Blog: The Motherlode

Goldeous Kline And The Borrowful Glaxons In the end, Goldeous Kline and the Borrowful Glaxons is not only a thrilling adventure filled with scientific intrigue, but also a testament to the unifying power of curiosity, wonder, and trust in the face of uncertainty

This is the title of a short story prompt that I offered the author David Varela way back in 2012.

David was doing a mad project where he took a monkish vow of silence, sat in a live-streamed cell and wrote short stories based on publicly-sourced prompts for 100 hours straight.

David took my prompt 95 hours into the project so he was understandably suffering from reality hallucinations, but I loved what he did with the title, transmuting it into a sci-fi parody about an interstellar civilisation that ‘went wild with the credit card’ on Finusian Champagne.

Another story about debt, with some sort of space bank on the tail of the Glaxon High Command:

“They’re repossessing everything. The bases, the ships… even Deckard. Apparently galactic law still regards him as a thing not a person.”

(The 100 Hours project is now offline, but you can catch up with David on his website and read the rest of his Glaxon short story on my website.)

So when Stephen Reid announced that he’d created a prompt engine for ChatGPT-4 that would use the AI to generate a blog post in his style based on user-suggested titles, I knew exactly what to do.

ChatGPT-4 is supposed to be better at unravelling fact from fiction than its language model predecessors , but the blog post the Reid-AI Cyborg spaffed out introduces Goldeous thusly:

Goldeous Kline and the Borrowful Glaxons by Aelius Blythe is a treasure trove of profound insights and mind-bending ideas that challenge our understanding of reality and reveal the intertwined nature of science and spirituality.

If you say so.

It’s worth noting too that, where David Varela’s Goldeous Kline was a daring woman space badass, ChatGPT’s is a male scientist.

In fairness, Aelius Blythe’s novel does sound pretty cool:

Through the interwoven stories of Goldeous Kline, a human scientist, and the Borrowful Glaxons, Blythe draws upon the profound insights of quantum physics to explore the connections between science and spirituality, illuminating the subtle and intricate dance between matter, energy, and consciousness that lies at the heart of existence.

Well, actually, it sounds like exactly the sort of book that former complexity scientist and founder of The Psychedelic Society Stephen Reid would love to read.

In lieu of any source material, ChatGPT will fulfil fantasies.

A lot of pixels have been spilt over the threat and promise of AI — and you’ll be glad to hear that I’m not interested in stuffing your brain with any more of that speculation.

But what David Varela and ChatGPT have reminded me is that every moment is a prompt and that we can choose to write and rewrite from an infinite, imaginative supply of stories everytime we answer that call to adventure.

In the end, Goldeous Kline and the Borrowful Glaxons is not only a thrilling adventure filled with scientific intrigue, but also a testament to the unifying power of curiosity, wonder, and trust in the face of uncertainty.

Cinq Diamants Obligations bring us together as a community; debts divide us

Rambling the streets south of Austerlitz on Wednesday, we happened upon Rue de Cinq Diamants — Five Diamond Street.

What caught our eye was the graffiti —

But Cinq Diamants is also home to Les Amies et Amis de la Commune de Paris 1871, an organisation that promotes the ideals of the Paris Commune, the radical working class who governed Paris for two months in 1871.

Besides the separation of church and state, the abolition of child labour and the right of employees to run their own businesses, the Commune also passed a law that postponed commercial debts and abolished the paying of interest on those debts.

I mention this because I was recently asked to write a short piece for the next issue of Red Pepper Magazine about David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years.

The idea that ‘we should always pay our debts’ has become the self-evident moral foundation of our economic and political relations, but — as David Graeber shows inside the first four pages of Debt — that idea is total bollocks.

Always pay our debts? Really? Tell that to the bailed out banks, extractive, polluting industries and tax-avoidant billionaires and transnationals.

As David pointed out, debts are obligations that can be precisely quantified. That’s a critical distinction: debt is only one, deeply alienating, expression of how we manage our relations with others.

Whereas debts are precisely impersonal financial instruments, we can see the more general concept of obligation as a chain of generosity: gifts and favours of similar, but crucially not identical value, to be granted, not immediately, but at some appropriate time in the future, according to the needs of the recipient and resources of the obliged.

Obligations bring us together as a community; debts divide us.

Let’s Not Doomspread Loneliness Writing constructively isn’t hard: put solutions up top in the lede. Why wait until you’ve beaten us up already?

This Quanta story by Marta Zaraska follows the classic doomspreading journalistic model so you’ll have to scroll right to the bottom to find the work that is being done to help support people who feel chronic loneliness, but, if you can avoid getting caught in the cheap attention trap, it’s an interesting read.

Example of anxiety-inducing sensationalist doomspreading:

10 hours without social contact is enough to elicit essentially the same neural signals as being deprived of food 🤮

Example of constructive storytelling, from the last two paragraphs in the article:

While interventions such as cognitive behavioural therapy, promoting trust and synchrony, or even ingesting magic mushrooms could help treat chronic loneliness, transient feelings of solitude will most likely always remain part of the human experience. And there is nothing wrong with that, Tomova said.

She compares loneliness to stress: It’s unpleasant but not necessarily negative. ‘It provides energy to the body, and then we can deal with challenges,’ she said. 🥰

In the last 432 words of their 2,000 word article, Marta Zaraska covers four possible solutions for chronic loneliness (which I’ve bolded) and offers a comforting arm around the shoulder for the rest of us.

But how many people will read that far? The first 1,500 words are, by and large, doomspreading, explaining why chronic loneliness is a terrible thing and how difficult an emotion it is for scientists to study, let alone treat.

Take note, journalists, all — writing constructively isn’t hard. It doesn’t even mean removing the darker details, but why not put solutions and that arm around the shoulder up top in the lede? Why wait until you’ve beaten us up already?

I sort of don’t want to know the answer to that question.

If you notice a journalist who opens with doomspreading, do yourself a favour and skip ahead to read the final paragraphs first.

Antischismogenetic Equifinality Today’s story is little more than the smashing together of two fancy words that I learned recently. (And, actually, one of them I made up.)

Today’s story is little more than the smashing together of two fancy words that I learned recently.

(And, actually, one of them I made up.)


Schismogenesis is the word for a process where apparently close neighbours somehow end up defining themselves in direct opposition to the other.

Protestant and Catholic, Conservative and Labour, Mods and Rockers, Reds and Blues: despite sharing so much, we lurrrrve to amplify our divisions and differences.

In Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), social psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson show how tenaciously we tend to cling onto our sides of the argument (or indeed angle on reality), no matter what evidence or alternative is put before us.

As the editors at Wikipedia succinctly summarise:

It describes a positive feedback loop of action and self-deception by which slight differences between people’s attitudes become polarised.

Fuelled by cognitive dissonance and the confirmation bias, that’s (at least one element of) schismogenesis in action.

Antischismogenesis is my made up word for the reverse process: a divided people finding — and building upon — common ground.

(Or at least the ability to notice where difference exists and retain the openness of mind to continue to listen.)

While antischismogenesis does happen naturally — chuck a couple of reasonably open-minded, relaxed humans together and it’s surprising what common ground they’ll find. What, you love pizza too?! — it can seem that schismogenesis is the weightier force, particularly insidious as (for most if not all people) it rarely happens with malice aforethought.

What we need is a concept that will guide us towards, not malice, but benevolence aforethought…


Equifinality is the fancy word for ‘there’s more than one way to skin a cat’ (or, indeed, that gruesome idiom’s even more graphic progenitor: ‘there are more ways of killing a cat than choking it with cream’).

Equifinality is almost a state of mind.

There so are many different ways of ending up with similar-looking results that it’d be INSANE to judge anyone because they aren’t doing it exactly like you or because they don’t look like you or talk like you or even think like you.

Sometimes you’ve got to let them do it their way.

In fact, you could say that the spirit of equifinality is exactly what we need to find in order to rebuild our communities through antischismogenesis.

What we need is a mouthful: antischismogenetic equifinality.

Go on, give it a try — if nothing else, it’s fun to wrap your tongue around.

How we actually do antischismogenetic equifinality is another matter entirely.

The Discerning Traveller’s Comprehensively Empty Guide To Antischismogenetic Equifinality (On A Shoestring)

As it’s a concept that I just made up, there is no behavioural toolkit for antischismogenetic equifinality, but I bet it’d include all the usual tricks of the communication trade:

  • Learn about the ordinary human tendency for schismogenesis between in-groups and out-groups. Done ✔️
  • Notice where schismogenesis has nurtured division in your own life. What kind of people are in your circle of friends, colleagues and nodding acquaintances?
  • Notice when you are actively manufacturing division from others. Don’t forget that division isn’t all blazing rows and fisty-cuffs. It’s most often as mundane and insidious as silent prejudice.
  • What’s your internal monologue when you pass a member of the out-group in the street? How about when you hear your favourite worst enemy on the radio or read about their latest egregious behaviour in the news? If you’re anything like me, you’ll despatch with relish the three Ds: dismiss, deny and denigrate.
  • Learn about and notice your own susceptibility to the cognitive biases that make us all think that we’re not only the best, but also sparkling exceptions to any and every rule. Cognitive biases, our mental blind spots, are like a baseball bat to the knees of equifinality.
  • Interrupt the opening of any division with extra-ordinary behaviours, which usually begins with you reaching out in a spirit of curiosity. Nonjudgemental curiosity is the practical precursor of equifinality.
  • Ask open questions (instead of leading questions), listen for what others want to communicate (instead of what you want to hear) and check that you have understood others as they want to be understood (instead of how you’d like to label them).
  • Employ random acts of kindness to set spinning a virtuous cycle of connection between strangers.

But I bet you’ve got a million other ideas and I’m totally here for them. Hit the comments.


The author would particularly like to thank Davids Graeber and Wengrow and, as ever, the editors at Wikipedia.

Writing In Public: Memory & Desire However inconvenient the distortions of memory and desire may be for psychoanalysts, they are good things for the writers of bicycling memoirs

While discussing the relationship between my favourite Heraclitus quote and cycling around Britain for the second time, a two-time acquaintance suggested I read a short article by psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion.

The four pages of Notes on memory and desire (1967) are clearly written for the psychoanalyst, but are fertile ground for anyone hoping to write a bicycling memoir.

‘Memory,’ Bion declares, ‘is always misleading as a record of fact.’

He’s not wrong: despite being consistently underestimated, our memories are naturally, even occasionally tragically, fallible.

Meanwhile, opines Bion: ‘Desires distort judgement by selection and suppression of material to be judged.’

Again, horribly accurate: the halo effect being just one of a panoply of cognitive biases where our desires corrupt our conclusions.

Memory & Desire = Bad Bad?

Bion is pretty damning about the effect of memory and desire on the workings of psychoanalysis:

Memory and Desire exercise and intensify those aspects of the mind that derive from sensuous experience.

However inconvenient the distortions of memory and desire may be for psychoanalysts, they are good things for the writers of bicycling memoirs.

Cycling around the coast of Britain is indeed a sensuous experience and anything that intensifies that experience can only help the sensationalist storyteller.

Stories would be pretty dull if the writer’s fallible memory didn’t trim the facts, nor desire distort, select and suppress.

However: where Bion gets interesting is in his discussion of the ride itself, especially for those of us who repeatedly cover the same ground.

Staying Present = Improv?

Bion uses the metaphor of the psychoanalytic session, but I’m pretty sure he was talking about cycling around Britain twice when he wrote:

Every session bike ride attended by the psychoanalyst bicyclist must have no history and no future.

What is ‘known’ about the patient Britain is of no further consequence: it is either false or irrelevant. […] The only point of importance in any session bike ride is the unknown. Nothing must be allowed to distract from intuiting that. […]

The psychoanalyst bicyclist should aim at achieving a state of mind so that at every session ride he feels he has not seen the patient Britain before. If he feels he has, he is treating riding the wrong patient ride.

Staying present is not only the work of the psychoanalyst, but also the bicycling memoirist and, of course, our old friend Heraclitus:

No man can step into the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.

Every landscape, every town, every human and beastly interaction is happening for the first time, every time, and the ride is an embedded, embodied improvisation: ‘Yes, and…’

Improv, like a good bike ride, only works when you’re open, creative, responsive and curious — four ways of saying the same thing — to what’s inside you, what’s around you, and to your partners and props on the stage.

SIDE BAR: Keith Johnstone, RIP

Keith Johnstone, who taught so many actors, directors and comedians the games of improvisation, died last week.

There are people who prefer to say ‘Yes’, and there are people who prefer to say ‘No’. Those who say ‘Yes’ are rewarded by the adventures they have, and those who say ‘No’ are rewarded by the safety they attain.

That’s a quote from Keith Johnstone’s Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre (neat summary here by James Clear).

Impro For Storytellers, his second book, perceptibly changed my life after picking it up at random from a shelf at Oxford library in 2003. The subtitle is ‘The Art Of Making Things Happen’. It works.

There is, of course, more to improv than The Cult Of Yes, And… As Keith Johnstone points out in this 2017 interview, ‘a story that only says yes is a very limited story form […] A master improviser can do what they like’.

The point is to help your partner in the improvisation, not to try to screw them up. A lesson worth holding onto. Thanks, Keith.

Staying Present With Notes

The only difference between a good improviser and a writer is that the writer takes notes. Which Bion would have hated.

Somewhat grumpily, Bion declares that notes should be ‘confined to matters that can be recorded’, i.e. bugger all.

Instead, Bion commands us to obey his number one rule:

Do not remember past sessions bike rides. The greater the impulse to remember what has been said or done, the more the need to resist it. […]

The supposed events must not be allowed to occupy the mind. Otherwise the evolution of the session bike ride will not be observed at the only time when it can be observed — while it is taking place.

Here, from time to time, the bicycling memoirist must respectfully disagree.

Writing, on my typewriter, eyes up, following the fluency of my fingers, helps me observe and recall my experience of the world around me in more detail, not less.

Like this, from my ride diary back on 2 August 2020:

Sunny lanes. Pandora told me about how Airbnb is ruining Athens so she can’t live in the areas she used to. She also told me about Halloween Alley Cat Races.

We detoured through a prison and passed another group of cyclists.

‘What were those cyclists pointing at?’ she asked.

‘They’re turning right,’ I said.

Nothing serves noticing more than notating. And nothing serves the reader more than writers who notice.

From Desire To Curiosity

I’ll leave you with a note on how Bion’s desecration of desire pertains to the bicycling memoirist.

Bion’s second rule for psychoanalysts is this:

Desires for results, ‘cure’ or even understanding must not be allowed to proliferate.

My initial response was YES. Desire for a particular result takes us out of an experience.

I teared up reading the end of Mark Beaumont’s book about his round the world record attempt, but that was the tension release triggered by the climax of a hard-fought result. His desire for the world record overtook any sense of experience: I remember nothing of his ride and I suspect he scarcely does either.

The reason I rode around Tunisia the year after I first cycled the coast of Britain was precisely because I wanted to take it more slowly and prove to myself that I could indulge experience over ‘getting there’.

Irritatingly, Bion would seem to be correct again: desire interferes with experience.

Then I paused: is this not a cop-out?

Freed from spontaneous impulses of desire, the bicycling memoirist is also excused from courage to retreat into their shell of individual experience.

A sign pointing the way to Twatt Church. A conversation overheard. A rumour passed around of a quarry camp. The salt wash scent of the ocean. The intriguingly lengthy queue for a hot stone bakery.

Are these petty squirts of desire not also the ripe ingredients of adventure?

There is nuance to Bion’s declaration. Yes, desire for a particular result takes us out of an experience, but it must be distinguished from our healthy desire to experience more: it must be distinguished from our curiosity.

Desire is forcing our way into a house: never going to end in anything better than a cricket bat to the belly. Curiosity is gently pushing on the door and seeing whether it opens, with a smile.


Thanks to everyone who responded to my first Writing In Public post on Coasting. Thanks in advance if your mouse is right now hovering over the Reply button.

Special thanks to two-time acquaintance CW for introducing me to the insane ideas of Wilfred Bion and for leading me through my own memory and desire.

Be The Miracle Fearful sceptics have bewitched us into believing that it’s absurd to believe in humanity, their perverted tyranny twisting our minds such that a show of solidarity from a stranger is ‘a miracle’

There’s train strikes this week: 40,000 rail workers united to protect their pay and working conditions against extraction by private shareholders.

In January, rail minister Huw Merriman admitted that, not only would it have been cheaper to settle the dispute months ago, but that the negotiations were being used to suppress the pay of all public sector key workers, including teachers and nurses. Ouch.

But that’s all by the by.

For the purposes of this story, the train strike merely explains why I was in my car at Southampton Airport Parkway and why vehicle delivery driver Arthur was standing on the M27 slip road holding his red trade plates.

I checked my mirrors and thought, ‘That’s a crap place to hitch,’ before pulling over and hitting my hazards.

Arthur ran up, pulled the door and chucked himself into the passenger seat.

He’d forgotten about the strike and found himself stranded after delivering a Motorway car to their depot in Eastleigh.

‘I don’t normally hitchhike,’ he said. ‘It was only fifteen minutes, but I had a bad feeling standing there — I’m very grateful.’

Arthur’s next job was to pick up a Hyundai Ioniq from an industrial estate outside Poole and take it up to Tamworth — a 180 mile drive in an electric car with 106 miles’ charge.

‘Normally I don’t touch electrics — something always happens and you’re left sitting around for hours. I didn’t clock this one.’

Seeing as I was on my way back to Bournemouth anyway, it was easy to save Arthur any more trouble. And I got to learn a little about the vehicle delivery trade.

For Arthur, it was all about supplementing his pension and getting him out of the house. A long day for £230.

This isn’t his usual patch. He normally operates in the band of territory south of Birmingham and north of London — ‘It’s much easier when you know where you are. I haven’t been to Poole since my honeymoon, 1975.’

Arthur’s phone rang: ‘Yes, love?’

His partner, Chris, was checking in and I got to hear Arthur’s take on his morning.

‘No, thanks, love, I’m fine, it’s all good now. This chap’s picked me up and I’m on the move. Good thing too — I was feeling a bit down back there, stood on the side of the motorway. Then along comes this miracle.’

I laughed. Not a bad way to start my day, being called a miracle. But it also made me wonder how we’ve come to be ruled by sceptics.

Arthur was standing on the side of a road rushing with cars driving his way. Every single one could have picked him up. It should be no surprise — much less a miracle — that someone stopped for him inside quarter of an hour. And yet he’d been anxious.

Sceptics are those who doubt their own humanity and the humanity of others.

Sceptics are those who believe that we’re not all in it together, that we’re not all playing for the same Team Human, that, contrary to all evidence, we’re not sociable animals, our nervous systems constantly regulating to each other.

I’m currently reading David Graeber and David Wengrow’s The Dawn Of Everything. It’s a remarkable work that will transfuse into my stories over the coming years. But one idea jumped out today: we humans are only fully self-conscious when we’re talking, laughing, rolling, relating with others.

But sceptics would rather believe that we’re each autonomous and independent economic units, acting in our own self-interest to the exclusion of others, certainly others beyond our immediate genetic milieu.

They couldn’t be more blatantly, even biologically, wrong, but somehow their scepticism has cast a spell over society.

Fearful sceptics have bewitched us into believing that it’s absurd to believe in humanity, their perverted tyranny twisting our minds such that a show of solidarity from a stranger is ‘a miracle’.

The good news is that the journey from false sceptic to true believer is no more than a single step.

All you need do is pronounce the believer’s creed: ‘I believe in my own humanity and the humanity of others’ and you’re ready to perform what those ridiculous sceptics have convinced us are fantastic miracles.

Of course, we can’t be miracles to everyone we cross, not all day every day. But keep your eyes open, hold out a hand, drop a smile and, from time to time, be the miracle.

Leonard Cohen, Janis Joplin & Me 'She wasn’t looking for me, she was looking for Kris Kristofferson; I wasn’t looking for her, I was looking for Brigitte Bardot.'

This is a story about two songs, both written by men about women they met in New York, inside and outside the Chelsea Hotel.

(Before you switch off, I’ve also included one of the women’s side of the story. It’s hilarious.)

The Chelsea is famous for its residents and the work they created there: Dylan Thomas, Jack Kerouac, Edith Piaf, Jane Fonda, Allen Ginsburg, Patti Smith, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix — and, of course, Leonard Cohen and Janis Joplin.

Leonard Cohen Meets Janis Joplin

In the late night spring of 1968, Leonard Cohen and Janis Joplin met in the Chelsea Hotel lift, going up to the fourth floor.

Cohen gathered his courage and asked if she was looking for someone:

She said ‘Yes, I’m looking for Kris Kristofferson.’

I said, ‘Little lady, you’re in luck, I am Kris Kristofferson.’ Even though she knew that I was someone shorter than Kris Kristofferson, she never let on.

By the time the lift reached the fourth floor, the love affair was on, a tribute to courage — if only for a couple of hours.

The next day, Joplin tracked down that handsome devil Kris Kristofferson, who sweetly sang to her the song that would become her biggest hit.

It took a couple of years for Janis Joplin to record her bootshaking version of Kristofferson’s Me And Bobby McGee (Spotify | YouTube), on 1 October 1970.

Three days later, she was dead.

Shortly after, Leonard Cohen started writing a new song, which he eventually released in 1974 as Chelsea Hotel #2 (Spotify | Youtube).

Here’s how it opens:

I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel,
you were talking so brave and so sweet,
giving me head on the unmade bed,
while the limousines wait in the street.

Now, to be fair to Leonard Cohen, the story he tells is more complex than these first lines would suggest, but it’s not Cohen’s song that I want to write about.

Jeffrey Lewis Meets A Woman In Glasses

In 2001, New York antifolk songwriter Jeffrey Lewis released his first single, an extended riff on Leonard Cohen’s song, which he called The Chelsea Hotel Oral Sex Song (Spotify | Youtube).

Before you get too excited, this is not a song about oral sex. As Jeff Lewis explains:

Life doesn’t work out the way it does in old songs
That’s why we sing new ones to say what really goes on

So what really went on?

Well, if Jeff Lewis will allow me to summarise his seven minute masterpiece:

  1. Late one night, ‘tired and alone’, Jeff is walking past the Chelsea Hotel
  2. He overhears a conversation about Leonard Cohen between a woman in glasses and her two, possibly gay, friends
  3. Jeff gets ‘uncharacteristically courageous’ and interrupts the strangers
  4. Jeff and the woman in glasses chat for ‘a minute or two’ about Leonard Cohen’s song, Chelsea Hotel #2
  5. The three strangers stop to look in through a pub window
  6. Jeff says good night (though he hadn’t quite meant to)
  7. The woman in glasses mysteriously says, ‘see you later’

That’s it. That’s the entirety of the narrative action: they never saw each other again; they didn’t even swap names.

The song is three times as long as the encounter it describes.

What About The Oral Sex?

In that two minute conversation, the woman in glasses told Jeff Lewis that Leonard Cohen’s line about getting a blowjob ‘made her want to do naughty things’ and Jeff heard the ‘faint knocking of opportunity’:

Right about then I should have asked if she knew
What the Chelsea charged if we got a room for two

But he didn’t. He got shy, waved goodbye, went home and wrote this song instead.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad he did write this song — for two reasons, actually.

The first reason is, quite simply, this, the greatest rhyming couplet known to science:

If I was Leonard Cohen or some other song writing master
I’d know to first get the oral sex and then write the song after

The second reason I’m glad he wrote this song is because the narrative action of Jeff Lewis’s street encounter ends only five minutes into the song: what happens in the last two minutes transcends the self-deprecating story into a moment of connective awe for us all.

‘For The Love Of Other Folks That They Barely Knew’

In those last two minutes, Jeff Lewis turns his gaze onto the audience, as if to say, ‘Hold on, nothing happened with this woman outside the Chelsea and yet this song did happen, is happening, and, what’s more, you’re all still listening — what does that mean?’

In Jeff’s words, it means something wonderful:

That all around the world there may be folks singing tunes
For the love of other folks that they barely knew

This bit of the song usually gets a laugh because it’s so ridiculous. No one writes songs like that.

Except they do. The woman in glasses would laugh at this bit too — the laughter of giddy recognition.

And we can enjoy that same note of giddy recognition for ourselves right now, even without a gawky folksinger writing a love song for us.

Remember You Remember Me Well Too

Think of all the people you’ve ever interacted with. Go on: all of them.

Okay, okay — too much. How about just the ones who made you ‘sing’?

If you’re like me (and Jeff), they’ll fall into two camps:

  1. There’ll be people still in your life who already know that you remember them well. Your best friend who taught you self-esteem as a teenager or the mentor who modelled how to change career late in life.
  2. But there’ll also be people in your past who will never know that you remember them well. The Albanian plumber-mechanic who showed you the true meaning of hospitality, or that lost classmate in college who didn’t realise he was teaching you how to be funny.

Firstly: make a note to go and tell everyone in Camp 1 exactly what they mean to you. You can never do this too many times.

Now turn your attention to the people in Camp 2. This is where the magic happens.

Look at your list and ponder: there must be hundreds of fleeting moments in your life where a complete stranger made you sing and you will never be able to let them know.

Take a moment to acknowledge the ripples in the water, stones skipped by strangers.

Now flip it around in Jeff’s next lines:

[…] the next time you’re feeling kinda lonesome and blue
Just think that someone somewhere might be singing about you

A laugh again: fantastically unlikely. But it isn’t.

If you remember a hundreds strangers well, remember that a hundred more strangers remember you well too — they just never got the chance to tell you.

When you realise how even a brief interaction can connect and change us, that’s pure wonder. Never forget it.

The Other Side

Okay — reality check!

Songwriters like Leonard Cohen and Jeffrey Lewis are really good at turning their lives into stories: pinning the emotion that helps them process the encounter.

It’s a beautiful defence mechanism — transmuting their personal vulnerability into universal meaning.

As Jeff Lewis says, it’s much easier to write a song than it is to risk rejection.

You might think that vulnerability to rejection doesn’t apply to Leonard Cohen, but I’m not so sure.

We’ll probably never know what story Jeff Lewis’s woman in glasses would tell of their encounter, but Janis Joplin wasn’t one to stay in the shade.

This is what she made of that same one night stand with Leonard Cohen:

Sometimes you’re with someone and you’re convinced that they have something to tell you. So maybe nothing’s happening, but you keep telling yourself something’s happening — innate communication. […]

So you keep being there, pulling, giving, rapping. And then, all of a sudden about four o’clock in the morning you realise that, flat ass, this motherfucker’s just lying there. He’s not balling me.


Be Both

Leonard Cohen and Jeffrey Lewis would seem to offer two different approaches to a fleeting connection between strangers:

  • either we are courageous enough to stop and feel out the depths of the exchange
  • or we are sensitive enough to walk away and still find meaning in the moment

But it’s not a choice: we can be both.

As Jeff says:

Life doesn’t work out the way it does in old songs
That’s why we sing new ones to say what really goes on

So let’s sing a new song: a song where we enjoy both Leonard Cohen’s earthy physicality and Jeffrey Lewis’s abstract transcendence.

Let’s recognise that any connection with a stranger, in the lift, on the street, can go both ways.

We might flex our courage and take things further, but, when we don’t — and most often we won’t because we’d never get anything else done — let’s remain sensitive that the moment was meaningful.

And occasionally, occasionally, a connection that we didn’t explore, years before, can, in the most unlikeliest of plot twists, come back around a second time.

Then we are both.

I’ll leave the last word to Jeff Lewis:

So who knows if I’ll ever see her again? Maybe we’ll see
This whole time she could have been singing about me
Probably not — but it could be


ps: Just as I was finishing the final read-through on this piece, a woman snuck up behind me on the train and said in a loud voice, ‘Ahh, I LOVE that song.’

I turned around with a thump and realised she was talking on the phone, to someone else. But I hope that one day, by some serpentine logic of the universe, she gets to read this story, listen to the music, and say again, ‘Ahh, I LOVE that song.’

Thanks to Leonard Cohen, Janis Joplin, Jeffrey Lewis and CW for showing me how it’s done.

Writing In Public: Coasting My attempt to describe what I’d like to achieve with a book tentatively titled Coasting: Cycling Around Britain (Twice).

This is something that I actually drafted in an email to a developmental editor. It’s my attempt to describe what I’d like to achieve with a book tentatively titled Coasting: Cycling Around Britain (Twice).

At the moment, I am strolling across an open field and I could yet turn this project in any direction.

Please switch on your critical creative mind — I am quite seriously interested in your response. Cheers!

Coasting: Cycling Around Britain (Twice)

I first cycled 4,110 miles around the coast of Britain over a couple of months in 2011. I left two days after my nan’s funeral and a week after my girlfriend left me. I’d just turned 29.

It was a solitary ride, figuring out stuff like confidence and courage, with a handful of nan’s last words bouncing around my mind: ‘Do it while you can.’

I wrote a book about this journey, called Life To The Lees. You can read it, if you like. I printed a few copies, mainly as a tribute to my nan, interleaving memories of her with the narrative of the ride.

Here’s a bit from the end:

I bump up onto the pavement and let Martin come to a silent stop. I climb off and lean the bike against a gas meter. Then I just sort of stare about me, marvelling at the new person who stands here, where I stood fifty-eight days ago.

I look around for nan’s ghost, waving from the rose bushes, but there’s nothing there, not even the roses. I barely recognise the house and gardens at all. You can’t go back. The tide comes in and will erase everything. All we can bring back, when the path returns us to our beginning, is memories. Everything is the same as it was, and everything has changed.

We all walk uncertain into our shared future, each of us making the other a little more human, each of us collecting a little more of the other, until that moment when there is as much of me in you as there is of you in me. And then we realise that our only regret is regret itself: Do it while you can.

And while I can, I swear, I will.

Flicking back through Life To The Lees now, there’s a lot to love about the text, but it’s a personal story: insular, isolated, individual.

My isolation on the ride didn’t bring me into contact with much of Britain. I felt like I was cycling around Britain, but not among Britain. The book doesn’t really do what I would want a story of cycling around Britain to do: connect.

The second time I left to cycle around Britain was after lockdown restrictions lifted in summer 2020.

As you know, this journey is ongoing. I’ve been riding in stages and have now covered more than 3,100 miles, clockwise around to Liverpool in the west and anticlockwise as far as Inverness in the northeast.

Ten years older, I give far fewer fucks as a human being and that means many more entertaining and meaningful hi-jinx with the people I meet — such as that time in Hastings when I got embroiled in a fake kidnapping.

I’m also a much more experienced writer (four BBC Radio series and a bunch of other random credits) and I’ve been sharing cycling stories with the wonderful readers of this humble newsletter, as well as keeping a diary — neither of which existed back in 2011.

This makes for a much richer palette of stories from which to paint.

But I don’t want to forget 2011: it’s an integral part of today’s story and I think there’s something stupendously powerful about what we lazily call ‘doing the same thing twice’, melding stories from both 2011 and the 2020s into one book.

This dual narrative would not only offer a unique saddle-eye view of Britain either side of austerity, Brexit and a pandemic, but might also say something interesting about how a human being can flourish over the course of a decade.

While I can identify the experiences of 2011 as ‘mine’, I barely recognise the lead character. Like who is this guy, too embarrassed to stop for takeaway pizza in Southend on that first sixty-mile ride out of London?

My hamstrings are quivering and my stomach is rumbling on empty. I cycle back along Marine Drive, looking in at the neon fast food joints, predating on Sunday night drinkers, but I can’t bring myself to stop. I feel their blunt stares. I’m a stranger on an overpacked bicycle, underdressed in swimming shorts and sandals, trespassing through their town. […]

I’m shrivelled and half-starved; all my reserves of fuel are flashing red. I haven’t eaten properly since that sausage and eggs at Ben’s. I struggle with the cookies, but can’t get into the damned packet. I curse myself for not stopping in Southend for a proper feed when I had the chance. As it is, I’m too tired to even brush my teeth.

Second time round, eating at neon fast food joints where people look at me funny is my number one reason for cycling. It starts conversations and connections.

My second time round Britain is blatantly inspired by the philosopher Heraclitus ‘The Obscure’, who held that everything is forever in flux.

Heraclitus’s number one smash hit aphorism deserves its own block quote:

No man can step into the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.


That means I could easily write the story with two very different narrators:

  • 2011 David feels fearful, lost and hurt, in dire need of the ride’s healing power, hoping only to survive the journey, at times desperate for it all to be over.
  • 2020s David feels lucky, open, curious, bursting to get back out into the world, thriving on the chaos of misadventure, dragging out every mile, seeking a kind of immortality in a ride that may never end.

Perhaps I could juxtapose stories from each narrator, not only to show how the river has changed, but the man too.

First time round, Hastings left zero impression. Zero. Here’s the totality of what I wrote about Hastings back in 2011. Ready?

Retirement seaside towns skip by in a summer’s breeze of tea rooms and stately homes: Eastbourne, Hastings, Rye.

That’s it. It’s not a bad sentence, but stretching for poetry to make up for emptiness of content. Did I stop in those tea rooms, did I admire those stately homes? No.

My experiences of Hastings in 2020 were more like pages ripped from a James Joyce stream-of-consciousness.

Besides the kidnapping, it’s where I bought my BBC-famous touring bugle, from a junk shop for £13. I haggled them down from £20. If I’d known then what that bugle would become later, I’d have paid £40.

I suppose I’m wrestling with how to entwine the two rides without getting bogged down.

Help me: what’s the story here?

  • Is the story about how Britain and I have changed between 2011 and 2023? In which case, the balance of the two rides should be pretty even.
  • Or is the story simply the rippping-est yarn that I can spin? In which case, 2011 will play a much smaller role.

To minimise 2011 would seem like a waste of something that makes my perspective unique. Yet, if I were to include 2011, then there is almost too much material and I risk diluting the whole for the sake of the concept.

This feels like a weird way to approach a story about a couple of bike rides. Maybe that’s a good thing, I don’t know.

But I would appreciate fresh minds working on the problem with me.

Thank you.

