Sorted Issue 57
Hollywood legend Mel Gibson, Andrew Garfield
and Comedian Chris Ramsay on his latest series Hebburn
And Gadgets, Entertainment, Motoring, Movies, Technology
Plus, the greatest team of Christian writers ever assembled.
A Role To Be Played - by Richard Taylor
Richard Taylor’s ten-year-old son Damilola was killed in 2001 on the way home from an after-school club. Following Damilola’s death, Richard and his late wife, Gloria founded the Damilola Taylor Trust to bring positive change to inner-city communities and increase the options and opportunities available to youngsters in those areas. In 2011, Richard was awarded an OBE for his services to the prevention of youth violence in the New Year Honours list. He dedicated the honour to Gloria and Damilola.
“Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all…if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink” (Romans 12: 17,20a, NRSV)
John Sentamu writes:
The Apostle Paul’s famous Chapter 13 of his First Letter to the Corinthians about love says, ‘Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things”
(1 Corinthians 13:7). In fact it describes the very characteristics we see in Jesus of Nazareth in the four Gospels.
Richard Taylor’s story is full of the pain of loss, but also full of the love of God who has helped him bear and endure the murder of his young ten-year-old son, and then the death of his wife, and has brought hope for others as a result.
How can we bear this kind of pain and still love? Only through the grace of Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit. Richard found this, when he tried to find some way forward after Damilola was so brutally killed by boys not much older than himself.
Richard saw that young people in the community needed help to have hope for their future. He was able to turn his hurt and distress to practical ways of building up those young people so that they could become the people God meant them to be.
Jesus tells his followers that love is not just easy affection for those we like, but the difficult path of caring for those who hurt us: ‘love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you…Do to others as you would have them do to you’ (Luke 6:27-28, 31). Richard discovered the power of this kind of love and in doing so is changing lives.
A precious gift from the almighty
Damilola was our youngest child by ten years. We hadn’t expected at that time in our lives to have another child, so when we learned Gloria was pregnant again we felt this child was a wonderful, precious gift from the Almighty. From the moment Damilola came into the world on 7th December 1989 we saw signs of that special gift. He was a brilliant boy who had friends of all ages. He had a smile that no-one could ignore because from it shone his love for life, with an infectious quality that made people want to be around him.
For the first ten years of Damilola’s life we lived, as a family, in Lagos, Nigeria, where I worked as a civil servant. Our daughter Gbemi has a severe form of epilepsy, which today still affects her and us as a family. We heard that there were more successful treatments available in the UK, so in the summer of 2000, Gloria and our three children, Gbemi, aged 23, Tunde, aged 21, and Damilola, aged 10, flew to Britain so that Gbemi could go to King’s College Hospital in London, for what was the best treatment in the world at that time.
I would have preferred for Damilola to stay in Nigeria and continue his education, but he insisted on joining his brother and sister in the UK, so that was it, the family went and I stayed behind in Lagos because of my work. In many ways our life in Nigeria had been privileged, in that our children had many opportunities, and naturally from that came big dreams for their futures. We had a comfortable home and Damilola had a private driver to take him to and from school. Now he was squatting at an auntie’s house in Peckham and was confronted with lots of challenges he’d never experienced before, and the stories I was hearing were not good ones.
Around that time there were a lot of illegal immigrants hiding in the area and they were scared to be found out. Whenever kids saw new migrants arrive in the area they would ask them for money as protection fees. I told Damilola: ‘Don’t give any money to other kids so that you can go to school.’ So, Damilola never carried any money to school, although the kids still asked him every day. Those kids were collecting money for older kids who were buying drugs from dealers – that was the kind of activity that was going on, but no one ever paid much attention to these kids, many of whom who were in care, separated from their parents and any family.
Listening to these stories, Gloria and I were concerned that Damilola was being bullied, but he never complained. He was a joyous child, focused on all the new experiences his environment was exposing him to, and the opportunities he hadn’t had in Nigeria. He joined a computer club at Peckham library, where he would go after school, and he was excited about what he was learning. He told me on the phone: ‘Daddy, I am going to do a lot of work. I am going to study medicine so that I can learn about epilepsy and help Gbemi.’
Damilola never arrived home
Three months after arriving in the UK, Damilola left the computer club at about 4.30pm as usual and never arrived home. CCTV footage shows him running in that direction, but only 500 yards from his front door he was attacked and stabbed in the thigh with a broken bottle. A workman, seeing a trail of blood, followed it to find Damilola slumped in a stairwell of a block of flats where he had collapsed, trying to make his way home. The glass had severed an artery and Damilola died from blood loss on the way to hospital. He was ten days away from his eleventh birthday.
I was at a meeting in the Parliamentary Secretary’s office when I was told the news. It was Tuesday morning and a phone call came through for me. At first I refused to take the call because I had my own office and didn’t expect to receive calls in the Parliamentary Secretary’s office. The man with the phone insisted. ‘This call is from the UK,’ he said.
‘What? What’s happening?’ I said, taking the handset. It was my son, Tunde on the other end of the line.
‘Why are you calling me now? How did you get this number?’ I asked him.
‘I called your office and I think they transferred the call,’ he said.
‘What’s going on?’ There was a pause on the other end and I knew something was very wrong.
‘Damilola went to school yesterday and he didn’t come home, he was stabbed to death.’
A scream came from deep inside me and then I must have passed out because I came round to see everyone standing around me. Luckily there was a doctor at the meeting and he was a kind man. Straight away he told the Parliamentary Secretary that I should be allowed to leave and go to the UK. The same doctor arranged my travel and gave me $500 to use as expenses on the trip.
I am telling you right from the bottom of my heart that I cannot understand what happened. Damilola’s killers were 13-year-old Ricky Preddie and his 12-year-old brother Danny. It deeply saddens me to think that a young person can take the life of another young person as if that life is nothing. After it happened people came to me talking about seeking revenge but I would send them away. I won’t be pushed by other people to be involved in negativity and destruction in the community. I have to use my brain to be able to control the emotion, and the emotion is there still.
Many people were shocked and saddened by what happened, and shortly afterwards we were approached by Southwark Council who wanted to set up a charity in Damilola’s name, whose work it would be to look into all the problems of young people in the area and try to do something about it. At the time our grief was still fresh so my response was: ‘Just do what you want to do.’ The charity was launched a year after Damilola’s death. We were told that after a year the council would hand it over to the family and that is what happened.
During his three months in the UK Damilola kept a craft book of poems and drawings. I remember Gloria telling me on the phone: ‘Your son is always on the carpet drawing.’ When I looked at his papers I saw that he had been taking everything in about his new surroundings, but two things stood out to me. The first was a sketch of the hospital theatre where he one day hoped to work and the second was a short poem which read, ‘I will travel far and wide to choose my destiny to remould the world. I know it is my destiny to defend the world which I hope to achieve in my lifetime’. When I read those words I felt a need deep inside me to fulfil the ambition of the young man. I’d lost my son because of the neglect and rot in the community; someone has to get up and do something.
