I am reaching the end of my winter sojourn in Bristol. I have been here, more or less, since October last year, and next week is my last.
Since leaving London permanently at the end of 2017, I have learned one thing beyond doubt: my local habitat plays an incalculably important role in the things I do, the people I see, and how I feel day to day.
Let me begin this piece by saying that I have enjoyed spectacularly wonderful days in London, and look forward to many more in the coming years. I particularly cherish the cacophonous abundance of nations and cultures, and the lush green patchwork of parks and gardens.
However, the accusation often levelled at London, particularly by outsiders who have never lived there, is that it is ‘too big’. After 16 years in the Big Smoke, I think I am at least qualified to agree.
Of course, many people live extraordinary lives of joy and connection in London and have no trouble bounding over its sprawling morass, or simply confining themselves to a more manageable slice of the metropolis.
I was not one of them. And, after a year apart from the old mistress, I think I understand why.
The truth isn’t earth-shattering; in fact, it’s pretty obvious if you’ve ever spent any time as a human being. In a smaller conurbation, it’s easier to be sociable and that sociability is what makes me happy.
Nowhere worth going in Bristol is more than about 20 minutes by bike from my house. The compact nature of the city has two effects on the population, each reinforced by the other, which I reckon result in a more sociable society.
In Bristol, I know that whomsoever I meet, and wherever I meet them, there’s a decent chance that they’ll live within about 20 minutes’ bike ride of my house. And this makes it likely that I’ll meet them again, either by chance or by appointment.
This likelihood has two consequences. Firstly, I’m less likely to be a dick to strangers because, chances are, our paths will cross either personally or through presently unknown mutual friends. Secondly, I’m more likely to actually meet up with people I do hit it off with, simply because it’s easy.
The second effect of smaller city size is that no one here has a commute time of more than 20 minutes – at least in theory.
Commute time is famously correlated with positive affect, or happiness. If you’re commuting for more than an hour a day, then you’re likely to be miserable. Or at least more tired and less likely to want to meet friends – old or new.
The converse is true. In a city like Bristol where commute times are short, people are more likely to go out after work to socialise and they’re less likely to want to stay in bed all weekend just recovering from work.
As a consequence, they’re more likely to have hobbies, be members of a club, or just have a local drinking haunt.
And what does that mean? You’re more likely to bump into them out and about, you’re both more likely to be feeling positive and open to new encounters, and, thanks to the size of the city, also more likely to meet up again.
In a city with an enormous population, people just don’t matter so much. You’re vanishingly likely to bump into the same stranger twice. When you spot a friend on the tube, you both react like you’ve won a million quid on the lottery.
(In fact, your chances of winning a million quid on the lottery are better. Assuming you only have one friend.)
If you’re confident that you’ll never see Joe Bloggs again, you’re hardly likely to be bursting with social bon homie – or even goddam polite, are you?
I speak primarily for myself, but that’s why we Londoners walk around with our eyes downcast, hidden behind sunglasses, or buried in newspapers and smartphones. What’s the point? Strangers aren’t important because they’re just one in ten million, all too often mere obstacles to circumnavigate on our way through the chaotic city.
In smaller towns, people are more precious. There are still 460,000 people here in Bristol, still plenty of personalities to mesh or clash with, but each one has a distinct value. I’ve bumped into countless people I know here. It happens most days I leave the house – and I’ve only been here for 4 months, remember.
Every interaction here carries higher stakes: we are both on something like our best behaviour because we both know that the social network will, more or less, hold us to account – even if we don’t get on personally.
Of course this close community has its downsides. London’s anonymity is not without its pleasures. You can do anything, be anyone, and reinvent yourself every other Tuesday if you please. But, for me, this luxury is not worth the price I pay in social isolation.
This photograph is a sideways look at the distinctive bark of a maiden sweet chestnut standing in an otherwise harmless green in Wanstead, East London. The tree is nearly 6 metres all around, making it a veteran, perhaps 275 years old. What were you doing in 1744?