Doomspreading In Saunas A previous iteration of David Charles would have felt threatened by this man’s speech and seen him as an enemy to be fought and defeated

Thanks to everyone who shared and messaged about last week’s story, The End Of Doomspreading — it’s already my sixth most-read edition of this newsletter.

My drive is to help us develop more effective ways of connecting with people who start on the other side of an apparently deep divide and turn difficult conversations into connective conversations — like the one I had in the sauna yesterday.

One of the regulars had asked me about Thighs of Steel and so I was telling them a bit about what we do in solidarity with people on the move.

From the other side of the bench, another man piped up: ‘I don’t think you’ll get many people who disagree with immigration in theory,’ he said, ‘at least, not for people who are here to work hard and contribute to the economy.

‘But why does the government spend seven million pounds a day putting asylum seekers with no qualifications and no job in four and five star hotels — and giving them a phone, phone credit and fifty quid a week pocket money, to boot?’

A previous iteration of David Charles would have felt threatened by this man’s speech.

A previous iteration would have seen this fellow sauna dweller as an enemy to be fought and defeated. A previous iteration might have fired back what this man had missed: the cold realities of living in the UK as an asylum seeker.

Alternatively, a previous iteration might have felt angry, so angry that I might have spent the rest of my sauna time simmering in outrage, completely incapable of forming a coherent response until much later. We’ve all been there.

But yesterday, I was curious.

I could tell that the man was doomspreading and doomsplaining: not only passing on ‘the world’s all going to shit’ propaganda that he’d swallowed, but also pushing his pessimistic moral opinion that there are deserving and undeserving human beings.

Because I recognised that he was doomspeaking, I knew that this man needed empathy, not argument.

So I listened for the underlying fears and emotions. What I heard was confused resentment, fuelled by a deep sense of injustice.

I also hate injustice so it was easy to empathise, not with the content of what he was saying, but with his emotion of confused resentment and his unmet need for justice.

Although we only had a few minutes before I fainted from heat exhaustion, we quickly found some common ground.

‘If they’ve got all this money lying around for five star hotels,’ the man said, ‘why don’t they look after the people who are already here, instead of giving it to people who just arrived?

‘Why don’t they use it to end homelessness?’

Zing! Why not, indeed?

From our opening statements, this man and I were apparently entrenched on opposite precipices of a gas-powered flaming canyon, where even a single step towards each other would get us burned alive.

But now I can see how easily we could work together on something we both believe in.

Even if we radically disagree on freedom of movement (at one point he suggested that the government should’ve bought up all the decommissioned cruise liners to keep refugees offshore), he urgently wants to end homelessness.

I can get with that, so that’s where we can start.

(I won’t mention quite yet that close to half of rough sleepers in London are not from the UK and that our asylum system and destitution are not as independent as he might imagine.)

Funnily enough, Dan Sumption (of pithy newsletter fame) told me he had an almost identical conversation about migration this week as well.

I hope you’re also having these conversations and I hope that the idea of doomspeech helps you make such connections about more than argument and antagonism.

The End Of Doomspreading The world is complicated. I have so much empathy for people who find it too much — I do too sometimes. But, as much as we’d love to, we can’t ever fully control; we can only fully collaborate


A couple of weeks ago, I met a young man who lived in a world of confusion, threat and mistrust.

Within a couple of minutes of meeting, he was telling me that he felt like straight men ‘like us’ were on the bottom rung of society’s ladder.

He followed this up with a story about the deliberate derailment by the US government of a train carrying nuclear waste, an act of state-sponsored vandalism that would create a Chernobyl-like exclusion zone across Ohio.

‘You can look it up anywhere,’ he said. (So I did.)

He was in despair at the state of the world, at how big business and governments are conspiring to wreck the planet, and he explained his plan to raise enough money to buy some land in the country where he could build his own community from scratch, a safe haven for those like him who had ‘woken up’ over the past couple of years.

Before you misunderstand me, this is not an eye-rolling-at-bonkers-conspiracy-theorists moment.

Please believe me when I say that this person had very good reasons to see the world the way they do.

And, while I don’t necessarily share his view of current events, I sympathise deeply with the underlying emotions of confusion, threat, mistrust, fragility and despair and with his urge to escape to a utopian community where everything is perfect.

We Need New Words For This

We all know what manspreading and mansplaining are, right?

Manspreading: Typically of a man: to take up more than their fair share of space, either physically or metaphorically in conversation, etc..

Mansplaining: Typically of a man: to explain (something) needlessly, overbearingly, or condescendingly, especially (typically when addressing a woman) in a manner thought to reveal a patronising or chauvinistic attitude.

Love em or hate em, neologisms identify stuff in the world and the best of these new words can also facilitate change.

Since being able to name and frame the behaviour, I have become more aware of my own tendency to take up space. Sometimes I shut up or pull my legs in a bit.

(Incidentally, the man- prefix isn’t such a neologism as you might imagine. Manswearing — to be guilty of perjury or oath-breaking — goes back a thousand years. I love that.)

Credit to whoever came up with these man- neologisms and I hope they don’t mind me appropriating the -splaining and -spreading pattern for my own purposes.

But first: who here has heard of doomscrolling?

(When I ask this question in the real world, people older than me tend to look puzzled; people younger than me roll their eyes: like, obviously.)


Doomscrolling is what you call staring at your phone or computer, completely incapable of dragging yourself away from the endless carousel of negative news gunge.

And what happens when we do finally tear ourselves away from our phones and re-engage with the world?

A severe case of what computer programmers, statisticians and dieticians call GIGO: ‘Garbage in, garbage out’.

Who better to tell us about the impact of bad news on our psyche than the world’s oldest and largest broadcaster, the BBC:

It turns out that news coverage is far more than a benign source of facts. From our attitudes to immigrants to the content of our dreams, it can sneak into our subconscious and meddle with our lives in surprising ways.

It can lead us to miscalculate certain risks, shape our views of foreign countries, and possibly influence the health of entire economies. It can increase our risk of developing post-traumatic stress, anxiety and depression.

Now there’s emerging evidence that the emotional fallout of news coverage can even affect our physical health — increasing our chances of having a heart attack or developing health problems years later.

But bad news isn’t all bad.

Despair And Paranoia

There is no stronger spur to action than the sense that something is deeply wrong with our lives: we’d better fix this now or else.

It’s why humans have a strong bias to pay more attention when things are going badly.

And I’m grateful that we have this bias towards negativity: as I’ve written before, nothing gets shit done like anxiety.

But it is, and should remain, an acute pain reflex.

When that reflex is combined with the chronic negativity of a planet’s worth of bad news gunge, the only reasonable responses, once we’re saturated and burnt out, are crippling despair or reductive paranoia.

Despair is pretty much the only appropriate response if your brain takes a stab at fully understanding and empathising with the depth of misery generated by more than a day’s worth of headlines.

It cripples our belief in our strength to make meaningful change and our drive to leave the world a better place as we depart than when we arrived. In our despair, we retreat, disconnect and close the door to strangers, even friends.

Paranoia solves for despair by reducing the overwhelming complexity of human existence to an easily comprehensible, if false, explanation.

We’re controlled by a cabal of Satan-worshipping elites who run a child sex ring and there’s nothing we can do but escape into a fantasy world with our dwindling allies.

Despair and paranoia are two extremes of rational response to overwhelming complexity and I’m sure you’ll recognise yourself at some point on that miserable line.

Doomspreading And Doomsplaining

That’s why I believe we need new words to swiftly identify — and interrupt — the disempowering, alienating discourse that happens when doomscrolling, whether our own or others’, bleeds into our ways of being, our actions and our conversations.

The aim is to strengthen our belief that we can influence events, make meaningful change and grow a better life for all beings.

So may I introduce to you two new words:

Doomspreading: to dominate a conversation with the perspective that everything is going to shit.

Doomsplaining: to explain how everything is going to shit, especially in response to the alternate perspective that things are kind of going okay.

I told a friend (👋) about the concept on Monday and was thrilled to get this message from her on Wednesday:

I think we need this.

We need to be able to notice what’s happening when it’s happening and we need to be able to step in and stop the drift towards despair and paranoia at source.

Somehow, we need to find a way of throwing ourselves a lifeline to a better world.

Stopping The Doomspread

With Others

The way we stop the spread is not to engage or challenge and certainly not to block the superficial content of doom, but instead to hear and empathise with the underlying emotions.

The chap I met at the start of the story was upset because he felt like he wasn’t being heard, that he was being lied to by government, and that businesses he couldn’t control were destroying the planet. All he wanted was the security of his own home and the warmth of an understanding community.

Goddam, I hear that!

Once I’d heard that, this man, this ‘tin foil hat’ (his words) conspiracy theorist, was ready to hear how I see the world.

We parted, each trusting the world a little more.

Ironically, by expressing his beliefs to someone who didn’t believe them, this man’s desire for an understanding community became possible without going through the hassle of setting up a countryside hermitage.

With Ourselves

Remember that this method applies as much if not more to ourselves as to others.

If you find yourself doomspreading, pause, and see if you can dig down below the ‘facts’ and instead express your underlying concerns and your unspoken needs.

What do you really need from this interaction? Reassurance? Understanding? Safety? Fairness? Honesty? Choice? Acceptance? Friendship? Help?

This expression of need will be so much more relatable than your rant about Prince Harry and so much more likely to lead directly to a solution that you can actually act on.

The world is complicated. I have so much empathy for people who find it too much — I do too sometimes.

But, as much as we’d love to, we can’t ever fully control; we can only fully collaborate.

The wonderful thing is that, through collaboration, we build trust and this trust creates resiliant and loving communities.

Resiliant and loving communities solve their own problems and, suddenly, our lonely despair and paranoia is replaced with cooperative strength and courage.

So let’s all start by calling out doomspreading: it doesn’t help.

Am I The Most Notable David Charles In The Whole Entire Universe? There’s always a profit, even if it’s not in honey. You’re releasing your bees at half past six in the morning: that’s the time you see deer walking along the ridge. That's all part of the harvest.

This conceited question demands a few boundaries. And, within those boundaries, I think the straightforward answer to this question is yes.

But that’s not the same as the boundless, infinite answer to this question. Which we’ll get onto once I’ve finished stroking my ego.

First, let’s all say a big hello-how-are-you to David Charles:

David Charles, solicitor. I wonder whether he has a newsletter?

“David Charles” On The Google Front Page

The world’s biggest creepy crawler (that’s actually quite a clever search engine joke, if you please) seems a reasonable place to start when judging notability in the Internet age.

I searched in private mode and logged out of my Google account, which hopefully mitigated at least some of the bias towards my own search history. (More on that anon, however.)

Once you’ve stripped out the Google Maps and Images results, there are only six pure “David Charles” Google Search results on the front page.

1. David Charles Residential Sales and Lettings

You’d hope that there is or was a David Charles involved at some point, somewhere, but I’m discounting them because there is no David Charles on their Meet The Team page.

As there isn’t even anyone with the first initial D, nor the second initial C, I fear that they are only trading on our good name. Vampires unworthy of top spot.

2. David Charles Property Consultants

Seemingly totally unrelated to the residential sales and lettings company, but, again: no sign of anyone actually called David Charles. Founded in 1994 by Peter Amstell.

Given that they’re trading under, I’m furious.

3. David Charles Childrenswear

With a head office on Seven Sisters Road, this ‘Iconic British Brand for Luxury Designer Girl’s Dresses’ now has boutiques in Shanghai, Suzhou and St Petersburg.

At least they’re older than me: founded in 1970… by husband and wife team David and Susan Graff. My blood boils.

4. David Charles, Me

Give the first three results, I’m now wondering whether I should double check my birth certificate doesn’t expose my true name, Danglebert Thumpernickel.

5. David Charles, Welsh TV actor

The bastard that snagged before I could.

David Charles’s IMDB profile informs us that he has appeared in shows such as Grange Hill, The Bill, Doc Martin, The Crown and something called High Hopes, in which, pleasingly, he played Prince Charles.

Legitimate David Charles? Hard to say for sure because actors union Equity demand uniqueness in name.

I’ve given David Charles the benefit of the doubt because he is Welsh and Charles is a stoutly Welsh surname (although as many as 1 in 28 Grenadians are Charleses).

6. David Charles, Professor of Philosophy and Classics at Yale University

No doubt a notable fan of Aristotle, but, seriously, who’s looking this far down the list?

There was a brief summer where both David Charles and I were engaged at Oxford University: he as professor and I as messenger boy. No wonder he felt like he had to move abroad to make a name for himself.

According to one reviewer: an ‘important and impressive study of Aristotle’s hylomorphic psychology’. Price: £72

Among The Weeds

That’s it for the first page on Google, but I can’t help myself diving deeper:

  • David Charles, psychic who does Youtube readings for the Royal Family and ‘red hot lucky lottery numbers’
  • David Charles, legal counsel at McKenna & Associates, Pittsburgh
  • David Charles, Account Executive at Alan Boswell Group, an insurance brokers
  • David Charles, Head of Risk and Compliance at Calibrate Partners, a wealth management hedge fund
  • David Charles, Teaching Assistant Professor at EdD, Organizational Change and Leadership, University of Southern California
  • David Charles, teacher at the University of Havre Normandie with an interest in nineteenth century French literature

And deeper:

  • David Charles, an internist at a clinic in Rockville, Maryland
  • David Charles, solicitor at Darby & Darby in Torquay
  • David Charles, Principal Engineer at Kingfisher IT Services in Olney
  • David Charles, cofounder / CEO of The Strive Initiative, Pasadena
  • David Charles, Client & Market Development Manager at Clifford Chance, Frankfurt
  • David Charles, psychologist in Louisville, Kentucky

And — pass the oxygen — deeper:

  • David Charles, a farm vet in Derby
  • David Charles, Programme Director at the Disclosure and Barring Service (I regularly update my DBS certificate — has my paperwork ever crossed his desk?)
  • David Charles, Head of Climate Action at University of Strathclyde (congratulations on recently handing in your PhD, sir!)
  • David Charles, Partner at Bickerdike Allen Partners LLP, an architecture and planning company in London
  • David Charles, an accountant in Glasgow
  • David Charles of David Charles Ministries, producer of hits like Standout Christian, Thank You Father and God Sent Riddim, with as many as 30 monthly listeners on Spotify

Okay, too deep now.

Or, wait — not deep enough — the CEO and Founder of David Charles Ministries is none other than David Burkley.

What the actual hell? Can everyone just keep their hands off our name, please?


Spitting feathers at the gamesmanship of these masquerading charlatans, I turn my attentions to that bastion of knowledge, Wikipedia, an encyclopaedia with a redoubtable test of notability embedded in its editorial code.

People are presumed notable if they have received significant coverage in multiple published secondary sources that are reliable, intellectually independent of each other, and independent of the subject.

Selecting only the David Charleses who are (probably) still alive, what do we find here?

David Atiba Charles

Retired professional footballer from Trinidad, who was part of the Trinidad & Tobago World Cup squad in 2006. He didn’t get any playing time, but, to be fair, nor did I.

It’s harsh, but I’m ruling him out on the grounds that the ‘Atiba’ seems to be a foundational element of his name.

David Charles and David Charles

Both Australian, the first a retired politician, the other a retired senior civil servant.

Yes! From 13 March 1985 to 19 February 1990 there were not one, but TWO David Charleses serving in the Australian government. I am in awe.

David Charles

Professor and Vice-Chair of Neurology and Medical Director at Vanderbilt Telehealth, Tennessee.

But — controversy ho! — yet another David Charles imposter.

As you can see from Charles’ latest paper (BDNF rs6265 Genotype Influences Outcomes of Pharmacotherapy and Subthalamic Nucleus Deep Brain Stimulation in Early-Stage Parkinson’s Disease), his first initial is actually ‘P’.

David Charles

British drummer, recording engineer and record producer, most notably for The Charlatans 1997 album Tellin’ Stories. Last active: unknown.

So, in summary: there are six notable and living David Charleses recorded on Wikipedia. Two of them aren’t bone fide David Charleses and another three are, by all accounts, long retired.

The only one who stands is David Charles, our favourite professor of philosophy, who, famously, languishes not one but two places below me in the Google rankings.

The Search Concludes

And I’m afraid that this is where we must call a halt to our search.

Yes, I could plough on through the 48 David Charleses on IMDB. But only two of them are notable enough to have pictures and both are spurious: David Leach (AKA ‘David Charles’) and David Charles Rodrigues.

Yes, I could investigate the ten David Charleses listed on Discog, the music database, and I could sign up to Facebook or LinkedIn and continue my trawling there, but I think we have enough data, don’t you?

And I’m sure you’ll agree with my conclusion: yes, I am indeed the most notable David Charles in the universe.

But you knew that already. That’s not what’s interesting.

What’s Interesting?

Shamefully, I’ve spent hours this week trawling through dozens of internet biographies of other people called David Charles and what I’ve found is that we’re all, in some way, notable.

Who am I to argue the superiority of my name against the achievements and efforts of the Principal Engineer at Kingfisher IT Services? The Principal Engineer, for pity’s sake —

An enthusiastic and expert Technical Leader with an impressive track record of design and delivery of innovative and robust solutions to demanding business and technical challenges.

No, I don’t know what any of that means either, but it tells me that notability is in the eye of the beholder, certainly to ourselves, but also to loved ones, students, teammates, psychic clients and both human and veterinary patients.

Utterly Irrelevant / Utterly Essential

This search has simultaneously made me feel utterly irrelevant and utterly essential.

David Charlesing is a team game and we are all making our contribution, each in its own way notable.

That is our goal, if we needed one, and, if we needed an exemplar, then who better than David Charles of Somerset, former President of The British Beekeepers Association?

In this interview for BeeCraft Magazine, David Charles talks about how he used to take his bees to graze on the heather on Exmoor.

The interviewer points out that taking your bees to heather is a risky business because you never know whether it’s going to be a good harvest or not.

Quite apart from the high probability of bad weather on the moor, if the bees get distracted away from the delicious heather pollen, then that’s it for your honey.

David Charles’s reply is almost spiritual:

There’s always a profit, even if it’s not in honey. […] You’re releasing your bees at half past six in the morning: that’s the time you see deer walking along the ridge.

When you go to collect them on the way back, there’s a full moon and the deer are walking along that ridge again, silhouetted against the night sky.

That’s all part of the harvest from taking your bees to the heather.

All Part Of The Harvest

This David Charles died in 2020, aged 85 and a half.

Phil McAnespie of the Scottish Beekeepers Association was among the tributes:

I only got to know and speak with David on a small number of occasions, in particular at the National Honey Show, and at all times found him to be a warm and friendly person, who would put himself out to assist you in any way he could.

All David Charleses, we all play our part.

Some of us look after bees. Some don’t.

Some of us will spend our lives with you. Some of us you’ll only get to know and speak with on a small number of occasions.

But however a David Charles comes into your life, that’s still notable, both for you and for us.

That’s all part of the harvest.

The kicker, of course, is that, despite my lofty appearance on Google, I don’t appear anywhere at all on the search engine I personally use, DuckDuckGo.

It simply doesn’t matter.

(And, yes, I am an admirer of Dave Gorman. I’m not him.)

How I … Stretch Because, let's be honest, it's not yoga

1. Definitions

I opened last week’s email with the grim origin story of what I call my ‘yoga’ habit.

I’ve never been under any illusion that what I’m doing is proper yoga, but a table tennis talk with a friend (and reader 👋) has put my misuse of the term to bed.

This is the dictionary definition of yoga that I have to hand:

Discipline aimed at training the consciousness for a state of perfect spiritual insight and tranquility that is achieved through the three paths of actions and knowledge and devotion.

Even by that cursory definition, eight minutes of stretches before bed while listening to an audiobook is not yoga — no, not even if that audiobook is Marcel Proust.

Calling what I do ‘yoga’ is like an American coming over to a village green in Oxfordshire and calling what they do with the wickets, whites and willow ‘baseball’.

My friend recommended I watch this short video by Blair Imani about yoga and cultural appropriation:

And, to be honest, I’m not bothered about learning the deep roots of yoga — I’m sure it’s a worthwhile world of study, but it’s not why I’m here.

I’m here to improve my flexibility to the point where I can poo comfortably in the wild. In other words (literally): I’m here to stretch.

Yes, I got a lot of my stretch moves from what were called yoga books, classes or videos, but, if I’m honest, my main justification for using the term is because it’s a short word that fits into a narrow spreadsheet column.

So I’ll add five characters and call it by its name: stretching.

1a. The English Language And Cultural Appropriation

This is not going to turn into a story about cultural appropriation, but it’s worth noting that the English language holds a special place in global culture.

This comes with an astonishing array of benefits for native speakers, but also a few things that we need to look out for.

To stick with the cricket example, imagine if Indian cricketers adopted new rules that meant you got eight points for a six (but it was still called a six for reasons that everyone else has forgotten), you had to hit the ball with a hammer and there was no afternoon tea break. 😱

The England and Wales Cricket Board would be appalled — cricket is our sport, first played on our lawns over five hundred years ago, with the first laws of the game written down by our Grace the Duke of Richmond and the Second Viscount Midleton for two matches played in Surrey and Sussex in July 1727.

I mean — how much more English can you get?

But there are more than 100 million cricketers in India, compared to only 229,100 in England. People from the Indian subcontinent, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, make up 90 percent of the world’s billion cricket fans.

It wouldn’t matter how many cute videos the ECB posted about cultural appropriation: whatever India calls cricket, well, that’s basically what everyone else is going to have to call cricket.

And what India is to world cricket, English is to world language.

2. You Don’t Need Anything But Your Body To Stretch

A few people picked up on my stretching anecdote and asked me for suggestions of videos they could follow along with at home.

But I couldn’t be particularly helpful because the follow along approach never worked for me, not books, not apps, not videos and not even in-person classes.

Stretching this way always ended up feeling like a chore, being asked to do things that my body couldn’t do, with no support into poses that could hurt me.

It was far too easy to feel like a failure.

Stretching only clicked into place for me when:

  1. I realised that one minute of stretching was better than none.
  2. I made it a permanent home in my bedtime routine, usually while listening to something — dribbling through Proust in this way was a transporting delight.

In the first seven months, I missed only three days.

I’ve never had a habit that solid before and the success came from having rock bottom expectations (one minute, that’s all) combined with something I already enjoyed (modernist French literature!)

You simply don’t get that level of kindness, generosity and forgiveness from a follow-along video.

If you don’t know any stretching moves, then my suggestion is:

  1. Follow how your body wants to move.
  2. Flick through a book in the library for ten minutes. You’ll get the idea.

Having said all that, a friend (and reader 👋) recently recommended Do Yoga With Me. I haven’t used it, but I’m sure it’s great.

Before the 1 minute thing landed, I used an app called Down Dog, which puts together a customisable playlist of videos for you. It didn’t stick as a habit, but it did teach me some cool moves.

Movemberising Feb’ry Let us Movemberise this very month and reclaim these four weeks for the triumphal trinity of kettle-boiling, flask-filling and tongue-scorching - arise, unite, and light a fire for Fe-brew-ary!

A warm welcome with cold hands clasped about a flask.

My blood responds to caffeine with what could be called an excess of vim, so I feel a pang of envious exclusion when I recall the arcadian utopianism of the Coffee Outside movement:

Aeropress. Bialetti. Briki. A kelly kettle or a coffee bag. Java drip, filter, press pot or percolator. A Moka pot and wanderlust for al-Makha. Perhaps you’ll gather twigs and light a fire for cowboy coffee or forage, roast and grind a beech nut substitute coffee. Or maybe you’ll simply carry your cup from kitchen to sunlit garden and sit for a while, caging the minute within its nets of gold.

Coffee Outside is an alchemical substitution, the transference of addiction to connection, but, as an enforced tea guzzler, my tastes are milder.

Then — eureka! — why can we not Movemberise this very month and reclaim these four weeks for the triumphal trinity of kettle-boiling, flask-filling, tongue-scorching?

Arise, unite, and light a fire for Fe-brew-ary!

Thunderstruck by genius, I was.

Turns out, of course, that the punmaster general of the Cystic Fibrosis Trust got there long before me. Naturally, too, the Brewers Association of Maryland.

But that won’t stop us, no. Doorstep, garden, beach and wood await your gentle brew.

No, I don’t know why that last one looks like I’m standing in front of a painting.

Make Space For Others To Shine Last summer, our 93 cyclists not only rode 5,428km from Glasgow to Athens, but also raised a record-breaking (for us) £114,632 in solidarity with grassroots refugee projects through charity MASS Action.

Summer feels like a loooong time ago, eh?

It’s dark outside and the windows are misted up with rain. Our tans have faded and even our steely thighs have turned to jelly.

As all but the freshest or most cursory reader will know, I’m one of the infamous community of cyclists that make up Thighs of Steel and every year I help organise what is almost certainly Europe’s longest charity bike ride.

Last summer, our 93 cyclists not only rode 5,428km from Glasgow to Athens, but also raised a record-breaking (for us) £114,632 in solidarity with grassroots refugee projects through charity MASS Action.

I know that many TDCN readers contributed to the pot, so thank you: £114,632, including £12k in Gift Aid, is such a significant amount of money.

It means that MASS Action have been able to give a big YES to no fewer than sixteen solidarity projects, covering pretty much every aspect of the movement for migrant social justice:

  • Community centres offer everything from nourishing meals and legal support to bus tickets and hot showers in Thessaloniki (Wave Thessaloniki), Samos (Just Action) and Athens (Khora)
  • Several projects provide accommodation or work to improve living conditions in Sheffield (ASSIST Sheffield), Glasgow (Scottish Asylum Seekers Resident Association) and Athens (Chamomile and Mazi x FORGE For Humanity)
  • The Babylon Project offers drama, storytelling, film-making and dance in the UK, while Musikarama connects people through music in Athens
  • Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group supports people during and after immigration detention
  • Hakoura Organic is an ecological cooperative farm established by refugees in the countryside northwest of Athens
  • No Evictions Network, No Borders Network and Calais Migrant Solidarity take direct action to support the rights, safety and dignity of people on the move in the UK and France
  • In Scotland, LGBT UNITY is a peer support group made up of LGBTQIA+ refugees and asylum seekers in Glasgow and Bike For Refugees runs cycling community hubs in Glasgow and Edinburgh

Phew! Hard to believe what a couple of months’ cycling can achieve.

It’s so significant that we couldn’t even display every project on one pie chart, so please hurry along to The Reason  and read more about what all that money is doing out in the world.

And — YES — this isn’t even the whole pie. There’s still £7,445.23 for MASS Action to distribute after this summer’s ride, wherever the need is greatest.

Sorry, did somebody say ‘this summer’s ride’?

Hell yeah.

Once again, we’ll be facilitating the highlight of your summer, starting in Glasgow on 14 July and finishing a continent later in Athens on 17 September.

We open for signups on Friday 17 February at 6pm — but ONLY if you’re on our special secret early access email list.

The most popular weeks sell out minutes after going live, so get on it!

Humanity is a team game. We don’t have to do it all — we can’t — but we can choose to play our part.

I’m lucky that my part, right now, is to help put on a bike ride that makes space for others to shine — not only the ninety-odd cyclists who surprise themselves with their own strength, but also the people and projects making change happen on the ground.

Everything we do in life either brings us one step closer together or pushes us further apart.

Go Team Human.

How I Learned To Enjoy Wild Squats I’ve been amazed at what a difference this investment of 1 percent of my waking time has made to my flexibility.

A warm welcome from a squatted perch overlooking the ocean.

Following on from last week’s appeal for healthy habitual alternatives to any form of knee-based self-care, I have started using a squatting desk.

Inspired by a 2017 article by physical therapist Carrie Williamson, this is an almost certainly marketable term for ‘swapping my chair for an upturned kettlebell’.

Since December 2019, I have recorded 772 at-home yoga sessions, at an average of 16 minutes per day (currently more like 8 minutes).

I’ve been amazed at what a difference this investment of 1 percent of my waking time has made to my flexibility.

The fact that I can get into the Asian squat position is a minor miracle considering that, three years ago, I couldn’t sit cross-legged on the floor.

But there is a gross story about why I started stretching on the daily — you want to hear it?

Thought so.

In summer 2019, I cycled with Thighs of Steel from Paris to Bordeaux and then from Ljubljana to Athens.

Every night for four weeks, we’d wild camp — along with everything that entails.

Sleeping under a scrap of canvas, washing in rivers or lakes, eating high-carb meals under the stars as the sun set and dawn rose.

And, of course, pooing into a freshly dug hole in the ground.

This isn’t where the story gets gross.

At first, the pooing was fine.

My flexibility wasn’t up to much, so I wasn’t able to position myself over my poo hole very comfortably, but that didn’t seem to matter so long as I dug the pit near a tree against which I could balance myself.

But then all that high-carb food caught up with me and I got a touch of constipation.

Constipation is uncomfortable enough, but, with a relaxing toilet seat unavailable and physically unable to squat, I found myself straining harder than I usually might.

And this is where the story gets gross.

One morning, after porridge at a beautiful riverside camp spot in Croatia, I strained so hard that I slightly tore my anus.


The discomfort stayed with me for the rest of the ride — and I can tell you that one thing you really don’t want while cycling for ten hours a day is even a slightly torn anus.

When I got home to the UK, I vowed that I would do something about my inability to defecate comfortably without a throne.

So began my daily yoga sessions — and now look at me. Not only can I take wildly adventurous poos, but I can even write gross stories to you while crouching in a kettlebell-supported squat.

Start from where you are, and start today.

Adventure When You Can’t Adventure? The Nicaragua expedition included two in wheelchairs, one deaf, one blind, one double foot amputee, two arm amputees, one with spina bifida and three single leg amputees. We start from where we are

It’s been a slow start for Days of Adventure 2023: I’ve been recovering from the traumatic combination of road and gravity on my knee cartilage.

My usual vectors for adventure are out: no hiking, no cycling, no running, no skating, no surfing, no climbing.

Or at least, I thought they were out until I read Belinda Kirk’s book Adventure Revolution.

Belinda was expedition manager on the BBC 2 series Beyond Boundaries, in which eleven men and women trekked 220 miles across the Nicaraguan jungle and desert, dodging bandits, wading through crocodile infested rivers and summitting a live volcano.

In short: one heck of an adventure.

What’s this got to do with me and my knee cartilage?

The eleven members of the Nicaragua expedition included two in wheelchairs, one deaf, one blind, one double foot amputee, two arm amputees, one with spina bifida and three single leg amputees.

Right, okay.

I read this as a gentle reminder that we all, all the time, have to ‘start from where we are’.

It’s not much use me dreaming of all the things I used to do or mourning for all the adventures I’ve had to cancel over the past month.

Better to start from where I am today and accept that hiking across Dartmoor or cycling through the Lake District just isn’t going to work for me right now.

That doesn’t mean everything else is off the table as well. Far from it.

But I must start from where I am, not from where I used to be or from where I think I should be or from where I would one day love to be.

The first challenge for me today is not to swim with crocodiles, but to interrupt an alienating cycle of inactivity.

Here’s my current pattern of thinking:

Rest my knee ➡️ Limit walking and exercise ➡️ Stop going outdoors much ➡️ More work, more screentime ➡️ Low mood, poor sleep ➡️ Stop doing much of anything and head back indoors ↩️

It’s a slippery slide, especially when I’m clinging onto the hope that this won’t be forever, that the knee pain won’t last and things will return to normal soon.


I mean, they probably will — I spoke to a very reassuring physio on Wednesday — but still, no.

I don’t believe that the best first response to any problem is to suck it up and wait it out. That’s not me.

Not only does such a solution fail to reflect the reality of where I am, it also spits on the unbelievable good fortune of every minute of my existence.

Instead, I’ll start from where I am and honour the time I have now — not mortgage it against some contingent future.

So this week I’ve instituted a new rule: no screens until I’ve done at least three beautiful things for the good of my today self.

This list of ideas is still growing and welcomes new suggestions. A ✔️ indicates what I’ve done since Wednesday:

  • Read a book ✔️✔️✔️
  • Meditate
  • See or phone a friend
  • Go outside and watch the goats eat breakfast ✔️✔️✔️
  • Play guitar
  • Do press ups ✔️✔️
  • Do yoga ✔️
  • Take a cold shower ✔️✔️✔️
  • Write morning pages
  • Prepare dinner or bake bread

This is nothing remotely like trekking up a live volcano in Nicaragua without any feet — heck, it’s not even anything like hiking across Dartmoor on a sunny winter’s day.

But it is starting from where I am.

260,000 Year Winning Record For Team Human Cooperation on a local level — human to human, here and now — makes the relentless negativity of news media (and the power it represents) not only harmlessly avoidable, but ultimately irrelevant

My friends know me well.

This week, three people, independently, sent me the news that a high court judge had decided that wild camping was never permitted under the Dartmoor Commons Act 1985.

As of last Friday, nights like this are no longer legal without permission from the landowner:

My friends indeed know me well: they know that I don’t read the news and that this news would be important to me.

Damn right.

The judgement balances, precariously, on one man’s interpretation of the phrase ‘open air recreation’.

Chancellor of the High Court Sir Julian Martin Flaux supported the plaintiff that wild camping was not ‘open air recreation’ — despite the breathless adventures of generations of school groups, Scout troops, Duke of Edinburgh and Ten Tors expeditions, and the countless escapades of a multitude of ‘commoners’, as we’re known.

To be fair to the judge, I’ve spent more than a few nights out on Dartmoor and not all of them have fallen neatly into most people’s definition of ‘recreation’.

But, for me, nothing beats shivering the night away through nine hours of wind and fog until murky dawn ekes across the mire and it’s almost safe to pull on drenched boots and quag out into the sopping halflight.

If that’s not recreation, then I don’t know what it is. We’re not all into pheasant shoots and deer stalking.

Perhaps the objection rests more on the ‘open air’ part of the phrasing.

But, when you can see your own breath crystallise, it doesn’t matter that a skin of canvas blocks out the worst of the weather, that, to me, is ‘open air’.

Instant Response

My friends know me so well that I had, in fact, already heard the news from the Right To Roam campaign newsletter:

Wild camping is pitching a tent when your body is tired and allowing the landscape to hold you where you belong, it’s learning about yourself and nature and it’s being inspired by looking up at the cosmos like we have done for millennia.

