Do Facebook’s recent troubles present a buying opportunity?

Do Facebook’s recent troubles present a buying opportunity?

Originally written for CMC Markets via The Crown & Co.

This piece is a typical example of an Update: a short-form piece that informs investors on the likely impact of high-profile news stories on a company’s share price. During a year writing for Opto, I wrote 88 Updates, most of them following a similar overall structure.

The original post is linked above. The original disclaimers have been retained in the reproduction below.


The Facebook [FB] share price was rocked twice over on 4 October after a whistle-blower accused the company of prioritising profit over hate speech and a major outage crippled services, including WhatsApp and Instagram for six hours. Competitors like Twitter jumped on the bandwagon to capitalise on the empty spot.

The Facebook share price closed Monday 4 October 5.1% down from its previous close on Friday 2 October, although its low point for the day saw it nearly 6% down. The stock’s resilience left investors wondering if this made for a good buying opportunity.

A former Facebook employee, Frances Haugen (pictured above), testified to congress about policies and business practices she claimed made the company “morally bankrupt”. The tech major initially blamed the outage on a system update and issued clarifications that no data had been breached. Since then, it appears things have gone back to normal for the social media major.

Facebook shares beat the Global X Social Media ETF [SOCL], of which, as of 10 October, Facebook is the top holding, with 12.09% of net assets.

Resilience versus regulation

Despite reports that the outage, reportedly caused by employee error, was so severe that Facebook’s technicians couldn’t access the office in order to address the problem, and having the company’s business model demonised by a former insider, the Facebook share price was down less than 4% for the week ending 8 October.

This resilience may not hold if it leads to increased regulation. Facebook’s opponents are out to ensure that is the case.

MEPs in the EU are already calling for new rules to prevent business models that favour “disinformation and violence over factual content”, while, across the Atlantic, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that the US government feels the leaks were “the latest in a series of revelations” that show social media platforms’ attempts at self-regulation are “not working”.

Meanwhile, US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was among those who claimed that the collateral damage resulting from the outage was proof that the company effectively wields a monopoly over global communication services. Anti-monopolistic sentiment has been fuelled by the latest developments.

Perhaps, though, the outsize impact of the outage is part of the appeal to investors. If Facebook can avoid any serious regulatory consequences from the week’s events, the company will appear to be in a position of great strength.

“Buy the selloff”

Observing that a stream of negative news stories had brought the Facebook share price down 13% from recent highs, JPMorgan analyst Doug Anmuth recently reiterated a third-quarter revenue estimate of $29.5bn and recommended investors buy the stock amid the pullback. He reiterated an overweight rating and $450 price target, according to The Fly, while pointing out that Facebook has weathered negative news storms in the past and has itself called for greater regulation.

However, on 5 October, DZ Bank analyst Ingo Wermann set a $350 Facebook share price target and downgraded the stock from buy to hold.

For now, many analysts remain positive about Facebook — unsurprisingly, given its dominant status in a social media industry which, according to a recent report from Research and Markets, could grow at a compounded annual rate of 25.38% to just shy of $1trn by 2026.

Out of 51 analysts polled by CNN Money, 34 held ‘buy’ recommendations for Facebook, with five rating it ‘outperform’ and 11 hold. Just one analyst polled gave a ‘sell’ rating.

Provided none of the week’s events prompt major turbulence to Facebook’s business model, the stock looks set to rise in future.

Disclaimer Past performance is not a reliable indicator of future results.

CMC Markets is an execution-only service provider. The material (whether or not it states any opinions) is for general information purposes only, and does not take into account your personal circumstances or objectives. Nothing in this material is (or should be considered to be) financial, investment or other advice on which reliance should be placed. No opinion given in the material constitutes a recommendation by CMC Markets or the author that any particular investment, security, transaction or investment strategy is suitable for any specific person.

The material has not been prepared in accordance with legal requirements designed to promote the independence of investment research. Although we are not specifically prevented from dealing before providing this material, we do not seek to take advantage of the material prior to its dissemination.

CMC Markets does not endorse or offer opinion on the trading strategies used by the author. Their trading strategies do not guarantee any return and CMC Markets shall not be held responsible for any loss that you may incur, either directly or indirectly, arising from any investment based on any information contained herein.

*Tax treatment depends on individual circumstances and can change or may differ in a jurisdiction other than the UK.

Will BlackRock and Goldman Sachs get a boost from earnings?

Will BlackRock and Goldman Sachs get a boost from earnings?

Originally written for CMC Markets via The Crown & Co.

This article is a typical example of an Earnings Preview; a short-form piece that previewed upcoming earnings announcements from high-profile stocks. I wrote 38 Earnings Previews in just over a year, most following this same overall structure.

The original disclaimers have been kept in the reproduction below.


Increased activity in the merger and acquisition space as well as pandemic-related stress sales have supported investment banks and kept their staff busy for most of this year.

“While the economic recovery is underway, our clients and communities still face challenges in overcoming the pandemic,” said David M Solomon, chairman and chief executive officer Goldman Sachs [GS] while detailing the previous quarter results.

During the quarter to September 30, Goldman Sachs acquired the asset management arm of Europe and Japan centric NN Group and reshuffled its top management.

Meanwhile competitor BlackRock [BLK] that had a tough second quarter saw its repeat customers hit and is likely to be looking to claw that back.

The stock price movements reflect that. Goldman Sachs share price, which rose over 50%, outperformed the BlackRock share price, up 18.8% in 2021 to 8 October. BlackRock’s share price roughly mirrored the S&P 500, which gained 16.9% over the same period.

BlackRock is expected to announce earnings for the third quarter of 2021 before markets open on 13 October, while Goldman Sachs is expected to release its own on 15 October.

The forecast for Q3 earnings

A consensus estimate on Zacks Equity Research pegs sales for Goldman Sachs at $11.25bn, up 4.3% year-on-year. Earnings per share estimate stands at $9.70 up just 0.2%. The CNN Money analysts have a higher sales consensus at $11.7bn and EPS of $10.14.

BlackRock is expected to report sales of $5bn – up 14.5% – and earnings per share of $9.63 up 4.5% year on year, as per consensus estimates by Zacks.  CNN Money’s estimates are not as generous in comparison with sales of $4.8bn and EPS of $9.57.

CNN Money analysts rate both companies a ‘buy’, with 17 out of 28 analysts polled giving that rating to Goldman Sachs and 11 out of 14 giving it to BlackRock. All three remaining analysts rated the BlackRock share price at ‘hold’, while nine recommended ‘hold’ for Goldman Sachs, with the remaining two split between outperform and sell.

Citi analyst Keith Horowitz recently raised his Goldman Sachs share price target to $440 from $410, citing higher short-term interest rates and positive signs for improving return on tangible equity (ROTE), according to The Fly. Credit Suisse analyst Susan Roth Katzke believes that ROTE is the key to Goldman Sachs’s long-term success, adding that earnings and revenue beats increase the bank’s chances of achieving its three-year plan. Improvements to capital ratios in annual stress testing are another potential bullish catalyst to watch out for according to the analyst, who set a $450 target for the Goldman Sachs share price.

Jefferies analyst Daniel Fannon raised his BlackRock share price target to $1,075 from $1,001 at the end of August.

Previous earnings performance

BlackRock’s previous earnings report, released before markets opened on 14 July, beat earnings expectations by 7.50% according to Zacks, but the outlook had factored a weak quarter. The BlackRock share price fell 3.06% on the day.

Investors may have been underwhelmed by BlackRock’s results compared to its investment banking rival. Goldman Sachs reported second-quarter earnings on 13 July, with thanearnings of 51.72% according to Zacks, and sales 31.87% above analysts’ expectations. Despite this, the Goldman Sachs share price also slipped on the day it announced earnings, by 1.2%.

Carey Halio, global head of investor relations at Goldman Sachs, acknowledged following Q2 earnings that “the last 18 months have been incredibly challenging”, but said the bank had made progress towards the objectives it laid out in its 2020 Investor Day.

BlackRock’s chairman and CEO Laurence Fink said his company “will continue to invest and evolve so we can deliver value for our clients, employees, shareholders and the communities where we operate”.

Disclaimer Past performance is not a reliable indicator of future results.

CMC Markets is an execution-only service provider. The material (whether or not it states any opinions) is for general information purposes only, and does not take into account your personal circumstances or objectives. Nothing in this material is (or should be considered to be) financial, investment or other advice on which reliance should be placed. No opinion given in the material constitutes a recommendation by CMC Markets or the author that any particular investment, security, transaction or investment strategy is suitable for any specific person.

The material has not been prepared in accordance with legal requirements designed to promote the independence of investment research. Although we are not specifically prevented from dealing before providing this material, we do not seek to take advantage of the material prior to its dissemination.

CMC Markets does not endorse or offer opinion on the trading strategies used by the author. Their trading strategies do not guarantee any return and CMC Markets shall not be held responsible for any loss that you may incur, either directly or indirectly, arising from any investment based on any information contained herein.

*Tax treatment depends on individual circumstances and can change or may differ in a jurisdiction other than the UK.

How to Pick Stocks: 13 Strategies Explained | CMC Markets

This piece was written for CMC Markets via the Crown & Co. It is a long-form listicle, introducing 13 strategies for (relatively beginner-level) investors to use to pick stocks to invest in.

The original article is linked below. The original disclaimers have been included at the end of this version.

How to Pick Stocks: 13 Strategies Explained | CMC Markets


The investment landscape is dominated by habitual winners, including the likes of Warren Buffett, who will pick stocks that have the best chance of gaining value in the long-term. But there are many different approaches for how to pick stocks for an investment portfolio or short-term trading.

Deciding which stocks to pick can be determined by individual factors unique to the person trading or investing, such as their level of experience or risk tolerance. These factors are what helps to discern the investment criteria for a stock picking strategy. This guide examines 13 strategies to help you pick your own stocks. Sign up for a trading account to start potentially profiting from the different strategies in this guide.

Why pick individual stocks?

Picking an individual stock can yield excellent gains if the stock increases in value. However, any individual stock has a relatively high chance of losing value over the long term. It is very difficult to try and predict which stocks will increase in value in the future.

