cap of humility. To speak, you must concede that you don’t have all the answers. There are no categorically “right” answers in life, so in this meeting, we listen and question.

c. By posing questions without trying to answer them, the subconscious brain is activated. Perhaps, after a good night’s sleep or a week’s quiet rumination, a more creative answer will emerge from the depths of your subconscious. Or perhaps not.

Strategies

“Strategy, after all, is only one strategy.”
The Turquoise Empress, Xiaoling

  • Start each meeting with a period of silence. From the silence, reasonable questions shall emerge.
  • If desired, the meeting can then proceed to setting the Questionable Agenda: ten minutes in which participants can ask broad, thematic questions, which shall form the interrogative basis of the rest of the meeting. Alternatively, a Questionable Meeting could be called to query a specific theme, couched, naturally, as a question. For example: “How can Sanford help other housing cooperatives?”.
  • There are no bad, wrong or stupid questions. If you think there are, then you are either bad, wrong or stupid.
  • After each question, leave a respectful pause. Don’t barrel in with your oh-so-important question.
  • Make sure you are really listening to each question; allow it to sink deep into your subconscious. If in doubt, count to ten in your head.
  • No participant may attempt to provide any answer or solution to a question.
  • No participant should pass judgement on a question. Particularly not using body language, sighing, huffing, etc..
  • The questions shall be recorded, if desired, and Questionable Minutes, consisting solely of a list of questions asked, circulated by a Questionable Secretary.
  • Participants may ask questions about the questions. These cannot be answered, of course.
  • If you would prefer, the question can be written down and put into a Questionable Hat, for minuting by the Questionable Secretary. NOTE: Written notes will not reach the subconscious of other members, only yourself.
  • Think about your questions carefully. Be clear and concise. This respects the brains of the other participants and will inspire better subconscious responses.

Are you ready to leave lockdown?

For most of us, Covid-19 has radically shifted our day-to-day context: our work environment, social milieu, shopping and even our sleeping habits.

I think the most striking change for me has been stability.

I’ve spent the 74 nights of lockdown in Bournemouth. I haven’t stayed in one place for anywhere even close to 74 nights since my records began in July 2015. For those of you (hi) who love the stats, these are my longest sojourns over the past five years:

  • 2019: 22 nights (Bristol)
  • 2018: 23 nights (Bristol)
  • 2017: 23 nights (Peckham)
  • 2016: 27 nights (Edinburgh Festival)
  • 20 July-December 2015: 25 (New Cross)

At least once every four weeks for the last five years I have been on the move, travelling across the country for work or to visit friends, or further afield on overland adventures.

Without lockdown, I don’t think I ever would have realised how much I travel—and the possible advantages of stability.

With a rocksteady context, I’ve been able to build consistent habits like never before. With no interruptions to my developing routines, I’ve seen improvements in both my work and rest.

As I explored with my special content for donors last week, harnessing the almost unimaginable power of our habitual second self can be a tremendous boon to our productivity and our happiness.

So, before we rush headlong out of lockdown, I think it’s worth pausing and asking ourselves a few other questions about how our lives have changed and what we might be able to salvage for the future.

52 questions to answer before leaving lockdown

Readers of this newsletter come from all over the world, from extremes of both the World Clock and the Covid-19 infection scale.

It seems like the UK is slowly shaking itself off and starting to pick up old habits. But perhaps you are only now battening down the hatches, perhaps you have already returned to some semblance of work and play.

Wherever you find yourself, the idea of these questions is to build up a picture of your life under lockdown, to reflect on how your context has moulded your behaviour and, perhaps most importantly, to ponder on what and how you would change for the future.

I’ve split the 52 questions into 9 sections:

  • Daily habits
  • Your context
  • Health
  • Relationships
  • Work
  • Consumerism
  • Citizenship
  • The future
  • Noticing

I’m not going to even suggest that you sharpen your pencils and set aside three hours; this isn’t an exam. Feel free to let the questions wash over you as you read, and simply notice what bubbles to the surface.

Daily habits

  • How do you start your day? List the first ten things that you do. Have these changed since lockdown? Can you see any room for change or adaptation?
  • How do you end your day? List the last ten things you do. Have these changed since lockdown? Can you see any room for change or adaptation?
  • Think about a typical day in lockdown. What are you doing regularly now that you wouldn’t have done before Covid-19? What old habits have fallen away?
  • Is there anything you miss from your old life? Why do you miss these things?
  • What activities have been most important to your mental health over the past three months? Have these become habits? Would you keep them or adapt them?

Your context

  • Where have you been spending most of your time?
  • Name at least three things that you appreciate about where you’ve been staying.
  • Think about your best habits. How could you adapt your home environment so that it better supports your best habits?
  • Think about your worst habits. How could you adapt your home environment so that it inhibits your worst habits?
  • What places outside your home have been particularly important to you over the past three months?
  • How have your travel habits changed? What modes of transport are you using now? Has this made your life better or worse?

