Monday 16 March 2015

Fisherfield weekend

My mate Adam and I had an epic weekend in Wester Ross the other day.

The weather forecast from the MWIS was not promising:
Widespread gales on the mountains, the wind often storm force...difficult walking where exposed even at fairly low levels; any mobility tortuous on some higher areas. Severe wind chill...Incessant rain, often torrential western areas south of Ullapool [exactly where we were going!], and snowmelt making it very wet underfoot with water courses in spate; extensive flooding...blanket very low cloud
After a last minute panic involving boots - Fedex delivered my newly resoled boots from LSR only a couple of hours before our flight - we hopped on the Easyjet Friday evening flight to Inverness. Omens for the weekend were not good when we hit very windy conditions on the descent. We were only a few feet from the ground when the plane suddenly climbed again - the pilot decided to do a go-around as it wasn't safe to land. With thoughts of ending up in Aberdeen or Glasgow in our minds we hoped for the best and there was a round of applause as we got down at the second attempt. The late night drive via the A9, A835 and A832 took us through apocalyptic weather - the rain tore down and the wind did its best to throw us off the road. Not promising.

We had had a late panic about gas, having only remembered at the last minute that pressurised canisters can't be taken on flights, and that we would be arriving in Inverness long past closing time. Gordon at Craigdon Mountain Sports was brilliantly helpful and the casual observer might well have wondered why a bloke was rooting around in the Craigdon bins late at night. Thanks to Gordon, we were fully equipped and avoided a trip to Ullapool the next morning.

Rather than camp by the roadside we stayed the night in the Sail Mhor Croft Hostel at Camusnagaul, a mile or two past Dundonnell. It was a really nice place and we had some brief conversations in the morning with other people staying there - the weather had not been good.

Our initial plan had been to tackle An Teallach from Dundonnell, but rather than doing the ridge, to drop straight down from Sgurr Fiona to Loch na Sealga, cross the Strath na Sealga and continue via Gleann na Muice and Gleann na Muice Beag, Ruadh Stac Beag and Lochan a Braghad to Ruadh Stac Mor and then round Fisherfield anticlockwise, with a camp either at Lochan a Braghad or hopefully after A'Mhaighdean if we were going well. However, given the conditions it was clear that we would have to massively downgrade our expectations and ambitions - not least because the Strath na Sealga would clearly be impossible to cross. With appalling visibility on high ground, we decided not to bother doing An Teallach with no prospect of a view, so instead we made a leisurely start, parked up at Corrie Hallie and trudged up Gleann Chaorachain. Instantly we became apparent of the water levels; the stream was a raging torrent and the waterfall was spectacular. Indeed the footbridge across the stream higher up was nearly submerged. We wandered off the path for a vew of the Toll an Lochain and then realised that having decided against An Teallach, our options were fairly limited, as we would be blocked in by the rivers. The rain was heavy though not torrential, but it was certainly incessant and feeling miserable we decided to head for Shenavall bothy to have some lunch and discuss options.

Shenavall is a lovely bothy in superb condition. We got a fire going and attempted to dry out somewhat, had an extended lunch and then wondered about what to do. A look at the river told us straight away that crossing it in these conditions was out of the question. It was several feet above normal - trees were nearly submerged - and we would be swept away instantly. We retreated back to the bothy for another cup of tea and to watch the red deer just outside the window. A large raptor soared above the cliff. Golden eagle? Probably a bit small and a bit flappy, but certainly a possibility.

Deciding against An Teallach once and for all in these conditions, we decided to push on up the Strath na Sealga, staying on the east side of the river, to make some progress at the very least, scoping out our options. The plan was to get up toe the wood (089790), pitch camp and perhaps strike out sans baggage for a bit of a walk, or even lug the tent and try and get onto some higher ground, so that at least we'd have less to do the following day. Our worry was that we could see the stream coming down off Am Fireach and the waterfall was looking very bloated - we were somewhat worried that we might not be able to get across it without climbing right above it.

In the end it was even worse. In appalling conditions we made our way at a slow pace along the strath, but in fact our progress was halted even earlier; the stream at Achneigie proved impossible to cross - the ford was dangerously high. Without a second thought and in a foul mood we turned around with our tails between our legs and headed back to the bothy. At this point I realised that my camera was kaput - I'd had it in its case inside the pocket of my waterproof jacket and it was soaked. My bad for not putting it in a drybag first. No permanent damage done, but it refused to work for the rest of the trip and our photographic record is unfortunately minimal.

Sunday morning awoke brighter. We got going about 8am and with An Teallach in mind we decided to take a quick look at the river on the off chance that it might be crossable. To our astonishment the water level had declined dramatically and we decided to give it a go. Boots and socks off, trousers off, and a lot of Dutch courage was necessary. The water was only just above freezing and gave a burning sensation. I had bought a cheap pair of plastic "crocs" type sandals in Shoe Zone just for this purpose but in the end we had left them in the car. I bitterly regretted my mistake as the stony ground proved far more painful to my feet than the cold. Adam's walking poles proved invaluable as it was hard to stand in places - the current was still strong. Falling in wouldn't be a joke - OK the river would only take you a few hundred metres down to the loch, but with packs on our backs and near-freezing temperatures meant that it would be life-threatening. The crossing was just about bearable though and after drying off wet feet, socks and boots straight back on, a hot cross bun and getting away quickly and it wasn't too bad.

We then had to slog through the huge bog between the two rivers before turning up Gleann na Muice. The crossing of Abhainn Gleann na Muice was probably objectively more difficult, but at least this time our bodies knew what to expect and the recovery time was even quicker.

The twin peaks directly across the river look like they should host some sort of dwarf kingdom:

We turned up Gleann na Muice Beag but rather than following the path beside the burn we decided to head straight up the steep slope of Creag Mhor a'Bhinnein. At this point our strengths and weaknesses became apparent. We both have our naive side (in slightly different ways) but are both reasonably intelligent and reasonably sensible (though our friends would beg to differ); while I've got decent kit (all the gear, no idea) Adam had inadequate kit; but while Adam does a lot of exercise, my fitness isn't what it should be and I found myself lagging behind. Badly.

Don't look down. Don't look up, for that matter, you'll only depress yourself. How far ahead is he? How long will that take for me to catch up?2 minutes? 5? He'll have to twiddle his thumbs in that time. How many hours will be wasted today because of my lack of fitness? How many missed Munros will that translate into? A stumble. Fuck. Not concentrating. That's jarred my thigh and taken even more wind out of me. Come on Eoghan. Concentrate. One leg in front of the other. Adjust clothing for conditions, keep plodding, don't stop, you know stopping doesn't do anything apart from lose time. A desperate sip at water. Too cold! Now I'm gasping for air, rhythm all gone, now I'm reaching for a snack. Sugar and everything I eat is a bit of weight off my back. Placebo effect really. Interminable. When will this ever end. Come on Eoghan. Go for the big boulders, then you can legitimately use handholds to pull you up. Why do I never, ever, ever learn, why don't I actually do some serious cardio work instead of swanning up with fitter mates and talk big man's talk about swatting a load of big hills in a day and then disintegrating on the first climb. I'm disintegrating now.

Adam was moving well and kept forging ahead. As the conditions closed in I started to curse him for going too far ahead - what if we lose each other - as well as myself for not keeping up. Finally, with a decent height climb done we reached a beallach. There was a smallish top in the way - we coud go either to the left or the right. Adam galloped off downhill to the left, me soon falling behind again.

"Bear right" I mouthed at him, then shouted. Don't we need to be heading up at some point or there'll be a lot of height to climb? No time to check the map, I need to try and keep up. Go right, for Christ's sake. He's stopped. He's waiting for me. There's a sheepish look on his face. "Gross navigational error" he says. We retrace our steps and pull our way back up the glen having lost an hour.

No harm done and soon we were above the snow line and looking at the twin Lochan a Braghad. Crampons inexpertly fitted and we set off up Ruadh Stac Mor. Neither of us had much experience with crampons or ice axes but the ascent wasn't too bad. Plod, plod, plod, steepish ground but with a side-on and slightly diagonal approach it wasn't too bad - occasional boulder fields getting in the way. At one point I stopped to change my ice axe into the other hand; I put my sunglasses between my teeth for a minute, only to look down and realise that the lenses had fallen out. I knew they couldn't be far away at all but couldn't see them straight away, and as I was on a pretty steep bit of terrain at the time I felt it might be unsafe to start faffing around looking for them, so had to let them go.

Lochan a' Braghad
We hit the summit of Ruadh Stac Mor - decent views but we were significantly behind schedule now and needed to push on quickly to get to the top of A' Mhaighdean and down off the high ground to find somewhere to camp before it got dark; it was now mid-afternoon. The first question was how to descend from Ruadh Stac Mor. The most direct route was a big scramble down. Tired, with heavy packs and in full winter conditions, I vetoed this idea quickly. The alternative was a very log way around with quite a bit of height loss that would have to be regained. Adam suggested that he's seen a possible line down if we started by dropping down to the north from the summit before turning west.

