The Secret to a Proper Holiday

Over the years, I’ve been lucky enough to go on more than 60 holidays, both in the UK and abroad. In the course of all that to-ing and fro-ing I’ve been to 33 different countries. I’ve also taken 77 aeroplane flights.

Flights and Holidays
Fancy flights and holidays graph. Click to enlarge.

But finally – after going through 77 passport controls, 77 customs halls, 77 departure lounges, 77 immigration queues, 77 more customs halls, 77 baggage carousels and 77 arrival halls – I’ve realised one thing: flights aren’t holidays.

You could be forgiving for thinking that they are. There’s something almost second class about going on holiday in the UK – so that only leaves Abroad. And everyone flies to Abroad (except the odd booze-cruise, obviously).

But why does everyone fly to Abroad?

There are some obvious and not-so-obvious answers to that question.

1. It’s quicker to fly.

Obviously. But there are two aspects to the speed:
a. Not everyone has the time to take the leisurely travel option, even if they wanted to. We only get two weeks’ holiday a year and we want to spend as much of that on a beach as possible.
b. Travel is horrible, so the less time spent in transit the better, even if it’s as traumatic as flying.

2. It’s cheaper to fly.

It really is, incredibly. Even if you cycle the whole way and swim the Channel with your bike strapped to your 48″ chest – you’ll still spend way more on food during your Ironman expedition to Magaluf than you would have done on a Ryanair return.

One way to Bordeaux by bike cost me near enough £240 in calorific fuel. The Ryanair flight back was £60.

3. Because everyone flies to Abroad.

Huh? Everyone flies because everyone flies? Yeah. That’s right. I’m saying that we don’t even think about it. Imagination disengages at the point of picking up the Thompson brochure. We think about the destination, not about how to get there.


But, but, but my friends!

1. Flying is only quicker if you are travelling long distances.

And travel is only miserable if you’re cooped up in Ryanair-sized cattle-pens and subjected to intrusive and very dull immigration procedures.

2. Flying is only cheaper if you are travelling long distances.

And, even then, only if you forget that my ten days’ cycling was so much more than transit – it was a wild-eyed sun-blaze of fun.

3. Flights aren’t holidays!

If there’s one thing I learnt while I was slogging over the hills of Normandy on my way to Bordeaux – or while I was standing around on the side of a road in Glasgow trying to get a lift to Ben Nevis – or while I was trudging through the snow, sixteen hours into an eighteen hour walk home for Christmas – it’s that flights aren’t holidays!

In fact, the less flighty the holiday, the better. Less flight means less stress, less queuing, less being treated like cattle – and, therefore, more fun, more unique – and more holiday!

And this should be a cause of optimism for everyone.

If we don’t have to fly to Abroad, then the world of holiday is blown wide open to us. It means that holiday isn’t a two-week stress-ball carbon-guilt flight – it could be a trip down to your local shops. Why can’t that be a holiday?

A holiday for everyday

This morning, for example, I went on a holiday right near my house.

I didn’t mean to go on holiday. I was just on a walk, a fairly standard constitutional walk around the local fields that I do all the time – and then, suddenly, I decided to go on holiday. I climbed through some hawthorn shrubs, over a wall and onto a disused railway. It was hot and sunny, so I took off my shirt and walked down the tracks, basking in the sun.

I was somewhere I’d never been before and tanning. How is that not a holiday?

Rejoice! Forget flying; holiday today!

But there’s more!

(The environmental bit tacked onto the end to make me look ethical.)

CO2 footprint
My flying CO2 footprint over the years. Click to enlarge.

If we needed any more encouragement to ditch recycled air, carry-on luggage limitations and ear-popping madness, then it’s surely got to be the thought of our carbon footprint. In the last 28 years, I’ve ejaculated 28 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere, thanks to my use of aeroplane transportation. And I don’t mind admitting that it was mindless. I flew because I didn’t think twice. If I wanted to go to France, I bought a plane ticket.

That changed in 2009. I wanted to go to France, so I bought a plane ticket. But the flight was cancelled due to heavy snowfall and I couldn’t go. I still wanted to go, but suddenly flying didn’t seem worth it. I wanted more from my travel. So I cycled.

Population density: Escape the statistic

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/, 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:


The Remarkable Productivity of Georges Simenon

Georges Simenon was the Belgian writer who created the detective Maigret. He was ridiculously successful: 550 million of his books have been printed. That’s just stupid numbers. It’s more than JK Rowling and Harry Potter. 150 million more. That’s one extra book for the entire population of Russia*.

What is interesting is that, while JK Rowling has written a decent 10 books in 11 years, Georges Simenon wrote 197 novels in his 59 year career. That’s an average of over 3 per year for over half a century.

Even more interestingly, he published another 15 in the 15 years after his death. That’s still a better strike rate than JK Rowling. Not bad for a dead man.

