Sorted Issue 74
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Sorted Issue 74

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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The Big Five-O

The Big Five-O
By Peter Wallace

For 50 years, David Suchet has been a staple of stage and screen, not least in his role as Agatha Christie’s most celebrated detective, Hercule Poirot. Now, he looks back on his half-century as a professional actor, and invites fans to take a glimpse at the man behind the characters…

When David Suchet – Royal Shakespeare Company alumnus and classically trained stage actor – was approached for the role of Agatha Christie’s pedantic detective, his first call for advice was to his author and newsreader brother, John.

‘He famously said to me,’ laughs the younger Suchet, in a voice honey-steeped in the finest elocutionary traditions of the stage, ‘“You’ve been asked to play Poirot?” And I said, “Yes, what do you think?”, and he said “Don’t touch it with a barge-pole...”’

Had Suchet gone on to heed his brother’s advice, it’s nearly impossible to speculate on how his acting career might have panned out, such is the impact that the role of Poirot has had on him over the 25 years since he first wore the famous waxed moustache. ‘The moral of the story,’ he adds, ‘is: “Don’t listen to your siblings!”’

Suchet’s quarter-century as the fictional Belgian sleuth is an impressive feat, making up half of his professional acting life. The London-born thespian had of course appeared in Shakespeare and various other plays, and both the small and silver screen, before he alighted on ITV’s long-running adaptation of Christie’s crime stories. But it is the role of Poirot, unsurprisingly, that still stands tallest in his memories – especially his final farewell in Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case, which aired in 2013.

‘It was a very emotional time,’ he muses. ‘I had to play his death, which was the most difficult day’s filming of my whole career. I was saying goodbye to a very dear friend; you can’t play someone for 25 years and not feel attached to them in some way. He had been so instrumental in so many aspects of my life. He gave me a profile and people would then come to see me in the theatre; he gave me the profile so that people would want to make films with me, radio programmes, more theatre etcetera, so saying goodbye to him was very, very painful, and in fact I still miss him to this day.’

Unlike some actors, however, who may have seen other tempting roles pass by, in the time Suchet spent as Poirot, he never once had his head turned. As he says, ‘I’ve never been that sort of actor. I’ve always been an actor for hire, and just seen what has been on the table at the time.’

There is, however, one historical figure in particular f that Suchet has long found the thought of portraying incredibly compelling.

‘I’m drawn to complexity. And the more I read about Napoleon, the more I think he must have been a very complex personality. He had a great side of weakness, he had to have a tall horse because he was a short man, who I think suffered from an inferiority complex, and he was one of the greatest tacticians and infantrymen of history. I know of course that he was the enemy, but he built an empire. And I think he was a great personality, especially when you think he was not French – everyone thinks of the French when you talk about Napoleon! But he was from Corsica, so he would not even have sounded like a Frenchman. I’ve always been fascinated by playing him, and there is a George Bernard Shaw play about Napoleon, but that’s not the Napoleon I want – I want the more complex, deeper, personality. I think he is a really fascinating man, one that I would have loved to have explored.’
For many, his career is inextricably linked with his on-screen life as Poirot, and he was recently voted the nation’s favourite incumbent of the role, despite his rivals including both Albert Finney and Sir Kenneth Branagh.

It would be unfair, however, to see Suchet as nothing more than his most famous theatrical alter-ego, not least because of his chameleonic acting ability. Indeed, Suchet himself hopes that he does not share all the traits of Christie’s famously finicky private eye.

‘Inevitably there is a symbiosis that has occurred,’ he smiles. ‘But I hope I’m not as OCD as he was, because if you are that particular and will only eat two boiled eggs if they are the exact same size, you’ve got a problem!’

Behind the adopted European accent, the iconic moustache, and the veritable treasure trove of affectations that made his Poirot portrayal so enduring, and endearing, Suchet is rich in personal qualities. The descendent of Lithuanian Jews, who spent his formative years in England’s public-school system, Suchet admits that his childhood feelings of being an ‘outsider’ may well have contributed to his later, detail-orientated portrayals of figures like Poirot. Indeed, it was many years before he felt whole himself. For many years, he was in his own estimation subconsciously struggling with a ‘very materialistic’ worldview – but that changed in 1986 when he went through ‘the beginnings of a conversion’.

‘I didn’t have a Damascene experience like St Paul!’ he clarifies. ‘But I was filming in Seattle, and I was thinking about the man who was the greatest influence on my life, my late grandfather, and how I regarded him as a kind of spiritual guide. I’ve always chatted to him and wondered what he thought. But the other side of me was a complete agnostic; I didn’t really believe in the afterlife. So, lying in the bath one day, in the hotel room, I suddenly thought, “Why are you thinking about your late grandfather as your spiritual guide when you don’t believe in an afterlife?” That sort of dichotomy, or that sort of paradox if you like, led me to wanting to read more about the afterlife. And I remembered at school reading about Jesus and His resurrection, but I didn’t really believe it. But I did know that Paul in the New Testament wrote letters about all this, and I decided, because I love Rome, to pick up a Gideon’s Bible the next day and I read St Paul’s Letter to the Romans.’

The figure of St Paul would go on to become a central part of both Suchet’s personal and professional life, and he made a documentary on him in 2012, entitled In the Footsteps of St Paul.

‘I read it in a very particular way,’ he says of the impact the biblical book of Romans had on his life. ‘I read it in a way that I would read any classical play, where I was taught to as a Shakespearean actor, to read plays as if they were new plays and written for me. So, when I read St Paul’s letter to the Romans, in my head I was reading St Paul’s letter to me, and I made it very personal. By the time I came to the end of that letter, I had found a way of life for which I had been looking for many, many years, and that worldview really attracted me, and that then led to further investigations and I ended up... did I choose or not? I don’t know. But it ended up with me becoming Christian, and there was huge, huge strength given to me by me having, for the first time in my life, a worldview.’

Suchet’s faith has inspired several projects over the years besides his documentary on St Paul. There was the follow-up a year later, In the Footsteps of St Peter, as well as his 2014 recording of the complete NIV Bible on audiobook – a long-held ambition and ‘labour of love’ completed after his time as Poirot had come to an end. Nowadays he is Vice President of the British Bible Society, and behind the scenes, his idea of the benefit of personal faith, or a similar anchor, remains crucial to what he sees as a current failing in modern society.
‘I believe very, very strongly in something that I call “The three-legged stool”, which is how we are made up. It is about mind, body, and spirit. One of our legs of the stool is the mind which we make strong through education, and reading and learning, and then we have the other leg, our body, which is made strong by going to the gym and having a good diet, and knowing how to be healthy if you take the trouble. But that third leg, which I call the soul or the spiritual part, which includes faith, religion, the arts, the performing arts, the creative side of our life, is the weak leg in our society. That side of our life seems to always take second place to jobs and other things in our life, other than our creativity, and therefore I think we have a three-legged stool with two strong legs and one weaker leg. I would like people leaving school to have three strong legs. The discovery of my faith was filling up this third leg, filling it up with something that wasn’t there before, and making it stronger. Then filling it up with all the other things that make up that leg, which is more theatre, more music, more art, more performing arts, and just enjoying that side of life.’

