And welcome to the last Friday of what has been an incredible (viz. not credible: beyond belief) year.
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52 Things I Learned in 2020
⚡ WARNING: This gets looong. Click here to read it on my website instead ⚡
I love looking back over time past, especially as a writer, when my follies are etched in permanent print for all to admire. On 3 January this year, for example, I wrote the following:
My 2020 is—absurdly—already mapped out.
I went on to predict that Foiled would be broadcast this summer and that I’d then be cycling off on an epic group bike adventure across Europe, before finishing up in Athens.
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.
Suffice to say that January Dave looks pretty foolish to December Dave. And this is exactly how it should be. Our plans are a starting point from which we always diverge; what counts is how we diverge.
No matter what you’ve been through this year and how many plans you’ve cancelled, replanned and recancelled, you’ve still grown as a human being and learned many new things from many new experiences. Don’t forget that.
As January Dave put it:
It’s easy to miss that we’re constantly putting down bedrock.
… Even when all your plans are scuppered and rescuppered by a global pandemic.
So without any further ado, here’s a list of things that I’ve learned in spite of being totally mugged off by 2020.
I’m incredibly lucky. Astonishingly, unfairly lucky. I’ve had four tests for Covid-19 this year (as part of the Zoe COVID Symptom Study) and have come up clean each time. As a writer who worked a lot online anyway, my business hasn’t been hurt too badly by the pandemic. Although my outdoor instructing did take a hit, I was still able to get out in the autumn to help three groups through their Duke of Edinburgh Award Bronze expeditions. 2020 has been a lot of things for me, but above all it’s been lucky.
Having said that, I don’t deal with the loneliness of isolation very well. Without the release valve of human contact, I gradually get more and more stressed, almost without noticing, until everything has to stop immediately. Good to know.
2020 was the first year since 2015 that I spent more than 28 days in one place. This came out after asking myself 52 questions before leaving lockdown.
Video calls are great—and I have the data to back it up. Despite a three-month lockdown, despite social distancing and despite the infamous Rule of Six, I’ve had as much contact with friends and family as I would do in a normal year. In fact, looking at my closest friends and family, I’ve actually had significantly more.
I learned how to write four episodes of a BBC Radio sitcom during a pandemic. There’s no real secret: just hours and hours of hard work.
Veganism is totally fine. I was worried that it might be difficult: physically, logistically and socially. It’s not. It’s fine. In fact, it’s a great way to trigger habit change across your whole lifestyle (should you wish!).
I learned how to make kimchi, or rather how to wait for kimchi. I more or less followed this recipe by Emily Han.
I also learned how to make the high fibre, high protein bread of life. Some of you also followed the recipe on my website.
Cholesterol is possibly not as demonic as it’s often portrayed. Late night consumption of cholesterol is converted into testosterone in the early hours of the morning and testosterone helps men protect against cognitive decline, increase bone mineral density and fight off depression.
Borborygmus is the technical word for stomach rumbling.
I learned how to plant a tree—a Victoria plum, to be precise. There was no harvest this year, but come back in a dozen seasons and help yourself at developed.fallen.obviously.
Until the late nineteenth century, the area that is now Christchurch, Bournemouth and Poole was a ‘vast, desolate heath’. Read more about the planting of Bournemouth and the health benefits of pinenes on my blog.
Much as we all love trees, sometimes cutting them down is the right thing to do for both biodiversity and carbon capture. Read more about the heathland conversion I’ve been involved with on Brownsea Island.
In a cold, pre-lockdown Oxfordshire woodland, I learned how to build a warm, stormproof shelter from branches and leaf litter. Thanks to Woodland Ways for that.
THE WONDERS OF NATURE
The famous constellation of the Plough is actually a small part—an asterism—of Ursa Major, the hind quarters of a much bigger beast that rears menacingly over the night. A mother protecting her cub, but only in deep darkness. In most of our lamplit skies, the fearsome monster is reduced to an outmoded piece of farmyard machinery.
There is only one ocean. We think of The English Channel as a body of water distinct from, say, the Indian Ocean, but it’s not. It’s merely convenient geographical nomenclature. Convenient, but dangerous. We have only one ocean; let’s look after it. Credit: David Annette-borough.
Hammocks rule. Mainly by facilitating the absorption of low- to mid-range fractal dimensions that coax me into a ‘wakefully relaxed’ brain state.
Spending a minute staring at a tree is surprisingly hard. But committing to spending 30 minutes every day outside in nature can do wonders for your happiness, sense of fascination and even your vitality.
At a certain point in the future, however, the next thought you have will make your brain melt. (Don’t worry, it’s ages away.)
The Conservative government is trying to criminalise the currently civil offence of trespass. The difference between criminal and civil law is essentially the difference between the class of crimes that affect the whole of society—things like murder, fraud and sexual assault—and the class of crimes that only affect the rights and property of individuals or organisations—such as divorce, breach of contract and, unless the Conservative landowners get their way, trespass.
The Jewish word for financial giving is tzedakah—not ‘charity’, but ‘justice’. Read more about giving what we can on my blog.
More bombs were dropped on Cambodia by the US Airforce than by Allied forces on Germany during the whole of World War II. The locals are still clearing up.
