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How To Go For An Increasingly Awful Walk
Oh, look at that sky. Now we're in for it.
Hello! This is Everything is Amazing, a newsletter about science, curiosity and the endless joy of discovering things that make you go WOW.
Regarding a more formal reintroduction, since this place has been on a between-seasons break for a few months: I recently had the pleasure & honour of being interviewed by novelist and podcaster Gabe Hudson, who was kind enough to call me a “folk art balladeer,” which immediately made me feel like this:
It was a really lovely chat (thanks so much, Gabe!) and you can listen to it here:
Secondly - I’m sorry, there’s no way to tie this into anything so I’m just chucking it in anyway: a recent edition of‘s introduced me to a thrillingly absurd Japanese electronic musical instrument called the Otamatone - and this is what it’s capable of doing:
Months later this still creases me up, every single time. Glorious. (And the creator of it has dozens more covers just as good / daft as that one.)
Okay! Next week I'll be leaning hard into the science side of this newsletter, as I start this season’s detailed look at islands - starting with the most basic of questions: Why isn’t everywhere above sea level called an island when everywhere above sea level is, in fact, an island? The answer, you’ll be unsurprised to learn, is messily human…
But today, let’s go for an increasingly awful walk in the English rain.
One thing I’ve promised from the beginning of Everything Is Amazing is a look at my first non-fiction book as I put it together. It’s called “How To Be Rained On,” and - well, that’s as much as I’ve told anyone so far.
The reason for this is that unfortunately I’m still writing it. Or rather, I’m writing the latest version of it, after a number of discarded drafts and more incarnations than Doctor Who. Nothing quite seemed to work. I knew the more serious, scientific and even philosophical things I wanted to say with it, but I couldn’t find a tone that was…how can I say this….ridiculous enough?
If I have a house style with this newsletter, it’s come out of the travel writing I was doing in what I now laughingly call my former career: an eye for a cheap laugh, frequently self-mocking, and wearing its “yes, I HAVE read a lot of Bill Bryson, what’s your point?” credentials proudly on its sleeve.
Then I rediscovered a well-received piece I wrote many years ago for my now dormant blog - and everything fell into place.
The first chapter of HTBRO will be coming in [redacted - I don’t trust my ability to stick to hard deadlines, but now I finally know what I’m doing, it is now coming] - and you can regard the following republished piece, based on a couple of disastrous hikes I took in Yorkshire, as something of a very loose excerpt.
HOW TO GO FOR A WALKING ADVENTURE IN BRITAIN WHEN IT’S NOT SUMMER
Those clouds are really dark, aren’t they?
And look at how those hills are disappearing ahead, where that suddenly bone-cold wind is coming from.
It’s OK, though. Take a deep breath – and – just – release it. Feel it travel out of your body, from your deepest place to your emptiest place. Feel the air passing, watch it go with your inner mind’s eye – until only you remain, calm and still and ready for anything.
It was Billy Graham who said, “Without dark clouds in our lives, we would never know the joy of sunshine.”
Well, good for him. And didn’t he live in North Carolina, where it’s generally pretty warm all year round – at least 20 full degrees warmer than here?
Yes he did.
It’s raining hard now. Proper stair-rods.
But that’s OK too. Let it pass. Let it be. Allow it and accept it. You can always choose to do that. After all, discomfort always passes in time. Misery is just a matter of attitude. You can’t control what happens to you. You can only control your response to it.
And maybe your response right now is, “I shouldn’t have got my waterproofs from that discounted items bin in Primark.” You’ll know next time.
But that’s next time, and right now, you’re completely and utterly…
Wait. Seriously? Is…? Is that…?
Yes, it is. After less than five minutes, the rainwater has now reached your underpants.
You know you’ve got at least another six hours of walking ahead of you, and this rain isn’t going anywhere. And you can feel the skin of your inner thighs starting to squeak and chafe and complain with every step.
Where did you leave that little tub of Vaseline?
You left it at home, didn’t you?
Take another long, deep breath, in through the nose. The air smells so fresh, doesn’t it? Like those times in your life when you remember it rained for days and you wished you’d been born literally anywhere else in the world. Anywhere.
Take the air in, take it deep, like something between an unwanted gift and a curse. Take a big gulp.
The rain doesn’t have it in for you. The rain isn’t a pitiless arsemonger that is spitefully defying what the BBC Weather app told you this very morning, hence you deciding to keep walking after lunch. The rain isn’t that much of a bastard. The rain just is.
Keep telling yourself that. Sure.
And as you do so, let that deliciously crisp, invigorating, cold, wet, vicious, hateful air into your lungs – and let yourself make a noise so someone standing next to you could hear it. “Fuuuuuuhh…”
Now let it out hard and sharp. Make a “CK!” sound. The louder the better.
Really scream it, if you like. Let the veins in your forehead and neck stand out proudly.
Keep doing that. Keep that virtuous cycle going. It won’t make you feel calmer, but it might warm you up a bit.
(You also forgot your thermos flask, didn’t you?)
The world has a sound, a kind of music, and if you listen hard enough, if you still the waters of your mind and hold your breath, you can hear it.
Can you hear it? Is it like a faint, high-pitched whine?
That’s actually tinnitus. Because you haven’t eaten properly for two days, and now you’re starting to suffer. Acid bile races up and down your gullet like the Severn Bore.
