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
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Up, Up and Away
By Ali Hull
Simon Marton spent years as a steward, flying thousands of miles. We find out what life was really like 30,000 miles in the air.
When did you start working for the airline?
I joined the airline industry nearly twenty-five years ago – which instantly makes me feel old. In late 1995, having worked a summer season on the Greek island of Santorini, I had gained a new inner confidence and decided it was time to attempt something new, which combined my childhood love of aircraft and travel with my natural people skills. I felt it was time for reinvention. The thought of working on and around airliners created the magic for me, rather than anything else, and being up in the skies appealed to my sense of adventure. I didn’t dress particularly smartly as a rule, nor did I wear make-up, but I really wanted a change for the better, to improve myself in some way and to go for a job which I thought might fit me, regardless of the intense competition.
And you were successful…
Within five or six months of starting the application ball rolling, I succeeded in gaining my first six-month temporary contract with a charter airline at Gatwick (LGW). I was soon to find out it was an industry which captivates so many on the inside that it is hard for it to leave your blood. The sight of a full crew walking through an airport, dressed in immaculate uniforms, neck scarves, swept up hair, pilots’ caps, wings and rings on sleeves can lead one to believe it is an industry packed full of glamour. The idea that a plane could take you away to a hot destination, where you keep busy sipping cocktails beside a swimming pool is an appealing one, with a little bit of truth mixed into the Mojito.
What was reality like?
I spent most of my airborne days on charter flights, operating at unearthly hours, before discovering the slightly less disruptive scheduled airline flying experience. I have done more than my fair share of short hops, including European and domestic routes, with ‘doubles’ being the norm– i.e. two ‘there and backs’ a day. Short haul flights can resemble a bus service, but equally so can long haul, which I also did more recently in 2011-12. There was a phrase bandied about by some, which described the job of cabin crew as ‘a lifestyle’. I disagreed: it’s a job, albeit a slightly unusual one. The reason I mention this is to deflate some of the unnecessary mystery about ‘glamour’ where there isn’t any.
What are the downsides?
It can be a very lonely job, and very often the last thing you want to see is another hotel or layover somewhere, when all you really want to do is to be home with your loved ones. The nature of the job is that you are beholden to your employer and your roster, which is only published a couple of weeks before the next month. There isn’t any real pattern to a roster, although you can request certain types of duty or specific days off, with no guarantee of achieving them. I was fortunate to spend every Christmas Day with my family, while working in the industry. Maybe God felt sorry for me and wrote the rosters for me?
What specific issues were passengers facing?
Stresses came in many forms for those who travelled on my flights. Passengers (pax) could come on board with their own worries, suffering from a recent bereavement, or the stress of nearly missing the flight. There would be parents trying to control young children with wills of their own, silent deportees wondering what they were to return to, those afraid of flying ... and whole plane-loads of delayed pax wanting to vent their anger on me and my colleagues.
How did you cope?
The sort of techniques I employed were usually those of empathy primarily, alongside listening at eye-level, by crouching down next to a customer in their seat to get rid of any threatening posture. This is one of the ways we were trained to act in order to minimise negativity and allow a customer to become calm. Smiling at appropriate moments helps a lot, as no one likes a moody crew. This was especially helpful during turbulence, which is common. On one of my first flights, we were into the descent approaching Rome Fiumcino through a thunderstorm, when without warning a bolt of lightning shot above my head through the entire cabin length of the Lockheed Tristar we were on. Pax were obviously in a state of worry and high anxiety, but my senior, Tina, mouthed to me to ‘Keep smiling, Simon!’ I did, and gradually the mood lightened as we checked seatbelts through the forward cabin. Smiling – so simple, yet so effective.
What if someone dies?
I was called to a crew hotel near Heathrow airport. I was told that the reason why a male manager was needed was because it could have been a fight, a rape or even a death, but it would never be the latter. It was of course a death. A crew member had passed away between back to back flights and we had to organise the discreet removal of his body for an autopsy, as well as ensure that news of this did not pass onto anyone, as social media would have leaked the event ahead of the family knowing. Just like in a macabre movie, five of us occupied a cramped service lift with the zipped black body bag lying on a low trolley at our feet. It was only a few days later that it hit me, when I saw the deceased’s badly laser-copied image on the obituaries board: this person had a face, a name and a life. I kept this to myself in the crew room as I briefed my smiling crew, none of whom would ever have known what I had been privy to.
How safe is flying?
With over 2,000 flight sectors under my belt, a lot of turbulence, a near-miss over Manchester, cabin systems failures returning from Rio and an urn of near-boiling water accidentally tipped over my head in Luxembourg, I can safely say that flying is fairly safe owing to the intensity of training that my pilot colleagues, ground staff and cabin crew colleagues undergo. We all report for periodic refresher training and exams, are occasionally audited for compliance by safety organisations, and are up to speed with mandatory updates, so the fare-paying public is in good hands.
What about the dangers brought on board by the passengers?
Boozy hens and wild stags meant raised voices, singing, disturbance, bravado and headaches for crew members. You just needed to employ the skills of assertiveness and diplomacy. As a guy, generally, I had little hassle, whereas the girls had more. I was to regret giving carte blanche to two guys I had got chatting to in the forward economy section of the plane, to help themselves to drinks from the Club World Larder en route to Las Vegas. It turned out that while I was asleep on my break, they had gone for a singsong, complete with a bottle of red each, through the business class cabin. They landed with terrible hangovers, for which I was grateful. Others would drink so much that they would render themselves unserviceable, and sleep for the duration of a long-haul flight.
How much did you see in your travels?
You would be forgiven for thinking we see the world. Very often all I would see was a familiar hotel in Vienna, Dusseldorf, Prague or Amsterdam. If further away, I would experience the loneliness of being in Japan, Denver, Boston or Accra. Cabin crew on newer contracts with the national airline would usually have a minimum rest stopover, which means landing in the evening at your destination, then returning home the following evening, a night flight being the norm. Destinations that stick in my mind include Budapest during the Christmas period, when the smell of cinnamon and mulled wine would fill the cold evening air of the market place around the corner from the Intercontinental Hotel, and walking through the streets of San Diego in the warm April sun, marvelling at the giant statue of a sailor embracing his belle near the harbour side where a decommissioned aircraft carrier was docked. I bought my wife a jewelled watch for our wedding anniversary there. These were rare moments of delight, as most stopovers just felt like a quick work-break before leaving for home again.
What happened to your mental health?
My own mental wellbeing, in the most recent stint of flying, was unstable at worst. My wife didn’t want me to take on the job, but I felt I had little choice, as I had bills to pay and a family to support. While away, I would often complete assignments for my Law degree which I was attempting part-time. My commute from Bath to Heathrow (LHR) would take me two hours one way, and because the stereo wasn’t working, I would use the time to talk to God as I drove, whatever time of the day or night that might be. Other pilots and cabin crew always looked to have it all together, but I knew it was a facade. I couldn’t talk to anyone about it, as I barely trusted anyone. I felt incredibly alone for much of my experience working for BA at LHR. I had a young family back home and I needed to work, but I wished I didn’t have to be so far away most of the time.
My mental health, as time wore on, was on a knife edge. I was fatigued from constant commuting and flying, unhappy inside and had a mini-depression which I kept concealed from everyone. No one would have known anything was up with me as I bottled it all up and just did the best I could, day by day. Sometimes I would lean on my door handle position, and daydream about what it might feel like to leap out of the aircraft as it rotated off the runway. Thankfully, that remained a daydream. I was sustained by prayer, my wife and my friends. It was not easy at all, but I made it through to the point where I handed in my resignation to my manager, making the leap into the unknown again…
How did your faith affect your job?
