The hard art of listening

We all have those friends, family members, colleagues. The ones who say “You know you can always talk to me”. Some of them follow this up with the bonus information that they are “a really good listener”.

And so you give it a try. You take them up on their offer – and what happens? You barely get to the end of your first sentence and they jump in immediately with their thoughts, views, opinions, their perceptions of what’s wrong, what you should do, say, think and feel. They are so anxious to provide you with the solution to all your problems that they become another one of them.

They are in fact, terrible listeners. If by chance you do manage to get a few lines out, they are sitting poised, coiled like the proverbial spring, willing you to stop talking so they can launch themselves at you. In this state they have actually ceased listening long ago and are merely waiting impatiently for you to complete your lines so they can fill the air again.

The worst offenders are the ones who use the smallest detail from your tale as a trigger to offload their own issues. And their problems are always bigger than yours, so don’t even try to get things back on track. Just excuse yourself as politely as you can and quickly as you can.

A word to the unwise – shut up. Stop talking. That’s the very least you can do. People that need to talk very often don’t always express themselves well. The running commentary in someone’s head that they have played over and over will habitually come out blurted, in a clumsy fashion and be as much of a shock to the person as anyone listening. But – it loses its power when said out loud.  Encouraging looks amid silence help to relax them into the sensation of talking out loud. Some call it active listening.

By getting used to actually giving voice to the things that have been bothering them, those tensions can be seen for what they are. A downward dialogue that deals despondency, but which shrinks – and with a bit of luck – evaporates on the outside. Maybe not first time; walls of sufferance are built over time and will not always be blown away instantly.

Very often too, the first statement is testing the water. Most people will not dive in with the biggest and baddest millstone they are carrying. A tentative opening line that is crushed by the oncoming juggernaut of a non-listener will guarantee the end of that discourse. Learning to listen well involves patience and self-restraint. If you really care about the person, that’s something you will rise to.

Listening requires you to stop processing incoming information with a view to responding. You don’t need to solve the problem for them. You don’t need to answer straight away. You often don’t need to answer at all. Therapies involving animals (dogs and cats typically) where people offload and what they get back is unrivalled attention a lick and waggy tail – do wonders. I don’t recommend people do this unless you know the other person very well…

I was on a train on the way back from London recently and overheard a valiant attempt at a pep talk. (I don’t habitually listen in to other people’s conversations, but when they are conducted loud enough for the whole carriage to hear, they’re fair game).

The lady on the receiving end of the pep talk was on the retreat almost from the get-go. She was reduced to ‘Yeah…yeah…uh-huh…oh yeah’ by the torrent of life changing observations from her companion. Eventually, her well-meaning friend was surprised she was getting off before their usual stop. The hastily concocted reason was grocery shopping. As she stepped off the friend said “Call me – call me – you promise?” It was an order, not a request.

I’m pretty sure that most times, the rubbish listeners are good people with good intentions. And they’d probably be affronted by any suggestion they were doing anything but trying to help. But they’re not helping. They really. Are. Not.

So if your pal is a bad listener, I guess you have three choices:

  1. Find a better listener to be your listening pal
  2. Tell your erstwhile pal to give you a good listening to for a change
  3. Do (1) but keep some minor titbits for your bad listening pal to chew over. After all, you don’t want to lose a friend completely, do you?

This blog was written in beautiful isolation. Now back to the maddening crowd…

Your servant


The youth of today…

I remember being the youth of today (yes, my memory is that good).

Having big dreams and ambitions but no money to fulfil them. Not being taken seriously by anyone over 30 as you didn’t look or sound the part. Being told you would learn what life was really about when you:

  • Had a mortgage
  • Had your own children
  • Had to pay taxes

What a crushing verdict and dispiriting message to receive. This, from people who despite believing they’d figured life out, didn’t seem particularly happy themselves. And not much has changed.

The cries of ‘what’s wrong with youth of today’ seem to be a never-ending echo down the generations. A kind of spiteful torch handed down as soon as the youthful zeal gives way to middle aged envy, regret and misery. It really isn’t their fault that your life turned out less than you’d hoped for you know.

