Talent in context

There is always a question for me as to how we perceive talent when it is something that is difficult to measure mathematically. With a sprinter we can measure his time, but it becomes progressively more difficult with more abstract things such as musical talent that rely on perception.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink, he notes that an orchestra had to erect a screen at auditions between the musician and the judges in order to prevent external appearance (or the sex of the musician) influencing the perception of talent. As an interesting addition to this problem, the Washington Post persuaded the world’s greatest living violinist to take his Stradivarius down to a DC subway plaza and busk for a while to see if anyone appreciated the sheer quality of performance in such an unlikely venue. The results were instructive. . . .

Paralysis

There’s a certain blog paralysis that creeps in after a certain amount of time has passed that makes going back to the blog yet more difficult. The urge to precis events is suffocated beneath yet more events, none of which necessarily make for a particularly coherent story. On reflection, I have decided to provide some bullet points and then continue on as though nothing has happened. Since I last posted on this site I have:

  • Put together a major solo North Pole expedition
  • Simultaneously tested new polar equipment while entertaining a small five-year-old boy with my monster/giant impressions.
  • Spent time in Toronto, Ottawa, Iqaluit, Resolute, Montreal, London and New York
  • Performed two snowmobile rescues for individuals stranded on the sea ice (mentally playing the Ride of the Valkyries all the while)
  • Had my name appear on the inside cover of a major label album release.
  • Moved continents and set up in New York
  • Met Barbara Bush (the twin, not the Granny)
  • Learned what shuffleboard is
  • Screamed at UPS “just who the hell do I have to wake up in which country to get this package delivered on time”
  • Learned that my street is the major route of choice for all night-time emergency services in New York
  • Tried Ashtanga yoga
  • Met the Inuit grandson of one of Roald Amundsen’s flings
  • Competed in a Scotland 10K in Central Park
  • Written a soon-to-be published piece for the Grauniad

And met innumerable interesting and warm-hearted people along the way.

The Blank Slate

Blank Slate by Stephen Pinker is one of those books that you should never read before heading out to meet friends. Quite pleasant conversations about gardening or sports will be interrupted by a diatribe as you attempt to explain the mind-blowing chapter you have just read. This will inevitably lead to an argument as Pinker aims both barrels at the post-modern politically-correct world, ignites the data-driven gunpowder and unleashes some scientific buckshot.

Pinker’s principal beef is with the concept that man is born a blank slate and it is largely his environment that shapes and defines him. He argues that it is all very nice for us all to believe this and it means we can wax lyrical about our equality and ability to perfect man, but it just isn’t backed up by the evidence. Pinker argues that the vast weight of scientific research into the nature/nurture debate comes down heavily on the side of nature, and reports on the other side are often guilty of scientifically-biased wish fulfilment.

Pinker spends a large part of the first half of his book outlining and explaining this evidence, using examples from one scientist’s study of universal human behaviours, responses and mental characteristics (as widespread in Mongolia as in Manhattan) to the classic experiments with twins who have been separated at birth. Apparently, twins in this case often meet in later life to find themselves both owning the same tie, whistling the same song and having married similar women at roughly the same age. Their personalities, while not set in stone, were largely formed before they had even left the womb.

Moreover, people who have suffered damage in specific parts of their brain often have completely changed personalities as a result. The experience of Phineas Gage is a classic example of this. Pinker’s evidence is largely boiled down to a set of ‘laws’ of the mind. The principal one of which is that your genes are responsible for at least 50% of your personality and play a far more weighty role than your environment. This is not to say that we have no control over our personality, nor that our environment plays no part. Merely that they play a far lesser role than previously realised.

So far, so interesting. But Pinker really gets going in the second half of the book when he applies this learning to various fields from crime to politics to the arts. Are children who grow up in a violent household more likely to be violent because of the environment they were raised in or because they have inherited the genes for violence from their parents? Or to put it another way, all those parenting books that say that parents who smother their children with affection will raise affectionate children might just be talking rubbish if affectionate people are genetically predisposed to have affectionate kids and more distant parents are genetically predisposed to have distant kids. In this case, how parents act with their kids has far less impact than many parents believe.