Picking one stock is like backing one horse to win a race. You may win big if you get it right, but your chances of winning something could increase by backing several horses or going ‘each way’ – where you cover more ground. For this reason, many investors prefer to diversify their portfolio​ or trade on a mutual fund or exchange-traded fund to spread their bets. You could also trade on baskets of stocks (such as our share baskets) through derivative products such as spread bets and CFDs, which helps to offset the risk of one poor performer.

Things to consider before you start picking stocks

Decide your trading goals and timeframe

You might want to trade over the short-term with stocks that you think will increase in value quickly and allow you to cash out for profit. Meanwhile, a medium-term or long-term time horizon could be taken with stocks you are content to hold on to, such as high-paying dividend stocks, for example.

An investment timeframe will directly impact your portfolio mix. Income-focused stocks are typified by a solid cash flow and high dividend yields. Growth stocks tend to be companies that may not be profit-generating but whose sales are increasing quickly. Value stocks are generally well-established companies that generate consistent profits and have a secure position in the market.

Decide how much you want to risk

There are no guarantees when investing or trading. Stock prices can fall dramatically in value but can also spike higher and continue their upwards trend for years.

Therefore, decide carefully how much capital you are prepared to risk. The proportion of the wealth you are investing in should also match your strategy. Growth stocks can provide returns but can also be volatile, which increases a portfolio’s risk exposure.

Investing long-term is less risky than investing short-term because long-term increases in the broader stock market tend to outweigh short-term falls. Managing your risk profile is central to establishing an effective stock picking strategy.

How to pick stocks

Find companies you understand

CEO of Berkshire Hathaway Warren Buffett’s words of wisdom are to “never invest in a business you cannot understand”. There are several big advantages to sticking to companies or industries you know well.

Firstly, your knowledge of the business will give you a greater understanding of the opportunities and risks facing it than your competitors. Picking stocks is about reading a company’s prospects better than anyone else. If you lack understanding of a company’s business, you’ll have less of an idea of how positive its prospects are. If you’re going to invest in a company, it’s worthwhile having a basic understanding of how it operates and understanding every aspect of its balance sheet. You can do this by performing company analysis​.

Most professional investors spend their careers speculating on a particular set of industries, allowing them to consolidate their knowledge and expertise. By concentrating on a particular area, an investor can get better at predicting the impact of macro and micro changes, such as the release of new technologies.

Pick story stocks/trade the news

Story stocks are shares of companies that are priced based on a popular narrative of potential upside growth. In technology sectors, this can hinge around a company’s potential to discover or invent a ground-breaking new technology.

Story stocks, such as Amazon or Tesla, are quite extreme examples of growth stocks. Their profits either do not exist or do not come close to justifying their valuation, and large revenue increases are required to sustain investor optimism. They are consequently volatile but offer investors significant upside in exchange for an increased level of risk.

Trading the news involves keeping a close eye on what’s happening in the world, particularly macroeconomic events (such as changes in interest rates) that impact entire economies. The same news stories might affect various stocks and industries differently, so it is important to build up a good understanding of how different stocks will react to certain events.

Company news announcements are also an important source of information. But while a positive press release, such as an earnings beat, could indicate that a company’s stock might increase, traders need to be quick to take advantage. For example, Virgin Galactic’s share price gained 8% in pre-market trading the day after its first successful test flight but ended the day down 14%, thanks to subsequent news that it was looking to sell shares to raise funds.

Technical analysis

Technical analysis is one of the most used tools for picking stocks for short-term trading. It involves using past price performance to predict future performance through chart patterns and technical indicators. It has three underlying assumptions: that markets (prices) account for all relevant information about a stock; that prices move in trends rather than erratically; and that these trends tend to repeat themselves over time.

Technical indicators​ can help decide a trader’s entry and exit points. For example, breakout stocks are those that move beyond a certain level of support and resistance, or the upper and lower price limits that a stock has historically stayed within.

Breaking a resistance level will usually prompt investors to buy a stock and increase its price, while falling through a support level will increase pessimism and usually bring a stock’s price further down.

Technical analysis also relies on charting patterns, especially candlestick charts, to provide indications of future price movements based on past trends. For example, a very small candle (i.e., a small difference between the open and closing price) at the bottom of a downward trend is called a ‘morning star’ and is an indicator that a stock’s price decline is potentially about to reverse.

Analyst ratings

Analysts at investment banks and other financial institutions use a combination of technical and fundamental analysis to build up an investment case and price targets for financial instruments, including stocks. These usually consist of a rating, typically a variation of ‘buy’, ‘hold’ or ‘sell’, which give a general indication of whether they think stocks are likely to increase in value over a given period (usually 12 or 18 months). Hold ratings indicate that the analyst believes the stock will perform roughly in line with the market and/or other competitors.

Typically, one or more analysts upgrading their rating of a stock (e.g., from hold to buy) will prompt an increase in its share price, while downgrading has the opposite effect.

Analysts often accompany their ratings with a price target. This is what the analyst considers a fair price for the company’s stock, reflecting its expected future value (usually in 12 months’ time). Again, price target increases usually prompt a share price increase, and vice versa.

Company earnings

Analysts, market commentators and company insiders will often issue projections ahead of upcoming earnings reports. In the weeks building up to an earnings announcement, the bullishness or bearishness of analysts’ expectations will affect a company’s share price. If analysts anticipate a disappointing set of results, for example with earnings falling 5% year-over-year, a share price could take a hit in anticipation.

However, these projections are just estimates and analysts can sometimes get them wrong. Companies are frequently able to spring earnings surprises, either positively or negatively. Should the company’s earnings report reveal that earnings increased 5% year-over-year, it will have beaten analyst expectations and its share price will usually increase.

In fact, the share price could still rise even if earnings fall year-over-year. If the decline is less than analysts forecast because markets will have expected (and priced in) a worse set of results than what materialises.

Share price movements can sometimes happen very quickly after a surprising set of results, so it is important to pay close attention to announcement timings and be prepared to assess earnings reports as soon as they are released.

Trade positioning and sentiment

Some leading and lagging indicators​ can be used to identify stocks that have been overbought or oversold. If momentum starts slowing in a stock price, this can be a leading indicator that its price movement is about to reverse. For example, a stock whose price has trended upwards for 14 days, but whose pace of increase is slowing, could be running out of buyers and its price may soon fall.

Sentiment indicators​ can also be used to gauge general market feeling towards securities, including stocks. Bullish sentiment will normally result in increasing prices. Many traders like to use market sentiment to inform contrarian trading strategies — for example taking advantage of bearish sentiment to buy stocks when they are cheap and selling them when bullishness pushes prices up. Trade positioning and sentiment analysis can combine to guide timings of entries and exits.

Positioning and sentiment indicators can be technical or fundamental. For example, the CBOE (Chicago Board Options Exchange) Volatility Index, known as the VIX, is a technical indicator of expected upcoming market volatility for the S&P 500, while a disappointing earnings report would be a fundamental indicator of an upcoming fall in a company’s share price.

Insider trading

Company insiders tend to know more about a business’ prospects than markets in general and are legally obliged to disclose their trades. Insider trading activity can, therefore, be a strong leading indicator as to a company’s prospects. Indeed, research, such as that by Market Profile Theorem, has shown that insider activity is a reliable indicator of upcoming bullish or bearish sentiment.

Note that following insider trades is unlikely to give you a jump on the market regarding unknown news stories. It is illegal for insiders to trade shares based on news stories that aren’t public knowledge. They are more likely to give an indicator of general business prospects, or the likely impact that an already known news story might have on the company’s performance.

Follow big fund manager positions

Some fund managers develop a reputation as excellent stock pickers, and in these instances, markets can sometimes respond positively when they adopt a long position on a particular stock.

For example, Catherine Wood’s ARK Invest generated excellent returns by investing in high-growth tech stocks which ballooned in value through 2020. Her fintech-focused ARK Fintech Innovation ETF bought 66,100 shares in PayPal on 4 February 2021. Over the next seven sessions (through 12 February), PayPal’s share price gained 18.4%.

It is easier to follow some fund managers closely than others. ARK Invest reports all of its trades at the end of each day. Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway is more secretive, but like all investment funds, is obliged to release 13F reports of trades to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) on a quarterly basis.

In instances like Buffett’s, it is important to consider that very well-regarded investors will make their investment decisions based on the price of stocks at the time of their purchase. If prices have already risen significantly, it is possible that whatever hypothesis meant they considered them a good purchase at the time may no longer apply.

Find trending or social media stocks

February 2021 saw a notorious wave of ‘meme stock​’ trading, which was sparked by hyper commentary from the Reddit forum WallStreetBets. While several of the stocks targeted, like GameStop and AMC Entertainment, some saw their prices crash just as rapidly as they rose, many investors were able to realise large short-term gains by following the early recommendations of the subreddit.

If pursuing this strategy, it is important to remember that hype can be fickle and disappear very quickly. Timing an exit is crucial in this instance.

Fundamental analysis

Fundamental analysis​ considers qualitative factors, such as macroeconomic and microeconomic factors, to determine a company’s intrinsic or relative valuation.

It consists of three main parts: economic analysis, industry analysis and company analysis. For example, when analysing a company’s financial health, some metrics that could be used are its price/earnings ratio, which divides trailing 12-month earnings per share by the stock price to compare how much profit companies generate compared to its share price.

Some fundamental analysis indicators can focus on metrics like earnings and dividends, which are often more useful for value investing than growth investing. The Benjamin Graham school of value investing, which use fundamental analysis, guides Buffett’s investment strategy.

An industry analysis indicator could be a company’s market share, for example. Meanwhile, economic indicators​ like GDP, inflation rates and interest rates are also helpful in determining how a company’s value might be impacted in the future.

Use a stock scanner

Stock scanners or stock screeners are trading tools that automatically search markets and identify potential stock picks based on user-selected criteria. These can dramatically reduce the amount of time it takes to identify relevant stocks.

