Scheming and Dreaming

Who's up for Thighs of Steel 2020?

Kayaking the Drin - Val Ismaili

The Drin River (Photo: Val Ismaili)

Happy Friday!

Welcome to all the new subscribers - and thank you to everyone for sharing the newsletter. If you find something here you like, please pass it on. :)


The big news this week is that the Thighs of Steel London to Athens mega-ride will definitely be happening again in 2020.

At the moment, we’re looking at 10-week routes of about 6,500km. This is my mad-cap Eastern Adventure proposal, taking in 19 or 20 countries, including, for the first time on Thighs of Steel, Liechtenstein, Poland, Slovakia, Ukraine, Serbia and Turkey.

I have no idea if it’s logistically possible, but it’s fun to dream…

If you’d like to submit a route for consideration, hit reply and email me a simple map like this one. Thighs of Steel cyclists love wild adventure, epic mountains and fatty carbs. What’s your dream European cycle?


For the past two years, I’ve supported The Next Challenge Grant, a wonderfully simple idea to crowdsource donations so that impecunious adventure-newbies can take on the kind of challenges that I’ve been so lucky to enjoy over the years.

Applications are now open for 2020 and this blog post runs through some of the 60 expeditions that have been funded since the grant was set up in 2015 by explorer Tim Moss.

I think my favourite of these trips was a 200 mile kayaking descent of the Drin River, through Kosovo and Albania. It sounded like the perfect combination of spontaneity, foolhardiness, adventure and joy. Oh, and nappies -

At times in our journey, we’d be paddling in tandem with a floating sofa or be unavoidably slapped across the face by a nappy hanging off the branch of a tree.

My Reading: Summer/Autumn Edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Pick of My Summer/Autumn Reading

  • A Passage to India (1924, fiction) by EM Forster. A splendid novel that dances wittily around the social politics of British rule in India, before exploding in your face. A Passage to India frequently makes ‘all-time best novel’ lists and I can make no accusation of false advertising.

  • Bitter Lemons (1957, non-fiction) by Lawrence Durrell. An autobiographical account of the three years (1953-1956) Durrell spent on Cyprus, as British rule disintegrated. A wise companion for any journey east; alternatively, ideal for those seeking literary sunshine during our dull northern winter.

My Current Autumn/Winter Reading…

  • Jane Eyre (1847, fiction) by Charlotte Brontë.

  • Underlands (2019, non-fiction) by Robert MacFarlane - a gift, thanks T.

  • Neurotransmissions: Essays on Psychedelics from Breaking Convention (2015, non-fiction) - also a gift, thanks B.

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

Our neck of the woods?

I’ll mostly be stationed in Bournemouth over the next couple of weeks. But I’ll see some of you at the next Thighs of Steel Club Ride on 24 November. The route is being finalised as we speak, but we’ll be leaving from a cafe in London and cycling around and about for 50km or so.

The ride is totally non-competitive and will finish in a pub, so forget your fear of Lycra and join the Whatsapp Group (Population: 60+) or check the ride page on Facebook for details of this and future rides.

The date is also set for our mass ascent of the highest peak in Flevoland (altitude: 7 or 8 metres): 30 November 2019. If you’d like to join us, let me know, or just show up randomly.

Regrettably, this trip clashes with the Woodland Trust’s Big Climate Fightback, during which a million people will plant trees across the UK. If you find yourself not at the summit of Flevoland, why not join (or start) a tree-planting event and plant a being that might outlive you by a couple of centuries? Awesome.

Whosoever plants a tree
Winks at immortality.
Felix Dennis

Much love,


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

‘Here is no work; there is war’: Refugees in İzmir

Happy Friday!

And greetings from London, where I’m busy working on a new sitcom idea with Beth.

Comedy is a strange business. We found out recently that Series 3 of Foiled was a tremendous success - thank you to everyone for listening, shame to everyone who missed it - but does that mean we will be offered a fourth series or the chance to write something new? Not necessarily, no.

Earlier this week, I listened to Nish Kumar reminiscing about Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace on the excellent Rule of Three podcast. Sobering to think that a piece of comedy so perfect can be cancelled after only 6 episodes. Qu’est ce que le diff?