The argument holds true across a range of subjects as Pinker takes on our political beliefs, feminism, racism and our thoughts on art. Some may think Pinker oversteps his mark, and I am certainly not doing his argument justice here, but to me this was a powerful explanation of why we are the way we are and it sets out an optimistic view of the future for all that it is set in hard realities.

Inching SOUTH

Early morning trekking 1Winston Churchill once said that success is merely the ability to hold on one minute longer than anyone else. I feel that recently Ben and I have been testing that out.

We’ve met some incredible people over the last six months from some of the most powerful media players in the world to ultra-connected corporate operators. We’ve met kit manufacturers who have come up with fantastic new ways to create equipment that will keep going for as long as we need it to, no matter what the conditions. We’ve met and been inspired by teachers and educators who saw in SOUTH something of the dream and passion that they wanted to instill in the children in their care. However, we also heard a consistent refrain: ‘Do you know what we could do with this, do you know what we could do if we had a little more time?’

A huge part of us both, the part that only truly feels alive when standing at the precipice of our abilities, is in anguish right now. But we know we have made the right decision: we are postponing SOUTH until October 2007. From the kernel of an idea that I had when being thrown around by waves far south of Cape Horn, SOUTH has grown into something far bigger than I ever imagined. It has become about more than two men seeking to understand and extend the limits of their own potential, it has, for us, become a chance to inspire people to seek out the edges of themselves, to approach their own limits. Maybe this wider vision is too ambitious to be a reality, but it is not too ambitious to be a goal. We get one chance at this and we will do it right.

We won’t be spending this year sitting on our butts, waiting for October to come around. We have a lot of work to do to make sure that we don’t limit the potential of SOUTH itself. Ben is heading down to South Africa in the next few weeks to build on relations wth local schools there, and I am making preparations to move to New York in the new year, where I will be able to work more closely with the people who have put their hearts and souls into SOUTH. I would like to thank you all for all the support you have shown us thus far, and I hope that next year our legs will do the talking.

Tony Haile, Ironman

All a blurBen and I took the red-eye back from New York on Thursday after an exhausting barrage of meetings and facing a mountain of work to get done. However, before we got down to that, I knew somehow, somewhere I had to find a wetsuit for the weekend. In a fit of madness some months earlier, I had decided to apply for the UK Ironman and it had very inconveniently decided to occur that Sunday.

There were several reasons why deciding to do this might not have been a great idea:

1. I had never done an Ironman before. In fact I had never competed in a triathlon before.
2. I was suffering from a fairly nasty case of jet lag and was having trouble keeping my eyes open.
3. I had never swum in open water before, or for that matter even worn a wetsuit.

Still, working on the basis that there’s no point in doing something unless it’s going to challenge you a little, I hired the last wetsuit in London packed my bags full of energy bars, gels, my trusty steed and a well-worn pair of trainers and headed down to Sherborne.

Sherborne on Saturday afternoon was a festival of endurance. A huge triathlon expo was selling everything you could possibly ask for and even those not wearing the coveted ‘athlete’ passes looked disturbingly fit. Racking my bike and preparing my transition bags, I gawped at the bike porn surrounding me, muttering ‘Ben would love to see this’. An entire field of carbon forks, aerodynamic time-trial frames and disc wheels made my Scott Speedster look fairly forlorn, hooked over its metal post. In a few hours I would see whether it (and I) could hold up against this competition.

At five the next morning I forced myself into my hired wetsuit, checked my bike tires and stuck my swimming hat on to swim out to the start. Bobbing up and down, the clock hit six and I prepared myself for the klaxon blast. Suddenly people started passing round the message that there would be a ten minute delay, I took off my goggles in annoyance, which was exactly when the start klaxon sounded.

Fumbling with my goggles and swearing to myself I kicked off and started the swim. At this point I realised that the water was completely opaque, there were no handy lines along the bottom to guide me and several burly blokes had worked out that the most effective propulsion strategy was to kick me in the face. Continue reading “Tony Haile, Ironman”

Riding our luck

Yesterday, our flight experience consisted of getting upgraded, blagging our way through fast-track with cheeky smiles and not being blown up. This was a good start to the day. Heathrow apparently shut up shop shortly after we left because of a massive terrorist attack attempt that would have either cancelled or massively delayed our flight. This was a little crazy to read the morning after flying to New York.