Health

  • How’s your physical health? How do you feel in your body?
  • How’s your mental health? How do you feel in your mind?
  • How have you been keeping fit? How would you change your exercise if you could magically do anything, with anyone?
  • How are your sleep patterns? Better or worse? Earlier or later? Regular or irregular? Are you napping? Dreaming?
  • Have your eating habits changed at all? What’s your diet like? Are you eating more, less or the same? Where are you when you eat? What are you doing while eating? What food has been particularly important you over the past three months?
  • How’s your oral hygiene?

Relationships

  • How have your relationships with others changed?
  • Have you formed any new friendships? Or rekindled old friendships?
  • Have you been using any new forms of communication? Would you keep them or adapt them to the new context?
  • How has your relationship to yourself changed?
  • Who are you speaking to the most? Who has been particularly important for your mental health over the last three months?
  • Who have you been neglecting?
  • Is there anyone—you don’t have to know them personally—that you’d like to say thank you to? Or say sorry to?

Work

  • How has work changed for you over the past three months? Are you working more, less or the same?
  • How are your working days organised now? How is that different to before?
  • Has anything changed at work, either in what you’re doing or how you’re doing it? If yes: do you want to keep, adapt or develop these changes?
  • What part of your work or business has disappeared? Do you want or need it back?
  • What is important or essential about your work? Can you uncover or emphasise these elements in the future?
  • Are there any educational opportunities you’d like to arm yourself with for the future?
  • What might your working future be like? In a disaster scenario? And in a perfect world? What can you do to start making those futures a reality?

Consumerism

  • How have your shopping habits changed?
  • Have you bought more or less than you used to? If that’s a hard question to answer, look at the raw numbers: have you spent more or less?
  • Can you remember how you used to shop and spend money? Would you like to go back to those days? Would you rather keep or adapt your new shopping habits?
  • What possessions have been particularly important to you over the past three months?
  • Are there any possessions that you thought were essential, but haven’t even thought of using since lockdown?
  • What clothes have you been wearing most?

Citizenship

  • Do you feel more or less a part of society?
  • What’s most important for the healthy running of our society? What’s the significance of being a citizen in our society? What role does government, both local and national, have to play in our society? How would you like to participate?
  • If you could change one thing about our society, what would that be? Could you take one small step today to help make that change a reality?
  • What have you learned about your neighbours? About your local area? Who are the key workers for you? What are the most important businesses?

The future

  • What’s the first thing you’d do if you were allowed to travel and meet people freely?
  • What’s important to you this coming summer or winter? What are your three highest priorities?
  • What are you most worried about as you emerge from lockdown?
  • Think about how you felt as the news filtered in about the deaths in China, the arrival of Covid-19 in your country and the announcement of lockdown measures. How did your past self feel about all this uncertainty at the time? How do you feel towards your past self now? How do you think your future self will handle future uncertainty?
  • What areas of life do you think you’re handling well during lockdown?
  • What do you think you could have done better? How? Can you think of anyone who you thought managed those problems particularly well? What could you learn from them? If you’re not sure: ask them.
  • Do you feel more or less resilient and ready for the future? No matter what your answer: why do you think you feel this way? What steps could you take to feel more sure-footed?

Noticing

  • What have you noticed about the changing seasons? The weather, the trees, the birds, the plants? The smells, the sounds, the colours, the growth?
  • If you look after household pets or plants: what have you noticed about their lives during lockdown?
  • What scents have been particularly important to you during lockdown? What sights? What sounds? What tastes? What other sensations?
  • What music, art and literature has been particularly important to you during lockdown? Why?

My answers…

Don’t panic, I’m not really going to bore you with my laborious answers to all 52. But I will finish the one I started to answer at the top, about the changes in my immediate environment.

As well as spending 74 consecutive nights in one place, I’ve also taken an equally unheard of zero train journeys.

In the 10 weeks prior to lockdown I took 21 rail journeys, spending a little over £40 and 5 hours on trains every week.

This is remarkably consistent with my travel habits across the whole of 2019, when I took 2.5 journeys and spent £40 on trains for every week I was in the UK.

Nice stats, but what have I learned?

  1. My train travel is a change of context. The way I travel is not like commuting from one familiar context to another; it’s more disruptive than I thought.
  2. Changing context so frequently is harmful to my habits, which thrive in stability. For example: a late train back from London interrupts my evening routine. Interrupted evening habits means worse sleep, which means a less productive morning and a drop in my sense of wellbeing.
  3. I have a new respect for habits. My work habits are the rockbed of my productivity, as my health and fitness habits are of my wellbeing.
  4. Therefore I should be more careful about how and when I travel, particularly when I can’t or don’t want to take a break.

The case for creative stability

There are quite a few things I wouldn’t change about my lockdown life and travelling less frequently is one.

Without long train journeys to disrupt my daily and weekly routines, my second self does all the heavy lifting: automatically preparing for work, systematically feeding, clothing and watering myself, habitually letting my fingers fly over the keyboard for hours on end.

In turn, this easy automation of the second self gives time and space for my executive self to do what he does best: creative direction.

As William James wrote in The Principles of Psychology (1890):

The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work.

With little variation in my 24 hours, a surprising amount of writing work has been possible. Knowing now the benefits of creative stability, I will think twice about how and when I surrender the environment in which my second self thrives best.

