The Last Newsletter (for a bit) 🎲 The Dice Man rapidly descends into murder and generalised mayhem, but the premise — using chance to reduce decision fatigue — I’ve found compelling since I read the book in 2017

The die is cast

Have you read The Dice Man by Luke Rhinehart (né George Cockcroft)? It’s a novel about a psychiatrist who one day decides to let the roll of a die dictate his decisions.

In the beginning was Chance, and Chance was with God and Chance was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made by Chance and without him was not anything made that was made. In Chance was life and the life was the light of men.

The story of The Dice Man, being a work of fiction, rapidly descends into cult, murder, rape and generalised mayhem, but the premise — using chance to reduce decision fatigue and maybe jazz up your life a little — I’ve found compelling since I read the book back in April 2017.

Side note: Documentally, who spent nine years living with dice, beautifully recorded his meetings with George Cockcroft in Paris and London in 2018.

The Dice Man’s playful premise is easily applied to our lives in two, non-murderous, ways:

1. Eliminate to do list decisions (and maybe procrastination)

  1. Write down six things you really need to get done today. Don’t worry about what order to do them in: they will all get done.
  2. Roll the die.
  3. Do the corresponding job.
  4. Repeat, either adding a new task to your options list or re-rolling if you get that number again. (If you roll seven sixes in a row, maybe check your die rolls true…)

Yesterday, I used the die to run through a bunch of stuff I’d been putting off for ages. It made productivity playful.

Intermediate: you can easily weight your tasks by assigning two or more faces of the die to a particularly important job. You can also roll two dice for a longer to do list or to take advantage of the different outcome probabilities.

Advanced: throw in an option that’s a bit rogue. Something you’ve been putting off for years; a dream or long-held fantasy. Or maybe the total opposite of what you ‘should’ be doing; something silly or way out of character.

2. Choose from a number of equally good options

Decision fatigue. Analysis paralysis. The Paradox of Choice.

Sometimes we have no idea what the best thing to do is. Maybe it doesn’t matter what we do. Maybe we’ll never know what’s best until we start.


We’re crying out for someone to tell us what to do. Understandably, friends and family are reluctant to take this job: no one is responsible for your life choices except you yourself. But if you’re really stuck, why not ask the die?

  1. Make a list of all your options. These are all things that you want to do, but you can’t do them all at once. Committing to one of them probably feels like you’re giving up on the rest. There is probably a lot of uncertainty around whether one or any of them could be a success. This might be why you haven’t made a start or seen any of them through to the end. You’re stuck.
  2. Let go of the idea that it matters at all which one you move forward with. Remember: these are all good options.
  3. Roll the die.
  4. Do that one thing and scrap the rest.
  5. Seriously: scrap them. They are gone. At least for now. For now, you are all-in on whatever the die told you.
  6. Okay, okay. There’s an exception to that rule: if the die’s choice has made you realise in the core of your being that you really need to do this other thing, then that’s fine. Do that other thing, but do it with total commitment, no half measures: you still scrap the rest. Sometimes we get clarity from facing the shocking reality of what we don’t want.

Yesterday, the last day of January, I rolled the die on my six good options.

Alea iacta est; the die is cast

For the past month (or possibly the past ten years), I’ve been feeling a strong obligation to dedicate a furious amount of energy into writing. This is my constant; this is my work; this is my being.

That’s all well and good, but there are a lot of ‘shoulds’ lurking in the shadows:

  • I should be writing a book
  • I should be promoting my work
  • I should be writing journalism
  • I should be earning more money
  • I should be working harder

Since the beginning of the year, I’ve felt such shoulds heavy on my shoulders and the weight pinned me to the floor, paralysed by choice and uncertainty. Should energy doesn’t get things done, not unless there’s someone cracking the whip.

On the last day of January, after a month of doing things the same half-assed way as the past ten years, I decided in desperation to turn to the die.

‘Tell me, o die,’ I cried, ‘which writing project to throw my everything energy into?’

I put down six options for the six faces:

  1. You Are What You Don’t
  2. Days of Adventure
  3. Man Sloth Mode
  4. Round Britain Twice
  5. Bikes + Borders

For snake eyes, I went radical:

  1. Quit writing for the whole of February

Then I rolled.

The die — strangely, as I knew it would — came up on that single spotted one.

And so, for the first time since 2010, I hereby shed any sense that I should be writing.

For many years, I have clung to the seductive mirage, the broken crutch that writing will bring me fame, fortune and happiness. It may yet bring those things, but not in the way that I have been approaching it. So, for now, I need a break. A total sabbatical.

Let’s not get dramatic: it’s only a month. Four newsletters’ worth. But I’m excited about the open water ahead of me. By letting go of my self-imposed obligation to publish, I create space for new lifeforms to emerge.

I already feel lighter.


I want to finish by saying a big thank you to you. It’s amazing that I get to write to you folks every week. An honour.

For those of you who have a paying subscription: a triple thank you. I don’t offer much to paying subscribers except my gratitude and an archive of hundreds of stories. But if you would like a physical book edition of all my stories from 2020 (😂), then hit reply and send me your address.

If you miss me and you believe in the God of Chance, then use my brand new Random Story page, which will surface one of the 920+ stories that are lurking in my back catalogue. Good luck!

I know you will understand my need for a creative pause — in fact, some of you have previously suggested I do this exact thing. Sorry for ignoring you.

The truth is that I don’t think I could have taken a decision like this, to step away from something I’ve been doing most of my adult life, without the crazy courage of the die.

I couldn’t have done it alone and I probably would’ve dug my heels in if anyone else had dared tell me to stop writing. But as soon as I saw that fateful digit I knew that it was exactly the right thing to do.

So let’s roll.

Full Terms of Disengagement

  • ❎ I won’t work on this newsletter in February (I wrote most of today’s in January). That means skipping 9, 16, 23 February and 1 March.
  • ❎ I won’t work on any of my own public writing projects or feel any obligation that I should.
  • ☑ I can write my private diary (but I don’t have to). Journaling is an important processing tool and can be independent of the urge to publish and publicise.
  • ☑ I can interview brilliant people, learn from them and elevate their ideas and achievements (but I won’t share anything publicly until March).
  • ☑ I can take notes on books I’m reading and on sessions with my counsellor.
  • ☑ I can take jobs that pay me to write because, frankly, that’s life.

Okay? Deal. 🤝

TWo IRritating SHift KEys The story of The Odyssey is in the song, in the improvisation, in the tone, the cracking of the voice, in the manipulation of attention by performer to rapt audience.

And a warm welcome from the Gipsy Palace, where I’m waiting for the delivery of my sixth laptop of the year.

This technophobic rigmarole sprawls without resolution over the past two and a half months, spanning four countries, three vendors, TWo IRritating SHift KEys, two HPs, two Lenovos, two Acers, one faulty fan and one blue screen of death.

And, so far, the only machine that appears to be working perfectly is the one that I originally needed to replace.

The rigmarole has got me thinking, though. How much of what we do, as writers, is done through the medium in which we write?

The two most ambitious works of European literature that I can think of are Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu and James Joyce’s Ulysses; both were written longhand in pen and ink (and both primarily, incidentally, from bed).

Staggering: the ability of these authors to hold in mind the overlapping constellations of such complex novels, without the aide-memoire of a decent spreadsheet.

More bedsheet than spreadsheet: Marcel Proust’s preferred writing style

But Joyce’s inspiration, The Odyssey, wasn’t even written.

Homer, perched on a three-legged stool in his little eighth century bedsit on the Greek island of Chios, could never have dreamed he’d become one of the most famous novelists of all time.

He was, after all, a beat poet, a wandering bard, a story-singing balladeer who never wrote a line, never even put pen to paper, let alone pinky to SHift.

Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story
of that man skilled in all ways of contending,
the wanderer, harried for years on end,
after he plundered the stronghold
on the proud height of Troy.

Translated by Robert Fitzgerald (1961)

Homer would be tripping out if he learnt one day his words were read. Homer, if they ever existed, would scream and shout — no, no, no — this is not canon, this is not where the storyheart lies!

The story of The Odyssey is in the song, in the improvisation, in the tone, the cracking of the voice, in the manipulation of attention by performer to rapt audience.

In printing, in canonisation, some things are lost, just as they are when novelists move from bedsheets to spreadsheets.

For better or worse, I’m the spreadsheet kind.

Anyway — I’ve just had a message that my driver Anthony will be with me between 10:19 and 11:19, so I’d better get cracking.

Could This Be A Moment? On Friday I counted seven moments. Seven, for the whole day.

And a warm welcome from Highgate Woods, once part of the ancient Forest of Middlesex.

This Forest was once described by Thomas Becket’s admin guy as a ‘vast forest, its copses dense with foliage concealing wild animals — stags, does, boars, and wild bulls’.

Now it’s the dominion of the dog walkers of Muswell Hill, the ring-necked parakeets of London, and me: a man in a green and gold jumper, perched on an ivy-wreathed beech trunk, staring into his lap-topped laptop.

We all know how many hours there are in a day (24), how many minutes in an hour (60) and how many seconds tick by in a minute (also 60) — and every schoolchild knows all too well how many nanoseconds there are in a double maths lesson (54,000,000,000,000).

But how many moments do we get in a day?

You know what a moment is, I hope. If you’re not sure, then let me show you what I mean.

On Friday, when I started writing this heinously delayed thought-prayer, I counted seven moments.

Seven, for the whole day.

  1. A moment when I woke up in bed, on a boat, with the roaring of the weir all around me.
  2. A moment of nostalgic reflection as I stripped our Thighs of Steel support van of its soapy assets, wondering when we’ll ride again.
  3. A moment in the car, parked up by the farmhouse, admiring the weeds that have grown up along the red brick garden wall, mortared with moss.
  4. A moment in Marlborough, playing my part in a traffic crawl along the Bath Road, idly watching the schoolkids in tartan skirts, blazers or tracksuits, all clutching binders of notes, walking between lessons.
  5. A moment of pilgrimage with the family plum tree in the sunshine. All bar five leaves fallen. The five nibbled by unseen insects, leaving bullet holes against the blue sky
  6. A moment in the ticket hall at Bournemouth train station. No words, holding each other tight.
  7. A moment of stretching on the yoga mat, sharing poses before sleep.

A moment, in this sense, is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as —

A period of time (not necessarily brief) marked by a particular quality of experience.

(p.s. If you are based in the UK, then you almost certainly have access to the full subscriber edition of the OED through your local libraries card. GTK.)

For me, moments are the little times in life that you notice that you are alive.

Moments dawn on us: aha, we might think, this is a moment.

It’s awareness.

‘Well, if this isn’t nice, then I don’t know what is.’

A good way to practice noticing moments is to look around you and say to yourself, ‘Well, if this isn’t nice, then I don’t know what is.’

Another good way to notice is to write or sketch the moment.

I’ve done a little of the latter and a whole lot of the former.

Writing makes a moment pop out into consciousness instead of passing by.

Even the most mundane moments take on a meaningful significance if you sit and notice them for long enough.

There was nothing special about that moment, only that it was noticed.

This kind of writing is something I call close writing.

Here’s a snatch from my first (published) close writing, back in 2007, sketched out while sitting on a bench in the gardens of Russell Square:

Opposite, two police officers talk to a man, standing, pointing. Another man sits and the dog plays around them. They are taking details. The man sits and I can see that he is aged, with a flat cap and white beard. The mother bends to take a photo of the child and the dog interrupts, sniffing at whatever that is. He leaves to take a piss.

It’s not a big moment, not like that moment you met the love of your life. Maybe it’s not even a moderately significant moment, not like that moment you got your maths exam results.

But it is a moment, nonetheless, and one that I’ve remembered vividly for more than sixteen years.

It was a moment when I — the I back then, whoever he was — took the time to notice that I and we, the cast of characters around me in the square, were indisputably alive.

And that is a joyous thing to remember indeed. All the more joyous precisely because there was nothing ostensibly special about that moment, only that it was noticed.

This really could be a moment.

I’d encourage you as I would love to encourage myself today and tomorrow. Let’s look up and around us. Let’s notice things. Above all, let’s notice the living breathing awareness of things.