Different stock screeners have different features and capabilities, so it’s important to do your research and select the one that works best for you. We’ve compared eight UK stock screeners​ that could all serve as a starting point for selecting stocks to trade on. Some of these allow searches to be run for free, while others require a subscription.

Many stock scanners allow searches to be run using a combination of fundamental and technical indicators.

Find stocks with rising volume and price

A stock with rising volume may indicate that a buying trend might be gathering momentum. If a stock’s price and volume are increasing at the same time, it may mean that positive market sentiment is gathering pace and driving the stock upwards.

The opposite is also true. Decreasing volumes amid an increasing stock price may indicate an upcoming reversal. Additionally, if volumes are increasing as price falls, then prices could be set to fall further. However, if a falling price is accompanied by decreasing volumes, then it could be about to bottom out and gain in price.

Stock signals

It is possible to set triggers or alerts for action, either buying or selling stocks, based on fundamental or technical analysis. These can act as a good prompt to take advantage of trading opportunities. You can set these up in our trading platform, so read more about trading alerts​.

We also offer a built-in pattern recognition scanner, which looks for chart patterns of interest, such as wedges and double bottoms. Traders can use this to receive alerts for stocks that are exhibiting these bullish or bearish patterns.

FAQ

Are there any currency fees for trading stocks?

When trading on stocks on our Next Generation platform, there are no currency conversion fees because when you trade stocks via spread bets or CFDs, you never actually own the underlying asset. Instead, you are using leverage to speculate on its price movements, potentially netting you magnified gains (or losses) when compared with just buying the stock outright. Learn about derivative trading​.

What are the most popular stocks?

To find out what the most popular stocks are today, login to our platform and open the product library. There is a topical watchlist called ‘Popular Products’ which is updated daily with the most traded products for your region over the last seven days. You can filter this by ‘Type’ by selecting ‘Shares’. Similarly, we offer a ‘Hot Products​’ watchlist, which contains stocks whose recent trade volume has increased significantly versus a monthly average.

Disclaimer: CMC Markets is an execution-only service provider. The material (whether or not it states any opinions) is for general information purposes only, and does not take into account your personal circumstances or objectives. Nothing in this material is (or should be considered to be) financial, investment or other advice on which reliance should be placed. No opinion given in the material constitutes a recommendation by CMC Markets or the author that any particular investment, security, transaction or investment strategy is suitable for any specific person. The material has not been prepared in accordance with legal requirements designed to promote the independence of investment research. Although we are not specifically prevented from dealing before providing this material, we do not seek to take advantage of the material prior to its dissemination.

How do gender and ethnic background affect pay in tech?

This short-form, data-led article uses cord data on the ethnicity, gender and salary expectations of engineers to identify the pay gaps that exist between different gender and ethnic groups in the tech industry.

The original can be read here. More articles in the same series can be seen here.


Contextual data

White females have the lowest average salaries of all groups of engineers, at £62,019. The average female from a minority ethnic background earns £67,925, and white male engineers earn, on average, £72,573. Minority male engineers are the highest earning group, with an average salary of £77,576 – 25.08% greater than that of the average white female.

Below, the data is explored by function, job title (among developers), seniority and years’ experience, in order to compare the difference between the salaries of engineers of comparable ability and experience from different gender and ethnic backgrounds.

Unless clarified by context, “engineer” is used to refer to any professional who has created a profile for job-seeking purposes on cord. Engineers are carefully selected to be able to create profiles on cord. They require professional experience in Tech and Product-related roles, and are therefore specifically represent people working in these roles rather than, as many other statistics sometimes cover, the “Technology industry” as a whole. It is therefore felt that the data discussed here gives a unique insight into gendered and ethnic pay differentials among people working in Tech and Product-specific roles.

Salaries by function

Graph showing average salaries of white females, minority females, white males and minority males by function

Minority males are the highest earners in each function, while white females are the lowest earners in every function. Minority females earn more than white males in Development, but white males earn more than minority females in Infrastructure, Data and Product & Design.

The disparity between highest and lowest earners is greatest in Development, where males from ethnic minority backgrounds earn 29.99% more, on average, than white females.

Developer salaries by job title

Graph showing average salaries of white female, white male, minority female and minority male developers by job title

Males from ethnic minority backgrounds earn more than other groups in every job title within Development, and again, white females earn the least.

The disparity is greatest in back end, where males from ethnic minority backgrounds earn 28.57% more, on average, than white females.

Salaries by experience

Graph showing average expected salary of white females, minority females, white males and minority males by number of years' experience

Males from minority backgrounds earn more, on average, than other groups at every level of experience.

Men from ethnic minority backgrounds with 2 years’ experience earn more, on average, than white women with 5 years’ experience.

Key Insights

  • Across all tech and product functions, seniority and experience levels, men from minority backgrounds are the highest earners, while white women are the lowest earners
  • Men from ethnic minority backgrounds earn, on average, 25% more than white women
  • The average white female needs 6 years’ experience to out-earn the average man from a minority background with 2 years’ experience

Data Disclaimer

Data refers to 54,082 engineers across all locations (primarily London, Europe/Remote, and New York) on cord.

Gender is determined by one of two methods. All engineers are given the opportunity to self-ID. Roughly one quarter of engineers do so. The remainder have been assigned a gender (male or female) by a third-party predictive API (https://namsor.app/) based on their name. The API makes mistakes, but is accurate in 90-95% of cases. The same API is used to predict the ethnic background of all engineers.

All salary data is based on engineers’ expected salaries on cord, which is used as a proxy for actual salary.

THE MOST IN-DEMAND SKILLS FOR BACK END DEVELOPERS

This is a short-form piece aimed at letting Back End developers know which skills are most in-demand, according to data derived from cord’s product.

There are others like it viewable here. The original post for this article is here.


Demand for specific Back End development skills is difficult to quantify without hard data.

cord have analysed the average number of messages received by Back End developers with specific skills, allowing Back End developers to make more informed decisions based on relative demand for their skills.

Graph showing average number of message requests received per engineer with different Back End development skills on cord

The data show that TypeScript is the most in-demand skill for Back End Developers. Developers who listed TypeScript as a primary skill received, on average, 16.37 message requests each.

The next most in-demand skills are Go, Node.js, Microservices, React and AWS.

Of the top ten most in-demand skills, the least in-demand was APIs – which averaged 10.19 message requests per Engineer listing API building as a skill.

Terminology

“Primary skills” refer to the skills that engineers identify as part of their primary skillset when they create their profiles on cord. They can select multiple skills.

“Message requests” are messages sent by companies to engineers, regardless of whether or not the engineer accepts that request.

The ingredients of our best work

This article, which features embedded clips from cord’s Best Work podcast, is aimed at software engineers looking for an introspective overview as to what factors they should consider when determining what sort of work they ought to do.

It can be read below, or at the original location here.


Identifying our place in the world through our work has stretched the minds of philosophers since ancient times – from Socrates and Confucius through to the likes of Marx, Kant and contemporary thinkers such as Alain de Botton. Deeply entangled with questions like “What is the meaning of life?” is that of “How should I spend my time?”

For most of us, answering this question will focus heavily on the work we do. To those of us fortunate enough to enjoy a degree of choice over our work, choosing correctly – identifying our best work – is a key component in living a fulfilling life.

The simplest way to categorise the “ingredients” that combine to produce our best work is generally to divide them into two categories: extrinsic, and intrinsic.

Extrinsic factors are those that come about as a result of doing work. These include money (and similar forms of non-salary benefits, in many modern companies), but also factors that, in one way or another, elevate our standing as individuals within our society, such as prestige, or power and influence.

Intrinsic factors are those that derive directly from the work itself. The sense of fulfilment we gain from performing work, the challenge it sets us, the personal growth we experience as a result of this, and the enjoyment we gain from doing the work in itself. Social impact is, here, included as an intrinsic factor, despite the fact that it implicitly relies on others beside the individual(s) doing the work.Find your best work with cord

Extrinsic factors

Money

It seems natural nowadays, but the idea of salaried work as a route to happiness and satisfaction is a relatively new one.

Aristotle felt that paid labour was incompatible with living a fulfilled life, as it would corrupt the body and stagnate the mind, while Christianity maintained that work was a punishment meted out to humanity in penance for Original Sin. Avarice – the desire for wealth – was considered one of the seven deadly sins by Christian thinkers.

Not until the second half of the 20th Century did (most of) Western society truly shake off this notion and come to view the desire for material remuneration as a positive end in itself; the incentive to productive labour that, in turn, powered economies and enriched societies. The economic policies of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher during the late 1970s and 1980s embraced the concept at the heart of consumer capitalism; that work could do more than satisfy people’s basic needs, and in fact cater to their ever-expanding wants.

Wherever individuals stand on the political, economic and moral ramifications of consumer capitalism, one thing is clear: salary in the early 21st century is a fundamental element of how people evaluate their current or desired work. It consistently ranks as the most influential factor in people’s decisions to change jobs, and invariably is among the chief rankles of labour unionists leading industrial action.

It is, therefore, entirely natural that financial remuneration is the first component of our best work. For most individuals, work will have to provide the means to meeting certain life criteria – covering, say, the costs associated with children or the pursuit of leisure activities – as a minimum before it can be considered a person’s “best work”.

Counter to this, however, is research suggesting that, beyond sufficiency to cover our basic needs, more money does not necessarily correlate with greater happiness (though some recent studies have pushed back against this view). Additionally, focusing too heavily on financial aspects can blind us to the innate satisfactions of voluntary work or, at the extreme end, ascetic forms of work such as monastic lifestyles.

Prestige

Not all the extrinsic rewards of work are material. Some forms of work are performed for the reputational advantages they confer.

For example, academia is in many respects a poorly-remunerated field of work (especially in relation to the training or educational inputs required). In this field, the principle extrinsic reward is the prestige of having one’s name appear on, say, the cover of Science magazine, or the moniker of a theorem.

For engineers, building an app that is well-regarded and used enthusiastically by our peers can have as strong an extrinsic pull as work that is financially rewarding, but less prestigious.