Of course, I’ll still travel—if only to slow down time a little. Without changes in context, the days blur into each other and our perception of time condenses forgettably.

Routine might make us more productive and more content, but it sure as hell doesn’t make for great stories!

~

I know that I’ve been very lucky with my lockdown so far, but I hope that you’ve also discovered something interesting about your daily life.

I also hope you’ve found these questions worthwhile and have enjoyed taking a moment to think about where we are now. I’d love to hear from you if you’d like to share any of your findings.

Finally, if you know anyone who might also enjoy these questions, feel free to share the post. Thanks!

Introducing Your Second Self

This post was written as a thank you to the generous folk who have donated to my Help Refugees x Thighs of Steel fundraiser. Collectively, we’re riding around the world to raise vital funds for refugees facing COVID-19 in dire conditions.

If you get anything out of this blog, I’d be very grateful if you could chuck us a few quid. Thanks!


I recently finished reading Wendy Wood’s Good Habits, Bad Habits and I thought I’d share a little more and introduce you to your own ‘second self’.

‘The world of habit is so self-contained,’ Wood writes, ‘it makes sense to think of it as a kind of second self – a side of you that lives in the shadow cast by the thinking mind you know so well.’

The distinction between these two ‘selves’ will be familiar if you’ve ever read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow, where he describes the differences between System 1 (automatic) and System 2 (attention) thinking.

But where Kahneman is resigned to the incorrigibility of human error in System 1, Wendy Wood celebrates the superhuman strengths of our second self and urges us to harmonise our two selves or systems.

This is an idea with a long, if partially forgotten, lineage. In The Principles of Psychology (1890) William James declared:

‘The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work.’

Both selves have strengths and weaknesses, but Wendy Wood argues that for too long we have ignored or maligned the second self:

‘If our noisy, egotistical consciousness takes all the credit for the actions of our silent habitual self, we’ll never learn how to properly exploit this hidden resource. Habits will be a silent partner, full of potential energy but never asked to perform to their fullest.’

It’s time we got to know our second selves.

Introducing David and Dave

So I have two selves: isn’t this great news? To get away from total confusion, let’s call them Dave and David.

Until now, David has been the all-conquering, egotistical genius taking the praise for everything this body accomplishes. As far as David is concerned, writing these words is an act of sheer will alone – the finely tuned composition and typing habits of Dave have nothing to do with anything. David is the ego-self, or Kahneman’s System 2.

In contrast, Dave goes about his business quickly, quietly and easily – automatically, in fact. Dave is the second self or Kahneman’s System 1.

We know almost too much about David, so forget him for a minute (he’s throwing a strop already). What, according to the science so far, are Dave’s strengths and weaknesses?

Let’s start with the weaknesses because that’ll keep David happy for a second:

Dave’s Weaknesses

  • Unobservant.
  • Completely thoughtless and utterly uncritical.
  • Heavily dependent on familiar cues, he’s a total fish out of water in even a slightly different context.
  • Can’t react to changing events and will carry on executing the same orders, regardless of whether the result is actually useful any more.
  • Can suck the fun out of anything, even the most exquisite romance, by sheer repetition.
  • Can’t set his own conscious goals.

Doesn’t Dave sound like an idiot? Yes he does, but stop judging and let’s look at his strengths for a second.

Dave’s Strengths

  • Can’t be bribed with rewards. Can’t be punished either.
  • Doesn’t need willpower to resist temptation: simply executes. Almost impossible to distract.
  • Utterly committed to delivering relentlessly, effortlessly, day after day after day, through good times and bad.
  • Cheap to run. Doesn’t guzzle calories like profligate David does.
  • Very chilled. Dave doesn’t panic, worry or ever get confused about what to do
  • Actually thrives in times of stress or when the body is tired, hungry, sleep deprived.
  • Incredibly fast – so fast that action comes before even thought (Dave is Kahneman’s ‘thinking fast’).
  • Waaaaay tougher, stronger and more resilient than weeny David.
  • Highly skilled. It’s Dave who can play guitar, speak pretty good English, chop vegetables with a sharp knife, and ride a bike (although not all at the same time) (yet). Dave can be trained to do almost anything.
  • Makes life feel meaningful (say what? for real – this is Dave’s domain)
  • Although Dave might not set goals initially, it’s Dave who achieves my goals and, through his repeated actions, ends up deciding what I value. Mind blown.

Dave sounds like a total LEGEND!

Not one, but two of Wendy Wood’s studies (2002, 2005) found that 43 percent of our behaviour is automatic. If that figure is anywhere near accurate, then the sooner David lets Dave strut his stuff, the better it’ll be for both (?) of us (!).

As Wendy Wood concludes in Good Habits, Bad Habits, working in harmony with our second self isn’t only more productive, it’s also ‘a simpler, more integrated way to live your life.’

We all live habitually already. Most of us just aren’t aware of it. And because of that, we’re ignoring a big part of who we are and why we do what we do. We’re also ignoring all the many ways we could be doing things better.

Love is nothing special

Sometimes I forget to breathe. I’ll notice that I haven’t taken a deep breath in the last hour (or week) and, standing by the sink in the kitchen or staring into the pixels of my computer screen, I’ll consciously make the effort.

