In the new exciting edition we chat to Hollywood A-Listers, Sporting Superstars, Action-man Bear Grylls plus the greatest team of columnists ever assembled
Are you Sorted yet?
By Peter Wallace
Widely regarded as one of show business’s nicest guys – and with a ripped physique that can put anyone to shame – Terry Crews is one of Hollywood’s unsung heroes, but in recent years he has been putting his talents to positive use off-screen as well.
There are few people in modern showbiz who can emulate the kind of effect Terry Crews has on a room. It’s not just the seemingly boundless smile and 6’ 3” ex-NFL-worthy frame that have made Crews a much-loved entertainment staple since his breakthrough in the early noughties. The Michigan-born star has also developed a reputation for being one of the industry’s most enthusiastically positive influences – a trait which was crucial to helping him win his first high-profile moments on the silver screen.
When visiting the set of the 2002 Denzel Washington-fronted Training Day, Crews was approached by director Antoine Fuqua and asked to do some background shots as ‘Unnamed Gang Member’.
‘I’ve always realised that you just have to go,’ he told GQ. ‘If you just show up, a lot of times the opportunities are there. He [Fuqua] said, “Terry, come back every night for the next week; I’m going to find ways to use you in the movie.” I was like, ‘Whatever you need!’
‘I didn’t get one dime for Training Day. I showed up, I volunteered, I said whatever I can do, I just want to help the movie and for this to be the best thing ever. This is the thing – a small role like that – I cannot even describe to you the satisfaction of being in a movie that good, and that iconic.’
Crews had made his first impression on the landscape of Hollywood. Known as he is now for his long-running light-hearted turn in the award-winning cop comedy series Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Crews was quick to showcase the kind of expectation-subverting persona that has won him fans around the world.
‘At the time, that was going to be my career trajectory,’ he continues. ‘I was going to be the heavy, I was going to be the mean guy. There’s a stereotype about big, muscular African-Americans being security guards: he’s big, he’s mean; he’ll rip you to shreds. I love the fact that I have killed that trope, that you have to see us as three-dimensional, with happy families.’
For Crews, this ability to channel both his innate masculinity and rarely showcased vulnerability on-screen has allowed him to occupy a unique space in various TV and film projects, from the aforementioned Brooklyn to bombastic action franchise The Expendables, and even as the host of America’s Got Talent.
But Crews’ determination to eschew potentially damaging preconceptions of what a man should be were realised in an altogether more serious light in October 2017. In the wake of the Weinstein scandal, in which numerous actresses went public with their stories of sexual harassment in the industry, Crews himself revealed that he had been groped by a male film executive at a party in 2016. As well as being one of the ‘Silence Breakers’ to be named Time’s ‘Person of the Year’ for 2017, Crews was also asked to testify on the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
‘As a man, I was taught my entire life that I must control the world,’ he said at the time. ‘I used power, influence, and control to dominate every situation, from the football field to the film set … even in my own home with my wife and children.
‘Then, in 2016, while at a party with my wife, I was sexually assaulted by a successful Hollywood agent. I was told over and over that this was no abuse, that this was just a joke, that this was just horseplay. But I can say that one man’s horseplay is another man’s humiliation. I chose to tell my story and share my experience to stand in solidarity with millions of other survivors. I know how hard it is to come forward; I know the shame associated with assault. It happened to me.’
Crews was the most high-profile male in Hollywood to stand up and speak out about his experiences. By making that decision, he risked his career and his reputation – but dig deeper into Crews’ personal life, and it becomes apparent that the star can rely on a strong personal faith to see him through even the toughest of circumstances.
‘I heard this great quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson that sums up a lot of life for me: “God will not have his work made manifest by cowards”,’ he has said. ‘That sticks with me and haunts me daily. Am I scared to fail? Or scared to succeed? Am I willing to do everything it takes to make it? Or will I hide safely behind my excuses forever?
‘I discovered you don’t even get to be born unless your mother has the courage to endure childbirth. Everything fantastic, amazing, or extraordinary takes courage. But here’s another thing I discovered: you can’t be a pessimist and courageous at the same time. In order to move forward, you have to believe that you are going to win. What you believe engages you with power that trumps everything in your life.’
Crews’ conviction even led to his being commended, alongside his wife, Rebecca, at events such as the ‘Gospel Goes to Hollywood’ ceremony.
‘The big thing for me was, now that I know I can do away with a lot of things that tend to hold you back, what am I going to do with my gifts?’ he explained while receiving their joint award. ‘What am I going to do with what I’m given? And I decided that I was going to do everything as unto the Lord. And that means everything.
‘When you look at my career, and certain things that I have done, a lot of the questions I get from Christians are, “How can you do that?” But this is the thing: as a performer, I do everything unto the Lord, and I enjoy it. I don’t do it for the money. I don’t do one thing for one red cent. Everything is for Jesus, this is why I had no problem putting my family on-screen and showing how I really am, because for me it was refreshing to be able to show people that a black man does love his wife, that a black man does love his kids, and he does love Jesus.’
His wife, Rebecca, is an actress and musician who travels the world attending and speaking at religious events. The couple have shown their personal lives off in the goldfish bowl that is reality TV since 2010 on The Family Crews, including their daughter’s purity ball, and regular church outings. Small wonder, perhaps, when you consider that it was in church that the pair, who have been married since 1990, first met.
‘He wasn’t my type when I met him, he was a nice little church boy trying to get next to the keyboardist and I was like, “He’s OK,”’ Rebecca said of their first meeting. ‘He was just a sweetie. He was a nice young man, came at me all proper and he won my heart.’
Crews may well have found his sweetheart in church, but during his formative years in the troubled town of Flint, Michigan – once the murder capital of the USA, and now more well-known for its ongoing water crisis – both Crews’ home life and religious life were wracked with problems. His father was a violent domestic abuser and alcoholic, while his mother sought solace in the more hard-line aspects of her faith.
‘We grew up Christian, but we were really on the far-right,’ Crews told Relevant. ‘We weren’t allowed to listen to music. We weren’t allowed to go to dances. We weren’t allowed to go to the movies. We were in church a lot; I have to say probably in a seven-day week, we were in church four out of those seven days and then we went twice on Sunday.’
Despite this near-zealotry, or perhaps partly because of it, Crews’ relationship with his faith has at times been a fractured one. He has admitted to driving his marriage close to destruction, first through a one-time fling and then a near-crippling addiction to pornography that saw him eventually enter rehab. The Terry Crews fans know and love today may well always be ready to tackle the issue of ‘toxic masculinity’, but even this element of Crews’ persona has been hard-forged in the fires of self-awareness: ‘I was thinking I may be bad, but I ain’t that bad,’ he said. ‘And I found out, “Yeah, you’re that bad.”
‘I was in the NFL, I was a card-carrying member, because you don’t want to be kicked out,’ he told Esquire last year. ‘Did I look the other way? Hell yes. While all those things were going on, I didn’t say anything. Because what are they going to do to me – will I be excommunicated? It’s a cult. You don’t go along with what everybody’s saying, all of a sudden, you’re out. That’s hard.’
Even at his lowest ebb, however, Crews was starting to mould that future all-positive ideal of his.
‘This is the deal: to find success, it’s in those moments, the moments when you’re off,’ he told CNBC. ‘You don’t see it, you don’t know it, you’re alone. But you hear a little voice that says, you know what? Maybe it’s me. Because any time you point out that someone else is the cause of your problems, you’re wrong. It’s you.’
By the time Crews came to face down this same mentality with the movie industry in the wake of his 2016 assault, he was ready for the worst-case scenario, even going so far as to tell his wife in no uncertain terms that his Hollywood career was probably over. Instead, he has risen to become an integral figurehead in the current post-#MeToo incarnation of the entertainment industry – a fitting position for one who has long been admired by his co-workers.
‘Some people find creativity in self-exploration, but they don’t have the motivation to do anything about it,’ Joe Lo Truglio has said of his Brooklyn Nine-Nine co-star. ‘Others have an incredible work ethic but nothing to say. Terry’s rare. Terry has both.’