Back in Nigeria I’d been involved in youth development programmes like setting up football clubs and sporting activities so I did have some experience to draw on. I also knew about the problems of the underprivileged children in Peckham, especially in the African Caribbean community. I couldn’t understand how children had degenerated into this kind of lifestyle, but I knew that we needed to do something to help to support and improve the environment that these kids were living in. There was, and still is, a need to bring hope and happiness to the young people and to encourage them to make the most of their educational opportunities, because many of the youths in the area are excluded from schools for various reasons. There is a role to be played by everybody in that sense, the government, the council, the education system, the church, and maybe it’s a role my family has been given too. As a result of Damilola’s life, we now have a part to play.
Guiding young people to better choices in life
Over the years the Trust has developed many projects to guide children and young people towards better choices in life, particularly those who may otherwise be vulnerable to gang and knife crime and those at risk of being kicked out of schools. For four years Gloria and I hosted the Spirit of London awards, funded by the Home Office and run by the Damilola Taylor Trust, to recognise the good work of some of the young people in the community we’d been supporting. We’d been helping open opportunities for young people to develop their potential, and some of them went on to build businesses of their own. We were also invited by King’s College, London to be part of its access to medicine project for young people who have been unable to gain admission into mainstream medical school. Several of the young people who used the scheme have now graduated and are practising medicine in the UK and abroad, which is something that has made me happy.
Until she died in 2008, Gloria gave everything she had to the work of the charity. I believe that she died because of the pressure and heartbreak caused to her by Damilola’s death – she loved him so much. Gloria bottled up her hurt. I am able to talk about my heartbreak, but she couldn’t. After his death she was diagnosed with high blood pressure. One day as I was coming home I saw a crowd of people standing around a person on the ground. When I got closer, I could see it was Gloria; she’d had a heart attack and fallen to the ground. I travelled with her in the ambulance but I knew as soon as I saw her face that I’d lost her.
Gloria was 57 years old when she died. I’ve lost my son, my wife, and my job. My life will never be the same, but I am still alive. I believe that Gloria’s spirit and Damilola’s spirit are still alive and that they will be watching in fulfilment the achievements we’ve been able to do in Damilola’s name.
I believe that through the Damilola Taylor Trust we are changing lives. We have done a lot to bring hope to the area and some young people are now benefitting from Damilola’s tragic death. My joy is to believe that some other people are achieving what Damilola cannot.
Between Heaven and Mel - by Jake Taylor
Beloved actor and award-winning director turned pariah: Mel Gibson’s career has lurched from one extreme to the other across the years. Now, however, it appears the star has found form once again at the helm of Hacksaw Ridge – but he’s keen to make sure the furore surrounding his triumphant return does not overshadow the incredible story of Hacksaw’s selfless hero…
The history of Hollywood is littered with larger-than-life personalities who have, for one reason or another, found a home in the public eye. On-screen, these individuals can hide their private life behind the veneer of inhabiting a character; off-screen, living one’s life in the constant glare of the limelight can be both a blessing and a curse.
So it was for Mel Gibson – perhaps the most talented and troubled Hollywood heavyweight since the days of Marlon Brando. Rarely is such a complete slide seen from Academy Award-winning acclaim to the filmic wasteland, and with the allegations of alcoholism, bigotry and spousal abuse being splashed across every news outlet, Gibson’s career took on the qualities of a train wreck – utterly unwatchable, and yet impossible to ignore.
Beneath that controversy, however, lay an undeniable acting tour de force – the man behind the much-loved Martin Riggs of Lethal Weapon fame, and the thespian powerhouse that both directed and starred in 1995’s Braveheart, a film which claimed no less than five Academy Awards. From 1989 to 2002, he appeared in ten movies that each went onto gross $100m worldwide – four years later, and Gibson was without a wife, an agent, or the support of the vast majority of the cinematic community.
Though the intervening years have been riddled with unsavoury behaviour, it is starting to appear that Gibson has finally returned to form as Oscar-gossip continues to surround his first directorial project since 2006’s Apocalypto, the World War Two epic Hacksaw Ridge.
Starring Andrew Garfield, Hacksaw Ridge delves into the incredible story of US Army medic Desmond Doss who, in spite of refusing to bear arms due to his faith as a Seven Day Adventist, was awarded the Medal of Honour – the first of just three individuals in history to have done so.
“Desmond Doss was a singular and extraordinary man,” says Gibson. “He’s an ordinary man who does extraordinary things in a difficult situation. He just didn’t do it once or twice but he did it over and over again; he had all the hallmarks of the classic hero. He stuck to his faith and convictions and did what he had to do.”
Faith and conviction
Faith and conviction are a tricky subject when it comes to Gibson. The second son of eleven children fathered by Hutton Gibson, himself an outspoken critic of the Catholic Church, Gibson junior was moved with his family from New York to Australia, and was schooled for much of his formative years by members of the Congregation of Christian Brothers. Raised as a Sedevacantist traditionalist Catholic – a controversial group that believe there is, at present, no valid Pope in place – Gibson’s ultraconservative views and the influence of his firebrand father came to a head in 2004 with The Passion of the Christ, a film that Gibson hoped to be his enduring magnum opus but instead opened himself up to a slew of anti-Semitic accusations.
These allegations, combined with Gibson’s long-standing problems with alcohol, the breakdown of his 26-year marriage to Robyn Moore and the subsequent release of recordings purporting to be of Gibson threatening violence on his girlfriend, created a media firestorm from which the star emerged with a career in tatters and a permanent spot on the list of actors whose reputation rendered them untouchable to directors. In an odd way, this black-listing creates a comparison between Gibson and Doss – though, or course, the reasons behind this exclusion remain entirely opposed.
“They put him through hell,” says Gibson of Doss’ treatment by the US Army. “He was beaten up by his fellow soldiers, he was called a coward, he was ostracised in the military. Nobody would even talk to him.”
A desire to deal with reality
Understandably, Doss’ story piqued Gibson’s interests, as both a director and a man with a complicated history of religious conviction, almost at once. Much of Gibson’s work, be it the traditional language used in Apocalypto or the scourging of Jesus in Passion, has been underpinned by a desire to deal with the reality of a situation, however harrowing.
“As a storyteller, I’m fascinated by selfless heroism and the kinds of behaviour that comes from faith and belief in principles,” he muses. “I wanted to celebrate a real hero in a world of superheroes in spandex suits. This was an extraordinary and true story about a man who stands firm on his religious principles, and refuses to carry a gun or kill.
“As soon as I got into the script I knew I wanted to make the film; I would read about how Doss would crawl in the mud to rescue his buddies without any thought for himself,” he continues. “He had such incredible faith and bravery and he never once thought about his own safety or how his life was more valuable than that of his fellow soldiers. How many times do you ever hear those kinds of stories?”
From a glance it’s clear that despite his lengthy absence from cinema, the hallmarks of Gibson’s unflinching direction remain as clear as ever in Hacksaw Ridge. Doss’ military career, Gibson says, was spent in “the worst combat zones in Japan” and akin to the general destruction seen in every World War Two epic worth its salt is Gibson’s trademark tackling of cinematic conflict, or the desire to “explore the area between the man and the bullet”.