Faith in Jesus keeps me alive in all the ways that word can be used. I knew he would never let me go, and I still know this. Having been a junior crew member before becoming a senior one, I made it my intention to treat others as I would wish to be treated, so that my colleagues would feel relaxed in my company and consequently perform better in the knowledge that they wouldn't be constantly overlooked and interfered with. I was an ambassador not just for my employer, but Jesus. On flights returning to LHR, I would point out the tourist sights over London for the cabin occupants – something that kept alive the wonder of flying for me, but also many others, I was told. I was informed of a couple of people who had been deeply impressed by this as well as my use of passenger names as much as possible- at least on boarding. We were told only to do it for First, but I figured why not use it for everyone. It sometimes made people jump on disembarkation, if I had remembered their name from the beginning of the flight. As far as faith goes, I managed to share it with quite a few people over the course of my flying career. I will never know what they have decided for themselves or indeed, where they are in the world.
Why don’t airlines get their crew to slow down when they are giving out information – particularly safety information?
Sometimes it is hard to decipher the words that come through the PA from crew members. My advice to them is what I was told years ago. Let your personality come through your PAs. Maybe they should hold the interphone differently, instead of speaking so closely it’s unintelligible. Perhaps the reason for this speed of mumbled information over the PA is that these announcements are so routine to cabin crew, they are in a hurry to get them over with. Therein lies the crux: routines ensure safety, and this is what the airline industry is based on. Repetition, routines and reputation. At the time of writing, the industry is in near crisis. Flying remains in my blood, even as a distant memory.
By Samantha Rea
Mr. Motivator, aka Derrick Evans, is best known for getting the nation’s hearts racing in the 90s, with his fat-burning fitness routines. Now, at 67, the superhero of breakfast television is back. We meet the man behind the Lycra…
How did you become Mr. Motivator?
For ten years I tried to get onto television, and I kept getting turned down. I’d go to the TV-am studios trying to persuade them, and they’d say it had to be a woman, and she probably had to be blonde. I’d worked in marketing and I knew that marketing is critical with everything, so I looked at the people on television. There was Mad Lizzie who you wouldn’t remember, because all she ever wore were cardigans – they weren’t significant enough for you to remember her. And there was the Green Goddess, who stuck with me because of her green outfit. So I created Mr. Motivator, with the colours and the music, as a way of engaging and empowering people and making them feel good. If I’d worn a black t-shirt and a white pair of shorts, you wouldn’t be speaking to me today!
Where do you get your outfits?
Every January I go to a wonderful store in downtown Miami, which has thousands of fabrics, and I feel like a kid in a candy store. I choose enough for 40-50 outfits every year because I don’t like wearing the same outfit more than once. Certain ones stand out – like a gold one that got everybody going – and then I definitely can’t wear them again. I’ve got caseloads of outfits, so I sign them and give them to charities to auction off.
You’ve done a lot for charity, supporting Breakthrough Breast Cancer, bringing out a DVD for people with MS, and entertaining crowds at charity walks. Why is that important to you?
When you come from a position of not having very much, it makes you appreciate that, when you have the ability to really help others, you should do it. When I did the warm-up for the walk, in aid of St. Ann’s Hospice in Manchester, I set the scene for up to 5,000 women to walk through the night to raise money. I like doing things like that, because it makes people feel good, and you do something for other people, and you benefit from it as well.
Lorraine Kelly, who you worked with on morning television, has been quoted telling a rather cheeky story about why you wear a bum bag…
She’s being naughty, telling lies! The reason I wear a bum bag is to keep the mic inside – then it’s out of the way, and you don’t see the wires. I get them made up in the same fabric I’m working out in, so it looks neat – but Lorraine reckoned it was a deflection to take your eyes away from other things! It’s not true, but it’s a good one, isn’t it? There’ve been so many articles written about what’s in my bum bag. One year we did a spoof where I pretended to pull out a fire extinguisher!
You’ve been back on our screens, on BBC One’s HealthCheck UK Live, keeping us fit during the Coronavirus lockdown. What’s really stood out is the feelgood factor that you bring, not just to exercise, but to TV. Do you think that’s been missing?
There’s a saying by Maya Angelou: ‘You may forget what people say, you may forget what they do to you, but the one thing you’ll never forget is how they make you feel.’ And that is so important – how we make each other feel. I’m trying to give people a good feeling, so when I walk out of the room, the footsteps behind me are something they want to follow – or they want to learn how I managed to walk that way. That’s how we should be living our lives. I’m really pleased to be back because it’s given me the opportunity to do not just fun fitness, but also to talk about the deeper aspects of our wellbeing… I think it’s important to have a positive outlook and to recognise and accept where we are, and realise there’s some things we can do something about, and some things we can’t.
You’ve said: ‘Physical fitness is part of the pillars that hold up our wellbeing.’ What else do you think is important to our wellbeing?
Your emotions – they’re one of the most important pillars in your life because if you’re emotionally happy, you can work all hours, and two hours’ sleep will keep you going. But when you’re emotionally unhappy, you can’t eat, you can’t sleep, you can’t train – you can’t do nothing. You ask an athlete who’s about to go into a race after losing a loved one – he’ll guarantee he’ll lose that race. That’s how important your mental and your emotional side is. Your financial fitness is also important. But I believe if you get your emotions in check, your health will improve, your finances will improve, and your physical fitness will improve.
It’s so connected – when we exercise, we do feel better in ourselves and start thinking more positively, don’t we?
Yeah, but if you go to exercise, and your mind’s not there, that’s the day you get injured. That’s the day you walk out thinking, ‘I didn’t sweat much!’ And the reason is, your mind wasn’t there. Your emotions were in the wrong place. So it’s critical that we focus on making ourselves mentally stronger during these difficult times. That starts with the frame of mind you put yourself in at the start of the day, because we gravitate towards our dominant thought.
Talking on BBC HealthCheck UK, you said your time in the Christian youth organisation Boys’ Brigade was a great beginning for you, and that their motto of ‘Sure and Steadfast’ has stayed with you. Can you tell me about your time in Boys’ Brigade?
I joined when I was ten, and I was a drum major, so I led the band, marching in front of the troop. I was in there until I was nearly 20, so it was the formative years and I really thank him above. I may not practice, but I honestly believe there is a God... The Boys’ Brigade is founded on Christian principles, and so what you’re taught – and you do learn this – is respect for each other and looking after each other, caring for each other, and realising you’re not in a vacuum in this world - you’ve always got to be open to helping people. It gave me an anchor - something to hold onto. In fact, one of the badges I won when I was in Boys’ Brigade had an anchor on it, and that was important. I wish the Boys’ Brigade was as strong now as it was then, because I believe that if it was, we wouldn’t have a lot of the problems we have nowadays.
Do you think that’s because Boys’ Brigade keeps kids active or because of the Christian values being instilled?
I think it’s the values that were instilled, which were reinforced by your parents. They sent you to Boys’ Brigade, so they believed in the principles of it, and when you came home, they’d make sure you carried on with the principles you learnt. When I mentioned it on television, Boys’ Brigades around the country wrote in and thanked me. But why would I deny something that’s fundamental to who I am?
Your early life was quite incredible. I heard you say on Premier Christian Radio that your mother gave you away in the market when you were three months old?
Yeah, a couple came up to her and said: ‘Can we have him?’ She was only 17, so she said ‘Yes’ because she couldn’t manage. In Jamaica, that’s how it was in them days. There wasn’t any organisation called the adoption agency. People did look after children and my folks always took people in. They never changed my name, so I remained Evans, even though they were called Rose, and they took me to church and taught me to pray and say grace, and to look after everyone I meet, and to have a smile on my face. It was poor beginnings in Jamaica - there were five of us living in a two-room house. The bathroom, toilet and kitchen were outside and there was no running water – we had to fetch it. But three times a day, you went to church - in particular on a Sunday. During the week it was more choir practice. I wasn’t singing, but I’d go with my mum. One evening she forgot me - I woke up in the pews and the church was all locked up! When she realised I was missing, she came running back! We came to the UK when I was ten, and the church played a major part in every single Sunday, and during the week. If you could move, you were going to church - that’s how it was.