The descent was tough. Small boulders littered about 60% of the slope which made crampons no fun at all, but they were still necessary for the snow sections - the snow was hard enough that getting down it would be near impossible without them. One section was extremely steep.

Take your time, Eoghan. Get off safely and comfortably. Safely and comfortably. One foot at a time. Don't trip over your own feet at any rate. How many bloody boulders? Hate crampons on this...hate them....hate them. Ice axe adds nothing here. Should we have done this? Oh Jesus. This section is very, very steep. OK. It needs to be done. What's the best way to do this? Ankle muscles flexed to the max, lean back, backside out, head straight down the slope. Both hands on the ice axe ready for a self arrest. One foot in. The next foot...won't bite. The slope is so steep that gravity isn't on my side and the points just won't go in. I'm going to have to make a firmer step. That means goose-stepping with all my weight on one foot and my arse in the air. I splat my foot down as hard as it'll go. That bites. OK. Next step. This time I start to slip, can't get into the snow properly, axe shaft plunged in for balance, a temporary solution. Get your balance. Hyperventilating. No way back, Adam has already danced down this section so it should be doable. Breathe. Relax. Heart racing. Talking to myself. Get a grip. Be professional, be safe, technique. Another step, gingerly. Another step, another slip, this time I'm wanting to sit down and slide down but that would be lethal. Get myself sideways onto the boulders to one side, a temporary solution. Come down facing the slope? No, get on with it. The goose stepping feels unnatural and dangerous. Bitterly regretting this being the section to practise winter skills on. A TV screen flashes up in front of my eyes. There's a spokesman from Mountain Rescue on it - he's saying "Walkers need to ensure that they don't get out of their depth by having the wrong equipment or not knowing how to use it, or getting themselves onto dangerous terrain without having proper respect for the conditions." Will the camera pan to an image of a bloke with a broken leg eating a banana and grinning sheepishly, or to a bloke zipped up in a black plastic bag? FOR CHRIST'S SAKE EOGHAN, stop bloody whimpering. Twisted fantasies won't help you here. My wife flashes up in front of my eyes, she's calling me "Doodles" over and over again - she does this when she's worried about me. I start practising what I'll say to Adam at the bottom. "Sorry, mate. When I get tired I get clumsy and when I get clumsy I get nervous, so I ended up way outside my comfort zone." I say this out loud, over and over again, until it sounds bland and the wobble in my voice goes. I probably say it thirty times out loud. Another breather, another few steps and I'm off the steep ice. The boulders come as a relief in some ways, but they make choosing foot position even more important and my legs are shaking. Keep going, Eoghan. Keep going.

I've no idea how long it took me to get off that slope but I was in pieces. Vowing to get some winter skills practice in, I kept going from the beallach at the bottom and the plod up A' Mhaighdean was out of this world - featureless snowfields - we could be on the moon. The eastern slope to the summit is gentle and while I was still rather slow at least there was no real mental effort required, apart from one rather dodgy looking cornice which we gave a wide berth in case of avalanche risk.

The summit rendered us both (almost) speechless. The snow had abated and we had a 360 degree panorama, with superb visibility on all sides. An Teallach to the north, Slioch to the south, we could see over to Skye to the south west and countless Fannichs to the east. Fionn Loch stretched away to the west. We devoured the views, all other thoughts taken from our minds.

Oh my God.

And I mean "oh MY God". To the south, there was a break in the cloud and crepuscular rays shone through. If ever there was evidence that God lives in Wester Ross this was it. And with only the two of us around, it was like having a private audience with God.

The rest of the view wasn't too shabby either:

We felt we had earned this thanks to Saturday's wash-out. One of the most beautiful places in Scotland? Never mind Scotland, make that the world.

There wasn't much light left and we were the furthest possible point from the car at this stage, so we decided we'd need to push on and drop as much height as possible tonight. We dropped down into Gleann na Muice, got the first river crossing out of the way without needing to get wet feet, and trudged down through boggy ground as the dusk extended its tendrils.

Suddenly Adam crashed, exhausted. He hadn't taken on enough food. The ground was appallingly wet everywhere but we managed to find a spot that wasn't sitting in soup, although thick heather meant that getting tent pegs to grip was a tough challenge. Adam was chilling down and disappeared into the tent when it had only just taken shape - he was asleep with it only half pitched. I did a fairly shoddy job of a tent pitch which resulted in a lot of sag (and also me staying awake half the night convinced that we'd been blown away). I was going to cook up but the sight of Adam in his sleeping bag made my own warmth the only thing I cared about and after wolfing down half a packet of crunch creams I got into bed, fully clothed including down jacket, and only half-zipped up my bag.

The morning trudge back to the car felt interminable. It took an hour and a half of going through boggy hell before the river crossing. We stuck our heads into Shenavall once again - I've since paid for membership of the MBA, what a wonderful job they do - before heading back to the car; less than four-and-a-half hours at a good pace after a 0730 start.

We went to the Aquadome in Inverness for a shower; unfortunately we realised too late that showers are communal, but we were able to sneak into the gym where there are male-only showers. Fish and chips went down surprisingly badly, but after sticking our heads in to say hi to Gordon at Craigdon, it was time to head back to the Smoke and reflect on an utterly fantastic weekend.

Equipment notes

Being a 3-day trip in full winter conditions into some of the harshest, most remote terrain in Britain it was inevitable that our packs would be heavy and indeed they were. As it turned out some things were redundant - my cold weather clothing was barely touched.

My usual favourite bits of kit performed admirably as usual. My Crux AK57 rucksack, in particular, made a heavy load bearable, and did a fine job of keeping the worst of the rain out of the interior. I had slight tremors about using newly resoled boots, but LSR had done great work.

Despite the temperatures - just below freezing at high levels with strong wind chill in places - I was absolutely fine most of the time with a thick base layer (Helly Hansen warm) and waterproof. In order to save weight I didn't bring an additional windproof this time. As for gloves, I am becoming increasingly attached to a winter combination of Powerstretch liners/Dachstein mitts/Extremities Tuffbags waterproof overmitts these days. I bought a new pair of Powerstretch gloves this time - Black Diamond heavyweight liner. At £30 they were a good bit more than I'd been intending to spend, but were absolutely brilliant: warm enough to use as a standalone glove almost all the time (the Dachsteins remained untouched), with a very long cuff which fitted snugly over the base layer cuff, a decent simple leather palm and touchscreen-friendly fingertips which 3 years ago I would have sniffed at as a gimmick but are becoming increasingly essential these days. I also used a "polar hood" given to me as a present for the first time - I used it mostly as a neck gaiter and pulled it over my face in more extreme weather. It could have turned into a balaclava had conditions deteriorated much further. It was a lovely bit of kit, versatile and comfortable and it made going much more pleasant.

If you're approaching Fisherfield from the north, the crossing of Abhainn Strath na Sealga and/or Abhainn Gleann na Muice is unavoidable. Do pay attention to the weather forecast and bear in mind that the time lag is short so heavy rain or snowmelt one day will result in the rivers going into spate pretty quickly, but the next day might well be OK. We had taken a single pair of croc-style plastic sandals in an intermediate size to share (£5 from Shoe Zone and weighing about 250g for the pair) but on hearing the forecast had left them behind in the car. From my perspective this was a mistake. The water is very cold but I found most discomfort from the stony riverbed - the stones aren't small and sharp, but medium-sized and round, which really press into the soles of your feet. I would take them without hesitation next time. Adam had a pair of walking poles which really helped the crossing. When water levels were normal the crossing was achievable with a little care. A light travel towel to dry off feet after the crossing was a great luxury.

Given the remote location and conditions, I took more care than usual to ensure that we had adequate first aid and survival kit. Normally when carrying a tent I don't bother to carry a survival bag, but this was packed. One thing which I'd do in hindsight for a 2/3 night trip in potentially hostile conditions is take several spare tent pegs - if a couple are lost on the first night and it gets a bit blowy the next night then we could be in trouble.

My new phone (Motorola/Google Nexus 6), with data/wifi turned off and battery saver turned on, lasted extremely well - after 2.5 days it was down to 40% battery with a few photos taken and GPS used once or twice. I was extremely impressed by this. Adam had full signal (including 3G) at the top of A' Mhaighdean! Putting my camera directly into the pocket of my waterproof without any proper protection apart from its padded case was foolish - in future in the wet I'll make sure to put it alongside my phone in a 1L drybag and put that in my jacket pocket. In general I found myself carrying more than usual in pockets; apart from looking silly I actually felt more in control of things that way. Waterproof overmitts lived in one pocket with the (laminated!) map; hat, polar hood/neck gaiter and gloves in another; snacks in another; and phone/camera in another.

