A Month of Blogging

Writing I find easy. Putting it into the world is hard.

This month, I’ve been trying to publish a blog post every day. It’s not been easy to keep up the pace, particularly when I’ve been travelling. One post was finished on a train back from Gatwick; others have been written just before going to bed. But it was an useful experiment.

It’s not the first time I’ve attempted this. I tried it a couple of time this year, alongside two friends. These attempts didn’t go so well, with me flaking out very early in one of them, pissing one of the friends off. This time has definitely not been easy, and a few times I’ve relied on old posts I drafted without publishing (like I said, I find the writing bit easy). But I’ve finally succeeded.

I’ve felt some publication anxiety, but I’m still pretty happy with everything I’ve written. But posting a blog in 2017 feels a little archaic. There’s much less audience than there was, since most people are tied up on Facebook – and Facebook is not interested in pointing people towards personal sites.

Even with a small readership, this is also proving useful for writing on larger projects. Earlier this year, I tried to pull together a collection of pieces about commuting. It was a disaster, as I could not get it to cohere. Maybe the blogging will be a more successful way of doing this. I’ve got a lot of notes on Vindaloo, tourism and curry, which I’m slowly making into something larger. Writing short sections as blog posts forces me to finish passages, and gives me a better feel for the project than lots of notes.

Blogging is also a good way of processing the massive amount of information I take in. A few months back, I quoted Warren Ellis: “If we’re not doing something with the information we’re taking in, then we’re just pigs at the media trough.” These posts put this information into a larger structure. It also acts as a brake on the amount of information I take in, giving a way to see how relevant it is.

I’m going to continue this for another month and see how this goes. It will be challenging as I’ll be away from my laptop for a few days; and the supply of almost-written draft posts is dwindling. I’m also going to look at building a little more audience.Blogs used to get fairly high google rankings, which brought a lot of random traffic. These days, that traffic is caught by other sites, and there are very few people using RSS readers. So the question becomes, is it possible to blog and get enough readers to make it worth doing?

Anyway: I wrote 30 posts in August (the 31st being this one). The others are listed below.


Vindaloo Stories



Walking the Ridgeway (Days 1 and 2)

Back in June, to celebrate my 41st birthday, I set off with a friend to walk the Ridgeway. This is one of Britain’s oldest paths, going from Avebury to Aylesbury – or you can walk it the other way round, which is what we did. This meant we ended in the amazing landscape of Avebury, although the scenery on that last stage was less exciting than (what was for us) the opening stages.

The Ridgeway was adopted as a national trail in 1972, and the route is 87 miles. Adding in the journeys to and from the accommodation, this worked out as pretty much 100 miles over 5 days. As well as the Avebury complex, the route takes in amazing locations including the Uffington White Horse, the grave at Wayland Smithy and several hill forts, supposedly built to protect this ancient trading route.

Unlike the South Downs Way, there’s a real feeling of following a path, with the trail unwinding relentlessly in front of you.

On the first day, the track crossed the driveway of Chequers,the Prime Minister’s country house. We were walking a few weeks after the election, when Teresa May had admitted the naughtiest thing she had done as a child: running cornfields. The cornfields around Chequers contained imposing warning signs, but I’m not sure if they were there to warn walkers, or to warn off the Prime Minster.

The month I picked to walk with Dan turned out to be the hottest June since the year I was born – a year sometimes referred to as the ladybird summer, since the hot conditions caused a plagues of them. I found my thoughts straying a lot to politics – the new Queen’s Speech was voted on while we were hiking. Out here, in the English countryside, I felt the presence of the upheavals ahead for the country.

The other great thing about the Ridgeway is that it is a chalk path. Most of my walking has been done around the South Downs, so I feel at home on chalk.

A lunch-time adventure in Brighton: the stone circle

It’s good to have adventures that can fit into a lunch hour.


There have been times I’ve resented lunch-breaks, mostly because I didn’t like the job I was doing. An hour is just enough time for a taste of freedom, but not long enough for anything substantial. Many years ago, a friend suggested I do a blog about all the different ways I could spend a lunch-break, and the things I could do with them. I think it’s a shame I never did start that site. These days I work for myself, and no longer hate lunchtime, so it’s too late for that.


A lot of Brighton’s tech companies are clustered around Brighton’s North Laine, and it was while I was working there for Intel Security that I dragged a load of colleagues out to walk Brighton’s Stone Circle. Several of us set out on the mission, although only one of us made it all the way around.


I blogged about the circle a couple of years ago. It consists of a series of numbered stones embedded into the pavement. Jake Spicer told me that they were laid out by a group called The Brighton School The stones are laid it in pavements, on the Level and even in some private gardens.


