River Lane

…not surprised should the river suddenly
Yield a hundredfold, every hunger appeased.

Elizabeth Jennings – Men Fishing in the Arno

Until the 1960s the Eastern Electricity Generating Board operated a coal fired power station in the heart of Peterborough tucked away behind Bridge Street on a site currently occupied by an Asda superstore. This brutalist brick structure with it’s fat single chimney squatted unacknowledged in the urban landscape like a monstrous stove in a back room.  The station’s twin turbines were cooled by water extracted from the River Nene close to Town Bridge and returned to the river via a concrete culvert a few hundred yards upstream. Between these two points, steaming ominously winter and summer, ran a short canal parallel to the Nene, known to everyone as The Cut.

At the business end of The Cut, water seethed from metal grilles below the turbines, cooling as it made the short journey under a footbridge, and along the canal to the culvert where in the early morning you could watch carp rolling across the concrete bar.

To reach The Cut you swung your bike through the sharp 180 degree turn by the Crescent Bridge into River Lane and almost immediately dropped out of sight. You passed reassuring the shape of the Friends Meeting House and its tree-shaded garden, some respectable bungalows and the odd semi but beyond these the road’s character quickly changed. Past the last streetlight the metalled surface became a dirt track and the lane itself narrowed to a tunnel bounded on one side by a seemingly endless brick wall which screened the marshalling yards and coal stores that fed the power station’s furnaces. In the 1950s this wall had a brief moment of celebrity when questions were asked in Parliament about the sheer number of bricks needed to build it at a time of national shortages. The other side of the tunnel was formed by brambles and a scrubby hedge that hid a travellers camp and the feral dogs which acted as its gatekeepers. When you finally emerged into the open and crossed the footbridge over The Cut the transition was complete. You may have been no more than a long cast from the city centre but something had undeniably changed. You had entered an area of semi-industrial marginal land where the rules were quite different from those at River Lane’s more respectable end. 

 Life here seemed to operate outside normal social constraints. A sense of lawlessness hung in the air which to an adolescent boy was like the first intoxicating taste of freedom. It was a place of uneasy calm disturbed by occasional brutal fights, of air rifles and shotguns in the hands of traveller boys, of daylight drinking, industrial architecture and dangerous, reed-filled water. Beyond the reach of respectability, in a very important sense off the map, River Lane was the sort of place that gave parents nightmares.  At 13 it became the centre of my world.

To a boy with time on his hands and a fishing rod the Cut offered a vision of unlimited promise. A vast untapped potential lay just below the steaming surface, unacknowledged by the urban dog-walkers, smokers, and loved-up cider drinking teenagers. Bleak, Roach, Gudgeon, Rudd, Perch, Pike, Tench, Carp, Chub – all gathered in the warm water outfall. Most were tiny hook-bothering tiddlers of an ounce or two. But this small fry attracted predators. Jack Pike swarmed the Cut. A Gudgeon casually hooked through the body behind its dorsal fin on a triple hook and dangled below a fat orange float would bring them out. The surge of excitement as the bulbous float dived through the surface and disappeared was a narcotic hit ridiculously easy to repeat. 

Among the regular fishermen there was a strict hierarchy. We youngsters were tolerated provided we didn’t get in people’s way. Among the adults were a few quieter, serious men who had a standing we youngsters could only dream of. From time to time a photograph would appear in the local paper of one of them cradling a Carp weighing 20 or 30 pounds which they had extracted from the narrow confines of the Cut,  concrete evidence of the miracles we instinctively knew were possible here. When someone  hooked a fish of any size the Cut was immediately galvanised. As word spread people would set their rods aside and make their way along the bank to watch, all attention focussed on the moving point where the line sliced through the surface. The assembly was  act of affirmation, almost of worship as the congregants silently anticipated the moment the waters of The Cut would offer up the fulfilment they had surely been promised.  

The day it happened to me was entirely unexpected.  I was fishing with a tiny hook on light tackle on an grey windless morning when my float dipped, and as I struck felt as if I’d embedded my hook in a log on the bottom. I was just debating whether I dared try to pull myself free and risk losing the hook and float when the log began to move. Trying desperately not to panic I let the fish run and carefully picked up the strain.