“I see my job as trying to visualise the battle and be clear in how you shoot it even though it looks like chaos,” he explains. “You want to create the sensation of terror and chaos but without confusing the audience. If the audience doesn’t understand what’s happening, then those scenes lose their impact because people can’t follow the battle. You have to try to create that kind of hell and make the public feel the horror of war even though the reality is even worse.”
And whilst the actors in his charge were expected to, as Mel states, “be able to have an idea of what the experience of being in a combat situation must be like, at least to a small degree,” Hacksaw’s starring man turns the image of Gibson as a somewhat unhinged creator of chaos on its head. “He’s passionate and loving and nurturing,” Garfield said of his notorious director. “A good director is like a good mother – and he is a really good mother.”
A Jekyll and Hyde career
This is the ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ comparison that overhangs Gibson’s entire career. It is the inherent contradiction that saw him supported by ex-wife Moore and long-time friend and fellow actress Jodie Foster, even when facing convictions for domestic abuse. There is the Mel Gibson that was praised for his professionalism and punctuality by Lethal Weapon director Richard Donner, and the Mel Gibson who, it was later revealed, was beginning the day with a six-pack of lager during much of the franchise’s filming.
Now clean and sober for a decade, Gibson’s juxtapositions manifest themselves in artistic ways – such as his disgust for conflict playing off against his continuing association with films that focus on military heroes, be they fighters like William Wallace, or pacifists like Desmond Doss.
“I hate all wars, and I believe that there are no just wars,” he says. “I hate war but I love the warrior. I believe that it’s important to love and honour our warriors and pay tribute to those who fought and sacrificed their lives on the front lines. I hope my film does that.”
Gibson is hopeful that his new film can speak to veterans from all eras of modern conflict. “We’ve shown the film to veterans from Korea, Vietnam and Iraq,” he reveals. “They found it cathartic and a bit difficult at times, but it was also therapeutic. That made me really happy.”
The real Doss passed away aged 87 in 2006, and remained an uncomfortable or unwilling recipient of praise to the end, despite his heroism – a characteristic that only serves to further endear his story to a mesmerised director.
“A real hero is often someone who is willing to sacrifice and act selflessly,” Gibson states. “In the case of Desmond Doss, here you have someone who went into battle, and faced the worst artillery fire imaginable without any weapon in order to save people.
“While he was alive, no one could ever convince him to give the rights to his story,” he adds. “It was only the Seventh Day Adventist church he belonged to which did that after his death. If he were alive today, he wouldn’t go see the film. But I would hope that he would be reluctantly happy about the way his story has been told.”
If Hacksaw Ridge is instrumental in shining a light on the untold heroics of Desmond Doss, and bringing his incredible story to a wider audience, it’s also yet another indicator of the status its director still holds in Hollywood. Gibson’s first feature film after the allegations of domestic abuse broke, 2011’s The Beaver, came about through director Jodie Foster’s lasting relationship with its leading man and culminated in a ten-minute long standing ovation at Cannes – during which onlookers noted that Gibson appeared uncomfortable on his return to the red carpet.
For years, the star has been working off-camera with various charitable causes, donating huge amounts of money to projects across the globe – including those focused on anti-apartheid, rainforest conservation, and a children’s hospital among others. He is also known for his loyalty, be it through offering to produce and star in Get the Gringo, a script written by his first assistant on Apocalypto who was searching for his break, or paying Robert Downey Jr’s astronomical insurance bond after the latter’s release from prison. Downey Jr has since been yet another vocal advocate in favour of forgiving Gibson; if Hacksaw Ridge dominates come awards season, Gibson’s redemption in both the eyes of his audiences and contemporaries appears complete – vindicating those who championed the star’s unseen, generous side despite the lingering effects of his well-publicised transgressions.
A softer side
And are we seeing the softer side of Gibson in these hazy first days of post-acceptance back into the Hollywood fold? Sixty years old, and sporting a huge, granite beard, Gibson is expecting his ninth child with his current girlfriend, former equestrian champion, Rosalind Ross – a relationship that appears to be as stable as his previous one was destructive.
The choice of Desmond Doss as subject matter for his cinematic revival also appears significant when compared to Gibson’s earlier heroes. The chaos of war may still provide the grisly backdrop, but where Braveheart’s Wallace or Apocalypto’s Jaguar Paw are driven by an overwhelming desire for revenge, Hacksaw’s Doss provides Gibson with the vehicle through which to explore a less brutal and single-faceted vision of faith than that which has appeared to dominate his earlier life.
“I think any religion worth its salt has to be based on love,” he philosophises. “There are lots of religions, and often religious beliefs are translated into concrete actions. There are those that allow you to kill yourself and others. But Desmond Doss has put into practice his belief based on love. He carried out his convictions in the worst possible conditions. He risked his life to save his brothers, and that’s what counts.”
Whatever the reception that greets Gibson’s red-carpet return proper, the star himself remains firm: the story of Hacksaw Ridge does not revolve around him or his career. Rather, it is Desmond Doss who must invariably take the spotlight – a fact which Gibson is almost sure to remind the world, were the penning of an acceptance speech required in the not too distant future.
The Troublemaker - by Ali Hull
Greg Valerio finished his last day of school with the words “Valerio, you’re a natural-born troublemaker. Just make sure you make trouble for the right reasons!” ringing in his ears. Nor was this the last day of term – instead, it had been the day when the school’s patience had run out. A difficult relationship was coming to a premature end. School, for Greg, as for so many lads, had been a difficult experience – and one that had got worse as he got older. Brought up in a solidly middle-class area, he says, “School was a farce, with its pressures to qualify with straight As, sit the Oxbridge exam or end up working for IBM. This mantra was continually preached in classrooms and assemblies, yet how could I take this seriously when one of the female teachers seduced my classmates, and another sold some of the best dope in the district? My disaffection with the school was reciprocated, because the senior staff didn’t like me much either.”
So Greg greeted expulsion with joy. “I was absolutely delighted. Screw the exams, screw the teachers, and screw it all. I had no idea what I would do, but I knew where I did not want to be. I did learn one vital lesson, though – ‘Always question everything. Always question authority, and take nothing they say for granted.’”
It has been an approach that has served him well, not only when people are obviously doing wrong things, but also when they appear to be doing things that are right. So he has had battles with the rich jewellery trade – but also disagreements with the world of international development and charity. And it was this battle that he was to have first.
Having become involved in speaking about the issues of poverty, in schools and colleges, he realised that he needed to go and see for himself – having gone no further, at that point, than Canada. And on a trip to Tanzania, he came up against some of the issues regarding charity that were to trouble him. The point of the seven-week trip was “to live and work alongside local people in the rural south of Tanzania. I would be exposed to the daily poverty of ordinary Tanzanians. I could listen to their stories, their hopes and fears, and learn from them. I went with six other individuals, and our basic job was to make bricks for an extension to a school”.
It wasn’t long before questions about what he – and the others – were doing there began to bother him. He realised they were “denying locals employment so the project could host white people from the donor organisation. I had become a development tourist”. It would have made far more sense, he realised, if the locals had been paid to make the bricks, rather than shipping in a group of Westerners. But, of course, the NGO he was with was getting quite a bit of money from each of the individuals who had come to experience ‘real poverty’ for a few weeks.