One tree that won’t be making it into the next century was found sprawled across the high street in the early hours of the weekend. 50mph winds were too much for the pavement roots. Wanting to write some sort of eulogy, I asked the tree surgeon / coroner what kind of tree she was. He drew a hand across his stubble and shook his head. ‘I know, but I don’t know the name.’
It was one of those March evenings where the sun lingers longer than you expect for a land that’s still expecting winter.
I had been writing all day, under the influence of a single dried psilocybe mushroom. In contrast to my sedentary workflow, I enjoyed the feeling of my legs pushing away the ground and graffiti.
I ran alongside Eagle Pond with its magisterial views of the Crown Court, dodging between two boys on push bikes, and brushing the shoulder-slung handbag of a schoolgirl who veered digital drunk into my path.
As I ran into the forest, the water table rose to meet my trainers with a soft spring. Mud sops and splashes. My eyes and feet worked together deftly, skipping over roots, sinking into the sand, to the edge of the mythological Hollow Pond.
The pond is the afterlife of a gravel pit and you can easily imagine how its undulating dunes and hidden beaches inspired a song by Damon Albarn.
It’s Swallows and Amazons in Central London, paradise for fisher fowl. The swans make perfect mirrors of themselves in the water. Moorhens and coots dip and defend their territory. Canada Geese make a fuss on the shoreline.
Two laps of the skirt of sand that rifts and riles the waterside: I pause on a beachy spit, lie on the scratchy ground and stare out at a forested island, a puff of traffic just beyond the tree line. Fractal oaks against the sundown. A crescent moon hanging among twisted ribbons of cirrus.
Looking around at the amphitheatre of trees, the beech, the oak, the willow and the birch, for a moment I wonder why we can’t see sense sometimes, and I think of a friend who is a very long way away.
On the other side of a lapping inlet, another man is drawn to the water’s edge, where he holds a telephone conversation. I decide to run another lap of the pond, and surprise a woman with a red scarf as I crest a bank of gravel. ‘Glorious evening,’ I say. She looks up from her phone. ‘Yes, it’s lovely.’
Travelling by bike is a dream, travelling with a bike is goddam nightmare – if (like me a week ago) you don’t know what you’re doing.
This is a recollection of my ‘with bike’ journey from London to Patras in Greece, via Paris, Milan and Brindisi. The trip took 5 hot days in July 2018, encompassing 3 trains through France and Italy, and 1 ferry across the Adriatic. Along the way, I got to see plenty of Paris, a little of Milan, and probably too much of Brindisi’s gelaterias!
Before I left, I searched everywhere for information about travelling across Europe with a bike and, although I found plenty of Official Rules, I couldn’t find anything like this – a straight-forward guide written by a cyclist who’d actually been there and done it.
I was pretty stressed on this journey simply because I didn’t know how much to trust the Official Rules – will Eurostar mistakenly send my bike to Brussels? will there be enough space on the TGV in among justifiably irate commuters? will my bike bag be 12cm too long? and will I be sent directly to jail without passing go by an over-officious guard?
After a week of fluctuating symptoms of flu, yesterday I was reminded of the healing power of a bike ride. The weight came off my shoulders as I cycled through the southerly reaches of Greater London, through back streets of spring sunshine, between grid-lines of daffodils, dodging traffic on green lanes and perking up parks. Has it been so long since that summer we shared?
The feeling was of a reflective moment during the playing of an old song: a moment of calm and clarity. It made me pick up the phone this lunchtime and call an old friend, stitching something together where it might have severed. That’s what a bike ride can do: that’s what being in-the-world can do – for me, at least.
After the Christmas, the crisis. Or Crisis. I’ve been helping out at the Harris Academy Bermondsey, where volunteers have transformed a school into a week-long refuge for homeless people.