With no pubs or shops anywhere, all food needs to be carried and this was a major weight. I always start my day with porridge and coffee nowadays. Instant porridge needs to be transferred from their tubs (too bulky) into freezer bags. I've tried Oat So Simple and Sainsbury's own brand, but I find that it's definitely worth paying a bit extra for Alpen which are far nicer - I think there's more sugar in there, but the milk powder is also creamier, so the overall experience is more pleasant. Regarding coffee I've no preference for Nescafe or Kenco, but personally I prefer the 3-in-1 sachets which have sugar, even though I'm not normally a sugar-in-coffee person. I had loads of old hot chocolate sachets of various brands and Adam did a grand job of tasting them - he reports that Bournville > Galaxy >> Cadbury standard Dairy Milk. Soup is of course an essential - most of them are OK, the only golden rule being avoid anything with croutons in them at all costs (minestrone is disgusting). Other than that we mostly went with curry and rice.

One thing that there is an abundance of in the Fisherfield forest is good supplies of running water so in order to keep weight down I wouldn't recommend carrying more than a litre or so per person at any given time.

Friday 24 October 2014

How a stag do demonstrated a unique psychological experiment

Academic psychologists must have great fun designing experiments, particularly ones involving alcohol. There must be occasions, though, when practical and ethical considerations make experiments impossible. I wonder if this anecdote could have been conducted under experimental conditions?

A good friend of mine was best man at a stag do a few months ago. As is traditional, he racked his brains trying to think of ways to embarrass the stag, whilst getting him as drunk as possible in the shortest possible time. His idea was a work of genius. The best man later confided that he had no idea at the time whether it would work - if it didn't, the joke would have been on him - but as it turned out, it's a piece of experimental psychology worthy of any journal.

The lads had hired a house and, all being heavy drinkers, decided to do something familiar from most of our student days: a "centurion". For the uninitiated, a centurion consists of drinking 100 shots of beer in 100 minutes. The actual volume of alcohol consumed is substantial without being outrageous; it's about 6 pints, but what gets you hammered isn't so much the quantity consumed as the mechanical regularity of the drinking. One must drink a shot on the minute, every minute, for over an hour and a half. Inevitably casualties occur and vomiting after 60ish shots is perfectly respectable (I've known people to be sick on less than half that). An ideal icebreaker for the start of the stag do: relive old student days and get the whole party battered at the same time.

This was a centurion with a simple twist: whilst everyone else would plough on as normal, unbeknownst to him, the stag was fed non-alcoholic lager.

The implied reverse psychology is brilliant. Normally at a stag do, the main man would expect to get screwed over. This guy can handle his drink and fully expected to be given "dirty pints" and other horrors over the course of the weekend. His expectation was to be the drunkest member of the party. Not the other way around.

100 minutes later, a dozen battered lads staggered around the room. Several had hurled into the toilet. Handshakes, backslaps, and proclamations of undying man-love crossed the room. At the centre of it was the stag - still standing and beating his chest as one of the few to make it to the end without being sick. His hair dishevelled, he staggered around the room, a maniacal glazed look in his eye and slurring his speech. Like everyone else in the room, he was absolutely, utterly battered.

Without having had a drop of booze.

I'm told that when the bad news was given to him, the stag went very, very quiet. And took a few minutes to sober up. Of course the only observers in the room were extremely drunk themselves, but the stag himself happily admitted to feeling smashed and never once thought to question the alcohol. He remembers after about 40 shots thinking to himself "I'm not feeling too bad here" but as everyone else around him descended into chaos, he went with the flow and even now swears that he felt hugely intoxicated at the time.

For me this indicates an important aspect of group dynamics: not only to we behave how those around us do, but our own mental state is affected by the expectations of those around us. We do as others do but even our inner feelings are affected. Clearly the stag's motor functions were theoretically capable of standing up straight and speaking properly; but the behaviour of those around him, combined with what he was primed to believe, affected his body's functions significantly. Think of it in reverse - have you ever had a few drinks and been drunk on adrenaline, only to witness a nasty car accident or to come home and find yourself burgled, and manage to sober up extremely quickly?

(PS - I say this was "unique" but I wonder if it has been demonstrated somewhere before? I'd love to know)

Monday 11 August 2014

A few questions for the Barbican surrounding Hamlet ticketing policy

The much-hyped production of Hamlet directed by Lyndsey Turner and featuring Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role went on general sale this morning. Sadly the process appears to be mismanaged at best, with hints of a cartel at worst.

That there are many more hopeful people than tickets is inevitable, and venues, festivals and promoters have struggled for years with the issue of how to disappoint people in the fairest way possible. The Barbican appear to have failed spectacularly.

This morning, before going on general sale, the website claimed that stalls seats were sold out for the entire run, with circle seats "nearly" sold out. This would seem to imply that large numbers had been sold to patrons, members, friends, and all the other various levels of membership for which punters pay a premium in order to enjoy benefits like early booking. This is entirely fair and absolutely standard across the industry. Presumably some tickets have also gone to sponsors and other partners. That isn't pleasant to think about, but a certain amount of back-scratching and palm-greasing (back-greasing?) needs to be done with sponsors in order to keep venues and productions viable. As long as the proportion of tickets going to sponsors isn't huge, this is also acceptable.

So far, so good, and when people logged on to find themselves in queue with upwards of 20,000 people ahead of them, they will have been disappointed but not necessarily surprised. The online booking system assigned places randomly in the queue to all those who were logged on before the booking window opened, which is completely fair. The queueing system was then torturously slow; I moved up 1300 place - a third of the way up the queue - in an hour and a half. Messy and frustrating, but nothing worse.

Then - perhaps inevitably - rumours started swirling around Twitter of alternative locations to purchase tickets. ATG (the Ambassador Theatre Group, of which the Barbican is not a member) was often cited. Sure enough, with a few seconds wait, I was offered 4 tickets for a total of £269 including a "booking fee" of £4 per ticket and a single "transaction fee" of £3 (quite what the difference between a booking and a transaction is escapes me, but I'll let it pass).

Fact time: booking via the Barbican website, tickets for Hamlet cost "£30-£62.50 plus £3 online booking fee". They also mention that "a limited number of Premium Seats are available" (their capitalisation).

Something else to mention: the Barbican advised punters on the best place to buy tickets:

The ATG tickets available were all "Band A" - and stated explicitly that this was the top price £62.50 + £4 "booking fee" per ticket. They all appeared to be stalls tickets; let's not forget that the Barbican claimed that stalls were "sold out" before tickets even went on general sale. There was no way of choosing individual seats via ATG but anecdotally people on Twitter seemed to be getting hold of some very good tickets.

But the Barbican isn't a member of the Ambassadors Theatre Group. It's owned by the City of London Corporation. So presumably the Barbican have simply sold a load of tickets for a show for which they knew there would be extremely high demand, so that ATG could sell them on at a premium.

Worse is to come.

At around 1030 the reputable theatre website - always a good source for listings, reviews and debate - tweeted that they had some tickets for sale. I followed the link and sure enough, they had tickets for sale for all nights. Once again there was no facility for punters to choose seats. The price: "from £78" on weekdays, and "from £119" at weekends (no mention was made at this stage of booking or transaction fees).

£119 is a 90% increase on the Barbican's top ticket price.

Fact time again: the Barbican have introduced special anti-touting measures for this production - the lead ticket booker needs to show photo ID.

To reiterate: £119 is a 90% increase on the Barbican's top advertised ticket price.

I tweeted WOS about this and got the following reply:

So presumably WOS are selling these "Premium Seats" with a 25% markup on...well, the Barbican don't mention prices so let's assume £95.50 (incidentally, ATG were selling "Premium Seats" for £99.50 which would make sense if their markup is £4 again).

An aside: "STAR" mentioned by WOS are the Society of Ticket Agents and Retailers. They do indeed mention 25% as the maximum generally acceptable markup

To be clear, I don't have (much of) a problem with WOS or ATG; it would appear that they're playing within the rules of the system, even if a 25% markup on top of "Premium Seats" is pretty outrageous. They're businesses trying to make money. However, I do have a very big problem with the way the Barbican are dealing with this and the way they are allocating tickets for one of the most in-demand productions in recent years. To that end I have some questions for the Barbican:
  • Did all Barbican members who attempted to buy stalls tickets get them successfully? [**update - see comments below - if I was a member I would be livid]
  • Does the Barbican think it is hypocritical to introduce anti-touting measures whilst at the same time allowing tickets to be sold for 90% above the advertised top ticket price?
  • Can the Barbican, and indeed other venues such as the Old Vic who operate a system of "Premium Seats" (their capitalisation) admit that this is nothing but a ruse to inflate prices, as there is nothing "premium" or special about them - they are simply standard top price tickets to which a substantial additional sum has been added, presumably to encourage punters that those "standard" top price tickets are better value than they would otherwise appear? (This is classic behavioural economics).
  • What is the reciprocal arrangement between the Barbican and ATG [edit - see comments below]? Was the Barbican contractually obliged to sell what appears to be a substantial proportion of stalls seats to ATG, even though they could easily sell them out - probably several times over - themselves?
  • Why did the Barbican advise that the "best" place to obtain tickets was from their own website, while it actually appears that ATG was a far quicker and more reliable method? When all stalls and most circle seats have been given to agents, does that mean the Barbican site is "best"?
  • What does the Barbican stand to gain from selling off tickets to third party agents versus selling them via their own website? What is the point of going to the effort of a "fair" online ticketing system when agents can sell them however they want?
  • Does the Barbican feel that the process has been well managed overall?
** A couple of updates: it seems that ATG and are "official ticketing partners". Presumably they bought their tickets from the Barbican more cheaply than at the full retail price. Meanwhile, WOS have an article which summarises the popularity of the show whilst tactfully not plugging their own £119 tickets.