The route is small enough to be walked in a single lunch, with a little time left over to buy a sandwich on the way back to the office. There’s a map you can follow to guide you around. You might not find all of them – some are well hidden – but folklore claims that you cannot count the stones in a circle. The first one is by the cashpoint at Preston Circus.


All but one person in our group drifted back to the office without travelling the full circle, but that’s OK. I still think it was better than almost any other lunch-break I’ve had.



The Forgotten Sport of Piano Smashing

I’m fascinated by how untrustworthy memory can be. For example, Oliver Burkeman wrote recently about verbal overshadowing, where written descriptions affect visual memories. And then there is the research into induced false memories, where researchers persuaded people they had seen Bugs Bunny at Disney World.

(John Higgs spoke about his recently at the Latitude Festival. His recent book Watling Street describes vivid memories of having a CJ Stone book on his shelves while living in Manchester, even though the book came out after he moved away)

Even more interesting are memories of things that happened that now seem false. Maybe everyone has memories of childhood that seem incredible to look back on.

In the 1980s, entertainment was very different. I can remember how exciting it seemed when a fourth TV channel arrived (an event described in the diaries of Adrian Mole). It seems barbaric that TV stations used to turn off overnight: as an insomniac teenager, I made do with whatever late night TV was on, usually a single channel. Always-on internet is eradicating boredom, and it’s hard to believe things like climbing the Old Man of Hoy were prime-time shows.

The village fete was the site of various strange entertainments. You used to pay to throw wooden blocks at stands of crockery. And then there was the spectator sport of piano smashing. The idea was to take hammers to a piano and break it into small enough pieces to pass through a letterbox. There was even a Guinness World Record, the best time being 1 minute 34 seconds. You can check out a video of this on Youtube (commentator “It’s like they’re cutting down a tree – a piano tree!):

I guess the piano smashing came about because of a surplus of instruments as TV became more popular. The ‘bomb party’ blog has a history of piano smashing. As well as sporting examples, it has musical and artistic ones. It quotes Bill Drummond from the KLF describing another reason why pianos fell out of favour:

“Central heating. When it came in for the masses in the 1960s. central heating completely fucked these pianos. Buckled their frames, made them impossible to keep in tune.”

I guess as I grow older, and technology infiltrates more parts of daily life, the 1980s will begin to seem more and more like another world.

How a simple walk changed British politics

I’m currently preparing a talk for the Indelicates album launch event, The October Ritual. Based on my research so far, I’ll be talking about the links between the National Trust, Brexit and hiking.

There are obvious links between walking and politics. Marching is just the most obvious: there’s also the Kinder Scout Mass Tresspass, the Situationist derive and many artistic interventions. These examples are all related to resistance. But one recent political walk that will affect Britain, Europe and the world was by two people on the right. This is Theresa May’s visit to Dolgellau in Wales.

In early April, Theresa May and her husband went on a five day holiday around Dolgellau, a town in North Wales which had most recently elected a Plaid Cymru MP. It’s said that this walking holiday gave her time to think, resulting in the plan of a snap election to increase her majority. This election actually reduced her majority to an almost-unmanageable 12, the cunning plan turning out to be as poor as those from Tyrion Lannister in this season’s Game of Thrones.

May’s walk is chronicled in a Guardian piece by Nazia Parveen, ‘The walks give clarity’: how Wales hike helped PM decide on next step. She arrived in Dolgellau on April 6th, staying in the “luxurious Penmaenuchaf Hall hotel”, which was used as her base for a series of outings. The article quotes from the guidebook May used, Walks in and Around Dolgellau Town by Michael Burnett: “During the walk, there are a series of revelations. Those moments of discovery are mind-cleansing. They focus you, give you that moment of clarity you need to make those important decisions.

The article spends a little time talking about May’s shopping in the town, how on a previous trip she bought birthday gifts for the town for the German Chancellor. Angela Merkel is apparently also a keen hiker, and received a coffee -table book of Wainwright’s Coast-to-coast walk. On this trip May purchased a Celtic ring from local artist Anna Hicks, which the Prime Minster wore as she announced the ill-fated election.

May completed Walk 6, Pen Y Fron Serth and Trefeilia.  Burnett, the guidebook’s writer, talks about how the landscape seems to help resolve issues (the old idea of Solvitur ambulando -it is solved by walking):

It is the combination of physical exertion and being in this landscape – it focuses you. You can be thinking about something important when you are walking and then when you stop, often I find the issues that have been going through the mind then come together more easily.

