Responding with impact: How PepsiCo and others are empowering passionate employees to help Ukrainian refugees

It has been 90 days since Russian tanks entered Ukraine to trigger a war that has convulsed the world, traumatized global supply chains, and sparked an economic crisis. Although many news channels don’t lead with the horrors in Eastern Europe, organizations worldwide have created grassroots initiatives to try to aid those in Ukraine.

From the start of the conflict, on February 24, many companies have been inundated with passionate employee-led responses to aid those caught in the crossfire. For example, PepsiCo staff in countries bordering Ukraine, such as Poland and Romania, are seeing first-hand the challenges faced by refugees. So the organization has taken a grassroots approach to empower staff to use their professional talents to take action in the crisis.

This article was first published on DigiDay’s future-of-work platform, WorkLife, in May 2022 – to continue reading please click HERE.

Hangover and ‘disappointment’ days: Unusual flexible work policies that will have you raising a glass

Imagine the chaotic scene: you wake up with a pounding head and bloodshot eyes, and last night’s clothes, which reek of alcohol, are strewn carelessly throughout your home. And, worst of all, you have to be in the office in 10 minutes.

Once upon a time, you might have “pulled a sickie,” but now you can be honest because you remember, thankfully, that your employer has a “hangover day” policy. So you message your boss to say you won’t be coming in today.

The Audit Lab, a digital marketing agency in Bolton, near Manchester in the U.K., established such a policy in the summer of 2019. As per the rules: “A hangover day is essentially a work from home day that is booked in last minute. Due to the nature of our industry, which can involve schmoozing with clients and networking, there are a lot of conferences, events and work dos. Our approach acknowledges that our staff may like to enjoy a drink or two at these events.” 

This article was first published on DigiDay’s WorkLife platform in May 2022 – to continue reading please click here.

Caught red-handed: What happens when employees are found watching pornography in the workplace?

When disgraced U.K. Conservative politician Neil Parish was caught red-handed watching pornography on his mobile phone in the House of Commons last week, his defense was messy. He claimed to have inadvertently stumbled across the explicit content after searching for farming equipment — specifically Claas Dominator combine harvesters.

But, as the late U.K. Labour politician and former chancellor Denis Healey famously said: “It’s a good thing to follow the first law of holes; if you are in one, stop digging.”

At the end of April, the unseemly incident quickly escalated. Parish bowed to public pressure and announced his resignation admitting a “moment of madness.” The scandal, however, brought into sharp focus the similarities — and contrasts — between employment law in the U.K. and the U.S., and what is deemed to be inappropriate in the workplace. In this case, it was telling that Parish, who represents the Devon, England constituency Tiverton and Honiton resigned but was not fired.

This article was first published on DigiDay’s WorkLife platform in May 2022 – to continue reading please click here.

Navigating the messy business of pets in the workplace – at home and in the office

Never work with children or animals, warns the old show-biz adage. So what happens if you acquired a pet during the pandemic — as millions of households did — and need to tend to your newish pooch or pussycat either at home while on videoconferencing calls or in the company workplace? 

When things go wrong, it can be highly amusing for everyone apart from the embarrassed owner and possibly their boss, especially if there is a mess to clean up. For instance, New York-based HR professional Harriet – a pseudonym WorkLife agreed to – recently suffered a “disgusting” experience while on a virtual call with her team. 

“In the background of the shot, I noticed my dog, Rooster, starting to poo,” she said. “I immediately pushed my camera up, so he was out of sight, put myself on mute, and used my best poker face. Within seconds he had defecated all over the room – something to do with eating a discarded takeaway-food wrapper the day before.”

This article was first published on DigiDay’s WorkLife platform in April 2022 – to continue reading please click here.

How employees are urging HR chiefs to ‘take action’ on social and political issues

As Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine drags into a fourth week, and the rest of the world looks on while the level of horror ratchets up daily, the pressure for organizations to respond is increasing.

Human resources professionals are bearing the brunt of the load. It is their responsibility to support employees, ensure internal communications are aligned with external messaging, and much more.

They didn’t teach wartime situations at HR management school. Still, neither did they teach how to handle a pandemic, and many have excelled in displaying the human side of HR in the last two years. That greater emphasis on compassion, empathy, and staff well-being will be critical, once more, with Putin’s bloody “special operation” likely to last for many more weeks.

This article was first published on DigiDay’s WorkLife platform in March 2022 – to continue reading please click here.

‘My role changed drastically overnight’: Ukraine HR execs share what they’re doing on the front line

Human resources teams across the globe are working tirelessly, encouraging employers to take a firm stance on the Ukraine invasion, ensuring deeds match words and internal and external communication is pitch-perfect, supporting staff well-being, and more. And all on top of their typical duties. Granted, it’s incredibly stressful right now — but for HR professionals on the front line, it’s far worse.

Consider the experiences of Ksenia Prozhogina, vice president of people at 3DLOOK, a retail tech company headquartered in San Mateo, California, with a research-and-development arm in Ukraine. She grew up in Nizhny Novgorod, western Russia, and has many friends still there, but her focus has been relocating 3DLOOK’s 74 Ukraine-based employees and their families away from danger.

This article was first published on DigiDay’s WorkLife platform in March 2022 – to continue reading please click here.

Meet Homeboy Industries: the California not-for-profit providing jobs to former gang members and incarcerated people

Jose Guevara — aka Manny — has been incarcerated five times and in all, has served about 25 years. However, in recent years, Guevara, now 62, has steered clear of trouble, which he credits to his employer, Homeboy Electronics Recycling, where he works as a long-haul driver. 

“I’m the main driver of the big truck,” he says with a grin. “I’ve been to Utah, San Francisco, and Sacramento, and I love that this company trusts me with its truck and merchandise. We are growing, and I’m so proud to be part of it. Without my work here, there is a high chance I would be back in prison right now.”

This article was first published on DigiDay’s WorkLife platform in December 2021 – to continue reading please click here.

Inside the St Andrews success story: how Prince William’s university became the best in the land

There’s nothing like studying alongside a Duke for a memorable student experience – but there’s more to my alma mater than Royal approval

My alma mater, the University of St Andrews, found on a picturesque coastal stretch of east Fife, has always been my number one. But the ‘auld grey toon’ has now also been named top in a prominent university guide – bettering the Oxbridge duopoly for the first time in nearly 30 years of the award’s history.

In a stroke of incredible fortune almost exactly 20 years ago, my first tutorial group, led by the urbane Prof Brendan Cassidy, was composed of me, seven female students and a certain male Royal. We became pals; he played in my Sunday league football team (The Strokers), and I attended his 21st birthday party at Windsor Castle.

Granted, there’s nothing like studying alongside Prince William to make for a wildly enjoyable student experience, but St Andrews possesses an unparalleled allure and long history that help boost the “student satisfaction” rating as assessed by the judges.

Before the heir to the throne and his future wife enrolled, people thought of St Andrews primarily as the home of golf. And before that, almost a millennium ago, it was the ecclesiastical capital of Scotland with a magnificent cathedral and one of the most important pilgrimage destinations in Europe. The big draw was that it was supposed to be the resting place of Andrew the Apostle’s bones, from which it takes its name. 

The town flourished thanks to pilgrim footfall. Scotland’s oldest university (and third in the English-speaking world behind Oxford and Cambridge) was founded in 1413, some 341 years before The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews was established. 

However, the complexion of the town was scarred following the violent Scottish Reformation in the mid-16th century. The Martyrs Memorial stands proud on the Scores, overlooking the sea – and close to where I lived in my final year. 

One wonders what those martyrs and Saint Andrew would have made of the confident young men, with pink trousers and upturned collars, and plummy-voiced, wannabe princesses I studied with in the early noughties. 

However, on the face of it, St Andrews is a bizarre choice for further education. Firstly, it is small – students make up around half of the town’s 18,390 population – and has just three main streets. Secondly, there is no nightclub, although arguably the annual Raisin Weekend, which culminates in a drunken foam party for freshers on the main quadrangle, makes up for that. Plus there’s always Dundee for dancing – just a 30-minute taxi ride away.

But there is so much to this tiny town, which is flanked by two long, sandy beaches – West Sands (where the opening shots of Chariots of Fire were filmed) and East Sands. With its world-class teaching and stunning surroundings, the university offers a powerful proposition, according to Lord Knight – former chief education adviser to Tes Global – who adds that its diminutive size can sometimes be part of its appeal. “Students like the human scale of a small university in a small place,” he says. “St Andrews is doing well by focusing on what counts: teaching quality and student satisfaction.

“Tuition is relatively well resourced in a great environment that makes for strong engagement and excellent outcomes. Fuse that with a rich history, international outlook and subject strengths in fields that are important to the economy, and you have a winning combination.”

Indeed, the latest rankings show St Andrews tops the charts in the UK for seven subjects: computer science, business management, English (for which straight As are now required), philosophy, physics and astronomy, Middle East and African studies, and international relations. 

That the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are alumni has raised its profile and made it a more desirable place to study and teach. And despite its storied history, the university’s progressive and proactive approach to supporting the wellbeing of students has impressed. For example, its Can Do initiative – a joint strategy between the university and the Students’ Association – was started primarily to reimagine, experiment with and contribute to the St Andrews student experience.

Set up in October 2020, it has provided “space for students and staff to have normal interactions and social activities” even during the pandemic, says Lottie Doherty, president of the St Andrews Students’ Association. A marquee was set up and they organised outdoor socials such as a pier walk. Where possible, in-person teaching has happened for the past year.

Lord Knight believes this bold and brave approach to engage students, which was a stark contrast to the prison-like experiences of students at many other universities in the last year, has been rightly applauded. “The student satisfaction ratings have strengthened during Covid against a backdrop of many young people nationally struggling with mental health, and students questioning the value for money of online tuition,” he continues.

Professor Sally Mapstone, principal and vice-chancellor of the university, is revelling in the news, understandably. “As one community, we constantly strive for excellence, and have a strategy that hasn’t been afraid to believe St Andrews could challenge at the very top by combining the best teaching, world-leading research, and an unswerving commitment to student satisfaction and achievement,” she says.

Whether or not St Andrews is better than studying at Oxbridge is a moot point. Echoing Dame Mary Beard’s comments that we would do well not to be “fixated” by Oxford and Cambridge, Lord Knight adds: “Culturally, our country is over-obsessed with Oxbridge. St Andrews is an example of the strength and depth we have elsewhere in research, in teaching and in delivering for students the experience they need to be successful adults.”