Back in my favourite town, we raced from the airport to our first meeting on the roof of Soho House with a wonderful publisher called David and the incomparable Ariane de BonVoisin and didn’t leave for about 12 hours. With Michelle Rodriguez of ‘Lost‘ sitting at the next table we proceeded to meet a barrage of incredible people who all brought new and refreshing ideas to SOUTH.  It’s hard to explain how it feels to hear bright, brilliant people becoming engaged with an idea you had stuck in a boat in the Southern Ocean, it’s hugely exciting and a little unnerving at the same time.

We are just about to head off for our first 7am meeting and if our schedule is even remotely accurate, the pace won’t let up anytime soon. But right now I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Self Reliance and other Essays

Self RelianceEvery man is an impossibility, until he is born; everything impossible, until we see a success.’ Ralph Waldo Emerson rocks. I’d read about Emerson in Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club and made a note to find out more about this polymath of the 19th Century. Reading his essays on Self Reliance, History and his controversial address to the Harvard Divinity School is a brain-searing experience.

Emerson, a minister himself, was the ultimate non-conformist. He argued that relying on the words of another, be they priest or parent, was a barrier rather than a bridge to God. ‘Yet see what strong intellects dare not yet hear God himself, unless he speak the phraseology of I know not what David or Jeremiah or Paul. We shall not set so great a price on a few texts, or on a few lives.’ If we are merely repeating what we learn without engaging our own intellect, without searching for God on our own terms, then our beliefs have nothing to do with a true knowledge of God but instead are based on whatever we happen to learn and interpret from those around us, who likewise learned their lessons by rote from their elders.

Emerson also had little time for a strict reliance on the Bible, he felt that it kept Christianity in stasis forever looking backward. “The stationariness of religion, the assumption that the age of inspiration is past, that the Bible is closed. . . indicate with sufficient clearness the falsehood of our theology. It is the office of a true teacher to show us that God is, not was; that he speaketh, not spake.” Instead he saw a living, personal relationship with God independent of others’ thoughts or intervention as the only possible course.

Emerson’s views ranged further than just religion, promoting the importance of action as the true measure of man. He urges us to challenge everything, to accept no idea as fact until we have explored it ourselves, but at the same time to see the unity inherent in the world. To trust ourselves to be our own taskmaster, to follow our own star and act as we would in solitude when among the crowds, this is his lesson and I would embrace it wholeheartedly were it not for a sneaking suspicion that Emerson’s spirit would disapprove of my implicit acceptance of his words without challenge. . . .

Tony Haile, roadie.

Mr Hudson @ Flaxon PtootchLiving with the bassist of London’s hottest new band, Mr Hudson & the Library, has its advantages. It means you get to hear when there will be an impromptu rooftop gig for the denizens of Kentish Town road. It means you get to stand with three hundred people completely disrupting the traffic for a few short minutes as the band kicked off, waitresses from the local speakeasy served free cocktails, people danced in the street and we all felt like a true community, which is a rare feeling in London these days.

It also means that when they mention casually that they are supporting Erykah Badu at Somerset House, you point out that someone who in part makes his living from moving heavy things would be a useful backstage presence. So thus it was that last Friday and Saturday night were spent lugging amps, speakers, bass guitars and pianos around the stage of the most beautiful venue in all England before listening to my friends play the biggest gig of their life so far and then watch Ms Badu get her groove on.

Mr Hudson playing Somerset HouseMr Hudson and his band lit up the stage and got a fantastic reception from the assembled throng, Ace reporter and photographer Carl Wilkinson took some great shots and has kindly put them up on Flickr for everyone’s delight and delectation. Erykah was late the first night (apparently she was jetlagged and fell asleep) and phoned it in a little, but Saturday night was fantastic as she ripped the night apart. The only possible problem was when I accidentally barged into her pre-gig prayer group on my way to the bathroom. Luckily all eyes were contemplating the lord and few were contemplating me so I made my escape. The only thing that would have made the night more fun would have been not knowing that I was due to leave early the next morning for a 90-mile training ride with Ben.

