The Brit, the Canadian and the canoe

Highway 60 stretches out ahead of us, winding and dipping, pressed in on both
sides by thick forest. We’ve been driving for hours, the landscape an unchanging
procession of green trees and grey tarmac. If there was any poetry in the world Road to
Nowhere would start playing on the car’s radio, but there isn’t, so it doesn’t. I hum it
anyway. Fate’s a rubbish DJ.

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The Brit, the Canadian and the canoe

Behind the wall of Chinese censorship

“Have you heard about the tea-house police?” asks my friend Huang Miao, her face obscured by the steam rising from the bubbling hotpot we’re eating at a restaurant in Shanghai. “They’re local policemen. If you post something online that the government doesn’t like, they’ll knock on your door and invite you to come drink tea in a local teahouse. They’ll give you a choice: stop doing what you’re doing, or go to jail.”

I can’t imagine such a conversation taking place in a tea house. Mostly, they’re filled by ancient Chinese men playing mahjong and complaining about their wives. Miao’s story sounds like an urban myth, but then most stories about China do.

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Behind the wall of Chinese censorship

Killing the music: Manila’s cover band conundrum

It’s the second verse that kills my fledgling karaoke career. The first verse was bad, but my cheery disregard for melody had left the crowd too bewildered to complain. Unfortunately, this tactic could only carry me so far, especially when standing on stage belting out the world’s worst rendition of “Careless Whisper”.

Tension mounts as my voice smashes through notes previously un-encountered on the vocal scale, until finally the music keels over and gratefully dies. I hurry out of the spotlight, which is burning as brightly as my cheeks. A few sympathy claps serve only to accentuate the stunned silence. People in Manila live and breathe music, and I’d just bludgeoned a song insensible on stage. They weren’t happy.

I’m met at the bottom of the steps by Eddie, Club Red’s manager and the man responsible for inflicting me on his customers.

“That was terrible,” I say with a nervous laugh.

“Yes,” he agrees gravely, patting me on the shoulder. “It was.”

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Killing the music: Manila’s cover band conundrum

Bicycling across (all of) Belgium

I don’t look good in Lycra. I’m too thin; my stomach too round. I look like a snake choking on a tennis ball. Even the changing room mirror is embarrassed for me.

Drawing back the curtain I step out into the Brussels bicycle shop where Arthur Destree is waiting for me. Tanned and fit, Arthur looks perfectly happy in this outfit. He’s Belgian, and a professional bike rider. He probably wore Lycra nappies as a baby.

He’s to be my guide as I undertake the most ridiculous assignment of my professional travellingl life: I’m going to spend the next week riding across Belgium. Yes, all of it.

This will end badly, mark my words.

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Bicycling across (all of) Belgium

The Palace of Leaves

Master stirs the tea leaves, trying to coax the future loose.

Head bowed, back aching, I hold the cup before him as I have done every morning for the past two hundred years. Truth be told, I’m a little tired of this ritual. Our future’s small enough to fit in the palm of my hand, so why ruin what few surprises remain to us?

Master snaps at me, demanding I still my trembling hands.

I snap back, demanding he keep his long beard out of the cup.

After two hundred years together, the roles of master and servant are as blurred as our sight. There are no orders left to give, no privileges worth having. We’re slaves to ancient rituals, shackled together by our long history. We’ve made a prison of our palace.

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The Palace of Leaves

Life in a box

I check my watch, it’s flashing for curfew. I have 30 minutes to get home before the doors lock automatically and the drones send the police to collect me. The thought sends my fingers to the box in my pocket. It’s a gift for my daughter. Whatever happens, I can’t be caught with it on me.

Tipping my head to the darkening sky, I watch the drones wheeling around like gunmetal-grey birds. I’m old enough to remember when the only thing you’d see in the sky were clouds and stars, the occasional white scar of a passing plane. But that was before the Google campus bomb, before a tech company put a terrified man in the White House. He promised to make us safe; to build a better world. We were so scared nobody bothered to ask how he was planning to do it.

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Life in a box

Kindle wonder in India

I specialise in travel and technology writing, which is what happens when you have a wandering soul and restless hands. As complementary as these two things are, they hadn’t met in my work – until a few weeks ago.

I was about five hours north of Nagpur in Central India, the sort of place where running water and electricity can’t be taken for granted. I’d arrived there by accident, having gone hiking, got lost, and pointed myself at the first commotion with a road through it. Waiting in this village for my lift to arrive, I’d started reading my Kindle to pass the time, happily oblivious to the world around me. After half an hour or so, I looked up to discover about 20 kids stood in a big group, just watching me: big eyes, curious expressions, ridiculously cute and all intent on the Kindle.

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Kindle wonder in India