The youth of today are pretty much the same as the youth of any generation since the war. Largely bright, kind and idealistic – with insecurities, a need to belong as well as a need to be different. Socially awkward, frustrated by the demands to remain a sweet child, yet grow up at the same time.

What gives particular ammunition and relish to the moaning middle-agers and the grey brigade of whinging pensioners are the tales of the nasty ones. Muggings, drugs, violence and general anti-social behaviour. These are seized upon and extrapolated to demonstrate what our young society has become.

And I agree. Some of these little blighters have never trodden the straight and narrow since they could walk. Give them help, support and every opportunity to turn it around. If all fails, get them off the streets.

But for the sake of sanity – remember they remain a small (but highly visible) minority. Putting them on the front pages, the top of headlines and the main topic of conversation simply exaggerates the problem and annoys the majority of good apples in the basket. Not forgetting that most of the low lives that pollute our society are well past their youth.

Our education system lurches from one inadequate posture to another. The rigidity of the war / post-war years, the “progressive” agenda (with alternative spellings for goodness sake!); the ‘everyone gets a prize’ anti-competition stance. Now we have the narrow, statistically-driven approach. Standard inputs designed to achieve standard outputs: University freshers, regular workforce fodder and those who will “never amount to much”.

The model consists mainly of cramming young skulls with retrievable facts. Exams as memory tests. League table results and monetary gain are the evidence of success. Thomas Gradgrind would be very proud.

It has to be said that the downbeat drums driving discontent among the young have grown over the years. I felt some pressure when studying for final exams at school, but nobody was pointing a spotlight on the scores like today. A top club replica football kit was pricy for my parents, but not the cost of a night out in London. And where bullying and intimidation in the playground or college could be left behind when you got home, now they can get you at every angle on your phone. The topics may be similar, but they have been amplified somewhat. Good for those level-headed enough to cope and/or with supportive families, but the transition is tough on those without.

The thing that threatens a teacup at the telly most is when our politicians start talking about ‘young people’. The drivel the spew out about the “importance of our young people” – “we want to look after our young people” – “it’s their future” and other tripe served up to make them appear concerned, tuned in and dedicated.

How is it that young people are more important than people of any other age? As well as being patronising in the extreme, it’s insidious targeting of parents and grandparents, rather than the yoof vote. We care as much about your kids as you do, so vote for us. If you believe that, you deserve everything you get from Westminster! Look where the money is invested, not the weasel words.

So what about the youth of today? Are they any better or worse than we were? Does something ‘need to be done’? Are we facing a crisis in the moral fibre and fabric of our society?

Well, no. I work with plenty of under 25s and don’t fear for my life, sanity or lunch money. I’m blessed with family and close friends of the same range and they’re as lovely and trustworthy as any of my peers.

In short, the biggest problem with the youth of today is the same as the biggest problem was many years ago – the rest of us. The demands, expectations, condescension and exasperation put a huge burden on them.

Yes, they can be annoying, capricious, contradictory and make you mad. You know what? So can I. And the same is true of plenty of 30-90 year olds. No generation has a monopoly on good or bad behaviour.

I’m just going to remember what an alternately charming little gent and irritating little turd I must have been from time to time. I seem to have turned out OK (others will have to ratify this). And the same will probably be true of most of our ‘young people’ today too.

Your servant


Here is the news (*Spoilers* none of it is good…)


Isn’t it terrible? I don’t know what the world’s coming to. So many awful things happening. It makes you wonder where it’s going to end.

I hear this all the time from so many people, reacting to the daily diet of news served up.

Watch the TV news, check the news websites, read the printed newspapers and you will be greeted by a relentless, unending slew of wall-to-wall tragedy, death, destruction, mayhem and misery.

There are of course terrible things that happen – and yes, we do need to be aware of the worst events and aspects of life. But when was the last time you saw more than one item of good news in amongst the daily diet of disaster?

