The Joy of Insignificance

Last time I wrote about walking the South West Coast Path. It never fails to move me and on a recent trip I was struck by my utter insignificance. My head may have been filled with ideas, emotions and memories that are important to me but they seemed so trivial when I watched the waves homing on the beach. Earth Day this week came with a reminder that our planet is 4.5 billion years old and so the sea has been doing what it does with regularity and reliability for an awfully long time. We need the sea for our survival but it is completely indifferent to us and will continue to crash into eternity long after you and me and the whole human race are gone. It doesn’t care about the pandemic. It doesn’t care whether I have vertigo, how I dress or what I write about. That made me feel very small and to my surprise it was quite a relief. 

This thought chimes with a book I read recently—4000 Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman. This got a lot of coverage in the press as the basic premise is intriguing. If we live to the age of eighty then we have around four thousand weeks on Earth and Burkeman poses the question of how to make best use of this time. If you haven’t read 4000 Weeks then I recommend it. It’s full of thought-provoking ideas and refreshingly it runs counter to the avalanche of predictable self-help guides that advise us how to live more positively and make the most of every minute—in fact his previous book was called The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking.

I’m still trying to make my mind up about some of the ideas in the book but I do relate to what the author calls cosmic insignificance therapy. It’s hard to come up with something that’s completely original—this one has its feet firmly planted in Buddhism—but he presents it in a new way. It’s basically the idea that I saw played out in the waves—that in the scheme of things our day to day worries are extremely insignificant. When weighed down by stress I’ve often tried to get a sense of perspective by reminding myself that in ten years time this won’t matter.  Cosmic insignificance therapy just takes that thought and gives it an infinitely bigger perspective. 

It would be easy to interpret this as nihilism. But Burkeman is not saying that nothing matters. He acknowledges that we need to feed the baby, and go to work to earn money to pay the rent or mortgage. What he is saying is that we don’t need to do something extraordinary in order to live a good life. 

The positive thinking movement tells us that we can be whatever we want. It instructs us to delete the word impossible from our vocabulary. But that can lead to measuring our worth by how we seem to others and consequently to bad decisions. Make a nice lemon drizzle cake and someone will suggest you apply to The Great British Bake-Off. Become self-employed and suddenly the sky’s the limit—your efforts could blossom into a trillion-dollar global phenomenon. If you like to play around with words then maybe you’ll win the Booker. At the very least you should be aiming to write a bestseller. There’s nothing wrong with any of these aspirations if they really are what you want but theYou Can Be Whatever You Want mindset implies a duty to do something extraordinary in order to have meaning. Burkeman says that can lead to feeling overwhelmed and argues that we should not underestimate the importance of the ordinary, achievable things we do. Take pleasure in sharing your lemon drizzle cake with friends, in bringing good values to your work, in writing something that a handful of people get something from, or in offering your shoulder for a friend to cry on. 

The notion of cosmic insignificance can be liberating and empowering because it brings a sense of perspective but it doesn’t address the human desire to make a difference. The wish to leave something behind by which we can be remembered is one of the forces that drive creativity. It’s a way to cheat the finality of death. With cosmic insignificance Burkeman argues that ultimately we will all be forgotten. Steve Jobs wanted to ‘put a dent in the universe’ but who will remember the iPhone in a thousand years time? 

Another book I’ve read recently puts a different angle on this. Every Family Has A Story: How We Inherit Love and Loss is written by the psychotherapist Julia Samuel. Rather than emphasising our insignificance she shows through case studies of families she has worked with, how interconnected we are. We each have our own story but we are part of many other stories too—our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, even those we never knew. Patterns get handed down unconsciously and unchallenged because we do not recognise that things could be any other way. Samuel says that when she works with people who are stuck and hurting she wants to shout at them It didn’t start with you or even your parents. Look at the untold stories, unprocessed injuries and losses that have been handed to you by ghosts of the past and find a way to deal with them now so you don’t hand them down to the next generation. This focuses on the problems we hand on but there are of course many gifts we can pass on, not least by finding a way to deal with problems from the past. 

Both of these books are interesting and while their ideas are not entirely incompatible they do throw up some conundrums. One makes me feel insignificant and liberated from other people’s opinions. The other burdens me with the weight of responsibility to do my best for the people I love and have an impact on. But perhaps those things are not so incompatible after all. The reminders to be true to ourselves, to value the ordinary and to be glad that we might have an impact that lasts through a few generations are all ways to live life well. The thing is that we will never know what our legacy will be, and one thing for sure is that the waves won’t care. I’m off to make a lemon drizzle cake, play with some words and have a chat with my daughter. That’s enough for today. I’m happy to be insignificant. 

Photos: Mike Poppleton

Blue and Yellow

“How are things with you?” asked my friend as we chatted recently. “Oh you know…OK…” I said. “But I’m finding it ever so difficult to write my blog. I’d really like to do one for February but the truth is I’m stuck.”

“Why don’t you write a blog about it being hard to write a blog?” she said. That bit of encouragement got me thinking. I played with ideas ranging from boredom to persimmons, and from a self-help treatment for insomnia to a curious conversation overheard on a cliff. But I couldn’t make any of it work. It’s hard to engage with the small topics when the news is full of weighty issues like global warming, the fall-out from the pandemic, Government incompetence, and the energy crisis. And then this week a nightmare was unleashed with Putin’s attack on Ukraine—war in Europe on a scale we have not seen for 75 years and hoped never to see again. 

My son has lived in Latvia for the past nine years and through him our family has been reminded often of how much the current Russian leadership is feared in the former Soviet Bloc states. In the past few days we’ve kept in close touch via our WhatsApp family group and he is profoundly angry. “Make no mistake,” he says, “Ukraine may not be a perfect state but this is an entirely unprovoked attack. Ukraine is fighting for the civilised world.” He is full of admiration for the bravery currently being shown in Ukraine. Yesterday morning he shared a video of the President, Prime Minister and other cabinet members staring earnestly in what looked like an amateur recording, telling their people from a city under bombardment that they were still there and would continue to fight for freedom. The direct gaze of these men facing out such horrific events brought me and no doubt millions of others to tears. Tears for their commitment and for what they and others will suffer. 

We’re only just starting to come out of a pandemic that has rocked the world and while this has been a time of turmoil and suffering, this week’s bad news stories are completely different. Covid was—give or take the important arguments about it arising from mankind’s encroachment into the animal world—an unplanned phenomenon. The invasion of Ukraine is a calculated act of human evil. There were things that we could do to feel useful in the pandemic and precautions we could take—maybe you have memories from the early days of offering help to neighbours through the many hastily-assembled community groups and of wiping supermarket delivery items with disinfectant and putting the mail into isolation for several days. With the Ukrainian violations, ordinary people can only watch as events unfold. It’s awful to feel so angry and yet so helpless. 

As it happened, we were in London yesterday following a birthday theatre trip with my younger daughter on Thursday, and a day of DIY and hall painting with my elder daughter on Friday. It was easy to get a number 88 bus from Clapham Common to Downing Street and so that’s what we did. We joined the demonstration in support of Ukraine taking place under the penetrating gaze of General Montgomery’s statue in Whitehall. 