And even though Suchet is best known for his immense talents as a character actor, his half-century celebration brings to the forefront another of his creative passions: photography.

‘I don’t consider myself a good photographer,’ he says with typical humility. ‘My photographs have to be judged by other people: it’s more like my acting. If you judge yourself, you will come a cropper. It’s the same with my photographs. If people judge them as worthy, and they want to remember me for that, then God bless them, but it’s not for me to say... What I do is try to use my camera as a paintbrush; I don’t just take a picture of what I see, I try to take photos of how I see things. For example, I was in an orchard in Kent recently, and I went in with my camera, and all of a sudden looking at these gnarled branches I saw these strange faces of all these weird animals. So, I would photograph that Bramley apple tree, not as a tree, but almost an animal. So, it’s how I react to things that I try to photograph, rather than just what I am looking at.’

Fans of his acting work, therefore, will no doubt be encouraged to hear that Suchet has recently released a photo-memoir, Behind the Lens, that charts the course of his impressive career through a collection of his photos.

‘It’s not an autobiography in the sense that I did this, then I did that; I was asked for many, many years to do my autobiography by many publishers, but the timing of this was quite nice because it is my 50th year as an actor. It’s about things that actually I think about or care about and react to in my life, as well as photographs that represent how I see the world, not just what I see. So, the book is an expression of who I am – the man behind the myriad of characters that I have played. You have never seen me – this is me. Get to know me by getting this book.’

As well as being an in-depth look at Suchet’s life behind the camera, Behind the Lens* will be supporting a cause close to its author’s heart: the Tuberous Sclerosis Association.

‘My grandson has it, and it’s a very little-known, inherited gene. In actual fact, it was completely in chance as neither my son or my daughter-in-law has this complex gene, and it is a complete freak of nature, but he has it very badly. It’s a very small charity, very few people have this tuberous sclerosis complex. And this book is in total support of this charity, it’s supporting that charity and it will not support me.’

It’s just another reminder that David Suchet is no less than a national treasure. His 25 years as Poirot will stand not only as a benchmark for any character actor, but also as a comforting reminder of a dedicated professional in an entertainment industry that all too often seems constantly in motion. And when it comes to Suchet’s own self-appraisal, it’s no less humble than expected.

‘I would like to be remembered as a person who would serve my writer first and foremost, who would always be regarded as truthful as possible in my representations, and as someone who would leave my ego at the door. Forget about stardom, forget about money. If you want to be in the arts – if you want to be in the performing arts, if you want to be an actor – do it because you want to serve your writer, not yourself.’

Manifesto

By Steve Chalke

Why men’s mental health is an issue for all men and whole communities.

‘Man up. Shape up. Step up. Keep up.’ That’s the message to men.
But what happens when, well… we just can’t?
Anxiety, depression and despair amongst men are at an all-time high. The latest UK statistics are frightening:
    
At any one time, it’s believed that one in eight men (that 12.5 per cent of us) are trying to cope with diagnosed mental health issues – and that’s just the disclosed cases. Many more are invisible.

78 per cent of suicides (almost four in every five) are by men.

For men under the age of 45 suicide is the biggest single cause of death. In other words, the thing that is most likely to kill a young man is himself!

In the last five years the suicide rate in males aged 45-59 has also increased significantly.
 
Thirteen men take their own lives every day.

We also know that 25 per cent of those men have visited their GP during the previous seven days. It was just too little, and too late.

It is a bleak picture. When it comes to male mental health and emotional well-being, we have a crisis.

The highly complex interwoven issues that sit behind these alarming statistics are ones that doctors and public health specialists continue to research and battle with.  But – just like many of the other multifaceted challenges our society faces – my experience has taught me that this doesn’t mean we can’t take action to make a difference right now.

A friend of mine grew up as part of a religious community that taught homosexuality was sinful. His father was one of its leaders. But as he reached puberty, he slowly came to what for him at the time was, as he describes it, ‘the very painful recognition’ that he was gay. Silently and secretly, he prayed every day for forgiveness for being who he was. He vowed to God as well as to himself that he would always resist temptation; that he would never give in to his desire, that he would live a celibate life. For most of the time – through sheer determination – this strategy worked. But every now and then, having to live in denial of who he was became so overwhelming that, after huge internal battles, he would cave into the desire to watch porn on his laptop, or to a sordid and secret one-night stand. He hated himself for this, but felt powerless to prevent it.

Like us all, he knew that good mental health and well-being is dependent on being able to open up about who we are and how we feel to those closest to us. But how could he do this, when he knew for certain that it would lead to his rejection, not only by his community but by his family. He was lonely, vulnerable and isolated; trapped in a world of ongoing deceit.  

So, finding a new job and using it as an excuse, he moved away from home. Still – in spite of his fight to deny who he was – his sexuality pulled at him irresistibly. And, as he dived deeper into the inevitable depression caused by this, he began to turn to drugs, simply in an attempt to blot out his feelings of guilt and shame.

By now, he hated himself. He told me that every day he would get up, walk to the bathroom of the flat he was renting, look at himself in the mirror and think,
‘I hope that this is the last day of your miserable life.’

Eventually – now dependent on the drugs that he also despised himself for taking – he decided to end his life. Very late, one cold winter’s night he stood on a lonely bridge across a river and prepared to throw himself into the dark, murky, freezing water. But, at that very moment, his phone rang in his pocket. A friend, who had never called him before, was checking to see how he was. They talked. The moment of absolute desperation passed. My friend’s mood lifted a little. He walked off the bridge and headed home.

If the macho message is ‘Man up’ and ‘Get over it’, a softer, more sensitive approach tells us to ‘Open up’ rather than ‘Close down’. This, we’re told, is a far more honest and healthy way to deal with life’s struggles. Emotional openness and vulnerability are not signs of personal weakness, but instead are probably the most accurate indicators of our inner sense of courage.

However, what happens when you just can’t find that courage?

Way back in the 1980s, one of the first-ever projects launched by Oasis, the charity I founded, was a safe house for vulnerable and homeless young adults. Our goal was to equip and empower them on their journey towards living independently. Before we opened, my wife and I kitted the whole building out with a great deal of care. We bought artwork for the bedrooms and hallways and we chose the furniture in order to create a relaxed and welcoming environment. For the shared lounge, we bought a huge TV.

We were so excited to open. I still remember the day. But there was a shock to come. I was expecting our residents to enjoy their new home, to be cheerful. To smile. To share. To readily express their thanks and appreciation. Instead they were silent. With some, it even proved impossible to make any eye contact. And within weeks of our first residents’ arrival, most of the artwork we had bought had been stolen and sold. The walls were bare. The unit on which the TV had been placed stood empty. The house had been stripped and I was frustrated and angry.