The Invisible People

The Invisible People“A century from now, when historians write about our era, one question will dwarf all others, and it won’t be about finance or politics or even terrorism. The question will be, simply, how could our rich and civilised society allow a known and beatable enemy to kill millions of people.” This is the question Greg Behrman seeks to highlight in his compelling and incisive book The Invisible People: How the US has slept through the Global AIDS pandemic, the greatest humanitarian catastrophe of our time.

As you can tell from the title, Behrman does not pull any punches. Cutting back and forth through time as we follow key characters in the struggle against the burgeoning pandemic, Behrman shows how time and time again chances were missed to do something constructive about the catastrophe that is Global AIDS. Reagan’s conservative distaste for ‘the gay plague’, Clinton’s empathy but almost total inaction, and the bureaucratic infighting that repeatedly stymied attempts to do something, anything. As each chance was missed, millions more were infected, millions more were orphaned and millions more died.

I’d always known about AIDS in an abstract sense, known that there were high infection rates in Africa (where my father was born), but it had never truly hit home until I read this book. I have spent my life living through a holocaust and have for the large part ignored it. I can’t do that anymore. I’ve talked to Ben and we are going to try and find some way to raise funds and awareness for the Global AIDS movement when we go for SOUTH. Our expeditions give us a voice and it is time we used it.

For all those who think that AIDS is under control, imagine this. Imagine your child being born already infected with a death sentence. Imagine every third person you see being infected with HIV. Imagine 5-6 million people dying of AIDS in the next two years. Imagine, in fact, that you live in Sub-Saharan Africa. One day our children will ask us what we did about the Holocaust in Africa, let’s hope we have an answer.

Donate to the Global Aids Fund here.

Last night a helmet saved my life

After 24 HoursLast Thursday, Ben mentioned that we had better start getting everything we would need for the weekend ready. The only thing I could think of that was happening on the weekend was the England-Ecuador match and Ben is hardly the kind of football fan to need four days preparation time so I asked him what he was on about.

‘Oh, I may have forgotten to tell you, I’ve entered us for a 24-hour mountain bike team race in Hereford this weekend’.

Right.

Now normally I am up for any challenge but I had a couple of key concerns:

  1. I had never raced a mountain bike before.
  2. I did not in fact own a mountain bike.

Ben dismissed these as problems for another day, but told me to bring the expedition medical kit just in case.

We drove into the grounds of Eastnor Castle on Saturday morning to find something I could only describe as a kind of Glastonbury of outdoor sports types. A sea of tents stretched across the valley and thousands of bikes hurtled around as people travelled between the tents offering free sports massage and the mobile climbing walls.

With Rhys, an ironman triathlete from cornwall, and Tom we would do one lap relays of the course from 2pm on Saturday until 2pm on Sunday. Ben went off first having to run 800m to reach his bike and was back forty-five minutes later telling horror stories about the course. I would find out what it was like soon enough.

The course had obviously been designed by a sadist. Treacherous descents on loose gravel combined with long, punishing climbs where the heat and lack of breeze left you gasping for breath. Much of the lap was on incredibly narrow single tracks through woodland where tree roots, abrupt turns and sudden drops threatened to dislodge you. I came back from my first lap with a healthy respect for the professional and Olympic racers who would take this course so much faster than I could imagine.

On my second lap it all went a bit pear-shaped. Coming down through dense woodland there was a narrow s-bend with a big lip of built-up earth taking up most of the ground. Under pressure from a cyclist behind me, I misjudged the lip and my bike stopped dead. I, however, did not and flew through the air slamming headfirst into a tree with sickening force. I lay dizzy for a moment, my leg unable to clip out of my mountain bike pedals and answering the enquiries of people as they passed with a reflex ‘yeah, yeah, I’m fine’. Getting up I wiped the blood off my arm, thanked the makers of my bike helmet, and pushed on until the end of the lap. Continue reading “Last night a helmet saved my life”

The Metaphysical Club

 

The MetaPhysical ClubI was a bit of a late bloomer when it comes to philosophy. I think the first book that really got me thinking about the subject (if we don’t count Dawkin’s Selfish Gene, which got me thinking about everything) was A.C. Grayling’s What is Good?, a superb and accessible read. Since then, I’ve been following the philosophical breadcrumbs and taking a rather haphazard approach to the whole business. However, recently the fantastically funny and thought-provoking Emily Levine told me that I had to read The Metaphysical Club, a Pulitzer-Prize winning book by Louis Menand.