The policy of “if it bleeds, it leads” gives a disproportionate impression of the world that we occupy. I very often hear people saying they have “given up on watching the news” or they don’t read news sites or newspapers any more. That is a dreadful state of affairs, as the incumbent power and money merchants rely on laziness and ignorance on our part to keep them in the style that they are accustomed.

Those that keep watching include a large population of viewers and readers scared stiff into staying quiet and buying more weapons, home security – and most critically – clinging to the ones that scared them in the first place. First you frighten them, then you take their money by providing the kit and tools they believe will keep them safe. Brilliant.

Of course if you suggest that the news served up is unbalanced, the media types respond automatically with the hysterical claim that you are somehow advocating a “Soviet style censored and good news-only agenda”. Nonsense. What we’d actually appreciate is a bit of balance.

To illustrate the point, a genuine reflection of reality in a news bulletin would sound something like this:

“Good evening, here is the news. Today in Nottingham, nothing happened. Hundreds of thousands of people went about their business and nothing bad occurred. The same was true in Bristol, Cardiff, Edinburgh and 3,278 towns and cities around the country. In Cornwall, 99.9987% of the population also had an uneventful day, getting up, having breakfast, going to work and coming home to watch the telly. One person was badly injured in a mugging incident which left them in hospital. If you check the other news channels, that last story is the only one they will be covering…”

Of course, nobody would watch it. Because it’s boring. But that’s largely what day-to-day reality is like. Nothing much out of the ordinary happens. What did you do last Tuesday? Unless you had a special occasion, you probably can’t remember. Neither can I.

So – do we let this happen? Do we actively feed the monster of ever-more salacious bad news? Or are we victims of a closed shop of negative news cartels? It could be argued that if we didn’t watch, read or buy the media output then they’d have to change. But in reality how feasible is that?

In theory the internet should bring ever-more diverse means by which to keep ourselves informed. Unfortunately, that stretches both ways. Any idiot with an agenda can set up and propagate their own warped view of the world. And who’s got the time or inclination to sift through to find out what is true? Far easier to just flick on the news or check the news apps.

I listen to BBC Radio 4. The perception that R4 remains an objective source of information has been a little shaky, particularly during the Brexit timeline. Interestingly, I’ve read comments accusing the BBC of being biased in both directions. This period has also brought out the worst in bias from the British broadsheet newspapers too. Whereas the “quality press” of the Times, Telegraph and Guardian have never hidden their colours too deeply, the sense of balance has historically at least been nodded at. I don’t get that sense any more.

So what are we to do? Listen to Morrissey, who advises us to “Stop watching the news, because the news contrives to frighten you…’. That feels like giving up. It feels like a surrender of our rights to be kept informed.

I do believe we have an active part to play in this. If the height of our aspiration is to be titivated by Love Island and to be enthralled by X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent, then quite frankly we deserve everything we get. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t watch these shows. They bring fun, entertainment and comfort to millions. I’m saying that we shouldn’t only watch these shows.

Regular readers will know that I’m an optimist. And there are grounds for optimism. Look at Blue Planet 2. The fact that the BBC continues to put money into programming of this nature is fantastic. And the fact that an entire country was galvanised into action over plastic waste was just brilliant.

What we need are those subversive positivity merchants. The ones who infiltrate the cartels to bring the occasions victory of good news. Or bring the angle that something can be done. The kind of things you see in local newspapers, local news channels – before the more talented reporters get whisked off to the global outlets and have that positivity knocked out of them.

What can we directly do? Respond when we see it. Flood the Facebook pages, Twitter feeds and websites with appreciative noises to let them know we read the good stuff, we like the good stuff; we want to see more of the good stuff.

In the meantime I’m off to read the news reports about my beloved Southend Utd’s third defeat in the first three league games of the season. I’m afraid nobody can put much of a positive spin on that one…

Your servant


My passion for walking

Some of my fondest memories as a child growing up in Essex were the family outings on foot. That’s what Sundays were for. Grandparents, uncles and aunts and cousins, we’d all trek off into the woods, along the seafront or round the country lanes. We’d run on ahead, hide and jump out from the hedges, kick stones and show off how high we could leap, how strong we were climbing a tree. Looking back I wonder whether they did it to wear us kids out so we’d be quiet for the evening!