The crowd grew rapidly from noon onwards with great splashes of blue and yellow. People wrapped themselves in Ukrainian flags and many had cheeks daubed with face paint. The colours of the Ukrainian flag represent blue skies above the yellow fields of grain, a reminder of two essentials of a good life—freedom and bread. There was no raised podium and I heard snatches of impromptu speeches in English but couldn’t make out much of what was being said. And I heard other speeches in what I assume was Ukrainian. I  understood none of the words. But the sentiments were clear. We were all there for one reason. There was sadness, outrage, desperation. 

“Save Ukraine,” shouted a man we could not see, and the crowd volleyed it back in a rally of support, over and over again. There was also plenty of “Putin Out Putin Out” and  “Cancel SWIFT Cancel SWIFT.” A police officer told me that Johnson was at work in Downing Street, just a matter of yards away. 

I saw a young woman carrying a placard that read, “I’m Russian. I’m against the war.’ She looked drawn and tense. “May I take your photo?” I asked. “Of course,” she said, standing still to pose. “I am so sorry,” she said sadly. “So sorry about Russia.”

We have to hope that Putin has miscalculated. And we have to hope that the protests of Russians at home will gather momentum. My elder daughter went on from Whitehall to see a play at the Bridge Theatre and reported that at the end, after the cast took their bow, they made an announcement, sharing the statement made by the director of the Moscow State Theatre who has resigned her post saying she can no longer take a salary from a murderer. She’s a courageous woman who will probably lose her career and possibly much more. Anyone who protests in Russia is very brave. They risk being beaten by the police to the point of brain damage or death. Many Russians of all ages are innocent victims as Keir Starmer said this week. Young conscripts are fighting. They have been lied to and if they knew the truth their reaction would be horror and bafflement. Countless young people say that their generation does not want this war. They know it is immoral and that it will ultimately harm their own country—quite simply they are not in tune with Putin’s ambitions to turn the clock back. Media organisations are being silenced but on the positive side, it is near impossible to stop social media and Putin who is famously technophobic may well have underestimated the potential that it has to undermine propaganda and promote cohesion. 

Whitehall was busy yesterday with the usual parade of buses passing through, mostly in regular London-red. But I looked up just as a couple of non-conformist buses went past. One was white with adverts all over for GoPuff which offers home deliveries of thousands of items including food, medicines, cleaning materials, electronics and baby essentials, in as little as fifteen minutes. The next bus was blue, and advertising a different company offering much the same service. We’ve become used to getting what we want, more and more quickly. We love to feel that we are in control of our lives. But one thing we cannot summon up with a phone app is peace and rational leaders. This week’s monstrous events have brought a powerful and terrifying reminder of that. 

At the demonstration Mike and I stood close to a sturdy middle-aged man who was holding a guitar. He strummed it vigorously for about five seconds, then stopped only for the Ukrainian national anthem to take over, blaring from a hidden speaker in his clothing, distorted and crackly. It was followed by We’ll Meet Again. Although the significance of the Ukrainian anthem was obvious I wasn’t so sure about Vera Lynn. But as the words boomed out, familiar and clear despite the crackling, I changed my mind. It’s about people being separated from those they love by events outside their control. Just what so many of the Ukrainian families I was standing alongside must be experiencing. Fundamentally it’s about the important things—family, love, people, hope and justice. For months now I’ve had a hand scribbled note pinned above my desk—Choose to be kind. Needless to say that’s a work in progress but now more than ever when so much else feels out of control it seems worth striving towards in all kinds of day-to-day small-scale situations. 

Being at the demonstration of support did a little to assuage my total feeling of helplessness, even though it was infinitesimally infinitesimal. It was good to stand with others, like-minded on this issue, and to remember that most people are good. Also to know that my son was in a similar demonstration hundreds of miles away outside the Russian Embassy in Riga—family, love, people, hope, justice.

This post has been outside my comfort zone. I’m much more used to writing about the boredom, persimmons, insomnia, overheard conversation kinds of things that I mentioned in the first paragraph. But I can’t ignore this and hope I’ve struck the right tone. Much more importantly, with demonstrations taking place in cities around the world I hope that news of the deluge of support reaches the Ukrainian people. They need to know they are not alone.* They need to know that we know they are fighting for the civilised world. 

*Donations are a solid way to offer support. Until this week I never expected to be donating money to an army but this website has reliable suggestions.

No Time

I’ve recently returned from spending Christmas in the Peak District and although there are many parts of England that tug at my heartstrings, this is definitely one of my favourites. We had a happy pre-Christmas weekend at home with the grown-up children and as they set off to spend the holiday with partners’ families, we packed the car and headed north with walking boots, waterproofs, a pile of books, and a box of festive provisions from Waitrose.

Our accommodation was a small stone cottage. We were opposite the village pub and yards from the duck pond and as the country teetered on the edge of new restrictions we found that we were just a few miles from Eyam, otherwise known as ‘the plague village.’ It was here in the summer of 1665 while the Black Death was rampaging across the south of England, that a local tailor took delivery of a pile of cloth samples from London. His assistant and other household members soon got sick and died and it became clear that the dreaded plague had come north—it had been carried by fleas in the cloth although it would take centuries for this mechanism to be understood. The initial outbreak died down quite quickly but it created fear and when it resurfaced in the Spring, the rector William Mompesson took decisive action. He persuaded the community to quarantine itself in order to protect nearby settlements and under the new restrictions no-one was allowed in or out of the village. Outsiders left food and other essential supplies by the boundary stones which had holes bored into them where villagers left their payment of coins disinfected with vinegar. There was nowhere for the residents to go to escape the disease and by the end of the year 267 out of 344 people had died.

We walked to Eyam across the fields. It’s a pretty village and although its history is tragic, it is undeniably fascinating especially given our contemporary challenges. There are sober information boards outside some of the houses listing the people who died there during the quarantine. At Rose Cottage an entire household of nine died, and similar stories are repeated at adjoining houses. We learned that church services were held out of doors and people had to bury their dead in the garden or in the fields. I would like to have visited Eyam Museum but it was closed for the Winter.

This visit took place on the last day of our holiday and while I’m normally quite ready to come home at the end of a trip, this time I felt reluctant. And it wasn’t just because of the cosy cottage and the atmospheric, misty walks with ghostly sheep and ancient drystone walls…there was something else. The unusual thing about this holiday was that we were unchained from time. Apart from a candlelit midnight mass at the ‘Cathedral of the Peaks’ in a nearby village, and a couple of family calls on Christmas Day, our time was unstructured. I’d given up wearing a watch earlier in the pandemic and the cottage’s lone clock was stuck unhelpfully at 9.37. My elderly phone spent most of its holiday on charge under the bed upstairs, and as a result I generally had no idea what the time was. This was quite a shift from life at home where we have a clock in every room and I’m constantly aware of time’s presence. 

