Sorted Issue 56
Hollywood legend Matthew McConaughey
Britain’s favourite gardener, Alan Titchmarsh
Soap star Tom Lister, on life after Emmerdale
TV Adventurer, Bear Grylls
And Rob Parsons on the secret of a good marriage
And Gadgets, Entertainment, Motoring, Movies, Technology
Plus, the greatest team of Christian writers ever assembled.
The King and I
Best known for his role as Carl King, Tom Lister talks to Joy Tibbs about acting, faith and his work with Hope for Justice.
Emmerdale’s Carl King wasn’t known for his altruistic side. Best known as a womanising troublemaker, he was involved in three suspicious deaths and left a trail of destruction in his wake. He couldn’t have been more different from the actor who played the part, Tom Lister. However, Tom had an amazing time playing the part and believes God is actively guiding his career.
The Yorkshireman has also been led by God in his spare time, not least through his work for anti-trafficking charity Hope for Justice. On hearing the story of a girl who was taken from Latvia to Southampton and sold into prostitution, Tom and a team of volunteers flew out to her home country and cycled back to the UK port city, covering 1,800 miles in 19 days. The £250,000 they raised was enough to establish a new UK-based team of anti-trafficking investigators. In 2015, this team rescued more than 100 victims of human trafficking.
Whether he’s on the stage, in front of the camera, at home with his family or carrying out challenging sporting feats for charity, Tom’s faith is what motivates and underpins him.
How did you get into acting?
I kind of fell into it really. I’d grown up in church and done little skits and sketches and things like that with my friends. I grew up thinking I was going to be a PE and geography teacher, but then when I started doing A level geography I was bored to tears.
I started doing English A level and we had a great teacher who started getting me interested in Shakespeare. He asked the school football team to audition for a show they’d written, which was all around the 50th anniversary of VE Day about this football team going out to fight in the war. So we all auditioned for it and I got the lead. And then I got the bug!
What was life like as Carl King?
Oh, my word. Well, if you’ve ever watched any of the soaps, if you’re in them long enough you end up getting yourself into all kinds of scrapes. Over my nine or ten years on the show I had countless affairs, marriages, fights, blackmails and romantic liaisons. And I was involved in three people’s deaths. So just an average village boy in the Yorkshire Dales!
Was it hard playing a villain as a Christian?
No, it wasn’t, because it was obviously a heightened reality. One of the things I love about acting is that you get to play people in extreme circumstances and I love figuring out why people do those things. We’re all fallen men and women and we’re constantly in a battle with ourselves. I find that intriguing, and that’s why I love the job I do.
How did people react to you (or Carl) when you were out and about?
One of the things I used to get was old ladies slapping my wrist in Asda and things like that, which was always comical. Although my character did all these things that weren’t so great, I tried to play the part a bit like he was a lost soul. So all these old ladies used to go, “Oooh, you’re a one, you are! Oooh, I tell you, I need to take you home and sort you out!” I used to say, “I’m not evil, I’m just misunderstood!”
How did you feel when you heard Carl was being killed off?
I’d been in Emmerdale for such a long time and I’d pretty much done all the things I could do. It was such a blessing for us as a family because through that period we got married, had kids, bought a house and settled down, so it saw us through all of those early days of setting our life up. But there was part of me that had all these other dreams and ambitions. I didn’t want to be somebody who only ever did one role for the rest of his life. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, it just wasn’t for me.
I could sense they were struggling to write new storylines and come up with fresh ideas. It was all around the time of Emmerdale’s 40th anniversary and they were having their first-ever live episode. There were two people giving birth, there were a couple of weddings, and then they needed a death. I think the hat must have been passed around every single character in the cast, and it ended up landing on me. I think it made sense, actually, and I couldn’t have picked a better ending.
Is it difficult being a Christian in such a secular world?
Some people think all actors are completely debauched and get up to hedonistic things every single waking moment. But the reality is that’s not the case. I work with wonderful people on a daily basis, some of whom are married with children, and who do it because they love it.
I don’t know why I’ve ended up in this industry, but I have. It’s something I’ve always had a passion for and luckily I’ve got a bit of a talent and managed to make money out of it. If somebody meets me and happens to see something different about me and wonders what that is, then that’s enough for me. If I can point them to my faith and the thing that’s actually underpinning all of my life, then I think that’s the best I can do, really.
You’ve being doing musical theatre, among other things, since leaving Emmerdale. How have you found that?
It’s been great. Fortunately enough, I’ve been able to do four or five. I’ve actually just come back from South Korea. We went over there with Legally Blonde: The Musical for two weeks. I played the sleazy professor. How depressing is that? He’s in his early 60s in the film! But he wasn’t in this production. We played him more like Harvey Specter from Suits.
What advice would you give other aspiring actors?
It’s important to know the voices in your life that you trust: the people who knew you before. I’ve always had great people in my life to ground me, from my parents, to my wife, to great mentors who’ve helped me in lots of different ways.
I quite often get asked this by people who’ve got children who want to get into acting. Their parents are worried sick because they don’t want them to go through the heartache of going up against all these other people. That’s one of the things my faith has really helped me with. God’s got a plan for my life and he’s numbered all my days. If something isn’t right, then there’ll be something else that’s more right.
What would your dream acting role be?
Me and my wife love watching Spooks. I always used to watch it thinking, “Man, it would be so cool to be in that show; running around being a spy and talking into your ear all the time.” I’d love to do movies, I’d love to do drama, I’d love to do things in the West End, so I’ve got lots of dreams and ambitions. I’m excited to see what’s to come.
Who would you most like to work with?
I met Judy Dench at the BAFTAs once. I walked past her and she smiled at me, and I was like, “You are so flipping cool! And not only are you cool, you’re an absolutely unbelievable actress.” Anybody I’ve met who’s worked with her before says she’s an absolute hoot as well. So anybody like that would be wonderful.
How did you get involved with Hope for Justice?
When I was on Emmerdale we used to do a lot of charity events. I did the Great North Run and the London Marathon. I’ve done those about three or four times. I went and did the London Triathlon and I’ve done outdoor swimming events – Great North Swim, Great Manchester swim – and things like that. I was doing it for this amazing cause called Bloodwise, but I felt like there was something missing; a cause I felt personally passionate about.
I was at an event in Life Church in Bradford once and I walked past the Hope for Justice stand. I’d heard a bit about it but didn’t know that much. So I wandered up and said, “Look, I’m interested in helping you guys out. This is who I am, just let me know if I can do anything.” As a result of that I went and met [CEO] Ben Cooley about five years ago at a Starbucks in Leeds. We shared some muffins together and had a couple of lattes. Sparks flew, emotions ran high, it was love at first sight!
He just told me these incredible rescue stories and the fact that people were being trafficked into our country and exploited in horrendous ways. Scales fell from my eyes.
What was different about this charity?
Just from that first meeting something inside me broke, and I felt God saying, “This is something I want you to put some of your energy into, all of the stuff you love doing for charity. I want you to help these guys out.”
Ben had told me about a girl called Zoe who was trafficked into the UK from Latvia. Basically, she was taken to a hotel where she thought she was going to work, and given some underwear to wear. She was like, “I’m not here for that. I’ve come here to do a proper job.” By this time they’d taken all her identification papers off her. She was only 19 years old and she’d come over on her own.
They said, “You’re going to do what we tell you to do, when we tell you to do it.” From that moment her world just came crashing down around her. She was sold from man to man, from town to town, all across the UK. She tried to put an end to her own life because what was happening to her was so horrendous. Thank goodness Hope for Justice were able to rescue her and start her on the road to putting her life back together.
How much time do you devote to the charity?
It really depends on the work that comes in. I was on the road with the musical Calamity Jane for about 18 months. I couldn’t really give a lot of time then, although we did another ridiculous bike ride while we were on that tour. I manage to corral people into joining me on these stupid things. When we finished that I decided to take a break and spend a bit of time at home with Jen and the boys, so I was able to give a lot more time to Hope for Justice.