You’ve had some difficult times in your life, with homelessness and being a single parent. Would you say it’s your Christian values that have kept you going?
For sure. You can’t ignore the foundations – they’re part of who we are. When a meal was cooked at my folks’ house, there would always be other mouths to feed, and now, if I’m about to eat and someone comes to the home, I’ve literally got to stop or share what I have. That goes back to how things were, and the lessons we learnt. Things become a habit and once they’re formed, it’s like not brushing your teeth one day. If you don’t brush them, you don’t feel right. People say: ‘Are you always happy?’ Yeah, I am! Because I’ve been to the university of life. I’ve been through all the hurricanes and I’ve realised that I have a choice and everybody out there has a choice. Do you want to be happy or do you want to be sad? You have that choice. Because even if something sad happens in your life, you can still find a way to be happy. If I lose someone, like when I lost my mum or a good friend, I still smile through it and say, ‘Let’s celebrate the life they lived.’ People go: ‘It got cut short.’ No! Because we don’t know what we’ve been doled out. We don’t know whether we get 39 years or 115 years. So how can you say it’s short? You can be impactful, no matter how young you are. You can be 21 and you could impact someone in such a positive way, that they learn a lesson, and maybe that is all you are on this earth for.
You were raffling off your $2.4 million house and business in Jamaica, because you wanted it to go to a normal person rather than a millionaire. Why was that important to you?
I wanted to give an ordinary person the opportunity of owning a business, because how many people dream of it, and are never able to do it? When you’ve had the upbringing and start I’ve had in life, it’s good to give a helping hand. Unfortunately, there was scepticism about what I was doing – people didn’t realise I meant it for good and they thought it was a scam, and so we had to pull it.
YouTube is now a massively important platform for fitness. Can we look forward to seeing you live-streaming your workouts?
I’m not a techy person, but I’m trying, and learning as I go along. Over two million people bought my workout videos and I’ve been asked about them for years because they were never released on DVD. Now I’m putting them all on my YouTube channel, and I’m filming new workouts, with my wife by my side. She joins in, sitting in a chair, to show you can do it sitting down because the whole family needs to be engaged. There are lots of people on their own who are not young, and this shows them an alternative they can do.
Motorcycles & Misfits
By Sean Stillman
I’m lying on my back on a freezing cold concrete garage floor, my breath cursing the cold as I twist my body to get at the bolts that need releasing, skimming my knuckles in the process. I’m underneath the back of my old Harley, sorting out some awkward routine maintenance and on a tight deadline to get the job done. It’s late in the evening, and I’ve got to be on the road first thing in the morning to conduct a funeral several hours away.
These days, I try not to ride sub-zero unless I really have to. The knees and back can’t take it any more. I guess riding somewhere in the region of approaching 500,000 miles, in all weathers, has caught up. The bike is carrying a few scars as well. It’s been a solid workhorse and never really let me down, apart from the time the stator packed up on my way back from Poland which became a bit of an adventure. It’s survived a few scrapes and there’s definitely more corrosion than chrome these days. But I look at this old bike and it’s like a favourite pair of boots, it fits just right. I’ve got it the way I want, comfortable, handles well and just keeps going. I know at some point it will wear out and need replacing, but if it could talk, it would have a heap of stories to tell from the roads it has been down.
As my bike and my body have begun to creak after three decades in Christian work, I’ve found myself asking, ‘Has it been worth it?’ On occasions, there’s been a heavy price to pay, especially as I have sought to do so amid a community that doesn’t pull its punches. Motorcycle clubs tell it straight. If they don’t like you, they tell you. If they don’t like who you represent, they tell you. If they for one moment think you are a fake, a wannabe, a hypocrite, you’ll find out in no uncertain terms. If, however, you prove to be the real deal, have some balls to stand your ground, give practising what you preach a right good go, you’ll find a welcome – eventually.
It’s been on this road, with all the pitfalls, surprises, catastrophes, and sometimes moments of elation, that my character and faith have been shaped and formed over time. There are always reasons to give up. Getting beaten up, mocked and humiliated don’t go down as milestones I have enjoyed, I can assure you of that. Betrayals of trust, my own stupid mistakes and personal dysfunction are littered along the roadside, as much as they are anyone else’s. But, as I have looked back, I have discovered that it has been precisely at the points where you think the wheels are falling off, you discover a reason to go on.
I have wrestled not only with what it is to be a Christian leader, in a sometimes confrontational environment, but also with what it means just to be a bloke – to be a husband, a dad, a son and a mate. I want to get it right, but so often get it wrong. Others may see one thing, but I know what really goes on inside my head. Learning to live in my own skin has proved to be the most challenging journey of all.
This old Harley of mine has seen better days, but has served me well and still runs as smooth as many years ago. For some of my mates, their bike is all about the chrome and the bling – it might look good, but runs as rough as guts and won’t go around corners very well. In a society that seems to be placing more and more value in what we look like at first glance (and feel free to add a filter if it helps) I worry that we neglect what’s going on inside. I worry that we present ourselves as doing OK and have got it all together, when in reality we know we’re a walking bag of inconsistencies and contradictions.
I have sat alongside a lot of people over the years and listened to their stories – not just biker mates, but many artists, musicians, entrepreneurs and other soul-searching wanderers trying to make sense of this road we travel. I’ve watched too many friends trying to find themselves in lines of coke, only to see them grow old way too young. I’ve seen the hedonistic lifestyle advocated as true freedom only to see too many friends caught in a trap. I have seen the unspeakable damage one human being can do to another and I have seen the price paid in pursuit of numbing the pain that will not go away.
Eventually we all get tired. Even the strongest of us peak and we are no longer as strong as we thought we were. After a lifetime of hanging out listening to people’s stories, I too got tired. The sponge was full and needed to be wrung out. I retreated on a regular basis to a cabin at the foot of the Brecon Beacons and started to write. In doing so, I became friends with my fears, doubts and failures. I saw there’s a fine line between reckless faith and what might appear to be insanity. The place I visited was my Gethsemane, my place of deciding what was worth hanging on to and what was worth letting go. As I wrote, I stripped everything back and I became comfortable with having questions once again.
But here’s a thing – in the absence of an easy answer, I discovered this whole experience is not about putting on some flawless performance, it is about finding beauty in broken places. My faith remains raw and covered in blemishes. Much like my motorcycle and my body – it’s far from perfect. But my journey continues with hope and a fire in the core of my soul, because like firing up a rusty old Harley, that looks like it’s well past its best, there’s something deeply satisfying about knowing what’s going on, on the inside, is far more important than any first impression – and it’s that, that keeps me heading in the right direction.
When your legs are the crumple zone
By Ali Hull
A horrific fall of over 800 feet could have ended very differently for mountaineer Richard Tiplady.
Like many of us, and despite having played sport at school, visited gyms as a young man, coached junior football and so on, Richard Tiplady had allowed himself to get ‘lardy.’ Fifteen years of a few too many glasses of wine, coffee and cakes, had seen him slowly get bigger. ‘I tried everything I could to lose weight, apart from eating less, drinking less or doing more exercise’ he says.
Guilt and uneasiness didn’t work as motivating factors, but what finally drove him to do something about his weight was a prolonged period of workplace stress, that in turn caused a chronic pain condition. Having been put on painkillers, he was coping, but he knew that, long term, they were also addictive, and would not provide the solution. But then he discovered that brisk walking was recommended, and that half an hour or an hour’s walk around his local nature reserve meant a pain free night. ‘Then I climbed my first Munro. That resulted in three or four days, pain-free.’