There was once a time when Christmas was all about the deadlines. I would carefully follow Delia’s advice on turkey timings, roast potatoes and bread sauce in order to make sure that we could have our lunch and still have a walk before the light faded. But this year the day unfolded at its own pace. We packed a flask of tea and some hunks of panettone and set off late morning to walk a section of the Monsal Trail, a disused railway line that runs between Bakewell and Buxton. It was bitter and the cold gnawed at the base of my fingernails. We stood near the Monsal viaduct looking down at its five graceful arches and later perched on a damp bench gazing at a sweeping valley and a former cotton mill as we polished off our tea and cake. When we got home we cooked a festive meal. I no longer eat meat so there were no turkey timings to worry about. I’m not sure what time we ate—the preparations took as long as they took and although it wasn’t the normal shape of Christmas Day, I enjoyed it very much. 

In the days leading up to Christmas Eve we’d explored the ravishing spa town of Buxton and charming, pudding-obsessed Bakewell but since then everything had closed so there was no temptation to cram in as much as we could which is our usual holiday style. And with day-to-day appointments and obligations on temporary hold, we lived cyclically, getting up when we’d had enough sleep, going to bed when we were tired, and eating when we were hungry. Cyclical. That’s closer to how people lived before clocks began to rule our lives. The majority of people worked on the land, living according to the seasons, starting work when it got light and stopping when it was dark. But with the Industrial Revolution came factories and fixed working hours. This continued with the introduction of the railways when for the first time it became necessary to standardise time across the country. Clocks had originally shown the hours but gradually they became more accurate, slicing time into ever smaller sections with quarter hours then minutes and seconds, creating a tyranny and transforming our habits from cyclical to linear. I’ve spent a lot of my life rushing so as not to fall foul of immutable appointments or bus, train and plane departure times, and wonder whether the seventeenth-century inhabitants of Eyam ever hurried and felt stressed by time.

According to a study by the Oxford English Dictionary, the word time is used more often than any other noun in English—a clear indication that we are obsessed with it. I’ve certainly found it profoundly relaxing to take a break from its stranglehold. This particular situation was related to being on holiday but it has implications for everyday life too, not least because when you remove the pressure of time you’re more likely to experience flow. This term refers to the mental state you enter when you’re so absorbed by an activity that you lose track of time and are completely in the moment. It was named in 1975 by the Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi who died a couple of months ago, and it’s one reason why it’s so pleasurable to immerse yourself in activities like writing, painting, making music, or playing sport.

During lockdown I frequently noticed that I felt more relaxed than usual and I heard many other people say the same. I might have felt differently if I’d had health issues, employment worries or young children to home-school but for me it was a truth and it made me reassess the time pressures that shape my normal life. Some are commitments that cannot be removed or pared back, and there are of course some that are irresistible pleasures. When it’s our turn to host a family Christmas, for example, we will do so with great pleasure but aside from these exceptions I want to keep in mind that some time pressures are unnecessary and can be challenged. Sometimes it’s good to let things unfold at their own pace. It makes me think of a conversation I had with a friend recently. She is planning to walk some of the Camino in the New Year and I asked, “How far will you go each day?” “I don’t know,” she said. “I’ll just take it as it comes and see how I feel.” I like that attitude very much. 

Wishing you a healthy and happy New Year

Photos: Mike Poppleton

Getting Used To It

A couple of years ago as I was driving home late at night I tuned into my local radio station and happened to catch an extraordinary interview. The woman talking was eighty-three and she was neither a celebrity nor anyone else with a book to plug. The fact is that she wasn’t well-known at all but the incredible thing about her was that she claimed never to have been outside Southampton. Even more remarkably she said that she had hardly ever ventured beyond Hedge End, the area where she lived. She sounded extremely content with her life and explained that as she had everything she wanted locally, she had never needed to go further afield. “And what’s more,” she added with a proud flourish, “my husband died three years ago, and he never went outside Southampton either.” I didn’t have to think for long to realise that just that week, I’d already been outside the city three times. 

By comparison, this story brought to mind a woman that I’d met just a few weeks earlier when I was staying in a South African hotel. She was on holiday and was eager to engage me, a fellow traveller of a similar age, in conversation. Where was I from? Why was I there? What did I think of it all? I answered as best I could and asked her some questions in return. She told me she was Canadian and that she liked to travel. She had been to many countries. This was the fortieth one and during this trip she would be swelling her total further by going to Botswana for a safari in the Okavango Delta. I enthused—I’d heard about the stunning wildlife there particularly the birds. She nodded and leaned in closer. “I’ve been to all these countries,” she confided, “but do you know…I’ve only had one National Geographic moment. It was in Peru. I came out of the lodge where we were staying and saw a flock of flamingoes on Lake Titicaca.”

These two women had clearly had very different experiences of life. And yet one expressed great happiness with her lot and the other was proving rather hard to please. 

I like to think that I see the best in things and make the most of my experiences. But actually although it’s uncomfortable to acknowledge, I know that I too can be hard to please. The first time I browsed through Netflix I couldn’t find anything I wanted to watch. I was paralysed by too much choice and ended up selecting something I didn’t like much, then dozing off and waking up feeling thoroughly grumpy. Since then there have been a few wonderful finds when I’ve been grateful for the astonishing variety available, but I have to admit there has been an awful lot of dissatisfaction. And when I graze through Spotify I click, click, click, rarely listening to the end of the track. It’s far too tempting to move onto something new or to scratch a musical memory itch from years ago. It’s all there for the taking. It’s all so easy. It’s all so different from my music-obsessed teenage years. 

In my small town there was just one record shop and the elderly owner had a very scanty knowledge of modern music. She was also a little hard of hearing and several times when I placed an order, the LP that arrived wasn’t what I’d asked for at all. So after a while I gave up on that and resorted to a different tactic. When I had enough saved for a new album, I’d scour the mail-order ads at the back of NME, cut out the order coupon and send it off in the mail together with a postal order. The wait would be tantalising and it was often several weeks before the flat, square, cardboard package would arrive. But when it came it was enormously exciting and I don’t ever remember being disappointed with it. 

It’s curious that while so much choice should make our lives better, it often has the opposite effect. Rationally, of course there’s a great deal to celebrate about the fact that many things are now available on demand. But the trouble is that we’re human and so nothing is completely rational and straightforward. When we get used to having things then we take them for granted and that’s when the problems start. 

Taking things for granted means that they no longer give us the same degree of pleasure that they once did—it’s what psychologists call hedonic adaptation. Our brains get a pleasure hit from novelty whether it’s a new pair of shoes, a new sofa or a new holiday destination but when we get used to things we are liable to be seduced into a search for the next new thing. Unfortunately that pleasure is often short-lived and before we know it we’re on what Daniel Kahneman calls the satisfaction treadmill where we get used to a particular level of satisfaction or happiness and what once felt good enough will no longer do. The net result is that not only do we need the new stuff in order to feed the hedonic adaptation but it has to be even better in order to get the same degree of pleasure. It’s an addiction and the more there is to choose from, the more expectations rise. When the reality falls short we move onto the next big thing that promises it will enhance our lives, change them or perhaps create a National Geographic moment. Perversely, there are likely to be more disappointments in a world with many choices, than in one where there are few. 

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

I can’t help wondering what would happen if the Hedge End woman were to travel to forty-one countries. Would she start to take it all for granted like the National Geographic woman? Not necessarily of course as we are all so different but I wonder whether she would continue to get as much out of her current simple pleasures like watching the birds in her garden and having a natter with neighbours in the corner shop. 