But slowly – all too slowly – I came to see that the problem was really mine. I am ashamed to admit it, but because the wounds these young people had suffered were psychological rather than physical, it was too easy to misread their responses and, as a result, to react rather than respond to them, and so to judge them negatively. If theirs had been a physical rather than an emotional disability, I would have been ready to compensate for them far more easily.

Thinking about the same thing in a different context, why is it OK to take time off work with a broken arm but somehow ‘emasculating’ to admit to depression? Why is an asthma attack viewed as just one of those things, but a panic attack seen as a sign of weakness?

When a person has been abused – physically, sexually or psychologically – or neglected (realities that are tragically all too common in our society) they are prone to suffer enduring negative and debilitating impacts. The anger, shame and despair they experience may be directed inwards to spawn symptoms such as withdrawal, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress and thoughts of suicide, or be channelled outwards through behaviour such as aggression, impulsiveness, delinquency, hyperactivity and substance abuse. It’s just that when we can’t see the wounds, it is far harder to understand the behaviour.

My friend Joe is a highly talented and professionally extremely successful individual. But he is a man haunted by childhood rejection which, 30 years later, still leaves him with a lack of confidence, crippling introversion and an inability to form close, trusting friendships. He lives alone as a semi-recluse, having never been able to form an intimate relationship, battling with an eating disorder that has destroyed his physical well-being and from time to time threatens his life.

I have learned from my own personal experience that the more anxious I become, the more short-sighted, restricted and hampered my view of things also becomes. But I’ve also learned that although the scars I carry tell the story of where I’ve been, they do not dictate either who I am or where I am headed.

So how do we break the stigma that surrounds the issue of poor male mental health? How do we defeat the narrative that asserts that masculinity is all about being tough?

I believe that it’s society’s misguided focus on the individual that does much of the damage:

Why do we see men’s mental health as something to be addressed at an individual level?  

By placing the focus on the individual, are we just placing more pressure on men who are already struggling?

If a man is to open up and talk about his feelings, who is he going to talk to?

It is good to encourage men to talk more, but should we also be teaching them to listen to each other more?

Although often portrayed as ‘a man’s issue’, men’s mental health is instead a ‘men’s’ issue. Indeed, it is an issue that the whole community needs to address: men, women, everybody.

Much of the advice out there for men provides them with ‘top tips’ for better mental health but mistakenly targets the individual. I want to address what we can do collectively, in our communities, as small groups; from joining a football team to volunteering at a youth club; from mentoring a young man at a local school to organising a regular ‘mates evening’ down at the pub.

After more than three decades of experience working within local communities across the UK and beyond, one thing I am convinced of is that small communities and strong relationships are the most powerful drivers of good mental and emotional health for all. Thriving local neighbourhoods create the strongest and best support networks. None of this is to downplay the critical role that the professionals working in mental health and the social services play. But prevention is far better than cure. It is only within our communities that we will discover the real solutions which will help avert crises, build resilience, and prevent those who are stressed and isolated from sliding further into mental ill health.

The research also tells us that in every class of thirty teenage boys, at least three will already be in trouble emotionally. Yet the children’s and adolescents’ mental health service (CAMHS) is saturated beyond the ability to cope.

I regularly hear from young men in schools who find it difficult to talk honestly and openly about themselves, for fear of how they will be perceived by their peers. One fourteen-year-old student, whose mum and dad had just split up, recently told me that he envied the girls in his school because they seemed to have the kind of friendships where they had someone they could tell everything to. ‘Boys don’t’, he added. Instead, he explained that he felt that he had to hide who he was and to try to keep a lid on his feelings. The problem was that meant they just festered. In fact, he told me that he had started skipping lessons and getting into fights. He said that it was just a way of coping.

But ironically, for him, he had found hope – simply because he had found a way at last of talking.

The key to good men’s mental and emotional health is to create natural opportunities for men – young and old – to talk together, which means:

Reducing the pressure on those who want to talk by establishing conversations they can easily join, rather than leaving them to initiate a conversation themselves

Placing as strong an emphasis on listening as on talking. As I discover time and time again, merely being present can be hugely beneficial to those struggling with mental health challenges.

As Henri Nouwen, the great pastoral writer, once put it: ‘The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.’  

Find out more about Oasis at www.oasisuk.org

Keeping the Peace and Falling to Pieces

By Ali Hull

John Sutherland joined the Met in 1992, and rose quickly, through the ranks, to become a senior police officer. But in 2013, he suffered a major mental breakdown, and his career was effectively over. Since then, he has written a book on his experiences, Blue: Keeping the peace and falling to pieces, which became a Sunday Times bestseller and was reviewed in the last issue of Sorted. His second book, Crossing The Line will be out in May 2020.

Why did you decide to become a policeman?

I was about 16 when I decided that I wanted to become a police officer. Looking back now, I suppose that I was looking for adventure – wanting to be part of something that matters. If you were to ask most police officers why they joined, they would tell you, simply, they wanted to make a difference. That sounds about right to me.

You were a successful police officer. What made you successful, and why do others struggle?

It would be for others to say whether I was successful, but I certainly loved it. Almost every single passing minute. Based on my 25+ years in policing, I would say that there are probably four qualities that every good police officer shares:

Courage
Compassion
The ability to communicate
Common sense

(And you should probably add a good sense of humour to that list.)

To what extent do you think the success contributed to your breakdown? Reading the book, it seems there could be many factors: your father had had mental health problems, so there is the question of inheritance; you had had a traumatic time because of your father’s illness, and then there were the pressures of the job, the fact that nothing was done to look at those pressures, and the prevailing culture that said it was weak to do so.

Though I never appreciated it at the time, I have come to understand that it would be impossible to do the job of a police officer for any length of time and to remain completely unaffected – untouched – by the things that you see and the things that you do. Policing is the best job in the world – but it’s a heck of a job. And, in the past, I’m not sure any of us ever paused to think about the consequences for police officers of the repeated exposure to extreme trauma. So, my breakdown undoubtedly had much to do with my job. But there are always circumstances beyond work – some nature, some nurture – that play a part. In my case, it was probably a collision of all those things that conspired to break me.

Most people know about policing – or think they know – because of TV, and police dramas are everywhere. Do you or have you ever watched them, and if so, which ones are anywhere near the truth?

I have never watched a great deal of police TV. Whilst I was still serving, it was important to get away from work and spend time doing other things. These days, I choose not to watch. One of the long-term consequences of my illness is that I find it very difficult to cope with trauma – and that extends to the things I read and the things I watch. I’ve seen enough of the reality to last me a lifetime.
The police have also had their share of scandals – Hillsborough, Stephen Lawrence, etc. Do these add to the pressures on the good policemen to act differently?