We could, just as easily, be not aware of things. And yet we are. Or we can be.

This really could be a moment.

And, when we do notice these moments, we can always go back to them. Recognition of a moment extends that moment into the future and beyond.

A part of us will always be sitting in Russell Square gardens in the sunshine, will always be paying pilgrimage to the family plum tree and will always be holding each other tight in the ticket hall at Bournemouth train station.

That is a wonderful thing to remember.

Only then, if you like, share.

A word to the wise: writing can take you out of a moment as well as deeper into it.

This is especially true when our noticing mutates into the modern urge to share too soon: to take our words, or images, and send them to distant loved ones, nownownow.

My favourite form of noticing is when my words or sketches come from inside the moment. There becomes a oneness, a unity between art and presence.

Against this unity, sharing our noticings too soon is like ‘othering’ our own experience, creating distance in place of connection.

Allow your art to explore the moment in its fullness. Then, when the moment has passed, return there in the art, refine and expand.

Only then, if you like, share.


In the fifty-five minutes that it has taken me to write this little thing, Merlin tells me that I’ve shared space with seventeen woodland birds, including a nuthatch.

The Number Twenty-Four (And My Inevitable Mortality) There comes a point in every reader’s life when they realise that the number of books on one’s shelf vastly outnumbers the number of allotted hours for reading that remain on their own mortal shelf-life

Today’s story isn’t even a story. It’s a silly game, born of the ocean-inspired collision of three things floating on the waves in my mind.

  1. The number twenty-four.
  2. My two shelves’ worth of unread books.
  3. My inevitable mortality. (Or at least, a busy summer wherein I shall do little reading.)

1. The Number Twenty-Four

This is, of course, the best number out there.

No — don’t contradict me, I’ve done a full survey of all the numbers, including many that are top secret, and none of them are better than twenty-four.

I mean, for starters, it’s the smallest number with eight factors — eight!

Read ‘em and weep:

  1. One
  2. Two
  3. Three
  4. Four
  5. Six
  6. Eight
  7. Twelve
  8. Twenty-four

This is why we divide rotations of our Mothership Earth into twenty-four hours: we can comfortably divide the day into halves of twelve hours each, thirds of eight hours each, quarters of six, and so on.


Twenty-four (24) is divisible, not only by both its independent digits (2 and 4), but also by the sum of those digits (6). This is what’s called a Harshad number.

And, just to show off, it can even be divided by the multiple of its digits (8).

The name ‘harshad’ took its etymology from Sanskrit: it means ‘joy-giver’.

Twenty-four also happens to be my birth date, which also happens to be later this month.

And that’s a lot of joy for one number to give.

2. Two Shelves Of Books

For the past three years, I’ve been indulging in the pleasure of buying books.

It began during lockdown, when the libraries were closed and I couldn’t spend any money on anything else (I hadn’t yet discovered bread baking).

Since then, I’ve bought more books per year than I’ve read and this has created an anxiety-inducing surplus.

Which brings us nicely onto…

3. My Inevitable Mortality

There comes a point in every reader’s life when they realise (like a dull blow to the back of the head) that the number of books on one’s shelf (never mind on one’s reading wishlist) vastly outnumbers the number of allotted hours for reading that remain on their own mortal shelf-life.

This is compounded by the accusatory glare of books bought in the first flush of lockdown and still with spines unbent, all hope crushed by the page-limiting design of my summer on the bicycle.

I accept now that I will never do justice to all of the books that sit on my shelf.

I could — there are only about fifty or sixty there in total, which is only about sixteen month’s worth (or g months if we’re counting in base twenty-four) if I plough through them.

But I won’t. I just won’t.

As a writer myself, this pains me further: think of all the years — not to mention all the bankruptcies, migraines, mortgage defaults, psychological breakdowns and RSIs — that went into creating these books, sucking out the heart and soul of every author, hoping for a connection that I will never give them.

Even though I could.

So today’s story is a silly game: herewith, please find twenty-four passages from page twenty-four of twenty-four of my unread books.

It’s my way of paying tribute to the extraordinary love and bloody-minded exertion that we all put into our earthly contribution; a contribution that will leave no trace on the overwhelming majority of humankind.

And, who knows, maybe some of these passages will intrigue me enough to make me pluck them off the dusty shelf…

Twenty-Four Passages From Twenty-Four Unread Books

Hey, let’s make this a proper game, shall we?

Shall we actually, though?


Every one of these passages is from a real book by a real author, published sometime between 1888 and 2020.

See if you can guess the title, writer and, for a very special harshad point, the year of publication.

Answers at the bottom.


Oh, go on then!

After all, what kind of a game would it be with no prizes?

(Well, actually, Dave, it’d be the kind of game that values intrinsic rather than extrinsic rewards, but let’s be honest: intrinsic rewards are for squares.)

How to enter the prize draw:

  1. Go to my MASS Action x Thighs of Steel fundraising page
  2. Make any kind of a donation
  3. In your donation message, have a stab at the title or author of any of these snippets
  4. If you’re right (or if I think it’s a great guess), then I’ll send you a free book from my unread shelf of doom and pop it in the post to you (if you live in the UK).

No cheating?

Nah, fill your boots — cheat away!

David Perry (1994) postulates that the surface area — hence its absorption capability — of mycorrhizal fungi may be 10 to 100 times greater than the surfacde area of leaves in a forest. As a result, the growth of plant partners is accelerated.

‘No, not close, but let’s see how far. One elephant, two elephants, three elephants … fifteen elephants … twenty-five elephants … It’s still a long way off, more than five miles away.’

It is Friday and I have sweated out one page and a half. If I did not know this process so well, I would consider it a week of waste. But I know better than that now and I am content.

Rule: Pronounce ‘g’ as in ‘get’.

‘g’ in Welsh never sounds like ‘j’, as in ‘gentle’.

cragen — shell — kraggenn

You can follow these fence lines and walls all across the country on your Rights of Way, you can keep to your codes of conduct and never question this status quo. Or you can cross these lines, look inside this system and find out who put them there, and how. Because someone cast the net; something cast the spell.

Yet accomplished writers usually seem to have something else in mind when deciding how to put sentences together: the better the writers, of fiction and nonfiction alike, the more they tend to vary their sentence lengths. And they do it as dramatically as possible.

She said it took her over an hour, because she was arthritic by then, but when she finally found her clitoris, she said, she cried.

If Ecuador is to leave oil unburned, then Ecuador alone must shoulder the cost of lost oppportunity. Those who have so far put most of the fossil carbon into the atmosphere, the citizens of deep-pocketed industrialised nations, were not willing to take on part of the financial burden of restraint.

To Freud, though living surrounded by women and otherwise seeing so much and so well, women’s relationships seemed increasingly mysterious, difficult to discern, and hard to describe.

This book is nervous like coffee or malaria — it sets up a network of cut-outs & safe drops between itself & its readers — but it’s so baldfaced & literal-minded it practically encodes itself — it smokes itself into a stupor.

Reacting to the anxious climate of family life, they blunted their curiosity, narrowed their perception, and followed the ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy that ruled the family. Children know at a deep, automatic level what they are not supposed to say or tell or even remember.

After visiting the orange-belt and the opera-house, we went to bathe. Suddenly out of the crowd on the seafront, stepped Mr Aaronson of the Italia. ‘Hello, hello — you here too? Jerusalem’s so dead at this time of year, isn’t it? But I may look in tomorrow. Goodbye.’

The chemicals to which life is asked to make its adjustment are no longer merely the calcium and silica and copper and all the rest of the minerals washed out of the rocks and carried in rivers to the sea; they are the synthetic creations of man’s inventive mind, brewed in his laboratories, and having no counterparts in nature.

We are the poem, his poem says, that emerges from the unity of the body and the mind. That fragile unity — this brief parenthesis of being — is all we have. Celebrate it.

Suddenly and simultaneously they discover me, prone on my belly a few feet away. The dance stops. After a moment’s pause the two snakes come straight toward me, still in flawleess unison, straight toward my face, the forked tongues flickering, their intense wild yellow eyes staring directly into my eyes.

After crossing Bear River I find myself on a somewhat superior road leading through the Mormon settlements to Ogden.

Shadi claims to have been in the Foreign Legion, and he seems nuts enough for this to be true.

After twenty-three days of complete fast, Kundan died. The Jain community was happy to hear this news. I was sad. The monks said he had conquered the fear of death.

The broom is a palm leaf twice his size. He might have been sweeping all his life. Had this been Disneyland one might have thought he was put there to represent a worker from the past. But the hunchback is real, and his task is to keep the desert sand away from the historical copies. The man and the palm leaf seem to be the only genuine articles in all of Babylon.

Undaunted by the reality of being a single parent with a three-year-old son, she took inspiration from a film she’d seen about a woman who’d travelled across the Siberian tundra on her own in the 1920s. ‘I thought, “If she can do that, no equipment, just a big coat, I can walk to London, because I’ll just get myself a good litttle pram and da-da-da.”’

JUNE 10. Very warm. We get water for the camp from a rock basin at the foot of a picturesque cascading reach of the river where it is well stirred and made lively without being beaten into dusty foam.

When Scott Martin wrote a favourable article on Critical Mass in Bicycling magazine’s January 1994 issue, several reader retorts ensued; including ‘I’m disappointed to see Martin supporting this perverted brand of Street Justice,’ and ‘Your glorification of juvenile delinquents blocking traffic and assaulting motorists upsets me.’

Even if your performance is not affected directly, perfectionism may still reduce your ability to enjoy your work or may influence the ways in which you treat others at work.

One might cite Antony, in Antony and Cleopatra, as he tries to answer the question about what kind of thing is the crocodile: ‘It is shaped, sir, like itself, just so high as it is, and moves with its organs. It lives by that which nourisheth it, and the elements once out of it, it transmigrates.’ And, Antony might have added, it progresses through its days and nights very much at its own pace.

With The Greatest Of Thanks And Respect To…

  1. Mycelium Running, Paul Stamets (2005)
  2. Wild Signs And Star Paths, Tristan Gooley (2018)
  3. Journal Of A Novel, John Steinbeck (1970)
  4. Pronouncing Welsh Place Names, Tony Leaver (1998)
  5. The Book Of Trespass, Nick Hayes (2020)
  6. Artful Sentences, Virginia Tufte (2006)
  7. The Vagina Monologues, Eve Ensler (2001)
  8. The Songs Of Trees, David George Haskell (2017)
  9. In A Different Voice, Carol Gilligan (1982)
  10. T.A.Z., Hakim Bey (1985)
  11. The Dance Of Connection, Harriet Lerner (2001)
  12. The Road To Oxiana, Robert Byron (1937)
  13. Silent Spring, Rachel Carson (1962)
  14. Proust Was A Neuroscientist, Jonah Lehrer (2007)
  15. Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey (1968)
  16. Around The World On A Penny-Farthing, Thomas Stevens (1888)
  17. Baghdad Bulletin, David Enders (2006)
  18. No Destination, Satish Kumar (1992)
  19. A Hundred And One Days, Asne Seierstad (2003)
  20. All Together Now? Mike Carter (2019)
  21. My First Summer In The Sierra, John Muir (1911)
  22. Critical Mass, edited by Chris Carlsson (2002)
  23. When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough, Martin M Antony and Richard P Swinson (2009)
  24. Time, Eva Hoffman (2009)

UPDATE: After writing this piece, intrigued, I started reading Proust Was A Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer and didn’t stop until I’d finished. It’s a wondrous book, full of inspiration for both writers and readers.

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.

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.

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.

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?

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

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!

Towards A Dictionary Of Scent

Language is fossil poetry.

This is a story about scent, that strangest of our senses, which arises when a volatile chemical compound binds to a receptor in our nose and sends a signal through our olfactory system to the deepest seat of emotion, memory and learning in our brain.

But because this is also a story about poetry and vocabulary, we begin with language.

Language is also how we find precision.

For example, by increasing our vocabulary of emotion — learning more nuanced words for ‘anger’, say — we’re better able to distinguish between states of mind.

Are you feeling angry? Or are you feeling annoyed, apathetic, affronted, aggravated, antagonised, aggressive, appalled or apoplectic?