***Update 2: after a 3-and-a-half hour wait in the queue I did get tickets, and for a Saturday to boot. The stalls and circle are indeed sold out being sold via agents only, but there is still decent availability at time of writing (1330 on Monday 11th) - it's a big venue with a long run! The queueing system provided by works fine, even if the wait is extremely long.

***Update 3: some very interesting comments below.

Wednesday 23 July 2014

Waltz for Debby

This vocal version tops even the original. Listen to the Mark Murphy's take on it (on the LP Satisfaction Guaranteed)...wonderful

In her own sweet world
Populated by dolls, and clowns, and a prince, and a big purple bear
Lives my favourite girl...
Unaware of the worried frowns that we weary grown-ups all wear

In the sun she dances to silent music
Songs that are spun of gold somewhere in her own little head.
One day - all too soon,
She'll grow up and she'll leave her dolls, and her prince, and her silly old bear...
When she goes they will cry as they whisper good-bye
They will miss her I fear but then so will I

Thursday 15 May 2014

Social media listening vendors ALL have a responsibility to push for higher quality

A few months ago I happened to see a short social media insight report, written by a large, highly respected global research agency, for one of the world’s most iconic brands. It was very brief (5 slides in total) and formed part of a wider research report.

I was embarrassed for the vendor (not my own company, I hasten to add!). In those five slides were several claims so patently wrong that you wonder if anyone had their head screwed on when the report was written. They started by claiming that 99.9% of comments made on Facebook originated in the US – and that global mentions had a very heavy bias towards America as well.

They went on to paste in some automated sentiment charts which claimed that in some markets, social media reaction to the client’s highly entertaining, engaging promotional campaign was >97% neutral.

They also claimed that a sudden spike in online mentions of this major, engaging, global consumer campaign was due to coverage in a minor B2B magazine discussing a particular aspect of the production.

All of this – along with some other rather spurious claims – in five slides, lest we forget.

Let’s forget about the actual numbers for a minute. What concerns me is that the exec who wrote the report clearly never bothered to think about what the metrics meant – or to run a simple common sense test. Nor did the person who signed off the report. (It doesn’t reflect well on the client, either; did they not think to push back and ask what these numbers meant?) By all means report the numbers in good faith as provided by the tool you are using…but for goodness’ sake provide a footnote or caveat explaining the limitations. If reported “as fact”, anyone with an ounce of sense can rebut your findings.

Some basic understanding of how social media monitoring tools work can help explain those anomalies. These tools do their best with location detection – but it’s complex and far from easy to get right, and also platform specific. Facebook barely give away any metadata – so in most cases monitoring tools simply pick up the fact that is registered in the US and run with that. Similarly, automated sentiment tools tend to dump data in the “neutral” bucket if they aren’t sure – which depending on the dataset and language can often mean that almost everything is marked up as being neutral. As for the claim about the B2B magazine…I can’t explain that without seeing the raw data, but I’d imagine it’s due to duplicate mentions in the data.

I cite this specific example because I was frankly appalled at what a shoddy job this highly respected agency had done. But it’s representative of an endemic problem with poor-quality social media insights and monitoring – rubbish being peddled by technology suppliers and agencies is being met with client-side ignorance, resulting in an acceptance of poor findings…until somebody more senior does a review, realises the findings from social media are weak and/or unreliable, and blames the approach in general rather than specific failings. All this leads to a widespread mistrust in social media listening/insights. The damage doesn’t need to be done; it does need a little common sense, a willingness to go further than merely pasting charts directly from a tool without some sort of sense checking and interrogation of the data where appropriate, and some basic caveating and management of expectations. Most anomalies can be explained.

Social media research is a crowded space, and competes with many other emerging techniques for a share of limited client budgets. It is incumbent on all suppliers to push for better standards – as otherwise the mistrust can only grow and buyers will take their money elsewhere.

Thursday 27 March 2014

4 social media research challenges to overcome when tackling live debates

As we approach the final furlong of the race for the Scottish Independence referendum and rapidly approach another General Election, much excitable talk bubbles up once again about using social media as an election predictor; with the current fashion for presidential-style election debates, those are under the social media analysis spotlight too, with Twitter and other platforms providing a source of instant feedback and soundbites - cheaply or for free. Media organisations, research companies, political parties and casual observers alike all feast on instant statistics about who has "won". Needless to say, live debates provide a snapshot of how social media can give large-scale instant feedback - something which tickles the fancy of insight departments in companies and organisations the world over.

Last night's EU debate on LBC between Nigel Farage and Nick Clegg was a good canvas to show how there are significant challenges to such an approach. To demonstrate why, I set up a quick search for the hashtags #NickvNigel and #LBCdebate, using social media monitoring tool Brandwatch. Incidentally, this isn't a tirade against such tools, which do exactly what they're supposed to. Instead, it's a call to arms: to make this data meaningful, we need to think very carefully about the context of such data, to clean it appropriately, and to treat is with extreme caution. If we take necessary steps, which may involve cutting out substantial proportions of the data, we may be able to get meaningful results.

The Blurrt "worm"

The LBC website has a "worm", courtesy of Blurrt. Sadly at time of writing the LBC website was creaking and the worm wasn't visible at all during the debate itself. All that was visible was the phrase "The requested URL /graphs/sentiment/ was not found on this server." The bolded word leaves me sad, but not as sad as the "how it works" page, which gives no information whatsoever on the methodology and a lot of explanation of some basic sampling theory - dressed up in such a way as to make it look intimidating to a non-technical audience whilst still explaining nothing useful. There is certainly a place for real-time analysis (although as Francesco D'Orazio points out succinctly, "If you can’t make decisions in real time there is no point in using real-time intelligence"); that real-time analysis must inevitably depend largely (or solely) on technology. As an advertisement for robust social media analysis, however, this is flawed, flawed, flawed.

There are several challenges which we need to consider.

1. Using hashtags as search terms

As this was a casual exercise, I opted for simplicity in my search term, opting initially for #NickvNigel (simply because this was the one appearing on my own Twitter feed) and later adding #LBCdebate, which I only spotted once it was mentioned by Nick Ferrari 10 minutes into the debate itself - a good thing I did, as #LBCdebate turned out to be the dominant hashtag: 

This brings up one potential issue - retrospective data, which may not always be complete depending on how it's coming from Twitter. 

But there's a more fundamental problem. Almost by definition, the use of a hashtag implies prior knowledge of its existence, and generally also implies an affinity for the topic, and possibly good connections with others close to the topic. The casual LBC listener stumbling across the debate who chose to comment - very likely the unpartisan "floating voter" who we are so anxious to identify - will be unlikely to be found here. There are parallels in commercial social media research, too; do real people use hashtags like #danceponydance, or do they just talk about "the T-mobile ad"? (Hint: that's actually not a good example, as it's a rare occurrence of a campaign that has really taken off in social media. Much to my advertising research colleagues' frustration, not to mention that of my clients, the reality is that most campaigns barely get talked about at all.)

Should we go with the easy option, or try to look at all tweets from the period referring to Clegg or Farage? Had I done the latter, the results might have been very different.

2. Coding: far from trivial

I dived in and manually coded 199 tweets. Simple, right? Not at all. There are myriad ways of doing this. This was a quick-and-dirty exercise on my part, but it's worth jotting down some of my assumptions, because even a quick-and-dirty bit of coding can rapidly prove a head-scratcher. I'm not claiming this is the "right" way to go about things! On the contrary, there are probably approaches which are far better, and some of my assumptions are probably way off the mark. For example, I could have focussed purely on tweets which made reference to the debate performance itself ("Farage is winning", "Clegg sounds nervous", etc).

I started by taking a sample of tweets using either hashtag, between 1900 (the start of the debate) and 2100 (an hour after the finish). The time period is arbitrary. My code frame was very simple: "Clegg", "Farage" or "neither". Broadly speaking, I defined "Clegg" as any tweet saying either something good about Clegg or something bad about Farage, and "Farage" vice versa; "neither" was any comment which gave nothing away. Any retweet of an official party account I automatically set to being "for" that party (mercifully both Labour and Tory HQ seemed to be very quiet); retweets of mainstream news accounts, without added comment, I set to "neither" unless the tweet reported something obviously critical. This approach was pretty self-explanatory to begin with, but there were snags aplenty.