We will not back down. We will not let [..] entitled, misanthropic behaviour destroy the only remaining scrap of land where we are permitted to sleep freely under the sky.

This news was important, not only to me, but to society at large and it has provoked an instant response.

The first thing to say is that the Dartmoor National Park Authority have already struck a deal with The Dartmoor Commons Owners’ Association.

This agreement swiftly restored the right to wild camp on some parts of the Dartmoor Commons and, if your interest in this story is only tent peg deep, then you can stop here.

There is still much to explore on the current map of permissive wild camping, including Hangingstone Hill, Fox Tor and the wonderful (and relatively accessible) Great Mis Tor.

But if, like me, you’re unnerved by the summary dissolution of long-held rights by a single judgement — transatlantic echoes of the US Supreme Court decision on abortion last year — then please read on.

1 Pleasure Permit, Please

While, in a practical sense, wild camping on Dartmoor was only illegal for a few days, the legal judgement has dealt a huge blow to the spirit of our land.

Wild camping is allowed now only by the grace of the landed gentry.

That means, not only that the area for permissive wild camping is restricted, but that campers must now follow a code of conduct as a condition of their presence on the land.

Don’t get me wrong: much of the code of conduct is eminently sensible and is currently identical to pre-existing national park guidance.

But who knows what might be added to this code in future?

The nature of permission, of course, is that it is conditional and may be withdrawn at any moment — indeed, this hasty agreement only lasts twelve months.

Adding injury to insult, the Dartmoor National Park Authority must now pay landowners for the privilege of allowing access. Money that they do not have.

And You Want Us To Be Grateful?

Interestingly, Friday’s legal challenge was brought by a single landowner, a man scornfully described in the Guardian as a ‘veteran City fund manager’, for the broader narrative of this story — and the reason why it’s worthy of your attention — is the greed of the super rich against the freedom of the commoner.

As Guy Shrubsole from the Right To Roam campaign told the BBC:

The public have just had their right to wild camp summarily snatched from them by a wealthy landowner — now we’re expected to be grateful to landowners who grant us permission to wild camp, and pay for the privilege. It’s a ransom note.

Dartmoor National Park Authority has two weeks to to submit intention to appeal the judgement, but the Right To Roam campaign are already raising funds to fight in court.

But the law protects wealth and it is very difficult to challenge the super rich in court, on their home turf.

So Right to Roam are also organising something more embodied, on the veteran City fund manager’s actual turf: a mass gathering tomorrow afternoon to ‘summon the spirit of Old Crockern, Dartmoor’s ancient defender against greed’.

From the panicked tone of the event page, they are expecting a lot of support.


Which Side Are You On?

If, like me, you can’t get down to Dartmoor tomorrow, I urge you to go again (and again), alone, with friends, with lovers, with enemies, and camp on inalienable soil.

This isn’t about judiciary interpretations, this is about that ancient socialist incantation: Which side are you on?

Are you on the side of the alienating privilege that would threaten with force your quiet enjoyment of land, river, forest, stars?

Or are you on the side of what I’ve learned to call Team Human?

After reading last week’s sauna stories, Dan Sumption sent me this line:

Do you listen to Douglas Rushkoff’s podcast Team Human? He recently wrote a book based on the fact that loads of the world’s richest people have hired him as a consultant to tell them how to stay safe in a societal breakdown. His answer is the same as yours: humans.

Little did I know that following this trail would be like stepping away from a jigsaw and suddenly seeing how the pieces fit together.

Our 260,000 Year Winning Record

Media theorist Douglas Rushkoff’s basic premise is that there are two competing approaches to solving the catastrophes of late-stage capitalism — two teams, if you like.

There is the team led by escapist billion- and trillionaires, who propose technological solutions for every planetary and societal ailment and who believe that their wealth can isolate them from the misery that their ways of life and business has helped cause.

You know the ones: those who think that the way out of the climate crisis on Planet Earth is to set up a plutocratic colony on Mars.

And there is Team Human, who believe (perhaps like JFK) that ‘No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings.’

Whatever the disease, the cure begins with humans getting together, communicating and cooperating.

(Here’s a tangental and tantalising example of what JFK meant when he said that ‘our problems are manmade’: did you know that ‘war’ was invented and only 13,000 years ago? — that’s 20,000 years after the invention of the flute, for goodness sake.)

Team Human might not be as sexy as an iPhone or the Metaverse, but at least we’ve got a winning record going back at least 260,000 years.

And we get to decide which team we’ll play for in every decision that we take.

We’re On Team Human

Everything we do in life either brings us closer together, or pushes us further apart, back into our illusory bubbles.

The veteran City fund manager, I’m sure, only brought his legal challenge in an attempt to solve a problem that he sees out in the world.

I genuinely believe that, according to his vision, the veteran City fund manager acted in good faith.

But he chose the escapist route, so beloved of the extraordinarily wealthy, and has used his riches to push others away.

Whatever his problem was, his victory is Pyrrhic: he has only made things worse for himself.

In contrast, the Team Human playbook declares that the only way to solve our problems for everyone, including veteran City fund mangers, is not with alienation, but with closer community, mutual aid, and human interdependency.

Making Power Irrelevant

My friends know me well: I really do avoid all news media.

The idea that No News Is Good News is something that I’ve written about a lot, but I’d never placed my media diet in its wider context until I found this article by Douglas Rushkoff.

It’s worth reading in full, but here’s the part that leapt out at me:

[The] more resilient and self-sufficient we can become on a local level, the less pressure we put on […] larger systems and decisions.

The more sustainable our local economies, the less brittle will be their response to a sudden influx of immigrants or Covid-related business closures.

The more quickly and efficiently we can assist each other during extreme weather events, the less dependent we’ll be on […] centralised authorities for cash.

Such cooperation may actually require that we reduce our exposure to the most inflammatory messaging coming from our for-profit news opinion shows and Internet platforms, which work hard to undermine the collaborative spirit we need to face the challenges ahead.

Until I read these words (and heard them at the beginning of this episode of the Team Human podcast), I’d never really understood why it was so important to me to restrict my exposure to news media.

I always knew there was something going on, that undirected consumption of news media had a deleterious effect on my soul, but I’d never framed that as part of the wider struggle for our future as a species.

Douglas Rushkoff showed me how the pieces fit together.

Connection and cooperation on a local level — human to human, here and now — makes the relentless negativity of the news media, and the power it represents, not only harmlessly avoidable, but ultimately irrelevant.

Team Human Very Rarely Loses

It may feel like we have a long way to go to establish social justice through connection and cooperation — and we do.

But it begins with a small decision that we take today to play on Team Human.

The good news is that Team Human has a roster of billions and all we have to do is take our place on the field.

A united response to one man’s interpretation of the law renders that interpretation irrelevant: a mass camp-out will not, cannot be budged by the threat of violence.

Repeated camp-outs, combined with other citizen responses, will, inevitably, repeal that interpretation and create new laws that protect access to nature.

As Erica Chenoweth, Professor in Human Rights and International Affairs at Harvard, has found, rebellions involving 3.5 percent of the population very rarely fail.

In the UK, that’s 2.4m people. Just so you know.

The Choice

The high court’s decision over wild camping on Dartmoor is a setback, but I can now see that it is an invitation to make The Choice.

Will I choose Team Privilege and plan in vain my escape from humanity and the common life, or will I take the side of Team Human and, not only join the fight to repeal this judgement, but keep on fighting until we have extended the right to roam across the whole of England and Wales, as it is today in Scotland?

It’s a choice for us all.

Perhaps the right to roam isn’t your home ground, but humanity is a team game and we need everyone to pull on a shirt and play.

So, whatever position you find yourself in, whatever special powers you bring onto the field, Team Human needs you — right now.

Great Mis Tor

Thanks to Dan Sumption for pointing me in the direction of Team Human. Dan writes a concise, conscious newsletter over at The Mycoleum.

If you have any suggestions on how I can expand my mind, I’d be very grateful if you’d take a minute to reply to this email with a book, a podcast, an article, an intellectual or a musician that changed your paradigm.

Thanks 🙏

Sweating It Out With Strangers Put all your money on humanity, the stewards of the land, community, the carers and growers, and society, the builders and changers. We might not have money, but we’ll certainly have each other

The big reason I keep going back to sauna is stories.

Conversations with a revolving cast of regulars and passing trade always make me think or feel something.

Sometimes I think those conversations are worth writing down and sharing.

So here you go: four short stories from sweating it out with strangers.

#1: Put Your Money On Humanity

The other day I had a meeting with my investment managers —

Wow, what an opener. That’s sauna life for you.

— and I asked them, where can I put my money so it’s safe?

And they said nowhere.

Isn’t that remarkable? There is nowhere that the professionals can say will be 100 percent safe for your money right now.

Even gold, they said, even gold.

Sorry for the depressing conversation —

No, no, it’s fine —

This is me speaking now because I’m actually finding it a reassuring conversation.

This man is learning the truth that money can’t actually do anything for you. Only humans can.

And machines built by machines built by humans.

But mainly humans.

Maybe, instead of finding somewhere for his investments to live happily ever after, this man should put all his money on humanity, the stewards of the land, community, the carers and growers, and society, the builders, dreamers and changers.

In the future, we might not have money, but we’ll certainly have each other.

#2: Socialist Rather Than Progressive

I met a man in his fifties, I’d guess, who was anxious, scared and angry, all because of what he’d seen on TV.

What’s happening in Afghanistan, in Iran and in China, he told me. Terrible, terrible things.

When I pointed out that there wasn’t much he could do about that, he replied: You’re right. It’s no better here with the clowns we’ve got in charge.

You know, a few years ago I watched that Plantagenets programme — and nothing changes. It’s the same today, right? The rich get everything and the working classes get nothing — we’re serfs to them, that’s all. Serfs.

When I suggested that this world view might have been influenced by the same bad news he caught from TV and that some things might have changed a bit, he said: I’m with you, but I need more convincing.

The idea that things haven’t changed since the death of Richard III in 1485 strikes me as a little defeatist and surely more likely to result in things not changing, even if we would dearly love them to.

In the past 537 years, we have at least in the UK built a society where education and healthcare is free to all, without financial, ethnic, gender or class barrier.

If nothing changes, then why are so many people fighting so hard to keep it that way?

#3: You Only Live Once

You Only Live Once was his mantra. On his lips and, tattooed, on his shoulders.

He worked in fintech and talked about the price of gold and the US dollar. (Bearish.)

His plan, not this year, but next, was to fly to Cape Town and, from there, five or six hours by plane to Antarctica, with another two internal flights to tour the white continent.

It’s not cheap, but it’s a once in a lifetime trip, isn’t it? Four days with only fourteen other people on board.

He hates being around other people, you see.

He hated Prague. He had to get up at 6am to walk across the Charles Bridge because of The Masses.

He believes in working first and going away after. He only wants one or two weeks a month for Euro breaks. Then one longer trip at the end of the year, when he’d earned it, you know.

Before Christmas, he did the German Christmas markets. He flew Lufthansa on two legs of the trip, from Berlin to Munich and from Munich to Prague. (Which he hated.)

At this point, our investor from the first story asks, mildly: Do you ever consider trains for these short hops when you’re in Europe?


He only lived once, you see.

#4: Changing Lanes

He introduced himself as an HGV driver from Ewelme.

His daughter stayed on the lower shelf. His wife stayed in the hot tub. His son stayed quiet.

He used to be a chippie — the woodworking sort not the fish frying sort — decades in the trade. Eventually, he quit. It was doing his head in.

He retrained as an HGV driver. A big gamble for a fifty-year-old with a young family. Big gamble.

But he didn’t take to the hours at the wheel, the days of asphalt-induced solitude. Too lonely. Misses shop talk.

Now he works a couple of days on the HGVs, but does a nice sideline as a skip driver and waste refuse operative.

They’re a proper team. He loves it.

And look at him now, five years later on New Year’s Day, staying with his young family in a spa hotel on the south coast.

If you’re unhappy, I suppose, you’re never too old to change lanes.

A Short Tour Of The Forgotten Elses AKA: 2022 shareholder review

I’d like to begin by saying thank you for having me.

2022 was a year of unprecedented growth for The David Charles Newsletter — there are 67 percent more of you here today than there were on this day a year ago.

Hello! 👋

For this humble director of a one-person media empire, that’s pretty exciting.

Before we go any further, I’d like to acknowledge that a whole blob of you found my work via Mike Sowden’s Everything Is Amazing. What’s amazing me right now is that most of you have stuck around. HONOURED.

For elsewho that stumbled across my pages elsewhence, please do inspect Mike’s stories. They really are very good.

A Short Tour Of The Forgotten Elses

elsehow (obsolete exc. dialect): In some, or any, other way.

elsewards (rare): In the direction of, towards some other place.

elsewhat (obsolete): Something or anything else.

elsewhen (obsolete): At another time, at other times.

elsewhence (archaic): From some other place or quarter.

elsewither (somewhat archaic): To some other place, in some other direction

elsewho (obsolete): Anyone else

elsewise (in current use — really?!): In some other manner; in other circumstances, otherwise.

Back in the hushed corridors of TDCN HQ, it’s been another busy year of publication, with 48 editions bringing us up to 342 since we first opened our doors in whenever it was. Wow.

This is also our third year publishing on Substack and I’d like to pause here for a short round of applause for our paying subscribers —

Andy, Claire, Tudor, John, Harri, Becky, Illia, Joanna, Maryla, Cass, Georgie, James, Joe, Libby, David, Tessa, JMJ and Geoff. And shout out to those of you who have paid in the past — I haven’t forgotten you 💚

(Director yelling over thunderous applause) Thank you, thank you! (Pumps chest and points out to individual members of the cheering audience, now all on their feet) Okay, okay, settle down, settle down — thank you!

If you’d like to join this merry band of paying pranksters, please come on in:

So now onto the hard numbers. What have our analysts learned from a stocktake of deliverables this year?

It comes as no surprise that the most opened email of 2022 was Man Sloth Mode, which was also the story that reached furthest outside this little bubble, with most shares, and the one that drove the highest number of new readers — welcome, friends!

Here’s a snippet to remind you…

For about a year, I did nothing.

From November 2016 until October 2017, I was in what I have learned to call man sloth mode.

Honestly, apart from writing the first radio series of Foiled (which I never would have done without the impetus of Beth Granville), I can’t remember a single thing I did in that entire year.

This was also the post that I had most engagement with and it’s one that I’m proud to say still starts conversations today, nine months after publication.

Thanks to everyone who contributed and who is contributing still. And props to those people who have triggered a positive change in themselves and their communities.

(Ironically, the email that had the least reach outside this little bubble was the follow-up story: The Man Sloth Diaries. It’s still totally worth a read, IMHO.)

An honourable mention goes to 27 Things I Used To Believe And Now Completely Don’t, which came second in both furthest reach and most new readers categories.


  1. Morally and ethically, there is such a thing as Right and Wrong.
  2. There is only one type of intelligence — the one that I’m good at.
  3. When people let me down, turn me down or do me down, it’s probably because I’m in some way an awful person.

And finally the most liked post this year was my birthday story, Responsibility Is Not Heavy:

If responsibility were a force (metaphorically speaking), then it wouldn’t be gravity.

Most of the time, responsibility is empowering: it gives us the energy and motivation we need to achieve cool things.

I’m sure you can think of many times in the past when someone handed over responsibility to you — and it made you feel lighter, stronger, faster, energised, electrified and empowered.

Going a little deeper, average open rate over the year was 46 percent, but with very little deviation to my untrained eye.

What might be useful is to compare the three most opened email titles with the three least opened. See if you can spot which list is which:

Were these three most opened?

  • The Talented Mr Whippy
  • Bytes in Bitcoin
  • Progress Through Process

Or were these?

  • Room Service & The End Of The End Of History
  • The Cataclysmic Event Hypothesis
  • Unlocking Your Anxiety Archive

Now, personally, this director thinks that, as a title, The Talented Mr Whippy is a nuanced gem of inspired genius, but it seems that you luddites prefer a blunt instrument.

So expect more of that kind of cheap journalistic chicanery in 2023.

Actually, as we’re on the subject, what should you expect from TDCN in 2023?

It feels as if we are at something of a crossroads.

Although newsletter growth has been mightily encouraging, a quick run of the numbers suggests it would take another ten years of similar growth before I could draw reasonable remuneration for my work.

Woah, hold on, hold on. Put your fistycuffs away. Right up front I should say that I get far too much out of writing for you folks to boil it down to something as cheap as money.

But still… My writing hours do feel constrained by the economic imperative.

Helping to organise Thighs of Steel, which miraculously qualifies as a Proper Job, rightly demands much of my week-to-week brainpower, not to mention a large slice of the summer pie.

My scriptwriting work at Chalk & Charms Productions is also a priority and, after a year off post-BBC, already going places in 2023.

At the same time as that, writing these stories is still a generative process for me. At its finest, it manifests the abstract and brings into being new ways of seeing the world.

It is worth doing for its own sake, let alone for yours. (Although without you, TDCN is nothing.)

But at the same time as thaat (I told you it was a crossroads — how rare it is that people use all four exits when operationalising that metaphor), writing TDCN can feel directionless.

There is no unifying signpost propping up this newsletter and there is nothing to hold onto when the wind blows hard.

Perhaps that is why I am writing this as an imaginary shareholder review.

But perhaps it’s not an imaginary shareholder review.

Perhaps this is exactly it: perhaps YOU are the unifying signpost.

Successful newsletter writer Max Read has the following advice about what makes a successful newsletter:

Write about stuff you’re obsessed with and make your readers not wish they were dead.

So here are four things that I’m obsessed with, which I’m thinking of doing in 2023. Let me know if any of them make you wish you were dead:

  1. Start a PAID newsletter called Round Britain Twice* about cycling (and other stuff) around Britain twice. It’ll have a bunch of free content, but the big idea is that, in a couple of years, all the paying subscribers will have effectively crowdfunded the writing and publication of a shiny book. TDCN would still exist, but it’d play second fiddle to this more focussed operation.
  2. Do the same as above, but with my unpublished 2016 popular science-y memoir You Are What You Don’t. This has the added attraction (to me) of having two years worth of unpublished content just waiting to be edited and uploaded. The work is (90 percent) done.
  3. Transition TDCN into a season format, like what you get on TV, with a proper publication schedule that includes breaks. Say eight weeks of newsletters followed by two weeks off to recharge and rewrite myself. These eight-week blocks could have recurring themes within them, such as Days of Adventure, that would serve as mini signposts along the way.
  4. Do what much cleverer and more successful writers have been telling me to do for YEARS. Hammer a bold signpost into the TDCN soil: pick a niche and write into it, hard. Here are four ideas that wouldn’t make me want to kill myself:
    1. Connectivism: a newsletter about all the ways we connect (or don’t). With ourselves, with each other, with our screens, with nature. With the COSMOS. (I also like that the ‘-ivism’ chimes with ‘activism’.)
    2. 100 Days of Adventure: a newsletter about transformation through whatever it is we call adventure.
    3. You Are What You Don’t: a newsletter about what we learn through contrarianism and swimming against the current (not literally — I’m a bad swimmer).
    4. Man Sloth Mode: a newsletter about the fight against male apathy in the home, the heart and the (w)hole wide world. (Yeah, I need a word that means ‘society’, but begins with ‘h’…)

So, my fellow shareholders. What do you think? What direction should we take in 2023?

PROOF: I’m Fine No wonder I’m completely broken as a human being — frankly, it’s a miracle that I’m even able to sit here and type these wor— Oh, wait. I'm fine

Happy 2023! Or, for those of you still on the Byzantine or Roman calendar, I hope you’re all having a great 7531!

My year started with dancing and Dancing Ledge, followed by an assault on a wardrobe, and then finally getting all the results back from my Zoe personalised nutrition experiment.

Data! — what a wonderful start to the year!

This Zoe experiment measured my blood sugar control, blood fat control and the contents of my guts. And, as a confirmed hypochondriac, the results are actually quite embarrassing.

What I was vaguely hoping for was some sort of blood or fecal explanation for my inherent recalcitrancy, soporific laziness, and, of course, those violent depressive episodes following any use of the letter ‘u’ in ‘sentences’ such as ‘what u up 2?’

Instead, I got this:

Excellent blood sugar control…

And very good blood fat control. Gutted.

Looks like I’ll have to come to terms with Prince-inspired lexical horrors alone.

But, hold ur horses — what’s this?

Yes! — I have a SHOCKING diversity of microbial species living in my gut!

No wonder I’m completely broken as a human being — frankly, it’s a miracle that I’m even able to sit here and type these wor— Oh, wait.

Apparently, Zoe have discovered that there’s actually a ‘more powerful’ measure of gut microbiome health than mere species diversity, one based on the ratio of ‘good’ to ‘bad’ bugs in my tumtum.

Let’s see…

Turns out that my constitution is bullet proof. How irritating.

Oh well. Let’s put that aside and look instead at what all this data might mean for my eating habits.

For data nerds (and, if you’ve got this far, that’s you), this is where the fun begins.

Zoe rolls all those delicious data points together, feeds them into an algorithm and spits out a score for every single imaginable foodstuff that you might put into your gaping maw (except, for some conspiratorial reason, strawberries).

These findings are not earth shattering — who knew that scoffing cake might be suboptimal for your diet? (But if you are going to scoff cakes, scoff these…)

Personalised nutrition is more about tweaking the little things, making subtle improvements through substitution or combination.

My personal takeaways (TAKEAWAYS) from this experiment thus far are:

  • Eat kale, broccoli and peas every day — green stuff, basically (mind blown, eh?)
  • Go mad on apples, oranges, avocados, passionfruit, cherries and grapefruit, but avoid dried fruit (except semi-dried prunes) and, while I’m in the fruit aisle, not much point in picking up bananas either (interesting)
  • My protein is, predictably, going to come from lentils, beans and tempeh (basically beans) — mind you, I haven’t been (BEAN) eating much of this sort of thing and my daily nutritional intake (which Zoe also calculates) has been totally fine without it
  • Swap out peanut butter for almond butter (that’s gonna get spenny) and balsamic vinegar for white wine vinegar
  • Eat bulgar wheat or pearl barley instead of rice, pasta or potatoes (and if I have to eat potatoes, go for sweet potatoes)
  • Add extra virgin olive oil, olives, hummus, nutritional yeast, kimchi and all kinds of seeds to everything (even the Welsh cakes)
  • When eating carbs, make sure to combine them with fats

Let’s see food combinations in action as we build the arch-hipster uber-brunch, smashed avo on toast, starting with just plain toast on the left:

See how one tablespoon of EVOO transforms that slice of rye sourdough toast from a worrying score of 45 (‘enjoy in moderation’) to a handsome score of 75 (‘enjoy freely’).

Smash some avo on top and — BOOM — 86 points, which I think translates to ‘gorge horrifically’.

So that’s how the Zoe program works. I won’t keep going on about it in this newsletter because it is, by definition, personalised to me.

It is also extremely expensive — £450 in total for the testing and four months of working with the data (that’s what I’ve started this week) — and most of you have much better things to be doing with that kind of money.

But I hope this little tour has helped you ponder a little about what’s going on inside you (and perhaps only you) when you put things inside yourself.

If you’re interested in reading more, I wrote this science-y explanation of how I (possibly) transformed my gut microbiome by cutting out sugar for three months.

There are some predictable and unavoidable generalities — eat your greens daily, save your cake for special occasions — but your microbiome, like mine, is unique and will behave differently with everything you eat.

If you are interested in trying the Zoe program, then I have an invite code that will get you instant access (otherwise there’s a waiting list). Hit me back and I’ll send it over.

And, by all means, I’d be happy (possibly a bit too happy) to go into excruciating detail about anything else you’re curious about. Just wind me up and set me going.

I have one last question: anyone know how to make sourdough from gram flour?

ps: Oh, by the way, I am also extremely grateful to my little bugs for being so goldarned healthy. It makes me wonder what effect the past couple of years of more-or-less veganism have had on the little blighters. Doesn’t seem to have done much harm, anyway.

pps: I’m also thrilled to see my uncool attraction to Emmental backed up by the data. Number one, baby!

52 Things I Learned In 2022 We shall not cease from exploration so don't ask us to compromise our beliefs because we still have NO IDEA what wonders we're capable of. And other lessons from 2022


  1. The Nationality and Borders Act of 2022 was passed in April after the Commons rejected a series of amendments proposed by the Lords that would have protected compliance with the Refugee Convention. Heavy. In January, with the help of paradox, I tried to understand our part in all this, because we all have a part in the collective imagination of oppression. Resist.
  2. The proportion of British people who think immigration is ‘bad for the economy’ halved from 42 per cent to 20 per cent. Despite all the frothy headlines over ‘culture wars’, social attitudes in the UK are becoming steadily more liberal. Perhaps a reason why crime in the UK is now at its lowest level since the 1980s.
  3. 95 Thighs of Steel cyclists rode a cumulative 71,337km and climbed up 757,975 metres of elevation, the equivalent of more than 85 Everests. 781 bowls of porridge, 11kg of peanut butter and untold megatons of pastries filled the 2,341,500 calorie cycling deficit. Oh, and we raised £102,020 for grassroots refugee projects around Europe.
  4. One of the projects we supported this year was Calais Migrant Solidarity, a No Borders activist group that I worked with when I first went to Calais in 2014. It’s remarkable that they’ve been a constant presence there, challenging the noisy narrative of our deadly border and organising with people on the move, since 2009.

It was great for us to be able to find such a wonderful funding organisation who would support our work without asking us to compromise our beliefs or messaging.


  1. Man Sloth Mode is a temporary ‘depressed’ (low energy, low affect, low arousal) state of being, usually triggered by specific environmental factors, to which men are particularly susceptible. Man Sloth Mode was my most widely read, shared and commented story of the year, so it was great to join a Men’s Circle in Bournemouth, full of people eager to take their place on earth.
  2. In the UK, according to the government’s Gender Equality Monitor, women do 25.5 hours of unpaid work per week, while men manage only 16 hours — a gap that widens still further if we exclude transport. However, more egalitarian attitudes towards unpaid labour results in higher female sexual efficacy and more sex for everyone. C’mon now, guys.
  3. I can’t write a list of 99 Problems. (Incidentally, nor can Jay-Z: there are only nine distinct problems in his famous rap.)
  4. A huge amount, I’m sure, was lost during the TV editing process, but watching counsellor Orna Guralnik on Couples Therapy shows the significant weight that a therapist must bear in order to create space where a couple can work through their shit. (I hope what I learned makes up for the life I might have lost: on average, every hour of TV after age 25 reduces life expectancy by 21.8 minutes.)
  5. I’m one of 27 percent of people who rarely or almost never think about what I might do five years or more from now. I tried to fix this with a floor plan. Not sure it worked, but it was fun. I also learned that setting SMART goals and seeking high levels of accountability might be doing me more harm than good. Better to set up — and then appreciate — life-enriching processes.
  6. The course I took in Nonviolent Communication (NVC) opened my eyes to the power of identifying what needs I am expressing when I realise that I’m feeling (say) frustrated, excited or overwhelmed. More on this topic in 2023, but for now here’s a quote from the founder of NVC, Marshall Rosenberg:

When the sole energy that motivates us is simply to make life wonderful for others and ourselves, then even hard work has an element of play in it.

  1. NVC relies on emotional granularity: expanding our vocabulary to be able to describe more precisely what we are feeling. Are we angry, annoyed or appalled? The benefits of emotional granularity include less binge drinking, less reactivity to rejection and less severe anxiety and depression.
  2. Responsibility is an energy. Responsibility is an energy. Responsibility is an energy. I must remember that. And, when I forget, I must remember that anxiety is also an energy!

Imagine we never felt anxious. Sure, we’d be mellow as fuck, but there’d be no adventures, no laughter, no stories to tell our grand kids. I’m anxious — GREAT. My body is priming me to get shit done. So let’s do it.


  1. Adventure follows a three act story structure and, just like stories, you can have an adventure about anything.
  2. There were 821 sleeps between my last pre-pandemic trip abroad (Urk with The Tim Traveller) and my first foreign travel post-pandemic (Rudenoise with The Tim Traveller). It was good to be back: foreign travel, if we allow it, is an exquisite empathy machine.
  3. I learned a heck a lot about myself and my compatriots (as well as to always carry a spare chain link) while cycling another 1,818km around Britain, from Kings Lynn to Inverness, with a side tour of the whiskey isles and kyles of the Argyll.
  4. I might have cracked the secret to wild camping while cycle touring in England. Even better, cycle touring is now a year-round activity for me. In winter, there are fewer dog walkers to sniff out your camp and, in the deep darkness after five, anywhere flat is a great, secluded place to pitch up.
  5. Perhaps another 2,500km to ride before my round Britain twice tour is completed. Or perhaps not…

Looking at the gaps in the journey already — the northeastern tip of East Anglia, the north coast of Devon and Cornwall, the Black Country, the Welsh heartland, and, not least, Grimsby — I’m wondering: shall this ride ever be complete?

  1. Ecopsychology is defined as conversations around the dwelling place of our soul, where nature is our teacher and we can be but facilitators. In Sweden, apparently, secret beauty spots are called ‘wild strawberries’. Psithurism is the whispering sound of the wind among leaves.
  2. There is no point in walking the length of all the portici in Bologna. That’s why I tried.
  3. The ruined socialist luxury hotel complex at Kupari in Croatia scores 4.6 stars on from 179 reviews. Just up the road, the Chinese finished building a bridge in Dalmatia so that Croatia could join the EU in 2024.
  4. My 100th Day of Adventure started with me trying to discourage the local dogs from chewing up our cyclists’ helmets that’d been left scattered around camp after a long day’s ride. The year ended with a staggering 127 Days of Adventure.
  5. As of 2020, mycologists had named about 148,000 different species of fungus. The current best guess is that there are at least another 2.65 million more to be stumbled upon. At the absolute most, my ignorant, but open-minded, walk in the Brecon Beacons unwittingly uncovered 0.0001 percent of fungal diversity.
  6. It’s impossible to acknowledge, let alone thank, all the visible and invisible kindnesses that made Thighs of Steel possible this year. Philoxenia, the love of strangers and travellers, is alive and thriving.
  7. I’m really lucky to have shared adventures this year with over a hundred wonderful people. You know who you are, but special mention to my mum who stomped through the clag with me on the twenty-five mile trail of Eliot’s Little Gidding.

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


  1. It’s great to remember how much connection can be made in a year — and yet the numbers are finite and, like anything, need constant care. The work is worthwhile because happiness spreads through our social networks up to the level of our friends’ friends’ friends.
  2. I saw or spoke with 54 friends and family (-3 vs 2021) across the course of 957 interactions (+119 vs 2021) this year. 17 of those friends and family (31%) accounted for 700 interactions (73%). However, among the 12 most important of those friends and family, year on year interactions went down by 117 and I managed to increase my contact with only 3 of those people this year. On the plus side, I made 2 new friends this year, while 4 old friends also made a welcome comeback.
  3. It feels like I have friends everywhere I go. I also realised that I love hosting people: this year I welcomed my first pair of Warmshowers cycle tourers (and promptly passed one of them onto my friends in France).
  4. Propinquity, committing your presence to the here and now, is the art of staying alive to the ever-present danger of The Cataclysmic Event Hypothesis.

Instead of ‘minding your own business’ or jacking up on virtual propinquity through your phone screen, look to strengthen the connections you have with the beings immediately around you. You never know when and how they might need you — and you might need them.

  1. In 2015, I sent an average of 13 text messages per day. I just checked and, since I installed Whatsapp on my phone in July 2021, I’ve sent 13,358 messages — that’s 25 messages per day, an increase of almost 100 percent in six years. We overestimate how ‘convenient’ text communication is and underestimate how good a proper voice call will make us feel.
  2. Statista forecast that 8,890,000,000,000,000,000 megabytes of data were created, captured, copied, and consumed worldwide in 2022. It’s completely overwhelming to think of all the billions of hours that are put into tending our digital society every day. Maybe it’s time to divert some of that attention back to our offline communities.
  3. I habitually check and recheck the sports pages as a form of self-soothing and reward. So it wasn’t a complete surprise to learn that losing my home internet connection was, ironically, a great way to connect, free of distraction, defaulting and spidering. (And, surprisingly, this wasn’t because I spent less time on messaging and email.)

Nothing creates the impression of limitless time as having nothing to do. Not because I’ve done nothing, but because I stopped when I’d done the important things.


  1. In Italy, instead of making small talk about the weather, denizens prefer gastronomic tittle-tattle: ‘What did you cook last night?’, ‘What did you have for breakfast?’, ‘Terrible year for aubergines — but how about dem courgettes, eh?’
  2. The four hours after we wake is the absolute worst time to read or share The News. This isn’t about avoiding important information; this is about respecting how that information is going to land with your own hormones and those of other people.
  3. I strongly believe that we’re not living in a computer simulation. I’m probably wrong. Just one of 27 things that I currently or once believed and now totally don’t. Or soon won’t.
  4. Lesson: I really enjoy telling stories. In June, I did my first podcast with Bikepacking Buds.
  5. The second century followers of the gnostic Carpocrates believed that human souls must go through every possible earthly experience before they are released and return to god’s side in heaven.
  6. Humans are amazingly adaptable animals and even the relentless routine of Thighs of Steel cycle touring — early starts, big climbs, late nights — can become quotidian, tapping into fathomless reservoirs of energy that daily life rarely demands.

As we sweated up to the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière, one of the cyclists remarked: ‘I can’t wait to go on more adventures like this, now I know what I’m capable of!’

I had to disagree with her: ‘No you don’t. That’s the point. You’ve cycled 600km in six days, in a heatwave, and you still haven’t hit the wall. You have NO IDEA what you’re capable of.’