This is called emotional granularity and studies have shown that teaching people more words to describe their emotions can help them deal better with stress and trauma.

As Todd B. Kashdan, Lisa Feldman Barrett and Patrick E. McKnight wrote in their 2015 review:

upon experiencing intense distress, individuals who experience their emotions with more granularity are less likely to resort to maladaptive self-regulatory strategies such as binge drinking, aggression, and self-injurious behavior; show less neural reactivity to rejection; and experience less severe anxiety and depressive disorders


Another great reason to keep reading books.

Having an impoverished vocabulary of emotion is such a serious condition that there’s even a medical name for it: alexithymia.

‘Language is fossil poetry’ is a line from The Poet, an essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson based on a lecture he gave in 1842.

The essay encourages us to dig, like palaeontologists, into the etymology of words, so that we might uncover their metaphorical and poetic origins.

Shall we?

In 1972, Harvard psychiatrist Peter Emanuel Sifneos created the word alexithymia by smashing together a couple of Greek words.

According to Sifneos, being alexithymic means you have ‘no soul-speech’.

Listen now. What does your soul say?

The Poet Names The Thing

As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his essay:

the poet names the thing because he sees it, or comes one step nearer to it than any other

The poet names the thing because he sees it. Or smells it.

I was cycling along the street earlier today, on my way to the post office to pick up a parcel of Rogue Welsh Cakes. (Maple and pecan? Shut UP!)

It had not long finished raining: the kind of May shower that scrubs the air clean and, as I cycled, the evaporating roads filled my nostrils with that wonderful, thirsty, humid scent I’ve learned to call —

Hold it!

I’m getting ahead of myself.

My reason for writing this story is because the English language, like most, lacks olfactory granularity.

As we’ve seen, English has many, many different words for the different gradations of anger. It’s up to us to learn them, identify them in ourselves, and use them appropriately so that we can live more contented lives.

But when it comes to smells, English simply doesn’t have the words.

As Ed Yong wrote in The Atlantic back in 2015:

In English, there are only three dedicated smell words — stinky, fragrant, and musty — and the first two are more about the smeller’s subjective experience than about the smelly thing itself.

That’s astonishing. But is it a bad thing?

You could say that quickly and accurately distinguishing between smells isn’t ‘saliant’ to our lives. It’s not life and death.

We can describe scent, more or less, by analogy and maybe saying that something smells salty, lemony or funky is good enough for us.

Once upon a time in the west, as research suggests, distinguishing scent more closely may well have been a matter of life and death, where pleasant perfumes identified nourishing food, healing medicine and cleanliness.

The case today for expanding our olfactory granularity rests on the same logic as that taken down by Robert Macfarlane in Landmarks, his paeon to ‘the power of language … to shape our sense of place’ and his attempt to release ‘its poetry back into imaginative circulation’.

Ammil: A Devon term for the fine film of silver ice that coats leaves, twigs and grass when freeze follows thaw.

Noticing and naming are the yin and yang of learning, the head and tail of the ouroboros of understanding.

Smeuse: Sussex dialect for the gap in the base of a hedge made by the regular passage of a small animal.

Who can say what ‘use’ such vocabulary has for its users?

But, as Macfarlane writes, their precision undoubtedly leaves us with ‘our attention re-focused, our sight freshly scintillated’.

And that can only be a good thing in my book slash newsletter.

Back To My Bike Ride…

As I cycled along, the evaporating roads filled my nostrils with that wonderful, thirsty, humid scent I’ve learned to call — yes — petrichor.

Petrichor: A pleasant, distinctive smell frequently accompanying the first rain after a long period of warm, dry weather in certain regions.

Perhaps surprisingly, the term was only coined in 1964 by Isabel Bear and RG Thomas, two Australian researchers who discovered that a yellow-coloured oil could be extracted from dry, clay-based soils and rock.

Petrichor is the name they gave to the odour of that fatty elixir.

The oil is produced by plants during long dry spells and, in a follow-up paper published in 1965, Bear and Thomas showed that the oil significantly delays the germination and growth of various plants — presumably a defence mechanism until environmental conditions are more favourable.

These oils are absorbed from the plants into the soil and, when rain (preferably a light rain) finally hits the ground, the oils are released into the air and we all get to snort the wet scent of petrichor.

Again, the word is formed from Greek. Petros is the Greek word for stone (hence Peter, rock of the church) and ichor is the ancient word for the blood of the gods.

Petrichor draws the blood of the gods from a stone.

The poet names the thing and, in this case, we’re lucky that Isabel Bear was such a poet.

Funky Great Earth-Odour

But there’s more to that delicious post-rain stink than petrichor alone.

When rain hits soil, another molecule is released into the air, this one produced by bacteria living undergound: geosmin.

Geosmin: An organic compound with a strong earthy scent and flavour, produced especially by various microorganisms and largely responsible for the smell of damp soil.

It’s pronounced /dʒɪˈɒzmɪn/ or jee-OZ-min.

This is also a scientific neologism imagined into being by scientists in the mid sixties. This one, also of Greek origin, simply means earth-odour.

Florence Williams, author of The Nature Fix, describes the smell of geosmin as ‘funky-great’ and she’s not wrong: it gives beetroot its umami-earthy taste.

But when geosmin gets into the water supply, it’s just plain funky-bad. In fact, it’s what makes wine taste ‘corked’.

Poetic Palaeontology

So there we have it: two words for distinctive earthy scents, followed back through the palaeontology of their fossilisation.

Maybe you’re shrugging your shoulders with a ‘so what’ look on your face. Maybe you already knew all about petrichor and geosmin.

In both cases, at least I’ve had a nice time.

But if you’re into this kind of thing, I’d love to hear your favourite smelly words — fancy scientific ones like I’ve written about here, ones stolen from other languages, or ones the poets made up long ago.

Let’s move towards a dictionary of scent.

The only one that’s lodged without budging from my schooldays is Ted Hughes’s ‘sudden sharp hot stink of fox’.

Please help me out!

The Earth-Shattering Finale

And so we come to the end of the story, where I wrap up my themes of poetry and the intellectual illumination that comes through noticing and naming.

Ideally this earth-shattering finale will come in a single flash-bulb image that encapsulates the whole in a moment of dazzling insight, leaving you with an awed sense of the power of the universe.

Sadly I don’t have that. What I’ve got instead is the following underwhelming anecdote.

On my way back from the post office, down the same street I had cycled earlier, I was dawdling behind a pedestrian when my eyes flicked right, caught by a flash of incongruous colour on the wall of an unremarkable Victorian house, glimpsed through a gap in a thick hedgerow.

(Not a smeuse — higher up, maybe a bird smeuse.)

It was a blue plaque — an honour reserved for only the most historic of British landmarks.

What was it doing here, in a quiet residential street round the back of Bournemouth train station?

I looked more closely:

Here Rupert Brooke (1888-1915) Discovered Poetry

Woah — poet and petrichor — On. The. Exact. Same. Street! What were the chances?

I told you it was underwhelming.

Before I botch this ending completely, allow me to make an orderly exit by leaving you with a few lines from one of Rupert Brooke’s less jinogistic poems, Tiare Tahiti:

Hear the calling of the moon,
And the whispering scents that stray
About the idle warm lagoon.


Writerly Questions With An Obvious Solution Once You Write Them Down

Part 1: Which Should I Worry About More — My ‘Grand Theme’ Or Whether The Audience Laughs?

This is a short addendum to last week’s piece on The Adventurer’s Journey. One of the things that I was quite careful not to say was that adventures were stories and stories were lessons and, thusly, adventures were lessons.

There is an academic passion for analysing stories for grand themes and universal morals, summed up by the question: what does this story have to say about the human experience?

It’s a forensic approach that has been translated wholesale into the dozen or more ‘how to write’ books that fill my own bookshelves.

Books as diverse as Save The Cat! by Blake Snyder and Story by Robert McKee all have the same underlying logic: find your theme and you’ll find your story.

But I’ve just finished reading an excellent book that takes the complete opposite approach to story analysis — and therefore implies a wholly different logic for creative writing.

Rather than mining the library shelves for themes, meanings and lessons, Angus Fletcher’s Wonderworks examines the psychological effect that different stories have on the reader.

It’s a disarmingly naive method, inspired by Aristotle’s Poetics, that can be crudely summed up by the question: who gives a crap about theme when my readers are gripped by catharsis, shaken with wonder, bawling their eyes out and lolling their heads off.

Fletcher’s 400-page thesis is a little repetitive and certainly misses out a huge chunk of what makes certain stories so effective, but it’s a potent corrective to a tendency that I have as a spreadsheet-driven writer, when an obsession with structure blocks a clear view of how the story will land in the mind of the audience, with tears and laughter.

The Beatles: Not As Good As Dylan

I know how enthralled you all were by my breakdown of every single Dylan album (see 88 Percent Perfection), so it was only a matter of time before I inflicted the same analysis on The Beatles.

I went through every single Beatles song on every single canonical Beatles album (except Yellow Submarine because: huh?) and ranked them according to the same vigorous scale:

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

I won’t agonise over the details and let this chart speak for itself:

Dylan = Red (N=35 – four exclusions shown as 0), The Beatles = Blue (N=12)

Before you weigh in with invective, it’s worth remembering that over 60% POP is, as I said in my original piece, ‘a sublime album’.

Once they got their cover album training wheels off, The Beatles delivered six sublime albums, including one that almost rivals Dylan’s mid-sixties output.

Of course, no metric can fairly judge something as subjective as a song — our experiences are so fluid in our own minds, not to mention in other people’s. Already my Dylan chart has changed. I expect my Beatles chart to change with almost every listen.

But there are a few surprises in the data: I have long held as a truth self-evident that The White Album is my favourite Beatles album.

That’s as may be, but according to the POP chart it is surpassed in perfection by Revolver, Abbey Road, Let It Be and, top of the rankings, Rubber Soul.

Although it contains almost a quarter of my favourite Beatles songs of all time, The White Album’s rating is stuffed by a surfeit of tracks all too easily skipped.

Naming no names, but ‘Dear Prudence’ (mainly composed by Lennon), ‘Wild Honey Pie’ (McCartney), ‘Piggies’ (Harrison), ‘Don’t Pass Me By’ (Starr), ‘Revolution 9’ (Lennon), ‘Glass Onion’ (Lennon), ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’ (McCartney), ‘Long, Long, Long’ (Harrison) and ‘Good Night’ (Lennon) could have been saved for a Bootleg Series-style retrospective.

But even if The Beatles had shown a little more, er, prudence in the cutting room, The White Album would still only have ranked fourth in a combined Dylan-Beatles album chart.

I suppose that’s why Dylan was awarded a Nobel prize for his songwriting and all Paul McCartney got was a red ribbon with a threaded golden border and the letters CH after his name.

(What about the others? Annoyed with Britain’s support of the Vietnam War and ‘Cold Turkey slipping down the charts’, John Lennon returned his MBE in 1969; George Harrison, hoping for a knighthood, refused an OBE in 2000; Ringo Starr, in 1989, accepted an Emmy for his role as The Fat Controller in Thomas The Tank Engine.)

Word Of The Week: Rhabdomancy

Rhabdomancy is the use of a rod (rhabdo-) for the purpose of divination (-mancy), specifically the technique of using a dowsing rod to find underground sources of water or minerals.

Needless to say, rhabdomancy is about as effective as haruspicy, the least vegan of all the ancient divination practices.

I stumbled across rhabdomancy by complete chance while browsing the splendid interactive lexicon, Visuwords.

By complete chance, really? Or was I guided by a higher power?

Seven Superb Books I Read Despite 2021

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

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

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

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

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

Moving rapidly on.

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

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

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

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

So here, finally, is that list.

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

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

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

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

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

Dare I re-read Catch-22 in ‘22?

88 Percent Perfect

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Secret Formula

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

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

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

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

See what I did there.

The POP Scale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scraping The Barrel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So give the people what they want!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Self Portrait (1970) Is that all this is? A kiss-off to the Folkslingers and Rock’n’Rollers who didn’t get the message after Nashville Skyline? Maybe, but humour me for a moment…

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

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

What is this shit?!