What do you do in your spare time?
Cycling is something that’s come in more and more. The boys are obsessed with football, so they’re old enough now that I have to drive them round to training and football matches, and take them to Anfield and teach them that there’s only one football team to support: Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool! I mean, Jesus supports Liverpool, just saying [Tom laughs]. He doesn’t support Man. United, that’s for sure.
January Love - By Rob Parsons
If the course of married life has seasons, then most begin in summer. They are days filled with warmth when we not only say we are in love, but we feel in love. Of course, to love in summer is relatively easy, but marriages that are to last have a much harsher test ahead: it is the challenge of ‘January love’– of surviving the winter of our relationship.
Just as the first chill winds of autumn may catch us by surprise, so a change in the climate of a relationship can be devastating. Whereas our relationship in summer was characterised by warm breezes, we find that biting winds now test our love. These are dark and cold days, but there is no relationship that does not, at one time or another, have to love in January – times when we have to love our partner not ‘because of’ but ‘in spite of’.
Marriages break up, relationships fail – those things are a fact of life. But it’s also a fact that we will never find a lasting relationship with anybody unless we are ready at some time to fight to keep our love alive against the odds – to love in January.
I remember counselling a couple in their mid-20s; they had a baby girl aged six months and were about to divorce. I asked the man why he wanted to divorce his wife. He said, “I don’t feel in love anymore.”
As he spoke, I looked at the little bundle being cradled in his wife’s arm, the first man in her life about to walk out on her forever. I said, “Did nobody tell you when you married that there will be times when that happens – you won’t feel in love, or the feeling of love will diminish? Did nobody warn you that love that lasts, does so by loving – at least for a time – with not the heart, but the will? Did nobody say that unless you understand this, you are doomed to move from relationship to relationship at the mercy of your feelings?” He looked genuinely surprised. “No,” he said. “Nobody told me that.”
Nobody had told him this simple truth and yet grasping this principle would allow his and many relationships that fall at the first hurdle to at least have a chance of surviving. You will not keep your family together if a prerequisite is that you and your partner always feel in love with each other.
Couples that stay together are prepared to go through periods in their relationship where commitment, responsibility, and sometimes “what’s best for the children” is what keeps their relationship going. “For the sake of the kids” is not always the right reason to stay together, but it’s still a good reason. Of course, none of us want to live our whole lives loving our partner through gritted teeth, but there are thousands of couples who tried again, perhaps “for the sake of the kids”, and in the process found again a love they’d thought was gone forever.
In almost every marriage there will come a time when the ‘feeling’ of love is at a very low ebb. Such times may creep up on us over the years, or they may be linked to specific strains in our relationship – perhaps following the birth of a child, financial pressure, sickness, or redundancy, when the self-esteem of one partner is very low. It’s at this point that something sometimes enters the relationship that, in its ability to destroy families, is in a league of its own: the affair.
The price tag reads…
I’ve seen all kinds of things destroy families. But I believe that nothing comes close to the affair for having the ability so quickly and with such surgical skill to decimate families – and often for so little. It’s as if the affair whispers: “Trust me. I know you’ve heard what this can do to families, but it will be different for you. Just take the next step.”
Of course, the end results of the affair can vary. Some people find new and fulfilling relationships, and some feel cheated after just a few days, but in my experience those involved in an affair exhibit the same two characteristics time and time again.
The first is what somebody called “a period of temporary insanity”. During this time people act totally out of character. They set aside previously held personal or religious beliefs. They sometimes begin to dress differently – perhaps younger, more daring –and almost everything in their lives – children, job, home – comes second to the sheer thrill of this affair.
During this period, people often ‘rewrite’ the story of their lives. They say things such as, “We were so young when we got married – we didn’t really know what we were doing”, “We’ve never really been happy”, “I was always dissatisfied with our relationship”. It’s not necessarily that these things aren’t true, or that they haven’t gone through difficult times, but the trick of the affair is that it manages to wipe out every memory of genuine love and happiness in the relationship that ever existed.
If that’s the first characteristic of affairs, then the second always follows. It may come within a few weeks, or it could take a few years to happen, but there is no exception. It’s the moment when reality kicks in. For a while, everything in the new relationship is thrilling and fun, but eventually the excitement dies and the couple discover that even in their new love nest the taps still leak, the bills still need paying, and babies still wake up crying in the middle of the night. In short, they discover that “the other man’s grass may be greener, but it still needs mowing”.
The shock of this second stage is often cataclysmic. It’s as if the cost at the beginning of the affair is negligible, but quickly changes. In the early stages the price is rarely on the ticket; in fact, at the beginning, the price tag reads, “Free”. There’s no harm in what is happening – some flirting, a little time spent together. But as the affair progresses, it’s as if there’s somebody at the back of the store changing the price ticket because suddenly it’s more expensive. It now calls for a little deceit – “I’ll be home a bit later on Tuesday, darling.” But, hey, even if the price is getting higher, the rewards are fantastic – fun, almost teenage-like conversation, incredible sex. They say to themselves, “This is the person I should have married.”
Then one day, the couple walks into the shop and the price tag has changed for the last time. Now it reads: “Everything”. They gasp when they see it. They protest that they couldn’t possibly pay it without losing almost everything they’ve ever loved – their husband, their wife, their kids, maybe their friends and wider family, and perhaps their home or even their job.
I get angry listening to so-called experts talk about affairs being good for a marriage. Can marriages recover from affairs? Yes, of course. Can those marriages be stronger than they were before? Yes, without doubt. But the affair is a breach of trust so great that it tears at the very heart of a relationship, and although the love may return, it may take a long time for trust to be restored.
And affairs are bad for kids. Over the years I have listened to the stories of many people who have experienced family break-up, but one small boy sticks out in my mind. He was ten years old and his father had just left his mother. He was sitting on a step outside his house, looked up and said, “My father doesn’t love my mother anymore and he has left us now. What does a kid do?”
Breaking up is hard on everyone
But it’s not just young children who feel this experience so deeply. Laura Telfer, a Relate counsellor for 18 years, says that splitting up when the children are older can seem like an attractive option: “There is definitely a susceptible time when the children leave home when all possibilities seem open. But it does not make the unexpected desertion any easier. What can be an exciting venture for one partner is invariably a painful grieving episode for other family members. Children watch appalled as their family, that secure and safe place that survived all their childhoods, is swiftly dismantled.”
Some time ago I met Jeremy. He too had reached a period in his marriage when he said he no longer felt in love. Whether that was hastened by his being attracted to a woman in his office is something we’ll never know. But I suspect his marriage had been going through a stale patch, and the new woman made him look at his wife, his life – his lot – with a growing dissatisfaction.
He told me his story on a rainy Saturday afternoon in a McDonald’s next to a cinema complex. He was now divorced and had recently broken up with the woman he’d left his wife for. He had access to his children once every two weeks. Rhys was five and Victoria, ten. They were sitting at a nearby table, colouring and looking bored. He said, “It’s hard to know where to take them if it’s raining,” and then added, “I’d like to tell all the men out there that the affair is great – for a while. The sex is great, and the excitement is great, and the feeling of being young again is great – but it’s just not worth it. These are my kids, for goodness’ sake. I’m their father and I’ve just been with them for three hours stuck in a lousy cinema because there’s nowhere else to go, and now I have to take them back like a couple of library books.”
I know that marriages break up. I know that some marriages cannot survive. I understand that. But the affair is in a class of its own for destroying the world of ordinary families – families that weren’t perfect, but could have made it and been relatively happy together.
Some years ago I went to see a London play. In the last scene, the lead actor breaks down in tears. It was one of the most brilliant pieces of acting I have even seen; his wailing seemed to come from his very soul. After we left the theatre my friend said, “I have never seen such a portrayal of grief. I felt I could hear the mucus catching in his nose as he wept.”
