Early bird for Thighs!

Plus: The Bins on Brownsea

Happy Friday!

We have a route for Thighs of Steel 2020 - and it’s even more ridiculous than we could ever have hoped.

If you want early bird access to signups for the world’s longest charity relay bike ride, then go on and subscribe to our semi-secret mailing list here.

By joining this special only-for-you-guys mailing list, you’ll get access to signups on Monday 24 February - a whole five days before the rest of the planet.

If you need more juicy details, then read on…

If you’re repelled by the idea of cycling really far for a good reason, then skip over this - there’s a nice bit about birds and bins afterwards.


More challenging than past Week Ones in terms of distance, this ride is perfect for cycling utopians who dream of dedicated bike lanes and all-you-can-eat pancakes. Plus you can hop on the Eurostar back home - logistically simple and environmentally sound. Winning.


Spin your way through the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, France and Germany, including one beast of a day that will smash the 200km barrier. Expect Disney-like forests, rolling hills and cooling lakes as we swoon through the green heart of Western Europe.


Ah, yes - you beauty! This is an all-time classic Thighs route so expect nothing less than the highest tarmacked mountain climb in Austria, ecstatic views worthy of their own symphony and enough ice cream to take out the Death Star.


This is where things get crazy, as we take a left turn north from Slovenia, back over the glorious Alps, and into Austria and Slovakia. Cycling through three countries that are basically one big forest national park, prepare to be blown away by beauty. And pumpkin seeds.


Bookended by two of Europe’s most famous city break cities, this week’s three mountain ranges - including Babia Góra, the Witch’s Mountain - are crammed into five days’ cycling. Expect luscious national parks, bears, wolves and lynx, and views cut straight from Tolkein.


Ukraine?! Hell yeah. If it's adventure you’re after, then look no further. This absolute monster of a week follows the dizzying Carpathian mountains all the way from Poland to Romania, via the exotic question mark that is Ukraine.


This is our second biggest climbing week, offering the kings and queens of the mountains not one, not two, but three ranges to cross. Get good at Romanian, Bulgarian or charades, and expect road surfaces as unpredictable as the snacks we’ll eat.


Jammed into just five days of cycling, this week gives us Europe’s most ancient forests in Bulgaria, plus the glorious mountains of Rila and Rhodope and untamed beauty of historic Thrace. That means buckets of adventure. We really mean it. There might be bears.


This is the glory run and what a glorious run it will be! Mount Olympus on the horizon and the mythical island of Evia underfoot, expect to sleep on beaches and climb mountains. Plus that first glimpse of Athens after 6,000km of Steely adventure. Chapeau!

How to Play Thighs of Steel

If you don’t know how the world’s longest (and bestest) charity relay bike ride works, then here’s a quick and dirty guide on How to Play Thighs of Steel:

  1. Don’t worry - you’re not cycling the whole thing, this is a relay. Pick one week that fills you with butterflies of excitement rather than dread. There’s something on this route for cyclists of all abilities and we are totally non-competitive. Historically, more than half of our cyclists have been women - I only mention that because cycle touring has a shit reputation of being lonely, miserable and macho. It’ll be challenging, but you’ll never be alone and, with smiles, songs and snacks, everyone helps everyone through. Most people only do one week of the relay - some crazies do two.

  2. Do logistics. Book your time off work and your transport to and from the start and finish cities.

  3. Train like heck. We have training rides every month in London and there are now over 200 current and former Thighs cyclists you can meet up with for beers and bikes. (In reality, you’ll probably only train a bit and then panic unduly. It’ll be fine. We all do this.)

  4. Fundraise like heck. All the money goes to grassroots refugee organisations and we suggest you aim for a minimum of £500. We’re always on hand for fundraising advice. Putting on a party or a dinner is always a winner, but don’t forget the simple stuff like charity pots in your local cafes and pubs. Over the past four years, Thighs cyclists have raised over £320,000 for projects that are making a real difference to the lives of refugees in the UK and Greece.

  5. Cycle a really long way. Wahay! Adventure and the unknown is our standard operating procedure as we wild ride, wild camp and wild swim our way across the continent. People focus on the cycling, but what makes Thighs special is the people. Nothing bonds a campful of strangers like climbing a mountain in 40 degree heat, or getting sprayed down by a farmer with a power hose, or handing out a pannier full of figs picked straight from the tree, or mending a puncture in a thunderstorm, or just sitting by a lake at the end of a long day and watching the sun set in silence.

  6. Come home with a suntan, steely thighs and stuffed full of stories to share. It won’t be the end unless you want it to be. Repeat with friends in 2021?

Signups open for real on Sunday 1 March, but you can get early bird access on Monday 24 February by joining a special mailing list. This is good because places go fast and no one wants to miss out!

Subscribe for Early Bird Signups!

Any questions? Just reply to this email and I’ll help you out.