I’m no blind apologist for the job I used to do. Sometimes policing – both individually and collectively – gets things terribly wrong. So, we should never shy away from holding it up to the light. And no good police officer would ever suggest otherwise. Society has every right to expect higher standards of police officers than of anyone else. That is for four reasons:
    
The promises we have made (every officer takes an oath on joining)
     
The powers we are given (to stop, to search, to arrest, to use reasonable force where necessary)
     
The fact that we are paid professionals
     
The position that policing occupies in society.

Because, if you can’t trust a police officer, then who can you trust?

What do you think are the key measures that should be taken by the police (and other organisations) to counteract the macho atmosphere that makes it hard to admit to struggling, particularly mentally?

Times have already changed very significantly. The culture is far less macho than it used to be. Two of the three most senior positions in British policing are occupied by women: Cressida Dick is Commissioner of the Met, and Lynne Owens is Director General of the National Crime Agency; both are heroes of mine.

In the past, the macho culture placed a level of expectation that everyone, male and female alike, would be ‘one of the lads’. This had all sorts of implications, not least of which was that officers would tend to keep feelings and emotions bottled up. You didn’t talk about things: you just got on with the job. We didn’t understand back then the inevitable impact of all that you see and do in a policing life. It meant, for example, that officers would frequently self-medicate with alcohol, with all the inevitable consequences that brings.

Those possibilities remain, of course, but policing has changed very significantly in recent years. I genuinely think that the macho culture is a thing of the past.

One other observation about culture here: I often find that whenever police culture gets mentioned – ‘canteen culture’ in particular – it is with a presumption of the negative. Police culture is seen as a bad thing – the thing that encourages sexism and racism and corruption etc. But so much of my experience of police culture, the vast majority in fact, is of completely the opposite. In most cases, police culture is an extraordinary thing. It’s the thing the persuades officers to enter tube tunnels on 7/7. It’s the thing the persuades officers to run on to London Bridge when terrorists are attacking. It’s the thing that persuades officers to step into harm’s way in defence of complete strangers. And that is a beautiful thing to me.

Even though mental health generally, and male mental health in particular, is getting more exposure, do you think the situation is improving?

Without a doubt. There is still a long way to go, but every sign I see is a positive and encouraging one. Prior to my breakdown six years ago, I had never heard anyone talking about mental health in policing. Now there is an open and compassionate conversation taking place, and a genuine recognition of the inevitable demands of a life in blue.
You say, in the book, that in every case of young people getting involved in knife crime, there was domestic violence in their background... so presumably they had been exposed to violence from an early age, and it was, for them, somehow normal?

It was, at the time, the most startling discovery of my policing career. It remains one of the most powerful lessons I have ever learned. Not every child who grows up in a violent home becomes violent themselves; the reality is much more hopeful than that. But if you look at the situation in reverse – starting with young men suspected or convicted of involvement in serious violence – the picture is a stark one. During my career, most of the violent young men I encountered had themselves grown up in violent homes. We must never underestimate the impact and significance of what the professionals call ‘Adverse Childhood Experiences’.

Do you think therefore that more children should be removed from such families, or is it the case that children are not removed from situations in which they witness violence, but only – hopefully – from situations where they are the victims of violence? That witnessing such violence is not seen as dangerous to them, so nothing is done?

I am clear in my belief that domestic violence is the single greatest cause of harm in society. And we need a twenty-year plan to deal with it. One of the measures of a society is the regard that it has for its most vulnerable members. And children should be our first consideration. We have an absolute moral responsibility to protect them, not just from violence, but from abuse and neglect of every imaginable kind.

You were a policeman for a long time. How did policing change, depending on who was in power and what their policies were?

In many respects, policing has changed beyond recognition in the last 25 years:

the advance of technology
    
the mass movement of population
    
the advent of international terrorism.

But, in all the ways that matter most of all, the heart of policing hasn’t changed in the last 125 years. The job is still:

to save lives
to find the lost
to bind up the broken-boned and broken-hearted
to protect the vulnerable
to defend the weak
to confront the dangerous
sometimes, as in the recent, heart-breaking case of PC Andrew Harper, to risk it all.

Policing remains, for me, the finest thing that anyone could ever choose to do with their working lives.
I would add, having written a lot about politics and policing recently, that the government of the last nine years has done more damage to policing than any other in my lifetime.
Are you going to be writing more books? If so, what on?
My next book is due to be published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in May 2020. Whilst Blue was very much my story, the new one (Crossing The Line) is a much wider story about policing and what it has to tell us about the world we live in.

Fred’s Lexicon of Love

By Samantha Rea

French-born Fred Sirieix is a familiar face on our screens, particularly for his appearances on Channel 4’s First Dates, as well as appearing with Gino D’Acampo and Gordon Ramsay. Currently working as the general manager of Michelin-starred restaurant Galvin at Windows at the London Hilton, he is the founder of National Waiters Day. But he is becoming best known for his views on romance… so this is all you need to know for Valentine’s Day!

Cynics say Valentine’s Day is just a money spinner. I think it’s fun to embrace it – what do you think?

I think you should embrace it. It’s a day in your calendar when you can be romantic, and do something special, and make somebody else feel that you think about them. As much as it’s commercial, what isn’t? Trade is the way we make the world go round, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I think it’s a great opportunity to show someone they mean something to you.

Some people have their suspicions that restaurants double their prices on Valentine’s Day – is this true, or can you dispel it as a myth?

Restaurants don’t double their prices – it’s just the law of supply and demand, because everybody wants to come that day, and they might have a special menu. The other factor is, there are only tables of two on Valentine’s Day. You don’t have big groups who notoriously spend more money, and if there’s a table that would normally seat six, you can only really turn this into two tables of two, so you’re losing two covers. It’s like Christmas – it’s a bit more expensive and that’s normal. You wouldn’t expect it to be the same price because it’s Christmas Day and people are working, looking after you.

Are flowers and chocolates clichéd or classic?

They are classics. Everybody likes chocolate and flowers so it’s a good start. If you don’t know what to do, go for flowers and chocolates – at least you can’t get it wrong!

You’ve eaten in some of the best restaurants in the world – what are the most romantic restaurants you’ve been to?

There’s a really romantic restaurant called Chez Black [chezblack.it] in Positano on the Amalfi Coast. The setting is beautiful, it’s hot, there are beautiful people everywhere, it’s nice food, and it’s just that dolce vita – the dolce vita is all over your skin, it makes you feel so good.

In London, you could come to Galvin at Windows, [galvinatwindows.com] but it’s not fair for me to say that [Fred is the General Manager]. So, I would say Jose Pizzaro [josepizarro.com] in Bermondsey. It’s a lovely place, very easy going, serving beautiful Spanish food, and great tapas. You can sit at a half-circle table, watching the kitchen, drinking a glass of wine. Bermondsey is very cool and trendy, almost bohemian, and it makes you feel young when you go there.