Unlike Foiled, you can still catch up on Darkplace online.

Now, on with the show…

‘Here is no work; there is war’: Refugees in İzmir

In Europe, we think we have a refugee crisis.

According to Full Fact, 17,205 people were granted asylum in the UK in 2018. Over the same period, Germany granted asylum to 139,555 people.

Meanwhile, there are nearly 100,000 refugees living in Greece, including over 35,000 on the Greek islands, in conditions that have been described as a humanitarian disaster.

But let’s have a little perspective, shall we? In Turkey, there are over 3,600,000 Syrian refugees, living with the limited legal rights granted under ‘temporary protection’, in the shadow of a war zone.

So, while on Samos, I had to take a couple of days out to visit İzmir, one of the most important transit cities for refugees crossing from Turkey to Greece.


İzmir is positioned with easy access to the strip of coastline that faces Lesvos, Chios and Samos, three of the Greek island ‘hotspots’ where refugees can register for asylum in Europe.

Syrians have been coming to İzmir for decades: easily evidenced by the dozens of established cafes and restaurants doing quick business around Basmane railway station in the city centre.

After a hearty lunch of fuul and khubz in a canteen overflowing with Syrians - young and old, male and female, refugee and resident - I asked around for someone who spoke English and was directed to a young guy we’ll call Ahmed.

Ahmed told me that he’d only been in Turkey for 20 days - and had spent 15 of those in prison. He’d already tried to cross to Samos twice and both times he’d been picked up by the Turkish coastguard after helicopters spotted his boat.

According to Aegean Boat Report, the Turkish coastguard have stopped 2,699 boats like Ahmed’s from crossing to Europe this year. Only about a third of the refugees who leave Turkey on boats arrive in Greece.


Ahmed tells me that he’s got a brother in Athens who crossed the Aegean to Greece before the 2016 EU-Turkey refugee agreement that has made the coastguard so vigilant.

In the 2016 deal, the EU promised Turkey €6 billion in financial aid as well as visa-free travel through Europe for Turkish citizens. In return, Turkey would better patrol the European border and re-admit refugees who reached Greece illegally.

In reality, the Greek leftist Syriza government, in power until this summer, proved reluctant to send refugees back to conditions where their human rights would not be respected.

The new Greek conservative government has promised to make far greater use of the returns agreement, but it is yet to be seen whether such a course of action is feasible, let alone defensible.


After being picked up by the coastguard, Ahmed and the others in his boat were taken to a detention centre. He told me that he was beaten up by the police and that the detainees shared living quarters the size of a basketball court with as many as 1,500 others.

Ahmed spent five days in detention before being deported back to the border with Syria. But he - and all the friends he made in the detention centre - came straight back to İzmir to try to cross again. ‘Here is no work; there is war,’ he says. ‘What can we do?’


Ahmed isn’t even supposed to be in İzmir: he doesn’t have the right papers. He’s supposed to stay in the province bordering Syria where he first arrived in Turkey.

Throughout our conversation, Ahmed’s eyes were darting around, looking over my shoulder for the police who often sweep through Basmane checking people’s papers.

Earlier that day, I’d spoken to Onur, the head of an official refugee support NGO in the city. Over a glass of tea in his office, Onur politely apologised. He was sorry, but he couldn’t tell me much about the situation for refugees in Turkey without getting the approval of the Directorate General of Migration Management.

But Onur was able to tell me that there were around 180,000 Syrians in İzmir - significantly more than the official figure because of irregular migration between provinces by refugees like Ahmed.

Onur told me that refugees can change their papers when they move to a different province, but Ahmed explains that this is not the case for İzmir, Istanbul, Ankara or any of the other few places where you might be able to live - or escape to Greece.


Here in İzmir, Ahmed shares a room in a hotel with his new friends. Despite splitting the single room between five people, one of their jobs today is to find somewhere cheaper.

The whole area around Basmane is a maze of cheap hotels, fast food joints, shoe sellers and cigarette pushers. The hotels are mostly full of Africans, who stay for one or two nights and then move on. Syrian refugees tend to stay in run-down houses, scarcely fit for human habitation, infested with mice and cockroaches - but at least they’re cheap.