The Bins on Brownsea

‘Have you got decent bins?’ I’m asked by a man wearing a cagoule.

Well, isn’t that an intrusive question! And I’m about to muster indignant excuses for forgetting to take the recycling out when the man waggles a pair of binoculars and adds: ‘They really help you get up close.’

I’m on a boat in the middle of Poole Harbour, in the squalling rain and the huffing wind of a gale blowing in. The boat has a full cargo of people in cagoules with decent bins, here for an RSPB bird tour of Brownsea Island.

I think it’s fair to say that I’m not a birder. And yet here I am – and next week I’ll be cycling around the RSPB nature reserve at Rainham Marshes. Maybe you don’t choose birding; maybe birding chooses you.

‘Great Northern Diver at eleven o’clock – no he’s dived. Shag at one o’clock. Spoonbill on the beach. Merganser pair just taking off – three o’clock.’

A running commentary sends us birders lurching from one side of the wind-lashed deck to the other, hunting through our misty bins for flecks of white on the storm-grey sea.

For the hobbying birder, this trip is all about spotting new species. When the commentator announces a Slovenian Grebe at four o’clock, there is quite the commotion, let me tell you.

I stare blindly over the hunched shoulders of twitching bin-bearers. I’m as astonished as anyone: Slovenia is all but land-locked – I wouldn't have thought it’d be known for its sea birds.

Slavonian Grebe. Slavonian. They can swallow fish whole and eat their own feathers. And they’re so rare that they're on something ominously called the Red List.

Despite frantic Wikipedia research and my rapid identification of a Swan at eleven o’clock, I think it’s fair to say that I'm still not a birder.

My favourites are the bobbers: those birds who bob on the tide, waiting patiently until I catch them in the rings of my borrowed bins before beating their wings against the spray or pulling a dive into the choppy waves.

Other than that, I still rank my birds by the romanticism of their names. Avocet. Little Stint. Black-tailed Godwit.

And, of course, the Wigeon. ‘Isn’t that just a wet pigeon?’ I ask a friend, also not a birder. ‘I thought Wigeon was a Pokémon character,’ she says.

After two hours of chasing feathers, we dock at the John Lewis castle and make our way onto the island.

Brownsea Island has been a National Trust nature reserve since the sixties, after the people of Poole somehow raised £100,000 to save their island from Billy Butlin, he of holiday camp notoriety.

But the only reason there was ever any question of Brownsea becoming a nature reserve was thanks to the whim of a monied misanthropist.

Mary Bonham-Christie bought the island in 1927 and immediately ordered the mass eviction of the 200 people who lived there, then banned the Boy Scouts from their historic campsite and finally hired goons to eject any meddling intruders.

By the time she shuffled off this mortal coil (the ultimate act of any self-respecting misanthrope), only she and her boatman lived on the island. It’s fair to say that Bonham-Christie was not a people person.

But her loathing for the human race did open up a hitherto overcrowded corner of the ecosystem for other wildlife. Red squirrels most famously, but also other cute animals including voles and sika deer (the pretty ones with spots).

This imposed haven from humanity made the island an appealing acquisition for the National Trust who completed the purchase in 1962 with help from the Dorset Wildlife Trust, the Scout and Guide Movements and John Lewis (whose staff holiday in the castle). Now goon-free, Brownsea Island has been open to the public for nearly sixty years.

Birders in particular are drawn to Brownsea thanks to the work of another, shall we say ‘energetic’, aristocrat, Colonel William Petrie Waugh.

When he bought the island, Waugh saw an opportunity in the shallow water to expand his territory. With a bulk order of over a million bricks, he and his lackeys built a wall in the middle of the sea, enclosing a vast paddling pool from which wind-powered pumps extracted the water. Hey presto – pasture for grazing cattle.

But you can't keep the sea out forever, not without constant investment (see also: the Netherlands), and gradually the sea wall started leaking. As the salt water joined forces with freshwater leaking from inland, an enormous lagoon was created.

Cue cheers of delight from a multitude of invertebrates – and the sea birds who prey on them: the Shoveler and Teal and Turnstone and Dunlin that us birders had all come to inspect through our rain-splattered bins.

One morning wasn’t nearly enough, but it was a glimpse, a respite in a day battered by storms. We can, if we allow ourselves, be bewitched by nature. I returned to the fraying town doused and refreshed, content.

Your neck of the woods?

I’m up to London on Sunday for two shows at the Chortle Comedy Book Festival - Mark Thomas’ 50 Things About Us and Adam Kay’s Twas the Nightshift Before Christmas. I think there are still tickets available, so you really might as bloody well.

After that, I’m away to Bristol for three weeks of skittles and cider. Should be fun.

Give yourself a pat on the back if you read down this far - that was a long one. Thank you!