If Valentine’s Day comes round when you’ve only been on one or two dates together, is it too soon to send flowers, or invite that person on a Valentine’s Day date?

Follow your heart. If it’s the right time to kiss, you kiss, whether it’s the first date or the tenth date. If Valentine’s Day is around the corner and you feel like it, just say, ‘It’s Valentine’s, let’s go out!’ Be free and cherish the beauty of that moment because life’s too short.

If it’s your first Valentine’s together, is it make or break?

No, I don’t think it’s make or break, it’s just the first one. There has to be a first one – take it in your stride, then it’s going to be what it’s going to be. C’est la vie.

If you’re a guy who’s not into Valentine’s Day, should you still make the effort to spoil your partner?
If you’re not into it, and you’re forcing yourself, it might be difficult for you to fake it all the way. But we all do things in life that we don’t want to do and this is why discipline is a very important trait. Sometimes you have to dig deep and do the right thing, and if it’s going to make somebody happy then come on, it’s one day a year!

Are oysters really an aphrodisiac?

It depends if you think they are. If you think they are, they probably are, so don’t have them on Valentine’s because you might get too randy! They’re very potent, especially the French ones – you have six and you’re away.

What would be on your ideal Valentine’s menu?

Caviar with blinis and cream, followed by raw fish:  ceviche, carpaccio, sashimi, and oysters – bien sur. Then a lovely grilled fish, a whole one, like a turbot, with beurre blanc, some nice French fries, a bit of a green salad, and Brillat-Savarin, a triple fat, triple cream cheese that melts in your mouth and makes you feel like, ‘Ooh! This is naughty.’ I would have that with walnuts and some beautiful bread, then for dessert, chocolate mousse. I would start with champagne of course, then have a lovely Burgundy, like a Meursault.

What’s the one magic ingredient for a romantic Valentine’s Day?

A passion that’s consuming both of you. It’s all in the anticipation of the day, because you don’t start to make love the moment you make love – you begin two days before, in your head. If you both do that separately and then you meet on the same day, there’s going to be an explosion!

If your partner says they’re not into Valentine’s Day, should you still surprise them by doing something special, in case they’re just saying they’re not into Valentine’s Day?

People are funny in relationships, sometimes they say they’re not into Valentine’s Day, but actually it’s the opposite. If you want to do something to say, ‘I’m doing this for you because I’m thinking of you,’ then I’m sure someone would be touched by that. Go with what’s in your heart.

If you want to cook a romantic Valentine’s dinner at home, what would be a fail-safe option?

Do surf ’n’ turf because it’s very simple. Get a nice rib eye steak on the bone, and rather than prawns, get lobster. Cut it in half and baste it with parsley and garlic butter, then roast it for five minutes. Serve it with your meat, some green salad, and oven chips – you can even get sweet potato fries. Get a dessert from Marks & Spencer and voila – that’s all you need.

Should we all be more romantic all year round?

Yes, it’s nice to feel love and to be loved. Sometimes we get carried away with work, children and responsibilities, but we understand the world according to our senses – we put food in our mouths, we hear beautiful music, we see beautiful things, we smell things, we feel things on our skin, we touch people, and just as I eat every day, I want to feel love too. Love is a pleasure – I want to feel the electricity.
What are little things we can do to make every day more magic?

Smiling, telling people you like them and why you like them, being kind, saying what we do, and doing what we say – it’s the little things, like delivering on your promises. With a partner, a touch, a joke, a kiss – these things keep you connected, they keep the electricity between you. If you stop, the connection goes. It’s hard because we get distracted by so many different things. But you need to remind yourself, because what you give is what you get.

Is it harder to keep the romance alive when you’ve got kids?

Definitely, it’s very hard to do. It takes time and effort, and invariably, the children take over because they are the children, and you always want the best for them. For couples, it’s about learning to take themselves out of the parenting mindset and putting themselves back in a place where only the two of you exist. It’s very difficult because it makes you feel selfish, and you don’t think about doing that naturally.

Lots of long-term couples with children have adopted the idea of ‘date night’ – is this a good way to keep the romance alive?

When you meet somebody, all you want to do is look into each other’s eyes and stay in bed all day, but after a while, work takes over and you want to go and play football. This is normal, it’s just what happens. There’s attraction, and then it dissolves. It hasn’t gone, but it doesn’t have the intensity it did at the beginning. Love takes over, but you have to keep the flames of passion burning.

When you have children, this involves planning, like: ‘OK, on Tuesday, we are going out, it’s our date night.’ You must plan ahead, because when you have children, you can’t just say, ‘OK I’m going.’ You need to book a babysitter – and of course, you can’t come back drunk at 4 o’clock in the morning.

Should we be getting more creative, for example writing poems or making cards by hand?

Yeah, it’s nice to get creative. A card, a poem, a song – you can do whatever you want, as long as you have the imagination. You don’t need money to do crazy things, you just have to dare to do it.

Scrolling through social media, it often seems that instead of being fully present in special moments, people are busy taking pictures for Facebook and Instagram. Do you think that we should just enjoy Valentine’s Day, without taking pictures of our champagne glasses?

Maybe by doing that you might connect through taking the picture together, but I think it’s just too much. Social media is a big addiction – most people are addicted to it, and people are so used to it. In the old days, people used to smoke, and now, instead of having a cigarette after making love, they post, ‘Oh I just made love, it was fantastic.’ Social media has become an addictive drug, and it’s got to the level where it has taken over people’s lives, unfortunately.

Do you think we should try and be in the moment more?

Yeah, totally. Being in that moment is the hardest thing to do – and yet, that’s all there is.

If you want to make sure your date has an amazing Valentine’s Day to remember, what’s the best way to make sure you get really good service in the restaurant?

You can tell the restaurant it’s a very special night for you – but you have to remember, it’s very special for everybody else. If you have a compelling reason for why it’s very special for you, call the restaurant, or go there in person to explain. This will have more power, but only do it if it’s genuine. Choose your restaurant wisely because if you choose a good restaurant, they will look after you regardless. If you choose a bad one, they may look after you a bit more, but it’s still going to be bad because they’re bad anyway. Choose the right restaurant!

Fred’s podcast Oh La La! is available on Apple [podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/oh-la-la-by-fred-sirieix/id1484070598]

Eastern Promise

Levison Wood is a former paratrooper, a major in the army reserves, and a presenter, writer and traveller. He has made various expeditions, but the latest is the longest and the most epic: 5,000 miles around the Arab Peninsula, travelling through thirteen countries, between September 2017 and February 2018. He undertook the journey partly to discover what, if anything, were the long-term results of the 2011 Arab Spring, but also to explore one of the world’s most beautiful regions, which is always in the news – and always for the wrong reasons.
 