I’ve spoken to plenty of people who feel the same: we’re shallow breathers. But given how wonderful that first deep breath feels, wouldn’t we love to breathe a little deeper all the time?

After all, the air is right there, waiting for us to swallow it down to the bottom of our lungs. There are deep, inexhaustible breathfuls of air all around us, all the time. And breathing can do wonderful things.

Air doesn’t care whether we clear landmines for a living or make bullets for child soldiers in the Central African Republic. No matter: air is there for us.

Air gives us breath in abundance: we take as much as we please, almost without noticing. And, on the exhale, we pump out that sweet, sweet carbon the trees thrive on.

Breath in, breath out: the atmosphere is kept in balance. It is the base unit of our existence—and the existence of every living being on the planet. Air must be circulated. Without circulation, the whole system breaks down.

This is exactly like love.

Love is nothing special. Love isn’t something that we have to mine from the sweat of our brow. Love isn’t something tangible like fruit or clothing. It’s not even something purely conceptual like war or money.

It’s like the air: almost ludicrously abundant, the fundamental currency of life. Intangible, but real; everywhere, but invisible.

We might not be able to see the air, but we can all feel it: the rustle of the wind in the trees or the almost imperceptible caress of a zephyr on our cheek. At other times, the air is master of our existence: trapped inside a hurricane or in a storm on the high seas.

So too love: if we stop we can usually feel love even on the calmest of days. But love is no less there even when we can’t perceive it, in the same way that the air is no less there because we can’t feel the wind or see the trees swaying.

We don’t need to notice or think about the air in order to breathe. All we need to do is let our autonomic system do its thing.

Like the air, love is always there for us, unconditional. We only need to open our nostrils, throat and lungs and breathe: love in, love out.

Of course, neither air nor love are always entirely wholesome. We have polluted air and we have polluted love. Most people some of the time have moments when they find it hard to breathe—most people some of the time find love hard to feel, detect, receive or return.

But tapping off another living being’s supply of love is akin to standing on the hose that pumps oxygen into the lungs of a ICU patient.

Maybe, I thought one morning as I awoke from an aural dream, maybe I’m worrying too much. Maybe I’m trying too hard. Maybe I don’t have to do anything for love except let my autonomic system do the easy work: breath in, breath out.

The out breath is important. We can’t stockpile air: we’d explode. We can’t stockpile love either. Love is desperate for circulation. Without circulation, the whole system breaks down. So we don’t hold our breath: we breathe out.

My breathing is shallow. Next time I’m standing by the sink or staring into the pixels, I’ll imagine I’m breathing in all the love in the world—wouldn’t I breathe deeply then?

And wouldn’t I breathe out as deeply, because I want to share this carbon with the trees and this love with all living beings.

Are you a hedgehog or a fox? The value of persistence in writing

Are you a hedgehog or a fox? It’s a question that goes back to an Isaiah Berlin essay and one that helped Malcolm Gladwell determine that he was destined to become a journalist, not an academic.

A fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one important thing.

The distinction is wafted at, but totally unexplained, in this slightly unhinged profile of Gladwell in the Independent. The most interesting thing Big Malc says is when he’s asked whether he has ‘a gift’ for writing:

[I]f someone worked really hard could they write like me? Yes. But it’s a bit like saying, if someone worked really hard they could have your personality. My writing is who I am. Is good writing available to a larger group of people than we think? Absolutely. But the amount of work that goes into my writing… The last piece I did was 12 drafts, and if you write 12 drafts, I guess it’s going to be a pretty good piece, but how many people will do 12 drafts?

It’s not a style; it’s who you are. It’s not a gift; it’s hard work.

Which brings me neatly onto…

The value of persistence in comedy writing

I’m currently reading Good Habits, Bad Habits by Wendy Wood, one of the world’s leading social psychologists. She describes one piece of research that shows how we consistently underestimate the power of persistence.

At Northwestern University, Brian Lucas and Loren Nordgren asked a group of comedians to come up with as many punchlines to a setup as they could in four minutes.

Then they had to stop and tell the researchers how many more ideas they could come up with if they carried on for another four minutes. Typically, the comedy writers reckoned that they’d come up with fewer ideas after the break.

But when they were forced (presumably at gunpoint) to work for another four minutes, the comedians actually came up with more ideas than they expected—almost as many as in the first burst of creativity.

Lucas and Nordgren’s follow up studies showed that we particularly underestimate the value of persistence for creative tasks. In one experiment with over two hundred participants, the responses generated while persisting with the task in the second time period were significantly more creative than the responses generated initially.

The well doesn’t run dry, it runs deeper.

You can read a nice summary of Lucas and Nordgren’s work here. I’ve doubled the duration of my work sessions from 45 to 90 minutes.

Rocking rejections: ‘I really admire their chutzpah!’

A television pitch that I helped write was passed on by a production company this week. This isn’t, in itself, much of a surprise. Rejections happen all the time in life, let alone in television. But the manner of this particular rejection was, let’s say, interesting.

To be fair to the rejector, her words weren’t necessarily meant for our eyes — she was replying to another developer who’d forwarded our pitch to her — but nonetheless, I found those words, let’s persist in saying, interesting.