Let’s give it a listen, shall we?

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

A Note On Random Chance

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

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

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

Anyway, back to the music.

The Music

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

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

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

So we’re down to 21 tracks.

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

The Five Originals

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

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

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

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

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

It’s not bad.

The 16 Covers

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

9 Contemporary Covers

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

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

There seem to be two reasons for these covers:

To Show Off His Crooning Voice

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

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

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

To Have Fun

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

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

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

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

7 (or 4) (or 5) Traditional Covers

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

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

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

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

The Little Sadies / Sadists

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

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

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

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

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

Trad Today Gone Tomorrow

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

It’s a mixed bag.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Disappearing Act Of Belle Isle

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe, but humour me for a moment…

Is Self Portrait a buried classic?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wasn’t expecting Bob Dylan.

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

A fool such as I.

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

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

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

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

Work fucking hard!

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

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

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

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

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

How many songs?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How many gigs?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How many masks?

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

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

Take this example from 1986:

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

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

MR JONES: What are you, then?

BOB DYLAN: I’m just me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

UPDATE: 16 July 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘The literary equivalent of gold dust’ Or: How hard is it to publish a novel?

Back in the winter of 2017, I went on a novel-writing course with literary agency Curtis Brown. For me, it was a way of forcing a decision point: do I really want to get any deeper into the world of publishing? The answer, as it transpired, was ‘no’.

The reality of the industry is that authors work extremely hard, often alone, typically for several years, without reward. At the end of this purgatorial period, a successful author might be paid a retrospective minimum wage for their work. An unsuccessful author will, of course, get nothing more than an RSI.

As much as I enjoy writing books, I much prefer the higher pay, shorter deadlines, tighter feedback loops and creative collaboration of writing for radio or theatre.

Occasionally, however, an author will get everything their work deserves. One such is Kirsty Capes, a fellow student on that novel-writing course three years ago. Her book, Careless, was published last week to great critical acclaim. Benjamin Zephaniah called it ‘the literary equivalent of gold dust’.

To give you some idea of the work that goes into writing a novel, Kirsty came to that Curtis Brown course with over 100,000 words of the story that became Careless. I remember reading and critiquing a couple of the chapters she’d written.

I say ‘critiquing’—really my feedback was nothing more than an appeal for more of the same. It was clear that Kirsty’s writing was destined for the big time: an exciting, young voice, telling an important, often untold, story about social care. Even so, it took her more than three years to edit the novel and get it into press.

Comparing the opening lines of Careless with the opening lines I read all those years ago, I was fascinated to see that not a great deal has changed. The framing has been tweaked and moulded, yes, but the imagery not materially altered.

The long and short of it is this: it’s the kind of day where the heat sticks plimsolls to tarmac and I’m standing in the toilet in the Golden Grill kebab shop with a pregnancy test stuffed into my backpack.

Novel writing is not for everyone. It’s not only about talent. It’s about hard work and sheer bloody mindedness. Well fucking done, Kirsty.

Now, finally, I can get my hands on the rest of the book!

Buy Careless wherever you can—ignore where it says ‘pre-order’, it’s already out.

How Long Does It Take To Write an Entire BBC Radio Sitcom?

Over the past half decade, Foiled has grown from low budget fringe theatre actually staged in a hair salon to being the most popular comedy show ever broadcast by BBC Radio Wales, starring legends of stage and screen including Ralf Little, Miles Jupp, Felicity Montagu, Vicky Vox and Sir Derek Jacobi.

That’s all well and good, but great comedy doesn’t get written without great data. Am I right? Probably not, no. Nevertheless, ever since Foiled series one, I have counted the hours I spend writing using both time tracking software and my own high-tech kitchen timer and spreadsheet combo.

What this means is that I can now go back through four years of data to tell you exactly how long it takes to write an entire BBC radio sitcom series. How cool is that?

🎭 Read the rest of the story over on Toggl

BBC Radio Foiled: 2017-2021

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

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

Foiled is over! No, like, over over

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


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

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

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

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

From room to remote

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

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

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

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

Mourning the ghosts of ideas we never had

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

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

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

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

Next time will be different

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We will never have a next time.

Or will we?


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

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

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

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

Just one last time.

And, if that’s a success, well then…


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

The thing is dead, long live the thing!

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

Foiled Series 4: On air

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

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

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

How to write a BBC radio sitcom during a global pandemic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We made that deadline.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two Georges on art as activism

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

When artists become advocates
The audience become activists

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

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

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

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

Are you a hedgehog or a fox? The value of persistence in writing

Are you a hedgehog or a fox? It’s a question that goes back to an Isaiah Berlin essay and one that helped Malcolm Gladwell determine that he was destined to become a journalist, not an academic.

A fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one important thing.

The distinction is wafted at, but totally unexplained, in this slightly unhinged profile of Gladwell in the Independent. The most interesting thing Big Malc says is when he’s asked whether he has ‘a gift’ for writing:

[I]f someone worked really hard could they write like me? Yes. But it’s a bit like saying, if someone worked really hard they could have your personality. My writing is who I am. Is good writing available to a larger group of people than we think? Absolutely. But the amount of work that goes into my writing… The last piece I did was 12 drafts, and if you write 12 drafts, I guess it’s going to be a pretty good piece, but how many people will do 12 drafts?

It’s not a style; it’s who you are. It’s not a gift; it’s hard work.

Which brings me neatly onto…

The value of persistence in comedy writing

I’m currently reading Good Habits, Bad Habits by Wendy Wood, one of the world’s leading social psychologists. She describes one piece of research that shows how we consistently underestimate the power of persistence.

At Northwestern University, Brian Lucas and Loren Nordgren asked a group of comedians to come up with as many punchlines to a setup as they could in four minutes.

Then they had to stop and tell the researchers how many more ideas they could come up with if they carried on for another four minutes. Typically, the comedy writers reckoned that they’d come up with fewer ideas after the break.

But when they were forced (presumably at gunpoint) to work for another four minutes, the comedians actually came up with more ideas than they expected—almost as many as in the first burst of creativity.

Lucas and Nordgren’s follow up studies showed that we particularly underestimate the value of persistence for creative tasks. In one experiment with over two hundred participants, the responses generated while persisting with the task in the second time period were significantly more creative than the responses generated initially.

The well doesn’t run dry, it runs deeper.

You can read a nice summary of Lucas and Nordgren’s work here. I’ve doubled the duration of my work sessions from 45 to 90 minutes.

Rocking rejections: ‘I really admire their chutzpah!’

A television pitch that I helped write was passed on by a production company this week. This isn’t, in itself, much of a surprise. Rejections happen all the time in life, let alone in television. But the manner of this particular rejection was, let’s say, interesting.

To be fair to the rejector, her words weren’t necessarily meant for our eyes — she was replying to another developer who’d forwarded our pitch to her — but nonetheless, I found those words, let’s persist in saying, interesting.

The email began:

It’s nice to hear from you — thanks for getting in touch with us about this project. I certainly admire their dedication and determination with this, they’re not ones to take no for an answer are they?!

And continued:

The project wouldn’t be one for us though at the moment unfortunately […] It’s a real shame because, as I say, I really admire their chutzpah!

Sending a pitch out to television companies looking for scripts to develop isn’t usually what I’d call chutzpah and the language of this particular rejection could be read as patronising, but that would do a disservice to the truth: chutzpah is what it takes to get stuff made.

Chutzpah is exactly what T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock struggled with: ‘Do I dare disturb the universe?’ and later, equally as ambitious: ‘Do I dare to eat a peach?’

Needless to say, Prufrock ends his days gazing out to sea, wondering ‘would it have been worth while, to have bitten off the matter with a smile’? He’ll never know.

Chutzpah gets things moving. Chutzpah is what Prufrock needs to squeeze ‘the universe into a ball, to roll it towards some overwhelming question’.

That question, for Prufrock as for us, isn’t necessarily a cosmic one. It might be as simple as following up on an unanswered pitch I sent to the Guardian last week: I know you can’t reply to every pitch, but just checking — did you get my email?

The developer was absolutely right: dedication and determination are essential character traits – in pretty much every human endeavour, let alone the creative arts. We need to keep putting out what she calls chutzpah: a thick skin she just helped make thicker.

At the end of her TIFF masterclass on The Female Gaze, Jill Soloway, crediting filmmaker John Cassavetes, says:

The job of the artist is to inspire the people with money to pay for the art. The people with the money never want to pay for the art. They are only there to make the money.

[…] Half the job [of being an artist] is making the art and the other half is being a politician for your art and coming up with a believable, positive, forward-thinking, money-making story around why your story matters.

So what have you been rejected for recently? Follow it up: maybe with an even more forward-thinking, money-making story, or simply by trying to inspire some other person with money to pay for your art.

Now is not the time to step back into the shadows, like Prufrock, and cry out, ‘No!’:

I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two

Instead: follow up, finish the scene, be there when the curtain falls.

The Rule of Three: Sitcom Families

I’ve been listening to an excess of the Rule of Three podcast recently. As a podcast about comedy writing, it’s pretty much perfect audio for a comedy writer. I make a lot of notes.

(For those of you who are new here, I am one half of the comedy writing duo behind BBC Radio sitcom Foiled – permanently unavailable on BBC Sounds. Series 4 will be out in September — assuming I stop listening to podcasts and actually start writing…)

In an excellent episode with Katy Brand, Rule of Three hosts Joel Morris and Jason Hazeley discuss the concept of the ‘sitcom family’. The characters don’t have to be literal family — although in a lot of cases they are — but sitcoms are often built around family-type dynamics.

For those of you familiar with Foiled, you’ll recognise that the characters are, at heart, a classic Sitcom Family.

  • Tariq (played by Garnon Davies) is the ‘dad’
  • Roger (Miles Jupp) is the ‘loose-cannon stepfather’
  • Tanisha (Stephanie Siadatan) is the ‘mum’
  • Richie (David Oakes) is the ‘older child’
  • Sabrina (Beth Granville) is the ‘younger child’
  • Frankie (Garnon Davies again) is the ‘youngest child’

These roles weren’t always in the writing. We didn’t go into the process thinking, ‘We need an older child, who can that be?’

In the first scripts, on the page, there wasn’t an awful lot to Tariq’s character. It was only at the read-through, when Garnon played Tariq as a world-weary, dead-pan ‘dad’, that the character and, more importantly, the ‘sitcom family’ dynamics clicked into place.

Garnon gave us a ‘dad’ that we hadn’t even realised we needed. Genius.

Life should be lived in shorts and sandals

There isn’t an awful lot of serendipity built into my writing process, but occasionally I accidentally dig up something worthwhile that I’d completely forgotten about.

As I’ve mentioned before, I use the last few days of the year to peer back at the past and to throw forward to the next. While hacking through the state of my existence, I decided to search my writing archive for the word ‘life’ – and was surprised to rediscover the following unpublished poem from 2015:

Life should be lived wearing shorts and sandals

Life should be lived wearing shorts and sandals
Dinner should be littered with corks and candles

Life is a matter of taking your chances
Making the most of your circumstances
Taking up hands at dinner-dances
Falling in love with the merest of glances

Life should be lived as much in the sea
Entwined in a hammock, or under a tree
Vows should be made down on one knee
In the dark, in a church, in Tennessee

Write your own doggerel verses
Sprinkle your talk with Shakespearean curses
Pocket your change and don’t pinch purses
Petition the government to hire more nurses

Don’t be afraid to spend time alone
Enter outdoors and exit your phone
Listen closely, you can still hear the silence
Traffic and television are an odd sort of violence

The sky is a constantly changing companion
Instead of a down, it’s an up sort of canyon
Every breath is there for exploring
Forget all I’m saying and take up drawing!

But pepper your life with shocks and scandals
Life should be lived wearing shorts and sandals

Overheard on a train

A monologue, delivered by a young woman to her friends (and, incidentally, the rest of the carriage) on a GWR train from Cholsey to Paddington.

I got Netflix last night. It represents a real turning point in my life – basically an admission that I’ll be lonely the rest of my days.