Slowly people began to gather. An older man settled in beside me to offer support – Take it gently, let him go, that’s it, you’re doing fine. And all the time my rod was bent in an impossible arc as I tried to balance the pressure on the running fish against the low-breaking strain of the line. Others appeared bringing landing nets which were laid ready on the bank. A discussion began among the crowd.  Carp, they decided. Had to be. Look at the way it’s moving. Couldn’t be anything else. For almost an hour I played my fish surrounded by men I knew well by sight who had never before acknowledged my existence. Now they were willing me on. I was mentally and physically exhausted by the time my quarry finally came into view, and the men set aside their landing nets and silently dispersed back to their own concerns. 

I’d hooked a pike. Not even a particularly big one. Worse, I’d foul-hooked him in the tail. And the effort it had taken to land him was entirely caused by the necessity of hauling him through the waters and hazards of the Cut backwards.

My big moment ended in anticlimax. But it perfectly encapsulated the lure of The Cut. Time spent here was always about more than catching fish. What kept me coming back was the feeling that something transformative was possible here, an indication that beyond the confines of school and home, life might at any moment open into something larger.

From first light there were fishermen lining the banks of the Cut. During the day a revolving cast of anglers came and went. And in the evening as the light failed the night shift took over. Night fishing brought with it a whole new level of excitement. It amazes me now that I was allowed to go.  The Cut and its surroundings were a daunting enough prospect for parents in daylight. Darkness could only multiplied its dangers so to agree to your child to spending the night in a place where drownings or worse seemed, if not mandatory at least inevitable, was not something to undertake lightly. 

And yet here I was at a young 14 wearing several sets of clothes against the cold setting up my basket and rod at the bottom of the steep bank and preparing for my first night in the shadow of the power station. The view along the bank was like something from a medieval book of hours. Figures huddled in hooded parkas in the failing light with candles in glass jars set among the reeds, hands cupped round flasks of steaming coffee.  Soon it was too dark to see a float. Some people were lucky enough to have electronic bite indicators. We had to invent our own, trapping the line below a penny balanced on the rim of a tin can so that a bite would send the fat copper coin clattering into the metal container.

Not that catching anything seemed particularly important. It paled into insignificance alongside the sheer fact of being here, out in the world, with the prospect of the whole night ahead.

Some time after midnight I was conscious of figures moving along the bank, among the fishermen, a ripple of subdued questions and answers and flickering torches, growing closer. The police, I guessed, who occasionally turned up on the bank in search of missing persons and absconding prisoners.  A few moments later the ripple had reached my swim and the lights were on the bank above me. I looked over my shoulder through the gloom already reaching for my name and address.  My mother was standing on the bank with a heavy coat over her nightdress, my father speechless next to her. Unable to sleep she had insisted they come down to make sure their child was safe.  I was utterly mortified by this parental concern. Unfamiliar with River Lane in the daylight, their midnight visit can hardly have reassured them. It did however serve to raise the stakes for what happened later.

About 2.30 I’d left my basket and walked the bank to get some circulation going in my legs. As I came back down the steep and greasy sides of the Cut gravity took over. I descended the bank in a smooth motion, slid over the edge and into the dark water. The first sensation as I went under was how mercifully warm it was. Moving was difficult because of the layers of clothing, but my bulky jacket did at least provide a purchase for the hands that reached into the water and dragged me ashore.

Waterlogged in every layer and beginning to feel the cold bite, there was nothing for it but to collect my bike and set off along an inky black River Lane and through the deserted streets for home.  I let myself in without waking anyone. Deciding what to do with my wet clothes was too much of a problem to deal with when I had so much shaking to get on with. So I left them in a heap on the kitchen floor and crept up to bed. It’s a measure of my naivety that I was surprised by the level of my parents’ anger the following morning.