What’s plain ridiculous is that 148 of these books came in the 29 years from the age of 49 to 77. That’s an average of over 5 books a year.

Here’s a fancy little graph (or ‘worm’ as they’d call it in cricket), showing you Simenon’s strike rate from the publication of his first novel aged 28, to his last aged 86. Click on the thumbnail below for a bigger version (unless you have microscope eyes).

Admittedly, Simenon’s Maigret novels were quite short, but they make up less than half his output – and it is still a remarkable achievement. To be honest, I’m not sure I can match it – but it does inspire me to try.

Apparently, Simenon used to write a chapter a day for eleven days and then spend three days editing. A novel in a fortnight – forget NaNoWriMo, Simenon was hard-core!

*In fact, you could give the entire population of the USA, Brazil and the UK a copy of one of Simenon’s books. If you wanted to.

The Truth About the Feeding of the Five Thousand

The story of how Jesus managed to feed five thousand hungry folks back on the shores of a lake near Bethsaida in AD It-Never-Really-Happened is one of the most famous tales in the New Testament.

Everyone’s hungry after traipsing around behind Jesus all day, but there’s no food to be had. So a little boy offers up his five bread rolls and his two little fishes, Jesus does a few prayers and – ta-daa! – everyone’s satisfied.

The rather nauseating message being: with God’s love, there’s never any shortage. In fact, there were left overs – twelve baskets of them.

The Feeding of the One Billion

The situation we’re in today isn’t altogether different, it’s just on a grander scale (and with no Jesus, but that’s a good thing – trust me).

What we’ve actually got in AD2011 is, not five thousand, but one billion hungry folks working their asses off all day and still only pulling in less than the price of a Cherry Yoghurt Flapjack at Metro Central mini-market on the Kingsway (£1.10, other vendors are available).

The reason ‘no Jesus’ is a good thing is that today we don’t need a miracle to solve this conundrum. The miracle has already happened – there is already a vast surfeit of food and wealth in the world. It’s just not very evenly distributed. In fact, it’s not really distributed at all, more like hoarded, in rather miserly fashion, under the beds of the astonishingly wealthy of this world.

I’m one of the billion richest people on the planet and, combined, we have a pot of about $30 trillion to play with. And what’s needed to pull those one billion poorest out of extreme poverty? About $70 billion less than a quarter of a percent of our $30 trillion fortune.

Jesus and the Feeding of the Five Thousand (Modern Revision)

I’ll leave you to think about that and return to Jesus. This is the story of the feeding of the five thousand (“modernised” for the youth of today):

Apostles: Shit, dude – there’s loads of people following you, man. It’s getting late, you’d better send them away so’s they can get some tucker from town.
Jesus: Chill, guys. We don’t need to send them away. You feed them.
Apostles: Us? You kidding? We haven’t even got enough for ourselves, dude!
More Apostles: Yeah – how are we gonna get enough to feed, like, five thousand of the buggers? That’d be well expensive!
Jesus: Well, what have you got?
Apostles: Er…
Little Shepherd Boy: ‘Ere, guvna, I’ve got a few loaves o’bread and a coupla fishes – you can ‘ave ’em if you wants.
Apostles: Shush, shush, Little Shepherd Boy, don’t be silly. That’s not going to feed five thousand people / benefits cheats!
Little Shepherd Boy: Well, I woz just off’rin’…
Jesus: Dearest Little Shepherd Boy, me home-boy, pass me the loaves… Please O Lord, O Gracious Heavenly Father, sort me out here, will you? – TA-DAH!
Five Thousand People: Yummy! Hooray for Jesus!
Apostles: Well, blow me.

If you were faced with five thousand actual hungry people, would you be like the Apostles and be cynical about how you could help? Or like More Apostles and feel helpless, that nothing you could do would make a difference?

Course you would. Maybe. I would. I’d totally freak out.

The Ancient Parable, Interpreted for Modern Times

Unfortunately, we’re not often faced with five thousand actual hungry people on our doorstep. But this story, I read as a parable: it has a message. Jesus was trying to teach us something.

The truth is that the five loaves of bread and the two fishes represent the pitiful fraction of the rich world’s wealth that is required to bring the one billion extreme poor above the dollar-a-day mark. It represents a one-off payment of $70 from every person in the rich world.

That’s fuck all.

In fact, we all know it’s fuck all, which is why we’ve all already promised to do it. The developed nations of the world entered into a UN commitment in 1970 to provide Official Development Assistance at the level of 0.7% of their gross national income to alleviate extreme poverty.

That’s all it takes. Or all it would take, if we actually did it.