  1. The Beatles: statistically not as good as Dylan. Plus you can still see Dylan perform. Whether you enjoy the experience might depend more on what you believe is the purpose of live music: to recreate the recorded material or to create something new, specific to this place, these people and this moment in time.
  2. I learned how to surf. At least in theory: ‘the restless movement of the ocean against the underside of the board creates many additional hydrodynamic forces that combine with buoyancy to keep the surfer from sinking. Yes, it’s basically a miracle’.
  3. Laughing so much that you strain your intercostal muscles is INCREDIBLY painful. A reminder too that physicality is personality.
  4. Going to the sauna is a keystone habit for me: not only good for my physical health, but also a big screen-free reset button for my mind. I never know who I’m going to meet or what 80 degree conversations I might have: the Egyptian owner of a local nightclub, a woman who runs psychedelic sacred spaces… my childhood babysitter?!
  5. I never imagined that investment in a digitised cartoon could set in motion a chain of events that end here:


  1. I took the Flight Free pledge again this year. It’s easy for me: overlanding wins on all three sides of The Travel Triangle: Cost, Time and Comfort. 2002 Dave would’ve taken four flights this year; 2022 Dave took none, dodging a literal tonne of carbon equivalent emissions. That doesn’t mean I stayed at home. In fact, I spent less than half the year at home and a quarter of the year travelling abroad.
  2. I took 38 car trips this year, driving a total of 5106 miles — the distance from Bournemouth to Beijing. This is slightly less driving than in 2021, but still the equivalent of 48.3 mature trees’ worth of carbon. My average trip distance was 135 miles, less than the average range of even the cheapest electric cars. Hm.
  3. Climate Action Tracker rates the UK as having one of the most effective net zero policies in the world. Even so, that policy is still ranked as only ‘almost sufficient’ to limit global heating to 1.5C. Must do better.


  1. Simon Jackson, Head of Bike Fit at Cadence, chose a 45-second squat as his desert island conditioning exercise. This is the One Stretch To Rule Them All.
  2. Womb = Uterus. One of the many things I learned about the menstrual cycle on BBC podcast 28ish Days Later. Only 15 minutes an episode so nothing to lose.
  3. If you complain about your sleep quality, then you’re simply making things worse for yourself. Poor-sleeping complainers sleep worse and have worse health outcomes than poor-sleeping noncomplainers.
  4. 2022 was the year I finally learned how to make sourdough. I haven’t quite mastered the soggy bottom, but I’ll get there… Thanks to Annie for all her help. Also: Dark Chocolate Ginger Flapjacks. YES.
  5. For the sake of my blood sugar levels, I should eat a handful of almonds ten minutes before breakfast and remember to take a brisk walk after lunch and dinner.


  1. This is a list about things I’ve learned in 2022 and at the heart of that learning is YOU.

Knowing that you good people are out there, making time in your lives to read my stories, is why I reflect so deeply on the things that I do and make time to organise my thoughts in writing.

The feedback I get when you share my stories with your friends, reach out to teach me something new, or choose to support this project financially is a wellspring of motivation.

You’ve kept me going this year; I hope the words I’ve put down have sometimes kept you going too. Thank you.

Woolly Mammoths & Butterfly Wings Something frivolous and life-changing about how we can use redirects to break the palliative cycle of internet addiction and transform our most spirit-crushing micro-habits into a very silly game

This is so much fun. Watch what happens when I attempt to mindlessly browse the BBC Sport website yesterday 👇

BBC Sport » Wikipedia Random Article using Redirector

Over the last month, I’ve been mulling restlessly over my consumption of sports news.

As you know, I am a huge fan of No News Is Good News.

But I also have the misfortune to be a fan of certain sports — or, rather, I find myself seeking out sports news as a sort of soothing medication for certain twenty-first century maladies of the soul for which a lasting cure would risk rupturing the fabric of my fragile ego.

The last month, then, has been ripe for medication.

Vacant Escapism

My dissatisfaction with sports-soothing was particularly acute when I was cycling from Edinburgh to Inverness a few weeks ago (stories here and here) — especially as the icy weather and early darkness would lure us indoors, often into places where the football was showing on screens large and small.

I found these ghostly attractions hard to resist and the vacant escapism of watching other people literally play out their lives in the desert heat of Qatari sports grounds created in me a strong sense of cognitive dissonance.

Subsuming myself to a screen is the very opposite of the connections of propinquity that I say I most value, and those I say I seek, most especially when I travel.

Either I’m a useless hypocrite or else nnnguhhhhhh?

What Cost Sports-Soothing?

I didn’t know what to do with this uncomfortable cognitive dissonance until, early this morning, at home in bed, I found myself switching on the radio to catch the last rites of the England men’s cricket team winning in Pakistan.

I could have been night-dreaming, day-dreaming, or even just listening to the whine of tinnitus in my left ear canal.

Instead I was lying in the dark, listening to someone else describe what they’d seen someone else do on a patch of lawn 6180km away.

Once I’d finished revelling in the statistical playground that was England’s ‘historic’ (what does that even mean?!) victory, I was sobered by an uninvited soul-searcher:

What opportunity cost am I absent-mindedly paying for my addiction to sports-soothing?

I’m sure you’re familiar with the idea of opportunity costs — they’re the things you could have done instead of doing the thing that you went and did.

When you start thinking about opportunity costs, it can rapidly spiral you into needing-a-lie-down-time.


Gosh. Thanks, Dave. Massive FOMO. Just what I needed more of.

Woolly Mammoths & Butterfly Wings

The way I see it, there are two species of opportunity cost that arise from our life choices.

There are the woolly mammoth costs, like not choosing a degree in radiology, fine arts or Xhosa and the careers thereby closed off forever.

Psychologically, the woolly mammoths are actually fairly manageable. They are so big that we tend to commit one way or another: interminable regret or indignant justification.

And, being egotistical fipple-flute humans, we tend to go for the latter.

Even if the decision is fairly arbitrary (I was always more Indiana Jones than Star Wars as a kid), it’s our decision so we don’t usually find it too hard to make peace with our chosen path.

Like the actual woolly mammoths, the psychological pain associated with massive and obvious opportunity costs tend to go extinct pretty quick. Definitely within 800,000 years, anyway.

But our daily lives are brimming with minute decisions that bear almost invisible opportunity costs that take their power from accumulation: our habitual opportunity costs, the butterfly wings that become the hurricane.

And our habitual opportunity costs aren’t just any common or garden butterfly.

The gentle Papilio antimachus

They are none other than Papilio antimachus, the African giant swallowtail, which oozes a deadly poison called ouabain that kills by cardiac arrest.

Despite being smaller than a chequebook, these are the ones you need to be worrying about.

Masked in a cloak of apparent insignificance, we don’t tend to notice the cumulative cost of our chequebook-sized habits until we look over our end-of-life accounts and marvel at how much we’ve spent.

Whereas woolly mammoth costs loom large and fade rapidly, butterfly wing costs loom almost invisibly small, but simply won’t stop growing, dammit.

What’s the opportunity cost of choosing to take the bus to work instead of cycling?

Well, maybe not much on Day One, but come Day Four Thousand And Forty Seven, you might realise that you are still not a confident cyclist, not able to fix a puncture, not as fit as you once were, not as stoic in a rain shower and maybe not even in such a good place psychologically.


103 Lost Moments

Picking a random week in the past month, from my web history I can see that I scrolled through 103 unique BBC Sport stories.

That’s fourteen stories a day and doesn’t capture the number of times I refreshed the headlines, only the number of times I clicked through.

What were the opportunity costs for each of those 103 stories? It’s really hard to say without context.

So here’s context: I lied. That wasn’t a random week in the past month: that was the week I cycled from Edinburgh to Inverness.

Now what was the opportunity cost of those 103 disconnected moments?

Those moments when I could have been watching, listening, speaking, breathing, sharing and connecting with the landscape, society and stories around me, I was instead reading up on the ‘frightening depth’ (what does that even mean?!) of Gareth Southgate’s squad.

Fear & Soothing In Las Dave-gas

Now. I don’t want to beat myself up too much here, but I do think it’s worth plunging my Marigolded hands into the dirty washing up bowl of my mind, just once, to see if I can scoop out the gunk that’s been blocking up the drain of my mind and triggering my mindless sports-soothing.

If I can locate the trigger behind all the tabs, then I might be able to soothe those triggers in a way that doesn’t leave me feeling disconnected and all cognitive dissonancey.

Firstly, let’s get this myth out of the way: I’m certainly not triggered by a need for information when I click over to BBC Sport.

And this probably goes for you too, whatever your medication be. We seek information in a specific and timely way, we don’t go browsing for it.

Ah! But what’s this, dredged up from the deep, mottled with mould and crawling with lice?

Two triggers that get right to the base of my ganglia: fear and reward.


This trigger is a fear of what might happen if I permit my brain a moment without focus.

It’s not boredom. It’s not yet boredom.

It’s a state of pre-boredom. My brain flags the end of one activity and rapidly steps in with another, even if vacuous, to fill the void.

Over the past thirty years of maturation, my brain has somehow morphed into the encephalous version of an early Victorian preacher declaiming hellfire and damnation, for an idle mind is the devil’s workshop!

So I scroll over to BBC Sport and soothe my fraught neurons with talk of how French goalkeeper Hugo Lloris texted England’s Harry Kane after the latter struck a penalty kick, if anything, a little too well.


A despised manager gets the sack, a rival loses heavily to a lower league team, a goalkeeper in amateur football scores with a goal kick.

Once in a month, the one-armed bandit shells out and a deal is struck: my mind’s association between BBC Sport and pleasure is stuck.

The next time I finish writing a paragraph, I reward myself with the BBC’s analysis of Ben Doak’s career prospects.

The outcome when I satisfy triggers of both fear and reward is a soothing of the mind. Rather than staying with the end of a task, I soothe my agitation with sport.

A Wave Of Brilliance

If my BBC Sport habit isn’t working for me, then what can I replace it with?

Nothing would be a good option.

Doing nothing, I would allow my brain the opportunity to rest, grow bored, and perhaps, in time, spit out a wave of brilliance.

However: it’s very difficult to replace a habit of doing something with a habit of doing nothing. That’s why they call them Zen Masters and not Zen Easypeasers.

That’s also why I’ve struggled with using distraction-taming apps like Freedom or Unpluq: they simply block your access to such and such a website.

They don’t offer any alternative, except sometimes a homily about taking a moment to breathe or some other patronising guff that doesn’t come close to meeting my desperate underlying need for soothing.

If I can’t have nothing, then what I need is something that promotes connection through novelty, something that rewards and soothes, and something that, through its randomness, might INSPIRE something in me instead of leaving me with the uneasy knowledge that Ronnie O’Sullivan compared his snooker opponent to Mr Bean.

Then, in a flash, I realised that there must be a way of programming my web browser to redirect every BBC Sport page to the Wikipedia Random Article page!

Within seconds, I’d found the Redirector add-on for Firefox and my sport-soothing days were over.

Ironic, then, that Wikipedians, like me, seem to have an overwhelming obsession with sports…


There are 6,590,624 articles in the English Wikipedia, about half of which are stubs containing nothing more than a couple of sentences.

According to a 2016 survey of 1,000 random articles, 16 percent of articles are about sports. According to a random survey I just carried out, it’s now more like 25 percent.

But at least I now know of the death last year of Poerio Mascella, an Italian goalkeeper who played for Serie D side Pistoiese during their glory years of the 1970s.

After three days, my habit of mindlessly browsing BBC Sport, whether for fear or reward, has already withered.

I wouldn’t say that I have found a Zen-like state of peace with my relationship to my web browser, but I do now find myself typing in the address of with glee.

Ahh, there!

Now this story is written, I can spin the wheel and claim my reward…

Britney Spears’ favourite camping spot, Alstrom Point


More inspiration for random redirects:

Bonus: If you’re ever in need of emergency randomness, hit Alt-Shift+X from inside Wikipedia.

On The Lip Of A Lion What does breakfast do to me?

That’s a valiant flea that dare eat his breakfast on the lip of a lion!

This week, prompted by an app called Zoe, I have been experimenting with my morning repast.

On Tuesday, I ate a single bagel, then nothing for three hours. On Wednesday, I devoured a bowl of nothing but avocado. Thursday was (glory be) avocado on a bagel and today was a plain bagel immediately followed by a 30-minute brisk walk.

And here’s what those diabolically calibrated breakfasts each did to my blood sugar:

Note: The yellow line is when I ate breakfast. The blue shaded area is the three hour test period.

  1. Plain bagel: blood sugar spikes and gradually descends — but remains higher than my typical baseline for this time of day. 5/5 on the hungry scale (ravenous).
  2. Pure avocado: blood sugar doesn’t rise at all. 4/5 on the hungry scale (wolfish).
  3. Bagel + avocado: blood sugar rises, but only after a 30-minute delay and it never goes as high as on Tuesday. 1/5 on the hungry scale (I could eat).
  4. Bagel + walk: again, blood sugar rises, not as high as on Tuesday, but followed by a more steeper and deeper decline. 2/5 on the hungry scale (peckish).

One of the things I find interesting about these breakfasts is that there is no place for protein.

I’d always thought that protein = satiety, but it turns out that combining carbs and fats also = satiety. Even a brisk walk = satiety! How can a walk fill you up? Mind blown.

But, while a post-prandial walk (or any kind of exercise, science suggests) seems to flatten the blood sugar spike, it did leave my blood sugar levels lower than the other breakfasts. Something to play around with.

I was also struck by how much fat Zoe recommended I eat with my bagel: 200g. That’s two whole avocados — a lot more than you’d get on your smashed avo in a hipster cafe.

So that’s a couple of things I never knew about my body. I’m looking forward to learning more, particularly about what times of day I deal with food best — my glucose levels seem to struggle in the evenings.

(Note: Your blood and guts might respond to this kind of experiment very differently. There’s a reason why this is called ‘personalised nutrition’. See how you go!)

Tomorrow, breakfast will be a bowl of avocado, a 10-minute pause, and then the bagel.

I’ve no idea what might happen to me personally, but I’d never previously considered the idea that sequencing foods might make any difference at all. I’ll report back!

Rare words! brave world! Hostess, my breakfast, come!
O, I could wish this tavern were my drum!

Incidentally, did you know that, in France, they have breakfast at lunchtime?

In French, ‘dejeuner’ means ‘lunch’ in English, but etymologically translates as ‘breakfast’ — ‘jeuner’ being the French verb ‘to fast’.

Although some people also use ‘dejeuner’ to refer to ‘breakfast’, the more common term for ‘breakfast’ in French is ‘petit dejeuner’ or ‘little breakfast’. Very confusing.

Dave’s 2022 Books Of The Year

This year, I have read 38 books — although, for some reason, 2022 has been the year of abandonment.

A record six books have been picked up, started, and put down again, never to be troubled by my rigorous scoring system.

Perhaps I was unlucky in my choices. Or perhaps I am beginning to value my reading time above my loyalty to a tyrannical scoring system.

But, thanks to that tyrannical scoring system, here are the fifteen books that, for me, warranted a perfect five.

For some reason, this year I’ve chosen a winner out of each category of fiction and nonfiction.

(Oh, and at the end I’ll tell you the wonderful bonus book that I didn’t read and probably never will… Ooh, mystery!)


WINNER: The Bones of Barry Knight by Emma Musty

I don’t know how Musty turned such a bleak tale of broken NGOs, broken borders, broken asylum systems and midlife breakdowns into such an enjoyable romp, but she did. She really did. Served with an unexpected twist of metaphysics. Buy it.


Catch-22 by Joseph Heller: A reread of one of my favourite novels of all time, in honour of ‘22. So good that I dedicated one of this year’s stories to the ideas therein.

Bullet Train by Kotaro Isaka: Picked up in Bologna, I was looking for a novel that would transport me. A pageturner about assassins on a train was perfect. Now a Major Hollywood Motion Picture, but don’t let that put you off.

The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac: Another reread. There are some books that grow roots with a second look. I don’t think this is one of them, really. Still good, but without the shuddering impact of my first time round.

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys: What an atmosphere! The flip side of Jane Eyre. What is real, what is truth? Like all the best novels, short, but lingering.

The Art of Losing by Alice Zeniter: Colonial and postcolonial Algeria through the eyes of a first generation French-Algerian woman. Unromantic historical fiction inside an unprecious family saga.


WINNER: Free by Lea Ypi

The personal story of a childhood in Albania as it clattered from socialism into capitalism, written by a woman who was there, a woman who is now a professor in political theory at London School of Economics. A healthy tonic for your arguments with neoliberals.


Wonderworks by Angus Fletcher: Strong exegesis on why and how stories affect our psychology. A little repetitive with enthusiasm of various story ‘inventions’, but that’s probably me being British.

I Hate Running by Brendan Leonard: A much funnier and cleverer book than the one I wrote about cycling. Hint: It’s not really about running. Recommended by Mike Sowden of Everything Is Amazing.

Poverty Safari by Darren McGarvey: A tour of childhood poverty in Glasgow that illuminates the failings of activism on the left, how identity politics can exclude the working class, and why we should take personal responsibility rather than blaming The System.

How to Change by Katy Milkman: Behavioural psychologist tackles impulsivity, procrastination, forgetfulness, laziness, confidence and conformity. Another cracker recommended by Mike Sowden. Having said that: I remember nothing of this book, not even the chapter headings that I copied out and reprinted above. Time for a reread.

Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake: Wondrous. I read half this book in pre-print. It’s worth reading in full, twice. Everything is connected.

100 Acts of Minor Dissent by Mark Thomas: A comedian’s job is to show us the world as it really is, instead of how we assume or are told it is. Only a great comedian would put their dignity on the line and actually try to change that world. Such a comedian is Mark Thomas. Infectious, riotous. National Treasure.

Dare To Lead by Brené Brown: Ah, Brené! The doyenne of shame brings vulnerability to the workplace. Pairs well with a barrage of free resources. Do the work.

Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg: Simple guidance for anyone who wants a framework to understand what’s really underneath the feelings that they’re having. Genuinely life-challenging. More on this next week.

BONUS: One Category-Winning Book That I Didn’t Read (And Probably Never Will)

The Girl Who Rowed The Ocean by Alastair Humphreys is written for kids aged 7-12.

Based on Alastair’s experiences rowing the Atlantic, Bear Grylls called it ‘An inspirational ocean adventure’. But who cares what he thinks?

Much more important is what my niece thinks and she thinks it’s great, so that’s that.

And there you go: sixteen books to put on your (or someone else’s) Christmas list.

How about you? What did you read this year that blew your tiny mind? What challenged you and changed you?

If you’re really keen, you can peruse my previous book lists: 2017, 2018, 2020, 2021

Dylan, Eliot, Orwell, Rimbaud + Peterborough Swan carcasses, evensong, rotting sculptures, masked graffiti, community tree planting, heron flights and invisible medicine — all before leaving Peterborough

Speak to silence, speak of fire and fire, to the zero future of ice light
Future of fire and ice, with broken silence, speak to love
Speak, broken country, of love and roses, cold wind, gifts and night
Future of ice and fire, in broken night, speak to laugh

Fire to ice, speak to silence — bring love on,
And the fire and the roses make one.

Over two days earlier this week, mum and I walked 45km from Peterborough Cathedral to a tiny church hidden by trees in a tiny place called Little Gidding.

Little Gidding — named for the madness of divine possession — is the toponymic title of the fourth of TS Eliot’s Four Quartets, a collection first published 1936-1942.

Last winter into spring, you might remember, we walked from the first of the quartets to the second: Burnt Norton to East Coker.

It was a journey of no particular end, but at least in its beginning was its end.

This week’s hike had no such defined beginning. As the house painter at our guest house said: ‘Why Peterborough?’

I’ll leave an answer to Eliot himself, from the first part of Little Gidding:

Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfilment.

In Fulfilment

Swan carcasses, evensong, rotting sculptures, masked graffiti, community tree planting, heron flights and invisible medicine — all before leaving the bounds of Peterborough.

Now the hedgerow / Is blanched for an hour with transitory blossom

The to-and-fro of the lorries on the Great North Road’ voices the choir of our walk and we stop the night, like Turpin of old, at The Bell, a fifteenth century coaching inn at Stilton.

Bull in field. Frost. Cows with calves at foot. Stark shadows across the cropped fields. An animal skull. Church ruins.

But the fulfilment of footstrike on footstrike (Achilles heel on Achilles heel) is nothing compared to the loose connection of companions on the hoof.

‘We shall not cease from exploration…’ at the storm shelter, in the sunshine, overlooking a Lidl distribution centre.

The End You Figured

A pizza seller came up to me at a bar in Inverness last week and asked, ‘Hey, I’ve seen that book around — worth reading?’

It was a book of interviews with Bob Dylan called Dylan On Dylan.

The pizza seller wanted a yes/no; I gave him a synopsis.

The book is almost hypnotic in the consistency of Dylan’s responses to the question that’s dogged him since Blowin’ In The Wind: ‘What do your lyrics really mean?’

Like this television press conference, from 1965:

What’s your new album about?

Oh, it’s about, uh — just about all kinds of different things — rats, balloons…

What do you bother to write the poetry for if we all get different images? If we don’t know what you’re talking about?

Because I got nothing else to do, man.

Or this, a little more constructively, from Rolling Stone thirty-six years later in 2001:

What is your own description of what the songs on ‘Love and Theft’ are about?

You’re putting me in a difficult position. A question like that can’t be answered in the terms that you’re asking. A song is just a mood that an artist is attempting to convey. … I really don’t know what the summation of all these songs would really represent.

… I don’t consider myself a sophist or a cynic or a stoic or some kind of bourgeouis industrialist, or whatever titles people put on people. Basically, I’m just a regular person. I don’t walk around all the time out of my mind with inspiration.

Over fifty years of interviews, Dylan is enduring in his intention: he’s nothing more than a ‘song and dance man’, trying to capture a mood.

Whatever meaning you take from that mood, well that’s up to you.

Beyond The End

Little Gidding (the poem), I’m told, is about how ‘humanity’s flawed understanding of life and turning away from God leads to a cycle of warfare’.

Just reading and repeating those words makes me come up short: that’s not what it’s about. Not for me, anyway.

That’s the danger of reading the critics.

Good for them for spotting all these biblical references in the text, but I am Dylan The Relativist when it comes to poetry: I don’t want to be told what something means.

(Not even by George Orwell, who thought Four Quartets was a bit of an Anglo-Catholic, Royalist, political let down. Even so, as Orwell goes on to say: ‘To dislike a writer’s politics is one thing. To dislike him because he forces you to think is another.’)

I don’t know whether Eliot was of a similar mind to Dylan when it came to the interpretation of his work, but I know as a writer myself that part of what makes writing so magical is precisely the batshit readings that some crazies put on your work.

Writing scripts for radio means putting words into the mouths of actors. But it’s not a one-way track.

A great actor takes those words and spins them in a direction the writer never dreamed. And when it works: gold.

Not only does fantastical interpretation make my work easier (and make me look much cleverer than I am), in some sense, creative interpretation is the goal of my work.

I write down images, you recreate them in your head.

Sometimes, if I’m lucky, those images land as significant — but never forget that it’s your recreation that generates the significance.

At best, I can be credited with nudging your thoughts in the vague direction that my own were heading.

Just as often, I’m sure, my words send you off another way altogether. And that’s fine.

(Of course, our efforts are usually a footnote in your lives and, all too frequently, our words scarcely survive as CONTENT, passing by your eyeballs for a moment’s distraction.)

But it’s right and noble for a writer’s words (or music) to be nothing more (or less) than a prompt for your own creativity.

That’s what Eliot does for me: his poetry prompts.

In this case, it prompted a hike.

Now: I suspect that a hike is not what Eliot had in mind as he laboured over his poem, while ‘highly civilised human beings’ flew overhead trying to kill him.

But my creative response is none of his business.

Altered In Fulfilment

I’m not saying that intended meaning isn’t important for everyday communication.


If I say something to you, I usually have a clear intention to communicate some kind of meaning to you. If you get it wrong and I find out, it’s likely that I’ll try again.

What I am saying is that, when it comes to poetry, interpretation is far more important than intention.

Art is what an artist puts before an audience. The work is done. It’s gone. There’s nothing more the artist can do about that. The monkey is out of the cage and the work stands alone.

That’s not to say that artists have no right to try again (and again) to capture and convey the mood they have in mind.

That must be what has powered Bob Dylan across eight decades of creativity: striving to capture and convey some element of ineffable human experience.

Otherwise why bother writing another bitter lover jilted ballad after Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright (1963), a song so successful that it’s been recorded 237 times since?

Why should Dylan follow that up with One Too Many Mornings (1964), I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met) (1964), Mama, You Been On My Mind (1964), Like A Rolling Stone (1965), One Of Us Must Know (Sooner Or Later) (1966), She’s Your Lover Now (1966), Dirge (1974), Idiot Wind (1975), If You See Her, Say Hello (1975), You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go (1975), Most Of The Time (1989), Love Sick (1997) and Forgetful Heart (2009) — to name, off the cuff, thirteen of my favourite songs, not only in the bitter lover jilted ballad genre, not only of Dylan’s, but in the whole of recorded musical history?

Dylan is trying to convey the ineffable. With great songs — or poetry — we get it. And each time we get it, we get it in a slightly different way, bringing our own past, present and future to the poem.

Bob Dylan consistently rejects the labels that other people want to put on his occupation and on his lyrics.

And I’ll do the same with Little Gidding.

We Shall Not Cease

Situations have ended sad
Relationships have all been bad
Mine’ve been like Verlaine’s and Rimbaud

Both Eliot and Dylan were influenced by the poet Arthur Rimbaud, the poet whose inept gun-running granted Ethiopia the arms to defeat the colonising Italians and remain the only unfettered nation in Africa.

The adventurer’s name etched on a temple block, Luxor, Egypt. Tut tut.

Rimbaud was once lauded as France’s greatest poet. Novelist Henry Miller decided that ‘contemporary French poetry owes everything to Rimbaud’.

Here’s a snippet of Rimbaud to give you a flavour:

It has been recovered.
What? — Eternity.
It is the sea escaping
With the sun.

I can see both Dylan and Eliot waiting to burst free.

But the word ‘Poet’ is nowhere near Rimbaud’s gravestone. It’s Arthur Rimbaud, Adventurer*.

Maybe that is some validation of my interpretation of Eliot’s poetry as a call to adventure (yes: it’s not Abyssinian gun-running, but even a hike in Cambridgeshire can be adventure).

It’s right there in the poetry of Little Gidding, too:

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

Time is cyclical. Creation is cyclical. Sunrise to sunset.

If I told you this was sunrise, would you believe me? If I told you this was sunset, would you believe me?

In My End Is My Beginning

So let’s read the batshit opening of today’s story again — and know it for the first time:

Speak to silence, speak of fire and fire, to the zero future of ice light
Future of fire and ice, with broken silence, speak to love
Speak, broken country, of love and roses, cold wind, gifts and night
Future of ice and fire, in broken night, speak to laugh

Fire to ice, speak to silence — bring love on,
And the fire and the roses make one.

This nonsense poem definitely means something to me, something about walking through midwinter England with poetry on my mind and my ma by my side.

If I’m lucky, it might mean something to you. Something strange, maybe.

But if you know your Eliot and Dylan, it might mean something altogether else. If you look closely. Look closely.

Fire to ice, speak to silence — bring love on,
And the fire and the roses make one.

It might entertain you to know that my little poem was written using only the fifty-two words found in both Eliot’s Little Gidding and Dylan’s Love Minus Zero/No Limit.

What does that mean?

Nothing at all — except that the little poem now exists in the world and maybe it means something to me and maybe it’ll mean something to you.

Besides, I got nothing else to do, man.


*I got this detail from an interview given by Bob Dylan to journalist Jonathan Cott in the January 26, 1978 edition of Rolling Stone. It’s not true. Rimbaud’s grave credits neither poetry nor adventure, only the resigned words ‘Pray for him’.

Never Dread The Road Ahead Everything I do for this bike ride is about finding the courage to connect. And it’s not just the bike ride. Cycling around Britain is a cypher for *everything* I do

Last night I went to the second ever edition of Professional Amateur Story Time, hosted by The New Forest Off Road Club.

The principle of the PAST Adventure Series is simple: three women stand up and tell stories of adventure to a rapt audience at a local bike shop.

We heard about the Adventure Queen Mother’s pre-Google adventures in Iceland and Nic’s wonderfully naive and frankly insane experience of the 2021 Women’s Torino-Nice Rally (ten Alpine passes in eight days WHAT).

But I was really struck by something that the first speaker, Emma, shared during her re-telling of a Christmas adventure on the Carretera Austral in Chilean Patagonia.

The Carretera Austral is a 1240km road that runs dead south through one of the most wild and remote places on the planet, with the Andes mountain range to the east and the Pacific ocean to the west, in a region populated by fewer than one person per square kilometre on average.

It’s a forbidding road to cycle alone: hundreds of kilometres of undulating hills, with scarcely any of the demographic distraction of towns or villages — or even any opportunity to make a turn left or right.

When, in the distance, Emma saw a sign that said 18km to her campspot for the night, she rejoiced. When, close up, she saw that the sign read 48km, she despaired.

But the relentlessness of the ride worked over her psyche in the way that only physical exercise can. Her mental landscape gradually turned with the wheels she pushed.

The road is here. The hills are here. I am here.

I chose — and I choose — to be here.

In such a situation, dread for the road ahead is, well, pretty absurd.

636km in Winter

On Wednesday night, I fell asleep in Inverness and woke up in London.

(Full marks, incidentally, to the Caledonian Sleeper — cheaper and far more convivial than a day train.)

I was on my way back from completing the sixth stage of my second tour around Britain, covering 636km from Edinburgh to Inverness across nine days.

Leaving Elgin

Last week I wrote about how we should rebrand November as Yes-vember and shift our wintertime adventuring mindset away from ‘cold, miserable’ to ‘crisp, magical’.

(For those of you wondering: nope, I never solved the problem of cold feet. Not even the mysterious air-activated chemical foot warmers that G kindly bought me did the job. Next time: get sponsored by a heated sock company?)

What I heinously failed to mention last week was my dread.

The Dread

My feelings pre-ride

Without really meaning to, I might have given the impression that I decided to go cycling in Scotland at the end of November and then that’s what I went and did.

It wasn’t that simple.

In the run-up to the ride, I wasn’t feeling my best and I went through the motions of preparation on autopilot.

Mechanically, I filled pannier bags with sleeping kit and warm clothes and fitted Martin (my bike) with water bottles, snack bags, tool kits and all the other accoutrements of cycle touring.

I did just enough work to get myself into a position where I could still go up to Scotland.

But even as I was driving crosscountry to meet G, who kindly offered to give me a lift up to Glasgow, I was still not convinced that I would go — that I should go, even.

Who cycles around Scotland in the frosted tip of November? Shouldn’t I rather stay at home, bed down for winter and work? Wouldn’t I rather take saunas and watch the World Cup?

At This Point…

Huge thanks are in order to G, without whose logistical and psychological support I wouldn’t have had the gumption alone to get my ass up north.

Somehow, she made adventure the path of least resistance.

We all need allies like that: thank you!

But Still: Dread

Even after we’d arrived in Glasgow, even after a day of rest and recovery, I was still hesitant to catch a train to Edinburgh and begin the ride.

Breaking inertia is always the hardest part of doing anything. Going from zero to one: The Doorstep Mile, as Alastair Humphreys calls it.

Why not stay in the warmth and maybe leave tomorrow?

Or, actually, there’s no need to push myself to ride at all.

I could find somewhere to work from Glasgow and enjoy the company of my friends up here for a week of warmth instead of cycling alone around the cold coastline.

In the end, I was decided by the gentle persuasion of my own preparations, bolstered by memories of past experience with inertia and a growing sense of expectation from those around me that I was here to ride.

And the weather forecast signed rain for tomorrow.

Best would be to start today, now, this evening, with a few hours of night-riding to camp, across the water from Edinburgh on the northern shore of the Firth of Forth.

There was nothing left to do but get moving. And with decisive action, dread dissolved to thrill.

The road is here. The hills are here. The cold is here.

I chose — and I choose — to be here.

Fortune Favours, Erm, Me Sometimes

As you can hopefully see from my photos, my choice was paired with fantastical fortune.

Kinnoull Hill outside Perth

Aside from two hours of drizzle through the morning of my first full day’s ride and a hail squall near Carnoustie, the weather was clear sunshine, unbroken but for the long nights, which were filled by the light of more distant stars and an otherworldly crescent moon.

Such fortune went untarnished by yet another snapped chain — I wonder what I’m doing wrong? Probably just cycling too much.

Also Kinnoull Hill outside Perth

My nine days of sunshine and stars couldn’t have been in more extreme contrast to the experience of a fellow tourer I met on that sleeper train from Inverness.

Nurul had cycled from the west instead of the east. Her ride had been a battle of winds and rain, off road or main road, through the central highlands.

Originally from Malaysia, Nurul is one of those ordinary humans going about doing extraordinary things while the rest of us are writing emails and washing duvet covers.

Her ride began when she woke up one summer morning to the realisation that she was vanishingly alone in the world: no ancestors, no descendents. Everyone who had ever cared for her was dead.

So Nurul quit her job and flew to Amsterdam, determined to start connecting with some of the other seven billion humans on this planet.

I’m lucky that one of them was me.

8am, Euston Station

Fuelled by a dim memory of how much she loved the freedom of cycling when she was a kid, Nurul’s original plan was to spend a couple of weeks riding from Amsterdam to Hamburg.

But a chance meeting with some Danes led her further on, and, once in Denmark, why not keep going?

Eventually, in the long light of Sweden, she met a Dutch guy who was cycling back home to Amsterdam.

‘But this is Sweden! How do you get to Amsterdam from here?’

By the time Nurul got back to Amsterdam, she realised with a shock that she only had four days left on her 90-day EU visa — too much of a scramble to get her bike packed up and a flight home.

So she cycled across the Netherlands and hopped onto a ferry to Harwich.

(I’d never considered how handy Britain’s exit from the EU is for long distance cycle tourers!)

Nurul’s plan was to take a few days in London to sort her travel back to Malaysia, without the pressure of a four-day deadline.

But you’re getting a good idea of what happens when Nurul makes plans…

Yep: she cycled a thousand kilometres up country to Inverness.