Much love,


David Charles wrote this newsletter. He publishes another newsletter about reading called Books Make Books. David is co-writer of BBC Radio Wales sitcom Foiled, and writes for The Bike Project, Forests News, Global Landscape Forum, Elevate and Thighs of Steel. He also edits books about adventure, activism and more. Reply to this email, or delve into the archive on davidcharles.info. Thank you for subscribing!


A quiz! A book! A bike ride!


Happy Friday!

Quite often, I don’t know what I’m going to write about in this newsletter until I start typing. This can make the final piece as surprising for me as it is for you.

This week I really had no idea what I would be writing until a couple of hours ago. I was surprised at what came out - I really had no intention of writing anything so depressing.

On the plus side it does start with a quiz, so I won’t mind too much if you just take the quiz and then skip over the rest of the text until you hit a photo of a book.

It’s safe from there on, I promise. Enjoy!


A dear friend of mine is currently reading Factfulness, an optimistic book about facts written by development darling Hans Rosling and his able collaborators.

The book opens with an absolute minefield of a multiple choice general knowledge quiz, which you can take here.

I’ll wait.

As you may have noticed, the quiz is intended to blow your mind with how much better life in our global village is today than most people (including experts) believe.

Less people live in extreme poverty than we think, more young women have access to education than we think, and global life expectancy is higher than we think.

In 2017, Hans Rosling's Gapminder Foundation asked nearly 12,000 people in 14 countries to answer these questions. They scored on average just two correct answers out of the first 12. No one got full marks, and just one person (in Sweden) got 11 out of 12. Fifteen percent scored zero.

In fact, chimpanzees would have outscored the 80 percent of humans who did worse than random chance when they took the quiz.

There are two reasons I like this book, despite not having read it:

  1. The disparity between how well humans did - 2 out of 12 correct answers - and how well we should do if we simply picked one answer at random from the three given - 4 out of 12 correct answers - shows that our sources of information (AKA the news media) is systematically biased against reality and in favour of negativity. Newsless since 2017, I have long been an advocate of the No News is Good News information diet. Now I have some evidence that I might also be better informed.

  2. Although the general drift of the book is that things are, in general, getting better, the authors don’t argue that this is a result of anything other than decades of extremely hard work. Nor do they make the argument that everything is rosy in our planetary garden. As Rosling mega-fan Bill Gates puts it: ‘the world can be both bad and better’.

But one thing that immediately struck me as I was discussing the quiz with my dear friend was the absence of any questions about displaced persons.

And, as the 2019 Aegean Boat Report reminded me earlier this week, the world can also be both bad and worse.

At the end of 2018 - the latest year for which UNHCR have data - there were 74.79 million ‘persons of concern’ across the world, including refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced persons and stateless persons.

Ten years earlier there were ‘only’ 34.46 million such persons of concern. The number of human beings suffering has more than doubled.

Bad and worse.

UNHCR only have solid data going back to 1951, but, for reference, Wikipedia states that World War II created 11 million displaced people.

The last big surge in refugee numbers was after the break up of the Soviet Union. In 1992, there were 17.83 million refugees according to UNHCR figures.

At the end of 2018 there were 20.36 million - and this excludes the 5.5 million registered Palestinian refugees cared for under the auspices of a different UN agency.

Bad and worse.

Raw refugee numbers have doubled in the last decade, but the biggest single reason for the twenty-first century surge in UN persons of concern is down to a huge increase in the number of those displaced within the state they used to call their own.

In 2012 there were 17.67 million internally displaced persons in the world. At the end of 2018, there were 41.43 million.

This figure includes those driven from their homes in Syria, Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ukraine and Colombia. They don’t meet the technical definition of ‘refugee’, but when you’re fleeing for your life it doesn’t much matter where you draw the border lines.

I’m a huge fan of Hans Rosling’s factfulness because it reminds us where we should be putting our efforts. The problem of displaced people - whether we call them refugees or not - is bad and getting worse. It deserves our attention.

If the mixing of peoples was the order of empires and the ‘unmixing of peoples’ the order of nation-states, what’s on the horizon?
Kapka Kassabova, Border (2017)


TOTALLY UNRELATED: Thighs of Steel announce the route for this year’s London to Athens mega refugee fundraising ride next week!

You can play your part and to be the first to hear how, sign up to the Thighs of Steel occasional updates mailing list or follow Thighs on Instagram and/or Facebook.

Books Make Books

A couple of days ago I published a Books Make Books on the Sicilian detective novel Excursion to Tindari by Andrea Camilleri.

This one includes a hellish description of an olive tree, three Italian/Sicilian proverbs and a recipe for caponata.

Read the digest online and, if you like books, sign up for more throughout the year.

Next up will be Border by Kapka Kassabova, which I finished reading this morning and certainly lives up to its Guardian review: ‘a marvellous book about a magical part of the world’.

Your neck of the woods?

I’m back in London tomorrow for a Thighs reunion and the Crisis at Christmas after party - both reminders that nothing bonds a community like doing something challenging and worthwhile together. (Also drinking.)