This tweet is clearly making a political point, but for which side?
How about this?
Or this?

(For reference, I coded those as "neither", "Clegg" and "Clegg" respectively, but I wouldn't quibble with anyone who coded them differently).

Other tweets, meanwhile, needed a good look at the context and/or embedded media/links to make an educated decision - this one is clearly pro-Farage:

3. Are opinions representative of Twitter? Of the wider population? Even of the tweeters talking about the issue?

Coding social media verbatim is tricky at the best of times and whether a manual, automated or machine-learning approach is taken, clearly needs a lot of thought. However, even if we assume an optimal coding strategy, there's a deeper-seated problem, and this comes back to the question which old-school market researchers always ask about social media data: But is it representative?

When asked that question, I generally fall back on a standard response: "Probably not...but does it matter?" There are so many unknowns, but survey respondents aren't exactly representative either ("yes, of course I'll spend 45 minutes for little or no reward answering questions about my mortgage provider")

The problem is not a question of demographic representivity, but more "to what extent do the views expressed on tweets represent the views on Twitter?" The first and most obvious point is that people only tweet about stuff they care about. Hence we'll have to stick with surveys for our mortgage provider research. Do the tweets represent the underlying opinions? Probably not - it's only the things that delight/outrage people the most that actually get posted. People don't necessarily offer up unprompted opinions unless they feel the need to broadcast them.

But studying political tweets is even more problematic.

4. Activists dominate proceedings

Of the 198 tweets I analysed, 153 gave some sort of opinion one way or another. I looked at the profiles of these 153 tweeters to see if I could find anything out about them. A Twitter profile gives you 160 characters to define yourself. After going through a few, it seemed to me that they could be divided into four categories:
  • Activist
  • Politician
  • Journalist
  • Other
I decided to code anyone as an "activist" whose profile showed an obvious leaning towards a particular political party or ideology. My reasoning was that anyone who uses up some or all of their 160 character bio to state their political leanings would be likely to be pretty dyed-in-the-wool. Some were a grey area: there were plenty who were self-described as "interested in politics" who I coded as "other", while anyone who said things like "socially liberal" or "Europhile" I placed in the "activist" bucket. "Politician" means anyone whose bio states that they are an MP, MEP, Councillor and so on; prospective candidates were problematic, although anyone who was borderline would end up in the "activist" category anyhow. "Journalists" were mostly self explanatory.

The breakdown of "opinionated" tweeters is as follows:
No less than 36% of the tweets were written (or retweeted) by tweeters were self-described as being politically polarised*, with another 3% being journalists.

Does that skew our sample? Of course it does - massively. There is a substantial minority of politically savvy, active cyberwarriors sticking up for their man. It's true of the #IndyRef debate as well. Never mind the demographic breakdown of Twitter - it's the propensity of people to tweet about what matters to them that is more important. The sample is biased away from casual listeners and floating voters, and towards a polarised, politically charged audience. Shortly before the debate began, Lib Dem Digital Communications lead Bess Mayhew sent out an email to supporters which said "LBC are running a “Twitter worm” which tracks who is winning the twitter battle. Nick needs your help to come out on top, so lets get tweeting!" In a world increasingly judged in this way, groups will always look for ways to game the system.

There's one further consideration to take into account which I've also not dealt with here - multiple tweets by the same person. As an example, Peter Chalinar (@TaleahPrince) tweeted nearly 200 times yesterday about the debate (mostly retweets of others) - mostly strongly in favour of Farage, whilst Lib Dem MEP Rebecca Taylor notched up nearly 150 tweets. While neither of them turned up in my sample of 198, there were several people whose tweets appeared twice. De-duplicating authors is another step in social media analysis which might want to be taken, depending on the objectives.

* Of course it could be argued that anyone tuning into an hour-long programme on a political issue that isn't even considered to be in the top 10 issues facing Britain today according to the Ipsos MORI issues index would be likely to be a bit of a politics nut anyhow. 

So what about the results?

What about them? Hopefully I've demonstrated that without some careful methodological thought, the results are pretty meaningless, and my own system was not thought through in detail - I simply wanted to point out some issues. For the record, the Blurrt worm seems to have done reasonably well at picking up sentiment expressed towards particular issues as the debate went on, and called it overall in favour of Farage, mirroring the snap Yougov poll taken immediately after the debate. My own results were rather different:

Topline figures
Clegg 44%
Farage 33%
Neither 23%

Ignoring the "neithers", this boils down to
Clegg 58%
Farage 42%

What about if we exclude politicians and activists from our sample? This reduces the sample of opinionated views from unpolarised people down to a rather meagre 94 (less than half of our original sample size)

As it turns out, and somewhat to my surprise, there was actually very little effect, with the results now amended to

Clegg 55%
Farage 42%

Perhaps implying that the cyberwhipping on both sides was equally effective.

How do I explain the discrepancy between my own results and the worm (and indeed the poll)? It's hard to say. There were a few hashtag "hijacks" - people talking about issues which came up in the debate which were not directly related to the EU; notable examples included Scottish independence and gay marriage, where there were several tweets critical of Farage - by my own rules I coded these as "wins" for Clegg but perhaps these could have been excluded from the sample or coded as "neither". There were several tweets reporting the Yougov poll result which I categorised as neutral as they were merely reporting the mainstream media outlet - I could have coded these as being for Farage, which would have boosted his score a few points. Other than that, there are so many variables that I find it difficult to pinpoint.

Perhaps Sky's primitive method was best?

Sky News opted for a simple approach - they posted a couple of tweets, one in favour of Farage, one for Clegg, and asked for retweets to endorse. This direct approach - closer to a traditional market research technique - might work better in such circumstances, and indeed this was in line with the poll (and the worm):

Where does this leave political social media analysis?

Overall, then, I believe there are multiple issues with political social media samples, although with appropriately thoughtful handling I do think these issues can be overcome. There is certainly a place for fast-turnaround or real-time analysis which presents significant challenges, although once again these are not insurmountable. Watch out for the next debate on the BBC, for which no doubt there will be more furious analysis and debate.

Thursday 15 August 2013

NOW TV box: a mini-review

I picked up a Now TV box the other day. At a tenner including postage, they're practically giving them away. Some first impressions:

Firstly, given the price, there's obviously a catch, which in this case is "Sky by stealth". We've never had any sort of Sky product, so now they have our contact details plus viewing habits via the box, which is presumably worth the cost of subsidising the box alone. It's also very firmly squared at tempting viewers into premium Sky packages (sport and movies).

But the fact there was a catch was obvious, and it doesn't detract from the product itself. So how does it hold up?

The box itself is small, unobtrusive and simple to set up. Getting started out-of-the-box iss a matter of minutes. Yes, you'll need to have wifi and a HDMI port in your TV, but most people will have those these days. The only slightly finicky thing about setup is that you need to have a "NOW TV account" which is different from the details you give Sky when ordering the box itself. I may be wrong, but it seems to create an account you either need to order a Sky Sports Day Pass (£10) or sign up for a month's free trial of Sky Movies. I opted for the latter and got as far as this screen:

Shurely shome mishtake? Impressively quick customer service from @NOWTV replied to my cynical tweet and assured me that the trial would indeed be free, but even so I see no reason to provide my credit card details for a free service (isn't that what porn websites do?). Hint: if you get as far as this screen, you'll already have a username and password on the site, so you can abort your oder at this point and still have enough details to get the box started.

Functionality itself is pretty limited but has one major strength, namely the ability to get iPlayer onto a non-smart TV. This in itself is the main benefit and makes it worth the price. There's also Channel 5 on demand; apparently ITV and Channel 4 are in the pipeline, which would be nice.

There are other apps - most of which are pretty pointless, although being able to watch TED talks on TV is quite cool. In addition, for non-smart TV owners like me, there's no obvious way to download films to a TV, so the fact that Sky have sneaked in there with a cheap box means that if I want to download a film, I may just go with Sky's NOW TV service, purely for convenience.

Vimeo is included but YouTube is not, which is a major drawback. I'll also have to wait for Google to release their Chromecast before I'll be able to watch BT Sport on the TV rather than the laptop, which is irritating. So for the moment I'm thinking of it as an iPlayer-only device.

However, the ability to buy a Sky Sports day pass is a major attraction for me. Priced at a tenner, it's teasingly affordable compared to the £40-odd I'd need to shell out for a full-blown subscription. Previously, the day passes were only available via my PC, so I may well pay for the occasional day watching the Ashes, Ryder Cup, Heineken Cup or similar. So Sky are likely to take some of my money which they otherwise wouldn't have had. It's clever marketing, in a way that both Sky and the customer are winners in their own way.

Overall: don't be fooled into thinking this is some sort of all-singing all-dancing device; it's just a way to get iPlayer onto your TV if you can't do it already. But for that alone, the giveaway price is worth it, and having the technology in place to allow you to get bite-sized versions of Sky premium products (ie sports and movies), combined with the simplicity of the product itself, make it a thumbs up from me.