I’m not suggesting that there is a moral imperative to appreciate things. It certainly seems a shame not to get the most out of abundance if we are lucky enough to have it, but it is not a duty to do so. So why does it matter if we get ensnared by hedonic adaptation and stumble unwarily onto the satisfaction treadmill? I think there are two main reasons. The first is that it doesn’t seem to make us happy. The psychologist Barry Schwartz has researched this subject extensively and in his book The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, he argues that too much choice is actively contributing to rising levels of unhappiness and clinical depression in affluent countries. And secondly, I would argue that it fuels aggressive consumerism which leads to overconsumption, waste and so much else that is threatening the health of the Earth itself. 

So if hedonic adaptation is indeed a trap then it’s useful to see it coming so we can take a side-step. Given human nature, we’re unlikely to avoid it altogether but simply being aware that it happens helps in recognising it for the false friend it is. If it whispers to us that the new car, coat, bag, online service, phone, or travel destination is not what we’d hoped for we can tell it to shut up and try to focus on what is good rather than what is less than perfect. We can remember that it counts amongst its allies an army of marketing executives all trying to boost its profile so that we can contribute to their targets and bonuses. We can tell it that an upgraded version probably won’t fix things. And we can remind it that nothing is perfect—even the Okavango Delta. I can be pretty confident that the National Geographic woman would agree with me on that point.

Photo by Roger Brown on Pexels.com

The Power of Space

In recent months my reading has included several books with Power in the title—The Power of Habit, The Power of Strangers and the Power of Moments. I didn’t consciously choose them because of the P-word—they just happen to cover topics I wanted to explore. But this approach to naming does seem to be a popular way to attract attention and convince your reader of the irrefutable benefits of whatever it is you want to espouse. And so today I am writing about something I want to uphold and explore—The Power of Space.

This topic has been simmering away for months now, co-existing with the resumption of a near-normal, post-pandemic life and it’s been making me feel vaguely uncomfortable. But it was forced to the forefront of my mind last week when I had a particularly busy day. A few years ago, before our lives changed and we applied the brakes, this would have been nothing out of the ordinary. There was my morning writing session, a Pilates class, visiting a friend in a care home about an hour’s drive away, shopping for food, and cooking a birthday dinner for a family member. Individually, each of these activities was pleasant and stress-free. There was nothing onerous about any of them but as the day went on I felt increasingly oppressed, depressed and at odds with myself. The problem was that they were jammed up against one another, leaving no breathing space between. 

This was once my normal pattern. For many years I was genuinely busy keeping all the family balls in the air. I’d rush, grab a quick lunch, rush again, and nearly always find myself running late as I fought against the pressure of time. I often felt overwhelmed but I didn’t have enough insight to recognise what was causing it. Now those days are gone. The children have grown up and my time is largely my own. But the old habits are deeply ingrained and it took the pandemic to give me a new perspective. To make me stop and reassess. To recognise that while I subscribe to Henry David Thoreau’s sentiment, “Live deep and suck out all the marrow of life,” he never said that you have to fill every moment. 

We’re encouraged to be busy. If you ask someone how they spent their weekend and they reel off a list of activities, they will no doubt sound more fascinating than someone else who went for a walk and did a bit of daydreaming. I like being busy. I like variety, I like spending time with friends and family, and I like getting things done. It’s satisfying. But the pandemic unexpectedly provided a lot more space, and I’m finding that I don’t want to let it go. I want to do more daydreaming. I want to do a lot more daydreaming. 

Contrary to popular opinion, daydreaming isn’t wasted time. Our bodies may be resting but our brains are not. Suspend focused attention and your mind will wander, switching into what’s known as default mode network (DMN). It processes memories. It also makes unexpected connections which can generate creative ideas or come up with solutions to problems. We’ve probably all had the experience of having a solution turn up when you didn’t even realise you were thinking about it. It often happens to me when I’m out for a walk and never fails to feel like magic. 

It’s all too easy to be switched on all the time. We get bombarded by things that hijack our attention and demand a response. It seems so natural to reach for our phones as soon as we wake up but it’s at the cost of staring at the trees outside, watching the clouds and enjoying the warmth of an early morning mug of tea. It’s at the cost of being still and demanding nothing of oneself. I’m grateful that when I was a child, boredom provided plenty of scope for uninterrupted daydreaming. I’m grateful that I wasn’t shunted from one after-school activity to another. I think that would have induced something similar to the suffocating oppression that I experienced last week. 

I’ve also begun to appreciate the value of space in other contexts. Mike listens to a lot of Scandinavian jazz and points out the spaces between the notes that give it a reflective quality. And a different kind of jazz musician, Miles Davis, famously advised his musical collaborators, “Don’t play what’s there. Play what’s not there.” He was always looking for the ideal balance between the space from which the music emerges and the notes that we hear. Less is more. And I recently watched a couple of films by the director Wim Wenders. He muses on space. In Paris, Texas the camera lingers on a desert scene just slightly longer than you expect. Nothing is rushed. The space poses questions and invites you to create your own interpretation. It’s the polar opposite of a hectic Bond movie.

There is of course, a place for both. Too much space…not good. Too much activity…not good. I’ve had a number of conversations recently with friends and family who have talked about their wish to find a new kind of balance as a result of the pandemic. So I know I’m not alone in my thinking. And that means that even if you don’t feel this way yourself, there will almost certainly be people in your life who are struggling to work this out. Mindful activities like meditation or tai chi can help but for me at the moment, it’s a daily walk in nature that’s important. Together with my early morning tea ritual, some empty space in my diary and time unhitched from technology. 

Space is freedom. Trust it. Give it time and see what emerges. 

That’s the power of space—it’s the freedom to be yourself.

Photos: Mike Poppleton

Key Connections

Photo by PhotoMIX Company on Pexels.com

We learn a lot through the interests of our friends and family, and it’s in this way that I’ve developed a second-hand familiarity with the Baltic states. Ten years ago my son went to Estonia, initially as a TEFL teacher and the following year he moved to Latvia where he’s stayed ever since. During this time he’s become very fond of the region and has amassed a lot of knowledge about its history and culture. So I wasn’t surprised when he sent a message to our family WhatsApp group, to tell us that thirty-two years ago this week, the Baltic Chain was formed. This was when people from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania formed a human chain, holding hands across 420 miles and connecting the three capital cities of Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius. For fifteen emotional minutes on August 23rd 1989, two million people joined together in a peaceful protest against the illegal Soviet occupation of their countries. It was one of the earliest and longest unbroken human chains in history and contributed to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the restoration of independence to the Baltic states.

Two years ago on the thirtieth anniversary of the Baltic Chain, Hong Kong organised its own version—a chain of 210,000 people standing in line across thirty miles, protesting against the extradition bill and demanding democratic elections. Over the years there have been a number of other chains gathering humans together and uniting them in support of a wide range of causes, and the biggest of these took place in Bangladesh in 2004. More than five million people joined hands across 652 miles to protest against the Government and to demand new polls. 