Maybe if you’d been smart, and had any semblance of self-control, you could have made that family pack of Twixes last, and saved all those McVities Breakfast Bars for actual breakfasts.
And how you went through those three multipacks of Chewits you’ll never know.
Come to think of it, having eight meals a day for two days in a row maybe wasn’t the smartest thing ever.
But it’s fine. You’re here now, in the outskirts of the absolute cutest little village, and the sun is beaming down, like a warm light of forgiveness thawing your frozen, agonised soul.
You’re only a few minutes away from the shops, according to the map. Almost there, Sisyphus.
Didn’t Rebecca Solnit say, “We treat desire as a problem to be solved, address what desire is for and focus on that something and how to acquire it rather than on the nature and the sensation of desire”?
And isn’t this gnawing hunger a desire? A raw human experience, the kind you came here for? Something to cherish, especially when you know it’s definitely on the way out?
Here’s the mini-supermarket! And…
Look at the door.
Just – look. Empty your mind. Don’t…no. No.
Don’t think about it. It doesn’t say that. It can’t. Don’t let it. If you don’t think about it, then maybe…
But maybe it doesn’t say CLOSED. There’s something in your eye. Or you’re hallucinating. It’s not closed, obviously. Because that would be So, So Bad. So it doesn’t. Does it?
Yes. Because it’s Sunday.
You forgot it’s Sunday. Nowhere is open today. Literally nowhere. This is how the UK countryside works. On Sundays, you eat what you already have, or you perish. That’s how it works.
Take heart, weary traveller, for as Robert Frost once said…
No. Bugger Robert Frost. Bugger everything. You’re hungry and you want food. Could you knock on someone’s door? Or maybe break it down?
Suddenly the rain is lashing at you hard, and there’s absolutely nowhere you can take shelter, and this is when you remember there’s a Rice Krispies bar right at the bottom of your rucksack.
Are you really going to turf out all your stuff, in the middle of a rainstorm, just to get it? Are you really?
It’s going to taste so good.
Relax – and lean back. Scan down your body. Feel the contact between your sodden, tattered waterproofs and the car seat.
Feel the smooth fake leather of the seat against your fingertips. Soft, yet cheap.
Watch the Forest Fresh Magic Tree air freshener swing merrily back and forth under the rear-view mirror.
Be grateful. You did the right thing. Yes you did. Yes.
Take a long, deep breath. The air smells of stewed thermos coffee, Sour Cream & Chive Pringles and something that definitely isn’t pine, but it’s okay. And you’re grateful.
Brian is telling you about how the Mark II Vauxhall Cavalier was made for weather like this – not the Mark III, which any fool knows was a shameless attempt to muscle into the Japanese market. The Japanese make good cars but they have no real wet-weather ability, he tells you. You nod.
Miriam is watching Michael Palin on her iPad. It’s very, very sunny where he is.
The car sways alarmingly as a fist of gale-force rain slams into the side of it, so Brian slows down, but probably not enough for a day like this, even for a road as straight as this.
You watch a campsite go by. That’s the fourth one now. You remember it clearly: when the very first campsite appeared, you were going to ask them to stop. “No, no, it’s fine. Thank you SO much, but I’ll be good from here onwards. Not a problem. Thank you!”
But that’s four now.
As Anne Morrow Lindbergh said: “If you surrender completely to the moments as they pass, you live more richly those moments.” Maybe that works for driving past campsites too.
….and that’s five.
Be self-loving and congratulate yourself. Offer empathy, as if you were someone else, someone you actually respected. It’s okay. You did the right thing. Walking for seven hours through a rainstorm after a week of being rained on would break anyone, and while it’s only day seven and you had another four weeks of planned walking ahead of you, it’s basically done, more or less. You’ve proven your worth as an adventurer. You didn’t need to, but you proved it. Inner high-five! You’re a hero!
I am a hero.
No, not like that. Be kinder.
Miriam’s got bored of Michael Palin and now she’s watching Countryfile. Sleepy forest paths pierced by sunbeams fill her screen, and the presenter is wearing a rucksack exactly like yours, except not spattered with mud.
Don’t…take it personally. Don’t. He has a film crew and someone probably drives him everywhere. He doesn’t look smug, but that could be his BBC training. He doesn’t know the lonely horror you’ve been through, the impossible choice you faced, the surrender that was thrust upon you. He never will.
You’re at the city limits now. In the last 45 minutes, the car has covered the distance you’d put aside for the rest of September.
They can drop you off at the train station, you tell Brian. They’ve done you such a favour, and you’re so grateful. You realise it’s the eighth time you’ve said that, but that’s okay. They understand. Nobody is judging you right now. The judging is for later.
The car is slowing. Don’t look in the rear-view mirror. Don’t meet your own eyes. Fumble in your rucksack, look like you’re preparing for the next leg, not searching for your wallet so you can check if your return train ticket is valid this early.
It’s okay. Breathe all the way out – and once again.
Nobody ever needs to know.
I’ll be releasing chapters of How To Be Rained On to paid subscribers when they’re ready (the chapters, I mean). In the meantime, please ignore my rubbish and go read the Substack of Tom Cox, author of the “damply pungent” Villager (2022) - he writes so very Englishly, and so very well.
See you in a few days!