Those casting an approving eye over Crews’ contemporary life would do well to remember the obstacles he has overcome on his way to success. There are many possible reasons to be envious of Crews, not least his superhuman physique, but the man himself is adamant that his achievements have come from a higher source.
‘When you’re going through something you’re always like, “God, are you here?”’ Crews said. ‘And He’s like, “I’m here.” It’s funny because there’s a will to pleasure, there’s a will to power and then there’s a will to meaning. I think every true Christian lives his life with a will to meaning. Because pleasure and power, they all fade, they don’t last.
‘But you can find meaning in suffering. You don’t learn it before you go through it. And let me tell you, it’s weird because no one really had answers, but the answers were spoken to me. It’s kind of like as I was more open to them, they just came out of my heart. It’s like God speaks to everyone and tells them what the right move is. But you’ve got to be open.’
Yet ‘openness’ comes in many forms – to be open-handed with your positivity, open with your faith and family, open about your worst experiences, and open with your own limitations, even when you’re Terry Crews, a 50-year-old man with 18.5” biceps.
‘Of course, I still write down my goals, I still see the value in being fit and doing my job well,’ he wrote in his 2014 autobiography, Manhood (Zinc Ink). ‘But trying to be perfect will leave you empty-handed, whereas trying to do your best will keep you fulfilled. The best you can do is always good. I realized you don’t have to be perfect, you just have to be faithful in your attempts.’
Poppies and Poetry
How One Ex-Soldier Combats PTSD
In time for this year’s Remembrance Day, Mark Stibbe interviewed ex-British Army helicopter pilot Karl Tearney about learning to manage post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) through writing poetry.
How long did you serve in the army?
I had always wanted to be a pilot when I was little, but I had a very difficult childhood and I left school without qualifications. In 1983, I joined the Army Air Corps at sixteen. I had to spend eight years as a soldier before training to be a pilot. I passed the pilot’s course in early 1993 and was a helicopter pilot for 24 years. I was really pleased to be a soldier and if I had my time all over, I would do the same again. Who doesn’t want to do the job they enjoy?
Yet you suffer from PTSD. What caused that?
My trauma developed over time. It stemmed back to my experiences in Bosnia; what I saw there was appalling. What made it far worse was that I couldn’t shoot or intervene when I saw atrocities taking place. At least in Northern Ireland, you could intervene to protect life. In Bosnia, there were no rules of engagement, except if you were directly fired upon. To be there in a helicopter looking through a thermal camera and seeing what was going on, things I couldn’t stop, really affected me.
When I came back from Bosnia, I didn’t feel well, I felt guilty about being back, I felt guilty about being so powerless. I found myself getting angry hearing couples arguing about which brand of bread to buy in the supermarket, when the week before I had seen mass graves in Bosnia. So, I went to the army medical team. They didn’t handle things very well; they said, ‘It’s nothing to do with Bosnia. It’s your childhood.’ Had I been dealt with properly in 1996, I don’t think I would be as ill as I am today.
When did things come to a head?
It began in 2014 when I was working as an instructor at the home of the Army Air Corps at Middle Wallop. Because of shortages I was doing three people’s work. The stress of that began to get to me although I didn’t realise it. I started crying at night and I had no idea why. I approached my CO [Commanding Officer] about my workload as well as the poor relationship with a work colleague, and he said he felt sure I could cope with it. But I couldn’t. I saw the doctor and she recommended to my CO that he reduce my workload. Sadly, it all came to a head when one day I picked up the phone and I couldn’t say anything. I just burst into tears. I don’t mean crying; I mean childish sobbing. I was fortunate in that it was one of my friends on the other end of the line. ‘Stay where you are’, he said. ‘I’m coming to get you.’ After that, I ended up in a mental hospital in Basingstoke. That was my last time in uniform.
How and when did you discover poetry?
In January 2017, I went for a six-week course to do with combat stress in Leatherhead. This involved one-to-one counselling and group sessions. During those first few days, it dawned on me that everyone’s PTSD was different and that mine felt worse than most. I had anhedonia, which is characterised by a complete loss of happiness and pleasure. The others on the course were talking about what they were enjoying, and I couldn’t do that; I had to force myself to feel. Consequently, the organisers said, ‘Karl, you are treatment-intolerant.’ I left the course early, having expected it to be the miracle cure, and endured a week of absolute despair.
Then, one day, I said to myself, ‘Karl, you’ve got to get out of this house, or you might do something silly to yourself!’ I went for a walk and sat under a willow tree to hide from the park-goers. While I was there, I thought, ‘This tree is just like me. All sad and forlorn on the outside but inside, there’s this strong trunk as well as a sense of being in the arms of a giant caring hug.’ That prompted me to start writing a poem on my phone. After that, I felt calmer and more connected with the world.
Did poetry become a key part of your therapy?
Yes, I started writing a poem every day from that day on. In fact, the very next day, I had to do some shopping in Tesco, and it was bedlam. There were two young children shouting and screaming at their mum. I thought to myself, ‘You’ve got to get out of the shop.’ Once outside, I started asking myself, ‘What can I do to calm down?’ The day before I’d written a poem and felt better. So, I wrote a poem about my experience of Tesco. ‘I feel all right now,’ I thought. Then I went back inside and did my shopping. I have since written 700 poems. During an exhibition of Veterans Art (Art in the Aftermath), which included my poetry in London last year, a woman from the British Poetry Society explained, ‘Karl, you’ve written more poems in two and a half years than Tennyson did in his entire life.’
I’ve just published my first book of poetry, called Second Life. The first section contains poems about mental health, the second about love, the third about moments – like the willow tree. That’s the last poem in the book because it’s a random moment in my life, albeit a very inspiring and fundamental one.
How much of your output is war poetry?
I would say one third of my poems is based on war memories, my time in the army etc. I wrote a poem about D-Day, even though I wasn’t there, as I could imagine how it felt because I had spent so much time with soldiers. I have also written a colossal amount of First World War poetry. The next third of my output is what I see in the present. The last third is an exploration of past emotions. For example, one night I said to myself, ‘I’m going to write a love poem.’ I thought about when I last felt love. I remembered lying in bed just looking at my girlfriend in the moonlight while she was asleep and so I wrote a poem about that.
What opportunities has this opened for you?
Many. I was invited to St James’s church in Piccadilly by the Josephine Hart Foundation in coordination with Style for Soldiers where I read out one of my war poems. Different celebrities read poems from the Great War at the event. I then read my poem, War, not War, and I do admit I became a little upset. That led to me being approached by BBC Radio 3. ‘We’d like you to read your poem to finish the week of war poetry readings for Remembrance week in November.’
Then Channel 4 as well as my local BBC news team interviewed me, and things started to snowball. During the Art in the Aftermath exhibition in La Galleria, Pall Mall, in November 2018, my ‘The Writing’s on the Wall’ collection of poems received so many requests for a book that I decided to publish.
Today, I have so many opportunities for exhibiting and reading my poems. It’s opened the door to meeting some amazing people.
Are you a person of faith?
All my life, I have worn my little crucifix, except for one whole year, two years ago, when I didn’t wear it at all. I didn’t understand God although I have a tattoo of Christ on the cross on my right arm. I guess after feeling the way I felt – let down by the army – and because I hadn’t dedicated my life to God (although I had dedicated my life to doing good for people), I felt out of sorts suddenly. I had lashed out at everything when I first was diagnosed with PTSD. Now I can manage it, and I feel like God is back in my life. I suppose it’s true that I have a conflicted relationship with God. I have written quite a few poems that include my myriad of questions for Him.
What would you say to men who read Sorted and who have PTSD?
The best person to talk to is someone else with PTSD; if you don’t know someone like that, find someone you can trust. You’d be amazed how kind people can be and a problem shared is a problem halved.
I was surfing in Cornwall two years ago when a man came up to me and said, ‘You look like you were in the army. I was in Bosnia.’ I gave him a copy of War, not War.