Power and influence

In the UK, a member of Parliament earns £84,144 per annum. In addition to this, a cabinet minister earns an extra £67,505, while the Prime Minister earns an additional £75,440 per annum, bringing the maximum salary that can be earned through British politics to just under £160,000 per annum.

This is by no means a small salary. However, many British politicians have net worths several times this amount, and former careers in fields like investment banking that pay substantially higher. The stresses and exertions of a political career clearly aren’t justified on purely financial grounds; it is the power and influence (as well as the prestige) that comes with shaping a country’s governance that attracts people to this field.

This is an extreme example of power and influence as an extrinsic factor in the work people choose. But there are abundant more everyday examples – police officers, teachers, journalists and, indeed, CEOs are all positions that people choose in part because of the power and influence they convey.

Intrinsic factors

Fulfilment

The idea that the kind of work we do completes us as humans (or prevents us doing so) dates back, again, to Aristotle, but has received greater attention in recent years.

Roman Krznaric defines fulfilling work as “work that is life-enhancing, that broadens our horizons and makes us feel more human.” He adds that “just as we seek to express our individuality in the clothes we wear or the music we listen to, so too we should search for work that enables us to express who we are, and who we want to be.”

There is, then, a school of thought with a long and proud pedigree suggesting that our work, and how we perform it, is an essential part of who we are, as a species and as individuals. Work that realises our fullest potential selves – through self-actualisation – positions us closer than any other kind to the top of the Maslow pyramid, and in this sense is the closest to what might universally be defined as a person’s Best Work.

Indeed, fulfilment is perhaps the ultimate intrinsic benefit of work: the following intrinsic factors are its contributory features.

Challenge

Lots of animals experience boredom. It’s tempting to add that humans are particularly susceptible to it, but this may just be anthropocentrism.

What is clear is that evolution appears to have equipped us with a psychological drive to action. Most people, if they remain inactive for extended periods of time, slip into deep states of boredom with potentially serious psychological consequences.

Work challenges us. At its best, work provides us with physical and/or mental stimulation that we depend on psychologically. For this reason, more challenging forms of work (such as playing professional tennis, or software development) are likely to be closer to our best work than more sedentary, repetitive jobs, provided that they are within the bounds of our ability – i.e. are not so challenging that they cause distress.

Learning and development

When our work challenges us, we learn from it. Physically challenging work (within reason) strengthens our bodies, and mentally challenging work broadens our minds. The physical and psychological benefits of work are ends in their own right, but their impact on us enable us to enjoy our time outside of work more, and perhaps even prolong our lives.

For this reason, it is not uncommon to hear people cite length of time in a role served and a flattening of the learning curve as reasons to begin searching for new work. A person’s best work is likely, therefore, to be in a field where as they learn and grow, their scope to take on new challenges, and learn still more, expands accordingly.

Enjoyment

Work can, and at its best should, be fun. James Suzman observes that part of the difficulty of even defining what “work” is lies in the fact that the distinction between work and leisure often depends on context: “to a commercial artist, drawing is work, but to millions of amateur artists it is a relaxing pleasure.”

Many software engineers are drawn to the field because of the innate enjoyment that can be taken from solving complex technical problems, and unpicking the inner workings of computers, smartphones and the apps they run. Our best work ought, therefore, to have a kernel of enjoyment at its core; a soft centre of genuine pleasure taken in the activity itself that alleviates the struggles and stresses that inherently emerge when we pour our hearts and souls into an endeavour.

Social impact

Alain de Botton posits that work feels meaningful ‘whenever it allows us to generate delight or reduce suffering in others.’

Many forms of work have a positive impact on a specific person, groups of people, or society more broadly. Some forms of work – such as social care or charity work – are very directly socially beneficial, whereas others – such as writing code that powers restaurant PoS systems – are more commercially driven, whilst still deriving their commercial value from an improvement they make in people’s lives (in this instance, the working lives of restaurant staff and the dining experience of their customers.)

Some forms of work – such as credit card fraud or drug dealing – are generally regarded to have a negative social value and, as such, are outlawed. Such vocations both reduce delight and elevate suffering in their “customers.” Other forms of work are have their social value hotly contested; so, while industries like gambling are not banned outright, they are heavily regulated, and perceived by many workers as incompatible with their personal values (others, however, view the entertainment value provided to consenting adults as full social justification for the industry). This contested status of gambling perhaps stems from the fact that, while it frequently generates delight for its clientele, it can also greatly increase their suffering.

Whatever line of work you are in, it can help to reflect on the social value it provides, and to what extent this aligns with your own values. Or, in a more formulaic ‘do Bottonian” sense, the extent to which it either generates delight or reduces suffering.

It is, however, an observable phenomenon that work with high social impact tends to be poorly compensated, and that work which generates delight tends, on the whole, to pay better than work that reduces suffering. Film and sports stars are paid exponentially more than nurses and social workers. The creators of social networks, e-commerce giants and streaming platforms out-earn those of edtech or digital health services.

This alludes to one of the thorniest problems at the heart of theories of work itself: that over the course of the 20th Century, the “economic problem” posited by economist John Maynard Keynes (i.e., the scarcity of resources required for survival) has, as he predicted, been largely solved by Western capitalist economies, but that, contrary to his prediction, this hasn’t reduced the amount people in these economies work. If anything – given the greater participation in the workforce of women over the period, and a tendency towards longer working hours – the opposite has happened. Technology enables most of the West’s material requirements to be provided relatively cheaply, but we work harder than ever.

A balanced mix

The ingredients in the mixing pot that combine to create our best work fall into two categories: extrinsic factors such as money, prestige, and influence; and intrinsic factors that give us a sense of fulfilment, challenge, self-development, enjoyment, and of benefit to the society around us.

Balancing the precise mixture of these ingredients is a unique challenge for every individual. Some will be more motivated by money, others by power and influence. Some are disinterested in these entirely, and will gravitate towards work that has the greatest social impact over all other forms.

This essay is intended part as a checklist, but more as an invitation and guide to self-reflection; a sounding board against which feelings of disquiet and aspiration towards current and imagined lines of work can be compared, in the hope that more people the world over can find their own best work.Find personalised resources on cord

References and further reading

Leader bio – Dan Mcneil

This long-form piece is based on an hour-long interview with Dan McNeil, a Head of Engineering I’ve known since I was an agency recruiter. Dan’s thoughtfulness on topics like inclusivity and neurodiversity have always made him a distinctive engineering manager to follow and learn from, so interviewing him and distilling his philosophy was a fascinating experience.

The article can be read below, or in its original location here.


If I were a sculptor

One paradoxical aspect of technical leadership is that, in general, it involves a switch from solving technical problems to solving people problems. Being proficient at the former doesn’t necessarily imply any level of aptitude for the latter. A talented programmer of code doesn’t necessarily equate to an inspiring leader of engineers.

Dan McNeil – most recently Head of Engineering at iTech Media – embodies one potential solution to this paradox. From an early age, his focus has always been on solving problems. While coding has been one useful tool he’s acquired along the way to help him in this front, it hasn’t ever been the end goal in its own right. His focus from the outset has been on outcomes, and the particular tool used to reach these has been incidental.

“If I were a sculptor,” he says, “ – that’s a line from a song, isn’t it? – if I were a sculptor, I’d be much more interested in the sculpture than the chisel.”

As someone who has, in his time, managed dozens of direct reports and engineering divisions numbering 70 to 80, Dan finds himself sculpting people – their work and their career trajectories – far more than code or product these days.

Ironically, he has assembled a suite of tools with which to do so, centring on authenticity, transparency, and inclusivity. These differentiate him from the crowd of engineering managers, and indeed directly challenge many of the industry’s unspoken assumptions.

And then it was maths

Dan’s journey into technology reflects his focus on the end result.

“Maths was always my first love,” he says. This love led to a string of home computers, starting with the ZX81 and continuing with a Spectrum 128 and a Commodore Amiga, to appear in his early life. Back then, his mother would diligently enter the software code, which was then required to be entered by hand from magazines, into the machine, at which point young Dan would become obsessive about understanding how it worked.

“Nowadays, I would talk about things such as flow of control, but back then, it was just: ‘how does this sit together?’”

Despite this, it never occurred to Dan to study computer science.

“When it came to picking my A levels, it was maths, further maths, further maths special paper, Cambridge entry papers in maths… and then it was maths!”

The toolkit

Despite his preference for the end result, it’s worth examining the toolkit Dan uses, as a manager, to create these flourishing careers – or, more accurately, to create the kind of environments in which they can flourish.

This toolkit is rooted in one of his first positions after university. Dan spent a combined ten years at Symbian and, following the company’s acquisition by Nokia, the Symbian Foundation. For most of this period, Dan was a Customer Engineering Consultant: the face of Symbian, embedded within the engineering teams of the phone manufacturers implementing Symbian’s software.

Here, Dan was introduced to the other type of challenge that grabs his attention most: those concerning people. The demands of acting as the face of one organisation within another taught him the fundamental tenets that now comprise his managerial philosophy: transparency, authenticity, and inclusivity.

Everything that can be shared

Management, like consulting, often involves acting as an information gatekeeper between two parties. Dan’s take on transparency takes account of that.

“I believe that everything that can be shared, should be shared.

“If somebody came to me and said, ‘What’s my colleague’s salary?’ I can’t tell them, but I can tell them why I can’t tell them. And that’s what I mean by transparency. It doesn’t mean that I blurt everything out to everybody, but it means that I either tell people things or I explain why I can’t share that information with them.”

At Symbian, Dan was privy to information that couldn’t be shared with its customers, and conversely gained insights through working with its customers that couldn’t go back to Symbian.

“If the manufacturer said to me, ‘We’d like to do this,’ I might just say to them, ‘I wouldn’t recommend doing that, but I can’t tell you the details of why, because it’s confidential.’ Obviously, if they don’t trust me, that’s useless. When they trust that I’ve got their best interests at heart, they’re going to say, ‘Okay, we trust you.’”

The right way of doing things

As such, authenticity is a key pillar of Dan’s approach. His take on transparency falls apart if it isn’t met with trust, which in turn relies on authenticity on his part.