Soon he was climbing more and more, and losing weight at a steady rate, plunging from over 16 stone to 12 stone 10 in two years, where he has remained for two more years. The pain condition is also completely under control. At over 6ft and at the age of 53, he is pleased with this.
So when he set out to climb Pillar, the 2927ft fell in the Lake District, on March 5 this year, he didn’t expect anything to go wrong. ‘It was a beautiful day, still, sunny, clear and cold, with no wind. I hadn’t been out climbing for a month, because of the horrible weather. It was due to cloud over around midday, which it did, but the snow was solid, not ice, and my crampons gripped well.’
At the top of the mountain, which he was climbing with a companion, he became unsure which way to go to do the final few metres. Dropping down from one option to try another, it was at this point, as he was descending, that he slipped, falling over two hundred metres down a rocky, snow-filled gully. As he careered down the mountain, bouncing from rock to rock, all his years of training, reading and rereading books on mountain-craft suddenly kicked in.
‘The brain knows what to do’ he says, ‘but I wasn’t expecting a good outcome. There was zero fear, no panic. I was focussed.’ He tried to use his ice axe to self-arrest – to dig it into the snow and stop his progress – but hitting one rock forced his arms up and the next rock knocked the ice axe out of his hands. ‘I was in freefall, sliding sideways, then head first, into a steep gully.’
The first thing he needed to do, having lost his ice axe and now travelling head first, was to turn around. ‘You know you are not going to stop yourself – something is going to stop you. You need to go down feet first – your legs are the crumple zone, your head isn’t. A good outcome from a situation like this is to end up with two broken legs.’ So how do you turn around, in those conditions? ‘You put one arm down hard in the snow, and that is enough to turn you. I was pressing my arms down into the snow to slow myself down– I ended up with amazing bruises on both arms. It is damage limitation. Stay feet first, and try to slow yourself down a bit - there is nothing else you can do… and the brain doesn’t want to focus on anything else. I was aware it was lasting a while – it wasn’t over in a flash. I am guessing it was about 20 to 30 seconds. I was aware it was a long slip, and I was bouncing off things.’
What finally stopped his rush down the mountain was not, however, his training. He came to a halt in a pile of debris from an avalanche that had fallen the day before, about twenty feet from the edge of a cliff. Not that we should think he experienced a soft landing into piles of gentle fluffy snow. ‘The debris was made up of rock-hard snowballs – each one football-sized or larger, firmly bonded into the snow. They are what do the damage if an avalanche hits you.’
What makes Richard’s story so remarkable – apart from the fact that he fell such a long way yet was relatively unscathed – was his presence of mind, and this did not desert him when he finally came to a halt. He knew he had things he had to do, and questions to ask. ‘Am I secure? Will this give way? No: my crampons were firmly embedded in one snowball and I was resting on another, almost cradled by them, face up. How injured was I? My right ankle was hurting, but there was no massive pain. The worst was from my shoulder and neck, and blood was pouring out of my head, covering one eye.’
Next, he calmly reached for his mobile phone, which had a signal: emergency calls only, but it was enough. ‘The next question was, where am I? I have the OS Locate App on my phone, and that gave me the 6-digit map reference. But before I called 999, I got my whistle out – best pound I ever spent. You’re supposed to give six short blasts, once a minute – that is the mountain distress signal – but it was much more than six a minute. Then I dialled 999, and asked for police and mountain rescue, saying what had happened, my injuries and giving them my map reference.’
Knowing that it might be hours before he was found, Richard dug out his survival bag and, despite his injuries, managed to get into it. ‘There is stuff to be done. You just do it. It hurts, but immediately it was on, I could feel my body heat being reflected back.’ The whistle had attracted his companion, John, who soon climbed down to him and did some First Aid on his face wounds – before asking if Richard was happy for him to film what happened next, to document the rescue. ‘And we sat back and waited.’
And it happened fast; less than an hour after his call, ‘We heard a helicopter, and we were waving, but it flew past. You are not as visible as you think you are. I had a head torch in my bag, and I should have got it out ready – anyway, it has a flashing light, so when the helicopter flew past again, ten minutes later, I pointed it at it and it came straight towards us. It hovered opposite us, the door opened, they did a visual assessment – and then they flew off again. That bit didn’t feel great, but we knew what they were doing.’
The helicopter was off to get the help Richard was going to need to get him off the mountain. He was not in an easily accessible place, and the Cockermouth Mountain Rescue Team had to be taken, by the helicopter, from the valley floor up to the top of the fell, before they could abseil down to him. ‘There were 22 of them involved in the rescue, some on the mountain, some climbing up from below, some with the team Land Rovers. The first one to reach me was a builder, the MRT leader Andy McNeill, who introduced himself as Macca.’
At this point, Richard could, finally, stop being pragmatic. ‘That was when I sobbed. I realised I didn’t have to hold it together any longer, I could finally be the casualty. I just had to let them get on with it, and not get in the way.’ What moved him further was when a team member told him ‘”Two of us here are in the Mountain Rescue Team because we got rescued ourselves.” You have no idea how important that was. Of all the things they did, that felt like one of the most meaningful. They were completely non-judgemental.’ Because, despite being an experienced mountaineer, well-trained and equipped, Richard still felt he was at fault.
‘I was angry with myself for the first week. I slipped. Because I was going with someone else, who was more experienced, I hadn’t checked the route as carefully as perhaps I should have done, in full detail. I’m not sure it would have made any difference though … my crampons may have caught on a rock, I don’t know. The moment when I slipped is a real blur now. I’ve been told that 80% of all accidents are on descents – gravity is not your friend, at that point. You are going faster, and you are not working against gravity. You can do everything right and it can still go wrong – particularly in winter conditions.’
The extent of his injuries was not initially clear. When he got to the hospital, the A&E staff commented that he looked like he had been attacked by a mountain lion, with three deep parallel gashes on his forehead and scalp, that took 60 stitches to repair. He also had a broken neck; a broken elbow and he had broken his ankle in two places. Transferred from hospital in Carlisle, he needed to have an operation in Newcastle to join his neck bone to its neighbour with a titanium plate before he could go home to recuperate in Scotland.
As this article is being written, the accident is still only a couple of weeks in the past, but Richard has been thinking about it a lot since. It was described in the newspapers as miraculous, but this is not a word he himself has used, even though he is a committed Christian. ‘I felt protected’ he says. ‘But by whom? God? The mountain? Not the mountain – it didn’t care. It wasn’t trying to hurt me, and it wasn’t trying to help me. It’s just a big lump of rock. But I felt protected. So, I’m kind of thankful to God.’
He has also been reflecting on what he did, or didn’t, do wrong. So did the training help, or was it simply the debris from the avalanche that saved him? ‘I don’t know. The ice axe was never going to work, not in those conditions, because of the hard frozen snow and the rocks. But being feet-first limited the damage to my head. And if I had been going faster, the avalanche debris might not have stopped me. It’s a bit like stopping distances when you brake when driving a car. I could simply have gone over the 200-foot precipice, which was over a waterfall. That would have been it.’
He has also started thinking about recovery – and getting out on the hills again. Having done 112 Munros, there are another 170 to go. ‘I’m wearing a moonboot at the moment, and it will take some months to get my fitness back, initially just by walking, back to the nature reserve. However, at some point, I am going to want to go back up a hill.’ And it is at this point, perhaps, that the psychological scars may appear. Clearly, an accident such as the one Richard had can leave a lot of ‘What if?’ questions behind it but, so far, these have not been an issue for him. Well, almost. While in hospital, the physiotherapists were keen to get him walking again, and to climb stairs. ‘We live in a three-story house… so they walked me down the corridor, out to the stairwell, one set of stairs going up, one set going down… and that really caught me out, that view of a descent. I had to stop. The physios were fine, and suggested we tried going up first. So, we climbed one flight of stairs, turned around and came down. No problem.’