The Metaphysical Club tells the story of pragmatism, possibly the greatest American contribution to philosophy, through the lives of some of its key characters. Beginning with the Supreme Court judge and civil war veteran Oliver Wendell Holmes and weaving in the Logician Charles Pierce, the Psychologist-Philosopher William James, Jane Addams (known as the first social worker) and the Polymath John Dewey.

It is an incredibly elegant book, interweaving the various stories of its protagonists with skill and subtlety. One gets a decent idea of pragmatism’s meaning and importance, but Menand also places the philosophy and its leading lights squarely in their historical context, showing how the civil war and the religious battles of the day influenced pragmatism’s development. The Metaphysical club also gave me a small introduction into the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who is someone I intend to delve far more deeply into. The book is rich in beautiful quotes and I’ll leave you with one by Oliver Wendell Holmes that seems appropriate to my line of work too:

No man has earned the right to intellectual ambition until he has learned to lay his course by a star which he has never seen—to dig by the divining rod for springs which he may never reach…. Make your study heroic, for to think great thoughts you must be heroes as well as idealists. Only when you have worked alone—when you have felt around you a black gulf of solitude more isolating than that which surrounds the dying man, and in hope and in despair have trusted to your own unshaken will—then only will you have achieved...”

Brilliant.

Saying goodbye to Greenland

Coast

This morning, lying in our tent at the top of the Hann Glacier we heard the familiar whup-whup of a helicopter heading our way. Our taxi had arrived. We jumped into action, threw sleeping bags in sledges and dismantled our tent in short order. Helicopter pilots do not like to hang around in the cold just in case their birds don’t start again. This would be embarrassing.

I am now safely back in the relative comforts of Tasiilaq, wading through email while Ben has been joyfully reunited with his music collection after forgetting it for the second expedition in a row. Tasiilaq has changed since we left, to be accurate it has melted, and the mountains across the inlet from my hotel room are perfectly reflected in the still water between us. I would say the view was stunning if beauty did not seem so commonplace here.

We are due to fly (via helicopter, then fixed-wing) to Iceland tomorrow before heading back to London and the myriad glories of Kentish Town. Apologies that I wasn’t able to blog from the ice, but we had a little trouble getting my shiny new version of wordpress to work with the home-made software we use on the ice. I hope to make up for it in the near future.

I will do a proper review of the expedition at some point, though, if you haven’t already, check out Ben’s site for the unfolding action. For now, I am relishing getting water out of a tap without having to dig and then melt ice, I am loving that I can have a shower and feel truly clean for the first time in weeks, and I am slightly worried about the colour(s) my face seems to have gone. I have posted a bunch of photos to the Gallery page, if you fancy a squizz at expedition life.

In Greenland

We touched down this morning in Kulusuk East Greenland and immediately made our way over to the helicopter taking us to Tasiilaq. We went, but our kit didn’t as the helicopter was overloaded. We are now waiting for the rest of the kit to turn up tomorrow. Good news is that we have seen our sledges and they survived the journey pretty well. They may not even need new runners, which will save us a job.

Looking out my window, I can see snow-covered mountains, a frozen sea and a rather forlorn wooden boat trapped by the ice. There are a few small colourful houses interspersed among the rock and it is hard to believe that this hamlet is the biggest town in East Greenland. I cannot imagine anything more diametrically opposed to the Manhattan streets of a week ago. Hopefully, we will be able to reach the ice cap tomorrow, but we will have to see how everything pans out. In the arctic, patience is a necessary virtue.

Foiled again!

When I was managing Ben’s solo expedition in 2004, we were stuck in Khatanga, a town that is best described as the armpit of Northern Siberia. Each day we would head for the airport in the hope that the vodka-fuelled disagreements between the owners of the helicopters and the pilots had resolved themselves. On the first day, we barely got out of the hotel before we were told to head back, the next day we actually managed to get into the entrance. By day eight we had all our baggage loaded and were on the back of a lorry taking us to the helicopter when we were told to turn round. That was the night we got drunk. In the end we were stuck there for ten days and the delay had a huge effect on the weather conditions Ben had to face.