Much love,


David Charles wrote this newsletter. He publishes another newsletter about reading called Books Make Books. David is co-writer of BBC Radio Wales sitcom Foiled, and writes for The Bike Project, Forests News, Global Landscape Forum, Elevate and Thighs of Steel. He also edits books about adventure, activism and more. Reply to this email, or delve into the archive on davidcharles.info. Thank you for subscribing!

Life Should Be Lived In Shorts And Sandals

When all these boxes are ticked off, I reckon we’ll have finished Series 4 of Foiled.

Happy 2020!

Three days in and the nights are drawing out. We're rushing headlong into summer (in the northern hemisphere at least). Salve!

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

2020: The Future

My 2020 is - absurdly - already mapped out.

The fourth series of Foiled will take about three months for us to write, starting with the plotlines over the next couple of weeks, and finishing at a sprint in early summer.

The next six months are also stuffed full of Thighs of Steel. We’ll have to work harder than ever to fill 108 saddle spaces and meet our target of raising another £60,000+ for grassroots refugee organisations. (Let me know if you want in!)

Come the summer, I'll hopefully be on the London-Athens ride for five weeks and I'll probably stick around in Greece and Turkey, as I have for the past two years, to work on my Bikes + Borders book.

So it’ll be deep September before I have time for anything radically new. Already, then, January 2020 is about planning for 2021 and beyond.

It's good to have plans, but it's easy to forget to take care of the long term, particularly as a freelancer. It's easy to miss that we're constantly putting down bedrock.

Your neck of the woods?

I'm up in London tomorrow for the Hogarth exhibition at Sir John Soane’s Museum. William Hogarth was a ‘pictorial satirist’ of the eighteenth century, whose bleak eye on society and politics either reminds us that, in most domains, daily life is on an upward trajectory, or that humanity suffers the same despicable vices as ever.

Above: Hogarth’s Election series. The canvassing looks familiar.

Other than that, there’s not much in the diary. I should fill it with sea swims.

Much love,


David Charles wrote this newsletter. He also publishes a reading newsletter called Books Make Books. David is co-writer of BBC Radio Wales sitcom Foiled, and writes for The Bike Project, Forests News, Global Landscape Forum, Elevate and Thighs of Steel. Reply to this email, or read more at davidcharles.info. Thank you for subscribing!

2010-2019: A New Davecade Begins

I'm not sure 'Davecade' works, but I'm sticking with it.

Above: The earliest photo of me taken this decade that I can unearth.

Happy Friday!

Some parts of the Internet don’t seem to age. My website is not one of them. This was DavidCharles.info in June 2010 (courtesy of the Wayback Machine):

There’s something unmistakeably 2010 about this image. It’s hosted on Blogspot, for one. ‘Follow me on Facebook’ and ‘My Flickr PhotoStream’ - I haven’t used these services for six years or more.

I have no idea what ‘The Knowledge’ was. Presumably not a record of my attempt to learn all 25,000 streets within a six mile radius of Charing Cross. And the less said about this ‘powerful tool’, the better.

On the other hand, there are some corners of the Internet that don’t date. This ridiculous Gnarls Barkley cover was recorded by Don Ross in 2010 and still sounds as fresh as ever.

This man is 10 years older now and, until a couple of days ago, I’d never heard of him. The Internet, sometimes, is cool. The work we do, sometimes, is timeless.


At the start of the last decade, I made the decision to apply for an internship at Amnesty International, and to apply for a place at a housing cooperative in London. I was accepted for both and set off on a course that directed my daily life for most of the next six years, and that still tides the general wash of my existence today, ten years later.

Amnesty didn't really work out. I get strangely paranoid in large office environments and end up feeling stifled and powerless - even when the work is meaningful.

The International Secretariat remains the last open-plan, filing cabinet-filled, water cooler and canteen office I have worked in.

But Amnesty showed me what I did want work to look like: creativity and the outdoors. In 2010, I wrote my first books, including a tale about hitch-hiking to Scotland, The Soles of My Shoes, which is still on sale.

The 2010s was, for me, a decade of exploration. Sanford housing cooperative gave me that formative freedom to write books, start a theatre company, study English teaching, volunteer with refugees in Calais, and cycle around the country.

It wasn't always healthy living situation, but a housing cooperative is run for the benefit of its members, not for the profit of its landlord. Everyone had a secure tenancy and a vote on how the cooperative was run, including rent-setting.

At the time, it was one of the few places in London where you could actually cover rent with a part-time job or with housing benefit. The rest of the week, then, was ours - to study, volunteer, travel, or create. It sounds like dream fairyland, but it could be the way we organise all our housing in this country.

Could be.


I’m glad I left Sanford, though. What my soul needs at the end of 2019 is not the same as it craved when the decade began.

In a 2015 paper published in Psychological Science, researchers found evidence for the instinctual notion that ‘temporal landmarks’ that signal new beginnings - such as the turning of a year - strengthen our motivation to achieve our goals.