He is already planning his first walk, for when he does leave the flatlands, and the hill he will start with. ‘There is one not far from where I live, Ben Ledi, it is just under 3000 ft, and I have climbed it eight times. I plan to go out, sometime in the summer, with my mate Neil, who does mountain rescue, and it is very safe, with a good path. But walking in winter conditions? I will cross that bridge when I come to it. If my wife, Irene, is uneasy, then I won’t do it.’
But it is clear that he wants to, and he wants to be able to walk alone as well. ‘You’re a different person in the mountains. It is a weird thing, but when you have been up on the tops for a while, the descent into reality is a bittersweet moment.’
Dan the Man
Dan Walker has one of the busiest lives on British television today. Stuart Weir finds out how he manages to juggle so much at once.
Dan Walker’s week is full. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, he is presenting Breakfast on BBC1. As well as the early morning shift, that can involve filming something for the show later in the day. Thursday is in principle a quieter day but then again can involve the filming of other programmes. By Friday, he’ll have changed his focus – to preparation for Football Focus, in the studio and then presenting the football programme on Saturday. The week might also include some corporate work, filming for another channel or writing an article. Alongside that there are three kids to look after and a dog to walk, as well as trying to find time to play golf – ‘still chasing the scratch handicap’.
How, I wondered, would he describe his profession: presenter, journalist, sports journalist? ‘That’s a good question’, he replied. ‘I think I see myself as a broadcaster and a very fortunate one because of the way I am able to straddle the different worlds of news and sport. People sometimes ask: “You’re the guy who does sport, can you do news?” But before that I did news and they asked: “Can the guy who does news on the radio go and do sport?” or “Can the guy who does sport on TV, do a chat show on Radio 5?” And “Can the guy who does sport on radio be the guy who wakes you up in the morning and interviews the Prime Minister? Can the guy from Breakfast host a daytime quiz show?” These are all questions people ask and I totally understand that because that’s the industry we’re in. But I have had some fantastic opportunities and I feel very thankful now to be presenting the number one breakfast show in the UK and the most popular football magazine programme. And I’m still getting away with it.’
He took a bit of persuading to join BBC Breakfast but now loves it. ‘It was offered to me one or two times before but I wasn’t sure, mainly because of the change in lifestyle. But the more I thought about it, the more I understood what a huge programme it was. From week one I realized how significant it was to sit on that sofa and in the significant slippers of Mr Bill Turnbull [his predecessor]. You have conversations on that sofa that then become national conversations. Sometimes they are difficult conversations, but still important ones to have.
‘If I look at the opportunities that I’ve been able to have since taking that job – the people interviewed and some other places I have been, and the stories I’ve been able to cover – I think it has been a wonderful opportunity. The other thing which attracted me to it is working with Louise Minchin. You don’t often get to work with someone who not only do you get on with, but they understand you and you understand them. There are so many interviews that we do where I start a sentence and she’ll finish it. We understand the cadence of the way we talk and the rhythm of our thoughts. It’s a lovely situation to be in, where we rarely talk over each other and rarely jump on each other. It’s a nice healthy relationship where we help each other. We want the programme to look great and it’s never a selfish show when I am on with Louise. It is a very loving and caring programme to be part of. It is an early start but it’s a lovely way to start the day.’
Walker is active on social media and welcomes comments on his performance – at times graciously replying to critics and explaining the background. He told me he is not bothered by accusations of political bias because the next comment will probably accuse him of bias in the opposite direction! ‘We live in a toxic time where people are concerned and upset or worried and don’t feel they’re getting answers to their questions and feel there are great injustices in society. A lot of that comes out on social media. I don’t think people mean everything they say and I like to take things with a pinch of salt. I’m not affected by that because, as a Christian, my value as a person does not come from what people think of me. I don’t allow the praise to lift me too high and I don’t allow the criticism to drive me too low. I listen to the people I care about and I listen to the people who have a real insight into whether I’ve done a good job or not. I know myself, most of the time, if I’ve done a great interview or an average interview.
‘I do like social media. It has made people on television more accessible. It has made programmes more immediate. The response is more accurate and quick these days. I did an interview the other day and there was one comment on social media: “What a terrible interview. I can’t believe he asked that question.” I went back to the person and explained why I asked the question. We had quite a nice conversation and all was sorted.’
He has some tasty exchanges on social media with Piers Morgan, presenter of ITV’s Good Morning Britain: ‘We get on all right’, he told me. ‘I have known him for a good few years, and we have a healthy relationship. I know he insults me quite a bit. That is his thing and it’s fine. I don’t think any of our discourse is ever unhealthy. I think it’s good for both programmes. We have a healthy competition. I know that it annoys him that despite everything they’ve done and everything they continue to do – and they do a really great programme – we still get twice the audience. I think that really grates on him. We have fun and I don’t think it ever goes outside of that.’
Walker is very open about his Christian faith, as he explains: ‘My faith plays a very significant part of my life. I don't take much seriously in life except for my faith and my family. I believe that if you have a strong faith in Jesus Christ, it has to make a difference to how you live your life. It informs who I am and who I would like to be, where I'm going, the way I talk, the way I act, hopes, dreams, aspirations etc. It is a significant part of every day I live. It is the most important thing about me and I can't imagine life without Jesus. If you are a Christian, that has an impact on your decisions, your language, the way you think and speak and go about your daily business. I would like to think that it reduces pride and self-obsession and makes you think more carefully about the people around you, and the impact you’re having on the community and society around you. For me, it’s been an overwhelmingly positive thing. I know people sometimes choose to see it as a negative and that’s fine. I never mind having a discussion about it. For me, it underpins everything I am and want to be. Being a Christian is a very big part of my life.’
Like the rest of us, Walker was looking forward to Euro 2020, curious to see how England could build on an excellent World Cup in Russia two years ago. ‘2018 was an amazing tournament. And being sat at the semi-final next to Alan Shearer and Gary Lineker and seeing how close England got to the World Cup final was a clear indication of how far England had come. I’m not getting carried away, thinking we’re a bunch of world-beaters. I think England are a top eight side in European football and the top twelve side when it comes to world football. And any team of that calibre can go far in a tournament.
‘I would love to see England win a tournament in my lifetime and for my children to be able to enjoy that as well but I don’t know if they will do at this time. Gareth Southgate is a remarkable manager because of his stature in the game. Because he played quite recently and because he has previously brought a number of the England players through the various age stages, I think there is a real respect for the manager and that he gets the best out of those England players. I’m really looking forward to seeing how England progress next year.
‘This season there has been a lot of speculation about Jadon Sancho (Borussia Dortmund). Hopefully he is going to be one of the stars of the tournament next year. I think you are going to see him move somewhere this summer for an awful lot of money. He is a player who is attracting a lot of attention at the moment and rightly so. Gareth Southgate loves to bring through young and talented players and players who can deal with the big occasion and he has proven that already. Sancho is already on the scene but I see him as someone who can really stand front and centre. I rate Mason Greenwood (Manchester United) incredibly highly. He is a bright young talent and I think we are going to see a lot more of him for Manchester United and for England.’ With the Euros postponed to 2021, the extra year will give Greenwood a chance to establish himself in the England squad.