Crisis at Christmas is a brilliant idea that started 50 years as a publicity stunt. It’s been going every year since and thousands of homeless guests come through the doors for the good food, companionship and advice offered by more than 11,000 volunteers across 13 sites in London and beyond. Continue reading After the Christmas, the Crisis
Yesterday, I arose before dawn and cycled to the New River Head in central London. From there, with my path companion Anna Hughes, we walked twenty-eight miles up river to Hertford, where I jumped into the water and finally let my swollen feet smolder. Then I came home.
Why? Why, oh why did I do this? Why, oh why, oh why did I do this again? In the last couple of years, I have walked from London to Canterbury and from London to Winchester: long, long rambles of dozens of destructive miles. It is now time to explain why I do this to myself.
But there are as many different explanations for my rambling as there are answers to the question, “Why do I breathe?” Anatomically-speaking, I breathe because my lungs expand and contract as I inhale and exhale air, because my blood cells demand a constant supply of oxygen, because breathing is a part of the process of respiration, because I must convert my food into energy, because I am alive and not dead.
Rambling is the same: explanations are buried from skin to spine, depending on where you look, but it’s all happening, it’s all true, all the time.
(I should warn you that I’m not a qualified anatomist, but that shouldn’t pose a serious danger to your health as you read my Anatomy of Rambling.)
The Central Nervous System of Rambling
A walk must have a destination. Please don’t take this literally. Yesterday, we walked to the source of the New River in Hertford, a clear geographical destination, but, in truth, this endpoint was arbitrary. “Getting there” was a sideshow in a destination that transcends geography; this was a destination of the mind. Journeys are not relocations, but transformations.
For that reason, journeys are popular in fiction: from The Odyssey, through Don Quixote to The Lord of the Rings. Odysseus is lost on the seas for ten years before reaching his home on Ithaka; Don Quixote rambles La Mancha as a knight errant, defending the honour of Dulcinea del Toboso; Frodo journeys across Middle Earth to cast the One Ring into the fiery Cracks of Doom.
But the ostensible “goal” of the story – home, honour, the Cracks of Doom – is never the true purpose of the story. Nobody reads The Lord of the Rings and wishes Tolkein had edited the story more concisely: “Hobbit walks to Morder, loses precious ring, saves Middle Earth.” That does not capture the essence of the story. (Although would make a reasonable stand first for the Daily Mirror.)
In the same way, I will not remember our New River walk as: “Walked to Hertford, went swimming, came home tired.”
A fictional story begins by breaking the stasis of the protagonist’s normal life. The characters then enter into a remarkable world, of blinding Cyclopes, tilting at windmills and fleeing Ring Wraiths. This is where the plot happens. Finally, their object achieved, the characters return to the real world to continue their lives.
But they, and the reader with them, have been fundamentally changed by the events of the plot.
A walk is the same. For the duration of the walk, Anna and I stepped outside of our everyday lives, into a fantasy world of coots and sunburn, until we reached promised land of Hertford. We collapsed to the ground and ate Nutella. Then we went home.
But the path and the journey had as transformative effect on my psyche as any journey by any fictional character.
The Skin of Rambing
These concepts of destination and transformative journey are the central nervous system of our anatomy of rambling. Now we’ll move more quickly through the skin and bones, starting with the skin, the superficial nicities of a good walk.
Maps. Maps, although not necessary, are beautiful. I make no apology for that.
Food. One of the untrammeled joys of taking physical exercise is the eating. As Anne from the Famous Five was wont to remark: “I always think food tastes so much nicer eaten out of doors.”
Walking companions. I’ve had the pleasure of many different companions on my walks, from friends to felines. Each one has shown me a part of themselves, and parts of myself, that I didn’t know existed.
Wildlife. This could be anything from watching two ponies groom each other to cuteness death on the bank of the canal, to spitting out an errant gnat; from the swish of tussock grass against your shins, to nettle rash.
Pain. Pain is central to the reality of rambling. Its purpose is to remind you that you are mortal, but, with fortitude, you can learn to persevere and create the order of progress out of the chaos of blisters and windburn.