The article ends by saying that May’s expedition had drawn other walkers: “There are those who have come looking for the sights that inspired May’s decision and others who are treating the trip as a pilgrimage – following in her footsteps.” The article was published a few weeks after May’s announcement, so I don’t know if this boost continued after the resounding defeat, but I find myself drawn to visit, to re-enact this fateful, disastrous hike.

The Joys of the Lonely Planet

To reach Pushkar, in Rajastan, you first take the train to Ajmer; while Pushkar does have a station, very few services stop there. From Ajmer, it’s a half hour journey, through a pass between two low mountains. Pushkar is on a small plain surrounded by mountains, and lies around a square holy lake. It is famed as few places where Brahma is worshipped and draws in both pilgrims and travellers. The main street is full of souvenir stalls and even a didgeridoo shop, for those hippies wanting to appropriate two cultures at the same time.

My first time in Pushkar was a day trip – I stayed in Ajmer instead, exploring the sights there. I popped into Pushkar for a few hours; the lake was dry and too many people were hassling me, so I headed back fairly soon. My second trip, I stayed a few days in the Lakeview hotel, which had been recommended by my friend Vicky. The hotel’s more expensive rooms overlooked the lakes, and didn’t have bathrooms, due to their proximity to the religious area. I settled for a room on the street side. I spent many happy hours in the roof restaurant, watching the ceremonies on the lake.

Time had been hard for the hotel’s proprietors on that first trip as they had not been listed in the most recent Lonely Planet Guide. As far as I could tell, there was nothing wrong with the place, it seemed cheap enough too, so it was probably just bad luck. The problem is that travellers will always work their way through the guidebook first. Tripadvisor might be challenging the supremacy of the Lonely Planet’s reviews now, but the Lonely Planet still directs a large number of visitors. It’s reviews are better too – Lonely Planet reviewers give an objective review. Tripadvisor is full of vendettas, angry screeds and people with unrealistic expectations.

For restaurants, bars and hotels around the world, endorsement from the Lonely Planet can be incredibly valuable. If a place gets a particularly good write-up, another might open nearby with a similar name, in the hope of catching some of its trade. The encouragement of the Lonely Planet brings in yet more tourists who like the comfort of good guesthouses and restaurants. I’m one of them.

The Lonely Planet soon begins to look less lonely. One can buy didgeridoos in Pushkar, and every town has restaurants selling banana pancakes or Oreo shakes. On the street a short distance from the Lakeview Hotel is an excellent falafel stand, and the ‘Out of the Blue’ restaurant sells excellent pizzas.

(Out of the Blue also sells a special lassi. My father once tried to order this for dessert, thinking he would treat himself. I’m very grateful to the waiter who, after asking three times if he was sure, explained that the lassi was special as it contained bhang, a very strong form of marijuana. My Dad opted for a fruit lassi instead.)

The Lonely Planet has created new bottlenecks in India, just as the overland hippie trail led to traveller hangouts like Delhi’s Indian Coffee House being popular. And hanging out with other visitors can be fun. It was another traveller who told me I had to visit Orchha, which was much more interesting than its short write-up in the Lonely Planet suggested.

But, at the same time, you don’t want to spend all of your time with people you would avoid back home. William Sutcliffe discussed this in his novel about India, Are You Experienced. While the book suffers a little from being a product of the laddish 1990s, it contains some astute observations about India. In Manali, the narrator meets a load of public schoolboys, who are thrilled at bumping into each other by chance. He points out that there are only a few places in India where they are likely to go. India might be massive, but tourist India is a much smaller place. I’ve chatted with people in Agra, then bumped into them a few days later in Jaipur.

There are things you need to know about a country before you get there, such as how to get around, what legal rights and cultural expectations surround travellers, and which places are best avoided. It’s also good to know the local scams – while getting involved in a jewellery investment in a foreign country is foolhardy, there are elegant cons that easily capture the jet-lagged and unwary. For these, a guidebook is invaluable.

But escaping the trail can be fun. I would never have gone to India without the reassurance of reading a guidebook beforehand. But my favourite moments have been places that were a little off that trail: cities like Gwalior or Lucknow that are almost completely ignored by travellers; chai shacks at the sides of busy roads. I stayed three nights in an empty luxury hotel near Dausa that had regular power-cuts. And I’d have sometimes done better with hotels by turning up in a new city and seeing what is available, rather than go with places made complacent or more expensive by guidebook listings. Nowadays, I could probably discard the guidebook and have a more interesting time without it. And, just like the first Lonely Planet guide, Across Asia on the Cheap suggested, the best advice comes from other travellers.

For my next trip, I’m wondering if I should just leave all guidebooks behind.