He read it and burst into tears. I told him I was sorry, but he responded, ‘Don’t be, these aren’t tears of sadness, these are tears of happiness. I felt like I was the only person who felt like this after Bosnia. Now I know I’m not alone.’
Taking My God for a Walk
With a seven-week sabbatical to fill, Tony Collins wanted to do something special. But what? The answer turned out to be a very, very long walk.
I had just turned 64, and in those days, my employer offered a generous sabbatical to those who had served their years. I had been puzzled how to make use of this bounty. It was a once-off opportunity, not to be frittered. Then I
met an old friend. Douglas had always been a softly spoken, genial, self-effacing bloke, effective in a quiet way but easily overlooked. Now he was taking the lead, cracking jokes, brimming with enthusiasm, in a way I had not seen previously. The change was so arresting I asked him what had happened: where did he get the shot of happy juice?
‘I walked the Camino,’ he responded, as if that explained everything.
At that point I knew little about the Camino de Santiago. Further questioning revealed that it is the millennium-old pilgrim route between the centres of Europe and the city of Santiago, in the north-west corner of Spain; a collection of about a dozen routes converging on the city. The main route, the Camino Real or Royal Way, runs between the French border crossing of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, on the French side of the Pyrenees, and the city of St James. It’s about 490 miles long, or roughly the distance between Hastings and Edinburgh. During the great age of pilgrimages (roughly, the eleventh to the fifteenth centuries) hundreds of thousands of pilgrims travelled the route.
The call of the road…
I was intrigued. I speak French, but barely a word of Spanish. As a publisher, I’d spent decades organising, scheduling, calculating, editing, cajoling, negotiating: creating a well-ordered world. The Camino offered uncertainty. You get up in the morning not knowing where you are going to sleep that night, because although the Camino is well-provided with hostels, you cannot book ahead, as you don’t know how far you’ll get (and most hostels won’t take reservations). If it rains, you get wet. There are mountains a-plenty. I had dodgy knees and a heart condition: if I fell by the wayside, would anyone notice?
Something else motivated me. For years my private prayer life, or lack thereof, was not on view. I had rarely been called to account for my own spiritual development. I realised that I needed to put myself in a position where, if God wished to speak to me, I would be in a state to hear. For most of my working life, I had been a critic: I wanted to join the players.
I discovered I was hungry. I wanted to discover sources of reverence. The evangelical Christianity of my adult years had grown dry and predictable, had lost its savour. I wanted to reconnect with the Almighty: to shout, and weep, worship and exult.
I booked a flight at the end of September – it didn’t seem wise to walk across Spain in the height of summer – and set about training and equipping my ageing earth suit.
What to get…
The first thing was stuff. I bought a good pair of boots, but skimped on a rucksack, a decision which would haunt me (the wretched thing lost shape and sagged, and I ditched it as soon as I returned). The various websites advised a maximum backpack weight of 12kg for a large adult male. I purchased lightweight clothes, a sufficiency of socks, and a minimum of toiletries. My wife, Pen, sagely recommended a pack of heavy-duty safety pins, for hanging up washing. Online I found walking poles and a camelback (a flat water bag, to be placed inside the rucksack’s cover, with a tube running over your shoulder so you can drink at will). I ordered a copy of John Brierley’s invaluable handbook, simply titled A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago (Kaminn Media Limited).
I live on the coast of Sussex. The rolling countryside offers delightful walks, and so week by week I would pore over a large-scale map, then set off to cover six or ten miles, my rucksack suitably laden. Once upon a time, I had been a regular runner, but injury and indolence had taken their toll and I was magnificently unfit. My training was restricted to weekends and had to be fitted round church commitments.
And we’re off…
The problem, though it wasn’t immediately apparent, was the absence of mountains. The South Downs are not the Pyrenees, a point driven sharply home for me on the first day of pilgrimage. To reach Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, you fly to Biarritz, then catch the stopping train upwards. At the little town at the head of the valley, the end of the line, the entire train empties. Early the following morning I unlimbered my shiny new walking poles, pulled up my socks, and strode confidently towards the pass through the mountains and into Spain. After a few hundred yards, there is a sign to the left. I started climbing.
I had no idea what lay in store. The steep path rapidly degenerated into gravel and wound among rocks. I lacerated my hands grabbing at gorse bushes. My progress slowed to a crawl. The thinning mountain air did nothing to diminish the heat of the sun. The mountain views are magnificent, and I found myself stopping more and more frequently to admire them. The training I had done was proving spectacularly insufficient.
As I looked upwards, I spotted birds circling high above, specks against the sun. Griffon vultures, to be precise, with a 9ft wingspan. They graze on the sheep pastured in the mountains, but it was easy to think they might appreciate a change in diet.
When I finally reached the summit of the pass, hours later, gasping and trembling, I found a narrow, metalled road running along the crest. On the far side the track descended abruptly, and the vegetation switched from gorse scrub to a magnificent beech forest. The shade was welcome, but the track winding down between the trees was formed from the loosest scree, and I found myself scrabbling with my poles to stay balanced, lurching and sliding from trunk to trunk, hour upon hour.
By the time I finally reached the hostel on the far side of the pass I was utterly wrung out, and stood in the entrance shaking uncontrollably. It would take me two weeks to become fully road fit. By the time I reached the foothills of the mountains of Galicia, I was bouncing over potholes and springing over logs, but that first night I slept for nine hours.
Ups and downs
Injuries are common on the Camino; many fail to train sufficiently, or wear unsuitable boots. (One young man I passed on the first day was attempting the pilgrimage barefoot.) Much of the route is ankle-turningly rough, or worse. Every pharmacy carries displays of Compeed blister plasters. Local hospitals are well used to treating leg injuries.
The Way confers fitness, of course. Injuries are another matter. One poor man I overtook was suffering from shin splints, staggering painfully through the harsh Spanish sunlight. He didn’t want support, but had resolved to call it a day at the next town. I walked for some of the route with a lovely couple of ladies from California, who knew their vintages and called themselves the Wine Sisters: one, Jan, became gradually incapacitated from a dodgy hip. Another pilgrim, a Canadian lady, had to acknowledge defeat and was being flown home for a knee replacement.
Conversely, some pilgrims are remarkably fit. Some undertake the route by bike, which in view of the terrain is somewhere between laughable and admirable. Punctures and chain breakages are common. Some of the more reckless cyclists carry their bikes to the crest of a hill, then take off at high speed on the far side, dodging round pilgrims and rocks and bushes in a long exhilarating descent. One supremely muscled gentleman had attached to his saddle a single-wheel trailer that followed him lamb-like over the roughest terrain.
The Camino is genuinely dangerous. Traffic accidents; lightning strikes; falling off cliffs; heart attacks; idiots on bikes: all take their toll, and there are many wayside shrines to pilgrims who didn’t make it.
Pilgrims are mostly young, or well advanced in years. It requires time to undertake the Camino – in my case 33 days – and many who have young families, or a career to carve, will not be free to tackle it. Some older seekers are tough, experienced and durable: I met one elderly gentleman who was on his eighth pilgrimage, and heard of others who were spending their retirement years in one pilgrimage after another. Age does not preclude fitness, at all.
I had one brush with mortality. On a cloudy afternoon, well into my journey, ambling inattentively down a rocky path, I caught my toe and fell headlong, barely able to twist to one side so that my heavy rucksack did not drive my chin into the earth. A girl following 50 yards behind came panting up, expecting to find a freshly minted corpse: she turned out to be a nurse specialising in cardiac conditions. With her help, I was able to free myself from the backpack, but shook like a leaf afterwards.
The joys of pilgrimage
There was so much to enjoy. At the simplest level, to walk through wholly unfamiliar territory day after day is to encounter the country in a way no tourist can achieve. You see people where they live, where no word of English is spoken, where the hardscrabble daily demands are their preoccupation and you are perfectly irrelevant, one more passing face. The anonymity is a release.