When I moved away, I kept with me that sense of freedom and curiosity that walking brings. It’s the only way to see both the big cities and the local sights wherever you are in the world. Jetting in and out, coach trips and organised tours are fine, but I’ll do that when my legs no longer carry me everywhere.

Many weekends I’d spend pounding the streets of London. Walking from park to park, then as the sun faded, enjoying the thrilling sights, smells and sounds of the nightscape. Getting off the Tube at Tower Hill then walking all along the Embankment through Westminster, up through Leicester Square and finishing at Euston. Wonderful. For contrast, getting right out of the city to really stretch my legs along the thunderous Atlantic coastline of Cornwall, feeling the salty air on my face. It’s those strenuous, bracing moments that you really feel that you are alive. Living in the moment. Stopping. Listening. Breathing in deeply and taking the time to look and relish the views.

When I had the fortune to move aboard, I kept this good habit going. My first weekend in Bangkok found me walking for 6 hours across the city (moving faster than the traffic in some quarters). A friendly construction worker saw me and cheerily offered his flask of ice cold water, seeing me caked in sweat and looking a little bedraggled.

As the months went by, I spent many happy days exploring the countryside outside of the cities. New friends, delighted that I took such an interest in their country happily took me through the fields, mountains and tiny villages. The magnificent Buddhist temples amid the dusty scrublands were grand rewards for our efforts. The sense that I was probably one of only a handful of foreigners that had sat with the families along the trail was very special.

So when it came to escaping the rat race once again back in the noughties for an early mid-life adventure, of course I went on foot. Walking from London to Moscow as part 1 would have been more than enough for most. My timing could have been better. The chilly days and nights of October/November through England, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany gave way to the frozen paths of Poland in December. What was I thinking? As ever though, the worst of conditions afforded me the best of humanity. As the kindness of strangers – inviting me into their homes, giving respite and care helped me along the way to the Kremlin. Dangerous? Yes it can be. Bu there are more good than bad people in this world.

Australia brought the end to the language barrier. Walking by now more than 25 miles per day, I was embraced by the great Aussie spirit of someone ‘having a go’. Even though they are a grand sporting nation that loves to win, the Australians I met were only too happy to support this crazy Pom taking a stroll across their south east territory. The days were dry, the landscape equally so. The long miles I spent walking the lonely highways afforded me spectacular views – and suspiciously lively grass as goodness-knows-what creatures hissed and scrambled around my ankles.

Walking all the way across the United States (LA to New York) was the biggest slice of the walk. And brought me new friends for life as well as some of the most hair raising moments. Walking along the side of the super highways with monster trucks roaring along was pretty scary, but gave the perspective of the vastness of the country. And the contrast of its living standards. You don’t get that sense from 30,000 feet in the air. As I found in the Far East, it’s always the poorest homes that provide the warmest welcomes. People seeing me on TV wanted photos with me, invited me into their homes and were genuinely enthusiastic to support me. I slept on a few couches and got ferried around from start/end positions along the way.

Walking therefore to me is a spiritual experience, as well as good exercise. It gives you time to think. It expends energy that can be either keep you awake or be used to fuel more negative thoughts. When you are putting on foot in front of the other, looking ahead and even the gentlest pace to the strident – it’s using your whole body and is great for the mind and soul. Most of my walks have been alone – and I do enjoy the solitude of a long walk alone. But walking with someone who shares your passion for adventure is great! Best of all would be a dog! But that’s rarely practical on the kind of walks I do.

I was joined by my Dad over the years for the big charity walks. He walked with me from Salisbury to London at the tail end of the global stroll, covering 200 miles with me at the age of 77. I think it’s from him that I inherited the appreciation of walking for pleasure and fulfilment.