Life here is hard. Ahmed has only one friend who can speak Turkish and he has to do all the translating for the group. Ahmed speaks great English, but that's not much use here. He studied English in school for eight years, but since then he’s lived through seven years of war.

‘I'm 25,’ he tells me. ‘If I don't go to Europe, I have no future anywhere.’


Samos Update: There are now 400 more refugees on Samos than there were when I arrived - up to 6,492 according to Aegean Boat Report. That’s despite the transfer of more than 700 people to the mainland a couple of weeks ago.

Our neck of the woods?

I’ve got a couple more days of comedy writing in London before I head back to Bournemouth for some concerted work on my Open Borders book. Give me a shout if you’re free.

Looking further ahead, I’m planning to go to the London Migration Film Festival at the end of November, to the Cromarty Film Festival at the beginning of December, and then to climb the highest peak in Flevoland (altitude: 7 or 8 metres) with The Tim Traveller.

I shall also be helping to lead the Thighs of Steel Club Ride ‘Party’ Group on 24 November. Sign up on Facebook or simply turn up on the day. Last month there were more than 20 of us!

Much love,


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

‘Here is nothing special’

Snippets from Samos

Happy Friday!

First of all, a warm welcome to all the new subscribers. A few of you have joined in the last couple of weeks since the switch to Substack. This humble newsletter now goes out to 207 intelligent and discerning humans. I hope you stick around :) There’s always the archive if you want to catch up.

Now, on with the show…

‘Here is nothing special’: Snippets from Samos

Two weeks is a long time on such a fevered island as Samos. The sights, sounds and stories could each fill a book, I'm sure, but I'll have to content myself with reporting these snippets that I don’t have time to do justice to.


After I left Samos, a friend sent me a short text message concerning the distribution of open cards that saw 700 people transferred to the mainland. ‘Did you know that during the big transfer they actually broke up families?’ she asked me, rhetorically. ‘Half the family would be on the list and have five minutes to pack. If the dad was on the list and he wasn't there, they just left him.’


I met a young man - let’s call him Aarash - a 17 year-old from Afghanistan who grew up in Iran. He came to Samos alone and was excited to show me the ‘house’ that he had just finished building with the help of resourceful friends made at the camp. It was a wood-frame shelter stapled with tarpaulins.

Minors aren't given any money to survive, so rely on kindness and solidarity. He was given a sleeping bag by an NGO and a mattress by the camp. Older refugees who’d taken care of him used some of their money to buy tarpaulins and wood.

Four people will sleep on that mattress, but it's a significant upgrade from the flimsy tent they had been living in for the past few weeks.

Aarash goes to an NGO-run school in the town and learns English, Greek and German. They feed him breakfast and lunch, so he doesn't need to rely too much on the revolting food handed out at the end of a long queue by the camp authorities.


There is one doctor for 6000 refugees on Samos – medical, not psychological. Not everyone has flesh wounds; most of the scarring is on the inside.


One founder of an NGO on Samos told me that, while grassroots organisations like his 'want to go out of business', the big, transnational NGOs are already planning their budget for 2021 – 'they need to stay in business', he says with disgust.


I met a 27 year-old man whose ‘Greek age’ is 17. It's a calculated gamble on his part: if at his interview they accept that he is indeed only 17, then he is will be classified as an unaccompanied minor and put on the priority list for transfer to Athens.

Without giving away too many details, this man's home country is in Africa; he stands little chance of getting refugee status if the authorities discover his real age.

In the meantime, however, as a 17 year-old, this man does not get the financial support that older asylum-seekers receive; he lives by volunteering for the Samos NGOs and gets food in return. He has chosen short-term penury in the hope of longer-term advantage.

He looks 27.


‘Here is nothing special’ - the words of an Ethiopian woman, looking around at the disgusting camp and reflecting on why she bothered coming to Europe.

The Oldest Warzone

The two most shocking stories I heard while travelling came as a pair, one from each side of the Aegean border.

The first I heard from a Turkish volunteer in Izmir. This was her friend's story and she prefaced the whole by saying that she was only repeating the otherwise unbelievable – and barbaric – tale because she trusts her friend absolutely.