The auld grey toon will always win for me. It has provided a vibrant life and career, and I’m grateful to have studied there two decades ago – not least because I wouldn’t have had the grades to attend the UK’s new top university today.

This piece was originally published in The Telegraph in September 2021

Sport’s biggest cheats: 10 instances of notorious unsporting behaviour

When 9.79*, a film about the ill-fated men’s 100-metre final at the 1988 Olympics, sprinted into cinemas, Oliver Pickup selected his 10 most dastardly cheats

Ben Johnson 

In August 2013, the British Board of Film Classification certified that the film 9.79* – a 83-minute documentary about the infamous men’s 100-metres final at the Seoul Olympics in 1988, featuring interviews with all eight runners – would be classified as PG, meaning it would require parental guidance, as it “contains mild language and references to performance-enhancing drugs”. 

Ironically, the BBFC added that “this work was passed uncut”, which is more than can be said for the chief protagonist, a Jamaican-born sprinter who moved to Ontario as a teenager, and his colleagues when they took to the starting blocks in South Korea in what would be dubbed “the dirtiest race in history”.

With his yellow, bulging eyes and increasingly bizarre behaviour leading up to the showdown it was – in hindsight – no surprise that the adopted Canadian was wired and, three days after breaking his own world record (reaching a peak speed of 27mph), was disqualified after his urine samples contained stanozolol, an anabolic steroid. Canada were forced to hand back their first-ever gold medal.

But it seems that Johnson was not alone, and Carl Lewis – the 26-year-old’s biggest rival then, and the man named ‘Olympian of the Century’ by Sports Illustrated – was later found to be one of 10 men in the 20-strong list of quickest-ever 100-metre runners to be scratched off through gobbling performance enhancers. Some 25 years ago the outing of Johnson’s betrayal shook the sporting world – it would be the equivalent of Usain Bolt being busted now – and subsequently the event has been tainted with suspicion ever since.

Fred Lorz 

The marathon at the 1904 St Louis Olympic Games was held on a sweltering afternoon – the mercury on thermometers rose to 90 degrees Fahrenheit – and followed a challenging, mountainous course; the combination meant that just 14 of the 32 starters completed the race. 

First back was New Yorker Lorz, who staggered home in three hours and 13 minutes. Having been congratulated by – and photographed with – Alice Roosevelt, the President’s daughter, Lorz was just about to receive the gold medal when it became apparent that he had covered 11 of the 26.2 miles as a car passenger. The crowd’s acclaim immediately turned to anger and abuse, and Lorz was handed a lifetime ban which was later lifted. 

The controversy was not to stop there, however. British-born Thomas Hicks, the American who was subsequently handed the gold medal, was aided by a heady mix of strychnine sulfate (a common rat poison) and brandy – a fusion which would not have been allowed in later years. Even though he was supported by his trainers, who had administered the potion to help him complete the course, when he crossed the finish, he was still considered the victor. Rather ingloriously Hicks needed to be carried off the track, and might have died there in the St Louis stadium, had he not been immediately treated by several doctors.

Andy Haden 

On Nov 11, 1978, the mighty New Zealand All Black rugby team faced Wales at Cardiff Arms Park and, trailing 12-10 with seconds ticking down on what would have been their first defeat of the tour, resorted to dirty tactics. 

The All Blacks won a lineout deep in the opposition half and as the ball was thrown in, lock Haden – hardly the most flimsy character at at 6ft 6in and 250lbs – fell away from the set-piece as though illegally shoved. The conned referee awarded a penalty to the visitors, which full-back Brian McKechnie duly converted (although the dual international would get his comeuppance – see below). 

Although the All Blacks went on to win the game and the grand slam that year, the incident became known as “the great dive to victory”, and followed Haden, winner of 117 international caps, throughout his career. 

Neil Back 

In the closing minutes of the 2002 Heineken Cup final at the Millennium Stadium, Leicester Tigers, up 15-9, were looking to hold on to their slender lead against a powerful Munster team. Facing an opposition scrum on their own five-metre line and under tumultuous pressure, the England back-row forward, on the blindside of the referee, illegally nudged the ball out of Munster scrum-half, Peter Stringer’s hands, and back into the scrum on Leicester’s side. 

The official missed the incident and Leicester gleefully punted the ball clear and won the game, leaving the Irish club fuming. In ironic reference to Diego Maradona’s own misdeeds against England’s football team in 1986 the moment became known as ‘Hand of Back’.

Michel Pollentier 

Forget the recent revelations about Lance Armstrong and his rivals, when it came to cheating in the Tour de France this Belgian rider literally took the piss. After scaling Alpe d’Huez and gaining the famous yellow jersey in the 1978 Tour, the race leader failed his post-stage drug test – not because anything illegal had been found in his urine sample, but because the urine sample wasn’t his. 

Officials organising the post-stage test became suspicious when he “began pumping his elbow in and out as if playing a set of bagpipes”, conjuring up a scene from Withnail and I which remained on the cutting floor. 

When ordered to lift his top, Pollentier did so to uncover a complex plumbing system running from a rubber, urine-filled bulb under his arm to the test tube. 

David Robertson 

In the 1985 qualifying round for the Open at Deal, Kent, the former Scottish boys champion took advantage of golf’s culture of honesty and self-regulation. After 14 holes Robertson’s playing companions called an official who disqualified him for repeatedly replacing his ball incorrectly on the greens. 

By arriving on the green first Robertson would appear to mark his ball before surreptitiously moving it closer to the hole. The shamed golfer was fined £20,000 and banned from the PGA European Tour for 20 years. 

Sylvester Carmouche 

On a very foggy day in January 1990, at Louisiana’s Delta Downs track, Carmouche aroused the suspicions of the stewards by riding home 23-1 outsider Landing Officer by 24 lengths in just a second over the course record. 

It transpired that Carmouche, who initially protested his innocence, had dropped out of the one-mile race as soon as he was out of view, only to rejoin it just before the rest of the field came round on the second lap. He finally admitted what he had done and served a ban for eight years. 

Michelle Smith de Bruin 

She was the darling of Ireland after winning three swimming gold medals at Atlanta 1996 – the only gold medals Ireland had ever been awarded* – and one bronze. Suspicions of foul play were voiced by rivals, however, and the fact that her husband and coach – the former Dutch discus-thrower Erik de Bruin – had served a four-year ban for testing positive for illegal levels of testosterone, only elevated those rumours. 

Two years after the success at Atlanta the swimmer was banned for four years, not for testing positive, but for switching her urine sample. After laboratory analysis the sample, which had “a very strong whiskey odour” was found to contain traces of the golden nectar. 

Although Smith de Bruin was not stripped of her medals – as only samples subsequent to her Olympic involvement tested positive – she became a hate figure among Irish people and, at 28, realised that her time in the pool was over, so now practices law as a barrister.

*Ireland did also win a gold medal at Athens 2004 in show jumping, only for the horse to fail a drugs test, therefore the medal was lost. 

Boris Onischenko 

Representing Ukraine in the 1976 Montreal Olympics, the respected pentathlete was looking to improve on the silver medal he had been awarded four years previously in Munich. 

In his desire to win, Onischenko bent the rules by using a crooked sword. Having wired a switch into the handle of his épée he was able him to claim an electronic ‘hit’ even when he missed. When Great Britain’s Adrian Parker and then countryman Jim Fox reported their doubts over the authenticity of Onischenko’s victories, his weapon was replaced, and he was eventually disqualified. Fencing rules were subsequently changed so that grips that could hide wires or switches were banned. 

Trevor Chappell 

The Australian did not cheat as such, but his actions simply weren’t cricket, in gentlemanly terms; his unsporting behaviour caused the rules of the game to change.

On Feb 1, 1981, New Zealand were chasing Australia’s 235 in the third final of the 1980-81 Benson & Hedges World Cup Series. With one over left to bowl New Zealand required 15 runs to seal an unlikely victory. Aussie captain Greg Chappell called his youngest brother, Trevor, on to bowl. 

Off the first five balls nine runs were scored and two wickets fell, leaving the new batsman Brian McKechnie (see above) with one ball to score a six to win the game. Chappell senior ordered his brother to bowl the remaining ball underarm, crown green bowling style. 

Trevor executed his captain and brother’s plan, to the disgust of McKechnie, who threw his bat to the ground after defending the ball, and the dismay of his Australian team-mates. 

Due to the ensuing uproar, which almost caused an international incident, underarm bowling was promptly banned and Chappell has never been forgiven by New Zealand or Australian cricket fans alike.

This article first appeared in The Telegraph in August 2013

Introducing Rufus the hawk: the official bird scarer of the Wimbledon Championships

There was a time when ‘birds stopped play’ was a legitimate reason for downing rackets at Wimbledon. That was before Rufus the hawk, official bird scarer, was drafted in to ensure avian invasions are kept to a minimum.

The sky’s the limit for young players at Wimbledon, where a good performance can see their careers take off. But one star of the show will be flying higher than most at the prestigious venue with a vital job to do: Rufus the Harris Hawk.

Rufus is the tournament’s official bird scarer, tasked with frightening pigeons away from the courts. ‘‘Bird stops play’’ used to be a regular problem at Wimbledon, but since 2000 Avian Environmental Consultants Ltd, based in Northamptonshire, has provided hawks to eliminate the problem.

Rufus, who has been working at Wimbledon since 2007, is a celebrity in the tennis world. He regularly poses for pictures during the tournament, has earned a Blue Peter badge and has more than 9,000 followers on Twitter.

Imogen Davis, his handler (and social media manager) since 2012 and director of Avian Environmental Consultants, says: “Pigeons don’t know the difference between eating grass seed when the tennis is on and when there is no play, and that can cause big interruptions. As a player concentration is crucial, so we do our bit to limit that disruption.

“There is an intensive training process, and it is all food-motivated. Harris hawks are not quite like a pet – they don’t just follow you around because they love you – and are one of the few birds in the world that hunt socially; they associate the handlers with food and consider us part of their pack.

“When a pigeon or another bird spots Rufus it’s all about fight or flight, and when a huge Harris hawk with sizeable talons is flying at them they would be daft to choose the first option. The most important part of my job is to monitor his weight.