The affair could happen to you and to me tomorrow, but as I watch couple after couple pay the incredible price that it so often demands, and as I see the fallout in the lives of children, I am reminded of something George Bernard Shaw said: “There are two great tragedies in life. One is to lose your heart’s desire. The other is to gain it.”
We live in a world where personal happiness is put at a premium, but often when we pursue it, we find it eludes us. Sometimes, even for the sake of our own long-term happiness, we have to begin with not what is “best for me”, but for them.
We have to love – at least for a time – in January.
If the thrill of track riding has started to fade, the whizz-bang dashboard on your bike gives you a headache and you’re concerned about becoming a Sunday couch potato rather than living life to the full, then The Monkey Run is for you. If it can’t rekindle your love for bikes then it really is time to hang up your boots and buy yourself a new pair of novelty slippers.
The Monkey Run took place for the first time this April and involved 14 brave/stupid guinea pigs being led blindfolded into the Sahara desert, 12 hours from Marrakech, and told they had to get to a destination on the Atlantic Coast, 1,000km away, six days later.
The only slight glitch, they had to travel the 1,000 unknown kilometres on a Monkey Bike. For those who aren’t familiar with the 49cc Monkey Bike, it’s very small, standing not much taller than knee height. It’s totally inappropriate for riding across a desert and almost guaranteed to break down every few miles.
For all their shortcomings, however, the riders on the pioneer Monkey Run agreed they wouldn’t have wanted to ride it on any other bike. Not only were they able to fit through tiny gaps in traffic, but there wasn’t far to fall when they came off. The bikes were light enough to carry when they inevitably broke down and so mechanically basic that a roll of gaffer tape went a long way.
A whole lot of fun
Most importantly, though, the bikes were a whole lot of fun. Being so low to the ground meant travelling at 20mph felt like racing at ten times that speed, and they were unwavering in their ability to bring a smile to the faces of all around, whether the riders themselves or those rolling around on the floor laughing as grown men went past on bikes fit for children.
It wasn’t just about the bikes, however, and once au fait with their totally inadequate steeds, the riders had to deal with the fact there was no set route to their destination, the Atlas Mountains were in the way and getting lost and staying with strangers was encouraged.
It was this “being thrown in at the deep end” that made the trip so memorable for most. As riders struggled with their bikes across the Sahara, looking like something out of Mad Max, they were blown away by the vastness and beauty of the desert landscape, nights were spent sleeping under the stars in the Atlas Mountains without even a tent for protection, sweeping roads were swapped for potholed, unmapped tracks and river crossings, bizarre wildlife encountered and a lot of new friends, especially local mechanics, made.
“I expected fun on a motorcycle while getting lost and a lot of off-road. Did it match it? We made it match, taking around 100km off-road pistes and paths every day. Was it good fun? Very. Dangerous? Sometimes while riding along the cliffs. Not Ngalawa Cup dangerous, but still risky, depending on where you ride and how.
It didn’t take us long to get lost, around 15 minutes after the start line, since my teammate and I had no maps whatsoever. A cool chap called Jules appeared just in that moment and from there on, we three rode the hell out of those Chinese Monkey Bikes for the remaining 1,370km.
Going flat out downhill
The bikes were pretty good fun, riding flat out downhill on off-road pistes. You could actually make them jump and they were much more competent in the dirt than I thought. I can assure you that I abused my bike as much as I could. Including taking her one metre deep into the sea water of the Taghazout Beach. Twice. Even then it started (after taking all the water out, obviously, and pushing a lot). Not everybody had that luck.
We had been in Morocco before, and people have always been very kind to us. The other riders were also all pure adventurers and very cool guys. All in all, The Monkey Run was a very funny little adventure. If you do it well, you can find some pretty funny and good troubles.”
Orphanages for the Privileged - Boarding Schools and Abandonment - By Dr Mark Stibbe
If you’re anything like me, you’ll have watched at least one film version of Charles Dickens’ classic tale, A Christmas Carol in the festive season. Maybe you watched what is arguably the best adaptation, A Muppet Christmas Carol, or the Alastair Sim version that made such an impression on me as a young boy when Mum and Dad took me to see it at the Noverre Cinema in Norwich. Whichever rendition you enjoyed, I hope you paused to ask one simple question: “Why did Scrooge become the man he did?”
In the recent animated version showcasing the multifaceted Jim Carrey, we get an answer. Early in the story, the ghost of Christmas past takes the elderly Scrooge back in time, to his old prep school and a dusty room full of desks. There is no one there except the boy Scrooge. Everyone else has gone home for the Christmas holidays and the place is deserted. The boy who remains is described by Dickens as solitary and neglected. As he sees his abandoned, younger self, Dickens simply says that Scrooge sobbed.
This moment, so easily passed over by most readers, so criminally neglected by many movie directors, is the key to everything that follows. The reason why Scrooge becomes the man he does – as cold as the winter snow outside his underheated office – is established by the brilliantly insightful Dickens in this one single moment. For here Scrooge is portrayed to us as an orphan – not an orphan in the mould of the pauper Oliver Twist, but a child abandoned and forgotten in the privileged world of boarding school.
The boarded heart
Dickens knew a thing or two about human psychology. He saw with unusual clarity that the fertile conditions for our destructive human behaviour are so often created by childhood wounds. For Dickens, the root of Scrooge’s problems lay in his prep school abandonment. The boy’s father, who had been aloof and somewhat cruel, had simply abandoned him. This caused the young Ebenezer to disengage emotionally and cultivate frozen feelings. He created a boarded heart in order simply to survive.
In this respect Dickens was anticipating with remarkable prescience recent developments in psychology. Psychologists such as Nick Duffell (author of The Making of Them [Lone Arrow Press]) and Joy Schaverien (author of Boarding School Syndrome [Routledge]) have demonstrated that being exiled at boarding school at any early age leaves severe emotional scars. Not everyone, of course, is damaged. Some enjoy the experience. But many do not and go on to live their whole lives with boarded hearts and homesick souls.
It’s fascinating today to see how many ex-boarders are beginning to come out in the media, confessing how being abandoned, sometimes also abused, at the age of seven or eight at prep school left a destructive legacy – the loss of emotional health and an inability to relate to their nearest and dearest with intimacy. Celebrities from Benedict Cumberbatch to Kirstie Allsopp are now beginning to tell their stories of boarding school pain. Broadsheet as well as tabloid newspapers frequently contain such testimonies.
Succeeding at work, failing at home
It will come as no surprise that this kind of confession doesn’t always meet with a sympathetic hearing, especially from those who have a vested interest in supporting the boarding school system, or from those of an anti-establishment persuasion. Whenever any ex-boarder has the courage to stand up and say they were wounded by their boarding experience, someone will always claim that boarding school does a person no harm whatsoever, or insist that they shouldn’t be complaining at all.
Look at the fallout over the recent storyline in the long-running and much-loved radio show, The Archers. I don’t listen to the programme myself, but I am very aware of the current furore about it. The scriptwriters have come in for vitriolic criticism for suggesting that the behaviour of Rob Titchener, an abusive husband, was caused in part by boarding school abandonment and abuse. Rob is apparently the most hated character on radio, with 5 million listeners booing him every month.
When it was suggested that Rob’s bullying was at least partly caused by his boarding school wounds, the chair of the Independent Schools Council couldn’t hold himself back. “Private school pupils generally make excellent husbands and wives,” he claimed. Quite what the empirical data was for that comment was not disclosed. The latest research by psychologists suggests quite the opposite. Boarding school too often sets a person up to succeed at work but fail as a spouse or parent where it matters, at home.