The two friends volunteer for a small organisation in Izmir that tries to help refugees integrate into Turkish society. It started as a place where refugees and locals could come together to cook and eat a meal. Now they also distribute warm clothes during winter and help refugees navigate Turkish bureaucracy. Just last week, for example, the volunteers helped a Syrian boy enrol in a local schools, something that his parents couldn't have done alone.

Recently, the friend accompanied a pregnant Syrian woman when she went to hospital to give birth. The birth was a success, but afterwards she was presented with a piece of paper to sign. The new mother couldn't read the paper written in Turkish, of course, but she was pressured to sign anyway.

It was a medical consent form for the surgeons to strip her ovaries and render her infertile.

After repeating this story, and repeating her incredulity that it could possibly be true, my Turkish friend averred that the hospital's reported behaviour was totally unethical. But she also said that it was understandable, from both a financial and moral stand point.

Turkey isn’t a rich country and childbirth costs a lot of money that the government cannot recoup from penniless refugees. But my friend also told me that many refugees in Izmir live on the streets, or in hotels and apartments that are barely inhabitable. There is little enough money to feed themselves, let alone extra mouths. It's irresponsible to have kids in this situation, my friend cried. It is not right.

It was my time to repeat a story I'd heard a few days before in Samos. There might be other reasons that a refugee needs pregnancy and childbirth.

Two months pregnant and travelling alone, a Syrian woman arrived on Samos and was taken to the hospital for a check up. At the hospital, it was discovered that this woman had been raped during her journey to Europe. The doctor told her that, because of the rape, she was entitled to have an abortion.

The woman refused. Thanks to her pregnancy, she explained, she would be placed on the ‘vulnerable persons’ list and given priority for transfer away from Samos to the mainland. No one wants to stay for long in the filth of Samos. Pregnancy is the closest a human being here can get to a free ticket out of the camp.

These rules are made with the noblest of intentions, I'm sure, but their side effects are barbaric.

As a topper to this story, I was told a third by an Ethiopian woman in the Samos camp. She had a friend who had been transferred to Athens because she was pregnant. Tragically, after she arrived in Athens, she had a miscarriage. With no baby, the authorities tried to transfer her back to Samos.

I should say that these stories are uncorroborated, but they raised little more than an eyebrow when retold to local volunteers who have heard too many, too similar.

Women’s bodies are history’s oldest warzone: a millennia-old war fought between state and self over who has the right to new life - in all senses.

Open Borders: The Book

As promised, I’m in the process of collecting five years’ worth of writing on open borders, refugees and migration into a book.

Profits will go to the grassroots refugee support organisations I have visited across Europe and I’m aiming for publication in Spring 2020.

If you can help me in any way with the illustration, publication or promotion of the book, then please get in touch - I desperately need help and advice!

Thanks :)

Foiled: The Final Episode

You have only one day left to listen to the final episode of Foiled - featuring Miles Jupp and a huge end-of-series cliff-hanger.

On Monday, Beth and the producers are pitching for a fourth series - is this the end of Bleach for the Stars!?

Our neck of the woods?

I actually wrote this week’s edition on Tuesday, so hopefully nothing has happened in the world that now makes this look really weird. Like, ‘Dave’s being surprisingly casual about this nuclear warhead in the Thames thing.’

If all has gone well, I’m sitting with friends in front of a roaring fire in a tiny cottage in a tiny village near the Brecon Beacons, planning next years Thighs of Steel London to Athens adventure.

On Monday, I’ll be at a secret location in Wales, helping film an episode of The Tim Traveller’s legendarily obscure travel show. Then I’ve got a couple of days in Bristol before heading back to London to catch Beth Granville and Garnon Davies’s gut-bustingly funny sketch duo at Backyard Comedy’s Comedy Hump (tickets free). If I’m in your neck of the woods, come and say hi!

Much love,

p.s. If someone you know enjoys reading things like this newsletter, please click this button and share it with them. I can’t describe the buzz I get out of welcoming new readers :)

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

From the English Channel

Who would spend 86 hours and about £300 travelling from Athens to the UK when a four hour flight costs a third of the price?