Hence New Year’s Resolutions.

But the researchers also found that the bigger the sense of a fresh start, the bigger the motivation. A fresh start puts distance between our present and our past, imperfect, selves. The fresher the start, the greater the psychological distance, and the greater optimism we feel that we can finally overwhelm our ambition.

In a couple of days, we all have the opportunity to ‘spur goal initiation’ on a scale not seen the noughties clicked over into the teens. This gives a surprising weight to these few days that can otherwise slip between the cracks in the festivities of Christmas and New Year.

Turn-of-the-decade decisions echo long in the body, mind and spirit. Those two decisions that I took in early 2010 - Amnesty and Sanford - put me on a path that I was still exploring six years later and which have given me the life I lead today.

A great wave of momentum is coming, bringing with it the freshest of fresh starts - not merely of a new year, but of a whole new decade.

So, in among the minced pies and the turkey soup leftovers, I’m going to clear some time to make a couple of decisions that will set a new course and help me ride that wave long into the twenties.

What life choices will I look back on in 2029? What can I do today to increase the probability that someone, somewhere will find my work in 2029, surprised that it’s ten years old already?

What fresh start will you make in the twenties?

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.

Merry Thighsmas!

We are thrilled to announce that together this year Thighs of Steel have raised a staggering £87,184.40 for grassroots refugee organisations.

A big thank you to everyone who donated - it means a lot!

Guided by expert advice from Help Refugees, that money has been granted to five organisations we believe will do justice to your hard earned cash.

Picking projects to fund is a tough job, and of course we wish we could support every project with everything they need, but we've tried to cover a wide range of refugee needs, including emergency aid, legal assistance, social integration and human dignity.

Here is a pretty pie chart showing where the money’s gone:


You can learn more about all these projects, exactly what we’re funding and why by reading The Reason page on the Thighs of Steel website. Thanks again.

One too many mince pies?

The Thighs crew are heading for the hills on Sunday 29 December for a final 2019 blow out. The route is 25 miles, starting from Box Hill and Westhumble train station at 11am.

Cyclable, sociable and never more than four miles from a public house.

Read full details on Cycling UK.

52 Things I Learned in 2019

If you missed it last week, my list of 52 things I learned in 2019 is worth a gander. It went into a lot of spam folders thanks to the sheer asininity of Google and Microsoft (and the outrageous number of links I put in the email). Enjoy!

Your neck of the woods?

I’m taking the train up to London tomorrow for another couple of Crisis shifts. Monday’s shift at the South London Centre was a real pleasure, as ever. I had some good chats with the guests, including with one memorable chap who spent many years living in a bender in the woods near Glastonbury and who told an endless cavalcade of tales of duped New Age seekers easily relieved of their money.

Like: ‘King Arthur’s stone’, embedded in the flanks of Glastonbury Tor, from which the legendary king is supposed to have extracted his sword, and upon which infertile lovers can profitably copulate, was, in fact, dragged there in the early part of the last century by the local council to discourage schoolkids from investigating the dangerous sandstone caverns beneath the Tor.

I’m not sure which I love more: the modern myth-making, the puncturing of New Age dillusions, or the tantalising extrapolation that all our most cherished stories are deceits woven for profit.

Much love for 2020,


David Charles wrote this newsletter. He also publishes a reading newsletter called Books Make Books. David is co-writer of BBC Radio Wales sitcom Foiled, and writes for The Bike Project, Forests News, Global Landscape Forum, Elevate and Thighs of Steel. Reply to this email, or read more at davidcharles.info. Thank you for subscribing!

52 Things I Learned In 2019

Plus Books Make Books and Crisis at Christmas

Happy Friday!

And welcome to the last newsletter before Christmas. This week I’ve trawled through my whole year and hoovered up 52 nuggets of gold that I thought were worth sharing from the past 30,585,526-odd moments.

Compiling this list has taken me hours and hours and hours and hours - far, far longer than I ever imagined it would. So if you find anything interesting here, I would particularly love to hear from you this week!

Without any further ado, here’s the list. Thanks for reading! 😘

52 Things I Learned In 2019

Above: The Thighs of Steel Core Team arrive in Athens after 9 weeks and over 6,000km of cycling. This photo sums up the best of what I learned in 2019.

  1. Your gut behaves like a second brain of over 100 million nerve cells called the enteric nervous system, which can communicate with your head-brain through the vagus nerve, and also by releasing bacterial metabolites into the bloodstream. We are what we eat, in other words. Read a digest of the science on my blog.

  2. Fingerspitzengefühl is a splendid German word, literally meaning ‘finger tip feeling’ and best translated as ‘intuitive flair’ or ‘instinct’. I have no memory of where I picked this up.