“If you are authentic, honest and kind, you can still have tough conversations. You can still have conversations about performance. You can still do all the tough bits of management, but you do it within a space where people feel safe. So people feel comfortable to have a conversation with you where you say, ‘Look, I don’t think this is working out,’ during their probation, or to have a performance conversation with somebody whose performance has dipped.

“If you come from a place of kindness and curiosity, you will actually get to the bottom of what’s going on for that person. I don’t believe anybody wants to come to work and do a bad job. So you understand what’s happening and you can genuinely support them.”

He tells an anecdote from a previous company, which posed an exercise to its managers. A youth sports team, with a squad of 20, has progressed to the next stage of a competition. Only 15 squad members can be taken through to this stage. The managers – all of whom, besides the HR Manager, were men – were asked how they would decide who to progress.

Besides the HR Manager, Dan was the only person whose solution suggested including the squad members themselves in the decision-making process. Everyone else suggested some form of quantifying each squad member’s performance, then informing them of the decision once the ideal 15 had been identified.

“I came away from that initially thinking, ‘Great, I’ve got something different to offer.’ But actually, my voice got smothered. The others tried to coach me into thinking more like them, because that would make me ‘a better manager,’ rather than this lone voice who was saying ‘Maybe there’s another way of doing this.’

“I think that taught me to be more true to my belief in the right way of doing things.”

Being himself at work was a long journey for Dan to begin with, and in many respects it is still ongoing.

“I’ve been openly gay now at work since back in my Symbian days, but every time you start a new job, there is the question, as a leader coming into the organisation, of ‘Is this a safe space for me to come out or not?’ And it’s very easy in 2022 to say, ‘Well, all tech companies are.’ Well, actually, they’re not.”

Over time, Dan has learned that authenticity is less to do with conforming to those around him, and more to do with being himself.

“If I conform to think the same way and do the same things as the people around me, that’s the opposite of diversity. You want people to come in and think differently.”

Everyone tries to fix introverts

Dan’s own journey and learnings, especially to do with authenticity, have fed directly into the third pillar of his managerial philosophy: inclusivity.

As above, Dan feels that progress is still required on the industry’s inclusiveness as far as the LGBTQ+ community is concerned. Women, also, are under-represented. Dan cites figures suggesting that female representation in tech is actually falling from 10-15 years ago.

Corporate cultures that centre around stereotypically male activities may, in part, fuel this problem by creating non-inclusive environments for women.

“Let’s hire more women. Let’s aim for a gender balance. But it’s not just about finding and hiring women who fit the existing culture, but about changing the culture to make it more attractive to women.”

It is, however, in neurodiversity that Dan thinks the industry has the most ground to make up.

“Generally, it’s seen as not acceptable if corporate culture is exclusive of a group of people because of their gender, or their gender identity, or their sexuality or their religion or their race. Where we haven’t yet got is where we interrogate company cultures to say, ‘Is this inclusive of people who are not extroverts? Is it inclusive of people who are on the autism spectrum? Of people who are not comfortable speaking up in loud groups? Is it inclusive of people who suffer with anxiety?’”

There is a counter-intuitive aspect to this. The extrovert-heavy tech company culture is seemingly at odds with the “non-social” IT geek stereotype. When pushed on how this discrepancy can exist, Dan says:

“Entrepreneurs tend to be extroverts. And I know people will say, ‘Oh, there’s quiet entrepreneurs who aren’t social,’ but it’s different to being social. Somebody who has founded a company has had the self-confidence and the self-assurance to put themselves out there and talk about the company.”

In other words, company cultures have a tendency to reflect their founders’ personalities. This has consequences for the people who work there, and how genuinely diverse and inclusive they can be.

“Everybody tries to fix introverts. ‘Oh, you should come out of your shell more. You should relax more. You should learn how to enjoy yourself.’ Nobody tells the extroverts to calm down and meet in the middle!

“If there was somebody in the office who never talked to anybody, a manager who wasn’t that aware of neurodiversity might say, ‘I don’t feel like you’re communicating very much. Is there anything we can do to help you speak up more?’ But if somebody’s walking around the office, high-fiving everybody and whooping, is any manager actually going to have a word with them and say, ‘Look, your behaviour is actually making some people uncomfortable’? Probably not.”

Over the years, Dan has cultivated the art of honesty when giving his reasons for not attending company events.

“For years I said, ‘I can’t go to the Christmas party because my second cousin’s dog is having a wash,’ and that kind of thing. But in the end, I just said, ‘I’m not comfortable in that environment.’”

Taking this bold approach has prompted two forms of response in Dan’s colleagues. Some attempt to cajole him, imploring him to give the big, loud social events a try.

“The number of people who say, ‘Just try it, I’ll go with you. Why don’t you come and talk to me?’ But if you organised a mountain climbing expedition and you had somebody in the office who had a bad leg, you wouldn’t say, ‘Why don’t you just try harder on it?’ You’d say ‘No, you can’t do that.’

Others, however, have confided in him privately that they envy his honesty in giving his authentic reason for not attending such events. While Dan doesn’t consider himself a self-assured person, those around him seem to perceive him as such.

“I still don’t think my self-assurance is real. The ‘self-assured’ me is a learned behaviour that I have gained by watching other people who appear self-assured and thinking, ‘What can I do to appear like them?’

“Sometimes it misfires. Sometimes I come off as cocky. Sometimes I come off as arrogant because I overshoot it and it’s not because I am those things, it’s because I have seen other people acting that way.”

Enjoying the challenge

Speaking to Dan reveals a complex, nuanced picture of what a person’s best work might look like. He eschews the traditional quantitative metrics by which we tend to evaluate managers – “How big is your team? How many direct reports?” – and focuses his energy on the qualitative aspects of his leadership remit.

“The complexity of the people stuff increases as you get more people. The coaching you need to give to managers increases because as you get up to 70 or 80 people, I can’t get directly involved. If it’s a team of 20 or 30 people, if I need to or if it’s useful, I can get involved in the more complicated HR cases or I can lean in closer to technical decisions. And I could do that to a certain extent in a team of 70, 80, but not really because there’s just so much, so actually it involves a different style of management.

“I think that’s a useful, healthy style anyway: to empower the managers within the teams to be able to run their teams in a way that works, and have checks and balances to make sure that everything’s okay and that I’ve got evidence everything’s okay and I can spot when things aren’t, but without me being in the detail of what’s going on in the teams every day.“

Carving a group of sculptors who can shape themselves and their teams autonomously, in other words, is more productive than trying to chisel every detail into place himself.

Ultimately, for Dan, the defining question over whether he is doing his best work is: “Do I enjoy the challenge? Or do I find the challenge frustrating?”

This typifies his own approach to the two fundamental facets of technical leadership: technology, and people. For a man who found coding in many ways frustrating, but who was drawn into it as a means to the end of solving interesting problems, the cost-satisfaction scale was perhaps inevitably going to end up tipping towards the more human problems.

It is tempting to be surprised that a natural introvert should be drawn in this direction, but as Dan has learned along the way, it is often what makes us different that conveys our true strength. His transparent, authentic and inclusive style has been directly informed by his own experience, and enables him to act as an example to others who lack his learned self-assurance over how to pursue their own best work.

Final Over and Out

12th May

Our train is delayed and doesn’t get into Delhi until mid-morning, but thankfully the restaurant at the LetsBunk Poshtel – a trendy setup decorated in minimalist Nordic style – never closes, so we can order whatever we like for lunch. Except that today is voting day in Delhi, so we can only choose dishes made from ingredients delivered to the Poshtel yesterday. Which is basically none of them.

After unpacking, a hearty lunch of butterless white toast and a massive nap, dinner takes care of itself. We’d already decided back in January that going to Pizza Express in Delhi had an irresistible reverse-orientalist allure, so we set off towards DLF Promenade, a shopping centre large and bright enough to make UB City in Bengaluru look like a street market.

It’s like being back in London, in the most depressingly soulless way possible. There are Calvin Klein outlets, Forever21, Jamie’s Italian, even a Marks & Spencer. But who are we to judge? We’re here to eat our favourite, London-born brand of pizza. And it is good.

On our way back to the Poshtel we stop in studenty, street arty Hauz Khas village for a beer at the charmingly self-deprecating bar Imperfecto. An enthusiastic grunge band are hammering out fuzzy chords while a creepy bloke in a trilby waltzes lecherously around the dance floor. Behind them the final scenes of the IPL final are playing out.

At one point I’d hoped we might go and watch an IPL match live while we were here, but for a long time it looked like the matches would all take place in the Gulf states due to security concerns with the elections, so we went to see the international T20 in Bangalore instead. Those security concerns were put to bed, though, and I’ve been dipping into the tournament every time we’ve been around a TV showing the matches which, this being India, is quite a lot. Early on I picked RCB (Royal Challengers Bangalore) as my side as we’d been to their stadium and the talismanic Virat Kohli is their captain. However, as time’s gone by I’ve realised that was a poor choice for two reasons: firstly, they’re terrible and finished bottom of the table; secondly, while Kohli is a huge star with a Bollywood actress wife and enough sponsorship deals to keep him on every other advert in India, the previous captain Mahendra Singh (“MS”) Dhoni is, according to a friendly lad who works at the Poshtel, the people’s favourite.

The former railway ticket inspector, who was en route to becoming a football goalkeeper before his coach suggested he join a cricket team as wicket-keeper for extra practice, captains the Chennai Super Kings. That’s an IPL franchise, not a cigarette brand. CSK, as they are known, are currently on the big screen behind the grunge band, attempting to chase down Mumbai Indians’ total of 149.

It’s looking near-impossible for them until Mumbai’s Sri Lankan fast bowler Lasith Malinga bowls a torrid couple of overs that allow CSK back into the match, and it goes right down to the final over. The entire bar, besides the chap in the trilby (still grooving away despite the band having finished their set and left), are on their feet, nervous with anticipation. Even Rebecca is chewing her fingernails. Come the final ball, CSK need just one run to equal Mumbai’s total, and two to win the tournament. Malinga, earlier the villain of the piece, sets Mumbai alight by dismissing Shardul Thakur LBW.