The email began:

It’s nice to hear from you — thanks for getting in touch with us about this project. I certainly admire their dedication and determination with this, they’re not ones to take no for an answer are they?!

And continued:

The project wouldn’t be one for us though at the moment unfortunately […] It’s a real shame because, as I say, I really admire their chutzpah!

Sending a pitch out to television companies looking for scripts to develop isn’t usually what I’d call chutzpah and the language of this particular rejection could be read as patronising, but that would do a disservice to the truth: chutzpah is what it takes to get stuff made.

Chutzpah is exactly what T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock struggled with: ‘Do I dare disturb the universe?’ and later, equally as ambitious: ‘Do I dare to eat a peach?’

Needless to say, Prufrock ends his days gazing out to sea, wondering ‘would it have been worth while, to have bitten off the matter with a smile’? He’ll never know.

Chutzpah gets things moving. Chutzpah is what Prufrock needs to squeeze ‘the universe into a ball, to roll it towards some overwhelming question’.

That question, for Prufrock as for us, isn’t necessarily a cosmic one. It might be as simple as following up on an unanswered pitch I sent to the Guardian last week: I know you can’t reply to every pitch, but just checking — did you get my email?

The developer was absolutely right: dedication and determination are essential character traits – in pretty much every human endeavour, let alone the creative arts. We need to keep putting out what she calls chutzpah: a thick skin she just helped make thicker.

At the end of her TIFF masterclass on The Female Gaze, Jill Soloway, crediting filmmaker John Cassavetes, says:

The job of the artist is to inspire the people with money to pay for the art. The people with the money never want to pay for the art. They are only there to make the money.

[…] Half the job [of being an artist] is making the art and the other half is being a politician for your art and coming up with a believable, positive, forward-thinking, money-making story around why your story matters.

So what have you been rejected for recently? Follow it up: maybe with an even more forward-thinking, money-making story, or simply by trying to inspire some other person with money to pay for your art.

Now is not the time to step back into the shadows, like Prufrock, and cry out, ‘No!’:

I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two

Instead: follow up, finish the scene, be there when the curtain falls.

Isolation Veganism

For the past couple of weeks I’ve been eating what I’m calling an eggy vegan diet: vegan plus eggs. (On the eggs: not many, and none in the past week.)

Why am I doing this? Mainly because there has never been a better time to make radical changes to my sturdiest habits — and that definitely includes my diet.

Contrary to appearances, this post is less about veganism and more about habit making and breaking, using as an example a fundamental part of our daily lives that a lot people believe is almost impossible to change: diet.

The story begins with fragility and its opposite: antifragility.

We are all antifragile

Extreme constraints like those we face in lockdown are often seen as negatives, but without anything holding us in we’d be nothing more than puddles of carbon and water.

Constraints aren’t just fundamental to our existence; they’re the only reason we have anything worth living for: the arts, crafts, science and even play.

In golf, players have to get a little white ball into a marginally bigger hole 410 yards away. That’s the game. But skill only comes into the picture when we add the limiting constraint: the players have to move the ball with a metal stick. Without this constraint, Tiger Woods isn’t worth $640 million.

Constraints ostensibly make things harder, but in so doing make things possible.

This guiding principle explains why humans are, to borrow the neologism of Nicholas Nassim Taleb, antifragile. Fragile objects shatter when mishandled. Robust objects are impervious to mishandling. But antifragile objects actually improve with mishandling.

It’s a wild concept, but true nevertheless: press ups only make you stronger by first breaking down your muscle fibres. At school, understanding begins with confusion.

Similarly, if we adopt an antifragile mindset, the rough treatment we’re suffering under Covid-19 will make us stronger. A sudden upturning of our nest might be mistaken for a vindictive catastrophe; it is rather a ‘moment of change’.

Isolation as a global ‘moment of change’

‘Moments of change’ are occasions where the circumstances of an individual’s life change considerably within a relatively short time frame.

Remind you of any recent events?

This definition comes from a 2011 report by the New Economics Foundation (NEF), which summarises the ‘moments of change’ research, analysing these rare opportunities for changing our behaviour, our habits and even our most primal conceptions of who we are.

The NEF study picks out some common moments of change that happen occasionally in most lifetimes: leaving home for the first time, the transition to parenthood, moving house, retirement, energy crises and global recessions.

But I can’t think of a more dramatic moment of change in my lifetime than the Covid-19 pandemic.

Change your environment, change your behaviour

Habits, by definition, are automatic patterns of behaviour: actions we take without really thinking too much. They can be remarkably stubborn and resistant to change — but they’re also tightly bonded to our surroundings.

Think about how hard it would be trying to work down the pub compared to when you’re in the office. You’re the same person — your habits haven’t gone anywhere — but the different environments cue different routines and end up completely changing how you behave.

The opportunities presented by moments of change come about because most of our habits are actually interactions with our immediate physical and social environment.

For most of us, these interactions have been disrupted by self-isolation. The transition from your workplace to working at home is an obvious example of the disruption in environmentally cued behaviour that a lot of us are feeling right now.

But what’s happened to your shopping environment, your eating environment, your exercise environment, your socialising environment? If you’re anything like me, then everything has been thrown up in the air.