The answer is, of course, me - but I was rebuking myself with this question yesterday afternoon when I found out that my ferry crossing from Cherbourg to Poole had been summarily cancelled because of what can only be described as British weather.

As I scrabbled to find an alternative route that wasn’t disgustingly expensive (Eurostar topped £200, the train from Dover was nearly £90), unhappily time-tabled, or, indeed, already fully booked, I was annoyed at myself for choosing the slow road home, horrified at the mounting expense of two extra train fares, and disgraced by the choices we’ve made as a species that put such a high premium on terrestrial transport.

Then I remembered the people I left behind in Izmir, Samos and Athens: the Afghan students I’d taught the days of the week, the Syrian, Yemeni and Iraqi chefs who’d cooked for me, the friends of many nations with whom I’d hiked to the beach - the thousands of people who would give anything (their life savings, their youth, their life) for the chance to travel across the continent so charmlessly.

At the port, as police swept the underside of lorries for desperate stowaways, all I had to do was dangle my passport and cycle aboard. For me, there’s only the merest whiff of a border, and a delay of an hour or two is no delay at all.


As it happens, I feel very lucky to be on board - and not only because I’m winning the passport lottery.

Yesterday, after frantic re-routing analysis, I finally settled on the Caen to Portsmouth ferry as the least painful option. I booked the same, swiftly followed (naturally enough, I thought) by the booking of a train from Paris to Caen.

I agonised over the timings: should I book the languorous early train which would leave me a yawning two and a half hours of footling around in Caen, or should I book the dynamic later train, with time for a leisurely lunch in Paris and a snappy arrival 45 minutes before departure?

Eventually, my cautious nature won out and I booked the early train.

Good thing too - because the Caen and ‘Caen’ of my tickets are two completely different places. In fact, one of them isn’t called ‘Caen’ at all.

Caen, the actual Caen where my train arrived, is a landlocked town some 16 kilometres from the English Channel.

The spurious ‘Caen’ of my ferry booking is actually a place called Ouistrehem, which might look less catchy on the brochure, but has the singular advantage of being geographically accurate.

Good thing I had that spare hour for a rapid bike ride through the misting Calvados rain.

My trip to Samos was suggested by a good friend I made while we climbed the epic hills of northern Greece in the final week of Thighs of Steel.

She happens to be one of the editors of Are You Syrious?, an almost infeasibly impressive blog that gathers news of refugees and migration from all around Europe and summarises the stories in a daily digest.

They also publish ‘Specials’ - articles that go into a little more detail, written by activists, volunteers and general mugginses on the ground, i.e. ME.

Without further ado, here is my AYS Special — Fire on Samos: Engineered Catastrophe.

This newsletter is the engine room of all my writing, so you might feel a sense of déjà vue while reading certain passages, but this piece puts everything that I experienced on Samos into more thoughtful context than was possible in the hectic moment.

The founder of one of the Samos NGOs (who I never actually met) sent me this message, seconds after the article went online:

Just read your article on AYS! It's a very good description of what is going on here...thanks!

No higher honour was ever bestowed on a writer.

The elephantine-memoried of you will recall that I had something of a mission to accomplish in Paris: a hunt for a love letter.

I won’t go into the gory details in this newsletter because I have documented the whole trip in an audio post that you can find here.

One final note about this shiny new email format: as well as being able to browse through the whole archive on my Substack homepage, you can now also search every single newsletter I’ve ever written, going all the way back to 2015!

I’d better go - Andrew, the ferry’s Entertainment Manager, has just announced a circus skills workshop (plate spinning is promised) in the Blue Note Bar on Deck 9.

Much love,

Share The David Charles Newsletter


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

Paris: Love Letter Hunting


As some of you will recall, back in August (not July as in the audio) I left a love letter, hidden in the crack in a wall in Paris, for someone I’d barely met.

You can read the first part of the story here.

Then I found out that she’d left me a letter in return. But my attempt to recover said letter back in August was frustrated by police.

You can read the second part of the story here.

Now, my friends, we arrive at the denouement! I am once again in Paris, footloose and fancy free (well, assuming I skip dinner).

But what will I find hidden away on the banks of the Seine?

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