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What's your next adventure?...


Appearing at Edinburgh book festival

Time to get your tickets...

I will be talking about my book Red Nile and a few other things too on Wednesday 13th August at 11.00am


Master writing tip #1

A story consists of a platform, which is the initial conditions (people, place, relationships, time) and the unpacking of the platform: reusing, as cleverly and interestingly as possible, the various elements of the platform or their direct descendants. Bloody hell, even I can't quite make that out! Example: two men on a bus= bad platform. Two men on a bus, one hasn't paid for his ticket and the conductor is coming= slightly better platform. Two men on a bus, one ticket between them and the conductor is coming= a tad better too. So you get the picture: the platform is your pandoras box, your dressing up cupboard, your chest of goodies that you can mix and match to the reader's delight. The later on in a story you introduce a new element the more you stretch the platform out and into the unpacking of the platform. This is usually bad and makes the story read like a series of 'and then I did X, and then I did Y'. It doesn't matter how interesting each element is, without the glue of unpacking and reusing of what has come before the audience will lose interest.The chiefdelight in hearing a story is the clever reuse of something glimpsed earlier. Think of Piggy's specs in Lord of the Flies, the Ring in the Hobbit, and every gagg structure used by Charlie Chaplin. Unpacking and reusing elements of the platform are how we 'understand' the basic materials of the story. A 'three act' structure is nothing sacred- it's just this: the platform, elements of the platform going wrong, the same elements going right. The five act structure is more pleasing because we get an extra go at the elements with the 'false victory' that happens in the middle (Act 1=platform, Act 2=bad stuff happens, Act3=false victory, Act4=all hell breaks loose, Act5=a climactic struggle leading to final victory or utter defeat).

Interesting platforms lead to interesting stories. Forget what you can drag in later. If it 'aint in the platform get a new one. Hated notions such as the 'hi concept' movie have something right here. A high concept platform is probably a fruitful one, other things being equal. If you can repeat the platform to someone without embarrassment it is probably a good start. If the platform seems to DEMAND explanation (like the marvellous 'hundred year old man who leapt out of a window') then you are onto something.

The tip: create platforms that seem to demand further explanation.



Why smart kids don't study science


Smart kids? The all rounders who are good at everything, even sport, the creative drop outs who could be good at lessons but chose not to be, the whizz kids at maths and music. All of them are increasingly reluctant to study science. Yep, it is the second eleven, the B team, who more and more are heading into the labs now. While studying medicine appeals to conventional ‘smart kids’ ie. those good at lessons, and the sexiness of start-ups appeals to the greed factor, there is a very good reason why science is now seen as a subject for people with unnaturally narrowed vision. And since a major part of ‘smartness’ is the width of vision, then we must conclude that science is in decline. A workable parallel would be, I suspect, theology in the 17/18th/ century. Though power still resided in theocratically informed institutions, the sheer complexity of theology no longer had any grip, no purchase on everyday life decisions. The whole damn edifice came crumbling down. Shelley publishes his ‘necessity of atheism’ and throws the baby out with the bathwater, but the world keeps going: strangely we didn’t need angels dancing on pins after all. Just as we don’t need the Higg’s Boson particle, suggestively named the ‘God particle’, a sure sign that science has left its useful and limited role as a procedure for finding out useful things and taken on the theological role of explaining in words why we are here. When smart people know such an answer resides in the realm beyond the limits of language.

Science, in the current model, is the hypertrophic development of simple curiosity. Curiosity is necessary to get beyond the everyday veil that shrouds the somewhat hidden and connected reality beneath. Science mimics deeper understanding by providing answers to what colour ‘really’ is, what ‘causes’ gravity (actually rather bad on that one) and yet these are trivial questions in the life of a normal human being who desperately wants to know who they should marry, what work they should do, how they can be a better person, and so on. So ‘smart’ people turn away from science. It’s boring, they say. Well, of course, it isn’t, it’s actually fascinating. But if you engage with professional science you will be drawn into ever narrowing areas of interest.