Watching an old news clip about the Baltic Chain and reading about these others, I was struck by the power of peaceful protest but I also started thinking about the individual people who were in that chain. Some would be standing next to friends or family, but many would have strangers on one or both sides of them. And I wondered about the associations between them. Perhaps as they stood there waiting for the signal to join hands, some had chatted and discovered that they knew people in common or had other points of connection. 

Like most people, I’ve stumbled into a few extraordinary coincidences in my own life—the sort of things that would sound ridiculously contrived and far-fetched if they appeared in works of fiction. And one of the strangest happened when I was waiting in a queue—a chain of sorts. It was 1977 and I was in my first term at London University. I’d spent a few weeks living in a hall of residence in Tooting but when I was offered the chance to move to one in the King’s Road, there was no competition between the locations, so I handed in my keys and skipped off to Chelsea. It didn’t take long to realise that I’d forgotten to remove my padlock key from the key-ring but although it was annoying, I figured I could get another one easily enough. A couple of days later I found myself at Euston Station on a Wednesday afternoon, in an enormous, slow queue of students, all waiting to get student railcards. For some reason that seems ridiculously inefficient now, the process of getting a railcard required you to turn up in person on a specified day and wait your turn. There must have been hundreds of us there, from all the colleges of the University. There were the well-known ones like UCL, LSE, Kings, Queen Mary, and Imperial and many more colleges that later got swallowed up in mergers—Queen Elizabeth, Bedford College, Chelsea, and Westfield—as well as a number of medical schools, art colleges and others covering specialist subjects like veterinary science, theology and pharmacy. With no smartphones to distract, people fell into conversation. I turned behind to a pleasant-looking young man, and asked where he was studying. “Chelsea,” he said which was quite a coincidence given the number of colleges represented there. “I’m at Chelsea” I said. “Where do you live?” When he replied, “Malcolm Gavin Hall,” I couldn’t stop myself from asking the inevitable but nosey question, “Which room are you in?” Somehow I knew he was going to say “335” and he didn’t disappoint. “Oh,” I said, “I’ve just moved out of there. That was my room.” Quick as a flash without missing a beat, he delved into his pocket and brought out some keys. “This must be yours,” he said, handing me my padlock key. It was as if I’d been programmed to ask the right questions, and it happened so easily and smoothly, that I thought maybe the universe intended us to work together to find a cure for cancer or at the very least produce some children. But instead we just had a nice chat. And that was it. A couple of times over the next year, we bumped into one another, and now I can’t even remember his name.  

The thing that surprises me most was that we discovered that we had this connection in common. How often do we meet people and if we only knew which questions to ask, we would uncover all kinds of ways in which our lives overlap. How often do we pass people in the street that carry all of these delicious surprises inside them. That stranger sitting opposite on the train…the woman at the supermarket checkout…the homeless man on the street corner…the refugee in the news footage. We may be closer to them than we think. The first time I remember coming across the idea of connections was when my mother used to repeat the words of a popular song from her childhood; I’ve danced with a man, who’s danced with a girl, who’s danced with the Prince of Wales. It dates from 1927 when the prince, later Edward VIII, was hugely popular. I’d get her to repeat it and was fascinated by the idea that an ordinary person could be so close to a prince. And then there’s the notion of six degrees of separation which is so well-known and somewhat murky. It was first proposed in 1929 by the Hungarian author Frigyes Karinthy in a short story called Chains. He was suggesting even then, that although there were great physical distances between people, their social distances were shrinking as people travelled and technology brought about improvements in communication. He believed that any two individuals could be connected through a network of, at most, five acquaintances. The phrase six degrees of separation became popular after John Guare’s 1990 play and the film that followed. A common criticism is that such a theory is unlikely to encompass connections to isolated groups of humans, such as those in the Amazon jungle but I don’t want to get bogged down here in the arguments for and against this proposition as they are many and complicated. However, several large-scale studies using emails and instant messaging to track connections between people have found that the average number of degrees of separation did come out at six, and according to network theories there are mathematical reasons why this should be so. 

In keeping with the theme of online connections, I was intrigued to discover that there is a website called Six Degrees of Wikipedia that will tell you what degree of separation there is between any two of the fifty-four billion Wikipedia pages. I started with the pages for Mother Theresa and Jack the Ripper and in less than two seconds it had told me that there are two degrees of separation between them and two different routes that connect them. Then I tried exploring Wikipedia connections between Abraham Lincoln and Adele and discovered that they are separated by three degrees and that there are over seven hundred routes that connect them. I could have played with this for hours trying out increasingly unlikely combinations but as I had this blog to write, I forced myself to stop. 

So far, the connections I’ve talked about here lie beneath the surface, undiscovered—but in my recent book The Interview Chain, the connections were clear to see, as each interviewee passed me on to someone that they know personally and admire. At twenty links it may have been somewhat short of the two million in the Baltic Chain but it did nonetheless travel 23,000 miles back and forth, traversing three continents and gathering up diverse experiences on its way. It started from a casual conversation on a boat on the Thames and one of the most surprising things was discovering how quickly from there, the links led me to events I had read about in the news. By Link Two I was talking to someone who had been at the Climate Change Negotiations and by Link Three my interviewee was giving me personal experiences of the Calais refugee camp. Later links led me to first-hand accounts of Kabul under the Taliban, the Rwandan genocide and the Ferguson Uprising. 

I’ll say it again—we are closer to other people than we might think. And with all the extra things that we need to understand about the modern world, that’s more important now than ever before. 

Sensational

As we emerge blinking, from months of Covid hibernation the world is full of surprises. I’d convinced myself that a home-based, introverted life was just fine. Plenty of reading, writing and thinking time—needs must—and in the initial enthusiasm of online living I made a few virtual visits to museums and galleries. But now that real-life options are opening up again I’ve enjoyed a few trips and the things that have made the biggest impression have not been what I anticipated. 

It started with a visit to Salisbury Cathedral. The afternoon was of course, contained within the new normal of pre-booking, masks and social distancing but there was still plenty of freedom to be found and as I wandered around I became aware of a feeling bubbling up—the quiet excitement that comes from meandering in an unstructured way and landing like a butterfly on unexpected, interesting things. It was a pleasure I’d never been fully conscious of in the past but it felt familiar and it was only through its long absence and welcome reappearance that I came to recognise and value it. Some landings satisfy because they entertain or inform but other encounters are sensory and you simply need to be there to have them. There’s no amount of reading or online browsing that can summon up the sensation of feeling very small as you stand in the nave and look up at the delicate, cavernous ceiling; nor can it enable you to touch the ancient chill of the marble pillars. In my wanderings I came across what is said to be the world’s oldest working mechanical clock. I stopped and listened. Then I lingered to read the remarkable story of how it was discovered in the cathedral clock tower in 1928 by an observant horologist named Mr T. Robinson. He’d gone into the tower to inspect the current clock but spotted the priceless medieval treasure which had been cast aside and forgotten, decades before. And oddly, one of the best things about my visit was finding that the dusty, musty smell unique to churches was still alive and had survived the gallons of antiviral liquids that must have threatened it in recent months. I’d never realised how evocative that smell is but the primitive parts of my brain greeted it like an old friend. 