And this was not the only thing that bothered him. “One conversation I had with a rural trainee pastor brought home to me how thin the line between life and death really was. The pastor had bilharzia, a disease caused by a water-borne parasite that can kill you, over time, if not treated. As you weaken through the illness, you cannot work; if you cannot work, you cannot earn money to buy food; if you can eat, you weaken and so the vicious cycle continues. This man had a wife and three children to feed. So what little he could earn from subsistence farming, he gave to his wife to feed her and the three children. I asked him what it would take to cure him. I was told a simple course of drugs would kill the parasite, but he could not afford to buy the drug and feed his children at the same time. He was slowly dying so that his children might live.”
And when Greg asked how much the treatment actually cost, he was told it was all of £5.
A simple solution
So the solution seemed simple – or at least it did to Greg. But that evening, he discussed the situation with others that he was with. And then he was told that giving the money to the man “might not be culturally sensitive, as the man was an elder. And if I did it for one person, I might have to do it for everyone”.
Greg’s response was typical of him – he went ahead anyway. “What’s culturally sensitive about dying and leaving your kids without a father? I gave the guy the money for his treatment, he was very grateful, and he got better.”
Needing a break from making bricks, Greg took off for a week to Arusha, in the north of the country, and set about exploring. In the course of wandering around the dusty streets, he met a Maasai, who asked if Greg would be interested in seeing his batik artwork. “His canvasses were huge, abstract Picasso-esque pieces, picturing traditional mystical landscapes and village scenes from the life of east Africa.”
Greg left Arusha with two of Robert’s batiks, and a host of questions swirling around his brain – to say nothing of the emotions he was struggling with. He was concerned both with the work he had been doing and to which he was returning – did it have the right focus – and even more concerned with the way charities were working. He was beginning to realise that handing out money was not only not enough, it was not what those struggling with poverty actually wanted. “It had created a dependency culture.” And it wasn’t what those he had met wanted. “Where was the dignity in a begging bowl?”
Having promised himself that he would return to Africa on a yearly basis, Greg was soon back, in Ethiopia, and this time it was the urban poverty that he saw which shocked him to the core. “Arriving in Addis (the capital) was an explosion of emotion, an assault on the senses and a harrowing of my consciousness. As we travelled around the city, I struggled to take in the complexities of life. Every road junction we stopped at, we would be engulfed by a rugby scrum of children begging for food, three or four deep at our window. Women would offer us their children to take home, and the disabled pleaded for help with eyes full of sheer desperation.”
The gateway to hell
However, it was his encounter with two street girls that had a greater impact on him. They turned up at the conference centre where he was speaking and told him their story. Meron and Sarai were aged around 12, and lived behind one of the big hotels, working as prostitutes, the only way they could earn. They were frequently raped by older boys. “Their lives were violent, abusive and loveless.” Greg arranged for them to have regular health checks, and promised to stay in touch with them – a promise he has kept. Their plight moved him in a way that was entirely new: “As they walked back to their life on the streets, my body began to shake with raw emotion. I felt a surge of pain across my chest, as if my heart was being ripped from my body. The thought of those two girls returning to the daily horror of living and working on the streets was too much for me and I broke down in tears.”
These two trips to Africa and others that he made moved Greg to realise that the best way to help those caught in poverty was by trade, not aid. It is a simple mantra and one that we are now very familiar with, but when he started selling jewellery, batiks and other products, sourced in Africa, at festivals and events in the UK, he and the organisation he ran, CRED, were breaking new ground. However, once a lot of other organisations caught up with him, he decided to move on – and he moved on to the jewellery trade.
We have all seen the adverts – the glossy fabrics, the sparkling stones, the shiny bands of gold – but what we don’t see, and the trade does not want us to see, is those who are at the beginning of the chain – the men down the mines, badly paid, in dangerous conditions, risking their lives for the sake of that piece of frippery – or that much-loved and meaningful engagement ring. Greg soon found himself arguing and questioning, all over again. When he set up CRED Jewellery, he mixed jewellery from Tanzania and Ethiopia with more mainstream products, and the new business was successful. But he soon realised that the ethnic jewellery was never going to replace the really expensive, “contemporary modern designs, well-crafted and affordable”. When it came to wedding rings or beautiful necklaces, mainstream customers were not asking the questions about where the gold had come from, or the diamonds and sapphires. They might faithfully have bought Fair Trade coffee and Fair Trade sugar in the supermarket, but jewellery was different.
Except it wasn’t, as Greg was discovering. On a visit to the pink city of Jaipur in India, to buy some jewellery, he insisted on finding out where the stones in the pieces came from. And he also found out that many of the 60,000 people working on gem stones in the city were children. A visit to a local garnet mine was another eye-opener…
Shaking with raw emotion
“As we reached the brow of the not inconsiderably sized hill, it abruptly stopped. It was in fact only half a hill. Below me was a vertical drop of some 20 to 30m, straight down. As its base was a huge pit where the miners worked, with simple tools, clawing at the face of the hill to extract the rough garnets. We walked down to the pit and saw the extremities that these miners were subjected to, every day: the heat, rock, thirst and the Neolithic working conditions. It was horrific. I felt like I was looking at the gateway of hell.”
Talking to the mine workers, he soon discovered that not only were they paid a pittance, but they had to buy bottled water from the mine owners – what little the workers did have was being snatched away. But he also realised, talking to leading figures in the jewellery trade, that no one was going to take much notice of what he was finding out unless he could back it up with proper research, rather than simply one or two eyewitness statements. Determined to create jewellery that was fairly traded all the way from the mine that produced the gold or silver, and the gems, Greg was battling against an industry that either felt what he was attempting couldn’t be done, or shouldn’t be. Either way, he appeared he was, more or less, on his own.
The story of what happened next is told in full in Greg’s book, Making Trouble – Fighting for Fair Trade Jewellery (Lion). Without giving the game away, it can be added that he was named the Campaigner of the Year in the Observer Ethical Awards in 2011. The battle did not end in Jaipur – it took him to Nepal, to South America, and to a fight in Greenland, against the Danish government. He is still asking questions, and making trouble.
Have you ever been sideswiped; led to believe one thing and then, as you’re looking ahead with the excitement and expectation of a child who on their birthday has just been told “and one final surprise”, something beyond your peripheral vision slams into your side, sending you into an uncontrollable spin? This is my story of being sideswiped. The time someone said, “Hey, what’s that on your shirt?” then, as I looked down, stole my wallet, my job, my hobbies, my carefree sense of fun, my dream of one day driving a car that demonstrated my success and status. They made off with my entire world view.
I share this with you so that you might avoid finding yourself in a similar fix. Always check your blind spots!