One function of science is to provide a working model of how to approach a simple problem. Another is to demonstrate how this years ‘truth’ is next year’s laughable folly- N rays and Phlogiston- come to mind. But the nub of the matter is this, the real crux of it: people in the past were just as smart as us and they long ago worked out how to approach truth. They didn’t need theology, science, maths or anything else. Sometimes they didn’t even need language as a study of Central Asian textiles will show, the patterns encoding certain immemorial truths and relationships of truths. So the big dividing line is this: either you imagine that everyone before the 20th century was thick or you realise that human beings have not changed in thousands of years and most of what we call progress is just window dressing. As the behaviour in every recent war has demonstrated.

Which brings me to the second reason why science isn’t studied by smart kids: WW2. Science, and its bedfellow complicated technology, brought us the atom bomb, gas chambers, machine guns, railways, high explosives, saturation bombing and numerous other ways of multiplying our murderous instincts. Give a child a toy gun and he plays happily, give him a real gun and expect some unfortunate accidents. Science and complex technology are the real gun. The toy gun has long ago been ditched. And when the toy becomes deadly, the toy ‘plays’ with us. You can see this every day in the way a car alters the behaviour of otherwise normal and polite people. So we must make special allowance for this modern distortion effect, and treble it for the effect of owning a nuclear power station or a giant dam.

But the purpose of this is not to cause undue concern about technological developments. They will, after all, be what will deliver us from the problems caused by earlier technological developments. That is, in effect, what ‘modern development’ is: a series of unbalanced situations solved by inventive machines that destabilise things in a different way, requiring more inventions etc. In the past war served a similar purpose. No, the purpose is to highlight the precise use of science to the individual in their search for the right path.

They may choose to work as a professional scientist to earn money or status. Fair enough. But in their real life, that which deals with their real progress in understanding, they may see ‘science’ as rather unimportant.

Remember: everything that is real can be communicated in simple language or simple images. Things of enormous subtlety and range can be conveyed this way. We have grown used to equating subtlety with complexity. One can become ‘lost’ in complexity, this is very different to appreciating ever more subtle distinctions of emotion or utility in a thing.

We can take this from science: be alert to anecdotal evidence- anecdotal evidence is the mulch, the growing medium of real discovery. Be alert to superstition and cult behaviour. Understand basic psychological needs of the human being that may have been lost when traditional culture was superseded by ‘modern’ cultures.

Recently I read passages from Plutarch’s Morals. In it he reveals a thoroughly ‘modern’ appreciation of mythology as a method of portraying psychological realities. In no way did he believe that mythological beings were real. But he knew that they had great utility in depicting a greater reality. So Plutarch was more advanced than the modern barbarian who denounces mythical beings and sees no utility in them, and would prefer the modern mythologies of string theory and Dawkinsian evolution.

Smart kids intuit that we aren’t the smartest people to have ever lived. That people 5000 years ago were just as smart as us. Anything that moves us away from this basic position is a hypertrophy, an over developed activity that needs no further encouragement. What we need to encourage (ie. stop discouraging or distracting from) is the search for real, not ‘scientific’ truth.





How to succeed with an allotment

I saw this piece by Peter Archer and it seemed to make good sense so I've reposted it here:

Alittlement about the allotment.

Recently I have been lured back in to doing some allotment gardening. An allotment, for the non-British reader, is a small piece of municipal garden, rented for growing vegetables for a nugatory amount.

It provides a place of escape from the domestic hurly burly, a place to contemplate nature, but above all, a place to grow things you can eat.

I had rented an allotment fifteen years ago with two friends. It ended in abandonment after planting a line of radishes and planting an apple tree. I recall days building a shed that was left half finished, like part of a stage set for a western town- yes it was an ambitious shed…had it ever been finished…

But therein lay the problem: I had become distracted by the inessential elements of allotmenteering, attractive though they are: sheds, friends, strange fruit (or even normal fruit).

But this time, things would be different.