Years later as a writer who had grown up in the city I was commissioned to write a community play for Peterborough. As I researched the early history of the town and the arrival of Abbot Martin De Bec in the abbey of Medehamstede I began to focus on the area around the medieval bridge that had been at the heart of the early settlement. The first bridge over the Nene had been in 1307 after De Bec had drawn up  plans to extend the city westwards towards the riverside wharves at the end of today’s Bridge Street. Somewhere along the way I made some notes for a possible scene on the site of The Cut .

 But then in the way of these things, as the writing developed a momentum of its own, the story began to change.  Lines of narrative that felt alive slowly expanded and others that had once seemed promising receded until they no longer served a purpose and could be safely jettisoned. By the time I’d delivered the script, the Cut had swum inexorably into the centre of the piece just as it had into my life and the play had become River Lane.

And then abruptly, it was over. In a shockingly short space of time my life on the banks of the Cut came to an end and the centre of the world shifted a few hundred yards to the north. Fishing and the magic of River Lane dropped out of my life, replaced by the increasingly clamorous call of girls, the dance floor and sex.

 The family, had moved from a village near Stamford into a flat in the city centre. I was fighting a losing battle between the competing demands of ‘O’-levels and a small local nightspot playing the soul music and Tamla Motown which had colonised my life with the same urgency the river had done. A difficult period in my parents’ marriage gave me the freedom to escape each evening into the city. More often than not, the escape took me to The Spinning Wheel – a small club at the back of  the Bull and Dolphin pub, open seven nights a week, and within easy walking distance of the new flat. The perfume- and sweat-addled air of the dance floor was as intoxicating as the freedom and promise I’d tasted in the badlands of River Lane.

Geographically, not a great deal had changed. Behind the club was a carpark whose skyline was dominated by the power station chimney. River Lane, was just beyond the railway lines and the marshalling yard. So in my memory this period in all its inevitable intensity folds perfectly into the same small patch of urban landscape. Looking back it coheres into a single picture of adolescent obsession – the voice of Marvin Gaye leaking into the city night, the sweet-sour smell of cheap perfume, my first clumsy sexual encounters against a wall behind the Spinning Wheel, the clank of the coal yard, the shadowy bulk of the power station and its single massive chimney, and beyond, the dark reedy waters of The Cut with all its teeming promise.

The Rickety Bus to Las Plumas

Out of Trelew in the last of the light
Heading for dark Patagonian night
Where the hare is safe from the eagle’s flight
Goes the rickety bus to Las Plumas.

There isn’t a road, there’s hardly a track
Just a faint dotted line drawn in red on a map
Who knows if we’ll get there, or if we’ll get back
On the rickety bus to Las Plumas.

There are cousins and uncles, some girls in a band,
A priest with a puzzle he can’t understand,
A mother called Mary, a child in her hands
On the rickety bus to Las Plumas.

On the back seat there’s a farmer asleep
With his hand round the rope round the neck of a sheep
In his dreams who knows what adventures he’ll meet
On the rickety bus to Las Plumas?

On the opposite side sits a groom and his bride
Smiling and wearing their ribbons with pride
As a lifetime begins on this moonlit ride
On the rickety bus to Las Plumas.

The dawn comes in like a lifted lamp
Uncovering the cold of the winter camp
And we watch in the dawn while a gaucho stamps
From the rickety bus to Las Plumas.

When the sun is high in the echoing sky
And the fox fees the heat from the rock where he lies
There’s nowhere to shelter, nowhere to hide,
For the rickety bus to Las Plumas.

They say in the rains the road disappears,
And the mud is as deep as a donkey’s ears
Then nothing can move and everyone fears
For the rickety bus to Las Plumas.

At the front of the bus the girls form a ring
And play the charango and whistle and sing
And dance in the aisle till the farmer joins in
On the rickety bus to Las Plumas.

“What will we see there? What will we find?”
“Silver and jewels of every kind!”
Though some say the truth had been quite left behind
In the tales on the bus to Las Plumas.

At a quarter to one a tyre burst,
It won’t be the last, it isn’t the first,
And everyone knows the road will get worse
For the rickety bus to Las Plumas.

The hills are high, the hills are brown
And when the wind blows and the dust comes down
There’s nothing to see but the driver’s frown
On the rickety bus to Las Plumas

But wait! Look down there!
It’s Las Plumas!
We’ve arrived at last!
Can you see anyone?
Anyone at all…?