My ordeal happened six years ago. I was 26, a great age. I had literally no fears or concerns. My wife, Ruth, and I were living in central London and had a close circle of friends who we saw most evenings. We ate out and frequented the cinema and theatre, hung out in parks at weekends and occasionally took in an odd art exhibition that always went over our heads, hit the wall behind us and clattered to the ground disturbing all the quiet, cultured folk. But we didn’t mind, we were loving life. We had sufficient income to support the occasional skiing trip or holiday to South Africa and I was fit; I ran a couple of half-marathons a week and thought nothing of it. Life was good and we had the enthusiasm to know that it would only get better.
We had plans to ‘travel’, which when used as an unattached verb means we were going to see the world, or at least the bits that most appealed to our sense of adventure and we considered sophistication as having eaten McDonald’s in many different cultures. Do you know that in Malaysia they serve chicken strips in porridge? We had discussed ‘doing’ China then venturing down to Thailand and New Zealand, up and over the Pacific to Canada before working down through Central and South America: Cuba, Colombia and Peru, then finally stopping off in Kenya for safari. They were our A-list spots; we also had B and C lists. You’re right, it was going to be awesome; the adventure of our lifetimes after which, under Ruth’s guidance, we planned to settle down, buy a house and have children. The dream.
Just as our schemes were nearing completion, Ruth decided that she wanted to retrain as a dietitian. The only snag was that this required a year of evening school studying sciences, followed by four years at university. Sideswipe #1.
Travelling is quite a different proposition for two people living in London on one salary who are restricted to term-time breaks. We were determined to see the world, though our timeframe, budget and list of destinations all felt the squeeze. Our new itinerary was Uganda and Kenya. The thing we had most looked forward to was safari in the Maasai Mara and I’d rather prematurely invested in the latest Panasonic Lumix with 16x optical zoom (I had no idea).
Off we went and, with the exception of a senile safari guide who almost fed us to wild lions, and a bout of what can only be described as free-flowing food poisoning inspired by Nile-washed salad leaves (it’s not the white water that will get you!), we were having a fantastic time.
But first rewind a few weeks. Shortly before setting off we mentioned to a friend that we were heading to Kenya for safari and then on to the idyllic hideaway, Sand Island, in Mombasa. As it turned out, he had lived in Kenya and suggested that we spent a couple of days with a friend of his called George. The cost of our guest lodging? One box of shortbread biscuits and a local football tournament. Again, check your blind spots. This was an unusual proposition and we should have looked further into the suggested transaction.
Having narrowly avoided becoming steak tartare, it was time to meet George. We followed our friend’s directions and were surprised to find our safari-beach retreat had a rather unexpected intruder: a slum. We stepped out of our taxi and into more Nile food poisoning. Sideswipe #2. What were we doing in a slum? It was one of the few occasions I have felt entirely lost.
George, a towering Kenyan pastor, showed us to his house, which was one of the better ones; it had concrete walls and a drop toilet. He and his wife, Jackie, shared their home with 13 once-homeless children who they had adopted and now loved as their own. We presented our biscuits, which not only felt like, but actually were, the most ridiculous gift in the history of passing things from one person to another. Never has there been a less likely setting for tea and Scottish shortbread. But there, in the middle of a corrugated iron maze, with 13 orphans, George the giant and Jackie, we drank Kenyan tea (one part tea, two parts milk, five parts sugar) and nibbled our butter fingers.
The next day I woke with a stiff neck and, after a church service, we headed to a clearing where preparations had been made for the football tournament. En route, I was assaulted by a smell that burned my nostrils and made my eyes water.
“What is that?” I spluttered.
George turned to me with a confused look on his face. “What’s what?”
He continued to look blank. He was like a Londoner so familiar with their city they no longer heard the buses and the sirens. He inhaled deeply, letting the smell swirl around as though he were tasting a new wine. “Ah,” he said with the disapproving look of a parent who had found a stray coat on the floor. “They smash a sewage pipe and use it to fertilise crops.”
First shortbread in a slum and now goalposts beside people growing their food in raw sewage. You’re right, there are no words. Take a break and come back.
Where was I?
World’s worst footballer
The clearing was packed with 300 boys and girls. I was told that they had been practising every day since the tournament was announced. One of the teams tentatively approached the only white(ish) guy and who they mistook as probably a semi-pro. They pushed forward one of their players who could speak English. “Do you juggle?” he asked as he began bouncing the ball off his various appendages. He completed a textbook Baggio seven and then flicked the ball to me. I instinctively went for a cushioned header but my neck seized, and rather than gently controlling the ball, it slapped me in the face and dropped to the ground. Never have you seen disappointment like it. I was ashamed. They were sideswiped.
The tournament lasted into the evening and it was explained to me that the children have no earthly positions. And by that, I mean 80% played barefoot, the others played with a single flip-flop or trainer; half had a right, a teammate the matching left. George told me that during the holidays the children sat around and were drawn into gangs who gave them a taste of alcohol or drugs. Without money to pay back their older peers or to get the next hit, they turned to petty crime. But football gave them a focus. They practised all day and went to bed exhausted. Parents and teachers reported that the children were happier and more engaged and it provided a platform to talk to them about issues like sanitation, hygiene and nutrition.
We left with our senses ringing, like in the movies when the protagonist escapes an exploding car bomb. All background noise had gone and we floated our way home, disorientated by tinnitus. A few days later I found myself in a café thinking about the polarity and absurdity of our globe that can accommodate such vastly different worlds. Whilst I sat sipping coffee in a chair designed to keep me comfortable for the duration of my drink, surrounded by rustic pictures of coffee growers picking, roasting and grinding beans adding to my authentic experience, I couldn’t help but think about the community I had visited in Kenya growing their crops in the worst kind of waste. How could these two experiences coexist? And what could I do about it?
After many sleepless nights, I had the answer. Nothing. There was nothing that I could do. The issues were simply too numerous, too big and too complexly interlinked. I had to somehow absorb what I had witnessed and move on. And that is what I set about doing. Only I couldn’t shift the tinnitus.
I had spoken with George at length about some of the issues he was working to combat. There were no jobs, there was poor sanitation and a lack of access to clean water. None of the children could afford secondary school, which meant few bothered with free primary education. There was a lack of basic healthcare and nutritional knowledge. Anaemic pregnant women dug stones from the dirt and ground them with their teeth, their iron deficiency temporarily satisfied by the metallic taste.
What can anyone do about all that? Where do you begin? What can make it better? Education doesn’t mean jobs; it would mean frustration. Clean water and an understanding of its importance doesn’t mean better health if you’re growing your food in sewage.
But one day, whilst delivering a presentation, I realised something. I know some smart people – people who know about water. I know lots of teachers who know about education. I know doctors and entrepreneurs. I looked around and in that one room, there must have been all the skills and resources required to work alongside and completely transform entire communities. And so there it was, sideswipe #3.
It is only through working together that we can do what we must. It requires us to make our unique contribution, whether our resource be a skill, material or finance. And that is why I founded People. I was sideswiped. It has changed my world view, caused me to change the way I work, put my wallet on a diet and given me a new perspective of what success looks like.
I think that combating dehumanising poverty is the most important and profound test that faces us today and People aims to do that though pooling the skills and resources of individuals and organisations. We now work in Kenya and Liberia alongside remarkable people. Together we identify and respond to the challenges to, and opportunities for, development and change. In the community I visited six years ago we now have a scholarship programme that supports young people through secondary school and into further study or full-time employment.