I took as my example a man dubbed by other members of the allotment society as ‘Mr Monsanto’. I chose him not for his obvious prediliction for powerful weedkiller, but because his allotment was THE EXACT OPPOSITE of my old conception of what an allotment should be. Fifteen years on I was going to try something completely different.

Mr Monsanto, a silent broad shouldered man who had scorched with ‘Round-up’ the verges around his plot, making his square of soil look as if it landed from outerspace, had dead straight lines of veg, no shed, old rusty tools, scaffold planks to walk on (you could imagine Mr M in a previous working life as someone involved somehow in the macho world of scaffolding). No greenhouse, polytunnel or fruit cage. No natty little turf paths. Absolutely no trendy raised beds. Instead only excellent spuds, beans, peas, onions, cabbages, salad stuff. No hardy Himalayan banana tree. No herbs and spices. No apple trees.

No shed became an article of faith. I saw that the bigger the shed the more abandoned and crap the allotment that accompanied it. There is a philosophy of business that suggests you disinvest in any company the moment it buys a purpose built HQ. Desire to expand has been replaced by naval gazing. The shed is- in your back garden- a wonderful place. But in an allotment it betokens a woeful lack of focus. My father never had a shed on his allotment and I thought him a killjoy, then; now I see he knew the real score: sheds are for amateurs.

So no shed.

Tools. On my previous attempt I had lots of new shiny tools. Expensive tools. Spades, two types of fork, a hoe- all bought on a whim from the garden centre. This was pre-internet. I now looked carefully online at what I might need. I realised I could get away with having a single tool. Just one- a wide digging hoe or mattock, something like an adze. I remember my grandfather using one and being rather mystified by it. No longer. Once I started using the mattock hoe I (hardly) looked back. Spades are OK, and forks aren’t too bad, but for fast, effortless, sod breaking you cannot beat the mattock. When sharp it can cut long grass. You can weed vast areas with it. It breaks down into a head and a handle. I left the handle at the allotment (Mr Monsanto left all his tools out) and walked to the allotment with the head in my rucksack. Using the head alone it worked as a trowel. The mattock was the business.

All other tools I bought second hand, maximum price paid £6. I bought a rake, various other weeding hoes, a bent fork (also excellent). The wind blew two plastic buckets on to my plot. I kept them and found both useful.

At first I tried to clear my plot systematically. This meant starting at one end and manfully hacking on, chopping down weeds, taking out dock roots and turning over the soil. It was sad dispiriting work. As soon as I had cleared one bit it began to sprout weeds again. My solid adherence to organic principles forbade the use of weedkiller.

I almost gave up. In fact, only a letter from the council officer in charge of allotments (chiding me for the lack of progress in clearing the plot) spurred me into action. I gave up using the wheelbarrow to take weeds to the compost heap (forget compost, it’s a waste of time in the beginning, a total snare and delusion, especially composters made from pallets- totally useless as they simply sprout weeds from the sides). Instead I simply cleared an area in the middle of the plot and shifted the cut weeds outwards in a spreading wave north and south. At both ends I formed piles of dead foliage that served as the ultimate goal of the cleared stuff but there was no hurry. The key was simplicity and not getting bogged down with inessentials.

As soon as I had a bare patch about ten foot by twenty foot I planted some spuds, bought from the garden centre. I cleared some more and bought at a street market for a pound some onion sets. These I duly planted.

Planting spurred me on to clear more ground. I didn’t bother to water or coddle my plants in any way at all. If they died they died. When a line of kale was attacked by birds I went up to Mr Monsanto’s plot and noticed his chicken wire cover arched over his cabbages. I got some and made a cover for my own- the cheapest wire coming from a discount hardware store rather than the pricey stuff in the garden centre. The bird attacks ceased.

When slugs munched my beans I scattered organic slug pellets around the perimeter of the plants- this worked pretty well. I also moved my chicken wire covers over the beans and peas for a while, until they seemed sturdy enough to take what the world could throw at them.