Initially I’m bummed out because I’d been supporting Chennai but I quickly realise that I’d only decided I support them this morning, so I get over the dramatic defeat with minimal sulking.

13th May

A few months back, my friend Nav from my old work and I realised we’d both be in Delhi at the same time and arranged to meet up, so in the afternoon Rebecca and I pop over to meet Nav and his wife Parsim – herself a Delhiite – at Haveli Dharampura, a two-hundred-year-old boutique hotel in Chandni Chowk, the heart of Old Delhi.

Afternoon tea at the hotel is a dream; a procession of perfectly-made street foods including pav bhaji and dahi puri. It finishes with a plate of kulfi – dense, creamy ice cream – which I enjoy very much, and Nav and Parsim tell us they know a great place to take us later on. When we’re finished eating, Parsim shows us up to the roof, where a man with a broad moustache is preparing a kite.

Originating in China, kite flying or kite fighting is a popular sport across northern India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. I can dimly remember an episode of QI that characterises it as the most dangerous sport in the world; strings are often studded with broken glass, to make it easier to sever those of opponents, and people are frequently injured by rogue lines.

The scene is wonderful. We can see the Red Fort and the Jama Masjid, and as the sky turns gold before sunset kite flyers emerge on the rooftops all around us. Our flier, an Old Delhi native who works at the hotel thanks to its links to the traditions of the city, has finished preparing the kite on its long reel of twine and tugs expertly at the string as it soars high above us, fluttering in the breeze.

He passes Rebecca the reel and, much to the consternation of the guy on the roof opposite, she accidentally cuts his wire. As his kite falls to the ground, Parsim explains that in addition to the rooftop competition between fliers of kites, at street level kids compete to collect the kites as they fall – like in The Kite Runner.

After a while Rebecca, unaware she’d managed to fell the neighbour’s kite, passes the reel to me and the kite immediately dive-bombs towards the rooftops. Our pro guide tugs quickly on the line, restoring the kite, and after a little while I get the hang of keeping it airborne and roughly where I want it to be – not quickly enough, though, to prevent Rebecca’s victim exacting his revenge by downing my kite. I apologise to the man, who laughs and procures a stack of a dozen or so more.

On a nearby roof, a flock of pigeons circles closely, reminding me of William Dalrymple’s encounter with pigeon fanciers in City of Djinns. We head downstairs as the sun dips below the horizon, and emerge into the dusky streets of Chandni Chowk. Following Parsim and Nav as they expertly navigate a rabbit-warren of alleyways seemingly as tangled as the spaghetti junction of electric wires overhead, we pass surreal stacks of ring-binders as we wriggle through Delhi’s stationary-manufacturing district on our way to Kuremal Mohan Lal’s.

This cosy kulfi wale is a Delhi, and even international, institution. Parsim explains that the outfit has catered at weddings as far afield as Rome while the proprietor assembles her a stack of different kulfis for her father’s birthday tomorrow. The ice-creamerer to the global Delhiite diaspora treats us to a deluge of different flavours while we sit in the cosy parlour, from chikoo to the signature stuffed mango (mango skin filled with mango kulfi then frozen).

Parsim offers us a lift back to the hostel, giving us a chance to compare notes on Indian and British driving habits. Nav explains that Parsim refuses to drive in London because “she finds it too boring”. Parsim laughs as she weaves between a bus and an onrushing wall of tuk-tuks.

14th May

The penultimate day of the trip is all about luxury. Frugal budgeting as we’ve scrimped and saved our way around India for four months (AKA a generous birthday gift from my mum) has earned us a one-night stay at the airport plaza Radisson Blu.

We’ve booked the cheapest room available, but when the porter lets us in the room’s phone rings non-stop for no apparent reason so we’re apologetically upgraded to a suite. We spend the first ten minutes or so running excitedly around its capacious lounge area then another half hour meticulously exploring the rest of the rooms, before a lazy afternoon spent by the pool and eating eye-wateringly expensive meals at the hotel’s restaurant, all the while secretly craving another round of Bengaluru street food.

15th May

Barely slept last night. Nerves? Sorrow the journey is over? Excitement to finally resume the Football Manager save I’ve had on hold for months?

Whatever it was, it might explain why it takes a full thirty minutes at the check-in desk, while sceptical-looking airport staff shake their heads at our tickets, to remember that I had an email from the airline a few weeks back with updated flight details. Rebecca – who, bless her soul, has had her patience with my insistence that I’ve “got things under control” worn almost completely through during our travels – gapes at me in terrified disbelief for the entire ordeal. New, blissfully-compliant barcodes scanned, we’re able to board in good time after all. Ample time, in fact, since our departure is delayed by a thunderstorm raging around us, throwing ominous forks of lightning down around the airport from a charcoal-grey sky.

“Airplanes can’t get hit by lightning, right?” I ask Rebecca. She shrugs and says she doesn’t know. I realise she’s not yet forgiven me for the check-in desk fiasco.

But eventually, we take off. And eventually, we land. Home to green fields and blue skies, dappled with a stunning crimson sunset.

Kulcha Vultures

8th May

Across four months’ travel in India and Nepal one constant, which might not have had the attention it deserves in my blog so far, is the friendliness of the people we’ve encountered everywhere we’ve been. From Kerala to Pokhara people have welcomed us into their country, their town, sometimes their homes, and made it clear they want us to have a happy, enjoyable time there. Sure, from time to time this manifests itself in ways that grate after a while, particularly the number of random, casual meetings (usually on or waiting for public transport) that lead to requests for selfies. But it all comes from a very good place.

For positivity, welcome and overall exuberance, though, the Punjabis might well take the crown.

Early signs of what’s to come appear during the second half of hour epic train ride from Lucknow to Amritsar. Once the train eventually arrives, Rebecca and I have berths in separate booths thanks to booking our tickets last minute. I’m still unwell, so sleep almost solidly through the first twelve hours. By the time I wake we’re approaching the North-Eastern state of Punjab, and the carriages are beginning to thin out. A succession of kindly visitors enter what has started to feel like my own personal sick bay to let me know that they’re happy to swap places with me if I want to travel in Rebecca’s compartment, and the ticket inspector tells me that if she wants to move into this one there aren’t going to be any other passengers for the rest of our journey. I of course know that she doesn’t want to share a booth with someone seeing out the end of a bout of Delhi belly, but I haven’t the courage to explain that to anyone. Plus, she’s asleep, and it’s generally prudent not to change that.

9th May

Having got in at 3am – impressively only three hours behind schedule, despite our train being six late to arrive at Lucknow – we sleep through breakfast and lunch, but take an afternoon walk down to nearby Neelam’s, rumoured to do a good Amritsari kulcha, the local delicacy of flatbread stuffed with potato. Sadly their tandoor doesn’t switch on until evening, but with my stomach starting to feel a bit more normal I tentatively munch at a pile of veg pulao and dal makhani.

Then we sit for a little while outside the Golden Temple, soaking up the vibes. This is what I wish all of India was like. Bright and bustling markets without being oppressive; everybody friendly without being invasive. Even the guard sitting atop an armoured jeep at the controls of a huge machine gun – a stark reminder that just six years before my lifetime tanks were sent into the temple complex – seems happy and carefree as he chats with bystanders. We decide to go inside the temple proper tomorrow morning at dawn, and buy ourselves the requisite headgear from a stand opposite.

10th May

The Golden Temple might be one of my favourite places in the world. There is a special magic about the centre point of Sikhism that, even when visiting holy cities like Rome, Jerusalem and Varanasi, I haven’t experienced anywhere else.

Everything about the temple symbolises the humility, inclusiveness and generosity of Sikhism. The man at the shoe stand outside gives a boiled sweet to everyone who leaves their shoes with him. There are four entrances to the compound, representing the fact that the temple is open to anyone, from anywhere, of any faith. When entering one of these, you first step through a shallow pool of water to cleanse your bare feet, then descend a flight of stairs to remind visitors of the humility that people should show when approaching God. Surrounded by the four outer walls of white marble is a large tank of water surrounded by marble walkways, over which the faithful prostrate themselves or walk in homage to the religion’s Gurus alongside tourists soaking up the atmosphere. In the centre of the tank is the Harimandir Sahib, the temple itself, splendid in bright, shining gold.

The complex serves food, for free, to over ten thousand people every day, again regardless of faith or background. Speakers project the prayers and songs being recited inside and, at the corners, large displays show the words translated into Punjabi, Hindi and English, creating a serene, meditative atmosphere that invites non-believers to savour the words, melodies and their meaning as much as it does the faithful. For somewhere so deeply spiritual it’s welcoming and non-judgemental in a way that makes you pause for breath.

Particularly so when we complete our circuit and head upstairs to the Sikh museum. Sikhism is the youngest of the world’s major religions, with its first Guru, Nanak, having been born in 1469. Its five and a half centuries have been painfully riddled with violence and persecution from Mughal, British and Indian rulers, and of course the brutal impact of partition. The museum is mostly a collection of paintings and, in more recent cases, photographs of gurus, martyrs and historical events (mainly battles) important to the history of Sikhism and the Punjab. It pulls no punches; there are paintings of Baba Deep Singh fighting Afghan forces with his decapitated head in hand, and in the most recent gallery grisly photographs of twentieth century martyrs taken after their deaths.

It’s moving, and it tells a tale of constant struggle for survival, but somehow the brutality of the Punjab’s history hasn’t led to bitterness, or xenophobia, or aggression. Something about the people here, more than likely to do with the teachings of Sikhism itself, creates a sense of happiness and goodwill that is completely entrancing.

Afterwards, we head to Neelam’s for breakfast. The tandoor is firing and the kulcha are delicious.

*

In many respects we’re a bizarre species of animal, with an insatiable desire for the unnecessary, the over-the-top and the extravagant. Something about the Wagah border ceremony really hammers this fact home.