Thursday 4 July 2013

Bikepacking the South Downs Way

Having done plenty of wekend walking trips - some with a tent, some with a bivvy - and the occasional mountain biking day out, the natural progression seemed to be to combine the two. I set out with my mate Duncan in an attempt at the South Downs Way: 100 miles from Winchester to Eastbourne, almost entirely off-road, with a tarp and a bivvy bag.

It was a mixed weekend which ultimately ended in failure – for several reasons but, sadly, the biggest one being my own lack of fitness.

We were slightly later out of London than expected, meaning that we didn’t hit Winchester station until 10pm. A seriously terrible kebab later, we set out and peeled off into some woods a few miles (less than 5) outside of the town.

My mate had opted for his 1-man tent rather than a bivvy and pitched it in no time, settling in for his evening’s entertainment as I wrestled with the tarp. Progress was VERY slow as I attempted to work out, empirically, the best way to get the damn thing up. The rain started just as we camped and soon was chucking down. Trying to pitch in a nettlebed isn’t much fun but in the end – after an ordeal – I got up a lean-to by pegging in the long side to the ground, and using a wheel on one short side and the rest of the bike saddle-up at the other end. The rain hammered down and I lay awake for a while, partly ecstatic at the sound of raindrops on canvas – is there any sound that makes you feel triumphant at having braved the outdoors? – partly in trepidation for the whole thing collapsing on my face. It was well past midnight before I drifted off to sleep.

In the event, I had one of the best nights’ sleep I’ve had in the outdoors for a while. I normally have problems breathing but this time I had a pretty sound rest. However, I woke at 6:30 with dappled sunlight on my face and a stunning dawn chorus in full swing. Since Radio 4’s “Tweet of the Day” started airing at 5:58 each morning I’ve suddenly been having a micro-craze for birds although aside from a few obvious ones I can barely identify any. This chorus was magnificent and it’s one of those moments where you feel a lot of emotions but high among them is the feeling that very, very few people ever get to share moments like this...even though they’re free. Waking up in the woods with the sun on your face and the birds singing? That’s one to add to anyone’s bucket list as far as I’m concerned.

My riding buddy didn’t emerge for another two hours – I had mixed feelings about whether to wake him or just enjoy some breakfast at my own pace and the birdsong. In the end, despite my early waking, we didn’t make a move until 10am which among other things was part of our downfall.

There was the ominous sound of what we assumed was a farmer’s tractor close by and we expected to have to wield some uncomfortable questions. As it turned out it was the sound of a tank! We were camping close by to some sort of red letter day centre and there were tanks and quad bikes all over the place.

Not having any specialist bikepacking gear, I was resigned to hauling most of the weight on my back. I used a couple of bottle cages for water, an 8 litre dry bag on the bars and a small 2 litre back strapped inelegantly to the saddle rails. My 32 litre rucksack still weighed nearly 7kg though – far from ideal.

As for the SDW itself, there isn’t a great deal to tell. It’s typical southern English countryside – pleasant but unspectacular and there isn’t much by way of highlights. We set ourselves a target of about 70 miles on the Saturday – ambitious, but would leave a comfortable Sunday and even a pub lunch. But we soon found out that it wasn’t as easy as all that.

Progress was slow. I was constantly behind and really puffing on the hills. There’s no sophisticated reason for this – my fitness just isn’t up to scratch. Rests became longer and ever more frequent. Climbs took longer. The GPS grimly infomed us our moving average wasn't much more than 6mph. There were a lot of miles still to be covered.

We lunched at Queen Elizabeth Country Park. We gave rather short shrift to a woman who waited until we'd unpacked everything and got the stove running before venturing to remark that she had booked the area and was waiting for her friends. Lunch wasn't one of our proudest moments - a particularly disgusting tinned meatball mixture. A lot of rice was needed to disguise the taste.

The afternoon was a long slog. I stacked it on a fast descent - I was being forced to the left of the track by a nasty rut nearly a foot deep. Soon my ribbon of track started to disappear into the bushes. Knowing that my options were to crash into the bushes or have a go at the rut, I made an effort at taking on the rut but went flying over the handlebars, hitting my head pretty hard. No permanent damage to either rider or bike fortunately! I was rather more circumspect on subsequent descents but about 20 minutes later I found myself losing control at the bottom of another fast one. With no run-off the natural path went straight into a deep hollow full of water. Seeing soft grass behind and knowing another stack was inevitable I relaxed and let myself go. I charged straight into the hollow which had a steep rise the other side, found myself about 2 feet airborne and somehow managed to make a perfect landing as if nothing had happened - albeit rather shaken.

By this point the remote lockout on my fork had broken, meaning that smoother climbs were even harder work. Duncan meanwhile was struggling with tyre pressures and balance issues with all the weight behind the saddle. Other than that we plodded on. But my body was screaming.

Each climb a struggle. It's a mental thing as much as physical - I give in too easily, firstly by giving in to the temptation to move to the small chain ring, then by looking up and instantly giving in. Duncan stolidly pulling up each hill and waiting at the top. He did his best to make excuses for me, kindly and untruthfully blaming everything from my remote lockout to the weight on my back. But my climbing was getting worse. Gasping, screaming, mutters of "get a fucking grip Eoghan", tears, inadequacy, a sudden burst of concentration, look down, weight forward, smooth legs - don't create too much torque! - screaming again, move up the gears, the small chain ring, moving up into bottom gear, a sudden thought that walking would be no slower, a fading attempt to banish such thoughts, irregular breathing, WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU, I can't do this, I can't do this, my fitness is terrible, we're falling behind and it's all my fault, why is everything always my bloody fault, more inadequacy, more tears, shameful, is there ever anything I'm good at, failure, why does it always rain on me, self-pity, another look up to face the fact I've made almost no progress, a sudden despondent slump and my foot touches the ground. Shit. Shit, shit, SHIT. A vain attempt to get started again - in bottom gear, on a steep gravelly hill? No chance - and it's hike-a-bike to the top, a muttered apology but I can't look him in the eye.

Rinse and repeat. As my exhaustion grows I start to realise that I'm losing concentration on the descents. This is becoming dangerous.

A while later in a fit of desperation I extract an old packet of Kendal mint cake and devour half of it, body gasping for sugar and oxygen. I'd never tried KMC before and it's actually not half bad. It works wonders for my energy levels and I make efforts to increase my sugar levels with fig rolls and chocolate at every opportunity.

The light starts to fade - we've made pitiful progress and it becomes apparent that we're not going to manage this in two days, not 70 miles on the first day anyhow. The view down to Amberley and the River Arun is delightful but there wasn't time to enjoy it, just push on.

The post-meltdown Kendal mint cake and regular refuellings help me but the effects are temporary and not long after crossing the A24 I collapse one more time, haul the bike up to the top and declare with what breath I have left "I'm spent. I can't manage any more climbs like that tonight." Duncan generously counters "me too" but his words ring hollow. Fortunately the light had gone by this point and after a few false starts we managed to find a wooded spot somewhere before Steyning.

This spot was a little more cramped and the ground was dusty and stony - horrible to pitch into. Combined with the dark and my exhausted lack of co-ordination, I was even slower at pitching the tarp than the previous night. When it was suggested to me that it would make life a lot easier if I just used the trees to pitch the tarp rather than the bike, I nearly snapped; "I. Have. Come. To. Pitch. The. Tarp. Using. The. Bike. And. It. Will. Take. As. Long. As. It. Takes."

In the interests of efficiency and weight-saving I elected not to take a head torch, rather using a helmet mount for my front bike light around camp. This was a mistake - of course I had to wear the bloody helmet all evening! Quite aside from the irritation, the helmet mount kept catching against the low branches of the hawthorn, meaning that my frustration just boiled over further. Plunging the guylines into 2-foot deep nettles and brambles was the icing on the cake, but by this point my body was too tired to care.

This time my sleep was very uncomfortable - no particular reason, I think it was a combination of aching muscles, needing the toilet, a slope and also a leaky inflatable mat. Unfortunately the wheel at one end of the pitch had collapsed but other than that, it was actually a pretty tight pitch. A bit of practice pitching in a park, some line locks and a bit more confidence, and it'll be much happier. I made a minor change the second night by using the bike upturned on its saddle which made a lot more sense, although I think it would have been better to have my head at that end (more secure, plus more space). Also I must admit that using the trees would of course have made life simpler, although I was determined to use the bike for pitching this time around and glad I did.

The following morning we elected to go a while further before finding a suitable place to turn off and head for a train station, most likely Brighton. In the event despite a night's sleep my body gave up on me before too long, on the climb up to Tottington Barn so we turned off immediately and had a fun descent into Southwick, where we took the sea road through Hove and into Brighton. Where our problems began.