My Favourite Books of 2016 – and the best so far this year

This post is incredibly late. I found it lying lost in my drafts folder, and it seems a shame not to post it. So: last year I read 82 books, and mostly managed to avoid bad ones. Picking out a arbitrary best eight:

  1. Command and Control / Eric Schlosser
  2. Dietland / Sarai Walker
  3. Do it for your Mum / Roy Wilkinson
  4. Electric dreams / Tom Lean
  5. The Last Days Of Jack Sparks / Jason Arnopp
  6. Seveneves / Neal Stephenson
  7. A Trojan Feast / Joshua Cutchin
  8. The Way we die now / Seamus O’Mahony

As far as I remember, Seveneves gave me worse nightmares than any book I’ve read in life. Not bad for a book that’s sci-fi rather than horror. I read a lot of apocalyptic fiction, but the image of the moon exploding and destroying the earth with debris was incredibly potent.

When I first started blogging, about 15 years ago, I decided that I shouldn’t write negative things. This is a good rule and one I’ve rarely broken. But… I read two truly terrible books by once-great authors: Clive Barker’s Scarlet Gospels and Make Something Up by Chuck Palahniuk. It wasn’t that these were bad books – I’d have just ignored them otherwise. I was shocked by mediocre work from such great talents.

So far in 2017 I’ve read 45 books, although I expect to catch up on 2016 after my Autumn holiday (I have a load of Le Carre books waiting on my Kindle). Likely best-of-the-years include Chalk by Paul Cornell, John Higgs’s stunning Watling Street (a review is currently in my drafts folder), and I hate the internet. But I’m desperate for a few more mindblowing ones. Recommendations welcome!

Why bother making my own food

Yesterday I cat-sat for the friend who is looking after my chilli plant. The thing is massive now, dominating her dining room table. And, on one of the branches, is a single red chilli. Just one chilli on one branch, that is. But it looks pretty tasty and is probably ready for harvesting soon.

Given that I can buy a bottle of Encona for a pound, the effort to grow this single Scotch Bonnet pepper seems ludicrous. And there have been all the costs – buying plant pots and compost and baby bio so I can dote on the plant with special food. This is a lot of effort for a single chilli.

This leads me to think that the farmers growing the chillis for Encona sauce are a lot better at it than me. If that was my job, the world would have just a single spoonful of Encona each year. Based on this performance, growing my own food is unlikely to be cost-effective.

Michael Pollan repeats a similar argument about cooking near the start of his book Cooked. He quotes an op-ed by the couple who write the Zagat’s guides, where they suggest “people would be better off staying an extra hour in the office doing what they do well, and letting bargain restaurants do what they do best.” Pollan sees this argument as simple division of labour, the cooks using their talents while the rest of us focus on our own skills.

Of course, Pollan spends the rest of his book explaining why we should learn to cook, but that basic argument still seems persuasive. And it is worth questioning the narrative, promoted much of the media and spearheaded by Jamie Oliver, that true freedom lies in learning how to cook dishes from scratch.

A couple of reviews have picked out a passage from Johnathan Meades’ new book, the Plagiarist in the Kitchen, where he questions the fetish for home-cooked food, “Homemade begs one question. Whose home? Have you ever actually seen people’s homes? Why should biscuits made at home be better than those baked in a factory, a factory that specialises in biscuits?

The Angry Chef spends often attacks the guilt people are made to feel about food. While he is often attacked as an industry shill, he points out that people are too overworked and stressed to be making every meal from scratch – and being educated about ‘processed’ food, enables sensible choices to be made.

I’ve blundered along for about 20 years now, feeling guilty about the mix of home-cooked meals, fast food and tinned food in my diet. I’m still alive, so I guess I’m doing that OK. I still want to learn how to cook better, but the issue is more complicated than books on healthy eating make it sound. Cooking has to fit into a busy life, and seem worth the effort.

That said, I am looking forward to eating my single chilli soon. There’s not enough to make sauce, so I will eat it raw. But I will save the seeds for next year.

A business trip walk – Ulysses Episode 1 – Telemachus

Working regularly in Dublin over the next few months seemed like the perfect opportunity to read Ulysses. The book describes travels around Dublin on June 16th 1904, and I thought I would visit a new chapter’s location on each visit. I’d run out of project before I ran out of chapters, but I could come back and do the last sections on a holiday.

I read the first chapter on the flight over. I know Ulysses is a great book – during my MA I read a lot of essays about it – but I’ve not made it through the text. I’ve enjoyed the bits I have read, although that was with the heavily annotated Oxford World’s Classics 1922 text. The footnotes and forewords explain some of the jokes and allusions. Reading the first episode without these hints is less exciting. The references are hard to parse and it’s mostly a stilted conversation.