Much was unexpected, and strangeness has its own appeal. In the first week or so of the journey, I walked through bullfighting country, and many towns have the custom of releasing young bulls into the streets during their summer fiesta, for the community’s youngsters to prove their courage. I missed these events, but the cult of the bull is everywhere. One evening I watched from my window as a young bull calf on a long leash was tormented by a horde of young men, who shrieked and dodged as the poor creature lunged. One night of high fiesta featured a life-size bull of papier mâché, festooned with firecrackers. After I had gone to bed there was an explosion from the town which rattled the windows: the bull had been unwisely wired, and had detonated all at once.
Another surprise: much of northern Spain is deserted. The Camino runs through many towns where there are no pedestrians other than pilgrims, and its route includes two villages, both over a thousand years old, with a resident population of one. A modern housing development on the central plain, the immense Meseta, sticks in the mind: outside an old village is a development of speculatively built and nicely maintained houses, street after street, all vacant. The locals, such as there are, call the area by its most obvious name: Se Vende, For Sale. Since the Second World War, the population of vast areas has moved away to the coastal cities, the old folk are dying, and hour after hour I walked past untended vineyards and orchards gradually reverting to scrub. In parts of Galicia, wolves are returning.
This was disconcerting, but it added to the picture, and I appreciated the simplicity of the Way. Each day brought one overriding concern, to stay upright long enough to find a shower, a meal and a bed. As the pain of the first few days receded, I found energy to pray, take in my surroundings, admire a stork’s large untidy nest upon a bell tower or – more remarkably – a static crane. But the simplicity remains. As you walk, I discovered, you fall into a light reverie, your eyes fixed upon the horizon. It’s not a trance, rather a kind of mental decluttering. You start to enjoy the incidentals more vividly: a sandwich and a can of Coke; a cat on a wall; a wayside shrine; an evening’s conversation.
I had opted to be independent. I had made my plans myself, booked my own flights, was travelling with no group. After decades of ceaseless interaction, I was hungry for solitude. But the friendships I made proved an unexpected legacy. The same faces cropped up as the cohort of travellers followed the route. Waiting for a meal, or over a drink, conversations begin. During the day I preferred to walk alone, but evenings became convivial, and I developed cordial acquaintanceships with Irish, French and American pilgrims (many of whom had been inspired by Martin Sheen’s film The Way). I started to keep a record of the nationalities I met, and spoke with people from at least 29 countries. Some real relationships developed: I journeyed on and off for some days with French pilgrims, one of whom had started in Geneva, a thousand miles from the Spanish border. I met a couple of formidable US Marines, full of stories of active service, and walked many miles with the convivial and intelligent Wine Sisters. After a few hours on the Way you run out of conversation, and start to talk properly. Friendships grow quickly in such conditions, and endure, thanks to Facebook.
Finding God on the Camino
I did discover sources of reverence. The wayside shrines, of which there are many, are frequently decorated with flowers, notes, photographs, trinkets. Once I found a photo and inscription to someone’s brother, who had died the previous year. The first few shrines I glanced at and dismissed, a habitual disregard of folk religion, but this was a hangover from an earlier ignorant superiority. Gradually it was borne in on me that these were places where, shorn of formal religion, men and women had honoured the Almighty, had paused and prayed. I started to pay more attention, to stop and ponder.
At several points the Way ran through the outskirts of industrial areas, bordered by severe and ugly chain-link fencing. Passing pilgrims had woven sticks or rags through the links, creating hundreds of crosses which graced and transformed the utilitarian boundary.
At the highest point of the Camino stands the Cruz de Ferro, the Cross of Iron, a slender iron construction atop a tall wooden pillar. The tradition is that you bring with you from your homeland a pebble to lay at the foot of the Cross. I had in my pack a pebble from Hastings beach, painted by my stepdaughter Hebe with the symbol of the Way, the coquille Saint Jacques, or scallop. I arrived at the Cruz de Ferro early one morning, climbing through the cold heavy autumnal mist. The vapours were so thick that you could not see the site until you were almost upon it.
The place is a mess. Every year brings tens of thousands of pilgrims to this site, each of them with their pebble. The cairn stretches for yards on either side of the Cross. Not just stones, either: I saw jewellery, belts, scarves, teddy bears, dolls, thin rusting chains. But the mess didn’t matter. What was important was that pilgrims like me had in their turn prayed, worshipped, reflected, resolved. This local manifestation of the Infinite might be scruffy, but so what? I stood silent, my pack at my feet.
Later that day I met the Wine Sisters, who had followed me an hour or two behind, after the mist had lifted. They too had stopped and, in their case, had sat to one side in the morning sunlight and consumed a bottle of red before continuing. The older – a confirmed atheist – nodded at me with a wry smile. ‘It was communion,’ she acknowledged.
The dark side
There were downsides: days when unending fields of dead sunflowers reduced the mind to gibbering; long paths coated in rocks of just the right size to turn the ankle, requiring moment by moment attention to my uninteresting feet; industrial townships surrounded by blown layers of plastic; incessant political graffiti. Spain is a place of several major languages and passionate regional identities, not a country at peace with itself, and the slogans I could translate were sometimes savage.
The bitterest challenges were internal, however.
Two weeks or so into my pilgrimage I started to experience nightmares, the kind of panting horrors from which to waken is release. Night after night, grim detail piled upon terror: it was as if the septic tank of my soul was being purged. I am not above brooding, and no stranger to psychic weather, but this was new. At the same time the days were little improvement. By this point I was well into the Meseta, which is both overbearingly empty and wide beyond vision: in such circumstances the thoughts turn inwards, and now something unexpected happened.
I have not always been wise in my affections; especially in my youth, there were ladies who had grounds for criticism, and my first marriage ended in divorce after 31 years. Now the women of my life, those whom I had most truly offended, came back to my waking mind as I walked. The procession of accusers seemed never-ending. With the attendant nightmares those few days were a grim time, one of the bleakest I can recall. Prayer was beyond reach.
What restored me was the memory of an insight from Adrian Plass: God is nice, and He likes me. The morning that recollection dropped into my mind I grasped it desperately, and it was as if a switch had been thrown: the memories and dreams had expressed truth, but not the whole truth. Over minutes, the darkness receded, and I was able to worship once again.
Why do it?
At the Dean’s office at Santiago Cathedral, they ask you to say why you walked the Camino – and many do: 277,913 in 2016 alone. The numbers are increasing: in 2013, the year of my own pilgrimage, the figure was just under 210,000. Just under a third walk for religious or spiritual reasons; of the rest, a similar proportion do so because they are looking for a new challenge; some to get away from routine; some simply for the exercise.
So, why? It was a reasonably common topic on the Way, with diverse answers. ‘Just havin’ fun,’ grunted Mac, one of the Marines. Many of those I spoke to were not formally religious, and certainly did not attach any specific aura to our destination at the shrine of St James in Santiago. Yet on the road you have a sense of direction, an awareness that your steps have a goal. You are connected to the millions of souls who have preceded and will follow you.
Once you have started, and assuming you survive the first few crippling days, the Way begins to penetrate your spirit. The wind, rain, sun in your face, the road before and behind – these old clichés become reality, as the emergencies of working life lose authority. You are on a journey: this is what you are. The horizon calls. There was space in my schedule for dallying at the many sites of interest, yet I did not. A pilgrim is not a tourist. The road beckoned.
I think this is the true reason, not why people start, but why they continue, and why they return. Forget doctrine, forget forms of worship, forget niceties of allegiance: these are developed by those who stop and stay. Tomorrow we rise, pick up our packs, and walk.
There are several immediate, practical gains from walking the Camino. You get fit. You meet fascinating people whom you would never normally encounter. You will probably encounter some expression of the divine, whatever label you attach. You will unquestionably meet yourself, unvarnished and raw. The acquisition of stuff will lose its appeal. You will laugh more, and more easily. Your career and status may lose their importance. You will ask profound questions of your purpose in life, and may well change your course entirely. I became impatient with, and more conscious of, my own lies. Relationships grew more precious.
The Camino formed a watershed. It has forever changed my sense of who I am: I am, and will always be, a pilgrim journeying through.