Just a windswept child in this windswept place
Who lights up the sky with the smile on her face
As she opens her arms in a broad embrace
To welcome the world to Las Plumas.

Gulling Around

Gulls are tricky buggers. Their plumage goes through several different stages as they age, which to the inexperienced eye, mine for example, can make them seem like four different species. They’re basically white, narrow-winged and ubiquitous. Something which allows normal people – that is to say, non-birders – to side-step the identification process altogether, and simply class them all as seagulls. Job done.

It’s not just the non-birders who duck the id question. There are many experienced bird-lovers who can tell the difference between a Meadow Pipit and a Rock Pipit at 50 paces who will tell you they simply “don’t do gulls.” They understand that Yellow Legged Gulls or Second winter Caspians are out there somewhere but identifying them is a bridge too far. Mind you, as soon as classification starts to get difficult you can be sure there are others whose eyes light up. Larophiles revel in the sort of distinctions among gulls that to the rest of us are largely invisible.

There’s a picture of a gull on the waste bins on Yarmouth sea front. It’s hard to be sure about the species. The Lone Ranger mask and stripy vest don’t help. Watch out, it says, in bold letters. There’s a thief about. The Yarmouth gulls find an easy living among the discarded take-away wrappers. They are opportunists. They will sidle up to a bench where people are eating their lunch brazenly weighing up their chances. This looks like straightforward larceny rather than intelligence. Being looked in the eye by a Herring Gull is very different from being looked in the eye by a Crow. Gulls will steal your last chip but they don’t give the impression – the way corvids do – that what they’re really after is your keys and pin number.

A flock of gulls is an untidy thing. Each bird moves independently in its own scrap of sky. Not like the neat chevrons of Cormorants heading inland to roost from Scroby Sands. Or the high skeins of geese over the Halvergate marshes, where every bird has its wingman, conserving energy, riding the slipstream of its neighbour. Gulls seem to tumble through the air in the same general direction. Perhaps because they have an agility the Cormorants and geese can’t match, they don’t need to steady themselves with geometry.

I’m surrounded by gulls. They are in the air and on the rooftops every time I look out of my window. On the river, on the warehouses by the Outer Harbour, weaving among the cranes on the docks. For three months of the year I sleep in the middle of a colony as the Lessser Black-backs and Herring gulls nest among the chimneys of the terrace where I live. I’d love to say you get used to the noise, but you don’t. By the end of July the first clumsy fledgling will have stumbled down among the houses and found itself trapped in my narrow yard from where it has to be guided out through the back gate and into the lane while the adults do their best to strafe me into submission. So I have skin in the game.

Mediterranean Gull trying to look inconspicuous

I’ve even learned to identify – given good views and long enough – a Mediterranean Gull. So I was feeling smug when I photographed one in a line up of Black Headed Gulls on the Gorleston promenade. I was smugger still when I realised by enlarging the photo I could read the ring on its leg. Here was my chance to contribute to science and at the same time put some detail on the random movements of the ocean wanderers I saw every day. I turned to the internet and started researching. During the course of the next few days I discovered a good deal about the ringing process, the coloured rings and codes. I spoke to ringing groups up and down the country – who all seemed pleased to hear from me but invariably came back with no, not one of ours, why don’t you try Nick (or Dave or Will) it’s probably one of his. It took almost a month, but I eventually found the right person and discovered where the bird (I had by now begun to think of it as my, own personal Mediterraean Gull) had been ringed. Great Yarmouth. About 200 yards from where I photographed it perched on a handrail. It may have been recuperating after its arduous journey.


Sparrows are the loose change of the birding world. Unremarked and undervalued they gather in the neglected pockets of our townscape where their busy lives attract little notice. Yet this spring they have given me more pleasure than almost any other bird.