More recently I’ve been walking with my dear friend and vlogging partner in crime Lucas. We walked from Prague to Berlin (200+ miles) last year and are about to set off on a 700-mile trek from Berlin to London.

55 days out on the open roads of Europe. And whilst there will once again be a sense of mission about it, I’ll be sure as always to enjoy the sheer joy of simply exploring new places, one step at a time.

(You can follow this new adventure at

Your servant,


Theresa May – sadly, nothing has changed


I did feel a pang of sympathy for Theresa May as her voice broke at the end of her short speech outside Number 10 on Friday.

Many have commented that she saved her tears for herself, rather than Grenfell or various other poor souls affected by tragedy or misfortune. I don’t buy that. Firstly we have no idea what her personal, private reaction to those events was. Secondly if she’d been seen weeping in public frequently, they would have criticised her for that too.

She is that kind of politician. Where the Queen is often said to have never put a foot wrong, Theresa May doesn’t seem to have ever put a foot right. Whatever the opposite of the Midas touch is, she has it.

She would have been hopelessly out of her depth as Prime Minster in the best of times. To be landed with the top job in this ferocious Brexit atmosphere was like asking a Sunday soccer official to referee the World Cup final.

She made some dreadful mistakes. The general election of 2017 was the biggest. She squandered her inherited majority and set herself on the back foot for the rest of her time in office. She was secretive, negotiating over the heads of her delegated ministers and officials. She had no alternative gear, no common touch. Her sense of duty and standards would have been virtues in another age, but her attempts to plug every hole, bridge every gap and bring everyone into line were always doomed to fail.

Theresa May is not a bad person. She just wasn’t a very good prime minister. Just how well the next person shines will show how much was down to her and how much down to the job at this febrile time.

It’s also inescapable how the focus was often made on the fact that she was a woman. Great strides have been made in our society in my lifetime. And the atmosphere is certainly different since our first female prime minister was elected, 40 years ago this month.

But anyone believing that the battles over prejudice towards women, non-white or those from less privileged backgrounds are over, is delusional. Look at the front page photo and headlines comparing Theresa May’s legs with Nicola Sturgeon’s on their first official meeting. This – in 2016!

That patriarchal structure remains. The opportunities available to those of the white, middle class and upwards, male talent pool remain the most glistening cherries in the bowl. Rather like the fashionable posters proclaiming dedication to mental health and the environment, so many organisations provide window dressing with no actual content inside.

‘Positive discrimination’ ‘all women lists’ ‘selection quotas’ are still the grown-up equivalent of free school meals vouchers. Visible measures of tokenism that burn inside the ‘lucky candidates’ who get the unwanted attention of official leg-ups. Please – don’t provide ladders. Just genuinely flatten that playing field!

Anyway – back to Theresa May. She must have had the best night’s sleep for a very long time last night. And she will get to have a swansong, welcoming President Trump on his state visit (saving her successor that awkward gig) as well as the D-Day commemorations. If you begrudge her those last few moments in the final spotlight, then you show how much you truly understand the meanness of spirit she has been accused of.

She will go down as a footnote prime minister. Her odd attempt to affiliate herself with the Cameron-Osborne years which she’d previously wanted to distance herself from was an unworthy move by someone trying to carve out a better legacy.

But her tears showed how much it had meant to her. She tried and failed. And she knew that she had failed. The vicar’s daughter torn betwixt her ambition and her rectitude fell between the two stools, achieving neither. She could have pre-recorded the message and released it. But she stepped out and in a rare moment of openness let the world see there was a beating heart in the ‘Maybot’. Too little and alas, much too late.

There will be time enough to speculate about the next PM and the coming weeks promise much for the Westminster watchers. The European election results due out tonight will provide a steer for the direction of our politics generally, along with our friends on the continent.

And I’ll no doubt have one or two things to say along the way…

Your servant,


[PS – my personal experience of Theresa May was actually a bright memory. She kindly sent my Dad a 90th birthday greeting last year. Of course she didn’t sit and type it herself, but it was personalised to him and hand signed. Thanks for that TM]