Come Ride

Nurul still hasn’t learned her lesson, though. Worried, perhaps dreading, the onset of winter, she now, finally, plans to fly home.

I get it: Malaysia is a tropical country. Even if it wasn’t, hell, I myself was dreading the prospect of cycling in the UK in November.

I wouldn’t blame Nurul for returning home. But that didn’t stop me, as we said goodbye at Euston station, from beseeching her to tilt her handlebars southwest.

Midwinter in Cornwall is no worse than Scotland in November, I told her, certainly not the November she’d experienced, with its freezing hail and sub-zero temperatures.

Come stay with me, come ride with me. There is so much more to see, so many more of the seven billion here to meet.

Three Shifts: Statistical, Logistical, Psychological

Since 2020, when I left home to cycle the first stage of my second round Britain ride, I’ve cycled a total of 5,109km over 73 days.

The biggest statistical shift between this multi-year, staged journey and the first time I cycled around Britain is how far I travel each day.

In 2011, I averaged 50km per day more than I am cycling this second time round. Madness.

The biggest logistical shift is from doing the whole thing in one 58-day sprint in the summer of 2011 to splitting the ride into nine stages, spread over five years.

Half a decade. Wonderful.

But the biggest shift between this journey and the first is the shift in my internal and external outlook, from isolation to connection.

First time around Britain, I scarcely spoke to a soul. I did barely anything but eat, sleep and cycle (in the words of fellow round Britian cyclist Anna Hughes).

Although I had a wonderful two-month adventure, at times I felt vanishingly alone.

Of course, as Nurul well knows, I was never alone: I was alone in my mentality. I chose isolation and dread over connection and courage.

Always Connect

Nine, ten and eleven years on, everything I do for this bike ride is about overcoming dread and finding the courage to connect.

Connection between body and bike, between bike and road, and between myself and enlightened, enthused, inspired people like Nurul.

And it’s not just the bike ride. Cycling around Britain is a cypher for everything I do.

In one of my favourite of his essays, George Orwell wrote:

Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.

Now I cannibalise his words:

Every line of serious work that I have written since 2015 has been written, directly or indirectly, against disconnection and for connection, as I understand it.

At the top of this email, I said that I write stories that help you and me understand the world (and ourselves) a little better.

And the throughline of understanding is connection.

To cannibalise another great writer:

Always connect.

Postscript: Connection, Reconnection

After writing today’s story, I received an instant lesson in the principles of always connect.

Half an hour ago, I was sitting in my post-work sauna, when two women, one in her twenties, one in her fifties, walked in.

‘Hello, how’s it going?’ I asked, as I always ask — trying for a connection.

They were down from Oxford and Birmingham on a little pre-Christmas mother and daughter break.

‘Oh, I grew up in South Oxfordshire,’ I said.

It turned out that I was sitting next to Jane, my pre-school babysitter.

Always connect. Who knows — it might turn out to be reconnection.

Yes To Yes-vember! Selfless heroes of the journey: closest to the upspray from the wet road, toes to the wind, 60 times a minute pushing on the pedals, and with every pounding what warm blood remains further condensed

This, as some of you will certainly know by now, is my second time cycling this way.

Back in 2011, this section of my 58-day circumcycle of Britain took me six summer days.

This time around I’ve been on the move three days already and I’m less than a third of the way to Inverness.

Well, actually, I got to Perth yesterday lunchtime so that’s only half a day and I left Edinburgh on Tuesday as the sun was setting at half past three. So that was only four hours’ riding in darkness and mist.

Wednesday was a full day’s ride, but a full day’s light in November in Scotland is less than eight hours. A scarce comparison to July 2011, when the light lasts more than twice as long.

I guess this is why November — the end of November, no less — is not the typical time of year for a bonnie bike tour.

It also explains why I haven’t seen any other tourers on this ride so far. Only swaddled commuters and university students pushing around Saint Andrews.

On previous sections of this ride, I’ve enjoyed connecting with other tourers going my way: saying ‘Yes’ to the tribe in Brighton, catching tailwinds along the north coast of Wales, camping on the beaches of whisky-soaked Islay.

None of that this time.

Instead, I’ve been received with blunt wonder. At the Kangus Cafe in Kirkcaldy, I was literally cheered off the premises, clutching a bag of delicious plant-based baps.

It reminds me why I love swimming in the sea in January: the look on the faces of passers-by, wrapped up in thick winter garb, as I emerge dripping in icy relief from the salt spray.

No easier way to feel like an everyday superhero, I reckon.

A driver gives me the big thumbs up through his rain-pocked windscreen. Fair play, mate.

That’s just one of the tiny reasons why I’m proposing we ditch the lame branding of this most sinuous of months.

No to November — Yes to Yes-vember!

  1. Colder temperatures mean fewer picnics, but more hours in cafes and pubs, where easy community is found.
  2. The warming, centring wonder of tea.
  3. Fewer cars on the road, fewer tourists to share the attractions and (crucially) table room at cafes.
  4. Fewer dog walkers to sniff out your camping spot. In the deep darkness after five, basically anywhere flat is a great, secluded place to pitch up.
  5. More night time = more sleep time, particularly the long morning lie-ins, cosy in the tent.
  6. Night riding is excite riding.
  7. Meltable food doesn’t. Chocolate, vegan block, butter, cheese — even ice cream!
  8. All the fun, but none of the heaviness of Christmas. Mince pies and Christmas cake, but not yet wall-to-wall East-17 and Mariah Carey.
  9. All the amazing kit. Okay, I acknowledge that kit does cost money and it helps that I basically do this sort of thing professionally now, but… Proper winter kit is thrilling for what it can do for your comfort. Key items so far: insulated sleep mat (£££), thermal base layers (£), quality lights for hours of night riding (££).
  10. The weather can never disappoint you. It’s winter: you’re expecting cold and rain. It doesn’t always happen. Rejoice. (In fact, it’s only drizzled for two hours out of the 18 that I’ve been riding.)
Tentsmuir Forest

PS: Aren’t You Cold?

97.2 percent of me: absolutely not. While I’m cycling, even in the drizzle, I’m cosy from helmet to heel.

Layering for the win.

Even though my two feet make up only 2.8 percent of my total body weight, it’s a wonder how much misery that final fraction can cause, with blood vessels swollen to bursting from liquid to solid.

The solution to cold feet doesn’t seem to lie in layering. I’m wearing two pairs of socks (one waterproof), plus two sets of overshoes (one thermal).

Layering isn’t the solution because trapping warm air doesn’t seem to be the problem.

The problem is inactivity — an odd thing to say given how much exercise I’m doing, but hear me out.

Cold feet aren’t a problem when I’m hiking through snow, for example, where my feet are active players, flexing this way and that.

This only happens when I’m cycling in winter, where my feet are nothing more than terminal platforms; contact elements between piston thighs and crank pedals.

They are the selfless heroes of the journey: closest to the upspray from the wet road, toes to the wind, sixty times a minute pushing on the pedals, and with every pounding what warm blood remains further condensed and crushed.

The problem might not be layering, but I’m determined that my toes know how grateful I am.

So yesterday I went out and bought not one but two more thermal layers for my poor phalangeal platforms — and my shoes are in the oven.

Fingers and toes crossed for today…

Your Boat Needs A Crew

What are you most fearful of or what stops you from bringing every part of yourself to a relationship and sharing your whole heart, warts and all, with your partner?

I’m a newish member of a Men’s Circle, a group of guys who meet every fortnight to listen (and talk). We also drink tea and eat biscuits, but mainly we listen (and talk).

Every meeting is an inspiration — not because we all sit around patting ourselves on the back, but because everyone, every week, has So. Much. Going. Down.

No one’s behaviour is perfect all the time, of course, but the circle leaves me feeling that it’s outright miraculous how generous, loving and, well, functional everyone is most of the time, given what’s going down in our lives and in our heads all the time.

And the people around this circle aren’t special (no offence). Every person I meet on the street, in the library or at the sauna will also be wrestling with just as many demons, internal and external, I’m sure.

The circle changes the way I see the world:

  • Someone’s rude? Wow, sorry. You’ve got a lot going down right now. (Probably needs a circle…)
  • Someone’s kind, despite everything that’s going down right now? Double wow — thank you. (Probably needs a circle…)

Everyone — in the circle and beyond — is doing their best and, transcending the banality of the motivational poster, we really are all in this together.

Popping The Question

The question at the top was a prompt brought to this week’s circle by one of the men.

But it wasn’t his question. It was a question he’d been given after asking several women another question:

If you could put just one question to a whole group of guys, what would you ask?

Unanimously, every time, this was their answer:

What are you most fearful of or what stops you from bringing every part of yourself to a relationship and sharing your whole heart, warts and all, with your partner?

Big question, huh?

But what was really interesting was the unanimous response from men around the circle. We threw the question right back:

Wait a second — are you sure you’re ready to hold space for me to be vulnerable with you?

Depth Or Distrust?

It’s not that men didn’t also want a deeper level of connection in their relationships, but I think it’s fair to say that we all shared past experiences where our partners haven’t always welcomed male vulnerability or seen it as a strength.

Without breaking any confidences, many of us had been burned in the past when we have tried to share wholeheartedly and found our vulnerability rejected or pushed back, a shaming experience that contributed to the breakdown of several relationships.

Hence the distrust around the circle: if we feel that we’ve been punished for showing vulnerability in the past, what makes you different? Why should we trust you when you ask us for wholeheartedness?

I refuse to conclude from this apparent impasse that our partners might be saying they want one thing when they secretly want another — that sounds pretty patronising to me.

I reckon there’s something much more interesting going on here.

You’ll Need A Surgeon For Open Heart Surgery

(Note: I’ll be talking in terms of ‘men’ and ‘women’ in the context of heterosexual relationships here because that’s how it was framed in our discussion and, as a cis heterosexual male, I don’t feel qualified to talk across the whole rainbow of humanity’s wonderful combinations and pollinations.

I’d be super interested to hear how it plays out from your perspective if you fancy replying to this email.)

I think it’s perfectly possible that a woman can desire more wholeheartedness from their partner, while, at exactly the same time, the man in this relationship finds that his wholeheartedness isn’t always positively received.

These two experiences are not incompatible.

One of the distinctive traits of Man Sloth Mode is that men, particularly those in relationships, become increasingly dependent on their partner — another experience that was echoed around the circle.

It’s more than likely that your partner really does want you to be more vulnerable with them. It’s also highly likely that it’s neither healthy nor possible for them to carry the weight of being your only emotional support network.

It’s one thing to open up to your partner, it’s quite another to tear into your flesh, rip out your ribcage and spill blood and guts in the hope that they can perform open heart surgery.

(Note to self: you’ll need a surgeon for that.)

Shooting Ourselves In The Face (As Per)

In general, women survive relationship breakdown much better than men, primarily because, well, for example:

The analyses reveal that women have larger networks and receive supports from multiple sources, while men tend to rely on their spouses exclusively.

Once again, the support systems that men fail to put in place around themselves, in combination with an overreliance on one (let’s be honest) caregiver, is shooting ourselves in the face.

(I say face rather than foot here because, frankly, I’ve always wanted to start a new idiom. But it’s also a more graphic reflection of the damage we’re doing to ourselves, not to mention the messy clean up job required of other people.)

Women want more vulnerability from their men, but men don’t trust that they will be held, most probably based on past experiences where they have become overreliant on a single partner.

It’s a heartbreaking cycle that will only be broken when men find emotional support from outside the pair bond.

Your Boat Needs A Crew

Reluctance to share wholehearted vulnerability comes from a deep-rooted fear of rejection.

In answer to your question, women, that’s what we’re most afraid of.

But — but but but — that fear only looms so large for us because, most often, you and you alone represent at least, ooh, 80 percent of our entire emotional support network.

No wonder we’re petrified of rejection. Your acceptance is (almost) everything to us.

And that, my friends, is an INSANE way to live our lives.

It’s totally unrealistic to expect one person to carry such pivotal weight in someone else’s life — no wonder sometimes our vulnerability is rejected. It’s too much to bear.

The solution is to create an independent emotional support network — like a Men’s Circle — that can nourish us with the affirmation, acceptance and assurance that we need to feel heard.

(Hint: a network is not one person. Shoot for twelve and you might get six.)

High up in the rigging of love, with that net beneath to catch us, the rejection of one person, however important they may have once been, is not the be-all and end-all.

It’s just one person who couldn’t accept your wholehearted beingness.

In the words of shame and vulnerability researcher Brené Brown: if you miss the boat, it wasn’t your boat.

And that’s a muuuuuch easier lesson to accept if you’ve got your whole crew beside you on the harbourside, friends and comrades who’ll buy you fish and chips, help re-pack your sea chest, and wait with you until your ship finally comes in.

Seek And Ye Shall Find… But What? What are we really looking for when we’re really looking for something?

What are we really looking for when we’re really looking for something?

That was the question I found myself asking as I tore onward through the sodden undergrowth, shredding myself on brambles and pulling myself up on slippery fern roots and inquisitive cables of rhododendron.

I reached the top of the bank covered in liquid soil, faced with a thick hedgerow and a stand of barbed wire. From the comfort of his finely mowed paddock, a horse stared back at me, through the mizzle, over this impassable fence.

I was looking for a footpath — clearly mapped, I might add, right here. But the map is not the territory. In this case, the territory is the thorn.

I slid back the way I’d scrambled.

A gorgeously red waxcap (according to my plant identification app, PictureThis)

With three days to spare between two activities inside the M4 Corridor, I decided to drive through to the old red sandstone mountains of the Brecon Beacons, ostensibly on a mushroom-hunting escapade.

Given that my mushroom identification skills are almost non-existent — there is only one species I can name with any confidence — the hunt is rarely more than an excuse to spend time foraging the humid air.

In that sense, I found exactly what I was looking for.

More waxcaps. These ones look like flowers in bloom

In the famous words of Donald Rumsfeld, there are three grades of knowledge:

  • Known knowns: ‘things we know we know’
  • Known unknowns: ‘we know there are some things we do not know’
  • Unknown unknowns: ‘the ones we don’t know we don’t know’

As Slavoj Žižek pointed out, Rumsfeld forgot the fourth category: unknown knowns, ‘knowledge which doesn’t know itself’.

When we look for something, anything, we usually start with something in mind. And so it is that these grades of knowledge also frame the context of our search:

  • Unknown knowns: unconscious competence, flow, mastery — but also unconscious bias, blind spots, invisible privilege, systemic violence, racism, etc. (Žižek’s example was the US military’s atrocities at Abu Ghraib)
  • Known knowns: conscious competence and confidence, closed mind, fixed mindset, our comfort zone
  • Known unknowns: conscious incompetence, growth mindset, learning, open mind, self-awareness, the wisdom of Socrates, managed risk, beyond our comfort zone
  • Unknown unknowns: unconscious incompetence, adventure, mystery, faith, more blind spots, unmanaged risk, recklessness, the danger zone

If we start our search with our minds filled with knowns (whether known or unknown), then we’re unlikely to find much besides the thing we are looking for.

That’s how human perception is built: founded on expectation.

When we are focussed on searching for knowns, we risk missing all the unknowns — the wondrous worlds that we didn’t even know were out there to be found.

Also waxcaps?! At this point, I’m beginning to doubt the utility of the algorithm…

The overwhelming majority of existence is made up of unknown unknowns.

As you can see from the photographs I took on my hunt, I was hopelessly unsuccessful in my search for known knowns.

What I found instead were three extraordinary and previously-unknown-to-me species of fungi.

Despite their apparent heterogeneity, each one, I learned to my growing astonishment, belonged to the genus known as waxcaps.

Further research tells me that there are about 150 described species of waxcaps. I guess I now have some level of conscious ignorance of 2 percent of all known waxcaps.

But it’s estimated that at least 90 percent of fungi species remain undiscovered, unnamed, unknown.

As of 2020, mycologists had named about 148,000 different species of fungus. The current best guess is that there are at least another 2.65 million more to be stumbled upon.

At the absolute most, my ignorant, but open-minded walk unwittingly uncovered 0.0001 percent of fungal diversity.

For every one of those beautiful waxcap mushrooms that caught my eye in the wet grass, dozens more species were growing hidden in the soil beneath my feet — the overwhelming majority unknown to even the most prolific mycologist.

Cordyceps jakajanicola: first discovered in 2019. The fungus grows inside a cicada and ‘sprouts its reproductive parts outside the host’s body’. Gross. Source

This brief peer behind the taxonomic curtain gives us but a glimpse of the fathomless possibility of what we could be ‘looking for’ if we open our minds as well as our eyes.

Imagine searching for a tin needle in a haystack — and missing that each blade of straw is solid gold.

What are we really looking for when we are really looking for something?

Perhaps life is at its most wonderful when we acknowledge that we don’t even know ourselves.

Not waxcaps! Perhaps the hallucinogenic Deconica coprophila — shit lovers

Oh, and I never did find that blasted footpath. The Ordnance Survey denies using trap streets in its mapping, but I have my suspicions. And the torn trousers to prove it.

Intrinsic Adventure The Days of Adventure project has made damn sure I protect time for my priorities. It’s taken me outdoors when outdoors seemed a long way distant


Friday 9 September

I’d spent a pretty sleepless night trying to discourage the local dogs from chewing up our cyclists’ helmets that’d been left scattered around camp after a long day’s ride.

We were all still feeling pretty tender from our brush with some kind of Montenegrin lake-bourne vomiting bug.

Considering that, only two nights previously, I’d half-slept on a trolley in A&E, I felt incredible on yesterday’s ride.

Powering up the shady steep slopes of the Albanian Dajti and swooshing untrammelled down the other side, zipping through sixty kph mountain tunnels, out and over metalwork spans over thousand metre drop gorges.

I’d felt incredible, that is, until lunch.

Then things went rapidly downhill. Luckily, the last thirty kilometres of yesterday were indeed rapidly downhill.

So, although I woke up on Friday morning feeling okay, I was glad to be spending the day in Calypso, our twenty-year-old Ford Transit support vehicle*.

We waved the cyclists off, packed up camp and drove onward, over the Korab Mountains and into North Macedonia.

At the border, we discovered that we didn’t have valid vehicle insurance for countries outside the EU and would not be allowed to continue until we bought a 14-day insurance pass for €50.

Love that no border guards had cared about such legal niceties in Albania.

In 2019, as one of the conditions of their accession to NATO, the Republic of Macedonia agreed to adopt the geographical qualifier ‘North’, appeasing Greek political concerns.

As Calypso chugged into her ninth country of the tour, I noticed that someone had peeled away the cheap sticker that had announced the country’s new name, revealing the old beneath.

Together we flew over the border mountains to Lake Debar and followed the Black Drin all the way to Lake Ohrid, through pine forests and beside glittering water, marvelling at the beauty of the day’s ride from the hot cabin of Calypso.

We found camp on the shores of Lake Prespa and started to cook two tonne carbohydrates, with the moon rising over the distant blue of the Baba Mountain.

But we had no phone reception on the lakeside beach and, as time ticked on, somewhere out there in the gloaming, most of our dehydrated, delicate cyclists were climbing a mountain.

I climbed back into Calypso and drove the sharp zigzags to the top of Galičica, nerves rising with each switchback and no one in sight. Did they have lights? Had they run out of water, food? Or worse?

Then, somewhere near the summit, a dozen sweat-stained cyclists drifted like ghosts from the gloom before me, spirits high.

Sucking with relief, I refilled their waters and handed out lights and fleeces for the long descent.

Then I followed them down, headlights flickering against reflective cycle tape. The stars played on the lake below.

That day was my hundredth day of adventuring in 2022.

215 Days of Adventure (And Counting)

Last year, I wanted to spend more time outdoors and less time in front of the computer. To make sure that happened, I set a target to have 100 Days of Adventure.

This is my definition of a Day of Adventure, a simple yes or no: did I spend a significant chunk of the day outside on an adventure?

‘Significant chunk’ and ‘an adventure’ are both deliberately relative because I want DOA to be a binary measure that works for everyone. What’s significant and adventurous for you will feel different to everyone else: maybe dangerous, maybe dull.

After a slow lockdown start, I ended 2021 with 102 DOA, a healthy increase so far as I could tell from the years before.

The project was such a success that I decided to keep it rolling into 2022.

Today, we are 308 days deep into the year and I’m proud to say that I’ve spent over a third of that time outdoors, adventuring: 113 days.

A Big Year

I always knew this was going to be a big year: I was scheduled to spend 46 days on the road this summer with Thighs of Steel, cycling from Glasgow to Milan and then from Dubrovnik to Athens.

Days of Adventure are not necessarily biased towards these kind of exotic foreign epics: after all, I spent 35 days cycling around southern England in 2020.

But there’s no question that this big year owes much to the relaxation of pandemic lockdowns and border controls, allowing me to adventure abroad.

In fact, there was so much adventuring going on that I had no time to celebrate passing my 100 day target. So that’s what I’m doing today.


(Seriously, I mean that: yay 🥳)

Although my definition of adventure is flexible enough to encompass almost anyone doing almost anything, I know that it’d hard for most people to hand over a third of their year to adventuring.

(Besides the fact most people wouldn’t want to!)

100 days in a year is ambitious. 113 days (and counting) is straight-up ridiculous. When I stop for half a second to think about it, I feel very lucky.

For some reason, tracking my Days of Adventure is really working for me. This story is about why that’s the case and how something similar might work for you.

It’s a story that begins with a cautionary tale.

Goals Are Dangerous

My old philosophy tutor told us of a friend of his who had a long-time dream to collect a first edition of every record put out by a ridiculously niche record label.

(I think the label was some 1970s Americana psychedelic weirdness, but that’s not the cautionary part of the tale.)

This was back in the days before eBay and Amazon so tracking down the records meant trawling through secondhand junk markets across the world.

There were only about twenty records to find, but the search took him decades. Every LP that he finally found only raised the rarity of the next.

By the late-nineties, we were told, he had found all but one of the records. It’d been six years since he’d added to his priceless collection, but for as long as he hadn’t found that last LP, the game was still on.

Then he found it.

What a moment. What a feeling that must have been, after so many years of searching, to have finally completed the set, to have won the game.

To our tutor’s enduring incredulity, his friend never bought that last record.

He picked it up in the shop, flipped it over and read the sleeve notes. Then he slipped it back onto the shelf, went up to the desk and sold the lucky shopkeeper everything he’d worked to collect over the past twenty years: the entire back catalogue of this ridiculously niche 1970s Americana psychedelic weirdness label.

That’s the cautionary part of the tale: even an extremely difficult goal will, with dogged human persistence, be completed.

And then what? Emptiness.

Once he’d found the final piece, there was nothing more for our collector to do but scrap the lot, like breaking up a jigsaw puzzle.

That’s the danger of goal-setting — and that could be the danger inherent in a project like 100 Days Of Adventure.

But there’s something different with the design of that game, a difference best illustrated by another project of mine — now permanently shelved.

The Country Game

Back in the early 2000s, I had a friendly competition with pals to see who could travel to as many different countries as possible.

(Okay, it wasn’t always friendly — Monaco and the Vatican really got people’s backs up.)

The only rule was that the visit had to include at least one overnight stay and at least one activity of cultural interest. In other words: travelling across borders on the night train did not count.

It was a great game because I was usually winning (especially after making up a rule that added the Canary Islands and Gibraltar to the list of officially recognised countries due to something or other about non-contiguous borders and nautical miles).

And therein lies the problem with this game: the joy, for me, was in winning the game, not the experience of taking part.

Contrast this with the DOA project: I didn’t even notice that I had ‘won’ the game. I was too wrapped up with the experience until I sat down to write today.

It wasn’t that I took The Country Game particularly seriously, but the nature of the game mechanics generated serious discussions about how to reduce duplicates (each country could only count once) and how to maximise border-hopping with every trip.

To the spitting jealousy of the others, one competitor snared six countries in a single holiday to the Baltics. All within the rules.

Intrinsic Adventure

In contrast, there’s no way to ‘game’ the DOA project without lying to myself.

I can’t score if I haven’t been outdoors for a significant chunk of the day doing something vaguely adventurous.

That kind of point-scoring is all about experience: it’s a reward that is intrinsic to itself. It’s found within, not without.

The problem with The Country Game is that its rewards were extrinsic, with no reference to the quality of experience within the game.

Quite simply, the reward of visiting a new country was to score one point.

And after that?

Visit another country, score another point.

And after that?

Visit another country, score another point.

And after that?

Visit another country, score another point.

And so on until there is no more ‘And after that?’, only the emptiness of the completed record collector.

Protect and Prioritise

I know I’m lucky to work the jobs I do, but over the past two years, my DOA score has been more than a mere coincidental symptom of my work and lifestyle.

Even this year, even with those 46 days (technically hard at work) with Thighs of Steel, I still wouldn’t have reached 100 Days of Adventure without making an effort to clear my diary to create space.

The DOA project has made damn sure I protect time for my priorities.

It’s taken me outdoors when outdoors seemed a long way distant — particularly at the short end of last year, when I was scrambling for days, a time that generated some of my most cherished memories that winter.

And That’s The Point

Since the first day of this year, hiking the double stone row at Hurston Ridge on Dartmoor with two friends, I’ve written seventeen more stories of adventure this year: a wellspring of memories filled with community, wonder and connection.

That’s what the Days of Adventure have brought me since 2021, a constant reminder that ‘how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives’.

There are 57 days left in the year. I plan to spend at least 13 of them outside, adventuring.

Are you putting your time where your heart is? What’s stopping you from making damn sure?

BONUS CONTENT: 17 Stories of Adventure

Adventures make me think. And when I think I often write. Here are the other 17 stories that I’ve written while on adventure this year:


*It was Calypso’s fifth time supporting the ride all the way to Athens and back. She’s beginning to creak, so we’re looking for an upgrade for 2023.

Do you know anyone who might have a long wheelbase high top van they want to sell or give away to a small cycling community with a big heart?

Winter Wins And in one year’s time I’ll be opening the freakin Palladium! (Or maybe I’ll just have sustainable momentum in the direction I want to travel)

September 17, 30 degree heat, Akropolis in sight. The culmination of seven months’ hard preparation and two months’ hard riding.

It was a spectacular summer, filled to the brim with vivid experiences and vital friendships. But, as I reluctantly turned my handlebars back northwest, I felt pretty empty.

So, as our ferry chugged inexorably across the Channel, I started a list of things to get excited about this winter.

When your whole being has been consumed by one or two projects and both those projects come to an abrupt end at the same time, it takes a force of will to step outside once more and rediscover, or reaffirm, who you are or who you aspire to be.

If I were an athlete, this winter would be my ‘off-season’, an opportunity to focus again on the basics, the training and training ground routines, rather than the exhilaration and exhaustion of competitive matchplay.

What do I want to learn? Where do I want to stretch myself? Who do I want to become for next season?

I won’t jinx the entire list by sharing it here, but here are a few winter wins that give you an insight into three areas where I want to grow.

Leadership & Communication

The nine months I have spent this year helping to steer Thighs of Steel have taught me a lot about myself and particularly about how I respond under pressure and time stress.

The main thing I have learnt is how important it is to keep lines of communication open, be honest about my feelings and needs, and make sure that empathy is flowing in both directions, between myself and the rest of the team (and, well, anyone else too!).

As Ernest Hemingway once wrote to F Scott Fitzgerald: grace under pressure.

With that in mind, I have signed up to an introductory course in Nonviolent Communication (NVC), a technique developed in the 1960s by psychologist Marshall Rosenberg.

I’ve also resumed my counselling sessions and (excitingly) joined a Men’s Circle here in Bournemouth (thanks LH!).


I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: winter is the finest time to explore outdoor adventures in the UK.

Shorter days mean we can not only catch both sunrise and sunset at a reasonable hour, but also spend long evenings with the stars.

Out of season hotspots, like Dartmoor, the Lakes, North Pennines, Wales or the Highlands, are empty. The views, like the shadows, are long and clear and the weather is either exactly as expected or surprisingly delightful – no possible disappointment.

So, in late November, I’m travelling up to Scotland to cycle another leg of my Round Britain ride.

Since 2020, I’ve cycled about 4,500km of the coastline and now I’m eyeing up the 650km from Edinburgh to Inverness.

This’ll be the first time I’ve done a serious cycle tour in the UK in winter. I’m curious. And foolhardy. And optimistic.

I’m also mushroom picking in the Brecon Beacons and, with my intrepid mum, going on an unexpected tea room of an adventure to Little Gidding, the fourth of TS Eliot’s Four Quartets.


Learning forces us to remember that we’re not dead yet.

It reminds us that our brains are plastic (the good kind of plastic) and that we are very much unfinished animals.

Whether teaching your old self a new trick or honing a dulled blade, learning shows us that, in spite of everything, we are making headway.

A great winter win to have in your back pocket.

This year, as well as the NVC course I mentioned, I’m learning how to make sourdough from the delicious bakers at Bakehouse 24, getting guitar lessons from a chap who works for Specsavers (thanks again LH!), and building a FREAKIN SAUNA with a carpenter friend of mine.

I’ve also enrolled in a four-month Zoe Personalised Nutrition programme that involves a continuous blood sugar sensor, gut health and blood fat tests… and loads of muffins. Can’t wait!

Winter Wins

I’m not usually one for bucket lists, but I really needed this.

I know that I can’t do everything on my list, but just knowing that I’m already doing some of the things, even if only the small things, will give me enough momentum to carry me through the dark days.

Cornell University professor Karl Weick introduced the concept of small wins in a 1984 paper about redefining the scale of social problems.

‘Once a small win has been accomplished,’ Weick wrote, ‘forces are set in motion that favour another small win.’

What one small, good thing can you do today that will set you up for another small, good thing tomorrow?

Yesterday, for example, I asked a friend whether she knew anyone who taught guitar. Today, she sent over the number of that guy from Specsavers who teaches guitar on the side. Tomorrow, when I’m back in the library, I’ll message him to set up a lesson.

And in one year’s time? I’ll be opening the London Palladium!

Or maybe I’ll just be a little better at making music. Either way, I’m happy: I have sustainable momentum in the direction I want to travel.

And if, at any point over the coming months, I feel myself drifting or dissatisfied, then I can come back to this list, remind myself of why I’m here, and do one small thing to regain that momentum.

Winter wins. What are yours?

The Most Wonderful, Or Manifesting The Abstract One week with no home internet connection...

I’ve now been without a home internet connection for a week and I’m still appreciating my untethered peace of mind.

But it’s not like I’ve gone total caveman here.

I’ve got into a rhythm of working for four or five hours in the library, from whenever I finish my morning diary (see below) until my stomach tells me to get stuffed.

In the early evening, I’ll check my messages again in the lobby of the hotel where I go for my saunas. And that’s it for internet.

I appreciate that, in the grand scheme of things, this is still a very long time to be tethered.

2.6 billion people around the world live without a mobile phone and 360 million more have no internet connection either.

But I live in the UK, where there are more mobile phone connections than citizens and the average person spends 6.4 hours a day hooked up to those sweet sweet mbps (which I like the think is the noise our brain makes when it gets a dopamine squirt from some click bait headline).

Temperature Check Please

Besides my data diet, I’ve been particularly enjoying having some distance from text messages, which have a nasty habit of crash landing in my brain like meteorites from outer space.

When we speak to someone on the phone or in person, we usually open with some variation of ‘Hello, how are you?’ — and, quite often, we listen to the answer.

We do a temperature check, we attune ourselves to each other, and only then, when it’s appropriate, do we announce our needs, whatever they are.

We can’t do this human temperature check via text message because they are, by nature, asynchronous.

We can never know the state of mind of the recipient in the instant that we communicate with them.

That’s an astonishingly optimistic way to go about a conversation, isn’t it? And, given how much we message (145 per day on average in 2018), isn’t it amazing that we’re not all nervous wrecks already?

So it’s been nice to be able to step away from text messages for all but a few hours a day. Nice to know that nothing can crash land — it’s like a temporary force field has been thrown up around Planet Dave, only disabled by libraries and hotel lobbies.

The Most Wonderful

But the most wonderful gift of this untethered time has been what feels like a reclamation, a reclamation of something that I had forgotten was mine: my early mornings and my evenings.

I usually wake up some time between half six and half seven. That gives me a couple of hours before the library to read, write and walk.

I don’t know what I did in the years when I had an internet connection, but I know that my mornings were nowhere near as grounded.

Until this week, I hadn’t written what Julia Cameron calls ‘morning pages’ for a long time.

It was once a habit to write my diary first thing, but at an unspecified time in the past few years this became last thing at night: still a healthy habit, but with very different results.

𓉔𓄿𓃀𓂻: Manifesting The Abstract

Writing a daily diary is the engine-room of what I do. As I’ve written before: it’s my process.

All my adventures, many of my stories and myriad other gifts of mental processing can be traced back to these pages.

It’s a quiet place to unload, unravel and understand. (Not so quiet today: Back In The USSR playing right now — written at the height of the Cold War, it still suprises me how radical Paul McCartney could be — and how good on the drums too.)

In Egyptian hieroglyphic script, each word ends with a determinative symbol that gives context to the preceding consonant-sounding signs.

For example, the determinative used at the end of the word relating to motion is a pair of legs walking — as in the word 𓉔𓄿𓃀𓂻 (shelter-vulture-foot-legs walking: h3b) meaning ‘send’.

But here’s the one thing that has stayed with me in the twenty years since I studied Egyptology: the determinative used to connote any abstract concept, such as ‘greatness’, ‘dignity’ or ‘truth’, was a scroll of papyrus: 𓏛


Because it’s only through writing — in this case, on a roll of papyrus — that we can manifest the abstract.


It’s like magic.

Once we have captured and written down our abstract thoughts, we can examine them at a distance, modify, modulate and manipulate them. Under the spell of our penwork or typecraft, we watch as our mind changes.

Writing a diary (journal, morning pages or whatever you call it) is a form of self-counselling.

My diary means I can arrive at face-to-face counselling sessions with the ingredients of my mind, my thoughts and emotions, at least half-baked.

I don’t just tip mental shopping bags, bursting with random ingredients, all over my counsellor’s kitchen floor. I’ve already prepped the meal.