“His optimum flying weight is 1lb 6oz, so if he is at that weight I know that he is going to be keen enough to chase any birds away but not so keen that he is going to grab it and fill himself up on a pigeon.”

In preparation for The Championships, Rufus, whose kidnapping in June 2012 triggered global interest (he was found three days after being stolen from the back of Ms Davis’s car), visits the venue most weeks of the year to encourage local birds to roost away from the grounds.

During the competition he is flown from 5am, before the gates open. Ms Davis says that the Wimbledon fortnight is “incredibly tiring” and adds: “I am up from 4am and we are working at The Championships until about 10am every morning. There are some benefits – we get to see some incredible sunrises and meet celebrities, including Andy Murray and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall – but by the time most of the public have entered we have gone, because it’s our job to make sure all the birds are out of the way before the matches start.

“Rufus will not be flying that whole time; he knows all of the pigeons’ favourite spots to hang out, and he checks them to see there is nothing that might cause any trouble. As we bought Rufus when he was 16 weeks he trained at Wimbledon – it’s basically his playground, and he loves it here.”

This article, sponsored by Jaguar, was first published by The Telegraph in July 2017

How the past 12 months have changed the face of fatherhood

Homeworking and homeschooling enforced by coronavirus restrictions gave dads more time with their offspring, and both parties, as well as mothers, are enjoying the benefits

The coronavirus crisis has been a spur for transformation, with several aspects of our lives changing at a gallop, and that includes the typical role of a father. During the epochal events of 2020 and into 2021, the meaning of fatherhood has been profoundly altered, and for the better.

Most dads have welcomed with open arms the opportunity to spend more time with their offspring through lockdown – even if it meant them attempting to get their heads around quadratic equations and decimal fractions again while homeschooling. 

Statistically, mothers bore the brunt of the increased parenting duties, but dads played a more significant part, on average, than they did before the pandemic. The Office for National Statistics data supports this: during the UK’s first lockdown, which began in late March 2020, the amount of childcare provided by fathers jumped 58 per cent, while their working hours were reduced by almost 100 minutes per day.

“There is no doubt that the events of 2020 have changed the face of fatherhood,” says Dr Amanda Gummer, a child psychologist, parenting expert and author of Dr Gummer’s Good Play Guide. “I believe many dads have seen the benefits of this way of life now, and therefore will be unwilling to go fully back to how it was before.”

Dr Gummer points to a recent study in the US by Making Caring Common that revealed almost 70 per cent of fathers felt closer to their children during the coronavirus crisis. Thanks to the move to hybrid working, with people performing their jobs at home and at the office, she is confident fathers will continue to relish a more active role in parenting in the coming weeks, months and years. 

“Homeworking and homeschooling have significantly altered what it means to be a man,” she continues. “Since some normality has returned, with the children returning to school, I have seen more dads performing school drop-offs and pick-ups than ever before. Being a father now means being more involved in the day-to-day activities of your child’s life – pre-pandemic, not many dads got to experience this to the extent that is possible now.”

Bilkis Miah, director and co-founder of You Be You, a not-for-profit organisation that aims to inspire primary school children and break gender stereotypes, is similarly optimistic that the more engaged father is here to stay – and this extends to other areas that traditionally have been the women’s domain. 

“Men have had to step up and fill in gaps, particularly for those who have key workers as partners,” she says. “The result: more time spent with children and sharing the ‘load’ of parenthood. 

“Men are now doing more housework and childcare than ever before. A recent report highlighted how the number of parents saying they shared housework relatively equally jumped from 26 per cent before Covid-19 to 41 per cent during the pandemic.”

Miah is hopeful that the increased role played by fathers since early 2020 will create a virtuous circle that will inform and empower future generations. “Being more present at home enables men to flourish as fathers, but it also generates a deeper bond with their children,” she adds. “Moreover, this evolution of fatherhood helps lay the foundation of the ‘new normal’. With luck, young boys can take these lessons forward and be inspired to be better fathers themselves.”

This article was originally published by the Telegraph in May 2021, and sponsored by Armani

What does it mean to be a man in 2021?

Modern men appear more willing to show their vulnerabilities – and we should celebrate that this is progress being made

As a 30-something father of two, with a marriage, mortgage and all the accompanying mayhem, I have often reflected this past year, while locked down, what it means to be a modern man. 

Having moved house, welcomed our youngest child, bought a puppy, and worked from home since the start of the pandemic, I’ve embraced the opportunity to be more available to and active with my lovely, growing family, and learnt new skills as a husband and dad.

Certainly, there has been a dramatic evolution in masculinity in the last few years, with male role models queuing up to urge others to eschew supposedly typical characteristics of bottling-up emotions and not asking for help or guidance. 

The coronavirus crisis has catalysed the trend towards a softer, more-rounded man, as we have been forced to be more, well, human, display our vulnerabilities, and communicate more kindness and calmness. 

Admittedly, the pandemic has had a polarising effect, and some men have reverted to stale stereotypes – unfortunately for those people and especially those around them. The majority, though, have embraced change and welcomed the chance to reimagine what it means to be a man in 2021.

Child psychologist and parenting expert Dr Amanda Gummer warns that “outdated concepts of masculinity are dangerous for many reasons” – not least because they can stop men who are struggling to reach out for help. 

“In years gone by, young men have been taught that ‘boys do not cry’ and that they have to be tough and strong,” she says. “Showing emotions or verbalising these feelings have often been viewed as a sign of weakness in a man.”

Dr Gummer continues: “Although there has been a shift in this viewpoint, suicide is still the single biggest killer of men aged under 45 in the UK. It is these outdated concepts that act as undertone within our society, stop men from speaking out and keep these statistics high.”

Thankfully, things are changing for the better – and rapidly. “Masculinity is in a state of flux,” suggests Neil Wilkie, a psychotherapist and author of Reset: The Relationship Paradigm. “In the olden days, the men would go to work. Women would be ready for when the men returned, with a tidy house, groomed children and dinner on the table.”

In 2021, there is greater gender equality, Wilkie says – and while most celebrate this parity and progress, some men have struggled to come to terms with the new reality.

“Now their earnings and employment prospects have declined, and they are in competition with women for most jobs,” he continues. “The change in societal norms and roles is eroding their self-esteem and a sense of purpose.

“Traditional masculinity is about strength, courage, assertiveness and independence. The new masculinity needs to be about self-awareness, expressing vulnerability and emotions, communicating by listening, helping others and connecting rather than controlling.”

Dr Ashley Morgan, a Masculinities Scholar at Cardiff Metropolitan University, agrees. “There is currently a great deal of conflict between ‘traditional’ values of masculinity – dominance, control, not demonstrating emotions, other than anger – and what might be termed ‘softer’ masculinity, which is the opposite of those things,” she adds.

So here’s to all the other men and fathers who are starting to show their softer side and being comfortable taking on more “traditionally female” duties. The direction of travel is clear: the modern man is calm, kind and vocal – in a good way.

This article was originally published by the Telegraph in May 2021, and sponsored by Armani

Seven tips on how to blag being a beer expert

In early 2017, three years before the coronavirus crisis, Oliver Pickup found out how to become a beer expert in a couple of hours – though some of the details may have been forgotten through alcohol-induced amnesia

There are now over 1,700 breweries in the UK – the most since before World War II – and never has the market been so awash with varieties of beer. For British-based lager and ale lovers, these are heady times (geddit?) indeed.

Despite pubs calling last orders for the final time with alarming regularity, brewers’ fortunes are far from drooping, thanks to an increasingly discerning and expanding customer base. Last year, for instance, there was more land set aside for hops in Britain than before the 1960s, and over in America they can’t keep up with demand, according to Christine Cryne, an expert on the subject.

But how, with such a vast choice, does one go about navigating this wild world of beer? I met up with Christine – a master trainer and former director of The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) – at The Harp in London’s Covent Garden to gain pointers on how to blag being an authority on the subject. It’s surprisingly easy, thankfully. So if you want to impress your mates with some beer knowledge, as I did, here are some handy hints. But beware: no one likes an immodest beer bore, so use these responsibly, and in moderation.

  1. Back to beer basics

“By and large 95 per cent of all beer is water,” says Christine, raising up a half pint of Hophead (3.8 per cent alcohol) produced by Dark Star Brewing Co., from West Sussex. “Most beer in the UK is simple, in terms of ingredients. It consists of hops, water, yeast, and malt, which is roasted barley.

“The malt provides the sugar, the yeast eats the sugar, and then you are left with the alcohol. The process involves stewing water and malt, and then you boil and add the hops for flavour.”

2. Making the malt of it

“This Hophead is a pale beer,” continues Christine, “and if you hold it to the light you will see it is clear, and light in colour. That indicates that a pale malt was used to make it. A majority of British beers use a pale malt as a base – this is barley roasted quite lightly.” 

There are plenty of other types of malt used in the UK, with Vienna malt a more expensive option than the pale, and roasted malt, used for heavier beers, can give a chocolate flavouring, for example. Crystal malt creates darker-coloured ales, and caramelised amber malt similarly colours the drink. And in a bid to go do their bit for sustainability, once the sugar is extracted from the malts, the brewer will often sell it to farmers as wild-cattle feed.

3. Hoppy and you know it

Christine pulls a bag of what looks like an ounce of skunk from her handbag, and plonks it down on the bar, next to her half-drunk Hophead. Alarmed, and fearful of being chucked out of The Harp (CAMRA pub of the year in 2010) or worse getting arrested, I ask what on earth she has presented. “These are Goldings hops – a popular hop in traditional-style British beers – and they are in fact a relative of the cannabis family,” she says. “And interestingly they are also soporific. So when you fall asleep after too much beer, perhaps it’s not always down to the amount of alcohol you have drunk.

“Rub some of the leaves on your hands – but don’t eat it – and smell. This is used by Fullers in their London Pride and ESB, for example, and very popular. The fruity character in this Hophead and the bitter finish comes from the hops. In these lighter beers, the hops will provide the bitterness. And, if you want a bitter taste, add the hops at the start of the boiling process. For a more aromatic flavour, put them in at the end.”

4. Be nosey

 “To determine flavour, the nose is more sensitive than the palette,” Christine continues, as we begin our second half pints, this time opting for Harvey’s Sussex Best (4.0 per cent). “But sniffing a beer which is up to the brim of the glass is no good. You have to have a few gulps so that the flavour is on the glass. In fact, the ideal vessel to smell and taste beer in is a sherry glass.”