Equipment. I revel in wearing a walking raincoat with a multiplicity of useful pockets or discovering that my pocket knife does have a tool for doing that thing.
Poetry and songs. Every walk has a particular rhythm, so it’s no surprise that every walk I’ve been on has heard me singing poetry and reciting songs. This time, Anna and I swapped Eliot and Hardy for Shakespeare and Browning.
Wayfarer’s Angels. (Not to be confused with Hell’s Angels.) There are always wayfarer’s angels, the people without whom the walk would be either impossible or difficult. The guy with ear defenders mowing the grass along the river path; the two young men tinkering with their sports car, who gave us an ice cold bottle of water; and of course Sir Hugh Myddleton, who four hundred years ago conceived and carried through his absurd idea of bringing drinking water from the springs of Hertfordshire to the slums of central London. Thanks angels!
Terrain and landscape. Nodules bobbling the path underfoot, water balming the blisters on your sploshed feet, hills that come tumbling down towards you, only to turn aside at the last moment. Walks are about the nuance of terrain, as well as the grandeur of landscape.
Weather. The breeze picking up the air conditioning coolness of the canal, the sun bleaching the cotton of your clothes, clouds twisting petit pains patterns in the sky. We’ve all seen the weather, but a walk makes you live the weather.
The Universe. It’s always there, believe it or not, but very rarely does it make its presence felt. On a walk, though, you can’t help but notice that the sun is traversing the sky, burning your neck in the morning and your nose in the evening; while, on a night walk, you can’t help yourself navigating by the stars and dreaming of the moonlight.
The Bones of Rambling
The bones of rambling might often go unnoticed in the flash and fawn of the superficial skin, but fear not: they are the structure over which the skin is stretched.
Smallness. A walk seems impossibly slow, particularly in these days of aerobatic travel. But that slowness means you cannot help but appreciate the smallest of noticings: a water boatman on the surface of the river, a buttercup blowing in the breeze, an orange ladybird on the back of your hand. Without these bones of smallness, the skin delights of wildlife and terrain would go unappreciated.
Vastness. A long walk covers such unbearably painful distances in such constantly observable detail that its very smallness, its very detail, becomes an astonishing vastness that brings awe to the cuffs of your heart.
Depth. Smallness and the vastness combine to bring depth to a walk that is unlike any other human experience. A walk grinds into your soul and brings forth an unexpected spring of introspection, inspiration and insight. You’ll find this in the conversations that bubble up between you and your companion, or that bounce around in your head alone.
The moment you never want the walk to end. There are always moments like this: lying in the grass on the edge of the canal, the botanical breath of canal zephyrs filling your lungs; or the clump of every inevitable bootstep on the yielding towpath grass, in smooth mechanical perfection, walking into the dipping sun. You realise that it can’t get better than this and any complaints are quibbles. Don’t forget to take this feeling back with you into real life.
The journey home, also known as “the great unravelling”. There is nothing more satisfying, more awe-inspiring and more nostalgic, than watching the landscape that you’ve toiled through all day unravel through the flicker of a train carriage window. The experience heals you and forms the foundation for encorporating your transformation into your everyday life.
The Soul of Rambling
Just as the sum of our human anatomy creates a being of more significance than blood, flesh and bone, so too the rambling anatomy, all told, transcends mere walking.
The path is the ultimate symbol of this transcendence because, as you tread each footstep along your muddy, downtrodden mistress, you cannot fail to realise that you and she are one. You become the path you walk.
Let me explain. Each step you take moves you one step closer to where you will end up. That much is obvious, but that step doesn’t take place in an inert geography: the landscape of the path exerts its influence on you too.
The New River Path leads to Hertford. Anna and I have now become People Who Walked To Hertford, with all that entails: the smell of coots pecking over sludgy river waste; the sight of balloons slinking over the dawn-lit skyline; the sound of the M25 snarling beneath, while our river sneaks into open country; the taste of brackish water when I dunk my head into the Lea. We can never forget those experiences, they have changed us.