But there is so much more that must and can be done. We need to work with IT companies to develop computer training centres and coding schools, we need to develop roads and infrastructure that will improve trade and we need businesses to use their might to empower. We need entrepreneurs to support start-ups, farmers to provide agricultural training and we need more generous people to help expand our scholarship programme. With the right people using what they have at their disposal, this can all be done.
So, to sideswipe you, what is it that only you can do? What is it that you can help make happen?
We are a global community, that’s what makes us People.
Check out people.org.uk and help us support a young person through school and into employment.
Northern Star - by Martin Leggatt
For many, including me and my wife, comedian Chris Ramsey first came to prominence in the TV comedy series Hebburn, set in the north-east town of the same name. Hebburn was a huge hit in my household, mainly because it is just down the road from my wife’s hometown of South Shields, a place where we lived for two years. Chris played the eldest son, Jack Pearson, to Vic Reeves’ character in the show a slight pastiche of the region, but it was hilarious and familiar. We have a chat about the fate of the West Park pub in South Shields becoming a local supermarket store, his busy schedule and an unlikely passion. With several TV shows on the air, he is the new host of Virtually Famous as well as his own The Chris Ramsey Show on Comedy Central UK, and a 45-date Is That… Chris Ramsey tour, his career really has exploded.
Would you say that Hebburn was your big break?
I don’t think it boils down to my big break, but it was definitely one the bigger ones in a series on big breaks that I’ve had. Not everyone knew that I was a stand-up, but it gave me a credibility and awareness.
Do you still live in South Shields?
Yeah, still live in Shields. I did move to Manchester when I first started out, then when I started touring, I moved back. I could live anywhere really with this job, but it might as well be my hometown as anywhere. I’d never choose to live in London, it’s just not me. Don’t get me wrong, I like London, just couldn’t live there. I’m in London now and looking out my hotel window I’ve got a lovely view – I’m looking at the back of King’s Cross, the National Library and the skyline.
You’ve been on the comedy circuit for what, seven years now?
Nine years now, I think. Yeah, it’s been a hard slog, but not as hard as it could be. I worked at the Inland Revenue and AllSports for minimum wage. There are moments when I could have a whinge but you’ve gotta try and I’m “Come on, you’re doing the job of your dreams”.
You’re married (to actress and singer Rosie) and have a one-year-old son. You both must be very busy – how do you manage to get time together?
Yeah [laughs], time back at home these days isn’t really time off. Time off for me is on the train, car or hotel between gigs. When I finish this call I’ll have time to myself. But it’s amazing, I love marriage, and my boy, Robin, he’s 14 months old now and just started walking. He’s on that cusp between being a baby and a little person, a beautiful little cusp and that’s just amazing.
Being in Australia for I’m a Celebrity: Extra Camp must have made it hard on you
No, not at all. I flew my wife, baby and mother-in-law over to me for the entire time we were there. It was great, my son took his first steps in Australia. Being away as much as I am you get resigned to missing milestones, first words, saying Dad or Mum for the first time, the first steps. You get resigned to crying to yourself at having missed it, but I saw it [first steps] with my entire family; I flew my parents out as well and had them all in the hotel. [laughs] I didn’t make any money off that show, but it was worth every penny to see his first steps.
How do you relax, have downtime?
PlayStation, if I get the time. I know this guy in the US, from Twitter, who made me a PlayStation. It’s about the size of a VCR and opens up like a laptop, it has a PlayStation 4 inside. I watch films, TV, play games and go on Twitter and Facebook. I’ve been on The Wright Stuff today and when we finish this call I’ll probably be doing that. When I’m home I’m an absolute fanatic about recycling. I’m obsessed, I’ve got a Stanley knife to cut cardboard up and spend hours recycling. It’s like a whole afternoon’s activity. I’ve got two recycling bins.
You have over 380,00 Twitter followers. You had quite a boost following your appearance on Celebrity Juice.
I think the whole nation vicariously lived their life through me at that moment. I didn’t go on to be nasty [to Katie Holmes who had made comments about overweight people] but I just thought I’d stand up for the people.
Nothing like that moment on Soccer AM?
That was a moment when I thought I’d killed my career. I was put on the spot on live television and just thought I need to say something funny. I don’t know how it popped in my head but I just made it up on the spot. It was just one of those things, but you know, stand-up is like therapy – you need to tell as many people as possible to put it right and make yourself better. I actually got more Twitter followers, about 13k more than I did after Hopkins. I followed it up with a full tour, the Chris Ramsey: The Most Dangerous Man on Morning TV tour.
Coming from the north-east, what football team do you follow: Black and White or Red and White?
Neither, I don’t follow football. I used to pretend when I was younger, I had Newcastle United wallpaper, the football kit. All my mates are Sunderland fans, they have season tickets and go to all the matches. I can watch it, big games, England and that, but I can’t really find time to dedicate to it. Guiltily, I don’t want my son to grow up liking football because I couldn’t pretend to like it. That wouldn’t be fair.
How did you get into comedy?
My mate Cal Hutchinson (he’s on my TV show) and I were always the jokers of the group when we were at university. He was off to do a gig overnight and I asked him if it was music and he said no, comedy – you just go to a club and do stand-up. He went and did well, he sent me a recording of his gig. So then next time I went and watched and thought I’d come back the following month. In that month I was terrified, writing material down, but went and did it. Afterwards, the manager told me it was the best debut they’d ever seen. I started travelling round doing gigs in Manchester, Liverpool and took off. I supported Russell Kane and then a really successful Edinburgh Fringe… From there it just snowballed.
Who makes you laugh?
In life, my wife, my son – he’s a little character, my friend Carl (Hutchinson), Jason Cook who wrote Hebburn, mostly my family. They’re all really funny. I like laughing lots. Professionally, it’s always been Billy Connolly.
Have you ever had any bad experiences with hecklers?
Not really. I do tours so you don’t really get people who don’t find you funny. Most come because they know you, your material and like you. I think of a good heckle as something that’s a contribution to the show, a good heckle can make a good show fantastic. Some can have a go and say you’re rubbish but I’ve never had that. There was a gig I did at Sheffield Memorial Hall. It was a tough gig, terrible, acts were dropping out and I lasted about nine minutes instead of the 20 I was on for. I just put the mike back on the stand and said to the audience, “Sorry, this is dreadful, I’m gonna go.” There was this older woman in the audience and out of the silence [she] shouted, “Stay on, son, you’re doing fine.” Which made everyone laugh. I couldn’t work out if she was being mean or just being encouraging, but it made it really funny. That was the perfect heckle for me.
Annapurna II Retreat from the mountain - By Tara Valente
We set out in a team of two at the end of October to summit Annapurna II, but were forced to retreat from the mountain before the final push. By this point we had done all the hard bits – ahead of us only a slow plod leading up to the summit.
Jamie Annetts is an expedition leader and director of Exped Adventure, an expedition company based in Staveley, Cumbria. For his big personal challenge in 2016 he had set his sights on Annapurna II – a rarely climbed mountain in central Nepal.