Christine, organiser of the London Drinker Beer & Cider Festival – which takes place from March 8-10, 2017, at Camden Centre – says she has four criteria to consider when judging beer: appearance, aroma, taste, and aftertaste. “Ultimately, I want to see whether it is an easy-drinking beer,” she continues. “It has to be a balanced beer, and one which has a distinctive, memorable taste. The question is: ‘Would you recommend it to a mate, and have a second pint of it?’”

5. Savour the flavour

The main reason many fields had the hops removed after World War II was because fashion dictated a lighter-charactered beer with a subtle taste. “Now there are more varieties than ever before, and it’s really exciting,” enthuses Christine. “While American brewers like to go “big and bold” with their flavours of hops, in Britain we are catching up, becoming more innovative in our hops and we now enjoy a range of beers using hops from all around the world.

“The wheat beers we have are made with wheat, rather than malt, and naturally have a lemony taste,” Christine says, finishing her second half pint: a Harvey’s Sussex Best (4 per cent). “And lagers use bottom-fermenting yeast which can have many different flavours, including bubblegum. And it’s funny how fashions change, and trends differ geographically; for instance, if traditional UK tastes of cloves it means it is off, whereas in Germany it is desirable.”

6. Turning beer in to wine

As we begin to sup our third half pint, a Harvey’s Old Ale (4.8 per cent), Christine points out the beautiful ruby colouration. This is created by fusing pale malt with some dark malts, and it smells like used coffee granules. Given the unusual hue, I joke that it looks a little like red wine. 

Christine says that it has become trendy for brewers to age beer in the UK, and after a certain amount of time the flavour does in fact eventually become wine-like. To some it’s too bizarre to even consider drinking such a beer, but Christine love is. The oldest beer she has ever tried? A 1910 Bass Bitter, which was “lovely”, she adds with a grin. 

7. Pairing pints with food

As a general rule, we prefer to sip lighter beers in the summer, whereas the more complex, darker ales are the go-to drinks for the long, cold winter months. It’s all a matter of taste, of course, but on that subject Christine has some food tips, as we finish up our session in The Harp. 

“Golden ales are brilliant with fish,” she starts, “and stronger golden ales work well with soft, rich, creamy cheeses like camembert and brie. They really cut through the fatty character. Best bitters [with an alcohol content between 4 and 4.6 per cent] are superb with lamb, burgers, and a big slab of cheddar cheese. I like a dark beer to accompany dessert, too. It works well with a steamed chocolate pudding.”

As a final piece of – vital – advice, Christine adds: “You are less likely to have a bad hangover if you firstly start with beers that have lower alcohol percentages and work your way up in order, and secondly if you drink half a pint of water with every pint of ale. And remember to enjoy your drink – don’t neck it. You wouldn’t do that with wine, so why would you down a beer?”

Wise words, indeed. 

This article was first published in The Telegraph in January 2017

FT Masterclass: Commando course with Brian Adcock

A former Royal Marine shows how to make it through an obstacle course

I’m waist-deep in thick, malodorous sludge. But right now the pong is the very least of my worries: a 6ft 4in former Royal Marine is bellowing at me from the riverbank.

“Spread out your body so there’s more surface area,” Brian Adcock orders, “then I can haul you in when you’re within range.” This sluggish, squelchy wading towards safety is the result of a failed, and deeply inelegant, attempt at a suspended commando crawl on an obstacle rather menacingly named The Chasm.

After losing balance, I had flipped off a horizontal rope two metres above the swamp-like waters. Following what seems an age, I manage to heave my body — heavier due to the now-sodden combat uniform I’ve been issued with — back on terra firma.

The dreaded sheep dip (Tom Jamieson)

“Well done, good effort,” says Adcock, clapping my back with his spade-like hand. “You can take a chuck up for that.” Seeing my confused expression — even between the streaks of camouflage paint daubed on my face — the 45-year-old explains: “In Royal Marine parlance, that means give yourself a round of applause.”

Even though I am soaked through and stinky, the 6km obstacle course, studded with 15 challenges, is proving fun. Adcock explains that to master the commando crawl, my vertically pointed left leg should be more relaxed, “acting as a keel” while I shuffle along the rope with my hooked right leg pumping, piston-like, in unison with my arms.

Our lesson is taking place in the grounds of Hever Castle in Kent, where Adcock is holding an obstacle course event called Commando Series. It is a picturesque setting — the estate was the childhood home of Anne Boleyn — but with the dreaded Sheep Dip and a 12ft wall still to overcome, this is no time to lose my head.

Obstacle course racing (OCR) is a fast-growing sport. While there are no official figures for the UK, there were 1,370 events in the US last year, with about five million participants — up from 354 events in 2012. The second annual world championships took place in Ohio last month, encompassing eight miles of hellish competition for the most hardy.

Adcock, who is used to organising mass participation events after being event director for the Millennium Youth Games and establishing the popular Castle Triathlon Series in 2009, says the UK can add something unique to the sport. “It may sound a bit arrogant but Royal Marines generally do it better than most. After all, assault courses were — and still are — used to prepare elite soldiers for battle.”

The obstacles are based on those that the original British commandos used at Spean Bridge, a godforsaken place in the Highlands near Fort William, during the second world war. Winston Churchill had seen Boer commandos using guerrilla warfare against British troops when he was a young war correspondent. After Dunkirk, he copied those tactics and mobilised an elite group of soldiers to boost morale by creating little pockets of chaos in occupied Europe.

“Ultimately, from a commando perspective, obstacle courses make sure that your bloke is in good shape when it comes to pulling the trigger, so he can best take aim and kill somebody,” explains Adcock. “That’s the root of OCR. Of course, we are not going around with a weapon and a 30kg pack on our backs but it’s fun and brings out the kid in a lot of people.”

Adcock himself endured 14 months of gruelling training at the Royal Marines’ commando training centre in Lympstone, Devon, in what he calls a “seminal” period of his life. He then served in the marines for seven years, latterly as a helicopter pilot, though he isn’t allowed to divulge any details. For two years he held the record for the notorious Tarzan assault course at Lympstone. (It starts with a death slide, concludes with a rope climb up a 30ft near-vertical wall, and should be completed in “full fighting order” — ie, all the kit.)

As we approach the monkey bars, I eye the horizontal ladder above our heads with trepidation. Adcock barks instructions as I clumsily swing across the bars with more sludge below. “Keep your lower body as still as possible,” he suggests. I obey, and find it quicker to power from pole to pole.

I’m relieved at getting this far, having prevailed over another commando favourite, the Smarty Tubes, by pulling myself along with my thrusting elbows. I’ve survived the Catacombs of Doom, and conquered Peter’s Pool — a 30m-wide clay pit — neck deep in chilly, murky water.

I have slid, slipped and sloshed my way round the course. Occasionally we have come “under fire”, with smoke bombs, explosions and replica gun shots. Ultimately, obstacle courses make sure your bloke is in good shape when it comes to pulling the trigger Nonetheless, I still feel daunted as I face the last two obstacles.

The Sheep Dip is a liquid filled, trough-like structure similar to the ones used to remove sheep’s parasites and contains a two-metre long, submerged drainage pipe. As I tentatively enter the water, Adcock tells me to put my hands, thumbs up, at the top of tunnel I’m about to dive through. That, and not to kick when horizontal in the water so that the commando to my rear can shove me to the other side. I dive on the count of three, whizzing along the narrow pipe. At the other end an instructor yanks me to the surface and orientates me.

The final obstacle is a 12ft wall. “It’s actually 13½ft,” says Adcock looking ahead. “Use the vertical rope, and the netting, leaning your body close to the face.” A 20-second, temple‑bulging clamber later, I’m on top of the wall, and feeling on top of the world. Gleeful yet weary, I can’t help but exhale a loud cheer.

As a reward for completing the route, Adcock hands me a cap comforter, an item worn by those second world war commandos. Not quite a green beret, but still symbolic of my achievement. Grinning, he adds: “You can take a chuck up.”

This article was first published in the Financial Times Weekend in November 2015

One man and his horse

Nic Fiddian-Green has been studying the horse’s head for nearly 30 years and has gained public acclaim with his sculpture at Marble Arch. He discusses with Oliver Pickup his artistic journey, near-death scrapes and taking George, his pet horse, to preview shows

Nic Fiddian-Green, the artist behind the majestic, giant vertical horse’s head on the East Lawn at Marble Arch in London, restlessly follows a dream. The 33 ft’ Horse at Water’, situated at one of the capital’s most important crossroads – an axis where the Rolls-Royces of Park Lane merge with the Middle Eastern bustle of Edgware Road, Oxford Street’s shoppers and the cool urbanites of Notting Hill – has elevated the 48-year-old into the public’s appreciative gaze.

For almost 30 years, the Hampshire-born sculptor, heralded as Britain’s answer to Auguste Rodin, has toiled tirelessly to perfect his obsession; to, as he says, “re-draw the line of the horse”. While wealthy aristocrats and Hollywood stars can boast owning a Fiddian-Green head, his work has seldom been on public display. The Marble Arch sculpture has brought his art to a much wider global audience and spawned yet more grand-scale ambitions.

In mid-September 2011, I visited Fiddian-Green at his Surrey farmhouse, not knowing what to expect. I had been notified about his eccentricities by staff at the Sladmore Galleries in Bruton Place, Mayfair, and Jermyn Street, where his acclaimed summer exhibition had just concluded.

“Make sure you have a good sleep, so you have plenty of energy – you’ll need it,” one warned, recalling how, when he first showed at the Sladmore in 1999, “with all the great and good of the art world in attendance, he clip-clopped into the gallery on his horse, and left hoof prints all over the place”.

Just as my taxi driver’s SatNav declares us lost in deepest Surrey, I gain my first sighting of Fiddian-Green, as he zooms past and gesticulates – wildly and wordlessly – from a battered Land Rover’s window.

The cab trails him up a narrow, muddy lane that leads to the drive of a sprawling residence, complete with barns, stables and various vintage cars. After paying my fare, I turn to see the Land Rover’s driver’s door flung open and no sign of the man I’m supposed to be interviewing.