  • The Little Shepherd Boy in the parable represents the five states who’ve kept their promise: Sweden (1.12% in 2010)Norway (1.06%), Luxembourg (1.01%)Denmark (0.88%) and the Netherlands (0.82%).
  • But the big boys, the Apostles, still give fuck all. Fuck all, as in: the UK (0.52% in 2010) and the USA (0.20%*).

If all the Apostles, not just the Little Shepherd Boy, had handed over five loaves and two fishes each, then feeding five thousand people wouldn’t have looked so impossible. It wouldn’t have been a feast, but it would have been way, way better than nothing. Everyone could have had a nice salmon sandwich – without the need for silly miracles.

And that’s the point.

  1. 0.7% of GDI is not much to ask. It’s a few loaves and a couple of fishes compared to what we have.
  2. If we all do it, we can make a difference. At the moment, we’re not doing enough, waiting around for miracles that never come.
  3. This aid is not gonna make the recipients rich, but they would be out of extreme poverty and on the road to self-sustaining development.

And we would be on the path to a fairer, safer, more humane planet.

Just as Jesus would have wanted. 


* i.e. about the same as famously bankrupt Greece.

Interestingly, supporters of the US foreign development strategy might point to the alternative measure of development aid, the “Commitment to Development Index”. This brings a wide range of factors into account (not just aid, but trade and investment, for example) when judging the contribution individual states make towards development in other countries.

In this index, the US comes in a respectable (kind of) 11th place, still below bankrupt Ireland, but at least above the UK, Germany and France. Except that one of the factors taken into account is “Security”, for which the US scores an inexplicable 9.9, the highest score of anyone. Take this out of the equation and they fall back down the charts, into 18th place, back in with famously bankrupt Greece.

How to Write a Play

Disclosure: I’m no expert. I’ve never written a play. But, boy, have I just analysed the ass out of one.

This analysis covers the 1954 play by Reginald Rose, Twelve Angry Men.

The story is about a jury who are deliberating over the case of a young black man charged with the murder of his father. The verdict must be unanimous – and it almost is at the start of the play: eleven to one vote guilty. But that single dissenting voice gradually uncovers flaws in the prosecution evidence and, in turn, each of the other jurors overcomes their own prejudices to return a unanimous vote of “not guilty”.

Observations on How to Write a Play

Having just spent about ten hours typing out this play, I feel I’m qualified to make a few observations about the way Reginald has written Twelve Angry Men – and how this might offer pointers to other would-be playwrights.

Keep the action focussed

There is only one (and a half) locations in the play: the jury-room and the wash-room just off to the side. This keeps the action very tight and focussed. It makes the play claustrophobic, an atmosphere that is accentuated by the humidity of the weather – broken by a thunderstorm.

Define the characters

Twelve Angry Men has quite a lot of characters for a play, really: twelve jurors, a guard and a judge. There’s not much Reginald could have done about that: a jury has twelve people. But he does two things to deal with this potentially difficult large cast:

  1. He doesn’t add any extraneous characters. The guard is largely silent (39 words), simply providing the jurors with props. The judge is a voice off-stage and is used to set the scene at the beginning of the play, saving Reginald the trouble of a lot of clunky exposition.
  2. He divides the jurors into “primary“, “secondary” and “tertiary” characters. Four of the jurors take up 61% of the words in the play. The next four take up 25%. The final four jurors have just 13% of the words of the play. Just for a bit of crazy fun – here’s a chart showing the speech patterns of the twelve jurors, as the play progresses. Click on the picture to see a full-size version.

Keep the tension high

Reginald does this superbly by having the jurors take regular votes. At the beginning only one man votes “not guilty” – this is the single vote that sets the play off. There are five general votes in total, spaced throughout the play, and the audience is on tenterhooks every time, as the votes are called out.

You can see exactly how Reginald has paced the play by looking at the way the jurors voted in my little list below. “Vote” means there was a general ballot of some sort, where every juror voted. “Change to” means that only one or more of the jurors announced their change, without calling a general vote.

  • Page 06: Vote 11-1 (“Guilty” – “Not Guilty”)
  • Page 18: Vote 10-2
  • Page 24: Change to 9-3
  • Page 26: Vote 8-4
  • Page 31: Interval
  • Page 33: Vote 6-6
  • Page 41: Change to 5-7
  • Page 42: Vote 3-9
  • Page 45: Change to 4-8
  • Page 47: Change to 1-11
  • Page 49: Change to 0-12

Note here that, although the interval comes over halfway through the play – 63% of the way through, to be precise – at that point, the vote is 8-4 in favour of finding the young man guilty. The scene that the interval curtain falls on is a turning point, highly dramatic. Immediately after the interval, the vote swings to 6-6 – even stevens.

Note also that Reginald adds a little twist towards the end, making one of the jurors change their mind from “not guilty” to “guilty”. At this point, the audience might fear there is the chance of a hung jury.

I hope you’ve learnt something interesting from this. I might do it again.