Becoming a survivor
This is my story. I was sent to boarding school on my eighth birthday – on 16 September 1968, to be exact. My adoptive parents meant well, assuring me that this would be the making of me and that I would receive a rounded education and become in the process a well-rounded person. But as they drove away, I felt utterly terrified and alone. The headmaster, a sadist who was later told by the governors to leave for chipping a boy’s spine with a cricket bat, beat me with a cane in front of my dormitory on my first night.
After three more severe and humiliating public beatings in my first fortnight, I crawled under the bedclothes one night, hugged my teddy bear, Edward, and made a vow that if I was going to survive the next ten years, I would have to stop feeling. And that’s what I did. I boarded my heart and became emotionally disengaged – a mini-survivor with an armoured soul in an orphanage for the privileged. Having been orphaned in 1960, all I can say is that this was a second orphaning – and far worse, because this time I was conscious of it all.
In the years that followed, I learned to believe the lie that acceptance comes through performance, and so I strove to succeed in everything. I went into my working life with the same philosophy, with devastating results at home. I succeeded as the leader of a very large church and as a global conference speaker – but I failed at home. A lack of emotional engagement, along with some very wrong choices, led to a broken marriage. For this I will always be sorry, even though I know I’m forgiven.
The healing begins
The man who was courageous enough to lift the lid on the great silence about boarding school abandonment and abuse was psychologist Nick Duffell. He has not only written three significant books on the subject, but many articles in psychological journals and newspapers. He also runs regular retreats for boarding school survivors, where men and women can share their stories and, in the process, achieve some measure of healing from the traumas they suffered in their childhood.
I came across Nick’s work when I was receiving two years of intensive psychotherapy after the break-up of my former marriage. I was living on my own at the time in Oxfordshire, driving every fortnight to Derby to sit with a counsellor who specialised in deep-rooted childhood pain. After three or four sessions, she placed a copy of Nick’s book, The Making of Them, in my hands, and with that I began to understand how I had become the man I had. It was painful but also so, so healing.
Gradually, over the months that followed, I began to share stories from those hidden ten years at boarding school. I shared how I’d felt on my eighth birthday as my parents’ car drove away. I exposed my deepest secrets – of physical abuse by the headmaster, sexual abuse by staff, religious abuse by a man who masqueraded as a Christian but whose heart was set on using his wealth and influence to bring many boys into a place of oppression, from which some have never escaped. As I did, the healing began to come.
Our heart’s true home
How, then, can a person be set free from all of this? If you’re a boarding school survivor yourself, remember Scrooge. His breakthrough was a spiritual one – the result, in fact, of the intervention of three spirits. There’s a clue here. Dickens understood that ultimately a frozen heart can only be thawed with help from heaven. He knew, as a Christian himself, that even though there may be pain in the night, there can be indescribable joy in the morning if we open our hearts to the supernatural grace of a good and kind Father.
That is my story too. As I underwent two years of counselling, I laid my soul bare and in the process made myself available to the healing power of my loving heavenly Father – not the remote God of college chapel, nor the cruel God of misguided fundamentalists, but the perfect, loving Father revealed by Jesus of Nazareth, in whose arms our hearts find their true home, in whose presence our fractured lives are made whole again, so that we can be what my adoptive father wanted me to be – a fully rounded person.
Today I share my story wherever and whenever I can. My latest book, Home at Last: Freedom from Boarding School Pain (Malcolm Down), is the story of my recovery as well as a handbook of healing for those still suffering the long-term legacy of pain from boarding school. Along with a virtuoso team (HALT, the Home at Last Team), I run healing retreats for ex-boarders. In every case, I’m seeing people awakened and restored, like Scrooge. If you’re an ex-boarder, it’s time for you to live, laugh and love again.
McConaissance Man - By Jake Taylor
Once consigned to the Hollywood pigeon-hole marked ‘romantic comedies only’, Matthew McConaughey has reinvented himself in the best way possible, with a host of acclaimed performances and an Oscar now under his belt. This stunning turnaround would not have been possible, however, had it not been for the strong values handed down by his devout parents – the same values he strives every day to pass to his own, growing family.
Although Matthew McConaughey could boast of a cinematic career stretching back over 20 years by the time he appeared in Dallas Buyers Club, the performance, subsequent critical acclaim and Academy Award win re-established the Texan star as one of Hollywood’s most talented leading men.
But it wasn’t always this way. For much of McConaughey’s early career, he was the go-to hunk for directors of romantic comedies – with some (How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days) marginally more successful than others (The Wedding Planner). Nowadays, it’s almost impossible to envisage the articulate Oscar-winner as nothing more than eye-candy, but McConaughey’s move from soap-sap to superstar was no accident. The actor, in his own words, “un-branded” in a bid to head back to the types of roles which marked his early film career.
“I was tired of doing romantic comedies and films which didn’t really mean much to me anymore,” he explains. “It was time to go back to the kinds of stories which inspired me to become an actor in the first place.”
This career shift meant McConaughey was more than willing to “say no” to roles that purported to pigeonhole his undoubted ability in the past. Two years passed before he began to be inundated with offers. He told Deadline in 2014 that he felt he had become “a new good idea”.
“In un-branding, I found anonymity,” he said. “And anonymity is good for an actor, and for people’s perception of an actor and the process with which people choose actors to play characters. My lifestyle, living on the beach, running with my shirt off, doing romantic comedies … people were throwing that together and going, well that’s who McConaughey is, he’s just rolling out of bed, getting dressed and he goes and does it. On the romantic comedies, I had to say well, that was fun, but I’m not feeling as challenged as I want to feel.”
Since his “un-branding”, the 46-year-old has lent his name to success after success, with roles in The Wolf of Wall Street, Interstellar, Mud and celebrated TV crime drama True Detective solidifying the McConaughey name as one now intrinsically linked to dark, gritty storytelling and impeccable on-screen performances. His triumphant return to film and seemingly effortless segue into bona fide blockbusters was quickly dubbed ‘The McConaissance’.
“That was a whole new chapter for me,” he says. “I didn’t chase any of those films and it made me think that I was right to take a chance, say no to the kind of thing I had grown tired of doing, and wait until something good came aroundand it did.”
His latest project, however, animated comedy Kubo and the Two Strings, has finally given McConaughey the chance to blend two of his greatest passions in life: film and family.
“I loved the story, and it was something my children could finally see – it’s not like I can say, ‘Hey, let’s watch True Detective tonight,’” he laughs. “Kids are going to love this film, but so will adults.”
And after tackling huge social issues in Dallas Buyers Club – the film follows his character’s plight to help fellow AIDS patients get the medicine they need – McConaughey is adamant that his first foray into children’s entertainment can hold the same intrinsic value as his previous, edgier roles.
“That’s what is so important about these kinds of stories that carry deep and beautiful messages for children,” he says. “Kids get so deeply involved when they’re watching animated films, and a movie like this can be very entertaining on one level and also have many serious underlying themes.”
From rom-com to Hollywood heavyweight
For someone who has successfully moved from rom-com lead to genuine Hollywood heavyweight quite late on in his career, McConaughey says these films inspire people to “have the courage to write the third act of your life in order to get the happy ending”.
Now, more so than ever, the actor appears to have secured his own “happy ending”. An Oscar-winner and hot property in Hollywood, the dedicated father and husband currently resides in his home state of Texas with his wife of four years, Camila Alves, and their three children, sons Levi and Livingston, and daughter, Vida.
McConaughey’s own childhood centred on a family unit that kept together through tremendous ups and downs. His parents, Mary Kathleen and James, eventually ended up marrying each other three times –divorcing twice. Despite the fluctuating nature of his parents’ relationship, it’s clear that McConaughey still holds his parents in the highest regard.
“My mother was a kindergarten teacher, very strong, very determined, who led us by example,” he recalls. “My father has been a very tough football player, but my mother definitely never took any [rubbish] from us kids.