On 15th August 1947 the Punjab was torn apart by partition. Lahore and Amritsar, two cities about thirty miles down the road from each other – think Manchester to Liverpool, or York to Hull – suddenly found themselves on different sides of a national border. It happened literally overnight; for reasons I struggle to wrap my head around, the border lines were kept secret even from the new heads of state being created until two days after India and Pakistan gained independence from Britain. The ensuing chaos displaced as many as twelve million refugees and may have caused up to two million deaths. Relations between India and Pakistan have remained fraught ever since, with war already breaking out three times in the seventy-odd years both countries have existed; only the other month, dogfighting jets took to the skies over Kashmir.

With all this in mind, the Wagah border ceremony is beautifully incongruous. A display of feel-good patriotism every bit as flamboyant as Eurovision, it epitomises the positivity and tolerance of the Punjab. For me, it’s North India’s must-see cultural event.

Of course, the performers are soldiers first and foremost, and if this and the scores of tank barracks we pass on the way to the ceremony aren’t a stark enough reminder that this is the meeting point of two nuclear superpowers the succession of signs describing the Border Security Force as “India’s First Line of Defence” do the trick.

Nonetheless, the ceremony is a party from start to finish. For half an hour before it starts, the women in the crowd are invited into the central area to dance to thumping pop songs; jubilant arms wave through the air as Jai Ho blares out. An assured master of ceremonies in BSF camo gear whips the audience into a frenzy with military panache and swagger, before the border gate opens and the real show begins.

In essence the ceremony is a symbolic contest between India and Pakistan, apparently manifested as a trial of whose sergeant can hold a note the longest and loudest, and whose troops can goose-step the highest. Complete with outrageous headgear, the parade is often compared to Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks. I remember it being referred to in a lecture for some reason back in university, and I crave more knowledge about its origins and meaning, but in the moment it comes across more than anything as a spoof of the notion of military strength, a raucous, celebratory middle finger to the spectre of armed conflict.

11th May

It’s cloudy, so we venture out in the middle of the day to see the Jallianwallah Bagh memorial.

In 1919, after escalating tensions between the British colonial administration and the nascent Indian independence movement, the British passed the Rowlatt Act which limited the civil liberties of Indians and allowed the authorities to arrest and imprison suspected “terrorists” (covering a broad range of activities) for up to two years, without trial.

The Act led to widespread protests across India, especially in the Punjab, and on 13th April a large crowd gathered in the walled garden of Jallianwallah Bagh. Some of the crowd were peacefully protesting against the act and deportation of two Indian leaders; some were celebrating the Sikh festival Baisakhi.

Acting Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer ordered a battalion of soldiers into the garden. They blocked the main entrance and opened fire on the crowd for ten minutes.

The British didn’t conduct a body count at the time, but estimated they had killed two to three hundred people and counted 1,650 rounds fired. Indian estimates put the victim count much higher; the Indian National Congress estimated over one thousand people were killed, and another 1,500 injured. Despite its being denounced as “monstrous” by Winston Churchill in 1920, a “deeply shameful event” by David Cameron in 2013 and a “shameful scar” by Theresa May this year, shortly before the event’s centenary, the British government has never formally apologised for the massacre.

I want to visit the site, expecting a reflective space in which to contemplate and pay whatever respects seem appropriate. But like so much of India it surprises me. It’s full of happy, chattering families. Yes, there is a plaque at the entrance outlining the context of the massacre and remdinding visitors of the “everlasting tyranny of the British”, and a large stone memorial in the centre commemorating the victims. There are also eerie topiary sculptures of soldiers aiming rifles into the garden, but it otherwise looks like a corner of Victoria Park on bank holiday weekend.

Rebecca and I find a space in which to sit down and chat, and soon notice a group of young lads loitering with intent. There’s a pre-amble to the selfie request that I can now spot a mile off; it involves a few minutes of staking out, from a distance of ten feet or so, walking back and forth while eyeing up the target. I don’t know if the people doing this think they’re being subtle, given the massive gulf between what is considered an acceptable level of staring in Indian and Western culture, but this little manoeuvre leads after a few minutes into one of two opening gambits: either “Which country?” or “Where are you from?” Never, repeat never, will the exchange open with “Hello,” “What is your name?” or “How are you?” Always, without exception, the initiator will ask your nationality first.

Sometimes, this is followed up with questions about your employment and/or marital status, and especially curious people might even get round to asking your name towards the end of the conversation, but in this as in the majority of cases once the kids discover we’re British they skip straight to the last and only important question: “Can we take a selfie?”

They don’t seem to care that we’re British in a garden dedicated to an atrocity committed by our nation against theirs, and even though it’s just beginning to rain we’re far too embarrassed by that salient fact to refuse, so we pose awkwardly in the middle of the huddle while our photos are taken.

This turns out to be a mistake. My mum, who first visited India twenty years ago and returns from time to time on business, advised me before we set off not to give money to beggars in the country because it would lead to being beleaguered by crowds of others that see us doing so. It’s a sign of the economic progress the country has made over recent years that this hasn’t been the case for us. But the fast-growing middle class do a very similar thing when they see you’re willing to pose for a selfie.

Three families that had been happily sitting and nattering are on their feet in a flash, and a rough queue forms with Rebecca and I unwittingly at its endpoint. The heavens open, but nobody seems at all bothered; a lady fastidiously positions her daughters either side of us after she’s finished taking the group shots while my shirt is gradually drenched. Eventually, the impromptu photo shoot is over and Rebecca and I are permitted to leave the garden, soaked and faintly embarrassed but happy not to have caused offence.

We emerge into central Amritsar, which is much busier on a Saturday afternoon that it has been so far. Every few paces we’re pressed to sign up for trips to the Wagah border, and I crave to know the Punjabi for “Saw it yesterday, mate.” Getting more and more annoyed by the constant attention, and ongoing selfie requests, we pick through the crowds to a splendid statue of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, and nearby collapse into disbelieving laughter when the eighth cabbie in a row tries to persuade us to take a ride somewhere. I ask incredulously if he didn’t see us palm off the last seven, and he laughs, I think sensing our exasperation.

“Have you seen the partition museum?” he asks.

I roll my eyes. “No. Where is it?”

“Two minutes’ walk, over there.” He points to a large, impressive building of ochre red in mock Indo-Saracenic style, just across the road. It looks well worth a look. We thank him sincerely and make our way over.

In my life so far I’ve seen plenty of museums dedicated to the misery and suffering that the British and their empire have inflicted on the world. Particularly fresh in mind are the Yasser Arafat museum in Ramallah and the Gandhi memorial museum in Madurai. Partition, though, ranks for me as perhaps the most tragic, negligent episodes of the lot, despite fierce competition.

To start with, the religious strife between Muslims and Hindus that even now plagues Indian politics and defines the country’s relationship with its closest neighbours was stoked by the British in the hope of undermining the independence movement within the country. Then, when independence became inevitable and the need to divide the new countries along religious lines clear, they sent a man who had never been to India before to carry out the estimated five-year task of deciding the new boundaries in just six weeks. Still, at least we learnt our lesson and no longer try to enact massive constitutional change within stifling, arbitrary deadlines.

What the museum makes clear is that the human cost just wasn’t a consideration of those making the decisions, who were more concerned with saving face than saving lives. Because the precise location of the borders was kept secret until after independence, what might have been a measured, peaceful movement of Muslims into the new Pakistan and Hindus into India took place in a whirlwind of panic, confusion and suspicion. It was the largest mass migration in human history, and thanks to appalling mismanagement by the British the death toll reached seven figures. The museum chronicles the events leading up to partition itself, and is especially moving thanks to its nuanced depictions of what partition meant for different minority groups; women, Jains, Dalits, even newspapers and cricket teams. A heart-wrenching plaque explains that, more than seventy years on, families that were separated from each other in the chaos of partition are still yet to regain contact, and includes advice to help people searching for long-lost relatives get in touch.

We’re very reflective afterwards, and Rebecca suggests I go for a walk around the Golden Temple to process my thoughts while she waits outside with our bags. It’s even more wonderful at dusk than it is just after dawn; evening prayers are beginning, so around the outside of the walkway hundreds, possibly thousands of Sikhs gather to join in the prayers broadcast through the complex. I spend a wonderfully tranquil twenty minutes walking slowly around the space, enjoying the inclusivity of it even during a communal service.

I emerge to find Rebecca sat awkwardly between two chuckling women, one holding her hand and the other with her arm around her. It turns out that Rebecca, a sitting duck guarding our bags and unable to move, has spent the entire time I’ve been inside posing unwillingly for selfies, and at one point she had a crowd larger than that in the garden earlier queuing up for their turn. She doesn’t fully appreciate my rapt explanation of the wonderful time I’ve just had.

Partition was a shambolic rush job that led to suffering on an unimaginable scale. Between that and the Amritsar massacre, Punjabis have every right to detest the British, to resent our presence here with a passion. But they don’t. They want to take pictures with us.

Take a Luck at Me Now

5th May

Today’s the day we drag ourselves out of Pokhara.

Most of my posts until now have been full of descriptions of the length and general unpleasantness of our journeys, so I’ll spare the gory details this time round. Suffice to say that getting from Pokhara to Lucknow started at 5.30am, took almost twenty-four hours, and involved an unnecessary hour-long wait in a stationary bus, serenaded by a group of Hare Krishnas waltzing around outside with an accordion.

6th May

… but eventually, in the small hours of the morning after that on which we left, we check in to the Deep Avadh hotel in Lucknow’s Charbagh district. It’s exactly as I expected from the reviews. If someone cared, it could be a slick, comfortable hotel. Everything is a decent clean and a lick of paint away from being pleasant. But apparently no-one does care, so despite what seem to be fairly expensive, elegant furnishings the whole place has a run-down, dilapidated feel.

They’re also fussier about taking down our personal details than anywhere else we’ve stayed. In India, hotels and hostels are required by law to take your passport details and make copies of them, as well as a bit of other basic info about who you are and where you’re going. Most places we’ve stayed until now have been happy with the barest of minimums in this regard, but not the Deep Avadh. They insist on taking down details like my father’s profession and mother’s maiden name, and I’m summoned back to reception a few hours after checking in to explain why I’ve abbreviated “Hertfordshire” to “HERTS” on my address.