In 2019 Walker climbed Kilimanjaro for Comic Relief in the company of Shirley Ballas, Ed Balls, Jade Thirlwall, Leigh-Anne Pinnock, Anita Rani, Dani Dyer, Alexander Armstrong and Osi Umenyiora. It was a life highlight: ‘Climbing Kilimanjaro is not the sort of thing you do often in your life. It was an amazing opportunity to be part of it. When you see the vast expanse of that mountain, it’s just a reminder of how a small you are. Climbing up there with a bunch of people I didn’t know at all before we got there… yet within 24 hours of meeting each other, we are climbing Kilimanjaro! It was great and it’s something that all the people who did it will always have together. Right at the start, we were told there was no way that the nine of us would reach the top together – and there was 30-40 years of age difference from the youngest to the oldest. We were told that we were all very different in our physical capabilities and that we would not be able to reach the top together because it would hurt us in different ways. But when we heard that we all thought “Right” and we were all joined by the idea that we would do it and that it was going to be nine of us are at the top together or none of us. That drove us on.
‘We were doing this for various reasons – Shirley Ballas’ friend had taken his own life, others were inspired by different things to be there and had different reasons for supporting Comic Relief. And when you achieve something like that as a group and you’re not relying on yourself but relying on others and the team around you, that is something pretty special to be part of. We regularly meet up and have a little reunion now and again and message each other. It’s a lovely thing to look back on.'
Dan Walker lives life to the full. As he puts it: ‘Who doesn’t enjoy getting up at 3.10 am?’
Crossing the Sahel
By Reza Pakravan
On the 31 July 2019, Reza Pakravan, an explorer and film maker, became the first person in modern history to have travelled the full length of the Sahel. A belt of land stretching across the southern boundary of the Sahara desert, the Sahel spans the width of Africa, from Senegal to Somalia, and is home to some of the harshest conditions on the planet, where the effects of climate change are most felt and rebel uprisings are common. In this issue, we trace his journey from Mali to Lake Chad: in our next issue, he completes his trek to the Red Sea and discovers the Great Green Wall.
Like many explorers, I have been fascinated by Africa since I was a boy, but felt there were still vast areas of the continent I knew little about.
I wanted to document these forgotten frontiers and tell the story of those who live there, whilst setting myself a new challenge.
Having made a host of incredible journeys in the past, including cycling the Sahara (for which I hold a Guinness World Record) and the length of the planet, and travelling 4000km through the Amazon, I felt I was ready for this latest adventure. It turned out to be my most courageous challenge to date and stretched me both physically and mentally like never before. This is my story of some of the highlights.
Trekking in the Dogon country
Upon arrival in Mali, I followed its beating heart: the mighty Niger River. The Niger is the main source of life for many tribes and ethnic groups, who depend upon its waters. After days on and off boats, I finally managed to reach the magnificent city of Mopti, the Venice of Mali and the confluence of the Bani river and the Niger. In Mopti I chartered a 4x4 and headed to the ancient Dogon country, home to one of the most extraordinary tribes in Africa: the Dogon people.
The Dogon country offers some of the best hiking trails in the world, but climbing its sand-washed mountains in the beating sun at the hottest time of the year was not an easy task. However, all I needed to do to re-energize myself was turn and face the valley overlooking the orange desert, with sporadic trees dotted about, to appreciate the beauty of this forgotten land.
There was no shortage of surprises in the ancient land of the Dogon people. On one occasion, I was trekking along an old path and up and down cliffs when I came across red paintings on a rock wall. It looked like something out of a movie set. My guide showed me different paintings and told me about their meanings in Dogon mythology. For example, there were many drawings of crocodiles and it was explained to me that when the Dogon people escaped Islam and found refuge in this incredibly inaccessible land, in order to continue practising their own religion, crocodiles showed the Dogon people where to get water, which is why they are now sacred and the Dogon people don’t kill them.
The villages we passed through, many of them perched on cliff tops, each had their own story to tell. Upon arrival at each, permission from the village chief was needed before entering and we often met him in the village toguna. A toguna is a low-roofed structure built with stone and timber and is usually found in the centre of every Dogon village. It is where the chief and the village elders sit and settle disputes. The low roof is made with the express purpose of forcing visitors to sit rather than stand, which helps avoid violence when discussions get heated.
As well as togunas, the villages built on escarpments had mud-built granaries dotted around. The number of granaries indicates the number of women living in the village, for each woman has her own in which she stores food for her family. Unlike the rest of Mali, women in the Dogon country are economically independent and earn and spend their own money.
After a couple of incredible weeks trekking in the Dogon country, I made it to the town of Bandiagara, from where I could hitchhike all the way to the south of Burkina Faso…
Trekking in the Sindou Peaks in Burkina Faso
Upon arrival in Burkina Faso, my guide insisted that we detour from our route and visit the Sindou Peaks. I was really sceptical and frankly exhausted from the last few days of trekking in the Dogon country. But I said yes.
We entered Burkina Faso at night, so I didn’t get to see what was going on around me. We found a spot and hung our tree-tents. The morning after, I woke up to incredible green scenery. I couldn’t believe how things had changed since dry and arid Mali. Around us was lush green surrounded by incredible rock formations. The closest thing to compare it to is a set from Jurassic Park. The place didn’t seem real to me. The landscape consisted of towering sandstone formations with small passages in between. As the sun rose, the faint glow of orange light blossomed behind a mountain, creating a collision of soft-coloured tones which made the sceneries absolutely magnificent. It was like a cartoon. I was filled with a sense of happiness and privilege to be there.
The trekking started through these peaks and valleys. At the beginning, everything seemed very straightforward and we followed trodden paths. But then, at some point, the footpaths started to go in different directions before disappearing completely.
We climbed tower after tower, up and down as we tried to head west. But the landscape was so complicated that even my compass got confused. We became stuck between rocks. And yet we didn’t feel trapped. Oddly enough, not knowing where we were going all of a sudden felt like a great plan.
After a day of hiking through this incredible landscape, perhaps the best I have ever seen, we finally reached Lake Nyoufila, an absolutely beautiful lake with palm trees around it. We finished the day watching the sunset over the lake with the peaks in the distance.
I made my way through the lush green of southern Burkina Faso and then on to arid and dusty Niger, using various means of transport including bush-taxis, overloaded trucks, buses and, of course, traipsing long distances on foot. I camped along the way (and also slept in petrol stations, mosques, hospitals and churches) until my arrival in Chad…
I have travelled to some far-flung places on Earth, but Lake Chad is the most remote place I have ever been.
Chad itself was named due to a mistake. In the 1800s, European explorers arrived at the marshy banks of a vast body of freshwater in Central Africa. Because locals referred to the area as ‘chad’, the Europeans called the wetland Lake Chad, and drew it on maps. But ‘chad’ simply meant ‘lake’ in the local dialect. So here it is. Lake Chad, or ‘Lake Lake’.
Located right in the centre of the continent, Lake Chad is shared between four countries – Chad, Niger, Cameroon and Nigeria – and millions of people living there don’t feel they belong to any particular nation. It’s one of the largest wetlands in all of Africa: 30 million people depend on it to survive.
As I stepped into the small town of N'guigmi, once a lakeside town until the lake retreated, all my senses came to life. The smell, the noise, the sights. The streets were nothing but dirt tracks, and I felt I had stepped back in time by a hundred years. I have been to over 80 countries around the world, many of which are developing countries, but I had never seen anything like it. It was hard to spot a motorised vehicle. Most people simply walked and carried heavy loads over their shoulders. Those richer ones had camels and donkeys. Dressed in their traditional outfits (the women in bright and beautiful colours; the men more conservative), they stomped through the 45-degree heat.
The more I travelled, the more I realised that the modern world had not made it to this region. All over Africa, you see many people carrying mobile phones. In Lake Chad, I rarely saw any.