“One day, when I was maybe seven or eight years old, I remember asking my mother constantly about wanting to have a new pair of shoes. Finally, she took me into a poor section of town and showed me children who had no shoes at all. And she asked me, ‘Do you understand now? Do you really need another pair of shoes?’ That was the kind of moral rectitude that both my mother and father instilled in us.”
Alongside this, McConaughey’s parents introduced their son to Christianity – and the star has remained a man of faith in one form or another, even going so far as to reserve his first thanks during his Oscar acceptance speech in 2014 for God.
“That’s who I look up to,” he said on stage. “He has graced me with so many opportunities that I know are not by my hand, or any human hand. He has shown me that gratitude reciprocates.”
It was the birth of his first child, Levi, in 2008, however, that inspired McConaughey to make faith a focal point of his life once again. That decision, too, was inspired by the spiritual views of his parents and nostalgic recollections of his own childhood.
“As soon as we had children, I was like, ‘You know what? That was important to my childhood’,” he explained to GQ in 2014. “Even if it was just for the ritual of giving an hour-and-a-half on Sunday to yourself, to pray and to think about others, even if you’re tired.
“I noticed how much I missed it and needed it. It’s a time for me to take inventory of my last week, to look at what’s in the future, to give thanks and think about what I can work on to do better.”
Versatility in film and life
Much like McConaughey’s innate ability to avoid typecasting in his acting career – the star has covered every genre from romantic comedy to B-movie horror, thoughtful thriller and animated feature – his faith has transcended definition over the course of his life. Though his parents were devout Methodists, McConaughey was married in a private Catholic ceremony and now describes the church his family frequents in Texas as “non-denominational” – a place that is “based in the faith that Jesus is the son of God, but where many different denominations come in”.
As for his own personal relationship with God, the actor told GQ he views the deity as “somebody who can help answer my questions”. This intrinsic curiosity has always been a huge part of McConaughey’s life and career, both on-screen and off.
“As a child, I was always asking my mother a thousand questions: who? What? Why?” he says. “I would never stop. I’m very fortunate that my job as an actor enables me to travel and meet new people and learn about different moments in history and different cultures. I want my children to search for answers about their world and understand as much as they can and try to get closer to the truth. It’s a process that never stops.”
The trials and tribulations of modern society have also affected how McConaughey treats his children’s questions, even though he admits that “the truth may be hard sometimes”.
“Children are smart; they absorb everything and the news these days is filled with so much violence that you can’t ignore it,” he says. “You need to talk about serious things with them sometimes. Even though the truth burns, it’s going to enlighten them more as compared to what they’ll get out of playing video games where you do nothing but shoot people.”
He continues: “A parent has to walk a fine line between being a parent and a friend. Those two roles intersect and overlap. I’ve seen many examples where adults are trying to be friends to their children in circumstances where they’re doing a disservice [to them]. But I understand how hard it can be to know which role you need to play at the right time.”
Captain fun and Friday nights
In this description of the sometime struggles of parenthood, McConaughey draws comparisons to Beetle, his character in Kubo and the Two Strings.
“In the film, Beetle is a protector; he’s a hero in his own mind, and maybe so in reality as well,” he says. “He’s also Captain Fun. That’s what Friday nights are like in our household, where the answer is ‘yes’ to most everything, and we have fun along the way.”
As well as recently having the privilege of enjoying a film with his children – “my daughter Vida spoke in my ear, ‘Papa, Beetle sounds just like you’” he smiles – McConaughey has recently wrapped on Free State of Jones, an American Civil War drama. The star portrays Newton Knight, a Robin Hood-esque character who rebelled against the Confederates on behalf of his fellow farmers.
“When [director] Gary Ross came to me with the story and I read the script it was so amazing that I asked him if he was sure it was true,” McConaughey explains. “He was a man of the highest moral principles who fought to defend his freedom and that of his neighbours by forming an army of poor white farmers and runaway slaves.”
Knight’s morality and “innate need to correct injustice” are an inspiration to the Texan actor, whose inherent values of right and wrong were inherited from the respectful traditions of his own Southern parents.
“When the war was over, he didn’t stop fighting against injustice,” he says. “Knight wasn’t one of those men who went back to just getting along, he kept on fighting for justice and for the rights of African-Americans in the South to the day he was buried next to his wife Rachel, a former slave, when he was 94. He was a defender of freedom for everyone.”
Despite his questioning nature and ability to draw stimulation from the world around him, there will always be one person to whom McConaughey returns time and time again in times of strife: his wife, Camila.
“We were lucky that we met at the right time,” he agrees. “She inspires me to be myself and pursue what I love. She pushes me to take risks, to grow, and to be a better man.”
It’s clear that whatever film or genre the marvellous Mr McConaughey turns his hand to next, his ability to subvert expectations and chase his dreams – the very essence of the McConaissance that took the cinematic world by storm – is drawn from the teachings of his childhood, the support of his blossoming young family, and those solid Southern roots.
“The more secure a man is at home,” he smiles, exuding the air of eloquent sincerity we have come to recognise as McConaughey’s modern trademark, “the higher and wider they can fly outside of it.”
Mission to Mozambique
Former project manager at British Airways, Steve talks about leaving a ‘proper’ job for a calling to the impoverished mission field of Mozambique, still reeling from a bitter 13-year civil war, and the two orphans that irrevocably changed the direction of his life…
“Mozambique has a very special place in my heart,” says Steve, 46, who took his first intrepid steps into the poverty-stricken African country in 2002. God moves in mysterious ways, as this was a result of an unpaid sabbatical from British Airways, keen to reduce its costs in the wake of the tragic events of 9/11 in New York. It was this year the course of Steve’s life changed forever.
It was during this year that he met Rebekah, his future wife and a British nurse, at Maforga Christian Mission in Manica province, central Mozambique. It was also in 2002 that Steve and Rebekah met orphans Zacharias (Zac) and Monica. “Zac and Monica’s parents had died from HIV/AIDS and the children were brought into the orphanage at Maforga,” Steve explained. “Zac was suffering from severe malnutrition and Rebekah provided round-the-clock care. Incredibly he recovered, and we both bonded with him and Monica like we had never done to any other children in our lives, prior to having our own. It was an extremely tough decision to relocate them back with their extended family in a nearby village. We would send money to Maforga to buy them food while based back in the UK and visited them on our occasional visits to Mozambique.”
The couple married in the UK the following year but something had instinctively changed in their lives and they returned to Mozambique in 2005, with a young baby. They were utterly devastated that same year when Zac (five) and Monica (nine) tragically died.
“Monica’s final few days were spent at Maforga and she called for us,” said Steve. “We flew down from the north of Mozambique, where we were then based, when we heard the news. They shouldn’t have died and nothing could have prepared us for the loss. I’ve been through some very dark valleys and my faith has been tested through the experience. But ultimately Monica and Zac continue to be a huge inspiration and motivation to what I do. They inspire me in my efforts to help lift people out of poverty.”
Steve said that we could learn much from the Mozambican people and their less ‘cluttered’ way of life. “They live very much for the day and don’t think about the next,” he said. “There is real beauty in that level of simplicity, as people focus purely on their relationships.” Steve, however, is acutely aware that life is fragile in Mozambique and is not to be romanticised.
“There is desperate poverty with people often not knowing where the next meal is coming from, particularly in the months before the harvest,” he explained. “Each season brings about its own challenge. For example, family homes are often crafted from materials such as wooden sticks, mud and straw, with some collapsing in the rainy season. Things that in the UK we just cannot get our heads around. I set foot in Mozambique a decade after the civil war when it was the tenth poorest in the world. One in five children would not make it to five. I thank God for the Millennium Development Goals which took responsibility globally for beginning to address the horrific nature of infant mortality and maternal deaths in childbirth.”
Steve was appointed The Leprosy Mission’s programmes and advocacy officer for Africa earlier in 2016, travelling to Africa for up to 12 weeks a year to monitor projects in the field.