After the day’s work we took the DART to Sandycove station and walked along the shore. The weather was pretty good and we regretted not bringing swimming costumes to take advantage of the sea-swimming lagoons (the Forty Foot appears in the book). The water was cold, but would still have been perfect after a day’s walk. We settled for paddling instead.

It was easy to find the martello tower where Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. Since we’d come after work, the museum was closed, but I enjoyed the strangeness of being in a place I’d read about on the flight over.

We had a meal then decided to continue walking around the coast, to pick up a train from Dún Laoghaire station.  We found ourselves near a jetty and Tara suggested we stroll along that. Lots of people were out promenading. The gentle breeze and setting sun, the boats rocking in the water. It was perfect.

I’m not sure an impromptu stroll along a jetty counts as a hike as such, but it was a lovely way to unwind. And, being a mile out to see, it was just the right length for a post-dinner walk.

Even then, although it was getting dark, we didn’t quite make it to the station. There was a bar on one of the hotel lawns with tables laid out in front of the view. It was the perfect end to a good day’s work.

The irony is that my future trips to Ireland are not going to be to Dublin, ruining my plan of exploring Ulysses. Instead I’ll be working from another office, in Kilkenny, some distance away. According to Atlas Obscura, this is near to the grave of Santa Claus – although this is in the grounds of a stately home, which will be long closed by the time I’ve finished work. This is the problem with business travel – you visit amazing locations and don’t get to enjoy them fully.

PS – Ulysses also has a link to Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, one of the people profiled in John Higgs’ book, Stranger than we can Imagine. According to wikipedia:

The 1920 prosecution in the US [of Ulysses] was brought after The Little Review serialised a passage of the book dealing with the main character masturbating. Legal historian Edward de Grazia has argued that few readers would have been fully aware of the orgasmic experience in the text, given the metaphoric language. Irene Gammel extends this argument to suggest that the obscenity allegations brought against The Little Review were influenced by the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven’s more explicit poetry, which had appeared alongside the serialization of Ulysses.

A walk to the Devil’s Punchbowl

When I told a friend that I was downloading a walk from a blog, he pointed that out I wouldn’t download software from a blog and should be just as careful with route maps.

I had to go walking with Helen because she had a pile of my tents. I had a full car returning from the Port Eliot Festival, so handed off some cargo, which gave us a great excuse for getting together to go hiking. We considered a few different locations, finally settling on a walk near the Devil’s Punchbowl. With a little research, I found a route on out-of-the-loop.com, The Devil’s Punch Bowl and Surrey Heaths.

We picked the Devil’s Punch Bowl as it was near to Helen, and arranged to meet at Haslemere station, shuffling the cars to leave one at each end. It turns out there is more than one Haslemere and we started the day at different ones – my plan to save driving had not worked out so well. Still, this gave me chance for a second breakfast and we still set off fairly early.

The walk took us from Haslemere Station to Bentley and the scenery, particularly around Frensham, was stunning, with brightly coloured heather moors and scenic hills. We passed fish ponds once owned by the Bishop of Winchester. As I learned at Miranda Kane‘s show Crossbones, the position also used to involve running brothels in London. The reeds at the shore once stood in for the banks of the Nile in the movie The Mummy.


The Devil’s Punch Bowl is a stunning landscape, a natural amphitheatre at the top of a valley. I’d not realised there was landscape this amazing so close to where I live. This site was formed after the devil dug out the Dyke near Brighton. Hearing a cock crowing he leapt from the Dyke, causing the crater when he landed.

This was originally the site of the main London to Portsmouth Road until 2011 when it was re-routed by a tunnel. It’s hard to imagine what this landscape was like before that. Nearby is Gibbet Hill, which was the site of a gallows where tarred bodies were hung in cages as a warning to highwaymen. The site is now marked with a Celtic cross.

It’s possible to look out from Gibbet Hill towards London and, on a fine day (like when we visited), the skyscrapers are visible 41 miles away in the distance. Nearer by, is Box Hill, which I’d visited on the North Downs Way.

And how did the downloaded instructions work? Pretty well. They were published a few years ago and a few landmarks such as noticeboards had disappeared. But we had maps and knew roughly where we were headed so it worked out pretty well. The landscapes were some of the finest I’ve seen in the South East, and I might not have visited without this guide.

Looking at the pictures on the website, they seem to have been taken in winter. It was interesting to see how the seasons affected the directions. Sometimes, the guide described landmarks that weren’t visible from a distance, hidden by the growths of summer.

A good walk, and one that will be worth revisiting in the future.