From the beginning I revelled in the allotment as a free gym. Breaking new ground became an addictive form of exercise. But I didn’t force it; as soon as I noticed something that needed doing- weeds, a bit more planting, tidying the edges etc I allowed myself to be distracted. This wilful use of distraction worked well, as long as I went for about half an hour or so every other day. Long sessions are not really that good, longer than two hours gets boring unless you have a flask of tea for a break. The main thing was to go little and often to the allotment and not see it as something you could blitz and forget about.

Last week I cleared the last of the plot. It is pretty much all planted out now with just a few clear spaces. Spuds, onions, lettuce, rocket, peas- all delicious all being eaten everyday.

And NO PESTICIDES or WEEDKILLER- thank you Mr Monsanto!


The Fifth Law of Adventure


The Fifth Law of Adventure: Adventures cluster together

I have been on trips where the adventures were all in the getting there and then in the getting out. The event itself was a little sparse, a few days when it was almost boring, if a day in the Sahara desert 200km from anywhere can be called boring.

The destination, as we know, is less important than the journey. Indeed the destination can be a veritable McGuffin, laughable even. I know of someone who would drive eight hours to look at the Caspian sea, stay half an hour and drive eight hours back again. The journey is everything, especially since it is on the journey, during movement, that adventure clusters are more likely to happen.

Adventures cluster together, they come in runs, like poker hands, then there may be a blank patch. But when you’re on a roll, keep going. I suppose all this means is that they do not obey systematic and mindless rules (or laws like these) there is an element of vitality, of living process about any adventure.

An adventure is as much in your head as anywhere else. An adventure is a way of categorizing a new experience as something valuable, enabling growth in some form or another. Categorizing the same experience as a ‘nightmare’ is also possible.

Searching for adventure looks childish on the surface. A serious person would surely leave this to grown up boyscouts and slightly deranged exSAS men? But though many adventurers are people with slight, how to say, ‘adjustment issues’, the notion that adventuring is for kids is sheer baloney. Modern life has the capacity to be rather more boring than most previous eras in history. We live in an era which requires one to ‘opt in’ to everything interesting. If you don’t and rely on what the culture offers to everyone (TV, mass events, jobs, politics) you will be short changed.

Adventure seeking – in whatever guise – is a form of opting in to growth experiences. Or call them learning experiences. But they are also a form of nutrition that have no other utility than to keep us interested in life and all its possibilities. Have I sold it enough?

1.   It’s all in the people

My best friend as a lad was a boy my own age called Stuart. Together we always had amazing adventures. We took canoes down impassable rivers, dug lengthy underground tunnels, halted a forest fire, and on one memorable occasion detected aliens from Mars on a crystal set. Well, maybe. The point was- we both believed adventures would happen, we had a naïve faith in them happening and by golly they did.

I had another pal, a good pal, called Shorty. Nothing ever happened with Shorty. We hung about, watched TV, built a den that fell down. There was no spark, no synergy, nothing came out of…nothing, which is what we ask an adventure to be: something coming out of nothing, a creative act. Oh, of course, there are the countless adventures when stuff goes wrong, but there is good going wrong and bad going wrong. Getting seriously injured is a very bad form of going wrong. Anyway, nothing went wrong wrong, good or bad with Shorty, it was just plain uneventful. Somehow we managed to earth each other’s vitality; we became ordinary. Ordinary as in bad ordinary rather than good ordinary.

Some combinations of people are better than others. People you get on with should work better, but don’t always. People who like risk taking- well, that sometimes works, but not always. People up for ‘a laugh’ are usually good. People who are good at talking to strangers are also very useful. Awkward customers and inventive types are often a good bet, but by far the most important ingredient is enthusiasm and an ability to roll with the punches and ride the snake, not to suddenly dig your heels in because you got cold feet. 

2.   Cluster in terrain/equipment

Some places are better than others. I’ve mentioned places before, the more varied the challenge the more adventures will tend to cluster.