Five Men in a Boat
In his next Great British Adventure, Pete Woodward races up the west coast of the UK in the legendary Three Peaks Yacht Race.
Adventure racing is experiencing a boom with mud races, ultra-running, triathlon and a whole host of multisport events being held in our national parks and beauty spots. Behind the noisy clamour announcing the many exciting newcomers is a less well known classic multiday challenge from 1977 that remains one of the best. The Three Peaks Yacht Race speeds through some of the most beautiful and challenging of British environments. This incredible race sees teams of up to five sailing from Barmouth, in mid-Wales, to Fort William, in Scotland, interspersed with land legs visiting the tops of the highest peaks in Wales, England and Scotland. The race is continuous and teams of two runners hop off the boat at the nearest coastal access points to the mountains, before running and cycling to the mountaintops and back. Billed as one of the oldest and most remarkable endurance races in the world, it is difficult to disagree. The route takes in some of the most treacherous waters around our coast, with a long list of infamous whirlpools, eddies and sandbars littering the route.
Tales of beached yachts were rife in the Barmouth Yacht Club bar on the night before the race. A tough group of skippers have the event in their blood and have competed against each other over many years. Most of them have had brushes with disaster and are delighted to elaborate over a pint. The runs are no less treacherous, with their long distances on our highest mountains in all conditions, often in the middle of the night.
The history of the race is woven with sporting legends; sailing royalty such as Robin Knox-Johnston, visiting international skippers and tough veteran sailors such as multiple winner Geoff West. Fell-running legends include Helen Diamantides (previous record holder for the Everest base camp to Kathmandu route), Joss Naylor and more recently the multiple winner of the Spine Race, Pavel Paloncy.
The race was conceived by Rob Haworth of Barmouth, who was the doctor of H.W. (Bill) Tillman, an explorer, climber and sailor from the town. Rob had spent many hours talking to Tillman about his adventures and the idea was conceived as a holiday to do a ‘mini Tillman’. The idea to turn it into a race came from Rob’s partner, Dr Merfyn Jones. When Rob described his idea on a winter’s evening in 1976, Merfyn heard him out before responding, ‘Wouldn’t it make a marvellous race?’ The race grew from that night, with the local community becoming involved and Tillman himself invited to be president. It has grown since, with the maximum number of teams now being limited to 35, because of space restrictions at the harbours. Tillman was unfortunately lost on an expedition to the Southern Ocean in 1977 at the age of 80.
With a race so challenging and rich in history, it took very little time for me to decide when the opportunity arose to race in Geoff West’s ‘Wight Rose’ team, running alongside Pavel Paloncy. The team had a multitude of previous accolades from the race; Geoff has won it outright four times, twice with Pavel. Jon, an experienced skipper in his seventies, has completed it many times on his own boat, while Phil, another experienced sailor, has won it before with Geoff. Unsurprisingly, we were race number 1; no pressure! Should we not be successful there was no question about where the weak link would be. As a result, I had raced hard all winter, painfully building running speed and endurance and relearning how to avoid seasickness the hard way, in a series of snatched sailing opportunities. As the days grew longer and the time came, I rattled through the Welsh countryside on a slow train under a damp grey sky.
I rolled into Barmouth on the mountain bike that I would need for the race in the Lake District, pulling a bulging suitcase along with me. Geoff’s yacht, the 38ft Lightning Reflex, was moored directly in front of the Merioneth yacht club in Barmouth. I lowered the bike onto the deck and stowed my kit amongst the debris of the delivery voyage from the Isle of Wight. Bean cans, sleeping bags and empty bottles of wine were strewn around the cabin of what Geoff fondly refers to as his ‘Racing Wreck’. With no sign of life aboard, I was fairly certain that I would locate the crew in the yacht club bar and set off in that direction, whilst having a quick glance at my phone.
Our race slowly unravelled from that point. Pavel, who had messaged earlier in the day to say he wasn’t feeling quite right but was on his way from Prague, had collapsed on the way to the airport. Rather than being on the last leg of his journey through Wales, he was recovering in a hospital bed on the other side of Europe. Pavel is not known as the ‘Beast from the East’ in running circles for nothing and he immediately started explaining how there was a flight in the morning and that it was still theoretically possible to make it to the start line on Saturday evening. As much as we wanted to race with Pavel, going from a hospital bed one night to a racing yacht bound for the trails of Snowdonia the next clearly isn’t the brightest of ideas and sense prevailed. A glum Friday evening in the pub followed, with many running friends providing the obvious response to being asked to take a week off work with no notice. Just as we thought that we would be watching the fleet disappear from Barmouth, Geoff had a phone call from Andy Sanderson, a local runner with whom he had previously won the race about ten years previously. The jungle drums had been answered and we were back in the race!
After an afternoon of getting shipshape, we motored below the harbour arm and hoisted the sail in the freshening evening breeze. The first leg is the sail from Barmouth, around the Llyn peninsula to Caernarfon for the 26-mile return run to the top of Snowdon. With the Barmouth lifeboat escorting the fleet, we started well and raced into second place towards the Bardsey Sound. Night fell and we passed within touching distance of the steep cliffs to the north of the sound before hoisting the spinnaker and racing hard under a bright moon. Andy and I got some sleep and woke early on the Sunday morning with the team approaching Caernarfon. A small fleet of boats had grouped as we all waited for the tide to give us the depth to cross the infamous Caernarfon bar.
Andy had had a rough night. He had started to feel a bit queasy as we had turned in, he had been seasick for most of the night and looked pale and tired. After a scramble off the boat and up a rusty ladder at the end of a jetty in Caernarfon, we set off in the early morning light along the quiet roads of North Wales. Andy was running well despite lack of sleep, and we passed a couple of teams who had reached the jetty ahead of us. The Snowdon Ranger path was quiet this early and we had the northern side of the mountain to ourselves apart from the distant figures of the Belgian team, Denebola Adventures, ahead of us. We climbed steadily along the rocky trail and reached the summit at the same time as Denebola, taking our summit photo together before we set off for a hard downhill run to the road. We made good time and raced back onto the jetty with a respectable running leg time, before scrambling back onto the boat.
The sailing leg to Whitehaven in the Lake District is dominated by a decision to be made on the way out of Caernarfon; whether to turn left and sail around the outside of Anglesey, longer but less treacherous, or head right for the infamous Menai Straits and the Swellies. Our sailors were raring to go after a rest and some breakfast and there was no debate; we headed for the Swellies, known well to Geoff as the place he was beached in 2017.
With our predicted arrival in Whitehaven around 1 a.m. and the wind picking up and making a lumpy crossing of the Irish Sea likely, Andy and I headed downstairs immediately to get our kit sorted before we entered the eddies and back currents of the Menai Straits. The mood on board was light and positive; we were placed well and the sailors were confident that, with help from a few of their nuggets of local sailing information, we were looking good overall. Andy still looked pale but having run well, was looking forward to some rest to recover from his night long ordeal. With our kit packed, I refreshed my memory of the route up Scafell Pike whilst Andy nipped to the loo. He emerged looking white and shocked, reporting so much blood in his urine that it was almost pure blood.
Within an hour, we were sat in Bangor Hospital waitingroom, race over, worrying about Andy’s health. Fortunately, after being kept in overnight and given a warning to take it easy for a few weeks, he was released feeling much better. As was Pavel in Prague: both are back in tip-top form.
In the chaos of getting Andy to hospital, the team had dropped us off at a shallow jetty but had to immediately retreat back to sea to avoid getting stuck with the falling tide. Jon’s wife rushed Andy and I to the hospital in their campervan. We self-consciously sat in the waitingroom with the fumes of our running kit earning us plenty of extra space. Andy’s wife arrived a little while later and revealed that this was not the first time that she had had to retrieve him from Bangor Hospital after a race. He clearly has form! With Andy in hospital and the boat stuck at sea, Jon’s wife and I spent a long wet Sunday afternoon sat in the van overlooking Caernarfon harbour and watching the competition slowly disappear over the horizon. Later that evening, we reflected with a beer on an eventful and enjoyable, if not entirely successful, weekend.