What is special about the Middle East, to you?
 
As discussed, we (the public) only ever see what the media show us about the Middle East: the negative things. But I knew, before I went, that there’s more to this region. Arabia is also host to some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world – in Oman, Jordan, and Lebanon, and there’s more to the conflicts than we hear on the news. Not many people get the opportunity to travel to the Middle East: not many people would choose to travel there if they were presented with the choice. I wanted to shine a new light on such a misconceived region of the world, to broadcast a reason to travel to such unique destinations, and for those who are unable to go there themselves, I wanted to provide an honest account of this part of the world. I don’t expect people to try to visit Syria or Saudi Arabia now, but at least I’ve opened their eyes to another side of these countries, one that probably would never have seen the light of day had I not gone out there, against all odds, and filmed it!
 
What did you discover?
 
The so-called Arab Spring had brought about a hope of change in a troubled region. Dictatorships had been toppled, and in some places, democracy had flourished. Social media gave way to a new platform for freedom of speech, and there had seemed to be a shift in the collective consciousness of what it meant to be an Arab. But, only a few years later, that sense of hope had all but vanished. Dictators had been replaced by terrorists or foreign armies, and wars still raged in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Had the initial optimism from the revolutions brought about any change at all? This is what I planned to discover on my travels around the Arabian Peninsula. I didn’t think I was ever going to unearth the direct impacts of the Arab Spring – because that had ended seven years earlier – but I was eager to discover if and where hope still existed.
 
I wanted to show a more balanced portrayal of this region via my journey, and show it for all of its faces. My journey started on the Turkish border in Syria, and then onto Iraq, where I was embedded with the Iraqi People’s Mobilisation Front – I was literally strolling into battle against ISIS with 1,000 of these volunteers, waiting to be ambushed. We were prepared for it, and we counterattacked, and successfully reclaimed a village, capturing two Taliban commanders. It was a bonkers day, and that was the peak of the action. Things calmed down a lot when we travelled through the Gulf, and onto Oman. Things got tense again when we found ourselves illegally in Yemen, and had to get out before we were caught. Otherwise, the rest of the journey was more of an observation of the destruction that these places had undergone during and since the Arab Spring, and an opportunity to meet those who have lived through it all, and share their stories.
 
What other areas did you go through that were like those early days in northern Iraq?
 
I never found myself on the frontline again, but I was witness to the ongoing unrest between the Israelis and Palestinians on the West Bank. My guide, a Palestinian activist, took me to a protest, where I stood with local youths risking their lives to taunt the Israeli Defence Force with makeshift catapults and burning tyres. Yet, despite the blatant conflict, life still goes on. You have two groups of people that absolutely hate each other also living next door to each other, and with no obvious way out of the awful stalemate; they have to just get on with it, as best they can.
 
Yemen was another eye-opening experience. It is in the midst of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, and although I wasn’t there for long, I did get a glimpse of the devastation that so many are currently living in. More than 15 million people – or 53 per cent of Yemen’s population – are on the brink of starvation as access to food diminishes every day across the country. It was heartbreaking to meet so many people with so little, and not to be able to do anything to help instantly.
 
At the time I passed through Syria, there was widespread fighting throughout the country, including around Damascus and its suburbs. I couldn’t escape the constant thud of artillery in the distance, but that didn’t stop me from exploring the capital’s nightlife. I visited the ancient site of Palmyra, which has been largely destroyed by ISIL, and Homs, which was devastated by a three-year siege. Despite all that destruction, I left Syria with a heightened sense of hope for its future. People had already begun to start rebuilding their lives. In Damascus, many of the tourist shops were open, despite not having had a tourist for at least seven years. I asked one vendor why he still opened his shop: ‘Because one day the tourists will return, and we’ll be ready’, he responded.
 
What peaceful areas did you go through?
 
Iraq’s Mesopotamian Marshes were very peaceful. They’d been drained under Saddam Hussein’s rule, but have since been reflooded, and the Marsh Arabs are returning to live there, away from the danger of the cities. Then I travelled onto the Gulf: places like Bahrain, Kuwait, UAE are very peaceful, in one sense of the word. It was a shock going from the frontline in Northern Iraq to the serenity of the Marshes, to the towering buildings and blatant wealth of Dubai. Where I felt most at peace, throughout my journey, was in the desert. I crossed part of Oman’s Empty Quarter Desert with just three camels and my guide, and although I didn’t always see eye to eye with him, it meant I was able to appreciate the beauty and silence of the vast sand dunes when we weren’t making conversation. I had a far more pleasant experience in Jordan’s Wadi Rum, where I slept in just a blanket under the star-studded night sky. Before settling down, we’d sit round the campfire, and my Bedouin guides would sing traditional songs. It was during these times that I would think the most – about my journey, about my family and friends at home, and about the future.
 
What impact do you think there will be on the region from Trump’s recent threat to withdraw American troops from supporting the Kurds?
 
It’s no longer a threat, it’s reality. It’s a disgraceful betrayal. Thousands of Kurds died fighting ISIS in Syria alongside British and American troops, and now we turn our backs on them… it’s shocking.
How much background reading and research did you undertake before you travelled?
 
A lot. This journey had been in the back of my mind since Walking the Nile in 2013/14. It was the expedition I always wanted to do, the others were just stepping-stones in achieving it – and probably long before that. I’ve always been fascinated by the Middle East. My heroes in exploration were those who went to ‘Arabia’ and I read all about their experiences growing up – the likes of T.E. Lawrence, Richard Burton, Freya Stark, Gertrude Bell and Wilfred Thesiger. What’s more, being in the British Army means I have always been aware of the status and changes in the Middle East. So, my knowledge of the region had strong foundations, but there was still a lot more to read and research, given the riskiness of the journey, and the difficulty of getting access to many of the places on my route. You can never be too prepared for an expedition; I was still reading whilst already on expedition…
 
What hope do you have for Iraq when the Shi’ites and Sunnis are still divided? I noticed that when you asked a guy in the car (your guide in Iraq) about reconciliation, his reply was: ‘Not my problem.’ Surely unless Iraqis see that it is their problem and their responsibility, there will be no efforts made to bring the two sides together?
 
The Shia-Sunni divide is the biggest issue in Middle Eastern politics, and it’s being exploited by all the major powers. The two groups barely identify each other as Muslim in many countries and so it’s bound to cause deep divisions which often result in violence.
 
What impact did the journey have on you?
 
Despite seeing all the destruction across Iraq and Syria, and meeting people who have very sad stories to tell indeed, I returned from the Middle East with a sense of hope. These people have seen it all, and are still living in some of the most dangerous times, but they get on with their lives, they talk about their futures, and they smile as if it’s all in the past. It made me really think about appreciating how easy we have it back home, and how grateful we should be.
 
Did you have to emphasise the sensational, dangerous side of the trip in order to get the commission to make the films at all and to get anyone interested?
 