I’ve always borrowed Netflix off my girlfriend or the person I was seeing so not getting Netflix forced me to continue the pursuit of love. Now I’ve got my own Netflix I don’t need to go out anymore. I’ve given up.

On the plus side, though, getting Netflix means I don’t have to stay too long in toxic relationships – that’s worth £10 a month!

Actually it was £6 because I got the individual account. They boosted me to premium for the first 30 days – I only wanted it for Christmas.

So I spent all last night watching Don’t F*** With Cats. Everyone’s talking about it – where have you been, under a rock or something?

I don’t know anything about animal cruelty, so I thought it’d just be that woman who put the cat in the bin, but it wasn’t.

Sauna Stories: The Millionaire

There’s nothing like a public sauna for meeting people you wouldn’t otherwise meet. The health benefits are well documented, but the real value of a sauna is in the friendships you make, however brief.

Saunas are too small for private conversations. None of us can help eavesdropping and I’ve not met anyone yet who minded.


Jack caught my attention with the conversation he was having with his pal. They sat down heavily on the wooden slats of the sauna in my local leisure centre.

Jack’s friend put his feet up and asked: ‘What’s your business name gonna be?’

Great, I think, I love hearing about people’s mad business plans.

‘What do you mean?’ Jack replied.
‘I thought you were going to pretend you had a business,’ his mate says. ‘But you said you needed to make up a name.’

Pretend? Make up?

‘Nah,’ Jack says. ‘I’m gonna tell her it was my grandad’s business.’
‘Oh, and you inherited?’
‘Yeah. So if she asks any difficult questions, it doesn’t matter when I don’t know the details.’

Her? She? Inherited? Difficult questions?

‘Like, if she asks what kind of car I drive,’ Jack continues, ‘I’ll just say an Audi S4 and tell her my grandad’s the one who was into cars.’

That seals it: these guys are clearly planning some kind of fraud or, at the very least, catfishing on Tinder.

I interrupt: ‘What on earth are you talking about?’
Jack looks up from the floor, a bit sheepish. ‘It’s a new E4 dating show.’
‘What, really? I thought you were catfishing!’
Jack laughs. ‘Nah. This girl has to choose between four millionaires – except one of the millionaires isn’t a millionaire.’
‘And that’s you?’
‘How could you tell?’ Jack and his mate laugh. ‘I haven’t got a clue what millionaires do. I’m more of a Lidl kinda guy.’
The woman sweating beside me joins in: ‘Oh, I love reality shows!’ she says. ‘How did you get it?’
‘They just messaged me on Insta,’ Jack says.
‘Is there a prize?’
Jack scratches his head. ‘I guess the prize is her,’ he says. ‘The producers can’t tell me much, but they say she’s a ten.’
I’m not sure I like the general drift of this show. ‘What’s her prize, then?’
‘What do you mean!’ Jack says indignantly, before laughing at himself. ‘Her prize is all the swanky dates us four take her on, I suppose.’
‘You’re not paying, though, are you?’
‘No – that’d give the game away straight up. Cheeky Nandos, love?’
The woman on my left laughs with unpolished delight. ‘Or maybe it’s like Love Island and she gets a cash prize as well.’
‘I applied to Love Island this year, actually,’ Jack says. ‘Got down to the final round.’
‘Amazing!’ the woman says. ‘Are you gonna apply again?’
‘Definitely. Next year I’ll have this E4 show on my CV and I’ll be able to say I conned a girl into thinking I was a millionaire – hopefully.’

(This story was, of course, first written up as part of my daily diary.)

Trust The Process On writing habits

Last Sunday I finished reading Atomic Habits by James Clear. With its tawdry promise of ‘a revolutionary system to get 1 per cent better every day’, I resisted reading this book for more than a year.

I wish I hadn’t.

It’s an excellent summary of the current research on habit-building and habit-breaking.

One of the deceptively simple insights that has stayed with me is that every action you take is a vote for your future.

If you write one newsletter, then that’s one vote for becoming a newsletter-writer. If you only ever write one newsletter, you’re not going to accumulate more than one vote and you’re unlikely to become a newsletter-writer. That single vote will be swamped by all the other votes you’re constantly casting for other future selves, whether that’s ‘master carpenter’ or (in my case) ‘internet browser’.

If you keep publishing newsletters every week, then you’re regularly casting votes for ‘newsletter-writer’ – and, more than 150 Fridays later, here we all are.


What’s made this newsletter-writing habit stick for the past three years? I think there are, appropriately enough, three major reasons.

Firstly, and most importantly, I’m accountable to my readers. I have made a promise to write something interesting for you to read every Friday and I want to make damned sure I deliver. So thank you for sticking with me. You are my habit!

Secondly, I have a set time every week that I publish: Friday. If I miss a Friday, like I did last week, then I publish as soon as I can. Missing one Friday deadline isn’t a disaster and skipping a whole week is hardly likely to cause much of a cataclysm either, but habits like this are all too easy to let slide.

As James Clear says: don’t miss twice. I’ve now got this motto written down in the notebook where I record my work progress.

Thirdly, I enjoy writing. Writing is creative, obviously, but it’s also critical. Writing is a way of being in the world. Putting words down on paper forces me to think a lot more about what I do – and pushes me to do a lot more than I think.

Writing the scripts for Foiled is a slightly different experience. Rather than delivering content directly to an audience every Friday, the accountability for a radio series like Foiled lies in making my co-writer laugh and in regular deadlines throughout the three-month writing process: pitching story ideas, drafting story beats, writing the first and second drafts, and incorporating writers room punch-ups.

What makes a writing habit hard is when there is no one reading.


Since 2014 I have written a regular diary and I’ve been aiming for at least 1,000 words per day since 2015. I have more or less managed to stick to this habit, as this count shows:

  • 2014: 314,084 words across 353 entries
  • 2015: 392,241     ”           ”       354     “
  • 2016: 327,837     ”           ”       320     “
  • 2017: 248,865     ”           ”       254     “
  • 2018: 292,593     ”           ”       313     “

But in 2019 I’ve only written 159,220 words in my diary – less than half you’d expect by the beginning of December.

This year so far, I’ve skipped 141 days. On 42 percent of days, I haven’t written anything at all in my 2019 diary. Can this still be called a habit?

In comparison, during my most ‘successful’ diary year of 2015 I missed only 11 diary days, just 3 percent.

Browsing the data, it’s obvious that James Clear’s rule holds fast: don’t miss twice. It’s astonishing how quickly a habit as strong as my five-year daily diary can break down after I skip just one day.

When nothing bad seems to happen after I skip a second day, my habit easily unravels and I go one or two weeks with hardly an entry.

So don’t miss twice.


I say that nothing bad seems to happen, but my daily diary is where I work out all the kinks in my life, personally and professionally.

My 2015 diary was enough of a success for me to start putting together a collection of highlights.

Looking back over words that I wrote nearly five years ago, the value of this daily habit comes clear. I can watch as moments of realisation surface, like in this entry from 5 January 2015:

There is no such thing as a great writer or a great anyone. We are all partners. My story is your story. My story is only a story if you’re invested in it; the language of finance is not misplaced. You invest in my story; you become a partner – an equal partner, no less. My story cannot get off the ground if it doesn’t have outside investment. I need that, we need that, the story needs that.

Diary writing is one of the most important habits in my life. I can scarcely pinpoint what the diary does for me, but I know that I am better off when I am writing regularly for nobody but myself.

Postscript: There’s something similar going on with running. At first glance, the benefit of a running habit is that you get outdoors and stay relatively fit. But running is so much more than that. On my lunchtime run today, for example, I came up with six good ideas that I can immediately implement to save money, improve my fitness and get better at business. Not bad for twenty minutes’ work.

UPDATE 6 January 2021: In 2020, I’m pleased to report that my diary-writing habit bounced back, despite, well, everything. I wrote a total of 319,893 words over 335 days, missing only 8.5 percent of that momentous 366-day leap year.

Foiled IV Commissioned

The big news from my keyboard is that Foiled has been recommissioned for a record-breaking fourth series on BBC Radio Wales.

When we put down our deposit on a flat in Edinburgh during the 2016 Fringe Festival, who’d have thought that, four years later, we’d still be writing about a little hair salon in the Welsh valleys?

(Certainly not the Arts Council, who turned us down for funding. Ahem.)

It’s almost as hard to believe that – barring any Shining style breakdowns – we’ll be back here in six months with another four complete scripts, ready to record. So send your plot ideas to the usual address. (Not a joke.)

A huge thanks is due to every one of you for listening over the years. And, if you’ve somehow missed Foiled despite my constant carping, then I can only repeatedly apologise on behalf of the monopolies commission for the absurd fact that it’s only ever online for 30 days. The rules might be changing this year. Might.

My Reading: Summer/Autumn Edition

This week I came across an excellent long read written by Craig Mod and bearing the superb title, Stab a Book, the Book Won’t Die: On the resilience of books in the face of apps, attention monsters, and an ad-driven online economy.

In this entertainingly comprehensive examination of why books still exist, Craig quotes Philip Roth, speaking in 2009:

To read a novel requires a certain amount of concentration, focus, devotion to the reading. If you read a novel in more than two weeks you don’t read the novel really.

As someone currently pootling through Jane Eyre, this struck a chord with me. Two weeks? I’m currently on Week 5 and I still have fifty pages to go.

I do see what he means, though. The faster you read a book, the more ‘into it’ you become, and the more, perhaps, you get out of it. Certainly, a little more speed might make it easier for me to recall beside which hearth poor Jane is once again warming her ice-crusted fingers…

Reading 20-30 pages a day would be enough to get through most books in a fortnight. That seems doable – surely I could find 25 to 35 minutes for reading in a day?

In 2019 so far, I have finished eight novels at an average reading speed of 18 days per book. Six of them I finished inside Roth’s two week deadline, but three (if we also include Miss Eyre) took me more than five weeks each.

Dear reader, you are my witness to a solemn vow: I shall add to my evening bedtime reading a morning session. What better way to start the day than with ten pages of invigorating fiction?

The Pick of My Summer/Autumn Reading

  • A Passage to India (1924, fiction) by EM Forster. A splendid novel that dances wittily around the social politics of British rule in India, before exploding in your face. A Passage to India frequently makes ‘all-time best novel’ lists and I can make no accusation of false advertising.
  • Bitter Lemons (1957, non-fiction) by Lawrence Durrell. An autobiographical account of the three years (1953-1956) Durrell spent on Cyprus, as British rule disintegrated. A wise companion for any journey east; alternatively, ideal for those seeking literary sunshine during our dull northern winter.

My Current Autumn/Winter Reading…

  • Jane Eyre (1847, fiction) by Charlotte Brontë.
  • Underlands (2019, non-fiction) by Robert MacFarlane – a gift, thanks T.
  • Neurotransmissions: Essays on Psychedelics from Breaking Convention (2015, non-fiction) – also a gift, thanks B.

What have you been reading – anything good? Share with us!

Foiled is finished

Foiled is over for another year.

It’s odd because, of course, Foiled has yet to begin for most of you. The broadcast dates are lined up in August, but all our work is done and we’re already looking ahead to what’s next.

Tom and Dave have finished editing episode one and say that it sounds like the best thing they’ve ever produced. Certainly from the writing side, I feel like – somehow – Beth and I have delivered on our grandiose ambition of writing our own (more modest) version of Radiohead’s OK Computer.

Which brings us to the cheerful faces of those sprightly actors in the photo above. Our guests for this last episode were Sir Derek Jacobi – so good they knighted him twice – and his partner Richard Clifford.

Sitting in the rehearsal room with these two grandees of British stage and screen was a pinch-yourself moment. All the actors were stealing glances at Sir Derek as if they couldn’t believe what was happening – but also to learn from a master of their craft.

Every single one of Derek’s choices was spot on. He took the lines and lifted them beyond wherever they deserved to be.

In all the knight-of-the-realm kerfuffle, Richard Clifford could be overlooked. But that would be a serious mistake. An equally fine actor, although undecorated, Richard brought relish and gravitas to his role as Professor of Celtic Studies from the University of Monmouth.