So I’m grateful to my phone network for screwing up and bringing me back to my morning pages.

I now write twice a day: a thousand words on my untethered laptop, looking out over the slow winter dawn, and a thousand words on my Neo Alphasmart typewriter, tucked up in bed with the curtains drawn on the moon and stars.

Morning pages to write myself into a positive, productive mindset.

Evening pages to tie up any loose ends before sleeping, to reflect and regenerate.

Same Time, Different Tenor

Comparing this disconnected week with the very much connected week before, I was surprised to find that I spent the same amount of time on my devices — including the exact same time on messaging apps and email.

Not what I was expecting at all.

The difference was in the detail, however. I spent three hours more on my laptop and three hours fewer on my phone. Consequently, this led to an 8 percent increase in what RescueTime calls ‘Productivity’.

Given that I wasn’t trying to be more ‘productive’ and that the only apparent difference between the two weeks was my internet connection, this is a useful insight.

I don’t know what you use your mobile internet connection for, but I’ve also been happy to find that I haven’t missed any of its other features.

Mildly inconvenienced at times, perhaps, but not in any way that made me ungrateful for this opportunity for silence.

Social Gravity Pulling Us Back

But there’s only so long that our society will tolerate those without a tether.

Already I’ve run into problems dodging through two-factor security and accessing my bank account. There are also some websites that won’t work in the library.

No, not those ones! Honestly. Who do you think I am?

I mean totally legit ones – Substack, for example.

In the UK, the unseen forces of social gravity pull us strongly back in the direction of, not merely a mobile phone, but an internet-enabling smartphone.

Remember, though: this kind of social physics is not Newtonian. We can — and will — push back.

My phone actually started working again yesterday.

Between the hours of 9pm and 10am this morning, however, I kept the life-giving SIM card stashed away in a lock box outside the flat. Bliss.

With a little care and preparation, I believe that Pandora’s box might just work.

Don’t Rush To Press Writing, creating and flourishing - without a phone connection

The Boring Bit

Earlier this year, tediously, Virgin Mobile transferred all their customers (hi) from the EE network to Vodafone.

(Did you know that there are only four actual mobile phone networks in the UK? All the other providers are just piggybacking.)

For 99.99 percent of Virgin customers, this move made absolutely no difference. For me, however, the switch was terminal, as I happen to live in a Vodafone dead zone.

It’s a strange story because outside on the streets, on the beach or even in my garden, I have full bars and leopard leaping 30mbps 4G coverage. Inside the flat, however, that drops to a caterpillar crawling 2mbps on the dreaded H+.

Why? How? Why?!

The Vodafone antenna is on our roof. Glorious reception in all directions but down.

Unfortunately, unless the wind is blowing just right, this stuttering connection is nowhere near good enough for me to work from home.

So earlier this week, I changed network providers. All well and good, until they tried to port my old phone number to the new SIM card.

Then something broke.

Now my phone can’t connect to any network. I can’t make calls and I can’t connect to the internet.

In fact, because I don’t have wifi installed in the flat, I haven’t been connected to the internet while at home for all of 48 hours.

The Horror.

Work = Internet?

This is probably the longest I’ve been without internet in my own home since I lived on a smallholder farm in 2009 and my work consisted of digging vegetable plots, hunting for chicken eggs and throwing apples for the pigs.

Even that was only a brief hiatus in a connective link between the dial-up of 1998, via broadband ethernet, to the arrival of wifi and 3G.

Despite being a late-adopter of the smartphone, I’ve been more or less tethered to the internet at home since I was about sixteen years old and certainly for the whole of my working life.

Since I left university, to a greater or lesser extent, my work has also depended on a reliable connection to the internet.

From finding my first English students through an advert on Gumtree to writing and designing a website for people I never met in meat space, the internet has always been an essential business partner.

But even in 2022 it would be wrong to say that my work is entirely dependent on the internet.

In fact, now that I find myself without, I realise that my writing work is a long way off needing the reliable always-on connection of the sort that fills most homes – and filled mine until 13:07 on Wednesday afternoon.

Not that I’m counting the minutes or anything.

Minimum Viable Wifi

One of the stickiest ideas I’ve ever come up with is Minimum Viable Technology.

The guiding principle is that, when deciding what tool to use, start by defining the task and then choose the least complex tool that will do the job. No more, no less.

For example: I need to get some food later. The shops are 4km away, but I only have an hour to spare and I’ll have a lot to carry home. That’s the job.

The tools at my disposal are: my walking legs, my bicycle and my car. The least complex tool to solve the problem is my bicycle with a couple of pannier bags.

Choosing the bicycle, I’ll save money and petrol over the car, while keeping the head-clearing benefits of physical exercise at a speed considerably faster than walking.

But far too often we act with the principle of Minimum Viable Technology turned upside down.

Instead of first defining the task at hand, we’re dazzled by the tool and go searching for jobs it happens to be good at.

To someone with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

We have a spectacular tool at our fingertips – the internet – and so we bend almost every aspect of our entire existence into internet-shaped tasks.

In so doing, we accidentally generate a scrolling stream of work to grind through, in service of the tool.

Back in the 90s, who would have predicted that inbox overwhelm would become a daily battle for almost everyone with an internet connection, i.e. almost everyone?

In the creation of ubiquitous instant always-on asynchronous communication, the internet has turned human interaction into a stressful game of whack-a-mole.

But was ubiquitous instant always-on asynchronous communication ever defined as the job we needed done?

The tool has made civil servants and secretaries of us all.

The problem is not that the internet can’t be our Minimum Viable Technology for some (even many) tasks.

This newsletter wouldn’t be in front of your eyeballs right now if I hadn’t decided that the internet was the right tool for the job.

The problem with the internet is that, once chosen as the right tool for some tasks, it has a nasty habit of taking over everything else as well.

I’m sure someone clever has written a long treatise on how every business is now an internet business, but I’m more interested in what this takeover means for us as humans living our puny little lives.

More specifically: what it means for me. And, for me, the always-on internet means two things: spidering and defaulting.


Sometimes when I sit down at my computer to write a newsletter, that’s exactly what happens. My fingers, my brain and the internet work in a smooth and equal partnership.

Writing this way feels like a conversation with the rest of the world: pulling the data of other people’s experience into a synthesis with my own and putting that back out onto the network.

It’s a rare sensation. More often, I catch myself spidering.

Instead of looking inwards for authentic inspiration, I venture out onto the web.

I search this thing, that thing. Read this article, that article. Follow this link, that link. Type this, type that. Nothing sticks.

Before I know it, two hours have passed and I’ve got 43 tabs open and only 12 words on the page. That’s spidering.


Defaulting is what happens in the twelve hours of the day that I’m neither properly focussed on a task nor asleep.

The internet is always on. At home, my computer is always there. Until yesterday, that combination meant that the internet is not only always on, but always there.

As a freelancer (and increasingly for y’all nine-to-fivers), that means my work is always on and always there too.

I’ll drift over to my computer, handily stationed in the dominant middle of the room, and I’ll file email, cycle on rotation through the same default websites, tidy my spreadsheet calendar, check messaging apps, try to read something, buy something I don’t really need.

This is not productive work, this is ‘can’t switch off’ work. Footling around, tweaking, checking and triple checking. Busy work.

Classic defaulting.

But do you know what I really hate about defaulting? When I use it as a ‘reward’.

I’ll be in the flow of writing and suddenly realise that I’ve been working for 45 minutes straight and, as a ‘reward’, I’ll check the BBC Sport headlines.


Reward defaulting is the WORST – it’s not refreshing, it’s not rewarding, it’s just blind dopamine addiction.

Always On, Always There

Who is at fault here?

There will be readers who say that all my spidering and defaulting behaviour is simply ill-discipline. Fair enough.

But once I’ve acknowledged my ill-discipline, what then? Just try harder? Ha!

My problem is not with my internet connection as such; my problem is with my ‘always on, always there’ part. But separating the two is almost impossible.

So far as I know, I can’t buy a nine to five connection. I either have the internet or I don’t.

Yes, I know there are apps out there that will limit my internet connection. I know because I use two of them: Freedom and Unpluq.

It’s true that I haven’t used Freedom to permanently disconnect myself – but I have used it to limit my access to certain websites. And I have also discovered how easy the app is to circumvent.

The temptation to circumvent my own discipline is much too great: waiting for me behind that protective firewall is a delicious banquet, every last megabyte morsel of internet goodness.

This is the reason why the most effective positive constraints are black and white: I don’t use aeroplanes to travel. Not: I don’t use aeroplanes to travel except sometimes when I do.

So, assuming I ever get my phone to work again, how the hell can I design a positive constraint that will keep the always-on, always-there internet out of my house?

Well, first of all, let’s see how I managed to write today’s newsletter, wifi-free.

A New Old Way To Write

Before today, I’d written 330 editions of this newsletter and I’d say that about 312 of them were written in the same way: with a solid internet connection running in the background.

It’s no wonder that, at first, this new way of working felt a little uncomfortable. Unstable. Untethered.

Writing a newsletter is a complex task, made up of dozens of smaller individual tasks – but I’ve realised today that only a couple of those smaller jobs are best done while tethered to an internet connection.

The rest are best done without internet – not that they can’t be done while connected, but they’re best done without.

This is where it helps to define the three major areas of newsletter writing according to Minimum Viable Technology principles.

Problem 1: How to get this newsletter in front of your eyeballs

With limited budget to spend on postage stamps, my options are pretty limited here. The internet is the Minimum Viable Technology for the job. Thank you, Substack.

Problem 2: How to research this newsletter

The internet might be the fastest tool for grabbing a quick quote and it might even be the best tool for prospecting and sieving for content – but it is also a resource that is available to almost everyone.

If almost anyone can perform a web search, then, however tempting for the writer, that work has less value to the reader.

Do you know how many hours a day the average American spends online? Well, yes you do. As much as I do, anyway. The answer’s right there, a few taps away.

The seductive ease of the internet squeezes out slower, deeper, more valuable research that I can do from my own experience and my own library – particularly when so many of the stories I write here are inspired by the physical books (not online articles) that I read.

The Minimum Viable Technology is my own brain in the first instance – not out of arrogance, but rather trust that I already know roughly what it is that I want to say, what line of argument to take, or what emotion or reaction I’d like you to have in response.

When my brain inevitably runs dry, my home library of about 400 books is there for inspiration: a much deeper well than a surface-level web search.

You can trace the origins of this story, for example, to two books by Cal Newport: Digital Minimalism and A World Without Email, both of which I’ve written about before and both of which are sitting on the desk right next to me.

As writers, we are spoiled by the wealth of knowledge found on the internet, forgetting that our personal libraries are probably better provisioned than 99 percent of libraries that ever existed in the millennia before 1960.

It’s rare that I write something so entwined with online research that I can’t put anything down on the page, but for those more research-heavy stories I can imagine a process of going back and forth to an internet connection between drafts — not during.

Missing research can be skimmed over in the draft using a marker like TK (a rare letter combination in English, standing for ‘to come’) and the gaps filled through batching when an internet connection is restored.

Stupid example: I had no idea how many mobile phone networks there were in the UK, only that there weren’t very many. I only looked up the exact number just now, before hitting send.

Quick Note On Batching

This morning, I went to the library to use the internet. Before going, I made a long list of things to do while I had a connection.

Besides getting in touch with my mobile phone service provider, I wanted to message a few people, send a couple of emails, check some train times and the weather forecast for a mushroom picking adventure.

It was all done quickly and easily. That’s the joy of batching tasks – like doing all the washing up in one go. And when it was done, there was nothing to keep me in the library.

If I’d been at home, those same jobs would have cropped up here and there throughout the day and either interrupted my flow or taken much longer thanks to my old friends, spidering and defaulting.

At the library, I simply got to the end of my list and felt almost disappointed: is that it? Is that all the business I have with this lofty invention to whom I dedicate so many hours at home?

Problem 3: How to actually write this newsletter

Writing is a long process of drafting and redrafting and, because of twin threats of spidering and defaulting, I think almost all that work is best done without an internet connection.

One of the big advantages to writing this newsletter offline is that I couldn’t rush to print.

I spent two hours writing the first draft of this newsletter and the temptation was to hurry over to the library and get it up on Substack for editing.

But then I realised that I didn’t need to. I could do all my edits in LibreOffice at home, still with no internet connection.

This new writing process unfolded over eight stages, the first five of which were offline and occupied five of the six hours this story took to write:

  1. First draft in Q10, an offline text-only writer
  2. Second draft in LibreOffice, an offline word processing app
  3. Print out, read and edit with an actual pen
  4. Third draft edits in LibreOffice, offline
  5. Cycle to my friends’ house (thanks GC and BS)
  6. Copy over to Substack online
  7. TK gap-filling and typesetting online
  8. Publish online (yay!)

Those first two stages are the bulk of the work and took about four hours – probably about average for an epic story of this kind, but, with no distractions, I found the process more enjoyable, smoother.

Not only that, but with all the time in the world at my disposal, I could print out a copy of the text and take it to the sauna with me to do some relaxed line edits.

Why not try, just this once?

Quick Note On Tiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiime

One of the things that I did in the library earlier was to download a bunch of podcasts that I could listen to offline at home.

Now I’m thinking that I shouldn’t have bothered.

There’s something wonderful in running out of things to do and getting bored. It might be making me more curious, for starters.

I’m not someone who switches on the television and I’m not so interested in radio since I adopted my current No News Is Good News media diet.

With the gravitational pull of my sweet, sweet internet connection gone, the only distractions or entertainment in the flat are reading and staring out of the window.

I can no longer ‘reward’ myself with distraction defaulting.

I live alone so no one can pull me away from what I’m doing. No one on Whatsapp, no one on Signal, no one on my emails, no one on the phone, no one.

The closest I am to this kind of distraction is at the library, a five minute walk away. That’s a long way to go for a quick dopamine ‘treat’.

Instead I reward myself with a change of music, a chilli oat biscuit with maple syrup, by staring out to sea or playing guitar.

Nothing creates the impression of limitless time as having nothing to do. Not because I’ve done nothing, but because I stopped when I’d done the important things.

The things that were not important were not done and that time regained opens up a clear horizon in the mind.

Interruptions don’t necessarily hold us back in terms of getting things done, but they do come at the cost of ‘more stress, higher frustration, time pressure and effort’.

Stress has been shown to make us feel more pressed for time (no surprises there) and feeling more pressed for time is antithetical to our wellbeing and our willingness to help others.

And here is the challenge I promised at the top: I bet you still find it IMPOSSIBLE to cut your home internet connection.

83 Percent Offline

Clearly, this newsletter isn’t going analogue any time soon.

But I’ve learned that five out of six hours, 83 percent, of the work can be done offline and this slower, less distracted process has undoubtedly made for a more focussed story.

(A better story, though? You be the judge of that!)

Even if the internet is the Minimum Viable Technology for many jobs, that doesn’t mean that I need it piped into my home twenty-four hours a day.

The question returns: how the hell can I design a positive constraint that will keep the always-on, always-there internet out of my god-damned house?

Given the spidering and defaulting tendencies and temptations of the internet, I’m afraid that only a radical solution will work. Something stronger than Freedom, Unpluq or my own willpower.

Car Phone

Okay, so… I’m going to try leaving my phone in my car in the car park outside, eight flights of stairs away.

I’ll still be able to do all the internet things I need to do when I need to do them, but, as well as the mild discomfort, there’s no way of charging my computer down there so I’ll be limited to an hour of connected time anyway.

If I need longer: away to the library again.

All the other things that I need a phone for, like using maps or (umm) phoning people, are done (or better done) outside anyway. Let’s walk and talk.

Oh – and yes: I am aware of the crushing irony of this.

No internet in the flat was the reason that I changed mobile network provider – yet also precisely how I came to discover that what I really want is… no internet in the flat.

For now, though, even my car phone solution is a luxury. I still haven’t got signal. (Sorry friends!)


Talking of friends: I was chatting about my predicament last night and someone pointed out how annoying it is for everyone else when one of you doesn’t have a phone.

Phone connection is part of the social contract now: if you can get in touch with me anytime, then I can get in touch with you anytime. That’s the deal.

So one friend suggested I leave my smartphone in the car, but keep a dumbphone in the house for calls. I’ve enjoyed the silence of the past couple of days, but I can’t deny that this is a fair and pragmatic suggestion. Thanks GC!

Anxiety Is An Energy Next time Sinjoro Maltrankvilo comes galloping along, maybe I can tip my hat, grit my teeth and welcome him with a stern handshake and a whiskey. My pardner’s back in town. What's the job?

Anxiety is a big reason that Thighs of Steel managed support 95 cyclists over 5,408km from Glasgow to Athens and raise over £110,000 for grassroots refugee projects.

All thanks to good old anxiety.

I don’t mean that metaphorically, mystically or even mythically. I mean that in a very concrete way.

One tiny example

Two weeks before the ride set off, I was up late, worrying. As you do.

With 50 cycling days across 9 arduous weeks, Thighs of Steel is built on a rigid schedule: there is scarcely any wiggle room for disasters that take time out of the day.

Restlessly I mind-scrolled through each of the weeks, trying to imagine how they would all go horribly wrong, in as much catastrophising detail as my stress-addled brain would allow.

Week 2 of the ride, from Bristol to Paris, involved 529km of beautiful cycling through the cathedral towns, rolling countryside and luscious woodlands of southern England, into croissant-nibbling, cheese-munching, chateau-spotting France.

We would cycle, we would camp, we would cycle, we would camp, we would cycle, we would camp, we would catch a ferry, we would cyc —

Shit — I haven’t booked the ferry!

Heart pounding, blood rising, I leapt out of bed and dashed to the computer, praying to the four goddesses of St Christopher’s lucky rabbit foot that the ferry we had to be on would have last-minute space for 17 cyclists and a massive van.

We could neither afford the re-route to another port a hundred kilometres away, nor the five hour delay to wait for a later ferry.

Of course, the four goddesses were smiling upon me that night. But the real reason that disaster was averted was thanks to — yep — good old anxiety.

Good Old Anxiety

Like I said, that’s just one tiny example.

The disaster-spotting and problem-solving energy of anxiety came to our rescue thousands of times before we ever left home and on a near minute-by-minute basis during the ride.

The towering success of the ride was founded on anxiety.

The problem is that, if you have my sort of interpretation of anxiety, then that last sentence sounds AWFUL.

Who wants to feel anxious the whole time? Anxiety is a horrible feeling! (says I).

But this is only one interpretation of anxiety.

There is another sort of interpretation, one that acknowledges the energy and power that anxiety gives us.

Imagine the opposite. Imagine we never felt anxious. Imagine we went around in a semi-tranquillised state all the time. Nothing would happen!

Sure, we’d be mellow as fuck, but there’d be no adventures, no laughter, no stories to tell our grand kids.

Heart Pounding, Blood Rising

Ultimately, anxiety is a physiological response to a situation: heart pounding in my chest, blood rising to my neck.

However, the fact that I have interpreted anxiety as ‘a horrible feeling’ is wholly psychological.

For some reason, ‘horrible’ has become my default interpretation of that physiological response — at least in some circumstances.

Heart pounding, blood rising is actually my physiological response to quite a few things, many of which I interpret as ‘right good fun’.

But when it comes to what I call ‘work’, I default to an interpretation that makes me feel shitty about the energy that I call ‘anxiety’.

Incidentally, this seems to be getting worse as I get older, and as more and more of my day-to-day activities are labelled as ‘work’ and therefore potentially labelled as anxiety-inducing.

And that’s not all…

Shitty Interpretation = Shitty Thoughts

My shitty interpretation of anxiety leads to a cascade of shitty thoughts.

Firstly, I feel shitty for feeling shitty. I beat myself up for feeling anxious instead of some other emotion that I’ve labelled as ‘non-shitty’.

Secondly, I’m more likely for my shittiness to take over and colour the rest of my world experience.

For example: if there are other people around, then I’m likely to try and pin the blame on them for some aspect of the situation.

Why didn’t anyone else book the ferry? Why did it have to be me up at night worrying? How crap am I going feel tomorrow after losing so much sleep?

Then, thirdly, I feel shitty about myself for being shitty about other people.

Not One, But TWO Vicious Cycles — Yay!

So that’s shitty thought cascade is vicious cycle number one:

Anxiety ➡️ Being Shitty About Others ➡️ Ugh, I’m Shitty ➡️ Anxiety Rebound

But until now my only management technique for anxiety has been to try to push the anxiety further away: I shouldn’t be feeling like this. I should be feeling tra-la-la, la-di-dee instead.

Unfortunately, something you probably know about human anatomy is that our feelings are held in place (with cartilage to the spleen, I’m told) by a very powerful spring: push them away and they come back twice as hard to smack you in the face.

And, boom, that’s vicious cycle number two:

Anxiety ➡️ Push Anxiety Away ➡️ Anxiety Rebound


So the alternative interpretation of anxiety cannot be the false YAY I’M SO HAPPY LOOK AT ME I’M HAPPY.

The alternative interpretation is (drum roll and pull quote please):

I’m anxious — GREAT. My body is priming me to get shit done. So let’s do it.

Don’t ignore the anxiety or push it away. Don’t pretend that anxiety is always a lovely buzzy feeling of excitement (but remember that sometimes it is).

Instead, acknowledge that anxiety gets shit done. Respect the energy it generates.

All those physiological changes in our bodies make us perform better. Anxiety is not hindering, but empowering us.

That shot of adrenalin, the pounding heart and the rising blood give us the physiological boost we need to spot and solve difficult problems and work through disasters without anyone dying (hopefully).

Anxiety is not enjoyable, but it is useful.

So this story is a shout out to anxiety. I want to remember all the millions of times in the past that this uncomfortable emotion has saved all our asses.

Then, next time Sinjoro Maltrankvilo (as they say in Esperanto) comes galloping along, maybe I can tip my hat, grit my teeth and welcome him with a stern handshake and a whiskey.

My pardner’s back in town. What’s the job?


Thanks to Ben from Align Mind Body for a good chat that clarified how I’d tackle this topic today. As a meditation teacher, Ben knows all about observing emotions and finding that space between observation and interpretation. And — oh look! — he’s running an Intensive Meditation Foundation Course, starting on 24 October.

Happy Eight-And-A-Quarterth Birthday The David Charles Newsletter!

On Thursday 24 July 2014, 57 unwitting humans accidentally signed up for the first edition of what I called ‘the world’s very first adventurous comedy political mailing list thing’.

After slightly refining my focus over the years, I now introduce myself like this:

👋 My name is David and I’m a writer, outdoor instructor and cyclist-at-large with Thighs of Steel. I write stories that help you and me understand the world (and ourselves) a little better.

I’ve been doing that since December 2016, when I committed to writing a story every week, first sent via Mailchimp, and now on Substack, starting with this story about the political backdrop to a fire in a refugee camp on Samos on 18 October 2019.

Three years on, there are now 469 of you reading my newsletter, which is wonderful. Thanks for being here.

For the 412 of you who haven’t been around since the beginning, here are the most read stories from each year of my writing:

Now here’s to another eight and a quarter years!

What Bedtime Story Do You Tell Yourself? How to sleep, by Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl

How rested you feel tomorrow will depend on the bedtime story you tell yourself.

If you complain about your sleep quality, then you’re simply making things worse for yourself: poor-sleeping complainers sleep worse and have worse health outcomes than poor-sleeping noncomplainers.

Personally, I use a passage in Viktor Frankl’s Auschwitz memoir, Man’s Search For Meaning, to train myself into the belief that I am indeed an excellent sleeper:

Somewhere it is said that man cannot exist without sleep for more than a stated number of hours. Quite wrong! I had been convinced that there were certain things I just could not do: I could not sleep without this or I could not live with that or the other.

The first night in Auschwitz we slept in beds which were constructed in tiers. On each tier (measuring about six-and-a-half to eight feet) slept nine men, directly on the boards. Two blankets were shared by each of the nine men. We could, of course, lie only on our sides, crowded and huddled against each other.

… And yet sleep came and brought oblivion and relief from pain for a few hours.

Catching Up On Good News

Greetings from, well, the United Kingdom.

It’s been exactly three months since I was last ‘home’ and two months since I left this island.

Anything big happen since I left?

Let’s see now…


  • Work on the world’s largest windfarm was completed off the coast of Yorkshire. It’s record will superseded by another being built off these shores next year.
  • Waltham Forest became the first council in the UK to divest fossil fuels from their pension fund.
  • A trial showed that Oxford University’s malaria vaccine is the cheapest and most effective yet, with protection up to 80 percent. Not bad for a disease that (speculatively) may have killed 50 billion humans to date.
  • The University of Manchester have developed the first diagnostic test for Parkinson’s.
  • Period products became free in Scotland.
  • Cycling is booming in the UK with weekday journeys up 47% since 2021.
  • Doctors will soon be able to prescribe free bikes.
  • 86 percent of British companies that took part in a 3,300 person trial of the 4-day working week say that they plan to keep the model.
  • A pine marten was spotted in London for the first time in a century.
  • The proportion of British people who think immigration is ‘bad for the economy’ halved from 42 per cent to 20 per cent. Despite all the frothy headlines over ‘culture wars’, social attitudes in the UK are becoming steadily more liberal.
  • Thomas & Friends got its first autistic train character, Bruno the Brake Car, and Peppa Pig got its first same-sex couple.

Amid the dread of returning to the UK, it’s good for me (and you too, perhaps) to remember that, at the same time as things going wrong, some things go right too.


I caught up on all that UK news by looking through the weekly Positive News ‘what went right’ archive, which you can also get as a newsletter.

Mycelial Contentment Fungi remind me that life is a simultaneous — and utterly entangled — act of personal exploration and collective creation

This is part of an accidental mini series on the psychological and ecological benefits of taking new perspectives on life, society, citizenship and the planet.

The first part of the mini series looked at what I see as the organisational purpose of Thighs of Steel and took a new perspective to help me understand why I do anything at all: connection.

This second part will look more closely at happiness and take a new perspective to help assuage or at least understand the economic, ecological and existential distress that so many of us are feeling right now.

I’ll be honest: I wish I could have spent another twelve years researching and writing this piece, hands buried in the soil.

Think of it as a work in progress and please be gentle!

The Three (Or Four) Species Of Happiness

All good things come in threes:

  • Jesus, Joseph and Mary
  • Earth, Wind And Fire
  • Wet Wet Wet

Human happiness is no different: there are exactly three different species. (Except when there’s four, but we can ignore that one later…)

The first species of happiness is the kind that you can only feel when you’re inside the experience right now.

You might feel a sort of experiential penumbra of good vibes for a short time afterwards, but basically the happiness is gone as soon as you leave the situation.

For example, the visceral happiness you get from playing on a swing:

The happy author, c. 2005

The question at the root of this first variety of happiness is: Am I having fun?

The second species of happiness is the sort you feel even when you’re no longer actually inside the experience.

This is one kind of time and space travel that humans can do: quite unbidden, a remembrance — oh, yes, I’m happy! — pops into our mind.

This sort of happiness is unlikely to stem from playing on the swings. Even this one:

(Watching that video, I think I screamed as much as they did. Worth the build up.)

This second species of happiness is more likely to crop up through a satisfying work life, successful relationships or a family of supportive friends.

The question at the heart of this second variety of happiness is: Does this feel right?

The third type of happiness goes deeper again: it’s an existential happiness, reaching out far beyond our selves and our immediate circle.

It comes from the sense that we exist as one small element of a community and society, a landscape and ecosystem that is thriving in unity together.

The question is: Are we all, people and planet, thriving?

This happiness is something I have felt in the past.

I’m not alone in struggling with it right now.

The Fourth Species

The fourth species of happiness that we can safely ignore is the kind that yogis and Russell Brand talk about:

Transcendence of all earthly happiness through direct connection with The Oneness of The Universe.

But you can forget all that for now — except one word: connection.

(Yes, I know — I’m obsessed with this idea.)

Because all three (or four) species of happiness depend on connection.

Back A Second: What Is Happiness?

Happiness is what happens when our sensory bodies come into contact with an experience and form a positive emotional bond.

When we play on the swings, that bond is easily broken by leaving the playground, and our happiness fades too.

When we form a close relationship with another human, such bonds are more complex, cropping up in more and more of our experiences and environments the longer and stronger that we share a emotional connection.

If that connection is predominantly positive: happiness ensues.

But even the strongest interpersonal relationship cannot sustain our happiness if the ecosystem around us is sick.

It is very hard to be happy when you discover that the earth is burning. Or that Liz Truss has become Prime Minister.

This is where the mushrooms might help. (Not like that! Although…)

The Great Entanglement

On the way back from Greece, I (finally) read Merlin Sheldrake’s book Entangled Life.


The subtitle is How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, And Shape Our Futures — and, yes, there is a lot of stuff in there about how fungi can forage for food, eat rocks and find the fastest route through IKEA.

But what struck me most forcefully was how, as a mycologist, the more Merlin learned about his subject, the more uncertain he became about what it means to be human.

The first living organisms on land were a collaboration between algae and fungi: lichens. The algae could photosynthesise to produce energy from the sun and the fungi could digest minerals from rock: the perfect partnership.

Likewise, plants are a collaboration between the above-ground photosynthesising organisms and the below-ground fungal mycelial networks that break down and transfer nutrients from organism to organism.

And the breaking down element is crucial: until fungi like the white rot fungus ‘learned’ how to digest plant matter, the earth was coated in a pile of dead plants, kilometres deep.

(This is how we got coal, by the way.)

By digesting dead vegetation, fungi guarantee the cycle of nutrients from one living organism to another. This is the thing we call soil. It wouldn’t exist without fungi.

Even humans are a collaboration between ‘humans’ and untold millions of bacteria, fungi and viruses that help, among many other basic living functions of body and mind, to break down the plants and animals that we eat as food.

It becomes increasingly difficult to determine where human ends and the rest of ecology begins.

Life is, indeed, entangled.

8,890,000,000,000,000,000 Megabytes

Back to that question of existential happiness: right now, do you feel like we are all, people and planet, thriving?

If you’re anything like me, that’s going to come across as a really stupid rhetorical question.

Apart from major scientific advances like the Vegan Sausage Roll, everything’s going to shit.

So what can we do about it?

Here’s one thought.

(It’s not a very clever or original thought, but hear me out because in a second I’m going to get you to imagine being a fungus and that’ll change everything.)

As a society, perhaps we have been putting too much effort into tending our digital networks.

(Told you it wasn’t very clever or original.)

I don’t just mean social media, I mean the creation of the whole World Wide Web.

Statista forecast that 97 zettabytes of data will be created, captured, copied, and consumed worldwide in 2022.

That’s 8,890,000,000,000,000,000 megabytes.

It’s completely overwhelming to think of all the billions of hours that are put into tending our digital society every day.

By necessity, that time is being diverted away from our other projects and has perhaps contributed to the neglect of our society offline.

Finding Balance

That’s not to say that I think online networks can’t be extremely powerful — I doubt that social attitudes in the UK would be becoming so liberal, so quickly if it weren’t for the internet.

But I think we have to be careful that our online networks really are strengthening our ‘real’ offline lives in the direction of greater connectivity and solidarity with the people and planet that make up our ecosystem.

I think this hybrid online-offline model is why Thighs of Steel works so well: people discover the project online, meet each other online and communicate online.

But then we come together for two months in the summer to create a living, breathing community in the ‘real world’.

And it’s that in-person time that changes the wider world for the better, in all the ways that I discussed a couple of weeks ago.

The difficulty is how to imagine change when our problems are so complex and our individual capacity is so limited.

One answer is to change our imaginative model of what it means to be an individual.

(Okay, here’s where things get trippy!)

What if we imagined ourselves as a single exploratory growing tip of a fungus, tiny and courageous, but directly, intimately, unbreakably connected to, entangled with and backed by a mycelial network of unfathomable power and complexity?

Human As Hypha

The growing tips of a fungus are called hyphae, so imagine yourself as a single hyphae, one little growing tip of the human mycelial network that is exploring our society, the landscape, this universe.

It’s easy for you to feel like an individual.

Look too closely and hyphae totally behave as individuals, merrily wiggling around through the soil, looking for yummy dead things to munch.

But zoom out and we see that, despite their apparent behaviour, hyphae are not individuals.

It’s not like there’s a central brain or body that tells the individual hypha what to do, but each one is plugged into a complex and responsive network.

You see: fungal hyphae can somehow sense and communicate across the network.

(I’m not even going to try and butcher the young science: I beg you, please read Merlin’s book.)

If one hypha finds some delicious dead tree stump, very quickly (and mysteriously) the rest of the network will stop what they were doing and turn their attention to devouring it.

As a human hypha, you are exploring on behalf of every other actor in the network — all the other hyphae who can and will respond to every move you make, every touch and every discovery.

That gives you, the connected individual, power, agency — and responsibility.

The network decomposition of the dead tree stump is no mere act of destruction. The capturing and recycling of nutrients is a life-giving act of creation: what we call soil.

As a hypothetical human hyphae, recognise that your influence extends far beyond the human network.

You are also exploring and creating on behalf of the vegetation, the plants and the trees, that depend on the network for life support. No network, no soil.

Consequently, you’re also exploring and creating for the insects and animals that depend on vegetation, and so too for those predators that depend on the life and death of their prey.

See how you are connected — not hypothetically, but literally — to everything else in the ecosystem.

Mycelial Contentment

This is how mushrooms help me fill the pit of despair that has taken the place of my third, existential, species of happiness.

Fungi give me a lens through which to see my existence as both individual and plural.

If I fall into the trap of seeing myself as an individual alone, then it’s too easy to feel powerless about the existential problems we face as a species.

It’s too easy to bumble along, exploring life — experiencing the first two species of happiness, perhaps — but never seeing my intimate role as part of the network that is creating this ecosystem.

And without the sense of living within a healthy ecosystem, I have no hope of experiencing the foundational existential happiness.

Fungi remind me that life is about more than my own personal exploration.

It’s a simultaneous — and utterly entangled — act of personal exploration and collective creation as part of the network.