Today it feels like we are back in that situation, each day a little closer to getting on the plane but still not quite making it. Today, we checked in our baggage, we got our boarding cards (two dot-matrix style receipts) and then waited for four hours to find out that the flight had been cancelled. Jon Russill, who has been looking after the logistics for us pointed me towards a useful site – weather forecast.com and since then I have been the most knowledgeable person on East Greenland’s weather in the airport, including the staff, which hasn’t exactly inspired me.

Nevertheless, Ben and I are taking this in true stoic fashion. In an attempt to discern a small silver lining, Ben pointed out that this at least would be good training for the inevitable delay in Punta Arenas before we head down SOUTH. We’ll just have to see how far we get tomorrow. . . . . .

Closer to Greenland

We got the all clear this morning for a flight into Greenland at midday. It’s hard to say how I am feeling at this point so I will let John Masefield have a go for me.

“I must down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.”

Ok, so he is talking about sailing but you get the picture.

New York

Ben and I touched down from New York early on Wednesday morning knowing that between us we had two days to attend six different meetings, give two speeches, MC an awards ceremony, hire an assistant and pack everything we would need for a month-long unsupported training expedition to Greenland.

To say that we were not approaching these tasks feeling completely bright-eyed and bushy-tailed would be something of an understatement. Our SOUTH reception in Chris Anderson’s fantastic loft had been a huge success, introducing us to a host of fascinating people who sparked new ideas about how we might reach out to the people who could get the most from SOUTH. The meetings that followed were fascinating and allowed us to visit everything from a school in a deprived area of Brooklyn, to the swanky Explorers Club, to the studios of a nationally-syndicated radio show where I proceeded to make an utter tit of myself. However, this all took its toll and by Tuesday we were knackered.

Those few days in London passed in a kind of semi daze; anyone looking in Ben’s window would have seen something akin to a cocaine den as I poured hundreds of portions of energy drink powder into nondescript plastic bags. Skis were checked, tech equipment was repaired and hats were bought. As the hours began to close in I had to call in my father who spent his Friday afternoon mixing Muesli, carbohydrate drink and groundnut oil into a high-cal but fairly disgusting mix (Thanks Dad).

We made it with minutes to spare, to find we were some 60kg over our baggage limits. Ben turned the full power of his charm on the French lady at the check-in desk to get our charge reduced, and when that didn’t work we tried abject begging to the Iceland Air rep. This worked better. We were supposed to be in Greenland by now, but bad weather at our insertion point meant that they couldn’t get a plane through so we are still stuck in Reykjavik.

There are worse things than being stuck in Iceland and Ben and I did get a full night’s sleep last night for the first time in weeks, but we are both still itching to get out on the ice. Feeling that familiar arctic wind as we wandered down Reykjavik’s main street made me hunger to be out in the middle of nowhere with nothing but the ice, the sky and the sounds of skis cutting through snow. Ben is trying to find a way to get the latest wordpress version working from the ice, and if he is successful I will be able to update this site while we are in Greenland. If not, you will have to follow the action on Ben’s fine site. Either way, it will be a pleasure to have you along.

A final word, thank you Sunny and Jennifer. You are a continuing inspiration to me and Ben and I feel most undeserving of the work you put in while we were in New York. One day, somehow, we’ll make it up to you.

With their natural habitat disappearing fast, polar bears seem to have been trying different ways to speed up their evolutionary response. Hunters near Iqaluit have managed to shoot a hybrid polar-grizzly bear, the first recorded in the wild. Well, at least it was until they killed the poor thing.

Greenland

Sunset over the mountainsLife has taken a turn for the hectic here as I once again get into expedition mode. Ben and I are off to Greenland for a month for our final test and training phase before we go SOUTH and I am juggling phonecalls, kit orders and eccentric email servers.