There is too an equal and opposite: the path becomes you who walk. Each step you take becomes part of the path, treading down the mud and leaves, marking out the track for the next generation of walkers.
Some paths are easy, well sign-posted, or even officially recognised by the asphalt of modernity; some paths are more difficult, sometimes impossible to distinguish from the wilderness that encroaches.
The path you choose will influence the paths that your successors will walk, just as the paths that your ancestors pioneered have influenced your walking.
I am obviously talking, not just literally, but metaphorically. Our choices about travel and life in general are profoundly affected by the choices of our ancestors and the rest of society; likewise our decisions consequently influence the options available to those yet to come. Our choices are not inert either; our choices are never means, they are always ends in themselves, whether we realise that fact or not.
It’s not a great opening line, but it is accurate. At least, I’ve not met a funnier qualified Egyptologist. Tony Robinson doesn’t count; he’s an actor. Did he get a First in Ancient History and Egyptology from UCL? No. So screw him.
This is an auto-review of my stand up show at The Camden Head on the 4th of November 2012. You can listen to the whole show by clicking on the play button below. Let’s do this!
This is only my third gig on the London stand-up scene and there is an audience of about fifty people waiting to be entertained. Only three of them are my friends, so that leaves forty-seven people to win over. Forty-seven people. That’s two football matches’ worth (including a referee and two linesmen). Two football matches playing out in front of me and only three supporters. Sounds like Hackney Marshes on a Sunday morning. But it’s not; it’s the Camden Head on a Sunday night and these football teams are missing Downton Abbey and Homelands to be here. Sacrifices have been made. I’d better be funny.
I stay sober and don’t eat for hours beforehand. This, combined with the fact that backstage is a exterior fire escape, means that I’m shaking like a leaf, when that leaf has drunk too much caffeine. But I am also on stage and that means I am under threat. To my caveman mind, the audience are lions in the Serengeti. Instead of fight or flight, though, my only defence is having faster neurons than them. This is why I don’t drink beforehand, whereas they are drunk. Hopefully. I also have the advantage that I have written six hundred and fifty-six words of funny material and if I can only remember those six hundred and fifty-six words, then I will have made them laugh and the lions won’t eat me.
But stand-up is more than just paper writing; stand-up is the scent of blood. Stand-up happens live, in the Colosseum, a gladiatorial battle of wits between the comedian myrmidon and the lion audience. I’m lucky, these particular lions want to roll over and have me tickle their tummy. But, as in all human-feline flirtations, the cat holds at least as much power as I do. And there are forty-seven of them. Merely repeating written words into the arena might get a laugh, but it is the liveness of stand-up that has the lions rolling around on the floor like you’ve just sprayed the room with catnip. Every reaction from the lions, every laugh, every cough, every ooo, urhh, eww and whahey, is registered in my brain and my neurons must react with funny. That’s liveness.
I can feel a punch-line coming up and the lions aren’t ready, I back off and set them up again, this time they roll over and I tickle their tummies, before dancing back to go again. They howl and mewl at one joke, so I rub it harder; they roar again, I rub still harder; they roar a third time. These are the moments, off script, where the lions have forgotten they’re lions and the myrmidon is in complete mastery of the Colosseum. These are the moments where feline and human fall in love.
Five minutes later, I’m off stage and the game resumes with another gladiator*.
*This is a classical metaphor, rather than an Egyptological one, because the Ancient Egyptians weren’t barbarous animal torturers, unlike Boris Johnson.
I’ve come to Cholsey, in South Oxfordshire. Very nice. Normally I live in New Cross, which is in the London borough of Lewisham. Different, but also very nice.
The population density of Lewisham is 7,441 people per square kilometre. It is the 12th most dense place to live in England. “People going down to the ground, buildings going up to the sky,” as Bob Dylan once put it. Indeed.
If one A4 piece of paper was one square kilometre, this is Lewisham – crowded. Click for bigger image.
I walk about a kilometre to get to New Cross Gate train station. The thought that I could have up to 14,882 eyes on me during that journey is positively terrifying. No wonder we walk with our heads bowed down.