On a recent visit to Mozambique he was able to witness a transformed community in Cabo Delgado, as a result of a collaboration between the Peterborough-based charity and the Department for International Development, reaching out to 5,000 people struggling with the devastating impact of leprosy.
“I was thrilled to be sent back to Mozambique for work. It’s always a delight to go back as it has a real sense of home now for me; I think my heart will always belong there. It was an amazing visit. With poverty often comes leprosy, and in these communities it is common to see people with hands and feet disabled by leprosy. Those affected by the disease still experience severe stigma, meaning that they continue to hide symptoms because they’re afraid that they’ll be shunned.”
Steve and Rebekah have three children, and the family now live in the north of England while Steve bases himself in Peterborough during the working week.
“Working away from home in the week, I feel I throw the rest of the family’s carefully choreographed routine into disarray at the weekend,” Steve said. “I honestly don’t know how Rebekah does it, looking after three children and holding down a demanding job as a health visitor while all the time supporting me. God is equipping and strengthening her.”
“I have the privilege to live out a calling to serve people trapped in poverty and disease through my job at The Leprosy Mission,” he reflected. “I don’t think I’m anything special, as I think many people have a yearning in their heart to do something like this, but somehow find themselves trapped on the treadmill of a 'proper job'. The only difference between us is that I have been supported by my family to do what I feel called to do.
“Approaching middle age, health concerns, family obligations, education, financial commitments, ageing parents – the list of reasons not to follow your heart’s call seem never-ending. Believe me, Rebekah and I continue to wrestle with these issues long and hard. It also goes completely against the cultural flow to opt out of the rat race and pursue something different. It really is a privilege for me, and for any of us, to follow a dream – and it comes at a cost. I guess I’m only finally learning now, in my middle years, that for me this is what it means to follow Jesus. Micah 6:8 says it all for me really.”
“… And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (NIV UK 2011)
The Hard Way
For a man in his 70s, Doug Scott shows no signs of slowing down; he is constantly busy. He has just returned from back-to-back meetings in Italy and is, at the time we speak, in the middle of a series of lectures celebrating his legendary ascent of Everest in 1975: Everest the Hard Way. The lectures are way of fundraising for Community Action Nepal (CAN), the charity that Doug helped create as a way of mountaineers giving something back to the Nepalese community. CAN’s patron is fellow climber Sir Chris Bonington, a good friend of Doug’s and leader of his much-celebrated 1975 ascent of Everest. Doug realised a long time ago that without the help and support of the local communities, many of the successful Himalayan climbs wouldn’t have happened. I’m talking to Doug through a contact at CAFOD (Catholic Aid For Overseas Development), which has partnered CAN to improve conditions for the rural poor, and they have jointly raised over £224,000 to build two schools in Nepal.
1994 saw their first project realised via profits from The Trekking Company, a pioneering advocate of responsible tourism, and topped up with donations they built a school and a health post and refuge shelters for the 300-plus porters, with good accommodation for the Western doctors. The environmental and welfare of Nepal are something that he is clearly very passionate about.
On top of the world
All the time I’m dying to ask him about Everest, which even for an armchair adventurer like myself still holds awe and majesty. It is, after all, the highest place on earth. I make the mistake of quoting a celebrity climber who had remarked that Everest wasn’t a terribly difficult mountain to climb. Doug is very quick, and passionate, to correct this. It turns out the ‘expert’ I am quoting is not quite as proficient as I would believe. I’m glad to listen as I’m expertly corrected. The main route to the summit isn’t a terribly challenging route, mainly because it has been kitted out with ropes and turned into an easy-access tourist route. It has become the bucket list adventure holiday choice of the Instagram generation. It is something that has had a detrimental effect on the environment, with litter and human waste having been a problem in the past.
Doug becomes clearly passionate when he answers my question about CAN having received an award as an advocate of responsible tourism. The actions are something that are obviously more important than the kudos, as Doug asks an assistant off-phone when they got the award.
Everest looms large in my questions, and I ask what was so special about his 1975 climb. He replies that the Southwest Face is still considered the ‘hard way’ to climb the mountain.
Everest: the hard way
Back in 1975 there had been six attempts on the summit before Doug and Dougal Haston had climbed and bivouacked on the South Summit at 8760m, the highest ever bivouac at that time. They had no sleeping bags and few oxygen tanks, two of the key pieces of equipment needed to combat the altitude and extreme cold that are the two dangers on Everest. It was late in the day and with the weather closing in, then had one last attempt to reach the summit. They made the summit late in the day, but without tent, oxygen or his down clothing Doug, together with Haston, climbed back down, hoping to make Camp Six before the light was gone altogether. They didn’t make it and had to excavate an ice cave to shelter from the extreme cold. In order to survive the night, both climbers had to keep moving and stay awake. To go to sleep would have meant death.
Doug makes it all sound very matter-of-fact and a little inconsequential. I find him very self-deprecating about his acts. The good thing for him, he says, is that the fame and prestige has enabled him to do something really worthwhile – his fame has funded all the projects. It is perhaps an attitude picked up from the local Nepalese who, when Doug returned to a monastery in 1975, had said to him, “You’re back from the summit. What’s so special about that?”
“So it was a little bit of a waste of time, not materially, as the huge press coverage helped to set up schools and outposts, hospitals and refuge shelters. Not to mention providing paid work for in excess of 300 porters, and airstrips and accommodation for Western doctors.”
The visionary climber
I ask him how his climbing style was – it has been described as ‘visionary’. It was as a result of his incredible Everest climb that he moved to a lightweight, Alpine style. He’d figured that if he could survive the extreme conditions of Everest then he would be OK for another climb in the same manner. He adopted a style where he and a partner would set off with one rope between them and all his equipment in a rucksack. There would be no sieging, no building of base camps and a long slow process of resupply and with no heavy oxygen cylinders.
After Everest, where he’d survived “without oxygen, sleeping bags and no frostbite” he knew he “would never need oxygen kit again”, “the burden [was] gone”. Lesser people would have probably thanked their lucky stars that they had survived, and would have made sure they had a surfeit of kit on future trips, but Doug is made of stronger stuff. Two years after Everest, he spent six days crawling down Baintha Brakk, known as The Ogre, after he had broken both his legs.
An obvious question springs to mind – does he still climb?, remarking how my own father is about the same age and has trouble negotiating the stairs. “Yes,” comes a very affirmative reply. In fact, he has just returned from a climbing trip with two of his trustees. Back in London, Doug relieves his daily stresses, and his backaches, by popping down to the Westway climbing wall. It is, he says, something that “takes him out of himself and reduces bad spirits”. He asks me if I’ve done any climbing, and I mention my terrible head for heights and my few attempts at a climbing wall. He surprises me by mentioning that he has a problem with heights when on man-made structures, particularly those with low parapets.
One final question – are there any mountains that Doug hasn’t conquered? He doesn’t pause for a second. He laments that he “never got round to climbing the huge peaks in Queen Maud Land, Antarctica.” He describes fearsome, “huge, ice-covered mountains up to 3,000 to 4,000 feet above sea level”.
The Constant Gardener - By Karen Anne Overton
Whether tending to his roses or matters of the heart and soul, TV presenter, horticulturalist and novelist Alan Titchmarsh OBE knows that the secret to success is always the same: attention, patience and lots and lots of love.
Alan Titchmarsh is prolific. This may be surprising to some who know him primarily as that “guy who gardens on television”, but horticulture, whilst considered his “first love”, is only one of his many talents utilised in a diverse and expansive career. Best known for his work on Ground Force, which saw him and fellow presenters – Charlie Dimmock and Tommy Walsh – perform miracle makeovers on unsuspecting participants’ gardens, he has been a radio presenter, hosted numerous TV shows, from Songs of Praise to the Antiques Roadshow, and has written several autobiographies, guides to gardening and novels. The latest of which – Mr Gandy’s Grand Tour (Hodder & Stoughton) – has just been released.