We had neglected to note that this was London to Brighton day! The city was full of thousands of tired-but-happy cyclists, and a sign at Brighton station saying no bikes would be carried from that station today. Fair enough, we thought, and rode to London Road (Brighton is surprisingly hilly if you're already knackered!). Same story there. We checked the website, and the full horror of the situation became apparent: no stations within 30 miles of Brighton were accepting bikes. Pleading got us short shrift and we were advised that while we might get lucky at a smaller/more lenient station, the conductors would throw us off in any event. The nearest station was Horley, the other side of Gatwick. With knobbly tyres, no lockout on the suspension, broken bodies and carrying a load of kit, a 30 mile ride was, by this point, out of the question. It's worth noting that had we got all the way to Eastbourne, we'd have had the same problem as it was within the "no bikes" zone!

In the end we made our way down to the finish line where the British HEart Foundation were running buses (with bikes in the lorry) - pleading with the BHF guys got us nowhere but fortunately a bloke overheard me and had a couple of bus tickets going spare and sold them to us. If I ever meet Tony again I owe him a pint, especially as we didn't have enough cash to cover the face value but he accepted anyway!

From then on the journey was painless. Most amusing moment came as we stopped at a traffic lights when a bloke knocked on the door of the coach, demanding to be let on. The driver opened up and it was Chris Eubank! He was just curious to know why there were loads of people in sportswear. He made a little speech and then hopped off again.

Verdict: my first bikepacking trip was brilliant, at least the combination of cycling and bivvying is a real winner, but the weekend itself wasn't much fun. With better fitness, less weight on the back, better tarp pitching skills, an earlier start, and a slightly shorter/easier route it would have been perfect. There's still no feeling in the world better than waking up with your face in the outdoors - it beats a tent hands down.


  • Alpkit Airlok Xtra (8 litres) strapped to handlebars with sleeping bag (my crap 3-season, it was too warm to take the 4-season!) plus other bits (initially bivvy bag, then first aid kit)
  • Alpkit Airlok drybag (2 litres) clipped to saddle rail and (badly) strapped to seatpost
  • 2 x bottle cages
  • 32 litre rucksack (Osprey Hornet) containing
    • Clothes: merino long sleeved base layer (handy at night, but otherwise unnecessary), long johns (lightest way of getting evening warmth, but also unnecessary in the end), spare socks & boxers, midlayer (my trusty old Icebreaker 320-weight), waterproof jacket
    • Tarp (Terra Nova Competition 1) plus pegs, and spare cord
    • Bivvy bag (Rab Alpine)
    • Maps x 2 (covering about 80% of the SDW route) plus compass. Duncan carried a GPS but I don't believe in such nonsense
    • First aid kit
    • Multitool & spare tubes
    • Camera (definitely worth the extra weight, although it would be nice to have it handy in a "fuel tank" style top tube bag
    • Food: hot ready meals plus snacks. Pretty happy with the combinations, although I'd up the Kendal mint cake/chocolate content
The main investments I need are suitable bags: the drybag strapped to the handlebars worked fine and I won't be rushing to buy a fancy system, but I'd previously tried strapping an 8l bag to the seatpost senza harness and it would be a bit dodgy over the course of a day. The good folks at Bear Bones all swear by the Wildcat Tiger, although I wouldn't mind something a bit more capacious - I'll keep an eye open on what Alpkit are doing with their new bits and pieces. A frame bag becomes less essential if bottle cages take up most of the space, but a top tube bag seems to be very important (for camera, phone, multitool) and it would be nice to have snacks and water at hand in feed bags. 

Photos to be inserted shortly...

Wednesday 19 June 2013

The daily supermarket tragedy

There's a pitiful scene which is played out every day in the Willesden Green Sainsbury's - and probably in thousands of supermarkets across the whole country.

About 8pm, a crowd of people starts forming around the bread aisle. They hover, blank faces, empty baskets, on edge and alert, fidgeting and shuffling. Tonight, perhaps, she is late. They seem more restless than usual. No words are spoken, but if they were, they would not be English.

Suddenly, a door swings open, a trolley comes into view, the crowd braces itself. She has arrived with the stale rolls and bagels which have not been sold and will be reduced to 20p for a pack of four. One by one they have the yellow sticker attached. She can't keep up. No sooner has the sticker been added, than the packs are snapped up by waiting hands and shovelled into the baskets.

It's a nice feeling, being able to grab a bargain at the end of the day. Products that would otherwise be a luxury come into range - free range chicken, perhaps tuna steaks, or some posh ham. But this isn't canny bargain-hunting. This is a subsistence economy. Baskets fill up with rolls and little else. One man has a basket full of bagels and two tubs of Basics yoghurt. Carbohydrate and protein. Enough to keep a family of eight alive for another day. And at a total cost of less than £2.

There's no need to try and imagine what food banks are like. You can see this pathetic scene, just a baby step above food banks, every evening in the supermarket. Where are they from? Judging from appearance probably Kurdish, Albanian or Romany but that's by-the-by. They're trying to keep their heads above water in Britain and sinking fast.

Tuesday 19 March 2013

Lions squad post 6 Nations

Everyone's playing the Lions squad guessing game at the moment, so I thought I'd join in and make some ill-informed guesses based on what I've seen (and probably partly based on what I've heard from others more knowledgable than me).

Looking at the options available, some positions immediately leap out as having an embarrassment of riches, while others are weak. Strong positions include loose head prop, openside flanker, scrum half, and the back three; on the other hand, there's very little strength in depth in the second row, number 8 or inside centre, while out-half/fly-half/stand-off looks worrying if you take away Sexton and Farrell.

As always with Lions squads, there are a lot of very good players who will be left behind. Currently only Ferris is definitely out through injury, and that'll inevitably change, so lots of others will get a call-up. But if I were Warren Gatland and I had to pick the squad tomorrow, this would be what I'd pick.

Loose head prop
Close, this one. Healy is a bit more destructive than Jenkins and offers slightly more in the loose, although he has a tendency to give away penalties. I would be happy with either starting. If Alex Corbisiero can prove his fitness and get some good matches in for London Irish before the end of the season, I'd have him in there too, despite having missed the entire 6 Nations. Ryan Grant has been the best of Scotland's props and Vunipola can't be far away from the squad either. It's a position of strength with lots of decent options.
On the pitch: Healy
On the bench: Jenkins
On the plane: Corbisiero
On standby: Grant
On the beach: Marler, Vunipola, Sheridan, James

The first of the problem positions. Going into the 6 Nations, Rory Best was the clear pick and a brilliant performance against Wales bolstered his position further. However, since then he's gone off the boil and his form is worrying. Perhaps I'm overly traditional, but for me front row players need to be good at their specialism first and anything they do in the loose is a bonus. Best is very good in the scrum and terrific in the loose, but to claim the Test spot his throwing will need to be more consistent. The form man is Hibbard who has been excellent for Ospreys and Wales. I've always been a fan of Ross Ford and he may just pip Tom Youngs for the third spot, but that's very much a midweek job.
On the pitch: Best
On the bench: Hibbard
On the plane: Ford
On standby: Tom Youngs
On the beach: Hartley, Rees, Owens

Tight head prop
The Lions scrum should, in theory, be dominant against the Wallabies. I'm a huge fan of Dan Cole but Jones has the experience and consistency - he's not one to go backwards (although Cian Healy gave him a rough time of it). After those two, the third position is very much a standby place - Euan Murray may travel even though he's had a mediocre Championship.
On the pitch: Adam Jones
On the bench: Cole
On the plane: Murray
On standby: Ross
On the beach: Cross

Second row
There are no standout locks this year. It's very competitive with at least seven players challenging for a place in the squad. Paul O'Connell is still the outstanding northern hemisphere second row forward of his generation and will surely travel if fit; if he's up to anything near 100% he will start. Perhaps I'm biased but I'd put him alongside his Munster colleague Donnacha Ryan. Joe Launchbury is good enough to go and Geoff Parling has also had a good championship. Of the Scots, Jim Hamilton is the form player and it would not be a surprise to see him travel, but Richie Gray's star is waning and he may miss out.
On the pitch: Ryan, O'Connell
On the bench: Launchbury
On the plane: Parling, Alun Wyn Jones
On standby: Hamilton, Gray
On the beach: Lawes, Hines, Charteris, McCarthy, O'Callaghan, Evans

Blind-side flanker
We have loads of superb options in the back row although most of them are flankers/all-rounders rather than No 8 specialists. Ryan Jones, if he stays fit, travels, as does Kelly Brown who is in excellent form; Dan Lydiate also deserves a place based on 2012 form alone. However, for the starting XI for the first Test I suspect Warren Gatland may try to include both Chris Robshaw and Sam Warburton in the XV, which might well see Robshaw starting at 6.
On the pitch: (Robshaw)
On the bench: Ryan Jones
On the plane: Lydiate, Kelly Brown
On standby: O'Mahony, Denton
On the beach: Croft, Haskell, Ferris