A few weeks later I went to Shaftesbury in Dorset. Its most celebrated street is Gold Hill, made famous by Ridley Scott’s Hovis adverts and against all expectations I had to agree that it is unequivocally charming. At the top of the hill is a renovated sandstone cottage that’s home to a small museum of local history, run by volunteers. Once again, it was a delight to drift around and absorb random bits of information. I was particularly interested to learn that button-making was an important cottage industry in Shaftesbury and at the beginning of the nineteenth century it provided a livelihood for around four thousand women and children in the town. They twisted linen around a thin disc of sheep’s horn and then decorated it with fine embroidery. But mechanisation gradually forced the industry into decline and the final straw came when John Aston exhibited his button machine at the Great Exhibition of 1851. Widespread unemployment and poverty drove more than three hundred families to take advantage of assisted emigration schemes and they went off to start new lives in America or Australia. As we were leaving the museum we stopped and had a conversation with a friendly pair of volunteers who were packing up for the day. They asked what we’d thought of the exhibits. “Three hundred families…” I said, “that must have been devastating for such a small town.” We all nodded. Then we stood, not talking for a while. I’m not sure whether it was because we were empathising with the sad local history or just that small talk comes less easily after months of lockdown. But we soon perked up again and I appreciated the unexpected Zoom-free joy of having an enthusiastic to-and-fro discussion with strangers. 

Gold Hill in Shaftesbury

Then this month it was our fifth wedding anniversary and we celebrated with a day out in Oxford. Over lunch in the roof-top restaurant at the Ashmolean Museum we raised our glasses and surprised the young waitress by telling her that it was our diamond wedding. She was gratifyingly on the ball and recognised that we don’t look quite old enough to be marking sixty years together. That would have required me to marry Mike when I was two years old and he was six. We explained that as we married one another later in life, then we will never have big anniversaries so for the moment we celebrate the months instead. Then we went on to spend the afternoon at the Oxford University Natural History Museum. 

The building is magnificent with a striking roof of glass and cast iron, reminiscent of grand Victorian railway stations, and as with Salisbury Cathedral you have to be there, gazing up, to appreciate the light and the scale. It opened in 1860 and influenced the design of London’s Natural History Museum that opened its doors to the public twenty-one years later. All around the walls are pillars, each a different variety of British stone, and painstakingly labelled in a bygone spirit of public education. There are one hundred and twenty six in all. There are also stunning statues of influential scientists, thinkers and engineers, many carved by eminent Pre-Raphaelite artists. Darwin, Galileo, Aristotle, Newton and Prince Albert are all represented but however much I might sigh it was no real surprise that there is not a single woman amongst the original busts and statues. In 2010 the museum began the process of addressing this by adding a bust of Dorothy Hodgkin who won the Nobel Prize in 1964 for her work in crystallography. 

The huge ground-floor gallery is informative and modern but it’s also true to its roots. Its stories evoke the excitement and wonder that Victorian scientists must have felt as they made new discoveries and challenged existing views of the world. Indeed the newly opened museum was the site of an infamous, furious debate between Thomas Huxley arguing in favour of Darwin’s theory of evolution and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce arguing vociferously against the idea that mankind is descended from apes. And I could not ignore the contrast between the Victorian industrial confidence of this building and the little cottage museum in Shaftesbury with its tales of families made destitute by that very same Victorian industrial thrust. There was much to think about and I enjoyed wandering around, imagining myself in a crinoline and soaking up the atmosphere as I stopped by displays in no particular order—craggy fossils, a giant Japanese spider crab that is the stuff of nightmares and measures over three metres across, and a sad display about dodos. Close to the entrance is a stuffed North American black bear, its glossy pelt so thick that it was as much as I could do not to sink my hands into its depth. Years of ‘Don’t Touch’ signs had conditioned me and so I didn’t, but later I read that visitors are encouraged to touch many of the exhibits here including the bear. I wish I had. But I did stand eye to glassy eye with an aardvark and then had a conversation with Mike about when and where to meet for a cup of tea. It took a little while to realise the incongruity of having such a mundane discussion while standing on opposite sides of a life-sized cast of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Nearby were the skeletons of an African elephant and a giraffe, both fully-grown and huge in their own right but dwarfed by the prehistoric animal. Upstairs were displays of insects. There were tiny fleas and ticks, and big beetles so exquisite that it was hard to believe they were not enamelled. I moved my head from side to side to get the full iridescent splendour and the label informed me that one in three of all insect species is a beetle. 

According to the Museums Association there are around 2,500 museums in the UK. These include many specialist collections curated by enthusiasts of subjects as diverse as magic, pencils, fans, motorbikes, telephone boxes, radios, and dentistry—a treasure trove with something for everyone. Top of my list is the National Railway Museum in York which I’ve visited several times. You can climb aboard a few of the vintage trains and there’s no online substitute for that. But it also makes me sad because the workmanship and quality of the fittings is so far removed from the 7.25 to Waterloo. I also love the American Museum on Claverton Down in Bath, where you can see the stitch bumps of quilts sewn in the Civil War and where the smell of traditional gingerbread seeps out of the old-fashioned kitchen and pervades the basement. 

Tocks and ticks, dust and bear pelts, gazing upwards, fellow enthusiasts, and simply wandering and wondering what will intrigue the imagination or stimulate the senses next. It’s good to be out in the world again. 

At Last…

Image by victoraf from Pixabay

Ideas often come when you’re not expecting them and that’s just what happened with The Interview Chain. It showed up one winter morning as I stood on the platform of my local station gazing idly at the London-bound commuters on what was turning out to be the first properly chilly day of the year. As they hunched against the drizzle, most of them communed with their phones and a small minority stared vacantly across the track. Here and there, pointy-toed shoes or a bright scarf introduced a touch of drama to the sober woollen coats and beige macs. But despite being such a diverse collection of individuals, no one person stood out—there was nothing overtly remarkable about any of them. 

It’s precisely because railway stations and trains are for the most part predictable places that they provide such seductive material for fiction writers. While solitary travellers sink into temporary private bubbles, and snippets of humdrum conversation pass in and out of focus, things may appear mundane. And yet there’s an ever-present tension between the seen and the unseen and the lives of our fellow travellers may in reality prove to be anything but ordinary. The poet John Koenig came up with the word sonder to describe the realisation that each random passerby has a life that’s as vivid and complex as our own. I stared at a young woman with streaked cyan hair, at a man with a shaved head and an older woman clutching her suitcase handle for support. What mattered to them? What shaped them? What were they proud of? Had they lived enough to have regrets?

I shifted up a gear and started to think about the population of the world and the fact that my fellow travellers were an infinitesimal percentage of the seven billion individuals alive that day. Seven billion—that’s a lot of lives. A lot of stories. 

Real life stories have that extra ingredient that fiction can never have. Escaping into made-up stories and beautiful prose is one kind of pleasure, but watching a film based on fact prompts us to empathise and explore how we ourselves would react in a similar situation. Radio programmes like Desert Island Discs, Last Word, and The Listening Project are popular because they’re about real people’s lives, and are therefore always original and unpredictable. They’re amongst my own favourite listening material and I’d recently been thinking about collecting a few stories myself… especially anything that caused me to step outside my own life and talk to people who could show me a different view of the world. 