In mid May we are taking a helicopter from Ammassalik and will do two round trips out onto the ice cap. One with SOUTH expedition-weight sledges and full skins where we will lay depots and one with backpacks and short skins where we will eat the aforementioned depots. One of the key elements of SOUTH will be our ability to switch to backpacks at the South Pole and use skis with short skins and more glide for our return to the coast and we are looking to fine tune our calculations to see how far and how fast we can go. Getting these as accurate as possible is crucial: too optimistic and you force yourself to ration, limiting the body’s ability to recover, too pessimistic and a heavier-than-necessary sledge will slow you down, compromising your chances of success. It’s a pretty fine line and when you are out there on the very edges of human capability, there’s not much room for screw ups.

We’ll also be testing out a range of equipment from solar water heating systems to backpacks to special mp3 players and making our final choices as to our nutrition strategy. Testing expeditions like this are always fun because they are a huge spur to creativity as Ben and I question every process and every action we take; could we do it better, more efficiently? It’s amazing how you can find little areas to improve even after all this time.

I think what I’m really looking forward to is just being out there on the ice again. East Greenland is one of my favourite places, when the weather isn’t trying to kill you it’s stunning. Each view is enhanced by the knowledge that you are the only person in the area for hundreds of miles and all you have to do is lean into the harness, check your bearings and haul. There’s a saying that East Greenland isn’t scenery, it’s savagery, but to me, sometimes, it’s a little bit like heaven.

Rachel Corrie

 

This week I went back to Gaza. I sat watching a young American woman on a barely-lit stage exploding old memories with each name she uttered against a background of bullet-ridden concrete. My Name is Rachel Corrie, a play based on the writing of a young American observer killed by an IDF bulldozer in Gaza in 2003, is a hugely powerful piece of work, even more so for me because so much of it seemed so familiar.

In 1997, I ignored the advice of my tutors and arranged to study at Birzeit University in the West Bank for a semester. I went looking for a real understanding of what was going on in that fractured land and came away possibly more knowledgeable, but also more confused. The Palestinians are without doubt the most friendly, generous people I have ever met. Their kindness to me, even though I was an Englishman who had ‘stolen their country’ was overwhelming. At the same time, I would visit the old Jewish market in Jerusalem after a suicide bombing and watch the blood drain from the soiled bandages as they burnt.

I met Palestinians who wanted to push the Israelis back to the sea and others who more than anything just wanted their children to see their 18th birthday. I met Israelis who thought that the only good Arab was a dead one and others who risked their safety and reputation to reach out to Palestinians in the name of reconciliation. I learned how to talk my way past military checkpoints, I learned what it is to live where politics is not just a matter of which collection of suits decides your tax level, but life itself. I fear I did not learn as much as Rachel Corrie, nor did I pay such a heavy price for my knowledge.

Corrie writes with coruscating force and it seems amazing that the only intended audience for her words were her parents and friends. Whether you agree with her politics or not, she is someone to be admired because she cared enough to stand up and do something about what she believed to be an injustice in this world and that is all too rare in our generation. See this play.

The little blue passport

Let me start with a disclaimer: Bribery is bad, really bad. In fact, it should only ever be used with small children. The trouble is, when you sometimes operate in areas that have a morally ambiguous  business environment combined with a weaponised bureaucracy, the requests can get pretty persistent and persuasive.

Having had to get past military roadblocks, petty bureaucrats and dodgy customs officials in various somewhat remote countries, often carrying stuff they don’t want me to take through (ranging from people to, in one memorable instance, high explosives), I’ve learnt that handing over money can sometimes be circumvented by charm, talking about football (or whatever sport they are most passionate about) or mentioning your close personal relationship with their boss. However, if all else fails there is one thing, more highly prized than money, that will always open doors and persuade bewhiskered military types to look the other way: the little blue passport, Viagra.

If there is one thing that your average machismo-ridden border sadist wants more than the ability to buy the expensive kind of vodka, it is the mythical status that they believe Viagra can supply. They can always get money from the next poor sap, but only you can turn them into a love god. In short, Viagra opens doors and should always be part of your travelling kit. Moreover, today I find out that it can improve physical performance at altitude. Truly, is there anything that little blue pill can’t do?

Purple plus

I am lucky enough to rent a beautiful Victorian house in vibrant/violent Kentish Town. I’ve been there a few years now and have had (with my flatmates) the bottom two floors, while the top floor was taken by a man in his sixties called Michael.