All our habitual environments have been shaken up, interrupting the routine behaviours they usually cue.

As NEF put it:

When something interrupts performance of the old behaviour, the need for some degree of conscious direction returns — and once this has happened, the behaviour may be more susceptible to change.

Right now, interruption is happening on a massive scale. Suddenly, we all have to exercise a ‘degree of conscious direction’, perhaps for the first time in many years. The habit discontinuities we’re all facing are opportunities to change our routine behaviour in our relationships, work life, consumer habits, physical fitness and — why not? — diet.

Veganism, dairy and the microbiome

I’ve experimented with vegetarianism before, and for the last five years meat hasn’t been a huge part of my diet (barring one spectacularly ill-fated experiment in 2017), so abstaining from flesh was never going to be an issue.

But then there’s dairy.

Every breakfast for the past three years, I’ve unerringly eaten 250g of high-fat Greek yoghurt, with oats, raisins and nuts. Not, you’ll note, vegan.

A large proportion of meals also came with grated cheese and I’d frequently demolish an afternoon snack of creamy nuts: that’s about 100ml of double cream in a bowl filled with nuts. Not, you’ll note — heck, that’s scarcely edible for most people, let alone vegan.

So going vegan — even eggy vegan — was not going to be easy on my gut.

Lo and behold, my first four days without dairy were peppered with splitting headaches and slothish lethargy. From previous dietary experiments, I’d been expecting this miserable side effect, so I knew how to barrel through.

I like to imagine that these headaches were my dairy-loving bacteria putting up one hell of a fight. On the fifth day, though, they are defeated: starved out of existence and replaced with bacteria that prefer to get their nutrition from celery sticks and tempeh.

This explanation, if not completely upheld by science, is at the very least ‘sciency’, as I explain in this post about quitting sugar. No matter its degree of accuracy, this ‘explanation’ eases me through the temporary fog of headaches and tiredness, out to the other side: eggy veganism.

I have taken this moment of change to try on an alternate personality that’s interested me for a while.

It doesn’t have to go any further than that, of course, but there are intriguing case studies of vegan endurance athletes, the vegan diet is currently ranked as the most nutritious, and there is good scientific evidence that a vegan diet imposes a lighter load on the planet (and no I haven’t had an avocado yet).

But will I want to maintain the diet when lockdown ends?

We don’t want ‘normal’

Historical data from the NEF report suggest that behaviour changes made under pressure don’t tend to last once the crisis is over. Indeed, the hope that everything will go back to normal is why many people are happy to temporarily surrender their usual lifestyles in the first place.

It’s almost certain that I’ll be offered meat or dairy when I return to society — most of my friends and family aren’t vegan and I’m not so wedded to this lifestyle that I’d turn down food if they’re kind enough to cook for me.

But forget other people, after lockdown I myself will be tempted to choose dairy much more frequently than I am now.

Before Covid-19, I went food shopping every couple of days; at the moment, it’s once every 7-10 days. That means I only have to ‘resist’ buying meat or dairy once a week — easy.

My shopping habits feed (pun intended) directly into my eating habits. Change my shopping environment and I change my eating environment: at home I only have eggy vegan choices now.

When society opens back up, will I maintain my new shopping habits? Will my post-lockdown shopping habits, whatever they are, support or undermine my new eggy vegan diet? I don’t know.

But those of us who have used this moment of change to try on an alternate personality — and decide that we want to keep it — must reject the almost irresistible return to normality. We don’t want to abandon our old habits temporarily. We don’t want to go back to ‘normal’ any more. We want change.

It’s one thing to build good habits in this ascetic Covid-19 environment; it’s quite another making them robust enough to survive the shock of opening up. But by anticipating the challenge of impending normality — in the way that I anticipated the headaches and lethargy of quitting dairy — we have at least a chance.

Smug as

So, the big question: how did I replace my heaped bowl of yoghurt every morning? The answer, quite simply: I didn’t — I couldn’t. What in the plant kingdom could possibly imitate animal fats? Genetically, I don’t think it’s possible.

(And, no, the answer is not ‘oat crème fraîche’. Vegetables oils are exactly that: oily. They slimily slither over the tongue and cling to a clammy palate. Dairy fats are, in contrast, fatty. They somehow sink to the bottom of the stomach, leaving a feeling of satiety and a clean taste in the mouth. Mine at least.)

The answer was to cut the Gordian Knot, remove ‘breakfast’ entirely and replace it with something even better than breakfast.

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve started my day with a 30g pea and rice protein shake, which I drink while cracking on with work. The green mush is much easier to digest than a big bowl of dairy and keeps me alert throughout my new-found, vegan-inspired morning work regimen.

Smug as fuck.

We’ve. Got. Time.

It’s worth saying that habit change isn’t the same for all people, in all environments and for all behaviours.

I personally find going ‘cold turkey’ has been the best approach for changing diet and has served me well when cutting out sugar and caffeine. I didn’t want to gradually phase out dairy: it would’ve been too hard for me to resist binging. The downside is that I knew I’d have four days of headaches.