And, so I’m told, the actors we know and love from Foileds past, raised their game to match theirs. I can’t wait to hear the finished audio.

This episode was written inside three weeks – only 30 hours of scriptwriting compared to the 50 or so for the other three episodes.

With no writers rooms, we had only ourselves and a little assistance from producer Tom Price on story, and from comedian Ed Easton for a few lovely gags here and there.

Everyone has said maybe we should write all our episodes with a three week deadline. Maybe they’d be right, but that method leaves no leeway for mistakes.

In three weeks, we could afford course correction, but no full rewrites. If we’d fucked up too badly, then who knows what would’ve happened. Maybe it would’ve ben fine; maybe Sir Derek might have politely declined. Who knows?

People like Sir Derek get fifty offers a day. He has no need for a job on Radio Wales. No need whatsoever. This is a man who has played Hamlet at Elsinor Castle.

Derek and Richard only do passion plays now and it’s down to my wonderful writing partner that they felt this project was worth their time and creativity.

As they rushed off home to get back to their dog, Derek chortled: ‘Let’s get this on TV, shall we?’

What a day.

L-R: David Charles, Beth Granville, Richard Clifford, Derek Jacobi, Tom Price, David Oakes, Garnon Davies, Dave Cribb, Stephanie Siadatan

What does it take to write a BBC radio sitcom?

The scripts are in! We record tomorrow!

In our third year of Foiled, I feel like I can say something about the rhythms of writing a radio sitcom. Settle in, this is a long read.

Writing a sitcom episode is like building a house (kinda)

In reality, Beth and I usually start laying bricks before we’ve got any blueprints. If you hired us as builders, you’d probably want your money back.

Whether any of those early bricks make it into the final building is a matter of luck. The risk is that we’ll fall in love with some clever brickwork, which makes it all the harder to tear the folly down later.

But it feels good to write ourselves into the series, reacquaint ourselves with the world and the characters. Unlike in construction, in writing nothing is ever really wasted.

Typing through a script, once the plans are finally in place, is pretty easy now we’re in our third year – a matter of placing one brick alongside another and remembering cement. By this point, we know the returning characters back-to-front; and the hardest part is always putting together the episode’s new characters.

Once a story is written out from start to finish, it’s clear where the problems are. We can start the heavy manual labour of ripping walls down, moving the bathroom into the kitchen, and adding a loft conversion. This part of the process feels very physical – huge swathes of script cut and, sometimes, pasted.

As the story sorts itself out, we move onto the fine work of painting and decorating, sanding and polishing. At this point, we can stand back and admire our handiwork, or – as so often happens – realise that the whole edifice is about to collapse and we need to buttress our walls or tear them out.

The timeline of construction

Foiled was re-commissioned at the end of 2018. The first mention in my diary of any writing comes in mid-February. We were slow to get started, basking in the glory of a commission, putting off the actual labour.

By this point we’d already got the broad ideas for stories: something about a work exchange, something about hedgehogs, and something about a cash and carry. It’s not a lot to go on.

We really started working on the scripts from the beginning of March, with ten days together in London. By the end of this spell, we’d pulled together the ‘beats’ of each of the episodes, and run them past the producer with mixed results.

The ten weeks through the rest of March, April and May were mostly spent working separately, with increasing dedication.

By the end of April, we’d sent the producer first drafts of two of the episodes. The third episode follows in early May. The producer sends us notes. We tear our hair out in gratitude.

The week before the writers rooms, we send the producer what we think will be approximate working drafts. We’re wrong, for two of the episodes at least. Frantic re-writes ensue.

The two days of writers rooms at the end of May give a burst of energy to all three scripts. Which is handy because we only have 9 days before the recording.

Luckily, by this point I’m in London and Beth and I can work together more closely, in the high-rise, riverside solitude of my friend’s flat in Woolwich (thanks Tim!).

A hangover the day after the final writers room doesn’t help, but long days mean that by Monday lunchtime we can send the producer what we think are two finished, record-worthy scripts – Episodes 1 and 4.

Again, we’re wrong about one of them – something we realised only yesterday.

In the meantime, we go over the final script – Episode 2 – with a fine tooth-comb, tightening the nuts and bolts of the story and turning place-markers into zingers. We send it off on Wednesday morning in a blaze of emotion.

Why are we doing this, again?

That night, I re-read Episode 4. After two days’ creative distance, and having raised the bar with our work on Episode 2, we decide that the mid-section is completely wrong. One of the characters is just floating along and a pair of titanium toaster tongs appear at the episode climax for no discernible reason.

It’s not just the amount of work needed that’s a concern. The scripts have already been sent to the actors and the sound engineers have already done the work needed to make sure all the SFX are in place. A new script for Episode 4 is completely out of the question.

So yesterday morning, I start working on the re-working, and Beth starts working on the producer. She jokes that she’ll pull out of the project if he doesn’t accept the new script. At 2pm, with the ‘new’ script almost finished, I go for a swim in the Thames to await his answer.

None of us do this for the money. I don’t think the producers have made more than a few pennies from Foiled. Beth and I get paid, of course, but it’s not much more than minimum wage.

The only real reason for writing and recording Foiled is for the sake of the work itself. This is our creative reputation. Tomorrow’s recording will almost certainly outlive all of us. The oldest recording in the BBC archives is dated to 1890. The scripts that go into St David’s Hall tomorrow will be humbly printed on eternity.

So it’s fair to say that my leisurely swim yesterday was quite stressful. Could I even bear to sit in the room as the old script was being recorded?

The good news is that our producer gave the new script the green light. And we worked into the summer dusk sanding and polishing Episode 4. It’s now a piece of writing that I’m proud of and I reckon it might make you laugh.

So the writing is done. All that remains, for me at least, is to send one of the actor’s a recording of my sister’s partner speaking Danish, and to get myself to Cardiff tomorrow.

Oh – and then start work on Episode 3, which we’ll record in a studio in London at some point over the next month. The cycle continues!


For those of you interested in a more detailed breakdown, the first two weeks of March involved about 8 hours per week of script-writing. We stepped up script-writing to about 11 hours a week for the seven weeks from the beginning of April up until the week before the writers rooms at the end of May. For the last three weeks I have done almost nothing other than work on Foiled: more than 20 hours a week on script-writing alone.

I write this not to show off, but to show you honestly the work it takes to write three episodes of a radio sitcom: about 150 hours of pure script-writing, plus plenty of other work behind the scenes on story-writing and talking things over with Beth and the producers.

By complete coincidence, I got an email this morning from a man who saw Foiled at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2016.

We met you in George Square gardens in 2016 when you talked us into coming to see Foiled that afternoon. Brilliant!! We’ve raved about it ever since and watched its success since then.

It blows my mind to think that there are people out there who, years later, are still thinking about the work that we’ve done. This is what I mean when I say that we don’t do this for the money.

Series 3 of Foiled – indeed all of Foiled since 2013 – has been a wonderful experience; thank you for your support and I really hope you enjoy listening as much as I’ve enjoyed writing.

UPDATE: After writing this, a fellow writer of radio sitcoms got in touch to share his data. In terms of hours, I was reassured how similar they were: he takes 55-65 hours per episode.

Where we differ is on how spread out those hours are. Beth and I spent about 74 days working on Foiled since the beginning of March; my correspondent and his writing partner cover similar ground in only 40-50 working days.

But they do have 30 years’ writing experience on us!


We’ve been in the writers rooms for Foiled and we record next Saturday so I’ve spent most of the week staring at a computer screen and laughing.

To the untrained eye, there really is very little discernable difference between writing comedy and insanity.

It’s hard to explain what’s so great about the Foiled writers rooms, but I’m not exaggerating when I say they are my favourite two days of the year.

I suppose, imagine that you’re buckles deep in the hardest part of your job, with only two weeks until the deadest of deadlines. Then imagine that your supervisor pays for six specialists to come in and work on your project with you for two days.

There’s no element of competition, everyone wants the best for the project and, ultimately, it’s still your name on the project.

Wouldn’t that be cool?

So the next 8 days will be spent trying to sift what was just funny in the room from what might actually be funny on the radio.

I’m sure these last 8 days will still get stressful, but it’s a whole lot less stressful for us now, knowing exactly what needs to change, and with a carnival of suggestions on how.

There’s also not much better feeling than having a roomful of professional comedians laugh at something you wrote. Imposter syndrome is fading…

Foiled Diaries: On First Drafts and Producer Notes

And, just like that, it’s May and we’ve only got 5 weeks to finish Foiled. So far, we’ve delivered the first drafts of 3 of the 4 episodes, and got notes from the producer on 2 of them.

First drafts are funny beasts. Every time we finish a first draft, we think that it’s more or less great. In spite of all experience, we hope that this time will be different and the producer’s only note will come back: ‘This is so good, would you mind turning it into a Netflix series?’

Strangely, this is yet to happen.

All first drafts have problems. Some bigger than others. But those producer’s notes land in our inbox like a letterbox turd, stinking the place out with their effortless skewering of the plot holes, character motivations, and the Purple Line of Doom that strides over pages of boredom.

Made all the worse by the fact that, deep down, we knew these problems were there all along, and all we can say is daaaaaaaaaaaaaaaamn.

The only remedy to producer’s notes is, of course, panic. Swiftly pursued by exactly the same attitude that got us into this mess: sitting down and writing a lot more words.

Nothing ever came out right first time, and this series won’t either. But it’ll get written the same way it did last year: patient hours in front of a computer screen. Putting the time in. Sitting there and writing until eventually something good pops up.

The skill, if there is one, is in spotting the good when it pops, grabbing hold of it, pinning it to the page and not letting go until it’s been bled dry.

This episode of Rule of Three with Miles Jupp analysing his favourite episode of Frasier has given us good writing energy. Now all we’ve got to do is avoid plagiarising!

The Meteorological Secret of Comedy

The secret of comedy, they say, is timing. This is such a well-known truism, that it has, in its fame, become false.

The only remaining secret of comedy is the weather.

Like a meteorologist, comedians (by which I mean anyone attempting to make another person laugh, whether professionally or not) see the world around them in topographies of pressure.

They are constantly monitoring the world around them for areas of rising pressure that they can lance like cloudbursts with their wit.

The well-timed release of such pressure is what makes people laugh.

Ah – timing!

Yes, timing, although no longer much of a secret, is still important to comedy.

Lance too early and there is no pressure to release; lance too late and all kinds of things might go wrong. In stand-up, the audience might have got bored with the preamble; in conversation, they might have moved on to a different subject; in conflict, they might have got too wound up and become closed off to a comic intervention.

Say the wrong thing at the wrong time and the atmosphere can turn pretty sour.

That’s why the BBC won’t let us have a plot-line about a missing stylist – even though she wasn’t missing at all, but on holiday. They don’t want to risk the atmosphere turning sour.

Part of reading the meteorological chart of conversation is knowing not only when and where pressure is building, but also whether to lance that pressure at all.

Not all human interaction is served by comedy. There is a reason why lawyer and stand-up are separate professions. It’s not that the lawyer can’t use comedy, nor the stand-up evidence and argument, but each will favour the discourse style of their field.

You may spot the perfect moment to lance the pressure in a tense negotiation over the custody of your children during divorce proceedings; that does not mean that the judge will look favourably upon a hilarious reference to his wig.

On the plus side, you will know almost instantaneously that you have misread the comic moment. If you are sensitive without being precious, you use this failure to calibrate your instruments.

What are your instruments? Simply: your eyes and your ears. But more on that next week.

Foiled nominated for Celtic Media Award!

Pay attention team because I’ve got some very important newses. We are salon of the year!

Wales’ least active salon of the year?

No, awards-wise: we are Clipadvisor’s Salon of the Year.

Really?! Us? How exciting! How?!

Oi! What do you mean how?

So we wrote way back in 2016 and now, just 3 short years later, Foiled has been nominated (Hold on, we haven’t won?) for best radio comedy at the highly prestigious Celtic Media Awards.


Compared to theatre, writing for the radio is a strange experience. We write the scripts, have a laugh recording them, listen to the broadcast with butterflies in our stomachs and then – nothing.