The yard outside my kitchen window is part of the well between two rows of terraced houses. Beyond the fence is a confusion of alleyways, lean-tos and flat roofed sheds. From upstairs you can see the Ivy that has swallowed the asbestos roof of a neighbouring  outbuilding; Elder has found purchase in a crack in the concrete by some bins next door and produced a stunted tree that in May and June puts out a creamy froth of flowers. A Hop has scrambled from an abandoned garden further down and run riot over the expanse of a corrugated bin store. Gulls stare down into this urban valley from the rooftops. From first light the joyous chirruping of Sparrows fills the space. 

House Sparrows are red-listed birds. According to the BTO their numbers have declined by over 70% since the 1970s.  Much of this can be put down to loss of habitat. Today – like typhoid, unemployment, and drug-dealing – they tend to thrive in areas of social deprivation. They love unkempt gardens that are strangers to pesticides. Undulating clay pan-tiles that offer access to roof spaces. Cracked concrete where rainwater gathers and weeds and invertebrates thrive. Unmodernised run-down buildings are prime sparrow real-estate. Redevelopment is all too often their nemesis. Building regulations usher in plastic mesh to keep them out of the eaves. Roofs are dressed with modern interlocking tiles, which offer no access. Weed filled gardens become sterile patios. The inevitable result is that gentrification deprives them of their traditional nesting sites just as surely as neglect offered them a home.

Sparrows are never still. More than any other bird they seem to bustle. The females are slim and agile. The males, despite their diminutive size, have an almost matronly heft. They shoulder their way in and out of the guttering with all the purpose of Hattie Jaques arriving on the ward. They are the comic turns of lockdown, wheeled on to keep the audience happy before the main event.

My own sparrows share the yard with a pair of Dunnock, who were sparrows once – Hedge Sparrows – but after a name change are sparrows no longer. Dunnock are promiscuous birds. They lower the tone like a couple of swingers at a family barbecue. What passes for Dunnock foreplay involves the male pecking at the female’s cloacal opening trying to encourage her to eject any sperm left by a previous amorous male. When he’s satisfied at last his leap onto her is so ungainly that it sometimes leaves him flat on his back. A moment of pure carry-on comedy to follow the sordid preparation.

Inevitably the birding world tends to favour the rare and the exotic, the vagrants from distant lands, the megas. Sparrows don’t really cut it in this company. But the Sparrows don’t give a toss. They’ve got things to do. Nests to build, young to rear, seeds to find. They are the cheery, round-shouldered ambassadors of Here. Sparrows are a reminder that you don’t have to dash up to Fair Isle to see a doomed Desert Wheatear to feel your world enlarged.  Instead you could just pull up a chair near the open back door, pour yourself a glass of wine, and soak up their joyful celebration of the everyday.

The Sparrowhawk’s Lesson

It’s the the end of an unremarkable day. You’ve spent the last few hours in the open enjoying the sights and sounds of the natural world. Your thoughts are starting to drift towards the cold beer that’s sitting in the fridge at home. You turn a corner and there in front of you is something that stops you in your tracks. A Sparrowhawk mantling its prey. Or a Tawny Owl watching you from a dead branch almost within touching distance. A Fox, facing you on the path. Suddenly you are looking into the eyes of a wild animal and everything stops.

It doesn’t happen every time you go out. But when it does, if you pay attention, it can tell you why you are here.

The Sparrowhawk is fully engaged in the mundane task of killing. We can’t know what is going on behind those yellow eyes. We have no privileged access to the bird’s psychology. But there are things we do know. We know the bird isn’t worrying about its reputation, whether or not we admire him, whether he’s a good husband or lover or hunter, whether he should have turned left rather than right when he left the roost that morning, whether losing that starling to a blundering rabbit is something he’ll ever get over. Instead the bird is fully occupied with the urgent business of being. Like all wildlife the bird exists in a perpetual now. What matters for us is that the instant we exchange glances the encounter hauls us out of the narrative of our daily lives and into the crucible of this shared present.

It’s not the murderous act that gives the encounter meaning. It is there too in the quiet pulse that passes between you and the fox, the moment each of you is seen by the other.

A moment like this is its own destination. Nothing further is required – either of you or the animal. It is utterly complete. This is entirely unlike the rest of our experience which is invariably coloured by the narrative noise in our own heads. The endless often mindless commentary, the time spent ruminating on the past, or worrying about the future.