….As I stood on the platform shivering and daydreaming, my brain gradually began to do some joined-up thinking. I’d been nosily speculating about my fellow travellers in foreground mode, and hadn’t even been aware that it was gnawing away in background mode. My train arrived and I settled into the dusty carriage with the beginnings of an idea. 

I could do a series of interviews… Then I thought of a twist. I would ask each interviewee to pass me on to someone they admire. That was almost guaranteed to unearth some thought-provoking stories. It would also be intriguing to explore what people admire? Out of the hordes of individuals they will have come across in their life why choose that one? I guessed that qualities like compassion, wisdom, bravery, and professionalism would crop up and I, for one, would welcome some positive stories as an antidote to the ubiquitous world gone bad ones.

By the time I reached the end of my journey two stops down the line, I’d decided to go ahead with what I was now calling the Chain Interview Project as if it were an old friend. I was hoping that its personality would turn out to be interesting, inspiring, connected, informative, and thought-provoking. And if it helped to increase empathy then that would be even better. But none of that could happen until I’d decided where to start. Who was going to be my first interviewee? 

I decided that it would have to be someone I did not already know. That way I was more likely to be led across unfamiliar territory. I had no idea what kind of person would fit this vague description, but over the following months my antennae were directed towards everyone I encountered and I felt confident that when I met the right person, I would know. During this time I chatted keenly to lots of likely candidates without revealing my ulterior motive. At the same time I tried my best not to come across as intrusive or peculiar, although I’m not sure how well I managed that. The upshot was that I had plenty of pleasant conversations but none that grabbed me in the way I wanted. 

It took until the following summer to make a breakthrough. I was invited to a cousin’s thirtieth birthday party aboard a Thames cruiser and it was jam-packed with interesting people. At one stage I thought that a sports journalist might be the one but in the end I wasn’t interested enough in sport to dive in and ask him. 

Photo by Chris Schippers on Pexels.com

Then, as we were on our way back up the river from Greenwich, I sat outside on deck chatting to a young woman whose strong values and unusual creative ideas were intriguing. I was curious to know more and felt she had the magic ingredient I’d been searching for so I plunged in, explaining about the project, and asking if she would agree to be my first link. It was growing dark and most of the light came from the brightly illuminated buildings along the bank and the multicoloured reflections on the water, so I couldn’t see very well. But I could tell enough to know that she was friendly, if a little guarded. And who wouldn’t be when the garrulous middle-aged woman they’re chitchatting with asks out of the blue if they’d agree to take it to another level and do an interview. Fortunately, I had my cousin on hand to vouch for me so with a cautious smile my first interviewee, Kirsti, gave me her email address and we arranged to meet a few weeks later. 

That was how the chain started… 

You’ve just been reading some extracts from the Introduction to The Interview Chain. I’m delighted that it’s being published this week (30th June) by Holland House Books. Available to order here or from WaterstonesHiveWorderyAmazon and all good bookshops!

ISBN: 978-1-910688-58-8

Pass It On

Photo by Ann H on Pexels.com

If I’m in the car at the weekend then I often tune in to Saturday Live on Radio 4—the presenters are cheerful and the theme is loosely about people’s lives so there’s a never-ending supply of interesting and surprising stories. One regular feature gives listeners the chance to thank a stranger who helped them in a moment of need and over the years, I’ve heard stressful tales of runaway caravans, lost keys, confused elderly relatives, empty petrol tanks, and drowning dogs, that have all been happily resolved thanks to an act of kindness. Sometimes I find the stories gripping and other times a bit mundane, but my interest stepped up a level when my cousin Rita was featured on the programme. She’s a teacher and described how she was with a group of pupils on the cruise ship Jupiter in 1988 when a cargo ship crashed into it just outside Piraeus Harbour. She and other teachers worked frantically in the dark to get children to safety as the damaged ship teetered with its stern already underwater. Then after forty minutes and with absolutely no warning, it sank and my cousin found herself in the sea clinging to a passing piece of wood. A schoolgirl joined her there as she spent a terrifying time alternately offering silent thanks to her Dad for making her learn to swim, and being convinced she was about to drown. Things seemed pretty hopeless but then miraculously from out of the dark, a pair of Greek fishermen appeared in a small boat, acting for all the world as though they carried out rescues every day. Thirty years later they were unlikely to be listening to Saturday Live but Rita was still glad to share her gratitude publicly, adding that there’s hardly a day when she doesn’t think of them. 

Gratitude is a natural human emotion and it’s attracted a lot of research attention in recent years as one of the key elements of the positive psychology movement. It’s easy to parody the practise of being grateful as a touchy-feely New Age fad but there’s plenty of solid evidence that it’s good for us because it’s accompanied by a release of dopamine and serotonin, two neurotransmitters that affect our mood and make us feel happy. And that applies not only when we show gratitude but also when we’re on the receiving end of it. 

Rita found herself in a position where she wanted to thank a couple of strangers and there was no way that she was ever likely to reciprocate and do a good turn for them. I’ve found myself in a different situation in recent years. When I was in a bad state after my divorce there were a number of friends and family members including Rita, who showed great kindness and listened patiently (ever so patiently) when I cried, complained and repeated myself again and again. I think I remembered to say thank you but for a long time these acts of kindness left me feeling indebted and I wasn’t sure what to do to put things right. 

A couple of years ago, I visited Japan and witnessed how indebtedness can be a problem there. Our Airbnb hosts gave us a small parting gift and I felt embarrassed at not having anything to offer in return. But later, as I read more about Japanese culture I realised that gift-giving can set traps for the unwary. If we gave our hosts anything that seemed slightly more special than they gave us then they would feel indebted and might decide to top up their offering. And so the cycle of gifting and indebtedness could potentially become long drawn out and stressful with no-one feeling happy. In the end, while it seemed a bit unfriendly not to have given anything, I was glad that all we could do was bow, thank them and be grateful. 

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Gradually, I’ve come to terms with the discomfort of indebtedness and accept the well-worn advice that you won’t necessarily be able to thank the person who helped you but that doesn’t matter if you try to pass it on to someone else. So if you’re reading this and happen to be one of the friends or family members who were kind when I needed it, then I want you to know that I try to pay it forward with gratitude. And if and when I do that, then your kind deeds are connected in a chain with people you probably don’t know, and will never know. 

It’s this idea of connections that is at the root of my new book, The Interview Chain. In the process of writing it, I spoke to some fascinating people and each one passed me on to someone that they had been inspired by. In some cases those relationships were life-changing—an actor introduced me to the teacher who gave her the confidence to apply to drama school; a nurse recalled her experiences of volunteering in a Romanian orphanage and passed me on to the family friend who encouraged her to go, and I witnessed the gratitude between a survivor of the Rwandan genocide and the Scottish woman who made it possible for his family to rebuild their lives. 

If you want to read the stories of these people and the others I spoke to during the chain’s 23,000 mile journey across three continents, then there’s not long to wait. The Interview Chain is being published by Holland House Books on 30th June and can be pre-ordered here or from bookshops and online suppliers.