No one reviews radio comedy. No one gives us the listener figures. We have no idea how the show’s gone down with our audience – or even if there was an audience. We have no idea which episodes – or even jokes – worked for our listeners, which didn’t, and why.

In Bird By Bird, Anne Lamott paints a pretty picture of this eternal, gaping, yawning silence. She’s writing about book publishing, but it seems to me that the sense of emptiness and craving is the same for radio.

There will be a few book-signing parties and maybe some readings, at one of which your publisher will spring for a twenty-pound wheel of runny Brie, and the only person who will show has lived on the street since he was twelve and even he will leave, because he hates Brie.

So it’s wonderful for something, some acknowledgement and approbation, to come crawling out of the ether and say: YOU DID A THING AND WE LIKED IT.

The nomination cites my personal favourite episode from the last series, starring Miles Jupp as Richie’s dad. Sitting across from Miles as he read out words that I’d written was one of the most thrilling events of my life last year.

There is nothing more rewarding for a writer than to watch a talented actor rub your words together and make sparks fly until the whole thing catches fire.

But where do we go now, now we’ve been nommed by the Celtic Media Awards? Will the Celtic imprimatur spur us to write ever funnier scripts – or will we become complacent, crippled by our glory like Wet Wet Wet after Four Weddings came out?

I guess I can turn to Anne Lamott again:

The fact of publication is the acknowledgement from the community that you did your writing right. You acquire a rank that you never lose. Now you’re a published writer, and you are in that rare position of getting to make a living, such as it is, doing what you love best. That knowledge does bring you a quiet joy. But eventually you have to sit down like every other writer and face the blank page.

Series 3.

For now, big love to everyone for supporting Foiled. I’ll get Beth to give you a shout out in her acceptance speech. (Hold on, we still haven’t won?)

The Foiled Diaries: Life as a Way of Writing

Foiled has been clipping along all week, with the usual ups and downs. Example: We thought we had a lovely opening episode until our producers said the BBC won’t countenance anything to do with people going missing. Spoil sports.

As I write this, Beth is out networking with potential famos for Series 3. She’s pulled in some wonderful guests over the past two years: Felicity Montagu (currently in This Time With Alan Partridge), John Culshaw (Dead Ringers), Ralf Little (The Royle Family) and Miles Jupp (News Quiz). Blows my mind to see them all written down like that.

When writing with someone else, you have a balancing act to perform between working alone and working in tandem. Too much of one and you fall into narcissistic solipsism; too much of the other and you die from caffeine poisoning.

I think my favourite, most productive moments of writing Foiled have come in two thankfully common situations:

  1. Beth pacing up and down in the kitchen, and me at the keyboard frantically trying to synthesise her comic stream of consciousness into grammar.
  2. Working in the same house, but in different rooms at our different tempos, with enough excuses to share snippets while re-boiling the kettle or filling a bowl with homemade soup, and occasionally, for a change of scenery, swapping scripts.

These shared moments are why I don’t think I could ever be a solitary novelist – or at least, not a contented one. For some people, writing is a way of life; for me, life must be a way of writing.

OK Foiled

People talk about the difficult second album, but what about the third?

Studious readers of this newsletter will know that Beth and I are in the throes of writing Series 3 of breakout hit BBC Radio Wales sitcom Foiled. (I’m pretty sure I can use the term ‘breakout hit’ thanks to our repeat on Radio 4 Extra last year.)

Over the past three years, we have developed enormously as writers of sitcomedy. Broadly one could sum up the progress as psychological, from scatterbrained panic in the first series, through sophomoric eustress in series two, right up to this year’s waaaaay too casual late start.

Fingers crossed that our trajectory as writers is following the course of everyone’s favourite emo-rockers, Radiohead.

Our first radio series was very much a Pablo Honey – an enjoyable collection with some terrific moments, but very much the sound of a group of people figuring out who they are and what on earth they’re supposed to be doing.

Extended Metaphor Tracks: Prove Yourself, swiftly followed by I Can’t.

Our second series was The Bends – emerging from the zeitgeist with a confident sound that draws attention from some of the industry’s biggest names.

Stretched Metaphor Tracks: Writing: Sulk. Recording: Nice Dream.

Third time around, we’d absolutely love to present for your listening pleasure the OK Computer of radio comedy – as rule-breaking as it is ground-breaking; as rabidly reviewed as it is devoured by an adoring public.

But, frankly, this analogy is growing thin, and we haven’t got two years to write the bloody thing.

Tortured Metaphor Tracks: Fitter, Happier – and almost certainly very soon Climbing Up The Walls.

Having said that, we’re feeling pretty Lucky about our ideas for episodes one and three, and if we get anywhere even half close to the artistic and commercial success of Radiohead’s third album then one day, maybe, just maybe, Beth and I can finally launch our own line of commemorative beach towels, RRP £35.00.

Tame the Mane

After last week’s missive on rejection, this week I’ve dabbled in a little rejection therapy. I can’t tell you the story of what I tried on Wednesday, but I can describe what happened when I took rejection out for a spin yesterday.

Picture the scene…

Drenched on the aptly named Fishponds Road, I walk out of the rain and into a hair salon. A lone woman sits in an armchair (I can already see that it’s a special kind of salon), footling with her phone.

‘Hi there. I’ve got a bit of a strange request.’
Oh god. That sounds like I’m going to ask for a lumbar massage.
‘Well, it’s not that strange. I’ll explain. I’m a comedy writer and – ‘
Confused looks. Legitimise, legitimise!
‘It’s for the BBC.’
Back on track.
‘It’s a sitcom set in a hair salon and I like to come into salons and, you know, soak up the atmosphere.’
What am I saying? Who, you know, knows that?
‘Would you mind if I sat here for fifteen minutes, if you’re not busy – or you can get on with what your doing, I can sit in the corner while you…’

This is a definite no.

She puts her phone down: ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’

I’ve caught Lara at a good moment. She’s got 15 minutes before her next client – an unusual occurrence at Tame The Mane, the only all-vegan, all-natural hair salon in the UK.

Teaching English to Libyan teenagers divided by Gaddafi’s Little Green Book, Lara dreamt of escaping that dead-end and running her own business. She spent 3 years writing up a business plan to set up a cafe, before her little brother had the temerity to suggest she open a salon.

Temerity because Lara hates hairdressers and, even more so, salons. She couldn’t sleep for three nights after her brother’s infuriating suggestion.

But the barb had lodged.

‘I’ve loved hairdressing since I was five or six. I used to beg my grandmother to do her hair. Every Sunday night: Can I do your hair, can I do your hair?’

As a teenager, Lara learnt hairdressing from an Italian woman and cutting hair became a great sideline for cash right through her English degree and even while she was teaching.

Then she realised that maybe her brother had a point: she couldn’t be the only one who hated your typical salons.

Sometimes we struggle to see what was right in front of us all along.

Tame The Mane looks more like a stylish living room than a styling salon. Potted plants crawl along any available surface. The walls are decorated with portraits of colourful women – not crass posed photographs, but original oils and pastels.

Lara wanted to create an anti-salon atmosphere and thought that her all-vegan, all-natural approach would draw in an exclusively (and quite possibly penniless) hippie clientele.

There’s a record player (‘Can’t play records, though, because of all the hair – didn’t think that one through’) and a bookcase where she does book swaps.

But she was far wrong about the hippies.

The mirrors are covered with scarfs, and Lara will only remove them if a client asks. So she gets a lot of clients who suffer from anxiety in other salons. ‘I get people who haven’t set foot in a salon for years.’

(Plus it’s weird, huh, having someone watch your every move while you do your job. I hate people looking over my shoulder when I write.)

Lara passes me what looks like a laminated menu. It’s a lucid explanation about why she only uses natural products, about how the salon business is so often built on convincing customers to put crap in their hair.

She offers suggestions about how we can reduce our reliance on products that aren’t all that different to Fairy Liquid, from diluting harsh shampoos to simply using a squeeze of lemon juice.

The back of the ‘menu’ has two recipes for Lara’s products: an oat conditioner and a flax gel. They sound delicious. There are more on her blog, free for you to create for yourself. If you don’t have the time, Lara’s got her own apothecary out the back.

With a mischievous smile she suggests that, if you want a protein-enriched wash, you should really just crack an egg on your head (although not in her vegan salon). It strengthens the hair, and gives a really nice shine, she says.

As an English graduate, Lara often dreams of writing her salon stories up. I’m lucky to have the chance to turn lives like hers into, well, this. And who knows what snippets from our conversation might turn up in Series 3 of Foiled…

I believe in Rejection!

It’s not every week that I read a book cover-to-cover in under 48 hours.

Admittedly, at only 200 pages Rejection Proof by Jia Jiang is a quick read, but I absolutely guttled those pages.

Why? Because Jiang offers a creative solution to a problem that I think almost every live human being struggles with: rejection.

This video is how I first heard about Jiang’s 100 Days of Rejection experiment. It’s a good primer for what follows. Enjoy.

Dave’s Short History of Rejection

My history of rejection is short not because my life has been an endless cavalcade of glorious successes, but because, for the most part, I have gone to great lengths to avoid sticking my neck out and asking for anything, you know, worthwhile.

Example 1: Romantic Rejection

It took me until 2013 before I first told someone I really liked that I really liked them. Terrifying.

They did indeed reject my approach, but frankly by that point I didn’t care. The panic over saying anything to this person far outweighed the disappointment of the negative response by about a million to one.

This million-to-one ratio is about the same for ‘Love interests I longed to approach’ against ‘Love interests I actually approached’.

Combined with my everyday fear of social rejection, the number of missed opportunities for connection with other human beings is staggering, and all because of an egotistic, and unnecessary, fear of rejection.

Example 2: Book Rejection

For the most part, I have avoided professional rejection by not taking a profession. When I have held jobs, I have tended to do the work and then go home, not doing anything that would call attention to my work and thus invite rejection (or, indeed, approbation).

I have, however, written several books. Occasionally, I have sent the manuscripts to agents and publishers and have been rejected every single time.

I think I’ve received about 5 rejection letters in my life, ever, including the following unexpectedly expensive one.

Hilariously, this rejection letter was sent without the correct postage. I had to cycle to my local Royal Mail depot and pay £0.11 in excess postage, plus a £1.00 administration fee.

J.K. Rowling famously received 12 rejections for Harry Potter alone; William Golding got 20 for Lord of the Flies; Carrie by Stephen King garnered him 30 rejections before selling over a million copies in its first year and being turned into, not one, but three feature films, and, improbably enough, a musical.

It’s pretty easy to avoid rejection if you don’t put your work out there. I think it’s fair to say that I haven’t embraced professional rejection despite knowing full well that it is an essential part of the process.

Example 3: Rejection on the Road

Hitchhiking has taught me a lot about rejection. Standing on the side of a busy road with a smile and a sign, or walking up to strangers in service stations and begging for a lift: it’s a cold recipe for relentless rejection.

Even so, somehow I’ve always managed to get where I was going. Somehow, as Jiang says, ‘rejection has a number’ and persistence usually pays off if you’re willing to be flexible.

My least successful hitchhike involved about 3 hours of rejections – but I still got a ride (after changing my approach). How’s that for rejection? Pretty good, I’d say.

In most of the rest of my life, however, I give up after a single rejection (if I even get that far). Why is that?

Example 4: Critical Rejection

When me and Beth took Foiled to Edinburgh in 2016, we wanted to be judged. So much so that we actually paid a PR company to get critics in to review our show. We positively invited rejection.

The hefty weight of that judgement was shared between us, but it still wasn’t very nice when we got a stinking review from a well-respected critic.

I don’t think we ever seriously doubted our material, and it helped that the audiences didn’t seem to either, but the review was (and still is) there in black and white on the internet. A fulsome rejection of everything we’d worked so hard to create.

In this case, there was nothing we could do except rationalise what he had to say (it’s just one opinion, it was based on a preview, and we’d already addressed some of his criticisms) and use it as motivation to make the show the best it could be.

We didn’t shut down the PR company and tell them to invite no more critics. Thankfully, the critics kept coming and Foiled ended up with a couple of phenomenal reviews, which we could use to sell the show to producers and, ultimately, to the BBC.