I enter the building and call out, but there’s no reply. For 15 minutes, I wander, baffled, through the house, where Fiddian-Green resides with his wife, Henri, and their three children. In the happy hodge-podge of the kitchen, I marvel at an unfinished full-size kit-car, family photographs, stacks of art books, and – of course – a number of the sculptor’s famous equine heads.

Suddenly he bounds in and greets me with a wolfish grin before rushing off to attend to various urgent phone calls, including the arrangement of a bobble-hat fitting.

When, with coffee mugs in hand, we eventually sit down some time later, I ask him about the incident at Sladmore: was it true that he had entered the preview show in one of London’s most respected galleries on horseback? “I know, it was bonkers,” he smiles, “but that was George, my horse, and I was pleased that he had made it to the show.”

Fiddian-Green, who graduated from Wimbledon School of Art before completing an MA at Central St Martins College of Art with a focus on Lost Wax Casting, explains where his passion for the horse’s head originated. At the British Museum in 1983 when, as a student at Chelsea School of Art, he set eyes on the 2,400-year-old marble Selene Horse, purloined by Lord Elgin from the Acropolis. And his world was altered, his artistic purpose found. This classical Greek sculpture, displaying elegance, poise and perspective, became his muse and remains a constant reference point.

The Selene head is referenced in his 35ft-high ‘Artemis’ on Trundle Hill near Goodwood, and again at the recent Sladmore exhibition, when a 14ft by 12ft equine head – on sale for £345,000 – took up the main room on Jermyn Street.

Rather than simply producing similar pieces, however, Fiddian-Green has spent his career striving for subtle ways to develop his subject to make it more spiritually rewarding, beautiful, and relevant for the modern world.

The horse, an animal so deeply embedded in our culture, has been a critical feature throughout art history. Indeed, the earliest example of art found in Britain was a horse’s head carved into bone from around 10,000 BC.

But since the horse has become less relevant in society, there have been times when Fiddian-Green has questioned whether he needed to re-adjust his focus. After beginning his artistic journey in the mid-1980s, he was dismayed by the early 1990s that the animals in formaldehyde by Damien Hirst, two years his junior, were so popular.

He recalls those early days working hard to perfect technique in the shed at the bottom of his garden, while Hirst’s work was all the rage.

“That was where art was moving and where the museums were looking – it was where the money was,” he says, “and what I was doing was concentrating on the complete opposite. I thought I was doing something wrong – should I do something nasty, and put a horse’s head in a vat of formaldehyde? It was never going to work. I just needed to be honest with myself. I never questioned it – I knew I couldn’t force it. For me, it was – and still is – about trying to get further into the subject.”

Fiddian-Green calls the great horse painter George Stubbs (1724-1806) “fantastic” for spending 18 months dissecting equine carcasses, thereby mastering his art much as the high Renaissance artists did. Like Stubbs, he stayed loyal to his vision. And, through decades of studying and obsessing over his desired subject, Fiddian-Green is now garnering the praise this constant effort and talent have deserved, thanks in no small part to the siting of work at Marble Arch, which only happened thanks to Henri’s determination.

For, in January 2006 – days after Sir Anthony and Lady Bamford had commissioned a 25ft piece for their Daylesford House estate in Gloucestershire – he was struck down by leukaemia and for three difficult years, interspersed by unpleasant operations and various stints in intensive care, he was a near-permanent resident at the Royal Marsden, a cancer hospital in Chelsea, where his life was in the balance.

Henri, a childhood sweetheart, informed the Bamfords of the dire situation, and they requested that Fiddian-Green finish the project, when, if, he was better. As the artist slowly regained full strength, his wife set about finding a London plot that could house the sculpture while the Bamfords secured planning permission.

By June 2009, Fiddian-Green’s condition had greatly improved, and the Bamfords’ 10-ton piece, ‘Still Water’, was completed and moved to Marble Arch. When, after a year, their planning permission was approved, the sculptor, encouraged by the positive public reaction, self-funded a similar, bigger, replacement for Marble Arch.

In the dead of night, a huge lorry drove the new sculpture from mid-Wales to London, where ‘Still Water’ would be seamlessly switched with ‘Horse at Water’. But there was a hitch: with the replacement horse being seven-tons heavier and 8ft taller, new planning permission at Marble Arch was needed. A last-ditch approval cleared the way, and Fiddian-Green’s costly gamble paid off.

“Marble Arch was so unplanned and accidental, it’s made me re-think my position,” he explains. “It has made me realise that being daring and bold enough to enter the public arena is a good thing. ‘Horse at Water’ is about gentleness in a chaotic world. That is my mission: to draw people into the stillness. There is an element of contemplation and spirituality.

“That is what is so fascinating about Fra Angelico and the others in the early Renaissance, because they really didn’t understand much about the rudiments of drawing and perspective and colour and form, but they understood about the spirit, probably deeper and greater than those who would come later.”

In his studio, which looks like a blacksmith’s hovel, Fiddian-Green draws on a cigarette and says: “Time now bothers me. It is limited, and I’m conscious of that – more so from being ill. I’m now prepared to risk it, take a bit of a chance, which I probably wouldn’t have said before. I wouldn’t have been daring or brave enough to risk it.”

Following a chance meeting at the Sladmore with an Italian who trains Spanish horses in the depths of Umbria, Fiddian-Green’s odyssey continues, and in the new year he will fly to Perugia to re-draw the line of the horse once again.

He enthuses: “I have to take all my opportunities. At the same time, I don’t want to force any issues; over-push it. I’ve always been one to try and let things happen in their own time. I want to let it take its natural course as much as possible.

“I have allowed myself to be led to this place, and I shall follow. It is natural, unplanned. I need to engage in the business of allowing it to happen, and not worrying about it. That’s the trick: just being able to let it go.

“It’s a quest for perfection – it doesn’t matter too much if you don’t achieve it; you will never find it. We’ll see what happens in Italy. Maybe nothing. Maybe something amazing. It’s a great dream.”

This article was first published in Seasons magazine in autumn 2011

Percy Fawcett and the Lost City of Z

This May will mark 92 years since Colonel Percy Fawcett disappeared without a trace, along with eldest son Jack, 22, and his teenage friend Raleigh Rimell, deep in the Brazilian jungle, while questing after an ancient lost civilisation hidden in the Amazon which he called ‘the City of Z’. And yet what has been labelled “the greatest exploration mystery of the 20th century” continues to captivate and endure. 

Even before the 57-year-old British explorer’s communiqués stopped while he was battling through the terra incognita of Mato Grosso (literally ‘thick bushes’) wielding his trusty 18-inch machete, the voyage into the unknown had captured the imagination of the world’s media. The Los Angeles Times, for example, named it “the most hazardous and certainly the most spectacular adventure of the kind ever undertaken”.

And when the bearded, blue-eyed and Stetson-wearing Fawcett, who is often described as a real-life Indiana Jones and may well have been the inspiration behind Harrison Ford’s intrepid filmic hero, went missing interest only increased. In January 1927, after close to two years without a word from the Fawcett trio, the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) – one of the many organisations who had part-funded their trip – declared: “We hold ourselves in readiness to help any competent, well accredited [search] party.” 

A welter of pleading letters from volunteers followed, yet in the decades since no one has found the remains of Fawcett and it is estimated that up to a hundred explorers have themselves disappeared on his trail. (Even James Bond author Ian Fleming’s brother, Peter, went on one failed expedition, though lived to tell the tale.) 

The Lost City of Z, which premiered at the New York Film Festival last October, will be shown at UK cinemas later this year and is based on David Grann’s 2009 novel of the same name. A former staff writer for The New Yorker, Grann himself had tracked Fawcett’s final steps, venturing through mud-slicked gorges and across rock-strewn rapids, and discovered that a monumental civilisation known as Kuhikugu may have in fact existed near where the missing explorer was looking, intriguingly. How close was Fawcett to reaching his El Dorado?

***

Percy Harrison Fawcett was born on August 18, 1867, in Torquay on the Devonian coast, to Edward Boyd Fawcett and Myra Elizabeth. His India-born father was a British aristocrat and a fellow of the RGS, though he had managed to squander two family fortunes and besmirch the Fawcett name, much to Percy’s embarrassment and disgust. In his diaries, he recalled a childhood “devoid of parental affection”.

Following an education at Newton Abbot Proprietary College, he received his commission as an officer of the Royal Artillery in 1886, aged 19. Happy to leave his parents in the UK, Fawcett served in the British colony of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and met his future wife, Nina Agnes Paterson, the daughter of a colonial judge. They wed in 1901 – and later he sired two boys, Jack (born 1903) and Brian (1906-1984) – though Fawcett remained, as he described it, a “lone wolf”, exploring Ceylon, which entranced him, and even seeking buried treasure and investigating archaeological ruins.

Fawcett grew up in a time, at the peak of the British Empire, when swashbuckling explorers were continually looking to expand their horizons for monarch and country, and his childhood was fuelled by tales of derring-do. These pioneers sought to confront and colonise new civilisations in far-flung destinations. 

For instance, a century before Fawcett was born, one such luminary was Captain James Cook, who from the late 1750 until his death in 1779 – at the hands of Hawaiian natives during his third exploratory voyage in the Pacific Ocean – sailed thousands of miles across largely uncharted areas of the globe and produced detailed maps of Newfoundland and Polynesia, as well as recording the first circumnavigation of New Zealand.

Further, between 1831 and 1836 young graduate Charles Darwin took a voyage on HMS Beagle, with the primary aim being to produce a hydrographic survey of the coasts of South America using calibrated chronometers and astronomical observations. It led, of course, to his theory of evolution by natural selection. His masterpiece, On the Origin of Species, was published in 1859.

And in 1883, when Fawcett was five, Scot David Livingstone died in modern-day Zambia of malaria and internal bleeding due to dysentery while attempting to map Africa, the so-called “dark continent”. Unsurprisingly, in popular culture the intrepid explorer featured prominently, and the first of the Allan Quatermain novels, penned by H. Rider Haggard (who became a friend of Fawcett’s), was published in 1885 and chronicled the discoveries of King Solomon’s Mines and ancient civilisations in Africa by the ‘Great White Hunter’.