The race carried on over the Irish Sea to the Lake District without us, with boats assisted by strong following winds and stormy conditions through the night. After running 26 miles up Snowdon and back, the runners were back in action again within fifteen hours, cycling to Black Sail hut and then running to the top of Scafell Pike and back, mostly in the pitch dark. The route of the longest sailing leg then wove past the Mull of Kintyre, through the Gulf of Corryvreckan and the islands of western Scotland before finishing at Corpach for the eighteen-mile run to the top of Ben Nevis and back; an incredible adventure. After a close race, the overall winners were the Peaky Blinders in a fast time of three days, six hours and 50 minutes.
As we sipped our beers that night in Wales, we all vowed that, with unfinished business, we’ll be back in the future.
See details of the race and entry information on threepeaksyachtrace.co.uk
A Question of Faith
By J.M. Taylor
His outspoken ruminations on the nature of religion have at times landed him in hot water – only making the fact that supposedly staunch atheist Stephen Fry was once aiming for a priesthood all the more intriguing.
When drafting a list of entertainers who might, in another life, have swapped their career in showbusiness for a more religious vocation, it would be fair to assume that Stephen Fry’s name would be a surprising inclusion. Indeed, the Hampstead-born, Cambridge-educated intellectual has often been open about his atheistic inclinations – even going so far as to have been awarded the Annual Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism by the Harvard Secular Society in 2011.
And yet for all of Fry’s apparent misalignment with organised religion in particular, there’s something about his expansive intelligence, idiosyncratic voice, and refusal to shy away from the deepest of debate topics that lends itself to critical discourse on the subject of faith.
‘At a time when the achievements of the Enlightenment are questioned, ridiculed, misunderstood and traduced by those who would reverse the progress of mankind,’ the 61-year-old told the British Humanist Association, ‘it is essential to nail one’s colours to the mast as a humanist. For me, that is not a turning away from mystery or a cold rational dispute with the numinous and spiritual in life, it is an acceptance of the awesome and splendid responsibility we each have for our own destinies, ethics and morals. I repudiate the authority of churches, revealed texts and vain unsubstantiated assertions and embrace the shared glories of humanity’s intellectual and spiritual struggle to understand the universe into which we are born, with honesty, openness and faith in our own natures.’
Such a statement is typical of Fry’s overtly bombastic elocution, but it also allows a sliver of common cause in ‘the shared glories of humanity’s intellectual and spiritual struggle’ to appear. In this, at least, Fry differs from the more ardent high-profile atheists such as Richard Dawkins.
There’s certainly less of Dawkins’ often aggressive railing at the ‘delusion’ of faith. In Fry’s case, personal faith and organised religion represent two wholly separate entities, with the former even coming in for something amounting to praise at times: ‘Sometimes belief means credulity,’ he said in a lecture to the Royal Geographical Society. ‘Sometimes it is an expression of faith and hope which even the most sceptical atheist such as myself cannot but find inspiring.’
Even so, Fry has had more brushes with the more indoctrinated aspects of religious life than his comments would, at first glance, seem to suggest. In June, whilst on BBC’s Graham Norton Show, he revealed that he had once had his eye on pursuing a career in the priesthood.
‘When I was a teenager, I loved so much about the Church – the music, the liturgy, the architecture,’ he said. ‘I liked the clothes and I knew I could deliver fantastic sermons. I was sent to see the Bishop of Lynn who decided I would make a wonderful priest. But there was one small problem in that I didn’t believe in God. I love everything about the Church, I just can’t take the story seriously. I can’t take the final leap.’
Of course, a belief in God is, unfortunately for Fry, a crucial prerequisite for a career in the clergy. While he admits to being unable to take ‘the final leap’ of faith necessary to place trust in a higher power, there’s a nagging feeling that Fry may not be telling the whole story here.
Back in 2015, for example, Fry’s opinions on God were far more controversial than a supposed lack of faith alone. During a chat with veteran broadcaster Gay Byrne on ‘The Meaning of Life’, Fry was asked to imagine a scenario where he was confronted by God at the Pearly Gates. His two-minute-long answer – that God, if ‘he, she, or it’ existed was, amongst other things, ‘monstrous’ – went viral, garnering millions of hits worldwide and an investigation by police in the Republic of Ireland under the country’s Defamation Act.
‘Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid god who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?’ he asked Byrne. ‘The god who created this universe, if he created this universe, is quite clearly a maniac, an utter maniac, totally selfish. We have to spend our lives on our knees thanking him. What kind of god would do that? Yes, the world is very splendid, but it also has in it insects whose whole life cycle is to burrow into the eyes of children and make them blind.’
The investigation into Fry’s comments eventually ran its course without charge, and Fry himself said that he was both ‘astonished’ and ‘enchanted’ by the furore surrounding his remarks, telling Radio 4 in the aftermath of his appearance with Byrne that: ‘I don’t think I mentioned once any particular religion and I certainly didn’t intend to say anything offensive towards any particular religion.’
In fact, Fry’s latter point, on the more nefarious species of burrowing insects, is one he has returned to many times over the years, including during his spell on QI, when he used the example of a parasitic wasp to call into question the ideal of a benevolent Creator. Again, however, Fry’s humanist viewpoint and that of religion, though divergent in their eventual course and conclusions, appear to spring from a source of similar human questioning. Christians may use their faith to explain the nearly overwhelming scale of the natural world, and the sheer ‘wonder of nature’ is an important, if equally unknowable, point for humanists to touch upon also.
‘It must be taken in its totality and it is a wonderful thing,’ Fry says. ‘It is absolutely marvellous and the idea that an atheist or a humanist … doesn’t marvel and wonder at reality, at the way things are, is nonsensical. The point is we wonder all the way. We don’t just stop and say that which I cannot understand I will call God, which is what mankind has done historically. You can’t just say there is a God because well, the world is beautiful. You have to account for bone cancer in children. You have to account for the fact that almost all animals in the wild live under stress with not enough to eat and will die violent and bloody deaths. There is not any way that you can just choose the nice bits and say that means there is a God and ignore the true fact of what nature is.’
This aspect of Fry’s ongoing agitation with religion appears crucial to understanding how he went from aspiring to ordination to joining the side of Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens et al in the public faith debate. Fry’s biggest gripe, it would seem, his ‘final leap’, is not in placing his faith in an exterior institution to help navigate the vagaries of life, but rather in placing faith in the institutions of the ‘revealed religions’ and their appointed mouthpieces.
In this, Fry’s ire is often turned towards the Catholic Church in particular. As an advocate of LGBT rights, and an outspoken supporter of the plight of AIDS victims around the world, Fry has often been scathing of the Catholic Church’s impact on such topics – though he is often at pains to repeat the assertion that a problem held with the Church as a monolithic institution is often very different to a problem held with the average churchgoer.
‘I have no quarrel and no argument, and I wish to express no contempt, for individual devout and pious members of that Church,’ Fry said in 2009 at a debate on whether the Catholic Church is a force for good in society. ‘It would be impertinent and wrong of me to express any antagonism towards any individual who wishes to find salvation in whatever form they wish to express it. That to me is sacrosanct as much as any article of faith is sacrosanct to anyone of any church or any faith in the world. It’s very important.’
And in the more overt problems that have existed within the Catholic Church’s centuries-old position as a pivot of wide-spanning influences within the Western world, Fry sees only a profound sense of the ‘devout and pious’ faithful being repeatedly let down. ‘It’s such an opportunity, owning a billion souls at baptism,’ he said. ‘It’s such an opportunity to do something remarkable, to make this planet better, and it’s an opportunity that is constantly and arrogantly being avoided and I’m sorry for that.’
Though there’s little to suggest that Fry will ever renege on his intrinsic atheism and return to following his teenage dream of priesthood, it would be unfair to paint him as anything more than a sceptic. Outside of members of the biggest religious institutions – and this encompasses every religion, from the Catholic Church to the imams of fundamental Islamism – he adopts his well-worn and wholesome grandfatherly tone, when he could easily choose to harangue and belittle by virtue of his immense knowledge – a subject on which Fry ruminated with Sorted columnist and adventurer Bear Grylls on a 2013 episode of Wild Weekend (shown on Christmas Day, no less!).