This Is Not A Post About Nature…

A couple of weeks ago our neighbour moved. She’d lived in her house for forty-eight years and has at last gone to live in a bungalow close to her daughter. I hope that she’s very happy—we’ll miss her. 

There’s a steadiness that comes from living in the same place for such a long time. I’ve lived in my current house for four and a half years now and am at last enjoying the novelty of some steadiness. During the time that my neighbour lived in her house I lived in sixteen different places, and most of them felt temporary as I would always have the next move in mind. For a while as the family grew it was about making incremental moves to get more space. Later when things went wrong, it was about moving to places that were affordable and more practical. Even in the house where I lived for nine years, I felt erratic—grateful for my family and friends but never quite sure what I wanted out of life. The children were young then and so nothing stayed the same for very long. There was inevitable flux with all the different demands of childhood concentrated into those few years. It was rewarding but far from steady. But now that I’m happily settled in my current house, I’ve stopped looking for the next move and I like that feeling. All things being equal—and they often aren’t—I’d like to stay here for a long time. 

During those years of chaos one of the few steadying things I did was to get my migraines under better control. Twenty years ago I was struggling with bad nausea and pain three days a week and I was desperate to find a solution. I kept trying to work out what was triggering them and tried many different treatments. Diet was an obvious place to look but I got nowhere with cutting out likely culprits such as cheese, chocolate and coffee. It was only when I went to see a migraine specialist and he put me on an elimination diet that I made progress. For two weeks I ate only from the small range of foods that are unlikely to cause a reaction—beansprouts, salmon, turnips, courgette, pears, and lamb—which made for some odd breakfasts. After a few days of this regime I had an intense withdrawal migraine but once it was over I felt clear-headed and liberated. After a fortnight I was instructed to introduce one food at a time in a particular order, and all went well until I tried potato, and this was closely followed by a migraine. Previously I’d eaten potato most days but my reaction convinced me that it was a trigger. The same thing happened when I tried cow’s milk. Avoiding those foods has made a huge difference ever since and I learned from the experience—in situations where there’s a lot going on, it’s only by systematically reducing the background noise that you can tease out individual effects. 

Something similar has happened during lockdown. With everyday life pared back to basics it’s been a chance to work out what’s really important. Like most people, I’ve missed my family and friends above all else but I’ve been surprised at how little I’ve mourned the loss of days out and holidays. Life was very pleasant before lockdown and I was grateful for it. But it wasn’t always in balance and at times it was so busy that I didn’t have space to think or develop that sense of wellbeing that positive psychology university departments are dedicated to defining. 

In the year before lockdown, I’d started trying to walk more, and keen to make best use of my time, I’d use it as an opportunity to do an errand that would otherwise involve taking the car. So I’d walk to the library or the local shops, take the long way round to buy a newspaper, or walk into town and get the bus back. I managed to do it most days because I knew it was good to get the exercise and I quite enjoyed looking at the urban streets. But I can’t say I loved it—instead it was another chore that had to be done. 

When everything shut for lockdown there were no errands to run and at first that was a relief. Then I realised that I still needed exercise so I’d have to look for an alternative. As it happens, we have woods behind our house and although I’d taken the well-trodden path to the pub many times when we had family and friends visiting, I’d never explored them properly. So I started taking a daily walk there and realised to my astonishment that they are extensive and beautiful. There are many potential routes but after a few weeks I settled into the same circuit and far from getting bored with it, I value its familiarity. There are no decisions to make. I wear the same boots, the same coat and the same gloves, and for an hour a day there is nothing that I have to think about, only the things I choose. Sometimes I listen to the birds. Other times I’m so deep in thought that I forget to listen though I usually notice the light shining through the trees. Quite often, if my head doesn’t feel too full I listen to audiobooks on my phone. I dip in and out as the fancy takes me. Favourites have included The Bee Keeper of Aleppo; Sandi Toksvig’s innovative autobiography Between the Stops: The View of My Life from the Top of the Number 12 Bus; Hallie Rubenhold’s meticulously researched The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, and Professor Henry Marsh’s Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery. There was the unmissable Educated by Tara Westover—if you haven’t read it then order it straightaway. And Michelle Obama kept me company in the woods for hours as I listened to her reading Becoming immediately followed by her husband reading Dreams of My Father.

Day after day, month after month through the various lockdowns I’ve had my walk even when it’s been pouring and I’ve had to squelch through mud that has the consistency of chocolate mousse. I’ve never minded getting drenched as most people stay at home when it rains, and so for short periods I’ve felt like I own the world. But inevitably there came a day when I did something different. It was windy which brings with it the one variety of rain that I don’t like—the sort that blows in your face and makes me feel like a cat with its ears flattened and a miserable let me in the house expression. That day I kept thinking ‘I must go for my walk’ and immediately finding things to do that were warmer and drier. By five o’clock it was dark and too late to go out, so I quietly congratulated myself for having such good sense. But it turned out not to be such good sense after all as I spent the evening feeling completely out of sorts and irrationally grumpy. I didn’t like it at all. Nor did Mike. The next morning I had my walk. There was weak sunshine and a blue sky and by the time I got home I was in a much happier frame of mind. True, it was just one data point but I could feel a discernible difference between a day with a walk and a day without a walk. 

I’ve kept up the walking ever since. Then on Friday, Mike and I went swimming at the university pool, delighted to be able to do this again after such a long gap. With about half an hour’s walk each way and then the swim, I figured this would count as my exercise for the day. The route is along some of the urban streets where I used to walk so much—they’re quite attractive and it was good to chat as we walked along. The swim was great but later in the afternoon I had that familiar feeling of being grumpy and at odds with the world. Something was missing and although there were things I’d wanted to get done, I felt in the end that I had no alternative—almost without conscious thought I put on my boots and stepped out on my usual walk. It was chilly but sunny, and half-way round I realised that I felt a lot better. Urban streets are stimulating with lots of things to look at but they don’t provide the relaxation that nature offers. Trees and plants appear in predictable patterns that are soothing and harmonious whereas buildings and people are interesting but unpredictable—the window flapping open, groceries being delivered, someone up a ladder—creating a constant state of alertness that jars the thoughts and calls for a reaction. That’s two data points now but I think I’m starting to understand. 

Much has been said this year about the benefits of being in nature. There have been countless newspaper, radio and magazine articles about it and I think we’ve probably all got the message by now. So this post is not intended to extol the virtues of green spaces—you may have discovered something different that’s become important. Instead my point is that by removing the everyday noise, lockdown has provided near-experimental conditions in which to explore what we value. I hadn’t realised that a daily walk in nature was so important to me. Nor had I worked out a way to introduce it into my life with a rhythm and steadiness that has turned it into a habit—something you do so often that the desire for it becomes automatic. Philippa Lally and her colleagues at University College have studied how habits are formed and report that it takes on average sixty-six days for a behaviour to become a habit though for some habits and some people it can take as much as eight months. We’ve all had plenty of time this year in which to form habits both good and bad. With lockdown I’ve tasted that elusive steadiness and whatever happens next as we resume some kind of normality, I want to take this habit with me. 

Maybe you’ve found out something about yourself? I’d love to hear so do post in the comments section below.