All of our brain’s chatter, in a moment, stilled. This is what the glance can teach us. The message it has for us is always the same, always urgent, always important. It’s something we know but have to learn over and over again.

Here, it’s saying , Now.


Breydon – special delivery

P1000621 crop

The voice of the reeds has changed since pre-lockdown days.  On my last visit in early March it was a dry, papery susurration as the wind moved through the lifeless stems.  The dead architecture of the phragmytes was vacant and drained of colour except for the odd Reed Bunting clambering about like a janitor in an abandoned building.

But today everything has changed.  The bright green re-growth is visible and the whole swaying tenement is alive with Reed and Sedge Warblers.  Every few paces a bird is noisily proclaiming its territory.   Whitethroats in the bushes add to the cacophony.  There’s something lapidary in all this bird song. It’s too substantial to be just moving air.  Pebbles and bright shining coins are being tumbled together in the reeds.

P1000633 crop
Reed Warbler

On the water side of the raised bank that makes up the south wall a small party of Whimbrel – the Seven-Whistlers – are working away at the water line.  They’ve dropped in on their way out of Africa heading north. Tomorrow or the next day or the day after that they’ll be gone making for their breeding grounds in the Arctic tundra, whistling as they go. Out on the water an Egyptian Goose is doing its donkey impression, braying asthmatically. Shelduck and Avocet and Redshank are busy in the wet mud revealed by the retreating tide.

On Fisher’s Marsh a pair of Marsh Harriers wheel over the reedbeds .  A  number of pairs nest along the south wall, dividing up the territories much as the warblers do. As the air warms Wall Brown butterflies appear on the path. A cuckoo starts up in the trees behind Church Farm Marshes. Moments later a second joins in from across the water.

And then a sudden flash of yellow on the slub piled up from the drainage ditches. A pair of yellow wagtails flickering across the drying spoil. Their colour is astonishing. As if the yellow mustard that grows in drifts here, has been distilled and poured into a bird.

P1000694 crop
Yellow Wagtail

I found myself laughing out loud at this unexpected lockdown gift, the sheer Maytime excess of it all.  Instead of spring creeping up with the slowly lengthening days, marking its approach with the first migrants, and the slow warming of the air, suddenly here is was all at once, the whole delicious kit and caboodle delivered at my feet.

One Spring, guv’nor. Sign here.


Lockdown. Day 31

P1000289 (1)

By 9.30 the sun has levered itself above the school next door but it is still cool in the garden. A blackbird is singing somewhere out of sight. It sounds relaxed and conversational with none of the urgency of it’s 4.30 wake-up call. The euphorbia, backlit by the sun, looks as if it’s been gilded. 

There’s a peacock butterfly on the coiled hose on the lawn. It probably overwintered in the tool shed along with the mower and the rusting spade. Goldfinches are chipping away in the flowering plum. We have bluetits in the nest box on the silver birch. Honey fungus is killing the tree from its extremities. The top is bare of leaves. There are dead branches in the emerging green outlined against the creamy backdrop of the whitebeam. This too is under threat and leans precariously over the lawn. Later we will sling the hammock between their compromised trunks.

K is busy tying straw into a mini bale to drop into the cloudy pond. Her industry is a reproach to my idleness.

But I’m busy too. I am waiting for the swifts.

News v Writing. Daily life in a changed world

In the middle of January, I embarked on an experimental news diet.  In the early days of the new decade it seemed a perfectly reasonable thing to do.  Back then, it seemed possible to step back from the 24 hour news cycle and the promptings of Twitter in an attempt to avoid the time-sink – not to mention the probable rewiring of the brain – that following it seemed to involve. The arrival of Covid-19 has changed everything. We have entered a world of lock-down where knowing what is happening in the world beyond our front door can be for some a matter of life and death.  The emerging pandemic promptly  ushered in a bewildering round of briefings, comparative charts, and mortality figures that are a daily and even hourly reminder of the urgency of the situation we find ourselves in.  The calls on our attention are even more clamorous than before and there is the nagging feeling that following the daily twists and turns of the corona narrative is somehow our civic duty. So has the central argument about following the news changed? Or is the attempt to wrest our lives back from the damaging effects of monitoring the constant stream of new information as relevant as ever?