“I always love it when people say ‘gardener, writer, broadcaster, novelist’ and I always think ‘ooh yes, well I guess I am’. This is my tenth novel, so I am now a novelist,” says the 67-year-old excitedly. “But I’m a gardener who was allowed to do other things, that’s how I see myself. I was allowed to play with the grown-ups – on telly with my chat show [The Alan Titchmarsh Show], or on-stage in the West End with The Wind in the Willows [playing Kenneth Grahame] for a few months. Presenting Last Night of the Proms, and writing novels and telling stories, all completely diverse disciplines, and they’re all a part of me. I just thank my lucky stars that I’ve been allowed to do so many different things.”
In Mr Gandy’s Grand Tour, Titchmarsh takes the opportunity to explore a character who hasn’t had a plethora of opportunities. In fact, Timothy Gandy is a man who has felt rather trapped and frustrated in his life – a tedious job, a stagnant marriage – but following his sudden emancipation from both, he decides, aged 55, to go on a great adventure. “He feels what he wants to do more than anything is to go on The Grand Tour of Europe like they used to do back in the 18th century. These scions of the aristocracy would travel around and see the cultural sites, and it would take a couple of years. He doesn’t want to do that, but he wants to visit Europe and do Paris, Rome, Florence and Venice,” explains Titchmarsh. “But it throws up rather more than he imagines, so from my point of view it was about exploring someone who’s a little later on in life, as most of my characters are, and how it affected him and what he does about it.”
In his typically warm and chatty style, Titchmarsh discusses the pastime of penning novels as though it were a hobby he chanced upon one day and fancied having a go at. He reveals how he creates characters but doesn’t necessarily plan out the plots and follows them to their natural conclusion, how he chose Mr Gandy’s destinations based on where he himself had been in order to give the book a realistic texture and atmosphere, and his desire to give his reader a satisfactory and conclusive ending. But when pushed on what he wants his readers to feel after reading his novels, a more philosophical side of him emerges, and one that ties the thread between Alan Titchmarsh the nurturing gardener and Titchmarsh the inquisitive novelist; constantly striving to grow and discover.
“What my novels do, I hope, is explore human nature and put ordinary people in extraordinary situations and see how they react,” he says thoughtfully. “They are all, as indeed we all are in life, looking for something – the lucky ones are the ones who find it and know when they have found it, others don’t see it sometimes when it’s staring [them] in the face, and need to go on questing for it ...”
So is there a similar sense of satisfaction in helping his literary characters achieve their dreams, with the joy and fulfilment he felt surprising people with the incredible gardens he created on shows like Ground Force? “I think you do always have your lead characters’ interests at heart, even if they don’t work out, and certainly when I was doing people’s gardens, yes, I wanted to transform their lives,” considers Titchmarsh. “With Love Your Garden [a garden transformation programme now in its sixth series], I’m making over gardens for people whose lives will be … considerably improved by an outdoor space. My goal is to, quite simply, change their lives. It’s not always [easy] to do, but that’s the bottom line, I want their lives to improve.”
The celebrity gardener is also patron of several charities which aim to improve the quality of life of others through horticulture. Like Seeds for Africa which encourages sustainable vegetable gardening across 25 African countries, providing agricultural equipment and technical expertise. He is also trustee of his own charity, Gardens for Schools, which is a scheme run through the Royal Horticulture Society that has helped over 28,000 schools and communities plan green spaces, rewarding blossoming projects with vouchers for tools, bulbs and seeds. His philanthropic efforts would suggest a determination to share that same passion for soil that has spurred him on so feverishly over the years, leaving no child behind.
The children are vital to the future
“It is vital that we engage children in gardening while they are young,” says Titchmarsh. “They are the future custodians of our planet and if you can inspire them at primary school age, that connection with the earth and joy will stay with them for life. Plus, once they get out there and start getting involved, they just love it!”
Interestingly, Titchmarsh’s assurance, genuine warmth and ability to so fluently articulate his musings on the future of humanity are not inherent; in fact, he has come a long way from the shy and frustrated young man who dropped out of school at 15. Born in West Riding, Yorkshire to a textile worker mother and plumber father, he was not expected to achieve anything spectacular, and has spoken, both in person and in his autobiographies about how his parents considered him to be “not that bright”. He has said that it was a “revelation” when, as an adult, he realised he could “do things”, and over his seven decades he has worked hard to overcome these feelings of frustration and a habit of becoming defensive when criticised.
One wonders if his burgeoning confidence was rooted in his love of gardening, which he discovered when very young. “I started when I was about nine or ten in the back garden. I made a little greenhouse, and I just always liked all parts of nature, whether it was animals like frogs, toads and insects, it’s always been part of me,” he reveals. “The garden is the nearest bit of natural history to use, so I sowed seeds and they came up, and when [I had] a bit of success in something, it emboldened me to take cuttings and get roots on them and things like that. I always felt comfortable in a garden, and I still do.”
People have long talked about the great outdoors and its many restorative qualities, but it becomes clear that tending to his plants provides a kind of therapy for Titchmarsh, and also taught him great patience: “There are great frustrations in gardening, but it is (no pun intended) a grounding kind of pursuit. It reminds you what reality is all about, and it’s about things that grow and our responsibility for the landscape on whatever scale that might be. It’s not an onerous responsibility, it’s a delight to be involved with it.”
Initially taking up an apprenticeship with Ilkley Council, he then studied horticulture at both Shipley Art and Technology Institute and Hertfordshire College, before earning a diploma in the subject at the prestigious Botanic Gardens in Kew. For a while he stayed at Kew, tending to its many botanical spaces and then going on to train others in the craft. This is where the story may have ended, were it not for his decision around 1974 to marry his love of prose and plants to become a gardening journalist. This eventually would lead to his first television appearance on long-running BBC show, Nationwide, where he soon became the resident horticulture expert, and subsequent career as a presenter.
A wide and varied career
During his career he has hosted a dizzying and diverse array of television, from reality talent show Popstar to Operastar, alongside musician Myleene Klass, to a documentary on Her Majesty titled Elizabeth: Queen, Wife, Mother, and several stints on Songs of Praise. His love of classical music, his fascination with British history, and what is probably his most ingrained, but least-known devotion, his Christianity.
“I’m not remotely evangelical. I grew up in a classic low-church family where we just went to church on a Sunday, and I had that rebellious period in my late teens and 20s where I didn’t really go much, but it’s always been there. It’s always been something I’ve based my life on, but very quietly. It’s not something I particularly talk about, but yes, I have got a strong faith, and it helps me a lot,” says the flower enthusiast, who has written about the subject, revealing in the past that his religion has always been a great comfort to him – but also remarked that whilst being an atheist is deemed “sexy”, declaring your Christianity is not. Of course, “being sexy” is not something Titchmarsh has to worry about, especially considering the revelation on the comedy panel show, Would I Lie to You? that his Madame Tussauds’ waxwork had to be cleaned twice a week to remove lipstick smudges from his amorous female fans!
In spite of his attempts to play down his faith, he has certainly never shied away from the topic; in fact, he is known for singing it from the rooftops. Aside from Songs of Praise, he is also known to partake in the odd bout of bellringing and rang a quarter peal in Holybourne, Hampshire, to celebrate the marriage of William and Kate, and was a choirboy as a child. In fact, it is his love of music that brought him his wife of over 40 years, Alison, whom he met through an operatic society, and has two grown-up children with – Polly, 37, and Camilla, 35.
Titchmarsh talks about all his pursuits with great brevity. That’s not to say he lacks enthusiasm, quite the opposite, but there is a focus on the holy – almost meditative – qualities of both gardening and writing. Patience is required and a sense of letting go of what may be, and being prepared to start over. They are also, as any writer will tell you, quite lonely endeavours. “They are, for the most part, both solitary. You can garden with somebody else if you want, but most gardeners find themselves in their particular corner doing stuff on their own. It keeps me sane, if you like, that connection with the earth, and that for me is reality,” says Titchmarsh.