But going from zero to a sixty with press ups or running is the quickest way to fail. Run a marathon tomorrow and I’ll be injured for a month. If I’m injured, I can’t build a habit. Far better to start slow and build than to rush for the line and fall.

As well as physical limitations, there are mental limitations.

It doesn’t make sense to force myself to do yoga if I’m not enjoying it. That’s why my daily yoga habit is simply to do as much yoga as I feel like. At the beginning, nearly five months ago, that was five minutes before bed. Now it’s around 20 minutes, twice a day.

My goal is not the accomplishment of some landmark. My goal is to build a sustainable, healthy lifestyle. Cold turkey is one approach and a slow-build while only doing as much as I enjoy is another. For both, I find this mantra helpful: don’t miss twice.

Whichever approach you find most helpful, if there’s one thing we’ve learnt over the past four weeks it’s to slow down and take each day as it comes. We’ve. Got. Time.

Over to us

Kintsugi is the traditional Japanese art of mending broken pottery with lacquer dusted with powdered gold. Sure — super glue also works, but kintsugi is a reminder that we can choose to see the beauty in broken things.

Our work habits are broken. Good. Our social habits are broken. Good. Our shopping habits are broken. Good. We’ve probably got another 18 months of on-and-off lockdown. What are we going to do with this fracture in our habits? Are we fragile, are we going to shatter? Or are we antifragile, are we going to fill the cracks with gold?

My eggy vegan diet isn’t nearly as smug as it sounds. After two weeks, I still get faint bouts of acid reflux and I’ve had to shelve the peanut butter. I’ve read some stuff about ‘alkalising’ my food, but until I’ve had a chance to read more studies, I’m dubious.

This is still a journey of exploration for me. Yesterday I discovered one of the great secrets of vegan cooking: miso paste — in fact, sauces in general. The hand blender has become my closest ally.

I know some of you are plant-based: if you are vegan (or close enough), then I’d love to hear what you’ve learned so far. Honestly. Please drop me an email.

Whatever you think about veganism, I hope I’ve convinced you that isolation is a rare opportunity to get inside your own head, have a rummage around, learn some cool stuff and change for the better — or at least for the more interesting.

It’s over to us now.

Fine to flounder

Following Edith Eger, I’m suddenly fascinated by choices. Particularly the way that we usually ascribe momentous deliberation to other people’s decision-making process, but know for ourselves that the process is far more chaotic and flukey.

For example: when I was a teenager, my mum decided to read for a PhD. I’d always assumed that this was the flowering of some long-held academic ambition, one rudely interrupted by the time-sink of raising kids. I assumed that the decision-making process was meticulously worked out over lists, spreadsheets and probably PowerPoint presentations with my dad.

But I’d never actually ever asked her how she came to that decision, until last weekend.

The truth is that, one day, her boss offered her a promotion that she really didn’t want. She went to sit in a cafe to think. She knew that she couldn’t simply refuse the promotion; she needed a good excuse. Then lightning struck — what better excuse than a PhD!

And there’s the chaos and fluke that we airbrush out of everyone else’s lives.

This is tremendously liberating. If everyone else is also floundering around life making decisions in much the same way that you make an omelette, then the pressure is off. It’s fine to flounder. More than fine: my mum also said that choosing to do a PhD was the best decision she ever made.

~

This conversation was inspired by another short passage in The Choice, where Eger writes about making the leap from school teacher to psychologist:

I told my principal I was considering getting my doctorate in psychology. But I couldn’t speak my dream without a caveat. “I don’t know,” I said, “by the time I finish school I’ll be fifty.” He smiled at me. “You’re going to be fifty anyhow,” he said.

Boom. Of course. We’re going to be twenty / forty / sixty / ninety anyhow, we might as well plunge.

People pleasing RIP

Coronavirus is crap. Isolation is brilliant. I’ve spent approximately thirty-seven and a half years of my life trying to please other people and now I find myself entirely alone.

I know everyone loves bigging up their own particular foibles, but of all the neuroses of humanity people pleasing is surely the most pernicious.

First of all: a definition, my definition.

‘People pleasing’ is what happens when you worry too much about what other people might think of you, your behaviour and your life choices.

People pleasing isn’t merely finding it hard to say ‘no’ or a vague desire for everyone to like you. It goes much, much deeper than that, inveigling its needy little voice into every decision you make.

Your own personal pleaszus

Personally, I hear people pleasing as an internal voice of varying pitch and volume that chirps up before, during and after almost any choice or action.

It applies to thoughts great and small — and even to things over which I have no control, like my skin colour, place of birth and fondness for the word ‘quagmire’.

People pleasing kicks in no matter whether my behaviour materially affects anyone else, and regardless of whether anyone has ever even implied that they’re judging me.

  • ‘I’m a writer’ — what do you think about that, friends?
  • ‘I might buy some oat milk’ — any objections, random stranger?
  • ‘Quagmire’ — is that okay by you, planet earth?

As you can imagine, it’s exhausting.

In my case, people pleasing tends to go alongside that ancient and noble art that counsellors admonish as ‘mindreading’ — I assume that I understand other people’s thought processes without actually asking them.

In other words, rather than double checking that the people I’m trying to ‘please’ actually give a shit, I tie my stomach up in knots trying to take into account whatever I imagine their lofty opinions might be.