By comparison, South Oxfordshire has a population density of 190 people per square kilometre. It is the 249th most densely populated area in England, out of 326.
The same idea for South Oxfordshire. You can see the blobs are smilies now!
In the towns and villages of South Oxfordshire, it doesn’t feel sparsely populated, but the surrounding countryside is accessible and near empty. A country walk might have you crossing paths with one or two other people and a few cows. But that’s it.
Lewisham, on the other hand, is surrounded by Southwark (9,635 people/sq.km), Tower Hamlets (11,154), Greenwich (4,708) and Bromley (2,015). Not too many opportunities for escape. Even the Thames in London is busy with pleasure cruises, police launches and boat-folk.
It is perhaps fitting that the least densely populated place in England is called Eden, in Cumbria. Here, you can expect to share your square kilometre with just 23 other people.
Look at all that lovely white paper – smilies never had it so good!
“I wandered lonely as a cloud,” Cumbria’s most famous poet William Wordsworth once wrote, “when all at once I saw a crowd…” The crowd Bill saw, though, was not New Cross Gate during rush-hour, but “a host of dancing daffodils.”
If Sartre was right and “Hell is other people”, then Eden is paradise indeed. Escape the statistics and get more of this:
Yesterday, I went on a day-trip to Stamford Hill ↑, home to London’s largest community of orthodox Jews. I was an unashamed tourist: dawdling around in the sunshine, gawping at the sights, noshing my way through bagels – and, of course, taking tedious photographs to share with you today.
↑ I have no idea what this means, but it sure as hell tells me that I’m a tourist, that I’m an outsider looking in. I like this feeling. I like to be a tourist, it makes me see things.
↑ I do know what this means: this is called irony*! I really wanted to take a photo of an orthodox man who was hanging around near this sign.
This appositely named street is slap-bang in the orthodox heartland. Opposite is a bagel shop, a kosher meat shop and a kosher supermarket.
Followers of irony will also be pleased to hear that the West Bank is separated from the East Bank by a “weak bridge”. The residents of the West Bank are also fighting a losing battle to preserve the West Bank nature reserve.
I kid you not. ↓ (Although these workers are undertaking important conservation work, I’m sure.)
Another highlight of my little holiday was bagel-based. And… ↓
Yes. ↑ Aubergine and chilli peppers. Very pink. Quite tasty with the application of bagel, reminded me of a similar Turkish pepper sos I ate during my No Supermarket days in January.
On the Street
Nothing screams Jewish orthodoxy like a pram. The women also have head scarves or hats (sometimes with charming flowers affixed) and black coats and these odd heavy shoes stitched in leather.
The men wear double-breasted dress coats and stylish wide-brimmed hats, with matching hair-cuts – and glasses. All the men wear glasses, even the kids. Comes from too much reading. I also wonder if it’s a fashion, in the same self-defeating way that kids in my neighbourhood wear their trousers halfway down their arses.
Nothing scares me quite like a large group of people in uniform.
Orthodox men hurry past with mobile phones pressed to their ears – in silence – carrying transparent plastic cases tucked under their arms, which hold (I guess) a book of the Talmud or the Torah and – a pillow?
Three kids walk past, shaved heads and hats and long coats and glasses all – they can’t be much more than twelve years old. They run across the road, chasing the flash of the green man, slightly awkward, like little boys tucked up in oppressive school uniforms.
A tired looking young woman rolls past with her pram.
I love the fact that I can travel eight miles in my city and find another place entirely. Stamford Hill isn’t all about orthodox Jews, it’s a diverse, fascinating area – like the rest of London.
I walked with swans, alongside the reservoir, admiring the community gardens. I choked on the dust of yet more ‘living space’ construction (19 minutes to Bank) – and was surprised that notices posted were inviting applications for jobs on the building site from local residents. And I took a stroll through the library, browsing the extensive Torah collection, with DVDs and CDs for children.