Fawcett, an accomplished artist whose pen-and-ink sketches were exhibited at the Royal Academy, joined the RGS in the same year he was married in order to learn about surveying and mapmaking, powered by a desire to become a famous explorer himself. And in the first couple of decades of the 20th century he was held up as one of the last great amateur archeologists and cartographers – that is adventurers who stepped deep into uncharted lands armed with only a compass, a machete, and as David Grann noted in a 2005 article for The New Yorker “an almost divine sense of purpose”.

He was employed in the British Secret Service – mapmakers were often recruited as spies, as their vocation provided perfect cover – and was an agent in Morocco before, in 1906, the RGS offered him a different kind of mission. 

In Exploration Fawcett – an account of the seven expeditions in search of a lost city until his last one in 1925 which was published in 1953 by his youngest son, Brian, who had compiled his father’s manuscripts, letters and logbooks – the RGS president pointed at an atlas of South America and exclaimed to Fawcett: “Look at this area! It’s full of blank spaces.” 

The boundaries between Peru, Bolivia, and Brazil were poorly defined, he went on, and asked Fawcett to survey the area before warning: “What it really amounts to is exploration. It may be difficult and even dangerous.” Fawcett later wrote: “Here was the chance I had been waiting for. Destiny intended me to go!”

Without hesitation he set sail, leaving behind his wife and three-year-old son Jack, with a 60lbs pack, a clutch of willing recruits, and a copy of Rudyard Kipling’s 1898 poem The Explorer, which urges the reader to “Go and find it. Go and look behind the ranges.”

***

On Fawcett’s first of many expeditions to South America he was understandably wary of the indigenous tribes, who were known to kill trespassers and thought to practice cannibalism. He was convinced that by establishing friendly contact survival was possible, and as such, he ordered his men to never open fire. On one occasion, as his group were ambushed and arrows were fired at them, he and his men stood and played musical instruments. And, during other episodes, to display his peaceful intentions he would stride towards the Indians with his hands in the air. These actions worked, and he returned to England with his meticulous maps.

Despite his growing fame at home, the lure of South America became irresistible. He wrote: “Deep down inside me a tiny voice was calling. At first scarcely audible, it persisted until I could no longer ignore it. It was the voice of the wild places, and I knew that it was now part of me for ever … Inexplicably – amazingly – I knew I loved that hell. Its fiendish grasp had captured me, and I wanted to see it again.”

Through studying the early histories of South America, Fawcett became captivated by the rich legends and artistic traditions of local tribes – he even learnt dialects – and was sure that there had once been a large, developed civilisation living deep in the Amazon.

In 1920, after World War I – in which he fought on the front line in Flanders – Fawcett set out to find his ‘City of Z’, but had to end the expedition at Dead Horse Camp. While gripped with fever he shot and killed his poorly pack animal, and retreated to England. 

Five years later, nearly destitute and with his reputation dented, he had managed to gain funding for what would be his final trip in search of the ancient lost civilisation. Fawcett, his eldest son Jack, and Raleigh Rimell, departed from Cuiabá, the capital of the central Brazilian state Mato Grosso, on April 20, and were assisted by two local labourers, eight mules, a pair of horses, and two dogs.

 A month later, following what Fawcett described as a “shockingly difficult passage”, the group arrived at Bakairí Post, a small settlement of a couple of dozen huts. There, in the oppressive heat, and with jungle beasts – including vampire bats, scorpions and anaconda – lurking, the leader ordered his Brazilian helpers to head back to Cuiabá with the animals and his last letters. “By the time this dispatch is printed, we shall have long since disappeared into the unknown,” he wrote in one of his final articles. Fawcett’s words proved scarily prescient. 

In David Grann’s 2009 book, The Lost City of Z, the author suggests the trio reached Dead Horse Camp and rested at the village of the Kalapalo tribe. Despite the Kalapalos warning that they would be killed by the “fierce Indians” who occupied the territory to the east, Fawcett and his two companions, who were apparently lame, headed further into the unknown. For the following five evenings the tribe watched the smoke curl from the expedition’s camp fire before, on the sixth night, it disappeared, never to return.

Exploring South America

While the midpoints of the Americas had been reached by explorers in the 16th century there were still large patches of unexplored and uncharted territories in 1906 – the year Colonel Percy Fawcett was tasked by the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) to map the many “black spaces” in South America.

The boundaries between Peru, Bolivia, and Brazil were poorly defined, according to the president of the RGS, who told Fawcett: “What it really amounts to is exploration. It may be difficult and even dangerous.” So it proved on the 1925 trip, his eighth to South America.

That continent had beguiled Fawcett and his contemporary adventurers from all over the globe for some time, and especially after Charles Darwin’s 1831-36 voyage on HMS Beadle – which set out produce a hydrographic survey of the coasts of South America using calibrated chronometers and astronomical observations but which led to his theory of evolution by natural selection. His masterpiece, On the Origin of Species, was published in 1859.

Britain’s Age of Exploration

The Age of Discovery, or Age of Exploration, is the loosely defined period, from the end of the 15th century to the 18th century, when Europeans set sail for distant lands and sparked the start of globalisation. In truth, the period stretched to the 20th century, with wild regions of exotic countries still not mapped. 

Indeed, Colonel Percy Fawcett grew up in a time, at the peak of the British Empire, when swashbuckling explorers were continually looking to expand their horizons for monarch and country. 

One such luminary was Captain James Cook, who from late 1750 until his death in 1779 – at the hands of Hawaiian natives during his third exploratory voyage in the Pacific Ocean – sailed thousands of miles across largely uncharted areas of the globe.

And in 1883, when Fawcett was five, Scot David Livingstone died in modern-day Zambia of malaria and internal bleeding due to dysentery while attempting to map Africa, the so-called “dark continent”. 

Unsurprisingly, in popular culture the intrepid explorer featured prominently. The first of the Allan Quatermain novels, penned by H. Rider Haggard, was published in 1885 and chronicled the discoveries of King Solomon’s Mines and ancient civilisations in Africa by the ‘Great White Hunter’.

Fathers and sons

Percy Fawcett was born, in 1867, to Edward Fawcett – an India-born British aristocrat – and Myra Elizabeth. His father had managed to squander two family fortunes and besmirch the Fawcett name, much to Percy’s embarrassment and disgust.

Ironically, after complaining In his diaries of a childhood “devoid of parental affection” he himself was absent for long periods of his own two sons’ formative years. In 1906, when he embarked on his first South American expedition, his eldest son, Jack, was three, with Brian born later that year. 

Less than two decades later, on his eighth and final trip to South America, Fawcett took Jack, who turned 22 while in the Brazilian jungle, with him. One of Jack’s best friends, 19-year-old Raleigh Rimell, made up the trio of adventurers who went missing without a trace in 1925. 

Few would call Fawcett’s habit of marching far ahead, and out of sight – as detailed in Jack’s diaries (the young pair had to camp alone on one occasion) – good parenting. And that he led Jack and his companion to their death – presumably – only serves to highlight his selfish, goal-driven attitude.

The Lost City of Kuhikugu

There is evidence to suggest that Colonel Percy Fawcett’s ‘City of Z’ did exist, after all. The explorer had visited a colonial archive in Rio de Janeiro and read a worm-eaten document which was entitled Historical account of a large, hidden, and very ancient city, without inhabitants, discovered in the year 1753

In it, a Portuguese ‘bandeirante’ (mercenary), described how he had climbed a mountain path and uncovered the remnants of an ancient lost city. “The ruins well showed the size and grandeur which must have been there, and how populous and opulent it had been in the age when it flourished,” he had written. This, along with similar accounts, spurred Fawcett on through the Amazon rainforest.

Michael Heckenberger, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Florida, has spent more than a decade researching the possibility that Fawcett’s ‘City of Z’ was, in fact, Kuhikugu, an archaeological site located at the headwaters of the Xingu River, in the Amazon Rainforest. 

According to Heckenberger’s findings, Kuhikugu was most likely to have been inhabited between 500AD until as recently as 1615, when diseases brought over by Europeans may have killed off the indigenous denizens.

This article was first published in The Telegraph in 2017

Sand aliens and heel flicks: introducing England’s beach soccer team

NB This article was originally published in The Sabotage Times in September 2013

In mid-September Tahiti will host the Beach Soccer World Cup and, as one might expect, Brazil are the hot favourites. At the last count in 2007, the South American country had 2,097 beaches – easily more than any other nation – and it’s little surprise, then, that they have been crowned the best on the globe a staggering 13 times since they hosted the inaugural tournament in 1995.

Indeed, the first World Cup to be hosted outside Brazil – and away from its birthplace, Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro – was in 2008 when the French hotspot for the sport Marseille enjoyed the responsibility; that was in part down to the charisma of Eric Cantona, in charge of Les Bleus then.

However, the defending champions for this edition in Tahiti – the economic, cultural and political centre of French Polynesia, famed for its black sand beaches – are not the boys in yellow and green, but Russia.

To the uninitiated, that the Eastern European powerhouse are champions of the five-a-side, 36-minute beach format, may be a shock. If you dig a little deeper in the sand, though, you’ll learn of the money the Russians have thrown at developing the sport. There are dozens of indoor beaches, their professional national league is in rude health, the Rubles on offer are astronomical, and that’s down to the status the sport is starting to command.

It’s the second-most popular form of football – behind the 11-a-side grass version, of course – and big business. The stats at the last World Cup, held at the marina in Ravenna, Italy, illustrate its attraction. In the 31 games played 269 goals (most of them outrageous flicks and bicycle kicks) were scored at an average of 8.41 per 36-minute match, and the average crowd was 3,730; for Russia’s 12-8 victory over Brazil there were 5,500 in attendance. With the game on the rise it’s easy to understand how the world’s best players can earn upwards of £200,000 a season.

Brazilian André, who netted Six goals in the final in Italy and won the golden boot with 14, is one of the most highly rated stars at the moment, and countryman Venícius Ribeiro Mariane Fambre, a defender better known as Buru, is another star.

The game’s fading genius is João Victor Saraiva, aka Madjer. The Angola-born Portuguese turned 36 in January, won the golden boot at the 2005, 2006 and 2008 World Cups and can name his price to take to the sand. He has almost the perfect physique for a beach soccer star – balletic, tall and streamlined with strong legs and feet that can run and turn in the sand with ease. (Wayne Rooney, I’m informed, would not make a good player on the beach.)

Then there’s Ramiro Figueiras Amarelle, a Spanish forward who plays for FC Barcelona – yes, Lionel Messi and friends have an affiliated beach soccer side – who regularly wins the most-valuable player gongs, while 23-year-old El Salvador attacker Frank Velasquez is the coming man.