I can divide my time since early January into pre- and post-Corona.  In the pre-Corona period, or The World As We Used To Know It, the effects of the news diet were  almost entirely beneficial. My periods at the desk, particularly in the morning, were immediately more productive. I got there earlier, and I got there with a clear head. Finding the space where the writing happens is a constant battle. To simply begin can be the hardest thing in the world. And without the constant information upload it had become easier.  The experience  was akin to putting on a pair of noise-cancelling headphones to cut out distracting sounds. The only difference was that the noise suppression seemed to have happened internally.

I had been on the point of starting a new play. What surprised me was that I started two. When the first slowed , I turned to the second.  I was reading more. In the extra time that had appeared in my day I was actively listening to much more music. My screen time – at least on the phone and the ipad – dropped from an hour or more to minutes. My time with my partner was more rewarding. My world might have contracted but it was richer and I felt more a part of it. I was sure as I could be that whatever happened I would be unlikely to go back to my old habits.

And then Corona arrived.

First slowly, then abruptly, life changed. I found myself in a world where something as mundane as going to the shops needed a carefully executed plan.  The virus was proving so contagious that even the government’s team assembled to deal with the pandemic came down with it. Within days the Prime Minister was in intensive care.  Contacts with friends moved online. Zoom and Facetime replaced real life contact as the infection spread through the community. In the empty streets joggers gave each other a wide berth. Nor are the changes happening on a local scale. The pandemic is wreaking havoc world wide. The death toll could reach a million. And  bizarrely, in the street outside, a man is pollarding limes in a front garden.

This is not normal.  Or rather this state of affairs has become the new normal.

So – inevitably – the news diet was an early casualty. Once again The Guardian live feed was open on my desktop, so too was my Twitter feed. The daily 4.30 briefing found me in front of the tv. Life became noisy again. For a few days work at the desk carried on. It was a little less satisfying and my grip on the project I was working on slipped. It was harder to hold things together on the page. And then, also inevitably, it all got away from me. Writing stopped.

I dug a pond. I made mesh covers for the raised beds. I planted lettuces. I baked bread. I photographed a buzzard in the empty sky over the house. But on the play – nothing.

So as the lock-down drags on the obvious question becomes: can I take the lessons learned from the pre-corona days into the changed world of today and start writing again?

Of course the idea of a news diet never did mean closing my eyes to what’s going on in the outside world. It was the constant moment by moment distraction of the feeds that I was trying to cut out. So to make life more productive again I know what I have to do. I have to close the news channels and Twitter on my desktop. I have to let them do the 4.30 briefing without me. By limiting my exposure to the current crisis to a once a day catch-up I ought to be able to both stay abreast of developments and get back to work. Or at least that’s the theory.

Ok. Let’s try that.



Here is the News

Each week on a Sunday I get a message on my iphone (and another on my ipad).  It tells my my Screen Time has gone up or down this week by a number of percentage points. The time itself varies but is never less than an hour a day. Sometimes it’s a good deal more.  I usually dismiss this as unimportant. It’s where I read the news, which is just like reading the paper, and check Twitter. I don’t have Facebook or Instagram or any other social media so I don’t consider myself in thrall to this stuff.

I begin the day with the Guardian over breakfast. I’ll read the main news stories and any article that grabs my attention. Then I’ll check Twitter to catch up on the people I follow. Only when that’s done do I find my way to the desk and start work. This seems harmless enough but by this time I open the computer I will already have engaged with more than 50 different items. News stories, a bit of audio attached to a report, an opinion piece by someone I will almost certainly agree with, videos of earthquakes in Indonesia, a fire in the Australian bush, a cuddly dugong calf. There will be hyperlinks to click through to other linked stories or images I might save for later.

What all these things have in common is that by the afternoon I won’t be able to recall more than about 5% of them and by tomorrow or the next day that proportion will be so small as to be insignificant. Yesterday’s news is a dead thing. But it doesn’t matter because the redundant information will have been displaced by fresh information and so on, over and over. The 24hour news cycle ensures that this refresh is available – and clamouring for our attention – every hour of every day.