‘I get very embarrassed and ashamed of my fellow atheists who are mocking of people who have faith,’ he told Grylls. ‘To me an individually devout, pious person is a very beautiful thing.’
Fry was ‘all for’ Grylls’ interpretation of his ‘intimate and stumbling and awkward and personal’ Christian faith, but where the latter saw heaven as a way of hopefully meeting again with his late father, Fry prefers to believe his forebears can be called on again through the knowledge of human history. ‘For me, you have all your dead ancestors alive in your mind – I have my beloved grandfather alive in my mind,’ he explained. ‘But I don’t need to die to be with him.’ He added that the scenic beauty of the Italian Dolomites where he and Grylls were trekking lent itself to pretentiousness, with the ‘vast landscape making you think on all of the imponderable questions that come tumbling down’.
Perhaps Fry’s fleeting association with the Church is more reminiscent of his formative years, when he sought above all else a sense of belonging. In a 2009 letter to his 16-year-old self, Fry wrote that he was ‘happier now than I have ever been and yet I cannot but recognise that I would trade all that I am to be you, the eternally unhappy, nervous, wild, wondering and despairing 16-year-old Stephen: angry, angst-ridden and awkward but alive’.
His musings on mental health and suicide have been unflinching watches, too: it seems Fry is more connected to the negative aspects of human existence than most. This may in part answer for his vaunted opinion of the Hellenic gods, who rarely had their immoral aspects ignored or forgiven even by those who worshipped them The unravelling of complexities has been a mainstay of Fry’s career after all in his tenure as QI quizmaster – so it stands to reason he would follow a similar path in his off-screen thinking.
‘Some people think that the universe was created for a purpose and that human beings were part of some larger cosmic plan,’ he has said. ‘They think our meaning comes from being part of this plan, and is written into the universe, waiting to be discovered. The humanist view of the meaning of life is different. Humanists do not see that there is any obvious purpose to the universe, but that it is a natural phenomenon with no design behind it. Meaning is not something out there, waiting to be discovered, but something we create in our own lives.’
That being said, churchgoers seeking common cause with Fry can find one in his warm embrace for anyone who, finding themselves at odds with life’s challenges, looks to forge a bond in the hope of finding some greater meaning – be it through friends, family, traditions, or God.
‘Although this vast and incredibly old universe was not created for us, all of us are connected to something bigger than ourselves,’ he said. ‘Whether it is family and community, a tradition stretching in the past, an idea or cause looking forward to the future, or the beautiful natural world on which we were born, and our species evolved.’
An Open Letter to Stephen Fry
By Mark Stibbe
As a long-term admirer, it is an honour to write this open letter to you in response to your comments in recent years about belief in God.
We have so much in common:
• We are both a similar age
• We both went to boarding school and suffered there
• We were both sent to the Bishop of Lynn to discuss ordination to the priesthood
• We are both sceptical of organised religion
• We are both former scholars of English Literature at Cambridge University
• We have both lived in Norfolk and support Norwich City – ardently
• We both revere the discoveries of the Enlightenment
• And we both hold kindness to be one of the highest of all human virtues.
One difference, however, is our attitude to the Christian story. You say you can’t take it seriously, while I do. The first book I ever wrote was an upgraded version of my PhD called John as Storyteller (1992). It was devoted to taking the Jesus story seriously, both in terms of its historical truthfulness and its artistic beauty, even to the point of comparing it with Greek myths (which I know you love too). Even during seasons of brokenness, I have never wavered in my belief in the redemptive power of this story. I was changed forever by it.
Your main reason for not taking it seriously, if I’m right, has to do with the inexplicable suffering and horrific injustices of this world. You argue that God is ‘capricious, mean-minded and stupid’ to permit this, and this undermines the credibility of the Christian story. With the greatest respect, while I too hate injustice, I take a different view.
You and I are published authors, so we know what it is to tell stories. It never ceases to amaze me how characters come to life. Once they are endowed with the freedom and density of the real, they take on a life of their own. Out of many potentialities, they choose – as it were – one actuality. When this happens, as authors we sigh and weep at times. We are outraged and enraged at others. That’s why I agree with George R.R. Martin: ‘I hate outlines. I have a broad sense of where the story is going … but I don’t necessarily know each twist and turn along the way. That’s something I discover in the course of writing.’
It is my belief that our lives and our planet are endowed with a similar kind of freedom that a storyteller gives to their characters and their creatures. Everyone, everything, possesses the capacity for kindness as well as cruelty. We can act like the beast as well as the priest, to borrow (a little) from E.M. Forster.
This where the Jesus story, for me, is so important. Jesus does not provide us with a direct answer to why there are parasitic wasps and bone cancer. These, and many other shadows, have become part of our story. We are unlikely to understand why until the dénouement. But one thing’s for sure in my mind. They are not there because God is mean and malicious. Jesus emphasised that God is not arbitrary and cruel but a good, good Father. The God of Jesus is the Father we have all been waiting for and whose house is open to all those who choose to return to His arms, as His most enduring and endearing parable demonstrates (Luke 15:11ff). He is the heavenly ideal of kindness; all earthly kindnesses are reflections of it.
I was a vicar for over twenty years and saw many things that mystified me in the four parishes I served, none more so than the story behind the last funeral I took, for a ten-year-old boy called Benjamin. He had been wheelchair-bound all his life, struck down with a deadly disease that twisted his body. I got to know his dad well, praying frequently for a miracle (that never came), standing with him in the final days in a children’s hospice.
Just before the end, a chaplain visited and, unknown to Dean, gave Benjamin a tiny wooden cross. When Benjamin passed away peacefully, Dean decided to wash his boy’s body and found this tiny crucifix clutched tightly in his son’s hand. You might not think much of that. But Dean did. Benjamin had never been able to hold anything in his hand for more than a few minutes. He had held the cross for three days and two nights.
Dean and I marvelled at this. For the father, it was a little touch of heaven in the bowels of hell. It was a little ray of comfort in the very heart of darkness. Neither he nor I had any answer to the ‘Why?’ question. But now we had at least a glimpse of an answer to the ‘Where? – Where are you God, when children are struck down so meaninglessly like this?’
In the epicentre of the greatest mystery – the mystery of seemingly inexplicable suffering – it was as if heaven opened and the great Father said, ‘I know what it is to see your son die.’ It was as if the dear Son said, ‘I know what it is to have My body twisted, misshapen, restricted, paralysed and in pain.’
At the heart of this the greatest of all mysteries, there was an epiphany of divine kindness when we were both tempted so strongly to succumb to doubt that God is love, so drawn to believe that the world is cruel, arbitrary, pointless and godless, when in fact there is kindness working away in both history as a whole, and in our little histories too.
In conclusion, we all have the freedom, given by the divine Storyteller, to find our way towards this kindness – a kindness that leads to repentance (Romans 2:4), which in the Jewish faith (the faith of Jesus) means ‘homecoming.’ For those who have been exiled from home, as we once were at boarding school, this is true kindness.
My heartfelt prayer for you, Stephen, is that you find your way to the affectionate Father whose arms are open wide, in whose big story our little stories find at least some meaning, even in the middle of mystery.
You are more like Him than you know. Remember, the only people that Jesus had zero tolerance for in His ministry were the mouthpieces of organised religion. In that, you and He are very much alike! To everyone else, He was astonishingly kind. In that too, you are very much alike!
So, grace and peace to you, Stephen.
And here’s to a great season for the Canaries!
With much love and appreciation,
A Life Redeemed
By Peter Wallace
At times, Hollywood superstar Dennis Quaid was torn between his faith and hell-raiser reputation, but while his troubles appear behind him for good now, his belief never faltered.