We had planned to reach the top of the 7,937 metre peak unsupported and without bottled oxygen – but the mountain had other ideas.
After three weeks of everything going to plan, high winds, freezing temperatures and ultimately a medical emergency forced us to make a retreat.
We had planned the siege tactic of advanced camps to conquer Annapurna II, climb high, sleep low for acclimatisation, and to move fast and light on the ridge to the summit.
At base camp we heard six avalanches a day; there were massive explosions as they fell. The wind reached speeds of 160 kilometres per hour and it was way colder than you can imagine.
So few people have been up Annapurna II that there is a limited amount of information available, and we found that all the research we had done before the climb was out of date because of the way nature changes our mountain environments. The glacier had retreated a mile further than had been described, and we had to reach the end of it to start the ice climb. Here we found ourselves tackling ex-glacier scree which was rock-hard ice, no snow. The terrain was bullet-hard, frozen mud, every step was slipping away.
We were expecting a snow ridge and we found a hanging glacier which felt more than vertical, so the terrain was way harder than previous expeditions had described.
Only 15 people have stood on the summit of Annapurna II, with the first ascent made by fellow Cumbrian climbing legend Sir Chris Bonington, 56 years ago. The mountain range is described as one of the most dangerous in the world, and it has the chilling title of being the deadliest mountain, as it claims the lives of 40% of people who climb it.
Things turned bad
At 6,200 metres, having reached camp two, things turned bad. I have been a lot higher on mountain climbs in the past, but the physical challenges of the mountain were the toughest yet. We were carrying 25 kilogrammes and climbing Scottish Grade Two to Three all the time. Every day we were going through deep snow, wearing the heavy packs and breaking in deep. There wasn’t enough time to recover, to rest. I only had one symptom of altitude mountain sickness and that was that, I didn’t sleep that night. When we got up after a freezing night in the tent, I felt totally smashed. Matt led the climbing and on the walking sections I was breaking through snow that was chest-deep.
Couldn’t move fast enough to keep warm
At this point I would take five steps and then stop to cough. The wind was howling; we couldn’t move fast enough to keep warm. We made it to our next camp – in a cave – and Matt said we needed to have a chat. By this point my breathing was 30 to 40 breaths a minute and Matt could hear a spluttering on my lungs when he pressed his ear to my chest. We rang the Remote Medical Support and I took the drugs they recommended and their advice to descend 500 metres as quickly as possible.
The descent was very hard, it was steep and icy, with avalanche risks on either side of us. I had to abseil off camp two on a short rope and Matt then down climbed, retracing our steps. There were many hard sections as we retreated to camp one. That night was the worst, we were a long way from help and we knew we still had a long way to get back to civilisation.
Although I was ill, I was still carrying my own pack; we abseiled down the face and at 5,100 metres it was like someone flicked a light switch in my head. I felt much better. That day we got down to 3,200 metres, carrying the heaviest bag of my life – 35 kilogrammes – we had no porters because we were leaving earlier than planned. We had to walk about 15 kilometres carrying everything we brought for the expedition – two climbing ropes, boots, tents, the stove, water, food, a full climbing rack, ice screws…
We were forced to make our attempt too early in our planned programme because of the weather conditions. We went up anticipating everything that could go wrong and we had control measures in place. When things didn’t go to plan, we dealt with it and we got back down in one piece.
We’ll share what we’ve learned so any future expeditions can benefit from our knowledge. I couldn’t have done a course that prepared me to deal with this situation with clients – recognising and understanding the symptoms and acting quickly. I am looking forward to helping other people achieve their mountaineering ambitions in 2017.
Exped Adventure run expeditions in high-altitude, trekking and polar destinations with a focus on goal-setting, training and developing skills for self-sufficiency in the extremes.
After Annapurna we will start our winter season. March and April will see us heading to Norway, first to the Hardangervidda for an eight-day expedition pulling a sled across the high plateau, and then to Svalbard for a 13-day ski crossing of the polar wilderness. These two trips can be done on skis or snowshoes and involve being self-sufficient as well as being able to protect yourself from polar bears in Svalbard!
Get in touch on email@example.com if you’re interested in joining any of our trips.
A Hero Is Born
His cinematic career threatened to stall after his premature release from the perpetually rebooting Spider-Man franchise, but with his newest roles portraying principled real-life figures, Andrew Garfield has not only seen his stock rise in the world of cinema, but has found a higher purpose in his work that echoes his own spiritual journey…
W hen it comes to some actors’ careers, there often appears a moment in which that star ‘came of age’ on the silver screen. For Andrew Garfield, it seems that this transformation from cinematic novice to Hollywood stalwart can be attributed to two epic productions: Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge – documenting the outstanding efforts of the first conscientious objector to be awarded the Medal of Honour – and Martin Scorsese’s thoughtful tour de force Silence, following the plight of two Jesuit priests who risk capture and torture as they attempt to find their mentor in 17th- century Japan.
It’s a far cry from the fresh-faced actor who in 2015 had the planned third instalment to his well-received iteration as Spider-Man abruptly cancelled by Sony, with the role transferring to teenager Tom Holland. For a less talented actor, an ejection from a popular film franchise may well have spelled the end to a career or the beginning of a new one elsewhere, but in Garfield’s case the loss of such a recognisable role – and the potential pigeonholing this kind of publicity often incurs – proved to be a blessing in disguise.
“I can’t believe how things worked out the way they have,” the 33-year-old agrees. “I feel very lucky and very grateful to have been able to work with these two master filmmakers. What’s ironic is that after my experience on Spider-Man I made a list of directors whom I would like to work with and two of those names were Martin Scorsese and Mel Gibson. I’m very aware of how rare these opportunities are.”
For his part, Garfield is grasping such opportunities with both hands. His performance as Private Desmond T. Doss in Hacksaw Ridge has attracted widespread critical acclaim, an irony perhaps when you consider the courageous man he is portraying – a man who, despite saving over 75 lives in one of World War Two’s most brutal and uncompromising arenas, never strove for personal glory or exaltation.
“His beliefs forbade him to take the life of another man, yet he still wanted to commit himself to an important cause and found his own way to do that,” says Garfield. “Doss is an outstanding role model, a man who stood by his principles and became a hero even though he never thought of himself as one. He found his own way to be himself even though he was under intense pressure to become someone else.
“He was also never interested in honours and awards. He felt he was merely doing his duty, like many ordinary people whose actions are rarely acknowledged and who never become celebrities. That’s why for a very long period he never wanted his story told or to be glorified in any way.”
Unwaivering belief and selfless action
He continues: “What is remarkable is how he never wavered from his beliefs and endured an incredible amount of abuse as a soldier for refusing to pick up a weapon. Yet he stuck to his beliefs and managed to save all those men who without his selfless actions would never have seen their families again.”
And for the slender Garfield – known more for his soulful brown eyes than his bulging biceps – the incredible feats of strength achieved by devoted Seventh Day Adventist Doss appear to hint at some sort of higher power being behind the Virginia-born medic’s battlefield heroics.