This trip wasn’t commissioned. We pitched to various channels, all of whom said it was too risky, too dangerous, and that it couldn’t be done. But I knew how important this story was to tell, and I wasn’t going to take no for an answer. I got together a team of friends who I’d worked successfully with in the past: people I trusted and could rely on to complete this project, and that’s what we set out to do. And complete it we did. Nothing was emphasised or dramatised. We wanted to show Arabia for what it is. I hope you’ll agree the series does that.
 
What insight were you able to have when you had to be protected so much, or did this change as you carried on your journey (beyond episode 1, watched at time of submitting questions)?
 
This was the first journey I did where I had to change guide every country. It wasn’t necessarily for protection, but it meant that I was in the hands of knowledgeable and trustworthy people each time I travelled through their country. It also meant that their opinion on a situation was biased, but I did my best to ensure I got all sides of a story wherever necessary, such as in Israel.
 
The story of the Marsh Arabs is a good news story. What other ones did you cover?
 
The overarching good news is that I don’t think it’ll be too long before people start returning to this region as tourists. The Gulf, Jordan and Lebanon are already top destinations to visit, but I’m talking more specifically here about Saudi Arabia, which has recently announced the opening of its borders to tourists. You might question what there is worth visiting, I did too, but I was pleasantly surprised. Although there is clearly a lot of wealth in the port city of Jeddah, which makes it feel quite cosmopolitan, it still retains its traditional Arabic flavour, evident in the narrow streets of the old town, bustling with smiling vendors of fresh bread and chai. I visited the old Hejaz Railway, and stood on one of the trains blown up by Lawrence of Arabia at the start of the twentieth century (a childhood dream!). I followed the route of the railway north, taking in views of the towers of Mecca and the minarets of Medina from as close as I could get as a non-Muslim. The paradise oasis, Al Ula, is reason enough to visit Saudi Arabia, whose landscape rivals that of anywhere else in the region, and I geeked out on the ancient ruins of the city, which date back 2,000 years. The Saudis I met were all friendly and welcoming, thrilled about the prospect of having more visitors like me in the not-so-distant future.
 
What are you working on next?
 
I’m currently putting together a book of my best photographs, taken over the last decade. Selecting 200 from over 50,000 was quite the chore! But before that, I’ve got an exciting project coming out on TV in the new year, accompanied by another book. I can’t give too much away at this point, but this one isn’t focused on my journey, rather the passage of one of our greatest creatures… 

Djokovic: Faith in my Ability

By James Evans

Judged on prize money alone, the summer of 2019 saw Novak Djokovic become the most decorated tennis star ever to have ever played the sport. And yet, as he explains, what enriches him in life is not material wealth, for there are much greater rewards on offer.

In truth, it should follow… that someone of the strength, clarity and optimism of Novak Djokovic should ascend to the very top level of sporting brilliance. They are, after all, characteristics that make good people great. But when you add in the fact his climb almost certainly utilised the stepping stones of faith, there is a deeper, more animated version of this incredible icon that deserves greater exploration.

Even the small details matter to Djokovic. Consider perhaps just the fact that at the end of each day, as he prepares to rest for the night, those quiet moments of reflection are in many ways very similar to key moments on the court… those split seconds when the 31-year-old will clear a space in his mind in advance of firing an Exocet-like serve over the net, or when he stretches a muscular forearm to return a ball arrowing towards him at over 100mph.

Whether wowing crowds at Wimbledon, or Roland-Garros, or Flushing Meadow – all of them very different types of sporting arenas – is it fair to say there is something quite spiritual in those key moments?

‘I think there is a lot of soul-searching that goes into tennis, definitely,’ begins Djokovic, arguably the most complete tennis player of the modern era, and one whose ability to perform on grass, on clay and on the hard court have made him a perennial Grand Slam threat, no matter the location. ‘It is a very personal moment and there are so many things that go through tennis players’ minds as the crowd hushes and the expectation builds. It is a very private thing being played out in a very public space. I think with any individual sport, you have to reach right to the very deepest level to pull out the answers to the questions. There are no teammates, there is nowhere to hide and there is no one but you who can take it over that line.’

Getting over ‘that line’ has been something the Serbian has made look devastatingly easy over the past decade or so, dating right back to his first Grand Slam title, achieved when he beat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in five sets at the Australian Open in 2008. From that first major title, the 75 ATP singles titles since, including sixteen Grand Slams, right the way through to double glory in 2019 with victories at Wimbledon and, for a seventh time, at Australia’s marquee event, Djokovic has constructed for himself a game plan that very few can get the better of. And yet, as any successful person across any specialism will tell you, it is often not the victories that define you, more the defeats.

In recent years, Djokovic has had to summon up strength and optimism like never before in overcoming crippling injury setbacks. ‘It is in those moments of inactivity that the doubts begin to creep in,’ he says. ‘It is “Why has this happened?”, “What should I have done differently?”, “How long until I can get back?”, “What if I never get back?” These are all the questions that start flooding through the mind, and it is at times like these that you need to be strongest. It is a very different strength to that on the court – this is truly a mental exercise in recovery, and there is nothing automatic about it like there is on the court or in the gym.’

Of course, Djokovic credits his Orthodox Christian faith in going a long way towards helping him overcome what he terms ‘bad moments’. The Serbian was raised in the shadow of the local church in his home city of Belgrade, and has maintained a firm grasp on the principles of faith throughout his career. ‘I come from a very religious country and belief has always been a mainframe for me and my family,’ he says.

Indeed, in April 2011, Patriarch Irinej of Serbia awarded Djokovic the Order of St Sava I class. This counts as the highest decoration of the Serbian Orthodox Church – a reflection on the charitable work he had put into the repair, maintenance and expansion of the monasteries of churches in Kosovo and Metohija.

While Christian values have accompanied him on a truly global pursuit of his craft, tennis, Djokovic admits it has been an education to view how faith is adapted and constructed around the globe. ‘It is interesting to travel the world playing tennis and to see the different attitudes towards religion. I don’t think I’ve ever been to two countries where the feeling has been the same, but certainly I respect the values of everyone I come into contact with. I can say with absolute certainty that faith is one thing that has kept me going. It is there no matter what is happening and how I feel in myself. I will admit, during my career there have been a few occasions where I was mentally lacking – emotionally I questioned in myself things that I did. In those moments I know I had to channel my focus… I had to use my faith to fight my way past it all.’  

A deep thinker in tennis terms, the expansion of Djokovic’s family has certainly enabled his Christian ethos to be played out in the celebration and joy of happy times together. ‘The sport I play demands a lot of you all year round, and of course my drive is to remain successful, but you cannot be serious all of the time. Having faith also means having fun and my family have really brought that side out for me.’