  3. This year, The Guardian updated its style guide to recommend journalists use terms that more accurately reflect the science of climate change – sorry – climate breakdown. Editor-in-chief Katharine Viner says: ‘The phrase “climate change”, for example, sounds rather passive and gentle when what scientists are talking about is a catastrophe for humanity.’ Words are important. Read about other word choices in The Guardian.

  4. Fires in equatorial Asia contribute 8 percent of global carbon emissions and 23 percent of methane emissions despite only accounting for 0.6 percent of the world’s burned area. That’s down to the burning of carbon-rich peatlands in countries like Indonesia. I learned a lot more while writing this article for Forests News.

  5. Rejection is joyous. Read more on my blog - or watch this TEDx talk by Jia Jiang.

  6. ‘Activity gives you more energy, not less’, one of five key ideas from the book Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport. Read the other four on my (new) blog.

  7. Millennials are the burnout generation. There is so much in this article, but here’s one idea that struck home: ‘[Burnout] takes things that should be enjoyable and flattens them into a list of tasks, intermingled with other obligations that should either be easily or dutifully completed.’ Read the full article on Buzzfeed.

  8. In Utah there’s a 6,000 tonne quaking aspen that is between 80,000 and 1,000,000 years old. I’ve learned how to age trees (without chopping the in half) twice this year and forgotten both times. Every species grows at a slightly different rate, and at different rates at different ages and in different environments, but a half decent rule of thumb is that the girth of the tree will increase by about an inch every year. I found this PDF from Wokingham District Veteran Tree Association useful.

  9. Over the past decade, about 550,000 more Britons left London than moved to the city. Read why people are leaving London on BBC News. Read why I think small is sociable on my blog.

  10. A psychedelic experience has the potential to be a Black Swan event for the individual. Read through this thought on my blog. Better yet, read Michael Pollan’s book How to Change Your Mind and/or watch this video of him in conversation with Robin Carhart-Harris, head of the Centre for Psychedelic Research at Imperial College London:

  11. As well as the amelioration of symptoms of depression, specific anxiety (not generalised) and PMS, psychedelic microdosing has been linked with physical enhancements in strength, stamina and flexibility. The talk I gave at Love Trails Festival showed me that runners are really interested in the practical application of vanishingly small amounts of psychedelic substances. Read more in Advances in Psychedelic Medicine (Google Books).

  12. Injuring your hamstring can take months and months to recover from. Bloody annoying when fifty percent of your stress-reduction strategy involves running.

  13. There are five major varieties of bullshit jobs: flunkies, goons, duct tapers, box tickers and taskmasters. The antidote to bullshit jobs and the bullshitisation of our lives is to care. We won't be rewarded financially, but we will be rewarded in other ways, including with the intrinsic reward of being able to sleep at night. Read Bullshit Jobs: A Theory by David Graeber at your local library or online for free at The Anarchist Library.

  14. People on a meat-heavy diet could shrink their food-related footprint by at least 33% by becoming vegetarian. Eat less beef, lamb and cheese. Substitute with pork, chicken, eggs and molluscs. Replace with beans, pulses, grains and soy. Read my digest of a New York Times deep dive on the subject.

  15. Reading a book is ‘forced meditation’. Please, please watch Bookstores, a documentary paeon to reading. It includes a wonderful interview with ‘total baller’ Dr Ruth J Simmons at ~29:30: ‘If you enforce reading, you are likely to enforce time for reflection because it’s hard to read without reflecting … Busyness does not make our lives meaningful; it is the interior life that makes the greatest difference to us in the end.’

  16. The average shower lasts seven minutes and uses 65 litres of water. That sounds like a lot, but most of the water we ‘drink’ is embedded in the food we eat: producing 1 kilo of beef for example consumes 15,000 litres of water while 1 kilo of wheat ‘drinks up’ 1,500 litres. Read my investigation into the environment demerits of showering on my blog.

  17. It takes us about 50 hours of typing to write an episode of Foiled. Read more about our process on my blog.

  18. There’s such a thing as the Celtic Media Awards! We go again next year…

  19. On 29 July, volunteers in Ethiopia planted 350 million trees across 1,000 designated sites in 12 hours. Read more on Atlas Obscura.

  20. This year, I learned how to play The Trellis by Nick Mulvey (who, incidentally, went to the same university as me - I remember watching his old band Portico Quartet in the student union). Get the TAB from Bantham Legend and play along with this video:

  21. From a standing start, fully dressed at my desk, the minimum viable swim (out to beyond my depth, plus three head dunking dives and back) takes exactly 13 minutes. Read why you should always take the swim on my blog.

  22. Climbing trees is good for you in ways that you can’t quite remember until you’re up there, looking down. ‘Trees deliver us from the banal, and reaching the top of one is like coming up for air and breaking the bubble of our timetabled lives.’ Read The Tree Climber’s Guide by Jack Cooke.

  23. On flat ground, I take 64 paces to walk 100 metres. A useful thing to know if you’re trying to navigate in low visibility (or trying to find an obscure map feature as part of your Lowland Leader Award assessment). Learn more about pacing from Mountain Safety.