“A friend of mine said my garden was a wonderful escape, and I said yes, but it’s an escape to reality. This is real. When I wake up it’ll still be there and it;ll be growing, God willing, long after I’ve gone. I like that kind of permanence, that continuity – it gives me a sense of achievement having created something, but also a kind of inner peace.”
If your dreams aren’t laughable, they’re not big enough
The time on my Garmin reads 02.00 a.m. Two hundred adventurers are already tackling a 60km trek through the hills of Lake Bunyonyi, Uganda and they have been hiking for hours. I’m at a starting line and I’m one of nearly 800 people who are pinning race numbers to our tops, squinting in the darkness. Local Ugandans have journeyed here through the night, with babies tied to their backs, to join us as we run. Under each of our names and numbers is the phrase: Waves of Justice Worldwide. The purpose of the race is clear for all to see.
I’m taking part in a Muskathlon: an ultimate endurance event of running, cycling or trekking in a country where a charity, in this case Compassion, partners with local churches to release children from poverty. Throughout the week I have had the privilege of seeing first-hand the difference that Compassion are making in the lives of children who are living in extreme poverty. It’s been an energetic week of activities, playing and running around together with enthusiastic, laughing children. It’s been a time of listening, sharing, talking under the shade of a tree or the shelter of a local Compassion project.
I travelled to Uganda with a group of 20 people from the UK. As a team, we have raised a total of £57,000 and seen our friends and family connect 138 vulnerable children to their local Compassion project – a place where they will be nurtured, loved, encouraged and given the chance to be restored into the childhood which poverty has stolen from them. Meeting with the children, shaking their hands, learning their names, sharing jokes together has reminded me that Katharine or Andru or Robert aren’t just a child living in poverty, but a precious child made in the image of the One who also dreamt up my own life.
Laughable dreams are big dreams
When I was studying at college, I distinctly remember one of my tutors encouraging me to dream big. He said, “If your dreams aren’t laughable, they are not big enough.” As I ran around a sports field in western Uganda, chased by giggling children, I am prompted by those words. I desperately desire for them to aim high, dream big and have the best opportunities in life. The Compassion staff are living examples of big dreams and high aims – every day using their own lives and stories to remind children that they are the key to unlocking poverty for themselves, their families and their communities. I am inspired knowing that these children are being cheered on by people who once walked in their shoes.
There are 200 participants from around the world – me included – and we are joined in this race by 800 local Ugandans. We run alongside each other, side by side. They are the real heroes. I chuckle as I reflect on our differences. I run the trails with a local man for a short while – he looks as if he has decided to run the half-marathon on his way to work. He is dressed in smart shoes and a shirt – why not? Someone offered me a short cut and a thought flashed through my mind – “a little local knowledge won’t hurt” but politely declined. These 800 men and women born and raised in Uganda have turned up at the starting line to give it their all, with a twinkle in their eye, a smile on their face and the odd pair of brogues. By comparison, I have spent months preparing myself for this moment ; purchasing just the right running visor (not too heavy), the right colour calf sleeves (to match my trail shoes) and a hydration pack (I’ve calculated it fits just enough water in it to see me through to the next water stop). We live worlds apart, but we are running the same race.
The sports watch now reads 06:00 a.m. We’re warming up near the starting line. The trekkers will be far away up in the hills stretched out before me. The landscape is being tickled by the rising sun.
Ahead of me is the 39 mile (63km) ultra-marathon course, set over 7,000ft of elevation. The weather is predicted to be a temperature high of 34 degrees C. Out of the total 1,000 competitors, only six of us have signed up to run the ultra-marathon. It’s a long journey in itself, a bit like my decision to begin taking part in Muskathlons.
A year ago, nearly to the day, I was standing under the same “START” banner, deep in the Maasai Mara, Kenya. I was wearing the same trail running shoes and was about to take on a marathon. As soon as I finished that run in Kenya, my decision to run an ultra-marathon was birthed. I was completely spent. I knew I had given my all. But I have a competitive spirit in me; I wanted to run further. I wanted to push myself more. I wanted to test my own limits. I wanted to set a new laughable dream.
A constant smile on my face
In May this year, as I travelled around Uganda with like-minded people, I had a constant smile on my face knowing that all my training at all hours of the day, and the sacrifice of having to say “no” to hanging out with friends as often, was paying off. I travelled in a bus, full of people who had all made their own sacrifices to be there. For me, the sacrifice was running an ultra-marathon. For others, it was a half-marathon or a 120km cycle. This race isn’t about winning, it isn’t even about the kilometres; it’s about the giving up of yourself to offer help to those who need it most.
During my training schedule, I became a father for the first time, which meant I had to train late at night. On a long training session, I ran past a pub at 23.30 and someone shouted after me, “Who runs at this time?” I fist-pumped the air, smirked and ran off into the dark with my head torch fixed on the tarmac ahead and my mind on the goal.
My decision to run an ultra-marathon was a response to the daily struggle that many children in Uganda face. Running on their trails was a personal declaration to say, “I am with you.” I wanted to feel their pain, their suffering, their day-to-day.
The latest figures released by the World Bank show that within a population of 37 million people, 33.24% of Ugandans currently live on less than £1.50 a day. This percentage figure is decreasing, but that is nearly 13 million individuals. Thirteen million separate, unique people – some of whom I have met with, talked with, and been invited into their homes.
One of the most difficult parts of my trip to Uganda was finding out that Compassion church projects have a limit to how many children they can help through the child sponsorship programme. The tough reality, at the end of the day, is that I think this limit is set by me – and ultimately all of us who have been given so much more than we need.
As the starting siren rang out across the still lake, on 26 May 2016, all of these emotions and experiences were in my mind.
For a day, I certainly suffered. I was physically and mentally exhausted. It was the deepest and most profound physical suffering I have ever been through. The route was a half-marathon which I completed three times. The first lap was busy as everyone was out on the course. By the third lap, I was mostly alone. The locals would be out singing and dancing but I had no athlete in front of me to aim for or keep up with. I even forgot to restock my energy bars before setting out for the last lap; getting from water point to water point were my milestones. My mind had to fight for every step.
A friend of mine from the Netherlands, Tiemen, was also running the ultra and he was miles ahead of me for the entire race. Towards the end of the race, I had word from a member of the race crew that he was waiting for me at the final water stop and would like to run to the finish with me. In that moment, my heart reminded me that this was no ordinary race. A Muskathlon, this race, was never about me or my achievements. Muskathletes are a family determined to sacrifice their own agenda to see poverty eradicated for every child and family around the world. They are a band of men and women seeking to serve the needs of those around them, more than the needs of themselves.
For eight hours and 35 minutes, I ran (and I’ll be honest, at points, walked) an intense and painstaking 39 miles of dirt track in south-west Uganda.
As I approached the finishing line, side by side with three friends who also ran the ultra-marathon, I saw a smiling girl in a beautiful peach dress. I took her by the hand and ran with her towards my family and friends, beaming from ear to ear. When I was in Kenya only 12 months before, I had sprinted to the finishing line leaving behind a couple of local boys who had run with me for a fair few kilometres to that point.
I reflect with more fondness on my Ugandan finish. It marked a change in my priorities and many lessons learned.
Fast forward a few weeks and as I sit at my work desk, I have the race marker which reads 63: ULTRA RUN in full view. I see my own achievements less and less in this marker and more and more the children behind it, the ones who have been truly impacted by the support of my friends and family.
With such large numbers of people taking part in these events, I feel part of something bigger and I fully believe we can end extreme poverty in my lifetime; a laughable dream for some, but not for me.
I encourage you all to come on the journey with us in 2017.
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