It takes a certain type of faith to be prepared to showcase your beliefs to a global audience. Indeed, there are many high-profile individuals who elect to keep stoically private when it comes to the subject of religion. Dennis Quaid, however, has gone the distance of late, not only committing his staunch faith to record in interviews, but even going so far as to lend his talents and superstar status to a Christian film – still a Hollywood rarity – that combines his professional class and Hollywood platform with personal godliness. But surprising as it may seem that an established actor like Quaid would bare his beliefs on the big screen, there is one tangible reason why the star of Traffic, The Big Easy and Footloose, among others, was drawn to the Erwin Brothers-directed I Can Only Imagine.
‘I appreciated the element of redemption in the film,’ the 65-year-old says. ‘It’s not the typical Hollywood kind of story but goes much deeper than that. When I was presented with the project, it hit me so profoundly in a place where I had no words, that I knew I had to be part of it.’
Of course, I Can Only Imagine wasn’t Quaid’s first brush with a faith-based film. In 2011, he starred in Soul Surfer, the true story of surfer Bethany Hamilton’s recovery after losing an arm in a shark attack. The similarities with I Can Only Imagine are pertinent – the latter project being based on the band MercyMe’s song of the same name, still the highest-charting Christian song of all time, and the real-life relationship between frontman Bart Millard and his violent father.
‘Bart wrote the song about his father and it was picked up in a faith-based community,’ Quaid explains. ‘It’s about Jesus, which it is and then it’s not, but it could be. It relates to everybody because it’s personal to everyone. Everyone makes it personal unto themselves. Everyone has something in their lives, that hole, the this, the that, that you get filled. It’s a song of hope and redemption, and it’s a song of joy. And it’s beautiful. I’d never heard the song before. It actually kind of worked on me slowly, to tell you the truth; it’s a beautiful song, and I think they’ll be singing it a hundred years from now.’
For Quaid, however, the ‘element of redemption’ in the film ran deeper than just his character arc as Bart’s on-screen father. Having put his name to a host of now-classic cinematic projects through the late seventies, eighties and nineties, much of the Houston-born star’s on-screen career was played out against a backdrop of tabloid-worthy excesses, including widespread substance abuse that saw him at one point using up to two grams of cocaine per day.
‘I grew up in the era of the sixties; back then, pot and drugs and all that was a way of expanding your mind and raising your consciousness,’ he explains. ‘Then we got into the seventies and it was cocaine. Cocaine became my drug of choice. There are three levels of drug addiction. The first one is fun. The second is fun with problems. And the third is problems. I definitely got to the problem stage. I think I would have crashed and burned no matter what, because I was ready for a crash and burn.’
Quaid would go on to struggle with his demons off-screen for many years. ‘I’ve heard stories where I go, “These people are screwed up! I wasn’t so bad!” But in my own way, I was. I reached my own bottom’ – until experiencing a revelatory moment, in the City of Angels no less, after performing with his long-time musical side-project, The Sharks.
‘I had one of those white light experiences, I guess,’ he recalls. ‘I’d tried to stop many times before and usually we’d wind up in the next day going, “Oh God, just get me through this one, I’ll never do it again, I swear.” The turning point for me came after I performed with my band in LA; I kind of realised I was going to be dead in five years if I didn’t change my ways. The next day I was in rehab! Addiction is a terrible, terrible thing and once you find yourself in the grip of it, it’s very hard to come out of it. Even after I got out of rehab, my brain chemistry was still craving the stimulation that comes from cocaine and I went through a kind of depression because of that. That was the price I paid for indulging myself for so long. So, it took several years for me to really come out of the haze... but once I felt good again, I sure as hell never wanted to go back. I beat the devil inside me.’
Though Quaid may have successfully taken the first step on the road to recovery, he found himself facing down ‘a grinding-my-teeth type of experience’ known to recovering addicts of any social status.
‘Once you get off addiction, there’s a sort of hole in your heart and you really relearn how to live life again,’ he nods. ‘That’s what was going on with me: to really learn how to enjoy life on life’s terms. I have to admit, the first year of being off it was kind of an emotional pit. I think I was actually clinically depressed for a number of years after that. Because I think of what it did to the nervous system and having time to recover and also just the emotional development, which I think stops at a certain point when you become addicted to something. It took me a while to catch back up.’
One unexpected obstacle in Quaid’s life post-rehab, however, was erected not by the shadow of the narcotics that had threatened to derail his career, but by the industry that had raised him up in the first place.
‘I began to realise that I wasn’t going to last very long on two hours of sleep a night over several years, and that my engine was going to pop a few cylinders or just blow up,’ he says. ‘So, I cleaned up and then the jobs stopped coming. You clean up your life and think you’re supposed to be rewarded for it, but things actually got worse in terms of my work. So that was hard to deal with, but I didn’t let that disappointment drag me back down. That was probably the biggest test for me. And eventually the jobs started coming back and I was ultimately rewarded in some sense for being clean, being a good man, and trying to be the best father in the world. So, I feel there is some poetic justice to life.’
With three children – including a son with actress and former wife Meg Ryan and twins via a surrogate – Quaid knows all too well the trials of fatherhood, a concept he was able to rely on when it came to I Can Only Imagine, just as he could mine the darker aspects of his social life, and the lighter positives of his faith.
‘After playing Arthur, I started having the thought of not judging anyone else, and that included myself,’ he says of the effect the film had on him. ‘Because you just let God take that over; let Him take care of that all. It frees you up in life. Arthur started to really look at his life, I think, that’s when he started to wake up. And through that, he had a spiritual awakening, which led him to prayer; and really in prayer, you can’t lie to yourself. By the time you get to prayer, you’ve already lied to yourself and made excuses about this and that, and then you are really seeking something. Through Christianity and through Jesus, it started this real change in Arthur.’
As for Quaid’s own relationship with religion, there’s no doubt that faith, and the near-relentless pursuit of new understanding and theological curiosity, has formed a cornerstone of his life.
‘I grew up in the Baptist Church, went to Sunday school and then got baptised when I was nine,’ he says. ‘I read the Bible cover to cover. In the end I found that it’s all about having faith. It’s certainly been a comfort in my life. I believe in second chances – in my case, I believe in second, third, fourth, and fifth chances – but if you have faith, I truly believe you will ultimately prevail. No matter what, the door is always open to the Lord. All one has to do is open one’s heart and ask, and He’ll be there.’
Now a veteran of the silver screen, Quaid can look ahead to starring in upcoming Second World War epic Midway and adding yet another rung on his cinematic ladder. That being said, as he nears his seventies, with the more turbulent portions of his past well behind him, he’s thankful that the spotlight of modern mega-stardom never fell on him in the way it does many of the actors to have followed in his footsteps.
‘It seems to be a pain … as far as living your life goes!’ he says. ‘Sort of isolating, you can’t go out ... I had that for about fifteen minutes one time and I really hated it. Today I have some serenity in my life. Not that I don’t get angry and upset. I just don’t do that unreasonably any more. My life is like Fantasy Island. I love my work, I love my life, and I love my sons!’
With his wealth of experience, Quaid is also well-placed to deliver some words of wisdom for those seeking to make their name in the notoriously capricious industry.
‘If you don’t really love this, I don’t see how you’re going to last. Because it’s just too frustrating a career to get into, number one. It’s almost impossible, though some people do fall into it. But if you don’t love this, it’s not going to sustain you. There’s too much there, against it. But I was like eighteen, nineteen, back in drama class at the University of Houston. And there comes, like, this moment – and I think it comes for anybody who loves their job and what they do, and they’ve been at it for a while. You know … it’s such a gift at an early age to realise what you want to do with your life. It’s really a great gift. Then that time in my life — those years in the nineties, recovering — chiselled me into a person. It gave me the resolve and a resilience to persevere in life. If I hadn’t gone through that period, I don’t know if I’d still be acting. In the end, it taught me humility. I really learned to appreciate what I have in this life.’
Quaid has been through enough to know that staying true to your beliefs is never entirely simple – even with a little help from above.
‘God will give you the path; He’ll show you the path,’ he smiles. ‘Then you start to walk it, and that’s where it really gets hard.’
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