  24. Fractal environments, such as those we experience in abundance when in the countryside or beside the sea, help regulate emotions and reduce stress in a similar way to music. Read The Nature Fix by Florence Williams for a full exploration on the myriad ways nature does us good - or read this Atlantic article on Why Fractals Are So Soothing.

  25. Leave love letters. Read the secret story on my blog.

  26. I really like Emmental. Also: always travel with a pat of butter. Tortilla chips slathered with butter makes for a surprisingly good cycling snack. Ignore the doubters.

  27. Neapolitan street food is dangerous. Frittatine di pasta is a depth charge of carbohydrates, macaroni, béchamel and pork weighted with enough oil to power a medium-sized caravan. Digestible only when halved, quartered, and shared to soak up limoncello. Eat more on my blog.

  28. Unlike those at liberty, asylum seekers imprisoned in detention centres are allowed to work – for the princely wage of £1 per hour. Read Michael Darko’s story of indefinite detention on my blog.

  29. Refugees and asylum seekers dress well and wear cologne because it helps them integrate into society. ‘For me, to look good and to be clean could help me in front of society. People might accept me.’ Read Mahmud’s story on my blog.

  30. The Croatian Adriatic coast is beautiful, but the Adriatic coast road will be too full of touring motorists in mid-summer for you to fully relax and enjoy the ride. As you can’t see in the photo below.

  31. Albania may very well be the most hospitable country in the world for touring cyclists. Thank you, Albania. Read the story of Thighs of Steel in Albania on my blog.

  32. Cycling around Ikaría, a Greek island home to Europe’s highest concentration of centenarians, is really fucking hard. Read the story on my blog.

  33. Diving into the sea head first can really mess you up. From a height of ten metres, you break the surface at 36.6mph and that exerts crazy force on your body as the water slows you by more than 50 percent in a fraction of a second. I guess that’s why diving is an Olympic sport. I got a dislocated shoulder, but maybe I was lucky not to get concussed. Read more about the risks of diving on SportsRec.com. Next time, I’ll be following this sage advice from Tourism On The Edge.

  34. Greek can be disturbingly similar to Spanish in the most unhelpful ways. For example: aquí in Spanish means here; εκεί in Greek means there.

  35. The maximum capacity of Samos refugee camp is 648. The current refugee population in the town is nearing 8,000. Read my Are You Syrious? Special about Samos and stay in touch with the data by subscribing to Aegean Boat Report.

  36. Some female refugees who have been raped refuse abortions because they believe pregnancy will expedite their asylum application. Read how women’s bodies are being abused by the asylum system on my blog.

  37. There is one doctor for (at the time) 6,000 refugees on Samos. Read more snippets from Samos on my blog.

  38. 17,205 people were granted asylum in the UK in 2018. Over the same period, Germany granted asylum to 139,555 people. In Turkey, there are in excess of 3,600,000 Syrian refugees, living with the limited legal rights granted under ‘temporary protection’, in the shadow of a war zone. Read my full report from İzmir on my blog.

  39. You can know a culture through its language. While in the Netherlands I learned two Dutch word-philosophies: gezellig and niksen. Gezellig is an earthier version of the Danish hygge, while niksen is doing-nothingness. Both vital. You can take two minutes of niksen using this timer - it took me two attempts to complete because I am, at heart, a millennial.

  40. The Netherlands has a border with France. Read about my trip to Urk with The Tim Traveller. Or, better still, watch this:

  41. E.M. Forster is an excellent novelist. Read my other Summer / Autumn recommendations on my blog. And ‘beware of muddle’.

  42. The best things in life are free, but some other stuff is free as well if you ask nicely. Read more about getting shit for free on my blog or check out my second look review of the free (to me at least) Punkt MP02 mobile phone.

  43. Since the Tories first came to power in 2010, admissions to A&E of homeless people has tripled. Read the horrifying absract in the BMJ. But perhaps this was the election that brought us closer together. Read why on my blog.

  44. TOTALLY UNRELATED TO THE RESULTS OF THE GENERAL ELECTION: it is theoretically possible to acquire French citizenship (and regain an EU passport) in only two years if you study for a masters in the country and have no ‘assimilation defects’. Read this petite histoire on Pret A Voyager before embarking, however.

  45. Divock Origi.

  46. I have already spent more time with friends and family in 2019 than I did last year. Yep: I keep a spreadsheet. I’ve spoken at least twice with a total of 47 people this year, 14 of whom I’ve had the pleasure of speaking to at least 20 times.

  47. According to my rough estimates, I have visited 59,323 web pages so far this year - that’s over 1,100 unique pages every week and a 14 percent increase on 2018. Can I think of more than a dozen web pages that have made a positive difference to my life in 2019? No, I can’t. 8 percent of unique page views were on the BBC Sport website, for example. I frequently fantasise about a life without the Internet. But then I wouldn’t be able to write you these love letters, would I?