The metaphor of the human hyphae gives me license to explore and create, to follow my own path, but also to ensure I nurture a healthy network and, in so doing, healthy soil and, ultimately, a healthy ecosystem.

And, perhaps, existential happiness.

So let’s commit to the roles we were born to play: as entangled explorer-creators.


Thanks for reading — I hope some of it made sense at least. If not: get yourself a copy of Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake and take a look at this marvellous world from a myco-centric perspective.

Postscript: Entangled Happiness Networks

The Happiness Network. (In a parallel universe, I spend my life going around taking photos of fungi)

People’s happiness depends on the happiness of others with whom they are connected.

I can’t believe I forgot to include the most obvious piece of research in last week’s newsletter about how our happiness is entangled with our networks.

Clusters of happy and unhappy people are visible in the network, and the relationship between people’s happiness extends up to three degrees of separation (for example, to the friends of one’s friends’ friends). … This provides further justification for seeing happiness, like health, as a collective phenomenon.

Read more:

Lies And The What What Now Now While livers and kidneys and stem cells do their surreptitious work, the rest of the world, friends, family and lovers from back home look on and ask of us the what what now now

Last week I told you no lies. But perhaps I was sparing with the truth.

I said that Thighs of Steel left Glasgow on 16 July and arrived in Athens on 17 September.


I also said that 95 cyclists rode a cumulative 71,337km over the course of 49 days.

Also truth.

But there’s a gap between the truth and the whole truth, right? You know what I mean.

In those 49 days, we didn’t quite cycle all the way from Glasgow to Athens — even after you excuse us the cross-Channel ferry.

We missed a bit.

Let me take you back to Dubrovnik and the beginning of Week 7.

Probably A Hill / Gravel / Borek

Covering the 800km between Dubrovnik, Croatia and Thessaloniki, Greece inside one week was always going to be a big ask.

And not just because of the distance.

The mountains of Montenegro, Albania and Macedonia barred our way to the cotton and pomegranate plains of northern Greece.

Oh, and all this on a route we’d never done before, on roads that could run out at any moment.

Albania. Go. Now.

Naturally, it was hands-down the most popular week of the trip, selling out on day one on this hapless promise of unknowable adventure:

This is the week for people who LOVE not knowing what’s around the corner (clue: probably a hill / gravel / borek).

We’ve never been to North Macedonia before (have you?) so we’ve no idea what to expect, but the internet tells us it’s freakin’ gorgeous (if a bit hilly). We’re looking forward to the endless views and the bottomless mountain lakes.

As ever, we don’t know where we’re staying each night until that day, so we may be welcomed into homes, adopted by villages or wild camping beside a river. Expect to meet extremely friendly strangers and strangers who are extremely confused by us.

Before The Lake

After two days climbing through Montenegro, including the sixteen switchbacks of the Kotor Serpentine, we camped on the edge of Lake Shkodër, right on the border with Albania.

We arrived at camp in time to blow up the inflatable aubergine (yep), chuck a frisbee around in the shallows and then, because apparently we weren’t tired enough after a 97km ride, embark on a leisurely grueling swim out to a rocky island.

About halfway across, I was reminded that, over water, however distant your destination seems to appear, you should triple it.

The guilty Lake Shkodër (Montenegrin side)

The evening sun hurt our backs, the lake weeds caught our strokes, the vast current clubbed our legs.

We struggled back from the island, crawled ashore like wet things from the Pleistocene, and collapsed into a pot of dinner as mosquitoes danced.

Within 15 hours of that ill-advised swim, I was fixed to a drip in an Albanian hospital while my friend was being jabbed in the butt with a needle of drugs.

The Author, On His Death Trolley

After The Lake

We think we picked up the stomach bug from dirty water in the lake, but who knows.

What is certain is that, although almost everyone managed to cycle the 130km from Lake Shkodër to Tirana, by midnight all but five of the party were stricken.

There are no days off on Thighs of Steel, but there was no way we were going to cycle any further the next day.

Thighs of Steel, maybe, but bellies of jelly. Or worse.

A rest day was the only option.

Luckily, we had found a bucolic campsite up in the foothills of Mount Dajti, populated with ducks, chickens and a clutch of (now) horrified campervanners.

The proprieter was a jolly woman who, after seeing our condition, mocked us for not being able to handle our alcohol. When we revealed the true extent of our indisposition, she was appalled — until we explained that we’d picked up the bug in Montenegro.

‘Ah, Montenegro!’ she cackled. And restocked the toilet paper.

By the evening, most people were able to prop themselves up on an elbow and nibble a little plain pasta. A couple of us managed a game of Bananagrams. Some mad cats even cycled down to the city for a tour of the fleamarkets.

We called council and made the decision that anyone who could hold down the morning porridge could ride on the next day — with the proviso that Calypso, our beloved support van, would scoop up any strugglers.

But our recovery day meant we were travelling one day behind schedule.

In our fragile condition there was no way that we could make up the time, so, instead of reaching Thessaloniki on the seventh day, we ended the ride in Florina, a hot, flat ride over the border from Macedonia.

Then we caught a train.

In Thessaloniki, we snatched one last dinner together before saying our goodbyes.

The next day we welcomed the final week’s cyclists and rode six days to Athens.

5,304km from Glasgow, but somehow missing something…

Connecting The Dots

Why is it that we feel compelled to finish things?

Why, on Monday, did I feel compelled to take a train from Athens to Thessaloniki, meet fellow core teamer Fen, drive Calypso to Alexandreia, park her up in a quiet suburb and catch another train with our bikes to Florina — only to turn around after a night’s sleep and ride 124km (into a strong headwind) back to Alexandreia, thereby linking Week 7 to Week 8 and making an unbroken land route of 5,428km all the way from Glasgow to Athens?

I don’t know. But it felt really good. And not just because of roads like this:

It felt good to honour the ride that was a year in the making. It felt good to honour the other cyclists who couldn’t ride the full route during Week 7.

It felt good to take to the roads again and remember the purity of why we do this without the frantic circus that comes with riding in a large group.

It felt good to join the dots.

We have now raised £96,964 and if you want to help us join the dots to our £100,000 fundraising target for refugee solidarity charity MASS Action, you can donate here.

I know times are tough for pretty much everyone right now, but every donation makes a difference. Take these examples of what a donation could do for the Khora community spaces in Athens:

  • £10 buys 20kg of fresh fruit and veg to serve at the Khora community kitchen, free for anyone who needs a hot meal with friendly faces
  • £50 covers the costs of running the Khora Asylum Support Team for a day, providing vital, free legal support to asylum seekers in Athens
  • £100 pays the electricity, water and gas bills at the Khora kitchen for a fortnight
  • £250 covers food supplies needed at the Khora kitchen for a whole month

It does feel good to have connected the dots, to have finished a project. Like, really finished it.

But now, sitting improbably beneath a glacier, I’ve come to that other moment, where one project ends and I feel…

The What What Now Now

Well, the immediate what what now now is that I need to get to a secret location on the edge of the Morvan in central France. There, awaiting repair, is Calypso, fallen at the last, with oil spewing from her undercarriage.

But once the mechanics have been called, once the vehicle has been recovered, once she limps onto the ferry and makes her tired, troubled way back home, and I have, perhaps, showered and slept, then I will be faced with the what what now now.

Projects like Thighs of Steel take everything you’ve got, all thrown into a threshing machine, and scattered, in this case, across barren gravel tracks from the Clyde to the Acropolis.

During this grisly process, something powerful and enduring is created from the entrails of the various participants — no doubt about that — but it can take some time for everyone to regenerate.

In the meantime, while livers and kidneys and stem cells are doing their surreptitious work, the rest of the world, friends, family and lovers from back home look on and ask of us the what what now now.

The answer is I don’t know know now now.

But I do have some ideas, generated from a grid I made, which I’ll share because you might also find it useful if you’re having trouble figuring out your own what what now now.

To avoid jinxing all my nascent plans, here’s an empty one, drawn in the back of a notebook designed in Tehran, bought in Athens:

Get stuck in. Add or change the columns and rows until you have your own full-on personalised Zwicky Box of What What Now Now.


Thanks to everyone involved, to Fen and the tortoise, also to Tim Ten Yen, and of course The Much Much How How And I.

Not A Charity Auction 'Cycling together, reaching our destination and fundraising for refugees, brought everyone together and created a sense of intimacy that’s very difficult to find.'

Happy Friday! And greetings from Athens.

It’s been quite the ride.

Thighs of Steel, a rolling community of fundraising cyclists, left Glasgow on 16 July and arrived in Athens on 17 September.

Over the course of 49 days, 95 cyclists rode a cumulative 71,337km and climbed up 757,975 metres of elevation, the equivalent of more than 85 Everests.

Powered by 781 bowls of porridge, 11kg of peanut butter and untold megatons of pastries to fill a 2,341,500 calorie cycling deficit.

Brought together by at least 34 punctures (including one tyre pin-cushioned by 15 thorns along one apocalyptic goat track), 435 tent erections at 42 camp spots, plus two saline drips and a butt jab during one of two trips to A&E.

Together we have raised £94,574 and we’re open for donations for another few weeks before distributing the money to solidarity communities working with refugees and other people on the move in Athens, the UK and northern France.

Today’s story is about what Thighs of Steel does in the world (hint: it’s not cycling) and, inadvertently, how you might zoom out from the particular to uncover the universal purpose to everything you do as a human.

It’s big picture stuff, so I’ve illustrated the story with seven photographs taken by cyclists on the ride. You can find more on Instagram. Enjoy.

Not A Charity Auction

CREDIT: Zeina Hawa (Glasgow to Bristol)

A lot of people ask what it is that Thighs of Steel do and the answer is that the answer is different for everyone involved.

But here’s my answer.

We’re Not Movember

Thighs of Steel is a fundraising organisation. The way we fundraise is to organise bike adventures to give people an excuse to invite their friends to donate in solidarity with refugees.

Yet, in those two sentences alone, there is a contradiction.

If we wanted to maximise our fundraising potential, instead of spending nine months planning a bike trip, we’d throw all our energy and resources into schmoozing at charity auctions for High Net Worth individuals in The City.

Or, even better, we’d create mass participation events, like Movember or the World’s Biggest Coffee Morning, rather than a logistically complex continental adventure that is forceably capped at 96 participants.

Ergo: Thighs of Steel is not purely a fundraising organisation because, if it were, it’d be a horribly inefficient one. There’s something else going on.

CREDIT: Grace Compton (Glasgow to Milan)

We’re Not A Cycle Club Either

Thighs of Steel was formed as a Community Interest Company and, on our registration documents, this is how we describe our public benefit:

All communities within the United Kingdom stand to benefit from our company as our bike rides are open to people of all ages and fitness levels to join.

There are rides of different degrees of difficulty to challenge experienced cyclists and also encourage and include those who are new to cycling.

The individuals who participate and also those who follow our activities will benefit as we are promoting and encouraging healthy activities and challenges.

As well as health benefits, we are also promoting environmentally friendly travel (travelling by bicycle) which aims to inspire people to use their own bodies, thereby encouraging lives with a low carbon footprint, which has a positive impact on the whole community.

All of this is true, but there’s no at all mention of fundraising, the very reason Thighs was set up in the first place!

This is because the donations we raise don’t exclusively benefit UK populations and therefore fall outside the cut-and-paste regulatory requirements of a CIC.

And this isn’t the only time that our two primary activities of fundraising and cycling feel like they’re in competition with each other.

CREDIT: Catriona Mallows (Trieste to Dubrovnik)

Are We Fundraising Or Cycling Here Or What?

During the difficult moments, sweating through the Lake District, struggling up the Dolomites or vomiting into a toilet in Albania, it can take a certain amount of effort to remember why we’re doing this horrible thing: caught up in effort, we forget why we’re fundraising.

Conversely, at peak moments, during sunshine descents, pistachio ice cream or geothermal sea baths, many of us feel a guilty tension between our personal joy and the difficult reality of daily life for refugees, the people we’re riding in solidarity with.

Both forgetfulness and guilt are dangerous states of mind that can sap our appetite to do anything at all, whether productive or pointless, difficult or delightful.

At its worst, our activities could seem pretty crass: a bit of fundraising bolted on to a cheap bike holiday.

But rather than try to resolve this tension between our stated aims of fundraising and cycling, let’s zoom out to a wide perspective where we’ll see them feeding into each other as two expressions of a third, much greater, purpose.

CREDIT: Linde Geerinck (Glasgow to Bristol)

Zoom Zoom Zoom Out

Up close, things look disconnected. It’s only by zooming out that we can see the connecting lines between everything that we do.

This applies to our personal lives as much as the operational activities of a non-profit.

By zooming out, we can see what a £5 online donation from your cousin Frank has in common with rubbing someone’s back while they throw up into a toilet bowl.

The connection is connection.

One of the Thighs cyclists this year was Naoum Sayegh, a Syrian engineer who lived for 11 years in Lebanon before moving to the UK not long before Covid.

As well as being a great part of our little bike crew, Naoum is also super enthusiastic about embracing British culture, but until now has found authentic connection with his fellow citizens hard to find.

London is very individualistic so I don’t have the same social fabric as I had in the Middle East. I felt very isolated living in London alone. So, when I joined the ride, one of my main goals was to build this connection with British cyclists.

He wasn’t disappointed:

Cycling together and aiming to reach the same goal, reaching our destination and fundraising for refugees, brought everyone together and created a sense of intimacy that’s very difficult to find within British communities in England.

And because every night Thighs of Steel throw ourselves on the generosity of the communities we land in, Naoum was also able to connect with complete strangers across Britain (or at least along that thread of cycle road that connects Glasgow and Bristol).

Camping at community farms and being hosted by locals really helped me see the UK from a different perspective.

When we stopped at Claver Hill Community Farm in Lancaster, they cooked us a delicious meal with vegetables from the farm and gave us some outstanding apple cider — how sweet!

Then I sat down with the hosts and had a very interesting conversation about how they live and how community functions outside of London.

Being pampered by our hosts created a connection that is very important.

CREDIT: Jim Yeoman (Trieste to Dubrovnik)

Let Me Count The Ways

Naoum counts two obvious ways that Thighs of Steel fosters connection: within the tight team of cyclists and with our camping hosts.

But there’s much, much more.

Cycling connects me as an individual to my own mind (agh, why won’t this hill stop!) and my own body (yes! I am strong!), as well as to my bike (another snapped gear cable!).

As Naoum said, over the course of a tough week of cycling, groups bond through both joy and adversity: one of the incredible things about organising this trip is seeing week after week of cyclists arrive as strangers and leave as friends.

These connections can last a week; they can last a lifetime.

Naoum mentioned our hosts, but what of the hundreds of people who helped us with directions, pastries, water or a smile? Every single one a spark of a connection, acknowledgement of something shared, and inducement to share in return.

The ride also connects us to the world, to its nature and construction: the landscapes we pass through, the tortoises we protect from onrushing cars, the wind, the weather, the birds of prey, the waves of the ocean, the kittens.

We leave the ride more connected to ourselves, to each other and to the rest of reality.

That’s a whole lot of connection already, but solidarity fundraising is in itself another gargantuan act of connection.

The 95 cyclists all set up fundraising pages and invited their wide networks of friends, family and casual acquaintances to participate by donation.

The most successful pages used creative strategies to connect communities and pull people into the project: parties, wine tastings, raffles.

Even those who never donated still heard about the ride and its purpose in an unmeasurable circle of influence that reaches out still.

Connection on connection.

And finally, of course, the money raised is funnelled directly into refugee projects specifically set up to foster connection and community.

Thousands of people will connect with those projects over the coming year and, being humans, the connections that they find will help make the world a better place for us all.

It’s not just cycling, it’s not just fundraising, it’s not just a £5 donation and it’s not just rubbing someone’s back while they vomit into an Albania toilet.

It’s connection.

CREDIT: Georgie Cottle (Milan to Athens)

Only Connect

Connection, for me, is the purpose of Thighs of Steel. In fact, it’s what drives pretty much everything I do.

When I’m confused about why I’m doing something, I try to see how it will help me connect with the universe around me.

It’s usually not hard: everything we do connects us. If you want to get really zoomed out, then every act that you’re a part of is a small contribution to the workings of the cosmos.

The point is to amplify those connections and make them as generative as possible.


If you want to connect to this story, then my fundraising page is still open. Annoyingly, I’m £50 short of my target 🥰

CREDIT: Jim Yeoman (Trieste to Dubrovnik)

More Like Commun-isn’t! A pirate in shining armour, capitalism rode to the rescue, camera crew and cruise ships in tow

We finished the first half of the story on the cusp of making the big mistake of blaming an ahistorical socioeconomic system for the sharp contrast between two hotels only five minutes and three decades apart: the Sheraton and the Pelegrin.

Hotel Sheraton Dubrovnik Riviera, Srebreno Bay
Hotel Pelegrin, Kupari Bay

More Like Communisn’t!

At the end of the eighties, the story that many people in Western liberal democracies told themselves was of the final triumph of Western liberal democracy.

As political scientist Francis Fukuyama wrote in 1989:

We may be witnessing not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period in postwar history, but the end of history — that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.

A bold claim, but — to be fair to Fukuyama — one more or less supported by newsreels.

Even the market socialism of Yugoslavia, where companies were held cooperatively in competition with each other, had been successful only for so long as partizan Nazi killer, benevolant tyrant and war criminal Josip Broz Tito could hold the republics together through sheer cult of personality.

As Tito’s health ailed, decades of economic growth faltered and crashed. A chap called Slobodan Milošević took over the presidency of Serbia, one of the six Socialist Republics of Yugoslavia, with a rigorous programme of Serbian nationalism.

It really didn’t go well.

Although Croatia declared independence from the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia on 25 June 1991, the War of Independence only ended in 1995.

25,000 people were killed and over half a million displaced.

Ten kilometres up the coast from Kupari, Dubrovnik had been under siege for seven months of said war and more than half of the buildings in the famous old town were shelled and damaged or destroyed.

At the end of the conflict, UNESCO led a frighteningly successful mission to restore Dubrovnik to its former glory. The mission cost $80 million: money well spent for the million or more tourists who tramp those Hollywood walls every summer.

Like a pirate in shining armour, capitalism rode to the rescue, camera crew and cruise ships in tow.

The hotels at Kupari had also been subject to vicious shelling but, without the protection of thick medieval walls, their expensively assembled interiors were also ransacked and looted by the Yugoslav People’s Army.

Again, without the protection of heritage-worthy medieval walls, there was no post-war international restoration at Kupari.

The Croatian government has been looking for an investor since their first survey of the abandoned site in 1997:

The grounds of the Hotel Grand, c.1997

As of August 2022, it looks like an investor has been found, for at least part of the complex.

The Hotel Grand, designed in classic Belle Époque style, is the earliest and most appealing of the hotel husks and, during my visit, its perimeter was surrounded by electric wire, keep out signs and portaloos.

A team of men were busy blowtorching something in one corner, while a team of women on ladders were touching up the paintwork of the epicerie and boulangerie, incongruous among the wreckage.

Incongruous for good reason, it turns out. As a more savvy friend quickly realised, this is obviously the conveniently dressed set of a World War film set in occupied France.

There’s something uncomfortable in the repurposing of one country’s historical wreckage for the lionisation of another’s. But a profit is a profit.

The Dubrovnik Times reports that the Kupari site was purchased in 2016 by Avenue Group, to be converted into a five-star resort managed by, yep — you guessed it — Marriot, owners of the Sheraton brand and the world’s largest hotel corporation, with enough bedspace to rehome the entire urban population of Buenos Aires, Chicago or Paris.

That evening, with the last of the sunlight shining clean through the building, it’s easy to imagine the Pelegrin lit up by holidaymakers.

Whether it’s hotels or Hollywood, maybe, even here at Kupari, capitalism will yet ride to the rescue once again. Perhaps the restoration of failed ideologies is the moneylenders burden.

The Hotels at Kupari

But the mistake would be to assume that the story of civilisations is over: that this capitalist culture, by fluke or by nuke, has somehow won history and will sail ever on into the future, unperturbed by ruffles on the water.

There’s a brand new bridge just up the coast that puts a pin in that balloon right away.

Bridges Over Borders

Dalmatia is divided.

In the Treaty of Karlowitz of 1699, the Ragusa of Dubrovnik ceded territory north and south of their city to the Ottoman Empire in a pretty lame attempt to forestall a land invasion by their arch enemies: the Venetians.

It kinda worked actually and so this treaty of convenience ended up being the basis for the modern border between Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The thick grey line is the border between Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina

Zoom in close on a map of the Dalmatian coast and it looks as if Bosnia and Herzegovina is dipping a toe into the Adriatic.

This tiny scrap of land, known as The Corridor Of Neum, stuck stubbornly to the sole of history, turns Župa Dubrovačka into an exclave.

Although it tosses Bosnia and Herzegovina a lifeline to the Adriatic Sea, it cleaves Croatian Dalmatia in two, with multiple border crossings for anyone travelling the coast.

At least, that was the case until the opening in July 2022 of Pelješac Bridge, a 2.4km cable-stayed bridge across the Neretva Channel that connects Dubrovnik with the rest of the country.

By diverting traffic onto the peninsula of Pelješac, it’s now possible to avoid Bosnia, The Corridor Of Neum and those pesky border crossings altogether.

But what on earth has this bridge got to do with the end of the end of history?

Well. This is where the ball of thread starts to wind itself up in knots, but let’s see if I can break it down in three easy bullet points:

  • The Corridor Of Neum, being located in Bosnia and Herzegovina, is not in the EU
  • The rest of the Dalmatian coast, being located in Croatia, is in the EU and is scheduled to join the single currency Eurozone in 2023 and the free movement Schengen Zone in 2024
  • The Corridor Of Neum, being located in Bosnia and Herzegovina, is not in the EU

Pre-Schengen and pre-Eurozone, traffic between the Dubrovnik exclave and the rest of Croatian has two border crossings to make. Faff, but doable faff.

Schengen will turn two border checks into three as EU customs officials are as curious about what leaves the Eurozone as what arrives.

That’s one whole new level of faff and, having kinda worked actually for 300 years, the Corridor Of Neum is now just a bit much.

So, in 2007, the Croatian government decided to build a nice bridge, linking the Croatian mainland with a Croatian peninsula that conveniently protrudes up the coast from the other side of Bosnian Neum.

A new motorway would then carry traffic around Bosnia’s toe-dipping territory and The Corridor would be no more (except for bicycles).

They could’ve put on a ferry or turned The Corridor Of Neum into a hyper-surveilled, no exit highway, but they went for the nice bridge idea.

A nice bridge that would cost a nice lot of money.

Nevertheless, this was 2007 and optimism was in the air. The Croatian government barrelled on with the expensive bridge idea and, in September of that year, announced that the tender had been won by a Croatian construction consortium, led by a company with the quaintly amusing and very on-the-nose name: Konstruktor.

The bridge was due to be completed four years later, in 2011. Blah, blah, blah, global financial crisis, etc., tender cancelled and konstruktion terminated in May 2012.

Luckily, as it was kind of their problem, the EU were on hand with a nice lot more money — €357 million of it, in fact — and the bridge project went back out to tender in 2017.

But ten years is a long time in the story of civilisations.

This time the winning bid was from a corporation with a name so on-the-nose that, instead of being quaintly amusing, it’s downright sinister: China Road and Bridge Corporation.

They undercut the Austrian and Italian bids by about 20 percent — prompting complaints that the Chinese were ‘price-dumping’ and receiving state aid from their motherland in exchange for investment opportunities to expand Chinese influence in Europe.

But, six months ahead of schedule, the bridge is up and running. You cannot deny the facts on the ground. Croatia is happy. The EU is happy. China is happy.

Marine ecologists and Bosnians are not happy, but you can’t have everything.

The End Of The End Of History

Strange that this beautiful stretch of coastline has become, and has perhaps always been, a ley line of international mystery, a seam of conflict and opportunity, the hypoteneuse of a triangle between Europe, Russia and now China.

Sorry — did somebody mention Russia?

The collapse of the Soviet empire was exactly what prompted Francis Fukuyama to declare the ‘end of history’: back then, Western liberal democracy really had won.

Close up, it certainly looked that way to Fukuyama.

In 1989, the year that he made his famous declaration, the ideological contrast between East and West couldn’t have been sharper.

In the East the Berlin Wall fell, the culmination of a year of Communist collapse; in the West, Tim Berners-Lee invented the freakin’ World Wide Web.

In the same way, close up, the Sheraton and Pelegrin hotels stand today in sharp ideological contrast on the beaches of the Dubrovnik Riviera.

But step back a little, take a little perspective, and its not their differences, but their similarities that really stand out to me:

Right now, the Sheraton sparkles with polished glass while the Pelegrin crumbles. But it’s easy to imagine the opposite.

As I leave the Pelegrin, I notice, high up in the empty space between smashed windows, someone’s strung out a washing line and hung out a t-shirt and a bedsheet in the last of the sunshine.

A single chair is has been placed right at the edge of the seventh storey roof: a good seat for the storyteller to pause and ponder the past, looking out over the mountain cliffs and the ancient city of Cavtat, founded as Epidaurus in the sixth century BC by Greek colonisers.

This coastline, its history, the story of its civilisations, is a labyrinth.

Make Them Lunch Today

I’ll end by returning to where this story began last week: looking down at the hopeless ball of tangled thread in my hand, with no end in sight.

Let me explain why this is a wonderful thing.

I can sympathise with Francis Fukuyama’s original urge to bring an end to the story, but, in fairness to Fukuyama, I confess that I have made something of a straw man out of his argument.

As described in this March 2022 interview with The New Statesman:

Fukuyama is willing to admit mistakes. He said that when he wrote his thesis he perhaps didn’t fully appreciate the concept of “political decay: the idea that once you became a modern democracy, you could also go backwards”.

Oh, great. Thanks for that cold blast of optimism, Fran.

If you care to look for them, symptoms of political decay are everywhere in the tales of our history told today on news channels and social media.

But (and here’s something to hang your hat on) somehow, despite the ‘end of history’, the people of Russia and China have found a way into the year 2022.

So too have the people of Croatia, even the people who once took their holidays at Kupari.

So too have you and I.

What’s more is that I reckon a bunch of us, Russian, Chinese, Croatian or whatever the heck you call yourself, will make it to 2052 — no matter what happens.

Don’t trust people who try to draw lines under historical events. They’re just trying to spin you a story. You can always tell it another way, a way that leaves space for you to act, for you (yes — you!) to take the stage, enter the arena, and play.

It’s easy to be despondent about the history that rushes through our lives, but despondency is the equal and opposite to Fukuyama-esque triumphalism.

Make neither mistake and you’ll find that history with no end is a dreadful and empowering thing.

As I wrote last week, The Most Haunting Truth of Parenthood by Mary Laura Philpott is not really about parenthood.

It’s about the collapse of civilisations:

We cannot really save anyone. Not permanently. The safeguards we set up all fall away. … I cannot shield my beloveds forever, but I can make them lunch today.

This might be an anticlimactic end to 4,000 words of story, but at least my take on history is actionable: stop getting room service and make them lunch today.

The Lunch I’m Making Today Is A Bike Ride

It’s a charity bike ride that I might have mentioned a million times before, raising money in solidarity with refugees, migrants and asylum seekers.

It’s also a life experience for a hundred cyclists, a mobile and temporary autonomous zone with no borders, free movement and free minds for all.

Building a new civilisation from inside the husk of the old.

What lunch are you making for your beloveds?

Room Service and the End of the End of History After two millennia, a collapsed way of life feels humbling, but safe — like sitting on the edge of a high cliff at moonless midnight, looking over the ocean at the dance of the Milky Way

I have a feeling that this story is going to be a difficult one to write.

Not because I’m way out of my depth — I’m used to that feeling — but because, no matter how much I pull on the thread, I can’t seem to find the end.

Writing this introduction, I look down at my hands and only see a tangled mess of what was once useful material.

But here goes. Let’s start at the beginning.

As a lapsed archaeologist, I’ve written before about the humbling effect of ancient ruins, in this case, at Sbeitla in Tunisia:

An entire ruined city leaves behind a cemetery of civilisation. It reminds us that, not only will our individual lives decay and be forgotten, but our entire way of living will also decay and be forgotten.

At the distance of two millennia, a collapsed way of life feels safe. Humbling, but safe — like sitting on the edge of a high cliff at moonless midnight, looking over the ocean at the dance of the Milky Way.

But on the coast of what I might as well call Dalmatia, in what is now the south of Croatia, a collapsed way of life stands only a short way off.

The gravestones are fresh, the dates comfortably inside my own living memory. The cemetery has not had time to decay into the aesthetics of ancient archaeology.

The ruins come with bed springs, soap dishes, smashed glass and room service.

Two Luxury Beach Resorts, Two Socioeconomic Systems

I’m staying in an unsmashed studio apartment in Župa Dubrovačka, the Dubrovnik Riviera, overlooking a string of beaches that, over the past couple of millennia, have seen the comings and goings of Greeks, Illyrians, Romans, Byzantines, Avars, Slavs, Ragusans, Ottomans, French, Habsburgs, British, Italians and Germans.

What can I say? This coastline has always been a popular place for marauding tourists. And, from the glittering array of exotic numberplates lined up in the seafront car parks, I’d say it still is.

Which is nice because today’s story is the tale of two luxury beach resorts.

Luxury Beach Resort #1: The Sheraton Dubrovnik Riviera

This is the Sheraton Dubrovnik Riviera, a 239-room complex nestled around Srebreno Bay that includes swimming pools, tennis courts, a piano bar (without a piano) and no fewer than 1500m² of conference facilities.

Fun fact: Sheraton hotels are owned by Marriott International, the world’s biggest hospitality chain, whose 1.4 million bedrooms could happily accommodate the entire urban population of Buenos Aires, Chicago or Paris.

It’s fair to say that, despite the downturn in fortunes over the pandemic, Marriott are doing okay. Otherwise they probably wouldn’t waste so much water sluicing down their restaurant decking with a power hose every morning.

An enduring triumph of twentieth century American capitalism.

But a five minute walk around the headland brings me to Kupari Bay and luxury beach resort number two…

Luxury Beach Resort #2: Hotel Pelegrin, Kupari c.1970

Five minutes forward, five decades back, welcome to the Hotel Pelegrin, part of a five-hotel beach resort that, in its pomp, could accommodate 1,600 guests around the warm waters of Kupari Bay.

Stroll along the beachfront promenade and you’ll find a boutique hotel, two celebrity villas and ‘an underground structure called Potkop, once exclusively used by high government officials’.

A triumph of twentieth century Yugoslavian market-based socialism.

But if we come closer, in time and space, today the Hotel Pelegrin looks more like this:

Hotel Pelegrin c. 2022

Even The President-For-Life Loves To Sunbathe

Climbing that crumbling staircase reminds me of the sheer face of a time worn Pharaonic pyramid — yet it can be scarcely fifty years old.

Say what you want about Communist-era building materials, but nature’s decay was certainly accelerated by vengeful military vandals.

Despite the shattered glass, exposed brickwork and stripped light fittings, it’s not hard to reconstruct a stay at the Pelegrin.

You pull up to the concrete entrance way, step out onto the terrace for sundown lounging, greet other guests as you pass on the thinly carpeted corridors.

Fill the closet, test the bed springs, piss in the avocado colour-matched bathroom.

Something about seeing another civilisation’s soap dishes really brings it home: we’re not here forever.

A waterfront pedestrian footpath, the rocky shore coated in the poured concrete so beloved of mid-twentieth century architects, leads you past Hotel Pelegrin to Comrade Tito’s private villa.

I wonder if Yugoslavian President-For-Life Josip Broz Tito, sunbathing at his private Kupari villa, ever pondered his own evanescence?

Sadly, the the path abruptly ends in an all too modern military guardhouse.

Idly, I look up the Kupari complex on Google: 4.6 stars from 179 reviews. The Sheraton Dubrovnik Riviera, pleasingly, scores no better and some of its guests sound like they should’ve stayed at the Pelegin:

Poor diner, poor food in general, piano bar without piano 🙄🤣. Diner area looks like an airport terminal. Everything looks just boring, no cosyness at all. Restaurants at the beach have the same boring vibe as the hotel in general.

There’s nothing boring about picking crushed glass out of your flipflops.

As I crunch around the enormous complex, I reflect on the gargantuan effort that went into building this thing.

And this thing is only one small corner of a civilisation that covered six republics — not only Croatia, but Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia too.

So what happened?

How come Srebreno Bay boasts the thriving Sheraton, busy with satellite restaurants, beach bars and umbrella entrepreneurs, while, five minutes up the coast, Kupari Bay is a ghost resort, riddled with actual bullet holes?

It would be all too easy to take these parallel beaches with their parallel histories and point to the parallel socioeconomic civilisations that built them.

Such finger pointing, however, would be a huge mistake…


…but it’s a huge mistake we’ll make in part two!

Boredom & The World Heritage Site

Lorenzo looks me in the eye, finger tips pressed together, and delivers his final verdict:

Seriously, there’s no point. Why would you even do that? Why?

Greetings from the portico-shaded streets of Bologna, where I’ve spent the past week relaxing — and, in peak moments, getting really, really bored.

Hence my appearance in the tourist office of Piazza Maggiore and the kindly intervention of Lorenzo’s baffled condemnation.

This is a story about boredom and Bologna’s World Heritage Site.


We can think of all human emotion as lying somewhere along two axes of ‘activated’ and ‘deactivated’ brain states.

At polar ends of the activated axis we have sensations of elation (positive) and distress (negative), while at either end of the deactivated axis we have relaxation (positive) and boredom (negative).

What’s interesting is that we are at our most creative when we are either elated or bored. Relaxation, it turns out, is a bit meh — uninspiring.

According to this 2014 study by Karen Gasper and Brianna L. Middlewood, this boost in creativity comes because both elation and boredom make us seek out novel experiences.

When we’re elated, we’re well up for anything. And when we’re bored we’ll do pretty much anything to shake ourselves out of the torpor — even crappy things (as found by researchers Bench and Lench) like voluntarily giving ourselves random electric shocks.