Example 5: Reader Rejection

My Friday newsletter is a weekly opportunity for people to reject me and my work. The unsubscribe button is right there at the bottom of every single email.

Even if people aren’t unsubscribing, I can still see who is opening the newsletter and reading to the end. It’s usually just under half.

After over 2 years of newsletters, I have become comfortable with the fact that some people will unsubscribe and no longer read my words of comfort and joy.

I have eventually come to see unsubscribes in a positive light. It’s not that I’ve failed them, or that they are repulsed by the very essence of my being; it’s just that we weren’t a good fit for whatever reason.

Indeed, with the unsubscribers gone, my reader percentage numbers should go up – and that’s a good thing. Seen this way, unsubscribes are a gradual honing of my audience to the shape of my work.

Notice that, unlike my approach to publishing, I have persisted at newsletter-writing, drilling through the prison walls of ‘rejection’ to the green pastures of unbounded creativity.

(Whereupon I abuse my freedom and write ridiculous sentences like the foregoing.)

The lesson is that avoiding rejection can be incredibly damaging – not in the short term, perhaps, but certainly and abundantly in the long term.

What opportunities have I passed up through fear of rejection? Could I be a published novelist by now? Could I have found the loves of my lives?

Fear of rejection is a crime of omission. If you give yourself no chance of rejection, then you also have very little chance of progress.

Tolerance of rejection is the difference between the approach and avoidant mentalities described by Carol Dweck, and these mindsets spread their influence through every domain of our lives.

If we follow the society status quo, it’s pretty easy to feel accepted. But is society perfect as it is? Is the world? Is life?

I don’t think so – as much as my gut screams at me to conform or die.

So, this year, I want to put myself into situations where I am rejected. And I want those rejections to really hurt.

Painful rejections will show me that I’m doing meaningful work, that I’m opening myself up and making myself vulnerable in the places that really matter, deep down.

And, if Jia Jiang’s experiment is anything to go by, this should be fun!

UPDATE: Comedian Emily Winter has written about her own 100 Rejections challenge for the New York Times.

In pursuit of 100 rejections, I put myself forward for opportunities I’d previously thought were for smarter, funnier, cooler people. And sometimes I wasn’t rejected. I wrote for new publications, got a joke-writing gig on my favorite comedian’s radio show and interviewed guests on my podcast who I’d thought wouldn’t waste their time on me.

Emily ended the year with 101 rejections and 39 acceptances.

[O]ur experiments weren’t a magic solution. Andy is still unattached, and I’m still living paycheck to paycheck. But we’ve taken more chances and come closer to getting the things we want. So I don’t regret committing to this masochistic rejection project. It made me feel embarrassed, depressed, overwhelmed and self-indulgent. But I also felt that I was moving forward instead of standing still.

Daves of the Year 2018

2018 is over and it’s time for me to reflect on what the heck has happened on this blog in the past year.

In 2018 this humble blog somehow garnered 18,218 views from 12,064 visitors. Bearing in mind that up to 60% of web traffic is ‘fake’, this is remarkably similar to 2017.

Thank you!

I published 85 new blog posts in 2018, including 29 about Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl.

However, the most-visited blog posts from the past year were very familiar, proving that – one exception aside – my best content is behind me. 🙂

  1. Hypnagogia: How to Dream like Thomas Edison (Published in 2010, 2,343 views)
  2. Vipassana Meditation at Dhamma Dipa: What I didn’t do (2010, 924)
  3. Charity or Solidarity? (2015, 850)
  4. Experiments in Publishing: Unbound Crowdfunding (2016, 747)
  5. Lessons from 10 Years of Hashimoto’s Hypothroidism (2018, 660)
  6. Bob Dylan and William Shakespeare: A Reference Guide Part I (2010, 655)
  7. Vipassana Meditation at Dhamma Dipa: What I did do (2010, 572)

More Stats From 2018

  • I did 13,111 press ups
  • I did 1,633 minutes of yoga
  • I ran 755.7km over the course of exactly 100 runs
  • I spoke to friends 806 times
  • I wrote 292,593 words in my diary
  • I spent 1,533 hours and 50 minutes on my computer (data recorded from Valentine’s Day): an average of 4 hours 47 minutes a day. According to global RescueTime data, this is about average.
  • About two thirds of that time was what I’ve deemed to be ‘productive’. According to the same RescueTime data, this is above average.
  • I read 41 books (a personal best since records began in 2013, beating 37 in 2014), including 17 fiction (also a PB, beating 11 in 2013) and 24 non-fiction
  • I visited 26,251 unique webpages (a few more than this, actually, but it’s a good estimate)

Here’s to another year of reading and writing!

Books of the Year 2018

As I’ve mentioned previously, I keep data. I’m particularly proud of the data I have collected over the last 6 years about my reading.

Firstly because I think reading is quite good, and keeping the data reminds me how important books are for my contentment.

Secondly because my reading tells a story.

For example, I finished a total of 41 books in 2018 – that’s 46% more than last year – and I read twice as much fiction.

Sherlock Holmes would deduce from this information that I had much more free time to spend reading in bed, and that, in all likelihood, I did not have a girlfriend. Elementary!

Anyway, enough chit-chat. Here are the 7 books I’m most glad I read this year, in order of their date of first publication.


Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake (1946)

This is actually the second time I’ve read this astonishing novel, but the first time was about 17 years pre-spreadsheet so basically never happened.

It has been said that the British were so traumatised by the Second World War that the survivors couldn’t muster the creative energy to write a truly defining war novel.

The missing space on our collective bookshelf, it has been said, was (appropriately enough) occupied by the Americans and, in particular, by Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.

But in my opinion (and I wasn’t there) the horrifying aesthetics, the elaborate grotesquerie and the shadowy skulduggery of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy (of which Titus Groan is the first volume) was exactly the novel that the Second World War deserved.

It’s also very funny.


Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl (1946)

Wait, did I only read this book for the first time this year?

This book has been so instrumental in my thought patterns for the past 9 months that I can’t possibly have only finished it in March.

But the spreadsheet doesn’t lie.

I’ve written about this short masterpiece far too much in this newsletter already, but if you’re catching up then here’s the link to my famous 5-a-Day Book Cult.

(Incidentally, I’m pondering another accessibly high-brow Book Cult next year. Maybe Marcus Aurelius. How does that sound?


Draft No. 4 by John McPhee (2013)

This is nothing more than a collection of essays that long-form non-fiction specialist-generalist John McPhee has written about his craft, and previously published in The New Yorker and elsewhere.

In other words, it is an indispensable logbook for any writers who one day dream of, say, writing a whole book about a tennis Grand Slam semi-final.

McPhee’s writing process is singular, and he is well-aware of the luxuries he has enjoyed with editors over the years. But his commitment to structure (how the heck do you write a whole book about one tennis match?) is an inspiration to us lesser mortals.

McPhee also shows us around his Luddite collection of low-tech and no-tech writing tools that fondly remind me of my own attachment to the now-out-of-production Alphasmart Neo.


The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben (2015)

This book made headlines for popularising the ‘Wood Wide Web’, the idea that plants, and in particular trees, communicate with each other through a network of fungal connections in the soil.

The headlines were deserved, but the book goes much further.

Peter Wohlleben is himself a forester, which lends an authority to the book that would be missing were it written by a generalist, or even an academician.

I believe him when he argues that trees in a forest care for each other when they are sick, to the point of sending vital nutrients to mere stumps.

I believe him as he carefully builds a vision of a forest as a society operating on time scales that are scarcely imaginable, let alone observable to the human eye.

I believe him when he suggests that this society of trees is as important to humanity and the rest of our ecosystem as the oxygen we breathe or the water that nourishes us.

And, when he politely points out that the forest is the only reason that we have such an amenable atmosphere in the first place, I believe him.


How Emotions Are Made by Lisa Feldman-Barrett (2017)

I remember banging on about this book back in the summer. And I’m going to bang on about it again, goddammit.

Lisa Feldman-Barrett is a practising neuroscientist. This makes me like her.

In this book, she turns the ‘classical’ model of emotion completely on its head. This makes me like her even more.

To sum up her argument in one sentence would be grossly unfair to Feldman-Barrett and do the book a heinous disservice.

So here we go:

Emotion is a social construct: it’s a linguistic concept like ‘hot’, ‘ours’ or ‘breakfast’, and has a social reality that is not ‘real’ out there in the world.

This is good (if vaguely mind-blowing) news. It means that we can directly change our experience of the world by changing the emotional layer of constructs that we slather all over our lives like hot butter on our breakfast toast.

It means that, like the US Marines, we can decide that pain is just weakness leaving the body.

It means that we can go out and buy a book that changes the way we model the world (or at least read more about such a book on Dave’s blog).


This is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay (2017)

There are very few books that you think might change the prevailing political attitude to our public services, and even fewer that do so while being ALOLZ (‘Actually Laugh Out Loud’ – blame inflation).

Not so funny is the fact that Junior Doctor Adam Kay got so fucked off with the way the NHS was being treated by our politicians that he quit his job and become a stand-up comedian.

It’s a sorry state of affairs when ‘stand-up comedian’ is considered by anyone to be a more promising career than – well, almost anything – but certainly than being a doctor.

Please give this book to anyone who thinks that doctors are greedy selfish oafs or that the NHS should be replaced with Logan’s Run-style executions. Thanks.


How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan (2018)

Like John McPhee or Malcolm Gladwell, Michael Pollan is another one of those specialist-generalists who have done so much to popularise overlooked corners of our world.

In How to Change Your Mind, Michael Pollan shows us the vast spread of our psychedelic knowledge, from the natural history of the mushroom and the social history of the 1960s, through his own first psychedelic experiences undertaken as research for this book, to the modern renaissance of brain imaging and medical therapies.

Our doctors are desperate for new treatments for serious afflictions like depression and addiction, and, in combination with a global movement to ease restrictions on the use of other previously taboo compounds like marijuana, this feels like the start of a big decade for psychedelics.

This book is a good place to start if you want to make sure you’re on board before take-off.

Honourable mentions go to Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, The White Tiger by Aravinda Adiga (both fabulous fiction), Carpe Diem Regained by Roman Krznaric (on how to seize your days), The Antidote by Oliver Burkeman (anti-positive thinking) and Into The Woods by John Yorke (storytelling).

Further Reading

  1. Really interested in my reading? Feel free to peruse my Books of the Year from 2017.
  2. The Nine Best Books Ever Written in the English Language (2010).
  3. Also: visit a library. Before the internet we had books and it’s not been an upgrade, he emailed with zero sense of irony.

The Limits of Rationalism: The Existential Journey of Levin in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina

I recently finished reading Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy and was struck by the philosophical wranglings of the character of Levin, particularly in the final book.

Some readers might write Levin off as a bit of a prig, especially in contrast to the wild passions of the eponymous female hero, but I find his incessant naval-gazing appealingly familiar.

In this blog post, I’ll pick out Tolstoy’s line of argument that takes Levin from the torment of existential doubt to the clear certainty of his purpose in life. Continue reading The Limits of Rationalism: The Existential Journey of Levin in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina

Foiled Diaries: Finito!

The Foiled recordings last weekend went down an absolute storm (see above cast photo). In the memorable words of one superfan: ‘That made Series 1 sound shit.’ And I couldn’t agree more fervently.

Probably my favourite moment of the whole weekend was the read through before what will become Episode 2. Sitting across from the exquisite Miles Jupp as he transformed my words into actual live comedy is something I will never forget – barring a governmental lobotomisation programme or degenerative brain disease. Continue reading Foiled Diaries: Finito!

All News isn’t Good News; Most News is Crappy

Today I thought I’d buy a couple of newspapers, one national and one local, and cut out the stories that I considered ‘positive news’.

What do I mean by that? Although not necessarily ‘good news’ (certainly not in the Biblical sense), for me positive news stories are reported with an eye on constructive analysis and solutions. Above all, they steer clear of threatening or fear-mongering language.

Armed with my copy of The Guardian and The Bournemouth Daily Echo, I set about on the floor with a pair of scissors. Continue reading All News isn’t Good News; Most News is Crappy