  48. Through Spring, Summer and Autumn 2019, I lost my five-year daily habit of diary writing. Now I’m trying to trust the process again.

  49. By and large, I stuck to my No News Is Good News reading habit. I accessed almost double the number of BBC News stories as I did in 2017 - but nearly half of them were actually sports stories like ‘Enes Kanter: Turkey seeks arrest of New York Knicks star’. WTF. I have no interest in baseball (is that even baseball?) If you exclude sports stories, then I only accessed 56 ‘news’ stories in 2019. Of those, my primary interests were Brexit, the General Election and the environment.

  50. I enjoy ice skating exactly as much I suspected. I’ll try not to leave it another thirty years before my next outing. (Artwork below by my niece, aged 5.)

  51. After keeping a nightly journal of ‘5 Great Things’ since 5 February, I have learned that the greatest things in my life are quite often miniscule, and almost always related to other people. The strongest element of keeping such a journal is reflecting on past entries so here’s an incredibly mundane sample of three, picked from random days in the two notebooks I’ve filled this year:
    ‘Loads of walking >18km’
    ‘Being woken up by Django licking my face’

    I should say that Django is a dog. I was inspired to start the journal by this article on For The Interested.

  52. Leather trousers are surprisingly comfortable.

That’s it!

Well done for getting this far. If you’ve enjoyed reading this newsletter over the past year, then I’d be thrilled if you share the link with your friends or on your social media. Thank you!

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Books Make Books: My Reading Newsletter

Earlier this week, I set up a shiny new Substack newsletter as a repository for my reading. It’s called Books Make Books.

Cormac McCarthy once told an interviewer that ‘books are made of books’ and, as a writer, reading is critical to my work. Professionally, I’d be unbelievably stupid not to take half hour to note a few things that I’ve learned from the authors I spend time with.

From this week forward, I’ll be publishing these notes on the Internet. Like this: Dubliners by James Joyce, or like this: Atomic Habits by James Clear.

I’ll probably drop the odd notification into this newsletter, but you can also subscribe directly to Books Make Books and get ~30-40 posts/books a year straight into your inbox.

Your neck of the woods?

I’m going to be bouncing around between London and Oxfordshire over the next week, jugging family festivities with volunteering for Crisis at Christmas.

My first Crisis shift is on Monday. I usually do two shifts at the end of the holiday, when everyone is clean and refreshed - but apprehensive about leaving the warmth of the converted school for the freezing loneliness of the streets. This year, I’m looking forward to greeting the guests as they come in from the cold on day one.

I know I’ve written about Crisis umpteen times on this newsletter, but last Saturday evening I sung my heart out at the Crisis carol service at Southwark Cathedral. Between the carols and tidings of goodwill, we heard three heart-rending stories from Crisis members, before Jon Sparkes, the charity’s chief executive, took to the pulpit.

He did a very diplomatic job of welcoming the new Conservative government.

‘Homelessness is a policy choice,’ Jon said, before outlining the plans to end homelessness that the Scottish government already has in place, and that the Welsh government are currently piecing together, in close consultation with Crisis.

The government of England has no such plan, nor any plans for such a plan.

Responding to the Conservative manifesto before the election, Jon said: ‘It’s deeply disappointing to see the Conservative manifesto fall short of the mark when it comes to ending homelessness, in all its forms, once and for all.’

Crisis is instead working with local authorities to implement their own plans, helping them take control where national leadership is lacking. Newcastle, for example, has pledged to end homelessness within the next ten years.

This Christmas, about 4,500 homeless guests - or ‘fellow citizens’ as Jon called them - will join 12,000 volunteers at the ten Crisis centres around London.

12,000 volunteers! This is an incredible show of support for our marginalised fellow citizens, whose population has grown so vertiginously over the past ten years.

But what’s even more incredible is that we are all still living in a society beholden to the pernicious Vagrancy Act of 1824 that makes rough sleeping a criminal offence.

Crisis are currently running a campaign to scrap the act, but isn’t it incredible that they should have to campaign at all?

Yet here we are. In England, at least, we fall further and further every year from our goal of ending homelessness, in all its forms, once and for all. The United Kingdom is the sixth biggest economy on the planet. Shame.

Rather than leave you on such a downer, I want to say again that we are each of us tiny slivers of society. Yes, life would be so much easier if we had the backing of the government and that enormous economy, but we can each participate, with our time, money, anger, or simply with a kind word on the street.

Happy Christmas and much love,


Image: Special Patrol Group


David Charles wrote this newsletter. He also publishes a reading newsletter called Books Make Books. David is co-writer of BBC Radio Wales sitcom Foiled, and writes for The Bike Project, Forests News, Global Landscape Forum, Elevate and Thighs of Steel. Reply to this email, or read more at davidcharles.info. Thank you for subscribing!

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