Most chewing gum isn’t biodegradable and local councils spend about £60m a year cleaning it up. We should point the finger, not at litterbugs, but at business. Also: we shouldn’t throw banana skins into the undergrowth.
Two thirds of the 361,000 people who originally came to the UK as asylum seekers have been here longer than the 11.5 million British children under 15. How ‘foreign’ are these asylum seekers, really?
The first British people were black. With blue eyes. Also lactose intolerant. Cool.
Thanks to spending a lot of time cooped up indoors, I’ve read 50 books this year, although that figure does include seven of Hergé’s Tintin comics. Still, one mustn’t ignore the bequiffed one’s fascinating contribution to the public understanding of extreme weather.
Reading a book relieves stress, can help you empathise with others, and builds your vocabulary, which may help you manage your own mental health by giving you a larger palette of emotions. Read more about how awesome books are on my blog—or, better, go and read a book.
David Graeber died. But his ideas, which opened the field of political action to millions, will survive. To mark his death, I read Graeber’s book on bureaucracies, The Utopia of Rules, and it changed the way I think about capitalism and the pandemic. All of David Graeber’s books and many articles are available for free on The Anarchist Library—but not the footnotes. For that, you’ll need a real book.
After cycling around southwest England, it was inevitable that several people would suggest I read The Salt Path by Raynor Winn. I eventually did. Superb.
But no book of nonfiction captured me more this year than Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake. If you’re quick, you can still catch Merlin reading excerpts for BBC Radio 4’s Book of the Week.
Marcel Proust’s 4,215 page masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time, is an absolute banger.
They buried him, but all through the night of mourning, in the lighted windows, his books arranged three by three kept watch like angels with outspread wings and seemed, for him who was no more, the symbol of his resurrection.
We can’t spend our lives hanging out under someone else’s umbrella and then complain that we’re getting wet.
We can accomplish a heck of a lot in nine years. And there’s a lot we can learn from looking back on history—which is why I write these end of year newsletters!
HIKING AND BIKING
Everything happens for a reason. Or, at the very least, you can’t deny that everything happens, so you might as well look for any reason that makes sense of it all.
The wilderness is where we go to unbox ourselves. The four Special Areas of Conservation on Dartmoor are a bloody great option.
During the first UK lockdown, Thighs of Steel and Help Refugees joined forces with hundreds of awesome cyclists to attempt to cycle 24,901 miles ‘around the world’ in 40 days. We ended up doing two and half revolutions and raising over £130,000 for refugees across Europe. Thank you to everyone who supported us!
SCREENS & NEWS
This year, I spent about 2,117 hours on my computer—that’s 88 days straight or about a quarter of my time on earth in 2020. Chuck in another 500 or so on my mobile phone, plus factor in that I sleep about eight hours a night, and the proportion of my waking time spent on screens goes up to about 45 percent. Is that too much? Or is that the famous ‘new normal’?
This year, I visited approximately 64,120 webpages. That’s an 8 percent increase compared to 2019. In my defence, 2019 didn’t have a three-month period where I wasn’t allowed to leave the house.
2020 was the fourth year of my ‘No News is Good News’ media diet. Excluding sports, this year I read 150 BBC News stories, nearly three times my total for 2019. Half were me trying to find out information about coronavirus. Most of my other visits to the BBC News pages were for research, but I did also read current stories about Black Lives Matter, the campaign against food poverty and, in total, five articles about the US presidential election.
Contrary to popular belief, and thanks to decades of extremely hard work, most bad things are getting better: the number of people living in extreme poverty, the number of young women in education, global life expectancy. However, some things are bad and still getting worse. For example, the number of displaced persons around the world has more than doubled in the last ten years.
SPORT, EXERCISE & GAMES
I don’t have the perfect media diet: this year I mindlessly clicked on 2,705 BBC Sport stories—mainly because Liverpool FC won the league for the first time in thirty years.
With the pandemic, Black Lives Matter and the fight against food poverty, this was the year that footballers got properly political.
Regular press ups help protect my shoulder against dislocations. If I want to keep climbing—or indeed hugging people—I need to keep that habit up!
I learned how to solve the miracle Sudoku. As Ben Orlin says:
You’re about to spend the next 25 minutes watching a guy solve a Sudoku. Not only that, but it’s going to be the highlight of your day.
You lot are great! Seriously. I know you’ve had a hard year, but somehow you’ve found the time to read this newsletter and sometimes send me very kind replies. Your emails always make my day. Some of you have even decided to dip into your pockets and support financially. I can’t thank you enough! Knowing that you good people are out there is honestly what’s kept me going this year. I hope that the words I’ve put down for you have sometimes helped you a bit too.
Still want more?
Really? You’re insatiable!
From Future Crunch: 99 Good News Stories From 2020 You Probably Didn't Hear About.
For curious completionists, here’s last year’s edition: 52 Things I Learned in 2019.
That’s it for this year!
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Hello! I’m co-writer of BBC Radio Wales sitcom Foiled, and also write for The Bike Project, Center for International Forestry Research and Thighs of Steel. I publish another newsletter about reading called Books Make Books. When I’m not writing, I’m usually outside, helping to grow a better planet through connection with nature. Please go ahead and reply to this email, or delve into the archive on davidcharles.info.