They also have the strange habit of getting you on the in-room telephones. They love them. We receive three phone calls from the front desk in our first morning in the room, all of them reminding us that we are able to order room service through the in-room telephone. Plus the one asking me to come back to reception to correct my address.

Truth is, this still looked like the best of the affordable hotels in the area. Until late in the trip we hadn’t thought of coming to Lucknow, but given the final two stops on our itinerary – Amritsar and Delhi – are half-way across the country from Sonauli where we left Nepal, it seems as convenient a place as any to stop en route. It’s not all that touristy, but that’s a positive; I’m looking forward to seeing some of the city’s architectural heritage that I feel many tourists miss when they visit the country.

First on my list is the British Residency. During the Indian mutiny of 1857 the colonial administration, with the usual accompaniment of womenfolk, servants and other assorted hangers-on, were besieged in the residency for five months before being relieved by a brigade of Scottish Highlanders. Diseases like scurvy and gangrene were rampant and the ruins have been left in place ever since. This being a historical sightseeing trip in 38C heat, Rebecca stays at the hotel. I set off down the road in the general direction of Hussainabad – effectively Lucknow’s Old City – and hail a pedal rickshaw.

The driver is a cheerful young lad who refuses to discuss prices before I board, insisting that I pay him whatever I feel is appropriate when we get there. He habitually sniffs and wipes his nose with a rag every few minutes. Through very broken English he explains that this is his “career job”, or so I assume, until he asks me if he can borrow some change, stops and disappears for five minutes.

Slightly confused, I pass the time playing street cricket with a bunch of local kids who thrust a bat into my hands as soon as the driver disappears. I manage to dab the first few deliveries away gently, at which point the bowler clearly realises how useless I am and starts spinning them embarrassingly easily either side of my flailing bat. Just when the whole thing is getting awkward the driver thankfully reappears.

He gives me back fifty rupees less than I initially gave him. I’m not at all sure what’s happened, but I assume I must have misheard him saying he has a “courier job”, and that he’ll deduct the fifty form the final price. Eventually we get to the residency and I reach into my wallet and offer him another hundred.

He shakes his head. He doesn’t say anything, but points at a two thousand rupee note in my wallet. Shit. I’ve got so comfy in India and Nepal, the initial paranoia that dogged my every move in Kerala  a long-forgotten memory, that I’ve slipped into flashing cash.

I tell him no, and re-offer the hundred rupee note, at which point he reaches into my wallet and grabs the two grand. I shout at him, and start panicking a bit. The entrance to the residency, manned by armed security guards, is a fair distance away; the only people in the immediate vicinity are other rickshaw drivers who I doubt will take my side if there’s a scuffle. The cheerful, friendly face that had welcomed me onto his rickshaw earlier has disappeared; his eyes are glazed over, and I wonder whether the rag he’s been sniffing is soaked in something. He lets go, though, when I grab his am, and then to show we’re still friends points out where I need to go to access the residency.

It’s an interesting space. You’d find it very pleasant if you didn’t know the history. Neat, spacious gardens glow in the late afternoon sun, spread around the stately ruins of some fine colonial architecture. With the grisly history of the site fresh in mind, though, there’s a haunting element added to what is otherwise a nice stroll in a park.

The other visitors are in good humour. Several, including a trio of teenage boys and a husband with his wife and baby, stop to say hi and ask for selfies with me. Squirrelly, chipmunk-like creatures scuttle between the trees in which parakeets chatter to one another. Lucknow’s bustle and noise seem a long way away, and I start to unwind, camera in hand, happily hoovering up pictures of the scene.

Until I see a figure some way off across one of the green quadrants, in a familiar grimy white t-shirt, unmistakably cutting diagonally across the grass towards my position. At this point I’m exploring a slightly isolated corner of the site, and there’s no-one else around. My heart starts to race a little as the figure gets closer. It’s the rickshaw driver.

I start back down the path towards the main area, hoping to get into plainer view, but the driver cuts me off. He stands in front of me in the path, neither saying anything nor moving towards me. Out of sheer British awkwardness I say “Hi, are you ok?”

He doesn’t look as though he is, in truth. He is swaying ever so slightly on the spot, and seems to be breathing heavily. I wave to let him know I’m addressing him, and his eyes flick briefly up to my face. Then I realise that all along he’s been staring fixatedly at the camera in my hand.

I decide it’s time to go, and walk off the path and round him. He turns – not exactly quickly, but with purpose – and starts following. I pick up my pace, thinking about cutting through the ruins of the banquet hall. I could easily lose him in the sprawling maze of ornate Indo-Saracenic archways. I could, though, equally as easily get lost and find myself cornered, completely out of sight of the rest of the park. So I take the long way around it.

On the other side a uniformed man sits lethargically on a bench. I approach him and see the word SECURITY printed on his badge. I explain that I’m being followed, at which moment the driver conveniently emerges from the banquet hall. I point him out and explain that he’s following me and, I think, trying to rob me.

The security guard nods slowly, and doesn’t stand up. He gives me the universal “I couldn’t possibly give less of a shit” look and, deciding he’s a waste of time, I walk quickly to the entrance. I get some distance down the road so that the driver – who doesn’t seem to be able to manage much more than a slow shuffle – can’t see which direction I’m heading in, and jump in an auto-rickshaw back to the hotel.

I try to digest it all afterwards, mulling over what actually happened. I’ve never been mugged and I’m not sure if he’d tried to earlier on, or if I had genuinely underpaid him. I feel like I can rule out underpayment though; a hundred and fifty rupees for a five-minute journey is generous compared to what we’ve paid so far. Was he after my camera? Or did he just want to secure the business of the return trip? If he did, he went a really bad way about it, but I wonder to what extent his lack of English and understanding Western norms contributed. Indians just don’t seem as bothered by actions that I’m conditioned to find threatening, like staring, following, invading personal space and, to a lesser extent, grabbing. And it strikes me how lucky I am to be a man. The events of the last hour or so shook me a little, but would have been terrifying if I’d been a woman, to the extent that I might not have been able to blithely pop out for a stroll by myself. That’s a fact of life for women who live and travel throughout the subcontinent.

Rebecca, surprised to see me back so early, decides after I tell her the story that what we need is food, so we head down the road to a place we’d tried to visit at lunchtime, Tundy Kebabi, but due to a combination of it being the first day of Ramadan and that votes are being cast in the elections today, it was closed.

I hadn’t realised until now quite how massive the elections are. They are the biggest exercise in democracy the world has ever seen, no matter what your Brexit-voting uncle tells you. Over nine hundred million citizens are eligible to take part, and voting itself is spread over several weeks. Five million people will be employed, in one capacity or another, as part of the process. Indian law specifies that no house can be more than 2km from a polling station, meaning that a gentleman who lives in a remote part of one of Gujarat’s national parks has a station all to himself. They are colossal.

By evening, even though the polls have closed and the sun is set (meaning Muslims observing Ramadan can break their fast), Tundy Kebabi is still shut, but the bustling street-foody neighbourhood it’s in is doing a roaring trade, so we look for somewhere else to eat. This takes longer than expected since most shops, in stark contrast to the rest of the places we’ve been to in India, seem to exclusively serve meat. Most places don’t even stock vegetables. Eventually we find a biryani shop that will do us a paneer masala.

7th May

The golden rule of travelling is: eat what the locals eat.

Rebecca and I are vegetarian on environmental grounds, but will occasionally make exceptions. In hindsight, last night should have been one of those.

In all fairness, it could be the water at the hotel. Most places we’ve been to so far have purified water containers in the foyer so we can refill our bottles with clean drinking water, but at Deep Avadh every time we need a refill our bottle is taken by one of the porters to a mysterious room that guests aren’t allowed into and returned full of very cold but equally mysterious water.

Whether dirty water or unpopular paneer is to blame, I’ve got my second bout of food poisoning of the trip in time for what was set to be a big day of sightseeing followed by a twenty-four-hour train ride to Amritsar. Fantastic. Rebecca is apparently unaffected, which I suppose is a good thing but I find annoying as we’ve eaten and drunk the same things since arriving, undermining my self-image as strong-stomached.

Our taxi arrives at 3pm to pick us up, because several of the sites we want to see close at 5pm. It’s 42C, and I’m sick as a parrot, as the driver pulls up outside the Bara Imambara. Dashing from patch to patch of shade, we take a few snaps of the majestic Mogul architecture and pile back into the car as quickly as possible, only stopping for Rebecca to fawn over a mongoose in the garden at the entrance. Same story at the Rumi Gate, the iconic gatehouse based on one form Istanbul. I try to get away with photographing it from inside the car but the driver insists we get out so he can take a photo of Rebecca and I looking ill and overheated in front of it. On our way into the Chota Imambara we’re accosted by a tour guide who immediately starts showing us around, describing the miniature Taj Mahal replica in English too rapid and broken for me to understand a word, both of us either too hot or too unwell to protest effectively, before the same process repeats itself with a wizened old man inside the main mosque. Eventually, we’re back in the taxi and ask the driver to return us to the hotel. He can’t believe his luck. We’ve booked and paid him for four hours and he’s done in two.

Our train to Amritsar leaves at five to midnight, so having checked out of our hotel room this morning, and with me unwell, we have little choice but to sit in reception for six hours, with a break for Rebecca to have dinner in the restaurant. A wedding party is taking place in the disco area downstairs, meaning that well-dressed locals stream in and out of the foyer the entire time and near the end strike up a raucous band on the street outside. It would be great fun if I didn’t feel horrendous.

Finally, it’s time to head to the station. I’ve effectively had my eyes screwed shut, praying for a flat berth to lie down and sleep on for hours. We check the board to find our platform, and can’t see our train anywhere. I groan inwardly.

We join the scrum to make an enquiry outside the office. One of the attendants inside must see the suffering on my face because he beckons us around to the back entrance to the booth. We tell him our train number, he punches it into his computer, and informs us the train is delayed by nearly six hours and is currently scheduled to arrive at 5.15am.

I turn to Rebecca and tell her we’re checking back into the hotel.