“I still can’t understand how he did it,” Garfield muses. “I’m in pretty good shape and I was completely exhausted after trying to drag just two men. Also, he was doing this in very rugged terrain and under constant fire and with explosions going on around him.
“Just the physical part of what he did is staggering. I could train for months and never be able to have the strength to do what he did. I truly believe there was some kind of divine power, or however you want to describe it, that enabled him to rescue all those soldiers.”
The sheer scale of Doss’ actions at Okinawa – where “he acted without any regard for his own life” – even led Garfield to favourably compare this unassuming Virginian with the web-slinging hero who gave the actor his big break into the upper echelons of Hollywood.
“Of course Desmond Doss can be considered a superhero,” he says. “I would say that he is even more of a superhero than Spider-Man! He accomplished an incredible feat, dragging 75 wounded soldiers back to safety while under terrific enemy fire. I think it’s a beautiful story and one I hope inspires audiences to have more respect and consideration for veterans who return from the battlefield and have endured the most terrible situations.”
Though strength training made up a large part of Garfield’s preparation for Hacksaw Ridge, his characterisation of Doss was aided by the fact he had recently undergone exhaustive groundwork for Scorsese’s intense theological magnum opus. In order to play Father Sebastião Rodrigues in Silence – an adaptation of Shusako Endo’s 1966 novel of the same name – Garfield became a pupil of Jesuit priest and author Father James Martin. The latter would tutor the actor through St Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises – and Garfield would also spend his time studying, meditating and fasting in secluded locations with co-star Adam Driver, such as a silent retreat in the furthest reaches of the Welsh countryside.
Garfield’s commitment and enthusiasm in the lead-up to these challenging performances was subsequently hailed by both iconic directors as being a key component that allowed each to bring their vision to the big screen.
“I think Marty [Scorsese] saw that I was very excited by the idea of engaging in that process of exploration with him and that was a major reason why he chose me to play the part,” Garfield agrees. “And this film also came at the right time to me because I was already interested in those spiritual questions that he wanted to investigate.”
Catching the eye of Hollywood
This dedication to his role is an element of Garfield’s work that is quickly catching the eye of Hollywood’s major players. It was the chance to work with the legendary Scorsese in a film he’d been developing in various forms for nearly his entire cinematic career, however, that made the work behind the scenes an equally punishing and rewarding task.
“Marty is the high priest of cinema and I devoted myself to his vision,” Garfield enthuses. “I think he wanted an actor who shared his interest in spiritual themes and who has also struggled with these kinds of existential questions. He’s wanted to make this film for 30 years and I’m honoured to have been able to take this journey with him. We would have many long conversations about questions involving faith and I found myself exploring what a life of faith means.”
This individual assessment of a “life of faith” had repercussions for Garfield that expanded far beyond his on-screen participation, critically acclaimed though it may have been, into his life as a whole.
“I felt I was being called to make this film in a similar way to how someone believes that they’re being called to the priesthood,” he reveals. “This role not only spurred my own spiritual development, but learning and understanding so much about the teachings of Christ made me want to impart those teachings to others. I don’t personally feel called to the priesthood, but working on this film did make me think about it.”
In fact, the work done in order to get into the mindset of those missionaries who risked their lives to spread the word of God – or indeed the attitude that the “special and humble” Desmond Doss embodied when he repeatedly put himself in harm’s way to rescue the lives of his comrades – is a journey that is ongoing for Garfield off-camera.
“I had never prayed before and then I sensed a great joy when I started praying and I did that for a year,” he adds. “It was during this time that I began to develop a relationship with a higher power, whether you want to call it God or love or something else.
“I’m still studying with Father Martin and he’s helped me develop my own specific relationship with Jesus,” the star adds. “I enjoy carrying on the enlightened process of exploration that I began with him when I did the Spiritual Exercises. I want to be able to grow as a human being and find a good way to live.”
Leaving Spiderman behind
This desire Garfield holds to draw on the literature and theological exercises he diligently studied in the run-up to Silence goes hand in hand with the actor’s reservations regarding his own career. In the aftermath of his contentious departure from the Spider-Man franchise – in which one Sony executive claimed Garfield failed to show up for a promotion event despite the actor claiming he was sick in bed – he made it abundantly clear that he was unwilling to sacrifice his personality to the machinations of Hollywood production.
And nowadays, as Garfield’s work has moved into the more mature territory of Hacksaw Ridge and Silence, his transition from fresh-faced and coiffured superhero to burgeoning cinematic giant is almost complete. However, the star’s growing incongruity with the mega-bucks Hollywood machine is thrown into stark focus – he’s simply not interested in all that. With award nominations, red carpet appearances and a new aura of fame following close behind his rise to stardom, the tranquillity Garfield found in working on Silence provided a welcome juxtaposition to the glitz- and glamour-filled life of a silver screen celebrity that suited the more traditionally reserved actor.
“We’re living in a very narcissistic time and this story enabled me to escape my own self-obsessed tendencies and look at the bigger picture in life,” he remarks. “I had always wanted to understand what it means to lead a life of faith and it was a very fulfilling experience.
Peace of mind and serenity
“I was able to enjoy the peace of mind and serenity that comes from letting go of one’s material connection to the world. You start to believe that forsaking all things worldly in order to serve a higher power and help others is a far more satisfying way to live. Occupying that kind of place for a year has had a very profound effect on me.”
It seems his tenure as the wall-crawling hero will become little more than a distant memory as Garfield’s true appeal becomes clear and is anything but fleeting. The long-lasting effects of taking on “compelling” roles like those of Doss and Rodrigues may well have influenced his next project, as polio survivor Robin Cavendish in Andy Serkis’ directorial debut Breathe, slated for release this year.
Despite this trio of films elevating Garfield to a place where he is interacting with true legends of cinema, he is adamant that the work he has done in portraying the self-sacrificing journey of Father Rodrigues held “profound meaning” to him that has inspired the star to start “exploring similar kinds of themes” in his own life off the back of his platform as one of Hollywood’s newest yet brightest stars.
“I have realised how our society is gripped by a false worship of celebrity culture and consumer goods,” he concludes. “For my part, I discovered in these two films that life is only meaningful if you are able to love and care for others.”
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Alastair McIver speaks with Wet Wet Wet legend Graeme Duffin about his longevity and survival in the music industry We’ve all been there, haven’t we? Sat in...
It is hard to believe it has been more than eight years since the start of the Syrian crisis. Eight years of communities devastated,...
As Alex Nsengimana knelt on the cool, tiled floor of Kigali prison, he faced a stark moment of truth. Could he offer forgiveness to...
Cole Moreton is an award-winning journalist, who has just had his first novel, The Lightkeeper, published. He was made Interviewer of the Year in...
Having ensured his name stands the test of time in the pantheon of sci-fi greats, Laurence Fishburne discusses the parallels between his time in...
In the latest issue we speak to Hollywood A-Lister, Mark Wahlberg, plus Freerider Matt Masson, Harry Potter star, Daniel Radcliffe and real life Indiana...
By Tola Fisher Matt Masson is a passionate skier who was so severely injured in an accident in 2010 that he had to relearn how...