“Those guys are like sand aliens,” says John Hawkins, who almost single-handedly established the England beach soccer side a dozen years ago. “They float across the beach. They don’t stop running for 36 minutes, they are so acrobatic and they can use both feet. You just look at them and it’s a goal. They have training camps, play all the year round across the globe, getting better and better … and we have postmen, painters and Black Cab drivers.”

beach soccer  3

Earlier this year, with the Tahiti World Cup approaching, I was keen to find out whether the English had a chance of qualifying – I was rather taken by the idea of covering the Three Lions on an exotic, volcanic island with a population of less than 200,000. And if Russia could win the sport’s greatest prize England had every chance, right?

The initial signs were not good. The national team’s website was very basic, and it took some scratching around to track down Hawkins, who was in charge from the early noughties and stepped away in December, after 12 years of dedicated service.

It quickly became apparent that England had no chance of advancing to the finals. As it transpired they were trounced at a qualifying tournament in Moscow in July last year and only four teams, the semi-finalists – Spain, Russia, Ukraine and the Netherlands – moved on. Disappointment that the Three Lions are currently way behind a raft of other nations in Europe, never mind on the global stage, quickly transformed to an odd pride, however, as I unearthed a much more heart-warming story; a Don Quixote of modern times, if you will.

Hawkins, now 42, returned to his beloved Isle of Wight in 2000 after he had endured a spell in London, and bought Small Hope Beach in Shanklin. The young entrepreneur, a keen footballer and decent cricketer in his youthful pomp, had a background in events and marketing and set about promoting his new acquisition. He soon organised a beach soccer tournament “as a bit of fun and a way of launching the beach”. It was an instant hit. That small-time competition kick-started the English beach soccer revolution.

“The uptake was incredible, it was really quite shocking,” remembers Hawkins. Sports marketing company Octagon, who at that time had the rights to the sport in England, soon approached him in the hope he would do the leg work for them. He agreed and soon took over all of the responsibility.

“It just steam rolled,” he smiles. “It went from me and a friend, Joe Redstone, building a set of wooden goals out of timber, painting them yellow – to make them look professional – and Superglueing them together, to being asked by Octagon, less than a year later, whether I wanted to take over the England team.”

His ebullient personality propelled the interest in beach soccer but, after taking charge and then becoming manager in 2005, he found it an increasingly pricey hobby. “For about four or five years we were the only people actively promoting beach soccer in England and we approached the Football Association and tried to make the sport credible,” he says. “They took a while to agree to us wearing the Three Lions badge and the FA logo but wouldn’t back us financially. It was a lot of fun, but it was becoming very expensive.”

The lack of funding was in part down to the FA’s promotion of Futsal, a technical, indoor five-a-side game which uses a smaller football and, most importantly perhaps, unaffected by inclement conditions. Reading between the lines there was also reluctance because the powers that be deemed beach soccer as FIFA’s play thing, and with relations icy at best with the game’s leading authority, the FA were always cool on the idea.

That the FA’s purse strings were drawn taut did not curb Hawkins’ enthusiasm initially, although last summer’s qualifying proved a fatal disappointment. In the first qualifying game England were narrowly defeated by Azerbaijan – and that contest served to highlight the main issues facing the England side.

beach soccer 1

“You tell people walking along the street that England were knocked out by Azerbaijan and they just mock you,” continues Hawkins. “What they don’t understand is that the Azerbaijan beach soccer team is basically the national football team. They are all fully professional players, and all they do is play beach soccer, they have everything funded. They were on a £10,000 win bonus each to beat us – that was more money than we had generated that year to fund our season – and we lost 4-3.

“Our players then were juggling playing beach football around their jobs and families and with next to no money. We would have to put together £8,000 or so to fly the team off to an event, and it has been really, really tough. We usually punch well above our weight, but as we normally don’t win then it’s not newsworthy, and it does not resonate.”

In spite of that England have produced a number of decent players in the last decade, including current manager Terry Bowes. Until his early 20s he was mates with Ashley Cole and a promising left-midfielder on Arsenal’s books. Now, aside from managing the national team, he is a London Black Cab driver.

Then there is GC Giancovich, a former spear fisherman and a chef, who became England’s first-ever professional player in 2008 when he signed for Serie A side Cervia. And Mitch Day, who plies his trade in the tough Swiss league for Grasshopper Club Zurich, is another star performer, while postman Jamie O’Rourke has to ask Royal Mail for special permission to play for England and Isle of Wight painter Matt Evans is the new great hope.

There are signs of improvement in the infrastructure, too. Regions have now been chalked up and footballers across the land have access to beach soccer, at least in theory. Hawkins has moved on, but did so with a final, selfless flourish: he won the right to design and build five of the six Olympic legacy beaches for London 2012, and had the sport he has devoted so much time, effort and money to in mind, naturally.

His successor, David Jones, has been involved in the England set up since 2007 and he is determined to develop the game. “It’s a great small-sided version of football that should be being played by far more people in England,” he says. “I want to help to change that.

“John had a massive hill to climb when he first took over. He’s achieved an awful lot in his time and most people won’t appreciate just how difficult it has been. I plan to move the sport forward, especially into urban areas. We need more players, more teams and move activated regions.”

Another goal for Jones is promotion to Europe’s Group A, which comprises of the top eight nations. England, currently one rung below, will host an annual National Championship event, says Jones, in the hope of increasing the talent pool.

He even believes that the FA can be won round, and their cheque books opened – “I’m sure their interest in the sport will increase once more people are playing the game” – and has targeted a second World Cup final appearance (after the third-placed finish in the eight-nation inaugural tournament, before the professional era).

“It is much harder for a European nation to qualify as we only have four places and Russia, Portugal, Spain, Italy and Switzerland will always be strong contenders,” Jones adds. “Ukraine and Belarus are emerging fast and then you have Poland and Romania. However, if Holland can qualify, as they have done for Tahiti, then with some improvement there is no reason why England can’t.”

While I’ll not be in Tahiti when the World Cup kicks off in September, to watch Russia defend their World Cup or the Brazilian sand aliens, with a favourable wind England, with a bit of luck and a lot of investment, may soon be at beach soccer’s top table once more.

This article was originally published in The Sabotage Times in September 2013

Easy recipes: cooking became a piece of cake with TikTok’s snappy videos

How a series of 60-second videos helped a hapless cook like me whip up date-night dinners in lockdown

Carving out romantic “couple time” with my wife was pretty difficult during lockdown. In addition to all the pandemic-related chaos, it included a house move, the birth of our daughter and home schooling our energetic five-year-old son.

Before our first child was born, knowing friends urged us to feast at as many upmarket restaurants as time and money allowed, given the impending, limiting reality of life with a baby. It’s advice that we have passed on to other expectant parents. During lockdown, however, it was impossible to play restaurant-going gourmand.

But when my wife suggested we make an effort to pencil in some food-focused “date nights”, I silently balked at the prospect for fear of my hopeless cooking skills. It wasn’t a case of can’t cook, won’t cook: shamefully, I just haven’t clocked up many hours in the kitchen. After an internalised pep talk, convincing myself it would be a cinch, what with my – ahem – natural creative flair and love of food, I informed my grinning wife that I would relish the opportunity.

I determinedly set about my task and reached for the dusty cookery books on the shelf above the oven to find winning recipes for our favourite cuisine: Italian. Leafing through the oil-slicked pages, I quickly became overwhelmed by the dull, lengthy, hard-to-follow instructions. I needed a shortcut, and fast.

Oliver lights a candle.

Funnily enough, it was my son’s relaxed home schooling that provided me with the perfect solution. We afforded him a carefully monitored 10 minutes a day on TikTok and usually admired the dance routines, laughed at the pranks and cooed at the cute animals. Shortly after we had formed the dinner-date plan, he swiped to reveal a video of a charismatic Italian chef explaining how to cook spaghetti al limone in her 20-second film. The quick, instructive video begins with Nadia Caterina Munno – @the_pastaqueen, who has 1.5 million followers on TikTok – saying: “When life gives you lemons, make spaghetti.”

So I did, following Munno’s short and straightforward guide, which was part spoken, and mostly visual. The dish was a modest hit on our inaugural lockdown date night.

I’d seen boiled-down recipe videos on social media – often called “hands and pans” videos – before. But, because of my lack of hunger to cook, I never paid too much attention, save to marvel at the satisfying brevity and beauty of the mini films. The successful spaghetti al limone changed everything, though.

Encouraged by my wife’s reaction, and slightly surprised at my ability to present a respectable main course that took me mere minutes to master, I sought out more ambitious Italian dishes on TikTok.

To start the next date night, a couple of weeks after the first, I served rolled aubergine slices, momentarily deep-fried in olive oil (Italian, of course), stuffed with mashed up ricotta and mozzarella, and topped with chopped parsley.

Munno was my inspiration once again. And she also helped with the main: a hearty bowl of seafood linguine, accompanied by slightly chewy, oozy and warm garlic bread. For the latter, I took Munno’s advice to rub the garlic clove over the bread “passionately”; and for the former, I easily followed the – unusually – wordless video.

The starter and a glass of fizz.

Wishing to round off the meal with something extra special, I typed “Italian dessert” into the TikTok search bar on my smartphone app, and immediately found a tiramisu recipe. It was the perfect sweet course for our date night. There is a family joke about the coffee-flavoured pudding – which translates literally to “pick me up” – being so similar to our surname, Pickup.

For the tiramisu, my guide was Arturo Avallone: a refreshingly cool LA-based Italian chef, with 31,000 TikTok followers. His 60-second film – featuring dark rum, Savoiardi sponge ladyfingers dipped in cold coffee, and a whipped mixture of eggs, sugar and mascarpone cheese, plus a sprinkling of cocoa powder – proved a doddle to understand, even for a beginner like me. “And no,” Avallone says at one point to the camera, shaking his head, “in the original recipe, there is no heavy cream.” So now you know.

And, more importantly, now I know how to wow my wife with home-cooked food. All thanks to the fun and free videos on TikTok that pack a lot into less than a minute. Moreover, since I started engaging with the hands and pans films on the platform, I’ve discovered a love of cooking and newfound kitchen confidence.