It’s not as if the news I consume can be taken at face value. I go to what I consider a reliable source (but then so do readers of the Daily Mail and Fox News). But in today’s media landscape the main purpose of much of the news is to deliver eyeballs. Even on reputable news sites a dramatic video will trump serious analysis 9 times out of 10.  It’s becoming harder to separate news from advertising. From news which is not news at all but is entirely fake. The most egregious crap leaks into the mainstream media because of the pressure to be first. Publish first, check later. More significantly most of it does not impinge on my life at all.  The news delivers nothing but unease about things I have no control over and can do nothing about.

If then all this news and other ephemeral digital content doesn’t actually contribute anything to my life then it would wise to question the hour day I’m giving over to it. But it’s worse than this. Given what we know about the plasticity of the brain this constant and repeated short-term engagement it’s clear that the effect will be to bring about physiological changes. The brain will be rewiring itself to handle this deluge of stuff. And in the process it will make it more difficult to engage with information on a deeper level. Out concentration spans are being reshaped. Which is why people argue they find it difficult to read a novel or to engage in anything that involves concentrated attention.

So that’s two strikes against my harmless online routine.

But let’s go back to our original observation that I am giving over an hour a day to an activity which might actually be harmful and do some sums. It’s easy to dismiss an hour a day. But over the course of a month it adds up to 30 hours. That’s  2 1/2 twelve-hour days. Over the course of a year it means that I am giving an entire month (weekends included) of twelve-hour days to Twitter and the papers. Over a decade I am giving almost an entire year to my devices. And this on a very modest estimate of my daily screen time. It might easily be double this. Imagine that. Imagine someone saying the next decade is going to fantastic for you – except 2028 and 2029 because you’re going to spend those two years in a room looking at your phone.

This is not an original observation. It was brought on by reading Rolf Dobelli’s book Stop Reading the News. For the next month I’m taking his advice and running an experiment. I’ve removed all the news apps and Twitter from my devices. I’m going cold turkey.



5th December. A bright crystalline morning on Breydon. The boardwalk white with frost. A flock of bearded tits seemed to track me as I walked under the Roman Wall. Low tide and the mud hosting godwit and curlew, redshank and shelduck. A sizeable flight of pinkfeet in full cry coming in over Halvergate Marshes and wheeling overhead before dropping out of sight. On mornings like this there’s nowhere I’d rather be.

The first of the marsh harriers appeared on the far bank across the Narrows. It was wing tagged, but I couldn’t read the marking as it rose and fell out of sight behind the raised banking of the North Wall. Almost at once I spotted a second bird inland working the drainage dykes. They are an airborne contradiction, these harriers. One moment a model of elegance gliding above the reeds; the next they’ve turned into a bundle of rags on two sticks as they lever themselves into the thin air over a dyke.  Their hunting flight seems lazy and haphazard. A few slow wingbeats, a level glide then that untidy climb from the wet ground. In a few weeks they’ll be carrying nesting material, trailing lengths of phragmites longer than their wingspan into the reed bed.

John B. monitors the nests on Breydon and tags the young birds before they fledge. He knows the individual harriers by sight. Walking the bank with him is to see a whole new world open up. A couple of years ago I watched a harrier drop onto a nest in the middle of a reedbed by the pumping station. Wedging my back against a gatepost on the track I pulled out my iphone, fired up the compass and took an accurate bearing on the spot.  A few days later I found John on the path and smugly showed him the phone. He seemed genuinely interested. He listened politely, admired the technology. Then he reached into his own pocket. This is what I use, he said.

He brought out a notebook he’d bound himself. Each double page spread was dedicated to a single nest. Each contained a fine drawing of the nesting birds highlighting the plumage that would identify them. Next to them what started as a map of the flat terrain  morphed into a line drawing of bank features and the skyline. A cartographic hybrid which managed to locate precisely individual nests and their occupants in the flat and featureless landscape of Breydon. It was breathtakingly beautiful. He makes one each year. Taken together they would make an astonishing archive of Breydon’s harriers.