Djokovic, wife Jelena and children Stefan and Tara live in Monaco but regularly travel back to Serbia. They have the trappings associated with his £106m career earnings, a total that this summer surpassed the previous record held by Roger Federer. His level of wealth is over three times that of the iconic Boris Becker, even accounting for inflation. And yet, what really matters is something that money will never be able to afford.

Djokovic’s universal appeal may well have a lot to do with his faultless image that is a true reflection of the man, rather than the construct of a marketing or PR team. He’s also helped by his ability to ‘turn up’, no matter what the location or the conditions. While great rivals Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal have limitations on their game – as grass and clay court specialists respectively – the Serbian’s ability to operate across both surfaces stands him apart. Consider a defence-based game as well that drives from the baseline and protects rather than attacks at will, and even in the way he plays tennis, you will see all the strong Christian qualities instilled in him by his parents when growing up.

‘It’s interesting to talk about playing style being a result of experiences in your life, but certainly the control, protection and aggression you show on a court comes from somewhere inside, and it would follow that those are characteristics and actions you would apply to other aspects of your life.’

For Djokovic, growing up in war-torn former Yugoslavia would have certainly cultivated an ethos and an approach to competition – a desire to break free of repression whilst also retaining an element of shelter.
While religion and faith play a big part in giving him the mental strength to keep moving forward, the star – who also works as an ambassador for the United Nations, has assisted educational programmes across various continents and even launched his own self-titled foundation in 2007 – is quick not to want to overplay the significance of Christianity in the raw mechanics of his game.

‘I respect God for so much, but I am always aware that not everyone shares that view, and it is not my place to put those beliefs on others who may just be watching me for the tennis! At the end of the day it is an arm and a racket that get a ball over the net, and I don’t think it’s realistic to believe that praying hard for something can make it happen – personally, that isn’t what prayer does for me. If it was the case that by praying every morning, I could win tournaments then, by logic, everyone else who prays might suppose they can win tournaments. For me that action is much more about reflection, cleansing and hope. It is me saying that I believe in myself and the system, but that I also have humility and courage, and perhaps it is from there that I draw on that extra strength – as well as a talent for hitting a ball over a net! – and that is what ultimately wins tournaments.’

And yet, whether religious or not, Djokovic believes the simple action of stopping, thinking and offering reflection is something we should all perhaps be moving towards in a society that continues to move at a frenetic, almost unsustainable pace. ‘I do believe, in these chaotic times, the simple action of being still, meditating and taking a second to reflect is such a marvellous thing that can offer a huge benefit… it has certainly helped me.’

The wins speak for themselves. Djokovic – and Federer and Nadal – have, in a sense, driven on and inspired each other to heights each individual probably felt unimaginable. At the same time, they have presented a new brand of sports icon; one who has strength, honesty, humility, consistency and longevity in excess. These are characters almost impossibly clean in a sports world still charged and scarred with controversy, bias and a lack of respect.

With that in mind, in recent times Djokovic became a member of the Champions for Peace club. The Monaco-based organisation, which also counts Felipe Massa, Blaise Matuidi and Chris Froome in its number, is committed to serving peace and the message of peace in the world through sport.

‘I like the fact so many in tennis are good ambassadors for the sport, but it’s not always so nice when we lose,’ laughs Djokovic. ‘I will never find it easy to lose, or to admit defeat – I will always be sporting and respectful to an opponent, of course, but the inquest for me begins as soon as we shake hands at the net, and it is not a nice thing.’

The star’s reluctance to admit defeat certainly explains his decision to play through an elbow injury for more than two years. Finally agreeing to treatment when forced to pull out of Wimbledon in 2017, his recovery took him over six months. He told a UK sports magazine, ‘I was standing on court and when I clenched my fist around the handle, I could feel the nerve-endings. The pain was reverberating right down my forearm from my wrist to my elbow. I knew then enough was enough. I had played through that injury because I just couldn’t bear to stop and be out of the game for so long. It was one of injuries that I would constantly keep on hold, but the process of doing that became greater with every month and every year. In the end, I had naturalised so much to the idea of playing whilst injured; I had become accustomed to a process of painkillers and anti-inflammatories.’

While Djokovic stormed back to imperious form, he did recently endure another injury layoff when being forced to pull out of the US Open in a match against Stan Wawrinka. ‘I accept the fact that, with age, it takes longer to recover and maybe these things happen a bit more,’ he says. ‘At the same time, the way I approach the game mentally is now so much sharper than when I was younger, so hopefully I can counterbalance the two. You look at Roger [Federer] – that is exactly what he does. He is brilliant at making positives out of negatives.’

Indeed, for Djokovic, those same Christian values of improvement and replenishment now flood his time away from the sport. Whether renovating a school or opening a new restaurant for homeless people in his native Serbia, or working with UNICEF as a Goodwill Ambassador, the sports icon is driven to making good his Christian upbringing and the beliefs he has always held firm.
‘It is not a choice for me, and it has never been – it is just who I am, and I am so glad of that.’

Issue 73

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?

Moving Mountains

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.’

Sorted Issue 74

December 2019

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...

The Big Five-O

December 2019

The Big Five-O By Peter Wallace For 50 years, David Suchet has been a staple of stage and screen, not least in his role as Agatha...

Manifesto

December 2019

By Steve Chalke Why men’s mental health is an issue for all men and whole communities. ‘Man up. Shape up. Step up. Keep up.’ That’s the...

Keeping the Peace and Falling to Pieces

December 2019

By Ali Hull John Sutherland joined the Met in 1992, and rose quickly, through the ranks, to become a senior police officer. But in 2013,...

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 13:  Fred Sirieix attends the Virgin TV British Academy Television Awards at The Royal Festival Hall on May 13, 2018 in London, England.  (Photo by Jeff Spicer/Getty Images)

Fred’s Lexicon of Love

December 2019

By Samantha Rea French-born Fred Sirieix is a familiar face on our screens, particularly for his appearances on Channel 4’s First Dates, as well as...

Eastern Promise

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Levison Wood is a former paratrooper, a major in the army reserves, and a presenter, writer and traveller. He has made various expeditions, but...

LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 14: Novak Djokovic of Serbia plays a backhand in his Men's Singles final against Roger Federer of Switzerland during Day thirteen of The Championships - Wimbledon 2019 at All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on July 14, 2019 in London, England. (Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)

Djokovic: Faith in my Ability

December 2019

By James Evans Judged on prize money alone, the summer of 2019 saw Novak Djokovic become the most decorated tennis star ever to have ever...

Issue 73

October 2019

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...

Editorial use only. No book cover usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Millennium Films/Kobal/Shutterstock (5885441ap)Terry CrewsThe Expendables 2 - 2012Director: Simon WestMillennium FilmsUSAScene StillExpendables 2: unité spéciale

Moving Mountains

October 2019

By Peter Wallace Widely regarded as one of show business’s nicest guys – and with a ripped physique that can put anyone to shame –...

Poppies and Poetry

October 2019

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...

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