Open-side flanker
Justin Tipuric is the name on everyone's lips following his demolition of England and he may be one of the late movers to grab a place in the squad. Even so, I suspect Warburton and Robshaw have the starting 7 spot sewn up between them. The Irish back row have been so-so of late, so Peter O'Mahony just misses out (his time will come) but Sean O'Brien's versatility may earn him a place in the midweek team - he had a busy 6 Nations and sits proudly near the top of most of the stats tables.
On the pitch: Robshaw, Warburton
On the bench:
On the plane: O'Brien, Tipuric
On standby:
On the beach:

Number 8
Toby Faletau has had a great 6 Nations and will surely start. Of the others, I rather suspect that Jamie Heaslip may have played his way out of contention in a competitive back row. Ryan Jones, Sean O'Brien and Kelly Brown can all play at number 8 (Jones and Brown are possible starting options) and surely they are all ahead of Heaslip in the pecking order. It's a shame for the Irish captain, but unless he puts in a monster display for Leinster in the Amlin, he'll be staying at home.
On the pitch: Faletau
On the bench:
On the plane:
On standby: Heaslip, Wood
On the beach: Easter, Beattie, Morgan

Scrum half
Another position of strength with four excellent options - one will have to miss out. It'll be a shame for whoever doesn't travel. My slight preference would be for the exciting Ben Youngs to start - his ball supply is quick and inventive - although Phillips will likely start. Greig Laidlaw and Conor Murray have both been in excellent form in the 6 Nations and either could go. Danny Care has no chance of making the squad.
On the pitch: Ben Youngs
On the bench: Laidlaw
On the plane: Phillips
On standby: Conor Murray
On the beach: Care

I must admit to being very, very impressed with England's young half-back combination and I would love to see a Youngs-Farrell combination. It works for England who always look like they have the potential to score tries even if the execution lets them down in midfield (especially with the rather lumpen Brad Barritt). Jonny Sexton obviously goes as well and he is, in truth, the more likely starter. Those two are miles ahead of anyone else; I'm not convinced Dan Biggar has done enough to earn a place on the plane, so Toby Flood may go, although there's always the chance that someone like Wilkinson could end up touring. Or is there a possibility of using Laidlaw as an alternative 10 and leaving Flood/Biggar behind to save a space?
On the pitch: Farrell
On the bench: Sexton
On the plane: Flood (or Laidlaw)
On standby: Biggar
On the beach: Wilkinson, Weir, Ruaridh Jackson, Paddy Jackson, O'Gara

Inside centre
To counter my first choice half back pairing, I'd go with experience and reputation (which don't count for nothing). Jamie Roberts has done it all before and isn't a player to let the side down. There's also the possibility that Tuilagi or Davies may be picked at 12. While I described Barritt as "lumpen" above, he's also a terrific defensive centre, so he may well be needed to counter the dancing Australian midfield. He's good enough to go. Matt Scott is the best of the rather limited options elsewhere. Luke Marshall - described by some as a "bolter" before he even made his international début - hasn't done anything to reduce his chances of travelling, but I'd suggest he'll probably just miss out.
On the pitch: Roberts
On the bench:
On the plane: Barritt
On standby: Scott
On the beach: Lamont, Luke Marshall, D'Arcy

Outside centre
Surely the final act for great man? O'Driscoll remains one of the best centres in world rugby and a player the Wallabies will genuinely fear. He also turns it on for the big occasion. Centre is a pretty limited area for the Lions this year and BOD towers above all other options. It might seem a little passé to suggest the old warriors Roberts and BOD in the centre, but without any outstanding alternatives (I don't buy into the Tuilagi hype) it might be the best combination.
On the pitch: O'Driscoll
On the bench: 
On the plane: Davies, Tuilagi
On standby: Twelvetrees
On the beach: Earls, Max Evans

George North definitely starts on the left. Alex Cuthbert is most likely to start as well, although I'd love to see a wildcard option like Corkman Simon Zebo who has been superb all season. Tommy Bowe is a player whose injury might, unfortunately  have taken his chances of making the squad. It's hard to choose between the Scots wingers but one will travel. Chris Ashton, however, is in terrible form (his lame attempt at a tackle on Wesley Fofana summed his year up) and with plenty of world class options elsewhere, I'd confidently predict that he'll miss out entirely. If Gatland wants to play Stuart Hogg, then he may find himself at 14 (or even Halfpenny on the wing). We have a silly amount of options here.
On the pitch: North, Zebo
On the bench:
On the plane: Cuthbert, Visser
On standby: Bowe, Maitland
On the beach: Ashton, Gilroy

Full back
Leigh Halfpenny is the first name on the teamsheet and it probably makes sense to play him in his best position at 15. Hogg will also be involved (and a possible starter), and Kearney's experience will get him on the plane even if his involvement might be restricted to midweek this time around. He's not gone off the boil as much as others have suggested, but he's not a starter with Halfpenny around.
On the pitch: Halfpenny
On the bench: Hogg
On the plane: Kearney
On standby: Goode
On the beach: Byrne, Williams, Brown, Foden

Lots of questions, lots of options. Much may change over the next few weeks (we have the Heineken Cup quarter finals to look forward to, the usual league matches, and injuries are inevitable as well). The only positions that really worry me are hooker and fly half; elsewhere we look reasonably strong.

The squad I'd like to see, as of 19 March:
Healy, Jenkins, Corbisiero;
Best, Hibbard, Ford;
A Jones, Cole, Murray;
Ryan, O'Connell, Launchbury, Parling, AW Jones;
Warburton, Robshaw, Tipuric, R Jones, Lydiate, O'Brien, Faletau, K Brown;
B Youngs, Phillips, Laidlaw;
Farrell, Sexton;
Roberts, O'Driscoll, Barritt, Tuilagi, Davies;
North, Cuthbert, Zebo, Visser;
Halfpenny, Hogg, Kearney

That's 39 (15 Welsh, 9 English, 9 Irish, 6 Scots). If I need to lose a couple, it'd be Parling (or Lydiate) and Visser (or Davies or Kearney) who'd get the chop.

My starting XV:
1. Healy (I)
2. Best (I)
3. A Jones (W)
4. Ryan (I)
5. O'Connell (I)
6. Robshaw (E)
7. Warburton (W)
8. Faletau (W)
9. B Youngs (E)
10. Farrell (E)
11. North (W)
12. Roberts (W)
13. O'Driscoll (I)
14. Zebo (I)
15. Halfpenny (W)
Subs: Jenkins (W), Hibbard (W), Cole (E), Launchbury (E), R Jones (W), Laidlaw (S), Sexton (I), Hogg (S)

Bring it on.

Sunday 7 October 2012

Morning magic

There's something magical about early mornings.

On a whim I decided to get up early this morning (Sunday) for a run. The alarm went off at 0545, and half an hour later I was cycling in the direction of Hampstead Heath, with the intention of catching the sunrise from Parliament Hill (or wherever there was a decent view).

I ended up locking my bike up on Hampstead Lane about halfway between the Spaniards Inn and Highgate Village. Trail running shoes on, Camelbak and helmet in my bag and away I went in no particular direction.

Although I attempted to track my progress via MapMyRun, the GPS on my phone failed and the app managed to discard everything it had recorded, so I don't know where I went although I criss-crossed my path all over the place.
 There was a mist rising off the ground - quite extraordinary.
 By 7am, the light was bright, but sunrise wasn't until 0712 (I had checked!)
 Above: looking out over London (you can just about see the Shard).
 The heath was almost deserted. I met the occasional dog walker and runner - and after about half 7 when the sun was up, it started to get busier. But for the most part around sunrise, I had the whole place to myself.

 The camera on my phone doesn't deal at all well with poor light, but these give a sense of how things were.
 This tree (below) was pretty spooky:

 I shared the space with plenty of foxes - and a rabbit:

 It was an extraordinary experience - pretty spiritual. I kept on saying "oh wow" to myself - and congratulating myself on the decision.
 And then, at around a quarter past seven...

  I could feel the spirit of Nina Simone in the air...
Here comes the sun, little darling
Here comes the sun, and I say...
It's alright...

 Above: yes along with the rabbits and foxes that is a lesser spotted circus.

 The mist/steam rising from the ponds was pretty magical.
 For some reason mainly that I didn't really care where I was going and kept changing direction randomly, it took me ages to find Parliament Hill. When I did, it was worth it...

 Above: running through the long wet grass meant that my feet were absolutely sodden.
Below: view from Parliament Hill

 Sadly, I could feel my knee problem which gave me problems about a year ago starting to twinge. When I went for a run in the Chilterns a couple of weeks ago (at Dunstable Downs; great place for a walk or run) the knee held firm but I had a problem for several days after in my foot, possibly a trapped nerve. The foot started to hurt again, so it was time to gingerly walk back to the bike.
 A fantastic, superlative, magical morning run. I can't recommend a morning start highly enough! As a reward for my endeavours, I was delighted to see THE BEST PLACE IN LONDON open at 0830: Louis' in Hampstead. I treated myself to a croissant and Danish pastry for breakfast and a box of cakes for later.