You’re very welcome, people.

Please please me

Most of us — I’m including my former self — believe that people pleasing is one of three things. Moving up the scale, we think that people pleasing is either:

  1. A charming and considerate personality trait.
  2. Harmless.
  3. A total waste of time because the people you’re trying to please won’t notice, don’t care or are disfiguringly ungrateful.

People pleasing is none of these things. (It is a waste of time, but not for those reasons.)

It’s taken four weeks of living with myself, with next to zero face-to-face critical feedback or approval, for me to realise that people pleasing is nothing — nothing — but passing the buck.

People pleasing is a bullshit excuse my subconscious uses to avoid taking responsibility for my choices. End of. (It’s not the end of, there’s more — keep reading. Please?)

Mind games, forever

In life, we all have choices — or at least the illusion of choices.

Embedded in every choice is a dollop of responsibility. Some people take responsibility for their own choices and some people don’t. People pleasers fall into the second category.

A concrete example is in order.

Mind 1: People pleasing

Ooh, maybe I should drop everything and become an academic because both of my parents have PhDs and I’m sure they secretly want me to be a professor.

Note how my interior monologue is subtly passing the responsibility for my genuine, if far-fetched, choice over whether to become an academic onto my parents. It’s not really my decision, my little voice says, it’s theirs by proxy.

Worse still, this people pleasing is based on a completely fictitious version of my parents: they’ve never even hinted that they might like me to work in academia.

In this mind, I’m not choosing for myself; I’m trying to second guess what someone else might choose for me.

Mind 2: Non people pleasing

Ooh, maybe I could drop everything and become an academic! Hm. I could ask my parents what they think, particularly my mum, who got her PhD in her fifties. Why did she decide to go back to university? That’d be really helpful to know and might give me a clue as to what I could expect from academia. But we’re different people and, whatever I choose, I will choose for myself, not for her or anyone else.

Isn’t this amazingly rational? After all, there’s nothing wrong in having far-fetched ideas like dropping everything to become an academic. Ultimately, though, the decision-making buck stops with me.

After hearing Mind 2, it seems hard to believe that anyone would think like Mind 1, but believe me it happens. And if the Internet is anything to go by, it happens a lot.

The other side of the mirror

People pleasing is a two person game, although the second player is usually reluctant. The people I am supposed to be ‘pleasing’ must either accept the responsibility I’m trying to subcontract — or they can reject it.

It’s an unwinnable game with only two outcomes:

  1. I’ve not met anyone who can take bear responsibility for another adult human’s choices without buckling under the weight of expectation. The friendship is strained, the work becomes hard and everyone loses.
  2. But if player two chooses to reject the responsibility (as they must eventually), that only hurts the people pleaser — and exacerbates their anxiety to please. It’s back to square one, or it’s game over.

You see, people pleasing isn’t only damaging for the pleaser; it’s also a cruel gift for the people we’re trying to please, usually those we love the most.

This is why I say people pleasing is so pernicious: people pleasers hide behind their ‘niceness’, but in truth it’s a poisoned chalice.

So far, so depressing.

‘And with a single mighty bound, he was free!’

Lockdown has been many things for many people, but for me it has been a once-in-a-decade opportunity to sit with myself, almost in hermitage.

One thing I’ve realised is that I really look forward to seeing people — as you would expect for a people pleaser. Quite often I would look at my calendar and fix on some future social event: going for a group run or ride, writing Foiled with my co-writer or going up to Bristol to play Frisbee with friends.

And then I’d just sort of fill time until then.

Yes, I would do some tasks that to the untrained eye might look productive, but often I hadn’t really taken responsibility for those tasks. I would do them competently, but mechanically, worried that someone would be upset if I didn’t.

I would subcontract my responsibility.

But since the middle of March the coronavirus has stripped away all of the things by which I would normally mark time. With the empty months stretching out before me, I faced a stark choice — and one for which no one else could possibly take responsibility because all the people I might hope to please are in lockdown too.

Coronavirus has made people pleasing impossible.

So what on earth does the people pleaser do when he knows he’ll not see another human being for a couple of months?

There’s only one practical choice left: he must take responsibility. And not only for the work that he’s committed to for the next couple of months, but for all the choices he’s made over the past thirty-seven and a half years that have brought him to this point.

This is a tremendously liberating feeling, impossible to overstate, almost impossible to put into words. That inveigling little voice? It’s not mine. It’s an eccentric visitor, a curiosity rather than a compass, like a stock photograph on the wall of a corridor.

Edith Eger is a psychotherapist who survived the Holocaust. Her book The Choice tipped the first domino of this mindshift. Particularly this passage:

Most of us want a dictator — albeit a benevolent one — so we can pass the buck, so we can say, “You made me do that. It’s not my fault.” But we can’t spend our lives hanging out under someone else’s umbrella and then complain that we’re getting wet. A good definition of being a victim is when you keep the focus outside yourself, when you look outside yourself for someone to blame for your present circumstances, or to determine your purpose, fate, or worth.

I feel like I have stepped out from under someone else’s umbrella — and this whole time it wasn’t even raining.