I began to journey around Lake Chad on the desert track roads. The heat was excruciating. Life in 45 degrees is punishing, especially when you are trying to walk in sand. Survival in such conditions, in such heat, is no easy task.
I visited village after village, using whatever means of transport that I could find. The villages were charming with their houses constructed from bamboo and hay. The Chadian army controlled the territory, leaving everyone tense and ill at ease. Checkpoint after checkpoint: I have never been in a place where my documents were checked so many times.
In the absence of any public transport, I hitched a lift with a convoy carrying loads of people and goods and finally made it to Baga Sola, a small town which in its heyday was a hub of trade. Livestock used to be exported from here to Nigeria, fishing was rife, and islanders came from far and wide to trade their goods.
I have no idea how the drivers navigated those roads. It was incredible. They were nothing more than desert tracks and it was so hard to distinguish which one was going where. Arriving at different villages was quite shocking. Again, I felt that sense of travelling back in time. No boats had engines. Instead, fishermen used pirogues, and paddled long distances to fish.
Villages are formed based on ethnicity. Lake Chad’s largest ethnic groups are the Kanembu, Boudouma, and Bougourmi, distinguished by the variously patterned scars on their faces, received during their initiations. These tribes remain some of the most untouched cultures in the world. For example, the faces of Boudouma tribesmen have one major scar in the centre of their foreheads and four scars on either side of their faces. This easily distinguishes them from the rest of the tribes.
I have met many indigenous people around the world and seen the rapid changes in their ways of life, by the ever-encroaching imposition of the modern world. And yet, in Lake Chad, the tribes seemed to have no connection with this modern world whatsoever. This is, perhaps, no surprise. The region is so remote, so hard to get to, and the lack of infrastructure makes any connection with the outside world almost impossible. Everything is done manually and the lack of access to modern tools is felt especially. I have seen how Amazonian tribes embrace technology, running their campaigns on Facebook, while a simple mobile phone has never made it to Lake Chad.
My guide said: ‘Technology here is a taboo. People don’t want to change their way of life.’
In the absence of any form of organised public transport, I relied on trucks operated by aid workers to make it to the east of Chad and into Sudan. My arrival in Sudan coincided with the Sudanese revolution: the country was in a state of emergency. I entered via notorious Darfur, finding myself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Upon entry, I was arrested in Darfur and then eventually kicked out – into Ethiopia…
To be continued!
Reza would like to thank the Scientific Exploration Society for making the trip possible and Craghoppers and Eagle Creek for supporting the trip.
Ben Affleck: Return to the Fold
By Peter Wallace
A spectacular cinematic rise, followed by an equally dramatic fall from grace: Ben Affleck’s career has had more than its fair share of highs and lows. But with newfound self-acceptance and a rediscovered sense of faith, this once bright young thing has turned his many flaws into future strength.
It’s not been an easy time of late for Ben Affleck. In 2017, the two-time Academy Award-winner hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons after a high-profile relapse into alcoholism. Never one to be far from the prying lenses of the world’s paparazzi, images of Affleck, shabby and sombre-faced, were splashed across the world’s biggest entertainment news outlets.
This proved to be the final straw in his on-again, off-again marriage to fellow Hollywood star and mother of his children Jennifer Garner, with the pair finalising their divorce a year later. And all this occurred against a backdrop of professional instability – from the poor reception of his high-profile turns as Batman/Bruce Wayne to his long-time connections to disgraced super-producer and now convicted sex offender Harvey Weinstein.
‘I have always felt that the public has a very distorted image of me,’ Affleck, now 47, says. ‘I never felt like that guy the press was writing about. Early on, I tried to play with that image and give the impression that I knew it was a game and that I hoped the public would understand I'm not taking myself seriously. But somehow all that got warped and I became part of a media circus. I blame myself, I could have avoided it, but I thought I could manage things and still have my integrity intact. It didn't work out that way and I really suffered because of that.’
It’s fitting, therefore, that Affleck’s latest film – for which he is receiving rave reviews – is something of a mirror to his recent real-life fall. In The Way Back, Affleck plays Jack Cunningham, a former construction worker and alcoholic who seeks redemption as a high school basketball coach. The off-screen parallels of the central performance where not lost on Affleck.
‘I felt really emotionally connected and in tune with where I needed to be, character-wise,’ he told hometown outlet Boston.com. ‘Ultimately it was an inspirational movie. It’s a movie about overcoming adversity, and it had a message of hope that really resonated with me and really still does now, and it’s probably the performance I’m most proud of.’
Early signs seem to suggest The Way Back is a welcome return to form for Affleck, who shot to fame alongside childhood friend Matt Damon as the writer/stars of 1998 classic Good Will Hunting. The film cemented the pair as two of the industry’s brightest young stars, and Affleck dined out on leading man status for some time after – but by the early Noughties, after a series of film flops, most notably Daredevil and the critically-mauled Gigli, Affleck’s career had taken a nosedive.
‘I don’t want to blame everything on Gigli but obviously it wasn’t the right film and it was definitely the wrong time for that film to come out,’ he says. ‘I did so much popcorn stuff and I didn’t quite realize that there are good popcorn movies and bad popcorn movies. I also found myself at the end of that period with this horrible feeling that I was trapped inside a whole tabloid situation. I felt as if I was an actor on a soap opera that I had no control over. I’d just look at the paper every day to find out what I did in this week’s episode.’
Now approaching his milestone fiftieth, Affleck has long been an elder statesman of cinema by virtue of his precocious fame, if not his age. As someone who has tasted both the best and worst that fame has to offer, he worries that today’s world makes it easier for young actors to find their every mistake broadcast around the world.
‘In the 50s, there were only three networks, only a few “studio-approved” magazine stories, and some publicity tours that were much more low-key. Newspapers weren't giving celebrities anywhere near the coverage you get today. It was a much different thing. There was a kind of polite distance that the media tended to keep from celebrities. It had not become the kind of cult of personality, culture of celebrity, continual, carnivorous, voracious machine of fifteen outlets and the internet, bloggers, gossip, just additional layers upon layers. There’s a demand. It’s a really different, faster, almost immediate news cycle now.’
And though success in The Way Back is sure to catapult him back into the limelight – especially given those past troubles – there’s a sense that this time the star is determined to show the discerning public the real Ben Affleck.
‘You have to separate your identity and your happiness from whatever's going on with your career,’ he says. ‘It's not about getting the big pay cheque. It's not about being a star. That's not going to make you happy.’
Integral to this personal renaissance is Affleck’s recent revelation that he has rediscovered his faith after years in the proverbial wilderness. Following in the footsteps of now-former wife Garner, who went through a high-profile readmission into the church during the filming of 2016’s Miracles from Heaven, Affleck recently revealed to Beliefnet that he goes ‘to the Methodist Church.’
‘I got introduced to Christianity a little bit later in life,’ he explained. ‘I struggle with my faith, I struggle with belief, but I do see there's something enormously beautiful and elegant about the notion that we are all sinners, and that it's our job to find our redemption, to find God's love, to redeem ourselves, to live the best life that we can, to love one another, to not judge one another, and to forgive one another.’
But Affleck isn’t just searching for forgiveness from his fans or his family – in a very real way he has recently been able to forgive himself.
‘I started out wanting to be an artist and to do stuff that was beautiful, and that I was really proud of. Then I think that I kind of got cynical and decided that I was going to carve out a niche for myself, set a period of time aside and just say, “Screw it.” And make money and have this and do that and have a more mainstream career. I'm coming off a period of re-evaluation where I've just been trying to rethink my career and what I expect from it and how I'm going to achieve what I want.’
But though Affleck has often worn himself down with worry and fears that he's not living up to his own expectations, there is no doubting his social conscience. Rather than relying on high-minded talk, he has invested considerable time and money in projects such as the East Congo Initiative, an economic development programme he co-founded in 2010 that has since poured in millions of dollars of aid into the war-torn region.