The equipment: a mountain bike will take you places an ordinary bike won’t. A packraft promises a whole zone of possibility denied bulkier bigger craft. A wheeled pulk, used for crossing rough ground in between patches of snow gave me the idea for the wheeled canoe- a short plastic Canadian canoe with detachable wheels similar to those on an all terrain sack trolley  (you need better ground clearance than with bolt on launch wheels). With correct loading the ten foot long canoe becomes your ‘wheeled pulk’ that you drag through the wilderness. You can then canoe lakes and run rivers far more easily than with a pack raft, thus opening up a whole new range of potential adventures. I have a friend who did something similar but towed the canoe behind a bike, then put the bike in the canoe when he hit water. The advantage with the wheeled canoe is the increased load you can carry, including if you like a sail that could double as a tarp. 

3.   Be in a rush

Cross Europe by hitching all through the night. Race someone to get by train to Dogubayazit. Pedal as fast as you can along Chesil beach, if you can. Being in a rush sometimes causes lots of adventures to cluster, but only when you are travelling with another or in a group.

4.   Don’t be in a rush

And the reverse is also true, especially when one is travelling solo.

5.   Go somewhere brand new

If you have never been there before, the adventure ratio will be higher.

6.   Look out for new developments

Fat tyre bikes burst (is that the right word?) on to the scene about ten years ago. They created a whole new world of adventure around snow and sand peddling, allowing trips that just wouldn’t have been possible on a bicycle before.

7.   Go back in time

Go mountaineering in a tweed jacket, leather nailed triconi boots, a long ice axe and a woollen pair of breeches. The adventure – both in actuality and in your head, will be greater.



The Fourth Law of Adventure


The Fourth Law of Adventure: An adventure takes you out of your comfort zone.

1.   head comfort, psychological comfort

The adventure starts in your head. It explodes into your brain, in the boredom of your everyday life, the life you have managed to get stuck with- how? You don’t know; it just happened but then this worm got into your brain the worm of adventure. I say explodes, that happens,..sometimes, more often than not the worm makes itself known bit by bit, bubbling around under the surface; you notice things, you see its action, and then kaboom! you decide to do this thing this great adventure.

Think of that worm sunk in the bottom of a bottle of Tequila. It makes no difference to the taste I am sure, but the sight of it, the fact of it, provides a reminder of worms in the brain, that the brain can be wormed into, altered, fixed, undermined.

Sometimes you know when the worm is introduced, but it makes no difference. The idea is simply an idea at that stage, a potential adventure, nothing more. Everyone has a few of these kicking around. But it has no life, it means nothing. It needs to be fed. It needs links, coincidences, people, miracles to makes it grow- this is the nutrition of the worm of adventure.

But this worm does one thing in particular: it gnaws through your psychological comfort zones, it ignores the barriers you’ve set up in your mind, it just munches right through them. I was too wary, too cautious to even consider making a long journey by plastic or aluminium canoe across Canada, but when I switched to the more adventurous plan of using a real birchbark canoe, one that I would have a hand in building, then the worm took hold, gnawing through all the potential objections.

Objections, perfectly reasonable objections – our minds are brilliant at inventing them. These objections solidify over time to form the walls and floors and ceiling of your comfort zone, your psychological comfort zone. I’ve found there isn’t that much point in butting up against psychological comfort zones, better to ride the worm, it’s more effortless. Instead of somewhat reluctantly surfing on a winter’s day, find a way to make winter surfing a BIG adventure.

The advantage is: you’ll be stretched without being strained. When we ‘force’ ourselves to do a thing, stretching can easily turn into strain. When we see something as an ‘adventure’ anything new or weird is good; instead of freaking us out and causing stress we laugh it off, and grow instead.


2.   physical comfort, pain

No pain, no gain. Sad but true. Get comfortable with pain, physical discomfort. Doesn’t have to be masochistic stubbing cigarettes out on your tongue pain, but it has to be painful without being damaging, in a long term way. Blisters, muscular aches and pains, lumpen sleeping sites, damp sleeping bags, nasty tasting food…from time to time. We live in comfortable times, it makes us soft, in a global historical sense, meaning, most of humankind’s history has been spent in more pain than we are now experiencing. I suggest that a certain level of pain is necessary to achieve most things worthwhile- including unadventurous seeming activities such as writing where sitting on your arse for hours on end produces so much accumulated un-ease. Somerset Maugham always enquired of would-be writers: “are you strong?” Because few things gnaw at your sense of physical wellbeing more than being indoors, craning for hours over a keyboard.