Michael had been a librarian at the University of London and was something of an artist. I only know this from second parties however, because Michael was the image of a hermit. He would be perfectly pleasant if spoken to directly, but would go to great lengths to avoid your eye in the street and often the only sign we had of his comings and goings was the faint scent of pipe smoke in the hallway. He had lived in the house for 33 years and nobody had ever been allowed up to his floor.

Late last year, I started to notice that he hadn’t picked up his post. Not thinking too much of this I assumed he had gone on holiday. Then one morning I smelled a faint aroma of raw chicken coming down the stairs. After shouting his name a few times I climbed the stairs for the first time, all the while the aroma turning into a stench. Before I turned the handle on the door I knew what I would find. Continue reading “Purple plus”

Dad

Today is my father’s birthday. 59 years ago today in a mudhut on the shores of Lake Victoria in Tanganyika (now Tanzania), he came squealing into this world and became the scion of the Haile family. I have always been fascinated by his childhood, spent in an alien country during the sunset of the British Empire and for many years have pestered him to take me back to where he was born. Maybe, when I have the ice out of my system, we will finally go.

Though I would find it hard to admit to his face (I am English), I do seem to have inherited more than just the gene for height and blonde hair from the chap. He was an Oxford Blue in Fencing and apparently was pretty handy at the Butterfly and that combined with my mother (who would be upset if I didn’t mention she was an Oxford Blue in Rowing), seems to have given me a little natural ability in the physical stakes, which is helpful considering my current profession.

Moreover, as I get older I do find myself drawn to interests that once were his alone. I now read less fiction and more history, I have started to devour books on philosophy, religion and science. One of his many admirable qualities is that he can talk fluently about a wide range of subjects and this is certainly something I aspire to. His support for some of my more crazy career decisions has always been unstinting (and at times financial) and I don’t thank him enough. Happy Birthday Dad, and thank you.

13.1 miles in Milton Keynes. . .

MK Half Marathonand not one of those miles passed through anywhere one could class as an area of outstanding natural beauty. Lots of underpasses though, those were nice. The way they prominently named each one of these identical concrete monuments to Le Corbusier (who has a lot to answer for) so that you wouldn’t think you were running in circles was extremely kind. Anyway I’m getting ahead of myself.

Ben, my sadistic partner in all things polar, informed me two weeks ago that as part of his training for the London Marathon we would be doing the Milton Keynes Half Marathon. Last year we had both been able to blag ‘celebrity places’ and found ourselves on the front line of the London Marathon hemmed in by Gordon Ramsey and the Cheeky Girls on either side. This year, Ben managed to score the last place, cruelly leaving me to my fate. However, with the kindness that he is famous for, he still insisted that I join him for the MK half.

I had managed to sustain the mother of all shin splints the week before, but after serious consultation with numerous health professionals decided that a shedload of ibuprofen should do the trick. A friendly/drunk doctor once reminded me that those maximum usage guidelines were meant to apply to 50lb grannies and thus my 185lb frame could probably up the dosage without growing a third arm on my forehead. I had put this to fine effect prior to a race in the Southern Ocean in 2000, where upon receiving the command that the bow team were not allowed more than one ibuprofen pill every four hours, we scoured the chemists of Buenos Aires until we found a little old lady that sold us some 800mg tablets that, I can only assume, she had acquired from the local horse doctor. A good settlement for all involved I felt. But I digress.

So Sunday morning found us stuck in the middle of a great mass of humanity wearing skimpy clothing and wishing that we were reproducing this scenario in Rio rather than Milton Keynes. The thing is, the race itself was brilliant. I ran almost exactly the same pace throughout and started surging through the pack around mile eight, which was a fantastic feeling. I was no longer just running to get round, I was running down the group ahead, passing them then targeting the next one, all the while singing the London Underground song happily in my head. I finished in 1:28:40 and picked up my gaudy orange medal of victory. Disappointingly, there was no cash prize attached to the medal, so I settled for swiping as much free lucozade sport (cures all known diseases) as I could carry and headed back home for a hot-dog eat-off with a professional skateboarder which I ignominiously lost 11 hot dogs to nine. You win some, you lose some.