After the non-stop hectic mess of the past month, cycling from Glasgow to Milan with Thighs of Steel, I was in desperate need of some restorative boredom.

A week in Bologna yawned ahead of me.

On Monday, uncertain of the precise voltage of the Italian electricity supply, I spent a listless half hour on Boring Games.

A ‘game’ called leftRight was particularly unstimulating, clicking the buttons ‘Left’ or ‘Right’ in order to print ‘L’ and ‘R’ character artwork:

When that got too exciting, I watched someone play a video game in which nothing happens. For eight hours.

That dealt with day one of my holiday. But how, I wondered, staring at the featureless expanse of ceiling above my bed, would I mine enough ennui to last the week?

The demise of the telephone book and the rise of the Internet has really foreshortened the tiresome traveller’s repertoire of pointless activities.

That’s when I discovered that the old town of Bologna has 38km of porticos, colonnaded, arcaded streets, crying out to be walked in their labyrinthine entirety.

Fearful that such a ridiculous idea might already be a firm fixture on the tourist trail, especially since the porticos were inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site last year, I went to see Lorenzo at Bologna Welcome.

I needn’t have worried.

Walking The Portici

Not only have the porticos of Bologna not been mapped, not only have they not been walked, but such a tour would be a blasphemous insult to the fundamental reason for their existence.

Lorenzo was quite clear:

Let me give you an example. There is a park, the Park of Montagnola. You go there — and I’m not saying you should go there, but if you are passing — there is a very cool statue.

There are four ways to the statue, but there are also dealers in the park, you know? You walk up one way, you are at the statue. So why walk the other ways, with the dealers? There is no reason to do that.

I nod enthusiastically. ‘Exactly!’

Lorenzo tosses his head: ‘It’s like wanting to walk all the freeways in your city — after a while they are all the same!’

I nod enthusiastically. ‘Exactly!’

I’m thinking of the absurd futility of the every-single-streeters, walkers and runners who use A to Zs or CityStrides to mark off, well, every single street in their city. Or, in the case of a Canadian I met with this mission, pass The Knowledge.

Lorenzo is thinking of my mental health.

The porticos are where we go to meet friends, where we chat, have a drink, eat. They are nothing by themselves. Seriously: just go out and meet people — that’s the only way to understand the porticos.

Despite his misgivings over my desecration of his city, with the heavy heart of a noble man paid to enable idiotic tourists, Lorenzo hands over a map of the old town.

All the streets are here, all the porticos. You will see. There is no reason to do that. You will get tired of all the same view, the same view. But seriously: keep me posted.

I switch on my GPS tracker and begin.

Following my paper map, crossing off streets without porticos, tracing back and forth the ones that do, pursuing dead ends, blind alleys, crescents and courtyards, I fall into the monotony, the horror and freedom of this empty reverie.

15km of walking and over 60 photographs later, I haven’t covered a quarter of the city.

I find myself agreeing and disagreeing with Lorenzo. Each stretch of portico is the same and different.

Superficial architectural differences, of course: wood, terracotta brick, marble pavements, vaulted, domed, concrete slab ceilings, columns Doric, Corinthian, Bolognese.

But despite Lorenzo’s concern, the portici are a way into the life of the city. A postive constraint of a dérive, leading me through the streets, almost but not quite at random, nudging me into the creative act of noticing.

A missing cat poster. A beaked day-glo naked skulled statue on wheels ratchet strapped to a pole. A plaque dedication to a partizan killed in the second world war. Graffiti telling me that my flies are down. Anarchist, No Borders slogans: ASSALTA IL CIELO. Gumball machines, condom machines.

I never know whether the next door will open to a tabacchi run by Bangladeshi handing out cups of lemonade or a thirteenth century church of Saint Bartholomew and Gaetano.

Set into niches in the walls are shrines to Madonna and vending machines selling legal cannabis. Sometimes side by side.

At one point, outside the Oratorio dei Bastardini, where the offspring of students and whores were raised, a warm wind snatched my map from my hands and the updraft lifted it high into the vaults where it danced for a full minute as first I flailed and then I laughed on the flagstones below.

With even the portico itself mocking my dependence on direction, I turned my attention to the life-under-arches that Lorenzo spoke about.

Men lying in the shade, some with a cap of coins in front of them. One leaps up and shouts my name when he sees me.

A man ahead whose terracotta trousers matches the terracotta paint on the walls. Lovers twisted around one another. A student leaning against a column waiting for her email to open.

Smokers smoke greeting each other across the columns’ shadows cast. A courtyard glimpse of family life. Osteria and trattoria preparing for the evening, metal chairs clattering on cobbles.

As my spiral turns back towards the Piazza Maggiore, the tourists converge with a strangely listless jibberjabber: ‘I appreciate architecture so much more now,’ one young American says to another, without answer.

She sounds bored, but yet not in the creative blank space that I have been seeking. I wonder if there’s a sweet spot of boredom that the numbered tourists sights overstimulate.

Passively reading the phone book leads to a more creative state than copying out the phone book, so perhaps shines, frescos and statues take tourists one notch higher on the boredom scale: not high enough for elation, but not low enough to allow for creative daydreaming.

I walk back up the steps to the tourist office: it’s two minutes to closing and Lorenzo is cashing up the till.

He smiles and almost shakes his head.

Now Lorenzo’s Way

After my long day’s walk under whitewashed ceilings, I feel almost as indignant as a Bolognese local when I read that the porticos garner a paltry 2.83 stars on World Heritage Site. Beloved Rome, Venice and Florence all score over 4.58.

The written reviews of Bologna bemoan the imprecise, unexceptional, ineffable heritage value of a simple covered walkway.

Even as I agree that there is not much to see, in the traditional sight-seeing sense, I feel that these travellers have somehow missed the sensation of soft wonder that plays between the columns for anyone willing to suspend their qualifying instruments.

Only Maurice, from Switzerland, seems to have captured, in ALL CAPS, what Lorenzo impresses upon me again at the end of my walk:

In fact like the modern videogames Porticoes are INTERACTIVE but they are all TRUES…Here people get the joy to live and to do something together and Porticoes, are the glue that make it possible…

So the next day, I go out and try the porticos Lorenzo’s way.

Instead of walking, I meet people.

Sitting on the polished kerb of the portico outside the Cremeria Santo Stefano, sharing gelato of fig, marscapone and chocolate with new friends, I concede the point to Lorenzo.

If life here is a poem, then porticos are the metre: Bologna is what happens beneath the arches.

Carpocratian Touring

The second century followers of the gnostic Carpocrates believed that human souls must go through every possible earthly experience before they are released and return to god’s side in heaven.

For most ordinary people, this means reincarnation after reincarnation as they labour through tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, rich, poor, beggar, thief. But the Carpocratians tried to pack everything — absolutely everything — into a single lifetime.

I know how they feel.

Thighs of Steel is an undertaking of Carpocratian magnitude and the last month has seen a total of 48 cyclists riding 2611km from Glasgow to Milan.

Over a hundred kilometres a day, packed into twenty-five heatdawn, overdrawn days.

So please accept my sincere apologies for not writing to you the last couple of weeks.

I am now taking a break from cycling while the ride continues from Milan to Dubrovnik without me.

This break will be amply — even excessively — filled with the frantic gathering of thoughts as I seek to process what on earth has happened over the past month.

Also sleep.

Turning Points

I’m writing today from a farmhouse near Garlasco, a quiet town in a quiet corner of Lombardy, totally unremarkable to the locals, but nevertheless subject to a constant stream of remarks from me and my British companions, evenly split by topic between the heavenly pizza and the hellish mosquitoes.

Since I last wrote, our fundraising cyclists have covered every inch of the road (and sometimes gravel) between Bristol and Milan.

The change in scenery has been mildly dramatic:

Lovebrook Farm, our last night in England, on the chalk downs of Sussex
Climbing the Col du Mont Cenis (2083m), over the Alps, from France into Italy

Putting those two photos side by side gives an impression of distinct and dramatic movement. One moment your eyes are on the downs, the next on the Alps.

It looks like a clear and obvious turning point: that moment in a story where everything changes forever.

But that’s in stories.

On a bike ride, change is infinitesimal and incremental and our wheels are always turning.

Between that first and second photograph, we got up out of our tents, ate breakfast, did some cycling, ate some food, did some more cycling, drank our water bottles, refilled our water bottles, did more cycling, put on sun cream, did more cycling, ate dinner, went to sleep, woke up, got up out of our tents, ate breakfast, did some cycling, ate some food…

For two weeks.

There are no turning points — except those we choose to recognise after the fact for the purpose of understanding our lives, for telling our story.

Making sense of our experiences is one of the reasons I love writing to you and why it’s a shame in a way that the past three weeks have been so full of life.

I wonder if the Carpocratians allowed themselves any time to process, or whether ‘storyteller’ fell outside their definition of earthly experience.

Writing gives us a moment to put down a marker, recognise some turning point in experience or learning, and help us understand how what we’re doing fits into the universe at this moment in space/time.

So here are four turning points from this journey, one for each week of the ride so far.

Glasgow to Bristol: A Short Ride Across Town

The two months before this ride began were stressful.

In the manic weeks in the run-up to our departure, I wrote myself (and you) letters about the electromagnetism of responsibility and the need to replace control with trust, but I still arrived in Glasgow with a sneeze-cold.

Thirty blood tests, five Covid tests and two courses of antibiotics did nothing to alleviate the stress I felt, nor resolve the question uppermost in my mind: forget the century of cyclists signed up to ride, would I be able to take care of myself over the next 5,000km?

I needed, or thought I needed, a holiday.

Then, before we were anywhere near ready, it was already time to cycle across town to meet the first week’s cyclists at Glasgow youth hostel.

Spinning wheels, one, two, three kilometres. Friday rushhour, Clyde summer sunshine, giddy core team.

This short ride turned inertia to momentum, old questions to new, and blind doubt to blind faith.

By the time we crossed into Dumfries and Galloway, the stress was gone. The sneezes followed stress into the wind the next day.

Bristol to Paris: Cheese On Toast

That first week was tough. Thighs of Steel had never ridden so far in a week before: 754km with an Everest of climbing. In a heatwave.

But we had done it.

Together we had done it — and we had raised a lot of money in solidarity with refugees in the process. Most of the cyclists on the Glasgow to Bristol leg raised over £1,000 each.

In the heat of the struggle, the cycling had taken every ounce of our strength, while daily disasters had taken every ounce of our ingenuity and saying goodbye to fast firm friendships had taken every ounce of our social emotional energy.

And now we had to do it all over again, with ten complete strangers.

The turning point of this second week was relearning how quickly we humans can go from utterly depleted to utterly repleted.

Hunger draining our legs. Heat draining our minds. Off-road gravel draining bashed bikes. Then a smashed GPS screen.

We freewheel downhill to a cafe marked as ‘open’ on the map. Desperation for water-fillers and stomach-fillers.

Cafe’s closed.

Back up the hill, in silence.

Another cafe.

They only serve cheese on toast.

No matter: water at least, tea at least, shade at least.

But wait. This isn’t cheese. This is Cheese. This isn’t a cafe, this is The Milk Churn, home of Sussex Charmer.

Fifteen cyclists tucked well in. Even the vegans. Powered all the way to Lovebrook.

Turning point: there is nothing that can’t be fixed by comfort food. (Except perhaps smashed GPS computer screens: for that you’ll need Laka cycle insurance.)

It’s not inconceivable that the success of the first week from Glasgow to Bristol was a fluke. But Bristol to Paris showed us that the Thighs method works.

Fresh croissants at dawn, demi-bottles of lunchtime wine, massage circles at sundown.

Something in the alchemy of the way Thighs of Steel was founded attracts people with not only a strong, positive and collaborative work ethic, but one that’s paired with equal parts joy.

Paris to Lyon: Pineapple Chess

Sometimes the most signficant turning points are scarcely more than a dramatic inflection, an almost imperceptible change of emphasis, but one that leaves an important, lasting impression on our experience.

Paris to Lyon was exactly that, for me at least. It was fun, actual fun, cycling with friends old and new for a week through Comté, Beaujolais and Tour de France country.

Days in the hot saddle chatting shit, inventing songs, playing games: ‘I’ve got a business’, one word stories, Pineapple Chess. Nights wild camping under stars, nuzzled by donkeys, rescue piglets and other tame animals.

That’s not to say that it wasn’t a tough week. But when you’re having fun, things just flow, right?

It’s a virtuous circle of energy: other people love to gather around fun and, when people gather together, problems get solved easily, almost before anyone’s noticed there was ever a problem.

That was the turning point of Paris to Lyon. And, if you want the rules to Pineapple Chess, you’ll have to donate 😂

Every penny goes into our MASS Action fundraiser in solidarity with refugees, asylum seekers and other people on the move across Europe.

Lyon to Milan: No Ikaría

I was worried about crossing the Alps on my bicycle.

The Scottish Lowlands, the Lake District and Hay Bluff are one thing: the French and Italian Alps are quite another. Not helped by the realisation that I hadn’t even taken a dump on a serious mountain range since, ooh… 1990.

Now: I’ve always been proud of my heavyweight cruiser of a bicycle, but with some of the others riding carbon, I was a little nervous to be giving away an eight kilo handicap before we even left the start line.

I was so worried, in fact, that my bowels occupied the first 24 hours of the week unavoidably voiding themselves and I was forced to spend the first long, hot, flat day in the van.

But early the next morning, sitting in the Alpine garden of our hosts Pierre and Pascal (found through slow travel hosting site Welcome To My Garden), madly trying to swallow down the prospect of more than 2,000m of climbing in the day, I decided to seek inspiration from all the other tough rides I’ve ever done.

As I shoveled soothing porridge into my belly, I searched Strava, where I record most of my ride data, by elevation climbed.

I was pleasantly surprised. The rides I did last year through Cornwall and Devon were similar total elevation and, in fact, steeper climbs.

But nothing in the Alps — nothing — could be tougher, or even be close to being as tough as the ride I’d done three years ago on the Greek island of Ikaria: nearly 3,000m of steep climbing, in hot summer sun, increasingly off road.

The Alps, I decided, with their smooth roads and steady switchbacks, would be a cinch.

And so it proved.

Okay, so ‘cinch’ might sound like an overstatement, but when you’re riding in a generous community, always ready with a joke, a song or a word of encouragement, the metres and miles dissolve into the road.

And, besides, even in the toughest moments, there’s always the scenery.

Routine Strength

It’s fair to say that I started out on this journey pretty worried. As an organiser, worried about all the things that could go wrong with the ride, but also increasingly worried about whether I personally would have the strength to see it through.

The last time I was part of the Thighs of Steel core team, back in 2019, I was also worried — and amazed, amazed to discover that, rather than being depleted, exhausting day by exhausting day, sleepless night by sleepless night, my strength only grew over the weeks, until I was fit to burst as we rode into Athens.

But 2019 was a long time ago. Much has changed. Would those wells run so deep?

As we rolled on and on, I was relieved. They do.

Humans are amazingly adaptable animals and even our relentless routine — early starts, big climbs, late nights — has become quotidian, tapping into fathomless reservoirs of energy that my daily life never needs.

And I’m not special. This isn’t something unique that my brainbody does.

As we sweated and strained our way up to the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière, dominating in gold and glass the skyline of Lyon, one of the cyclists remarked: ‘I can’t wait to go on more adventures like this — now I know what I’m capable of!’

Because I’m an irritating contrarian, I had to disagree with her.

‘No you don’t. That’s the whole point. You’ve cycled 600km in six days, in a heatwave, and you still haven’t hit the wall. You have no idea what you’re capable of.’

And learning that is one hell of a turning point.

What must terrify us most as humans is not how little can be done, not how powerless or puny our lives are, but rather how great and signficant, especially when we join together and reach for limits out of reach.

Have you hit the wall? Have you reached your limit?

I don’t believe you.

Philoxenia and the Magic Cobbler

For the next couple of months I’m cycling to Athens, as part of Europe’s longest charity bike ride.

5,000km, a hundred people, through ten countries, over nine weeks gives me a lot of time to experience things, but not a lot of time to write things.

Today I happened to wake up at 5am — so here we all are!

We started the ride last Saturday morning and yesterday we finished the first leg, arriving in Bristol in an absolute ecstasy of a downpour, raindrops the size of popcorn.

You can follow the ride on the Thighs Instagram, Facebook or my own personal agony, ecstasy and knee cramp via the Strava updates on my fundraising page. (Ahem.)

Britain is beautiful by bike

Philoxenia is the wonderful Greek concept of generosity and friendship towards strangers, guests, gods, gods in disguise, foreigners, travellers and friends of friends of cousins of friends.

I’ve written before about philoxenia and my own solo experiences of bicycle touring (here and here), but, when travelling with sixteen other cyclists and a bloody great van, the generosity of strangers towards strangers that we receive rises to truly Homeric standards.

It’s hard — impossible — to pay tribute to myriad of kindnesses, large and small, seen and unseen, that the people of Glasgow, Dumfries and Galloway, Cumbria, Lancashire, Shropshire and Wales showered down upon us over the past 750km, but here are a few that rise to mind this morning.

June in Hesket Newmarket who let us use her campsite free of charge, ‘Consider it my donation’, her fridge-temperature bathroom papered with sheep-based cartoons and proud newspaper cuttings of Prince Charles.

The elderly woman in Windermere who wasn’t quite sure how to use her garden hose, but, once shown, took over the task of hosing down our oven-hot cyclists with a cackling child-like relish.

Steve The Magic Cobbler in Preston who not only sorted us out with a new set of van keys (don’t ask), but also performed card tricks while we waited.

Paula, Paula, Pauline and Keith at The Kathleen & May Heritage Museum in Connah’s Quay for letting us doss on their floor, surrounded by exhibits on the River Dee and the local paint industry. Thanks too for the fried-up breakfast butties that put our porridge to shame.

Fathomless thanks to the communities at Claver Hill and Three Pools who hosted us in Lancaster and Abergavenny, and to Phil and Bec who Warmshowered us on the hills overlooking Offa’s Dyke near Montgomery. If you’ll have us, we’ll be back.

Joe at Rogue Welsh Cakes for donating three dozen exquisite Welsh cakes. I wish I could say that they’d been savoured, but after seven straight days of cycling, they were mainly devoured as delicious calories. Luckily, Joe does postal orders for easy at-home savouring.

In fact: thank you to all the strangers who heard about the ride and handed us cash donations in solidarity with refugees, asylum seekers and other people forced from their homes. The purest form of philoxenia: stranger to never met stranger.

All the pub landlords who patiently filled our water bottles and waved us in to empty our bursting bladders. There are now fewer than 40,000 pubs in England and Wales for the first time since the opening of the Domesday Book (probably).

Even as someone who doesn’t drink much, that feels like a bit of a shame, particularly for the countryside communities that we cycled through. We’ll keep on buying chips and Scampi Fries.

Finally: thanks to the rivers and lakes, the woods and fields, the mountains and valleys, the road and hedgerow, the wing, feather, snout, hoof and fur, the wild and the tame that swaddled us all in gentle cradle, wrapping the journey in threaded cloth of nurture and nature.

The Opposite Of Control Is not chaos

I’ve not been well for the past three weeks, with fluctuating symptoms of fatigue, sore throat, headaches, blocked sinuses and stomach upset.

It’s not Covid, it’s not long Covid, it’s not a cold, meningitis, Lyme disease or glandular fever. Blood count, folate, B12, liver function — all healthy.

The longer this little thing drags on, even after two courses of antibiotics, the more convinced I am that it’s a manifestation of stress.

Simple as that.

Simple Is Complex

I’ve never forgotten something my sister once noticed at a gig when we were at university:

The easier a musical instrument looks, the harder it is to play.

  • Synthesiser: looks complicated, plays easy
  • Trumpet: looks simple, plays hard

The metaphor extends to medicine.

For example, I have an underactive thyroid.

The thyroid is an endocrine gland that secretes three hormones that dictate the basal metabolic rate of almost all body tissues, manage our appetite and stimulate the breakdown of glucose and fatty acids, increase the rate of our heartbeat and mitochondrial activity, and play a key role in our sexual function, menstrual cycles, and sleep and thought patterns.

Looks pretty complex, no?

But when things go wrong, the thyroid plays pretty easy: one blood test to diagnose; one pill to restore normality.

Stress, on the other side, looks simple. But jumping jacks does it play hard.

We all clearly see the cause, but where is the cure?

Unpicking An Opinion

Stupid question: what is stress?

Let’s say it’s a troubling sense of anxiety that rides into town when external or internal demands on your performance exceed your capabilities.

But hold on.

Human beings are wonderful creatures. Our capabilities rise to the demands placed upon us.

This is why there is such a thing as eustress: motivational dollops of stress that actually improve our physical and mental performance.

Without the stress of a fierce opponent, neither of tomorrow’s Wimbledon finalists, Elena Rybakina and Ons Jabeur, could rise to the level demanded of tennis champions.

Even when demands on our performance do exceed our capabilities — why — that’s what we call learning! And there’s nothing bad about learning, is there?

So the negativity around anxiety must contain the seeds of something else.

We can see this physiologically, as well.

Anxiety is what’s known as an arousal state. It makes my heart race, shallowing my breath, making me sweat, butterflying my guts, tiring me out.

But these are the same symptoms as the arousal state of excitement. The only difference is the interpretation put on the two: one negative, coming from a place of fear, and one positive, coming from a place of joy.

If stress can be positive; if anxiety can be excitement; if falling short can be learning; then, anxiety as a response to stress is just, like, your opinion, man.

But it goes without saying that I not finding my current state of mind particularly joyful. I am not excited; I am fearful. I can’t even make space to see all the wonderful ways I am growing and learning.

Our radically varying responses to stress, then, must burrow deep, much deeper, into our core beliefs about ourselves as human beings.

Letting Go

The cure for stress, the one everyone will tell you, looks as simple as the diagnosis:

Relax, don’t worry, just let go

Thanks. Now what the fuck do you think I’m trying to do?

I can’t tell you how many hot baths, naps and slow walks I’ve had over the past three weeks. Sure: feels great. Now what?

Well, yesterday, my counsellor invited me to try the Sedona Method of letting go.

The Sedona Method, according to Rational Wiki, is a ‘roll-your-own New Age self-administered psychotherapy’. At this point, I’ll try anything.

If you can’t afford the $100 online course, here’s what I did with my counsellor:

  1. Focus on an issue you would like to feel better about
  2. Ask yourself: Is this feeling coming from a desire for control, a desire for approval, a desire for security or a desire for connection?
  3. Ask yourself one of the following questions: Could I let this feeling go? Could I allow this feeling to be here? Could I welcome these feelings?
  4. Ask yourself the question: Would I? Am I willing to let go?
  5. Ask yourself this question: When? Hint: the answer is always ‘now’ because the past is gone and the future never comes.
  6. Repeat half a dozen times, with slightly different inflections

During the session, I focused on my anxiety around the aforementioned and rapidly upcoming ride to Athens.

That’s where most of the stress in my life is right now and that’s how I suspect my sinus infection originally snuck in and, once, snucked, wouldn’t shift.

As I focused on that feeling, and as we made our way through the method, I realised three things.

1. My anxiety comes from a desire for control

I want to control every aspect of the ride — knowns and unknowns — to ensure that everything imaginable goes exactly as everyone involved could possibly dream.

That’s an awful lot to control. No wonder I get the sense that I’m operating a wee bit beyond my capabilities.

Looking back on those words, I realise too that my anxiety is coming from a good place: I desperately want people to have a good time and not die.

This is a good thing to want. Can I not be proud of my anxiety because it pushes me to do my best? Easier said than done.

2. But control is not an option

Unfortunately for my brain, control at this scale is simply not an option.

There are far too many moving parts to this operation:

  • 5,000km of cycling
  • 97 participants with all their own anxieties and excitements
  • 66 days and nights
  • 21 allergies or pre-existing medical conditions + Covid
  • 10 countries with 9 border crossings
  • 1 temperamental van 🙏

So, if control is not an option — what is its opposite?

3. The opposite to control is not chaos

The opposite of control is trust.

  • Trust in myself to do my best and rise to meet any challenge
  • Trust in the people around me to do the same
  • Trust in nature and the underpinning logic of the cosmos

Okay, so that last one is a little out there, but hopefully you know what I mean.

In the context of a dying star, our pettifogging anxieties seem a little insignificant, don’t they?

Whatever will be, will be and, don’t you see, it’s all perfect?

Anxiety arrives, with bugle horn and crack of whip, only when we lose our trust.


Of course, trust could (and perhaps one day should) be a whole post in itself — what is trust and how can we make more of it?

One thing I know for sure is that this bike ride generates exactly the right conditions for trust to thrive.

A bunch of people, each with unique strengths, surrendering to a unquantifiable, indefinable challenge far bigger than any individual, succeeding only together.

We’re ready.


I hope that this exploration of my stress has been a little helpful for you too.

If you’re seeing the connection between this post and my post about responsibility the other week, then ten points to you. Responsibility is an energy: distribute it wisely and you’ll power a whole network.

It’s worth noting that there are plenty of other good ways to manage stress, like going outside for exercise and eating a diet rich in prebiotic and probiotic foods.

Finally: if you’re crazy stressed, then please ask someone you (yep) trust for support.

The Dwelling Place Of The Soul

I’m writing this from the final day of a three-day introductory course in ecopsychology, led by Natural Academy.

That wiggly red underlining indicates that my computer doesn’t recognise ecopsychology as a word, so let’s break it down.

  1. Eco- comes from the Greek oikos, meaning home or dwelling place — and, by extension, the household or family.
  2. psych- comes from the Greek psyche, meaning spirit, mind or soul.
  3. -ology comes from the Greek logos, meaning discourse, speech or reason — or, if you’re a Stoic, ‘the divine animating principle pervading the Universe’.

Ecopsychology is, then, a discourse on the dwelling place of our soul. Or perhaps conversations around the soul of our dwelling place. Or perhaps the two are identical.

Dwelling Place

Natural Academy prefer to use the term dwelling place over home, not only because dwelling place rolls more deliciously around the mouth, but because home is such a loaded term — for all of us, not least those ousted from or without their own.

Every being, however, must dwell in a place — even if only for this moment now.

Fascinatingly, the origins of the word dwell are more sinister, from the Sanskrit to mislead or disceive.

Perhaps there’s still something of the misleading in the word, that, for many of us, our dwelling place seems deceptively permanent or stable.

In reality, our dwelling is temporary, we’re transient visitors, fleeting expressions of consciousness.

Dwell has a broader, less partizan pattern of meaning, compared to the concept of home, for we can also dwell on an emotion or a thought, lingering, giving over our attention to fix on something important — or unimportant.

But mainly it’s just a lovely word.


The Return

So that’s what ecopsychology is — a conversation around the dwelling place of our soul.

A reintegration of psychology and ecology: an acceptance that we are nature.

Despite being pretty cosmic in scope, ecopsycholgy couldn’t be simpler. It’s nothing more than a return: coming back to ourselves as nature.

Over the course of the past three days, I noticed this in myself. Less learning and more remembering.

Like, I know what these white flowers pockering the grass are —

But it takes a smartphone app to tell me what I already know.

I wasn’t alone in this sense of remembering, for there is nothing in our natures that is alien to nature.

Yet, sometimes our disconnection is such that we need a bit of help getting back there, reconnecting, rediscovering the lines of reciprocity that fly between each node of nature’s unique, bountiful, abundant expression.

To see the lines that connect us with the beech bobbing outside the windows we peer through from inside our dwelling place, from inside our skull. The we that reaches out and connects with the touch of bark that reaches out from a branch of beech.

I’m here to learn how to facilitate these reconnections.


Facilitator is another word that’s interesting to explore etymologically.

Facere is Latin for doing or making, thus facilis: easy to do, from where we get the word facile.

A facilitator, then, is someone who makes the doing or making easy for someone else.

As a facilitator of nature connectedness, my job is to make reconnection with nature easy for others. This is a simple task because, of course, a facilitator is not a teacher.

Nature does the work.

All we have to do is clear that path back to nature, hold out a steadying arm, make the going easy.

Bring people back.

Encourage them to dwell for a moment on their dwelling place, on the environment around them in this moment, and to explore what that place is reflecting back to them about this connection we call soul.

And, above all, to invite them into the conversation.

So I invite you to engage directly with your dwelling place, your here and now, and to take two minutes to peer into its corners, scratch and sniff its edges, and expand your appreciation for its wholeness — and, naturally, your part within that wholeness.

Suspend any notions of beauty or judgement and instead wonder what the unique wholeness of your dwelling place could be trying to tell you about your soul’s place and purpose.

Like I said: cosmic.

Nature Loves A Broccoli

I’ve written about fractal patterns in nature before, about how restorative they are, and just how damn cute.

The branching of a tree, for example, is a pattern repeated at every level, from the veins of its leaves to the mycorrhizal networks of the fungi among its roots.

But my mind was pleasantly massaged earlier this week by the framing of an image laid out before me at the top of a hill overlooking the Somerset Mendips.

The foreground of my vision was a broccoli of grasses and clover, echoed above, and at a distance such that the pattern was repeated almost identically, by a broccoli perspective of deciduous woodland and hedgerow.

Occupying the entire upper half of the masterpiece, like proud sketches of the whole, the Platonic form of nature’s eternal pattern, were the magnificent broccoli towers of cumulus clouds.

This isn’t what I saw. But you get the idea…

Nature loves a broccoli. I see you. I see you. I see you.

Responsibility Is Not Heavy It's electromagnetic (metaphorically speaking)

We imagine responsibility as a weight.

This imagined foe finds expression in the metaphorical language we all use.

Responsibility is something we hold, bear, carry or shoulder. Responsibility is a heavy, weighty thing that can be handed over, dodged or ducked.

Sometimes responsibility even falls on us.

No wonder that, in our most solemn moments of responsibility, we speak — quite literally — of the ‘gravity’ of the situation.

This Is A Terrible Metaphor

Responsibility doesn’t behave like a weight.

A weight on your shoulders will always slow you down, drag you down, bring you down.

But responsibility doesn’t always feel like that, does it? Hell — I don’t think it even often feels like that.

If responsibility were a force (metaphorically speaking), then it wouldn’t be gravity.

Most of the time, responsibility is empowering: it gives us the energy and motivation we need to achieve cool things.

I’m sure you can think of many times in the past when someone handed over responsibility to you — and it made you feel lighter, stronger, faster, energised, electrified and empowered.

The Thing Got Done. Right?

Far from being a gravitational, weight-like thing, responsibility is much more like a vitalising force that we absorb, store, conduct or distribute.

Yep: a better energetic metaphor for responsibility is electricity.

One idiomatic hint that responsibility truly is more electrical than gravitational: we say that the person responsible for a task is the person ‘in charge’. I found this amusing.

Where a cumbrous weight will always slow us down, electricity, when it’s hooked up right, can grant us superhuman speed — like one of those mad scooters you get nowadays.

What responsibility really looks like (metaphorically).

Okay, cool. So we’re agreed that responsibility isn’t a weight, but an electricomagnetic energy. Where does that lead us?

The Party Balloon Of Expectation

We can imagine now that the responsibility for any given task is generated energetically from the expectations and obligations involved, like the build-up of static between a woolly jumper (obligations) and a party balloon (expectations).

The more friction between obligation and expectation, the bigger the metaphorical electrostatic charge and the bigger the energetic potential of responsibility.

Energy = exciting!

Yes, but a word of warning too.

Once generated, that high charge of responsibility can suddenly seem scarily high voltage.

Oh shit. A hundred people at the party and no balloons.

Even more worryingly: all the energy we’ve generated between obligations and expectations has a worrying propensity to be discharged through the nearest conductive surface.


This is exactly like — you see where I’m going — electricity.

Yesterday, for example, a 25,000 volt overhead cable fell onto a Birmingham railway line, causing ‘a spectacular fire with sparks, flames and smoke’.

That’s a lot of electrons spurting very quickly out of a literal fire hose.

Anyway. Don’t be scared. This is the wont of electrical charges, the world over, from time immemorial. This is the natural order of things.

And such is responsibility.

If you find yourself as the only conductive surface for an enormous electrostatic fire hose of responsibility, then god help you.

In plainer English: if you try to conduct all that responsibility through yourself, all alone, then you’re going to fry.

Like a tree caught in a flash of lightning, you’re going to burn out.

Stretching The Metaphor

Watching that touch-it-and-you-die 25,000 volt cable thrash around Birmingham of a summer’s day, it can seem a bit wild to remember that humans willingly generate electricity.

Oodles and oodles of the stuff.

Just today, just in the UK, humans have generated 608.3 gigawatt-hours.

For scale, imagine the UK is a building site and imagine that everyone on that building site has been working hard for eight hours.

In order to get through 608.3 gigawatt-hours of energy, that building site would need as many builders as India has people.

I’m not sure that scale model helped, but the point is that we generate a huge amount of power in this country and yet, somehow, we share it around, more or less safely (Birmingham railway notwithstanding) and then use it to do loads of really cool stuff like typing emails to strangers on the Internet when really we should be stuffing our faces with birthday banana bread.

Given how destructive electricity can be, isn’t that marvellous?

Responsibility is the same.

We generate oodles and oodles of the stuff, every day of our lives, because it’s a powerful motivating force that helps us do loads of really cool stuff.

Yes, it can turn us into charred steak quicker than you could say ‘medium-rare’ — but only if we try to absorb it alone or conduct too much all at once.

Big responsibility conducted through one person (ouch).

If instead, like the national grid, we find a way to distribute that energy — share it with friends, colleagues, sauna buddies — then together we can power all manner of wondrous things.

Big responsibiity distributed among equals (ahhhh).

End of metaphor.

Responsibility is a powerful force: share it around or you’ll get fried.

Or, to wilfully paraphrase Spider-Man:

With great responsibility comes great responsibility.

Thank you.


Etymological Side Note: What’s response got to do with responsibility?

According to the OED, a response was, originally, the answer given to a question asked of an oracle. A response is a reply: an answer.

If you are responsible, then you are the one answerable for that duty: you’re accountable.


Photos: Okai Vehicles, Felix Mittermeier and Johannes Plenio