But, again, the worm of adventure will carry you through pain like nothing else.

3.   a difficult dangerous journey

What is difficult travel in your mind? Physically difficult, lots of geographical obstacles to surmount? Or politically difficult- a lot of red tape to overcome to visit the place? Adventures tend to coalesce around difficult journeys. The challenge is greater, it calls forth more from you. But dangerous? Well a bit. Life after all, is terminal- at least in this dimension- so anything you do is laced with potential danger. My question is- am I driving or is someone else? If you are driving across ice, through floods or down dunes that’s one kind of danger experienced. If however you are trusting another to do it that’s another kind.  Both provide adventure. But the kind you control is likely to have less costly consequences in the long run.

There is a paradox in danger. Some of the most risky activities are pursued by people who have an acute sense of what is and isn’t ‘really dangerous’. Launching a kayak off a waterfall to dive 20 metres into a not very deep pool is dangerous in a general sense, but not if you have visualised doing it and have a good feeling about it, and know how and when to trust such feelings. If you go ahead when you have a bad feeling then it is, by contrast, very dangerous indeed.


4.   a safe easy journey achieved by a shift of perspective

Ah, the Punnine Way. Yes, the relatively easy and well known hike along the Pennines becomes utterly transformed into a thing of strangeness and beauty when it becomes…the Punnine Way. The object being to walk the 180 odd miles making as many puns- good, bad and indifferent, along the way. All should be encouraged to join in. Puns should be recorded and maybe tweeted, who knows where it may end? The Punnine Way is a form of Experimental Adventure, where the object is to combine creativity with adventure in interesting, enlightening but also (for some) amusing ways.


5.   change perspective to make a new type of journey because of changing conditions

The first route is usually a single track path. Then horses come and carts and roads and cars…and the original and oldest and most traditional way across a place may be down the high street and along a main highway. So to preserve the sense of moving through the same landscape as the people of the past, do it by using a different mode of travel. Skateboard, in line skates, recumbent bike, stilts, all come to mind.


6.   copy an old journey, do it old style- travel back in time

I copied German desert explorer Gerhard Rohlf’s old way across the Sahara. It had been done before- in a car- but very very few had done it using camels, just as he did. You proceed at his pace, and see what he saw, using his notes and maps as a guide. You get into his head, and when you find a side comment you can investigate further, when he was in too much of a hurry to do so. Lots of discoveries are made this way.


7.   Get a uniform for wearing when you leave your comfort zone, your flash Gordon kit, Stanley’s explorer’s uniform…

The worm is helped by a uniform. The uniform of adventure. Today I bought some rather long olive and red socks. They just feel made for walking distances, longer than the plain red ones I have for instance. Uniforms have a positive effect, call it ritual clothing. H.M. Stanley was the first explorer to design his own uniform. We may laugh but it carried him far. He knew that on a day when everything looks grim, when turning back seems infinitely preferable to pressing on, when illness and despair have their nasty claws deep in your flesh, a uniform can cause that one bit of dissociation to enable you to carry on. You ‘become’ the uniform and your ‘self’ just has no choice but to tag along. I have hats that spur me on, trouser/gaiter combinations that literally gird my loins, belts that inspire confidence, pocket knives that spell ‘nothing will defeat me’. Foolish? Not a bit of it. Anything that makes the boat go faster is welcome.



chopping trees causes testosterone to surge

Latest from New Scientist: playing soccer and chopping trees can cause 30% surges in testosterone. It seems the baseline quantity of testosterone is less important than the activity that brings it forth. Also it seems that once you remove depressed and obese men from the smple testosterone drops a negligible amount over one's life. 80 year old men show the same surges - if they are fit- as men in their 30s.