‘I'm an American working to do my part. I want to look back and say that I contributed to society in a way that is commensurate with the blessings I've had in life. Targeted investment will drive economic growth and produce jobs...We also have to support women and children against very oppressive circumstances.’
Having been raised in a social activist household, Affleck has long been a champion of numerous social and political causes inside the US and abroad, and has been particularly concerned about the devastating impact of a long-standing civil war in the Congo.
‘I think most people are empathetic and see people who are struggling and are responsive to that, but for me, having my own children definitely added to that sense of global responsibility and made me feel even more for other people's suffering. I cannot imagine what it would’ve been like driving my wife to the hospital pregnant, about to give birth and thinking to myself, “There’s a 15 percent chance that our child won’t live to be five years old.”’
And where once Affleck’s relationship with his family was the desired fodder of tabloid editors around the world, now his continuing amicable bond with Garner and children Violet, Seraphina and Samuel should stand as something of a touchstone for divorced parents everywhere.
‘The birth of my children has been the most beautiful and important thing that has happened to me. Watching my children grow up has changed me in many ways and made me a better person. I see it as my role and privilege to be able to help them become good people and to teach them to be respectful, thoughtful, and caring. When you have kids, what's that expression, “Your heart is outside your body.” All of the sudden you feel so vulnerable and this fear of a child being vulnerable is very, very powerful; it's not easy.’
Time will tell if Affleck’s newfound self-acceptance survives the pitfalls of fame. Post-The Way Back he is set to star in two big-budget blockbusters, Deep Water and The Last Duel. Tentative steps back have become great strides – and the success of these projects could mark the start of a new chapter for the star, or dredge up memories of painful past failures in film.
‘I started out in the film business with a lot of great aspirations and ultimately you realise that it's a very uncertain world. You can have a lot of success and then suddenly everything can go wrong. I know how this business works and one thing I've learnt about my profession is that, just like in life, things are always going to change. I had a lot of luck, but I also worked hard to achieve whatever I've done. I think there's always going to be a strong correlation between success and hard work. I look at the careers guys like John Huston and see how they had big hits and big misses and lived big lives. That’s OK with me as a model. I don’t mind the high stakes gambling nature of this profession. If it’s a hit, you’re a hit, and if it’s a bomb, you’re a bomb. That’s just the way things go. There’s something uniquely American about that.’
Equally all-American is Affleck’s resolution to keep going through thick and thin, though one hopes the coming years prove somewhat less of a struggle.
‘I'm not leaving anything. Even though a lot of people might like to write my epitaph now, I feel I have my best work ahead of me. I'm going to do better films, I'm going to wait for the right roles, and I'm not going to put myself in the position of wondering why I'm not doing the films I always dreamed about when I was a struggling actor, working on Good Will Hunting and wanted to be part of great movies. I've been able to achieve a lot more than I ever expected and I feel very lucky to be where I am, considering how things didn't always go my way. I've always been the same person and I've always wanted to do interesting projects and take risks. Directing was something I wanted to do even though a lot of people were sceptical, and the probability of failure was high. But I knew I wanted to take that step and that's worked out very well for me, so I feel very grateful for everything that's happened.’
It’s hard not to want Affleck to succeed, whatever his past indiscretions. The current glare of press attention is unforgiving in the extreme, and for someone who was thrust into Hollywood as something of a wunderkind, the path Affleck has travelled has seen his one-time arrogance fade away in the wake of accepting outside support – from peers, friends, family, and God.
‘One of the things that I found most beautiful about faith are these extremely powerful ideas that are very, very relevant, probably more relevant today than ever. Because there's a little bit more of an attitude of “find something somebody did wrong once and get rid of them.” And that to me feels unnecessarily judgmental. It's that “He [who is] without sin cast the first stone.” I think that
A Voice for the Voiceless
By Ali Hull
Shay Cullen is a fighter. He is also a Catholic priest. And he is currently helping a woman, sexually abused by Gary Glitter while she was still a child, to sue the former pop star for compensation.
As the president of the Preda Foundation, Shay Cullen has spent 46 years tracking down sex offenders, getting children away from them, and campaigning to change the law. In the UK, he works with Jubilee Campaign, but he is based in the Philippines, a country which has provided a paradise for paedophiles for many, many years. Having been involved in a successful case to sue another convicted paedophile, Douglas Slade, for his abuse of Filipino victims, Shay has now got involved in the case against Glitter, who abused children in Vietnam. But what makes a man take on a lifetime battle?
How did you get involved in this work in the first place?
When I graduated from secondary school in Ireland, I wanted to see and understand the world beyond Ireland. I was inspired by the virtuous life of my parents, and their help for the poor – although we were not well off. I, too, wanted to help people overcome their problems and for them to have a chance, like I had, of a secure home, love and an education. Becoming a missionary priest was the only way one could do that in those days, before Oxfam hired staff to go abroad. Materialism, greed, selfishness, and violence cause poverty and oppression. This leads to abuse of women and children, the most vulnerable people. I was aware of the poverty and suffering, the needs and the hunger of people in the developing countries, and I read as much as I could about it. I joined the Missionary Society of St Columban in Ireland, and was ordained to the missionary priesthood in 1969. That same year, the Columban Missionary society sent me to the Philippines to serve the people.
Before you went, however, you spent some time in Kolkata, working with Mother Teresa – what did that mean to you?
It was inspiring and moving and I saw the human need to help the suffering people and the dying, but I also wanted to do more to prevent such human suffering in the world.
How did you get involve in rescuing children from the Filipino sex trade?
When I came to the Philippines, I was assigned to Olangapo City on Subic Bay, where the US Navy had a huge navy base, and where the ships and the marines would come ashore for ‘rest and recreation’. In other words, to sexually abuse women and children, with impunity, approved and supported by the local government. The sex bars and clubs paid taxes, and got operating permits and licences. And I saw the devastating effect of this on the youth, the women and children, and I opposed it and spoke against it. I began the Preda Foundation in 1974, to help the young people who were affected by the broken homes, the debauchery on the streets, and who saw no future for themselves other than in the sex industry. HIV-AIDS was rife, as was drug abuse, family break-up, human trafficking and child prostitution. Thousands of women were caught in debt bondage and commercially sexually exploited.
The Preda Foundation works to rescue the children from the trauma of sexual exploitation, rape, abuse… we have been protecting children for 46 years, healing them in therapeutic homes. We have earned many human rights awards, including four nominations for the Nobel peace prize, all of which has strengthened our reputation.
You have also been involved in campaigning to change the laws in various countries, so that sex tourists who commit offences against children in countries such as the Philippines can be prosecuted in their countries of origin, on their return home. Where has that been successful?
I campaigned in Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Germany. In Ireland, I proposed and campaigned for the anti-child porno law. It was passed.
You have been doing this work for a long time – apart from those individual paedophiles you have helped to put behind bars, has the situation got worse or better, over that time?
The situation in Olangapo City has greatly changed for the better. Hundreds of sex clubs have closed and been replaced by commercial businesses. However, sex tourism has grown in the Philippines, and many children and women are still exploited, trafficked and abused. The internet is a big part of this, and adult and child pornography causes many foreign sex tourists to travel to Asia to abuse. Many are caught and jailed for life, but there are many more still doing it, who one day, like Douglas Slade and Gary Glitter, will be caught. The Filipino government continues to give permits to the brothels and the bars, and allows the women and children to be exploited. Drug abuse is on the rise, incest is on the rise … and child rape is growing.
What can readers do to help?
We support a hundred children in care, and this costs £230 per month, per child. We always need funds, and money can be sent via Jubilee Campaign in the UK (jubileecampaign.com)
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