As for those sticky old cookery books, you’ll be relieved to read we have “decluttered” them. Ciao!

The article was first published by Guardian Labs in November 2020

Hippies head for Noah’s Ark: Queue here for rescue aboard alien spaceship

A mountain looming over a French commune with a population of just 200 is being touted as a modern Noah’s Ark when doomsday arrives – supposedly less than nine months from now.

A rapidly increasing stream of New Age believers – or esoterics, as locals call them – have descended in their camper van-loads on the usually picturesque and tranquil Pyrenean village of Bugarach. They believe that when apocalypse strikes on 21 December this year, the aliens waiting in their spacecraft inside Pic de Bugarach will save all the humans near by and beam them off to the next age.

As the cataclysmic date – which, according to eschatological beliefs and predicted astrological alignments, concludes a 5,125-year cycle in the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar – nears, the goings-on around the peak have become more bizarre and ritualistic.

For decades, there has been a belief that Pic de Bugarach, which, at 1,230 metres, is the highest in the Corbières mountain range, possesses an eery power. Often called the “upside-down mountain” – geologists think that it exploded after its formation and the top landed the wrong way up – it is thought to have inspired Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth and Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Since the 1960s, it has attracted New Agers, who insist that it emits special magnetic waves.

Further, rumours persist that the country’s late president François Mitterrand was transported by helicopter on to the peak, while the Nazis, and, later, Israel’s Mossad, performed mysterious digs there. Now the nearby village is awash with New Agers, who have boosted the local economy, though their naked group climbs up to the peak have raised concerns as well as eyebrows. Among other oddities, some hikers have been spotted scaling the mountain carrying a ball with a golden ring, strung together by a single thread.

A grizzled man wearing a white linen smock, who calls himself Jean, set up a yurt in the forest a couple of years ago to prepare for the earth’s demise. “The apocalypse we believe in is the end of a certain world and the beginning of another,” he offers. “A new spiritual world. The year 2012 is the end of a cycle of suffering. Bugarach is one of the major chakras of the earth, a place devoted to welcoming the energies of tomorrow.”

Upwards of 100,000 people are thought to be planning a trip to the mountain, 30 miles west of Perpignan, in time for 21 December, and opportunistic entrepreneurs are shamelessly cashing in on the phenomenon. While American travel agents have been offering special, one-way deals to witness the end of the world, a neighbouring village, Saint-Paul de Fenouillet, has produced a wine to celebrate the occasion.

Jean-Pierre Delord, the perplexed mayor of Bugarach, has flagged up the situation to the French authorities, requesting they scramble the army to the tiny village for fear of a mass suicide. It has also caught the attention of France’s sect watchdog, Miviludes.

A genial sexagenarian, Mr Delord says: “We’ve seen a huge rise in visitors. Already this year more than 20,000 people have climbed right to the top, and last year we had 10,000 hikers, which was a significant rise on the previous 12 months. They think Pic de Bugarach is ‘un garage à ovnis’ [an alien garage]. The villagers are exasperated: the exaggerated importance of something which they see as completely removed from reality is bewildering. After 21 December, this will surely return to normal.”

Masking his fears of what might happen on 21 December, Mr Delord jokes that he will throw a party and supply vin chaud and cheese. “I’m sure we’ll have a little fete to celebrate that we’re still alive,” he smiles. “I suppose it’s up to each of us to find our own way.”

This article was first published in The Independent in March 2012

I raced in the Brompton World Championships and survived!

After a brief lesson in how to unfold a Brompton bicycle, Oliver Pickup negotiates the crashes and carnage of the 2015 Brompton World Championships alongside pro racers such as David Millar

Wearing a tartan bow tie, a ruffled tuxedo shirt, a charcoal suit jacket, Superman socks and knee-length rusty shorts, I’m poised for action on The Mall with a clear road to Buckingham Palace.

My competition stands alongside me in similarly natty attire. There is a ninja, Napoleon, a wig-wearing high-court judge, and hundreds of other folk in mirth-inducing costumes, including a couple of brides (one female, the other a rather alarmingly craggy-faced, hairy-legged male). Harris Tweed is everywhere – which is not ideal, considering the fire-up-the-barbecue conditions.I see a rider hit the road with a thump, remaining motionless as others take emergency evasive action.Oliver Pickup

Oh, and in addition, way ahead of me in ‘Wave A’ (I’m in ‘D’), there is a raft of athletes with serious peddle power, such as Tour de France stalwart David Millar, who only retired last year. They are also bedecked, cap-à-pie, in fancy dress (after all, there is a no-Lycra rule and celebrity stylist William Gilchrist has been asked to select and reward the most sartorially impressive).

We 500 or so, pricked with nervous tension, are ready to take part in the Brompton World Championship. It’s a big one: the tenth, fittingly held in the 40th year since Andrew Ritchie, a Cambridge University-educated engineer, invented the prototype of the iconic folding bicycle.

And in this edition, for the first time, the wacky race makes up part of Prudential RideLondon, with elite women riders charging along the same route, a 2.15km circuit which loops around St James’s Park, shortly after the conclusion of our event.

Indeed, this is the quintessence of Britain at its incongruous, batty and bonkers best. That fact, in turn, seems to attract others; I spoke with Germans, Australians, Spaniards and Japanese who had come over in hordes especially to indulge in this Brompton bizarreness – and that was only within my helmet-swinging distance.

The start of the 17.2km race is marked by the dropped Union flag. We dash, elbows out, to our folded bikes; a start-line scene reminiscent of historic Le Mans races. After scuttling across to our vehicles, we have to unfold the contraptions, which is not easy, especially if you have not afforded yourself much time to practice. Ahem.

My pre-race practice had not gone to schedule. After jumping at the opportunity to participate in my first (and possibly last) world championship of any kind, courtesy of RideLondon sponsors Prudential, I’d been furnished with kit by Brompton, Le Col and Hoy Vulpine. Feeling content with my ‘progress’, I’d then done almost precisely zero physical preparation, instead relying on the briefest of morning practices with my bike to see me through (I got my ‘unfold time’ down from 30 seconds to 15 – still some way off the unofficial world record of 5.2 secs).

Oliver Pickup races down The Mall in the 2015 Brompton World Championships
Oliver Pickup races down The Mall in the 2015 Brompton World Championships CREDIT: Photo: Prudential / Jonathan Ord

So, before heading out on to the track, I decide to seek guidance and tips from veterans.

Michael Hutchinson, winner of the World Championship in 2011, 2012 and 2013 tells me his average time to unfold the bike is “seven or eight seconds” and acknowledges that in a race which only lasts around 25 minutes, those marginal gains are even more important.

He should know, having come second to three-time Vuelta a España winner Roberto Heras when he first attempted the race, back in 2010. On that occasion, despite going “50mph on a downhill bit – pretty interesting on a Brompton”, he missed out by half a second. Afterwards, he even took out the lining in his green jacket, which he has worn for every one of these races, so as to become quicker (and less sweaty).

Last year, Belfast-born Hutchinson missed the Brompton World Championship because he was competing in the Commonwealth Games – he finished 12th in the individual time trial in Glasgow; not bad for a 40-year-old.

I ask what attracted him to the Brompton World Championship in the first place. “It’s hilarious,” he grins. “Have you seen it? I don’t even approach it as a serious bike race. I’m lucky enough to be a decent rider so I can get towards the sharp end. But it is really just a laugh. They are great wee bikes and it is great fun to get out and race them. It’s really just for the hell of it.”

And tips? “They are pretty simple to ride, the Bromptons. You can get fairly low, and aerodynamic on them. Today it will be staying out of trouble because there will be a lot of people on the circuit. Keeping your wits about you, not crashing in to anyone else and trying to avoid anyone coming in to you will be quite a lot of the mission.”

How apposite Hutchinson’s words of warning prove to be.

Having clicked and screwed my bike in place and wheeled away along the straight towards Her Majesty’s palace, I weave through the packed field, taking a left down Spur Road before a second straight, Birdcage Walk. Another left takes me around Horse Guards Road and one more brings the finish line back on The Mall – where the cheering crowds are five-rows deep – in view.

One lap down, seven more to go – although that’s not quite correct, as it’s a criterium event which means when the winner wins the race is over for everyone else, after their lap, thankfully.

The second time I swing on to Birdcage Walk I hear a shout from behind, something about the leaders. And sure enough a swarm – a topical word, but appropriate in this sense, given the menacing whirr of peddles – of riders, with noses to their handlebars and bums above their shoulders (I realise at this point my seat is far too low, but don’t want to stop to alter it lest I add vital seconds to my time) boom past, like a thunder clap, with Hutchinson’s green jacket flashing by.

It’s awesome, and frightening, and belittling. And it spooks an Italian rider 100 metres in front of me. I see her look behind her right shoulder at the advancing group, and lose control of her bike. It jackknives and she hits the road with a thump, remaining motionless as the riders take emergency evasive action. Not all come through unscathed.

Fun it may be, but at Hutchinson’s “sharp end” it is certainly competitive. I watch the peloton fly away – they lap me once more, on my fourth time around – and marvel at their efforts, as I pick off more modest targets.

Photo:Prudential / Jonathan Ord

After 30 minutes and 14 seconds, and six laps – two behind the winners – the chequered flag is waved for me, and it’s all over. My bum and thighs sting, my back is sweaty and my suit jacket sticky and damp. Later I discover my finishing position: 290th, out of 332, in the male category, and over a minute ahead of Brompton inventor Ritchie (aged 69). Let me write that again: I am the 290th best Brompton rider in the world, officially. Well, this year, at least.

I feel a great sense of pride and achievement, even buying a poster to commemorate the event. And it’s washed down by a complementary G&T. How bloody lovely.

Afterwards, I wander over to Hutchinson to see how he fared. “Out of the last corner I was where I wanted to be, I just didn’t have the legs for the sprint,” the Northern Irishman, who ended 12th in the standings, tells me, ruefully. “It was a big-bunch gallop, and I’ve never really been a sprinter.

“It was always going to come down to a sprint on this circuit. I attacked a couple of times but I am always going to be a marked rider in this race, so they chased me down.”

Millar, it seems, failed to burst out of the blocks quick enough; he ended 62nd. The winner was 2014 champion Mark Emsley, from Team ASL360, who successfully defended his title by a wheel-length, ahead of Yavor Mitev, of Brompton’s own Factory Racing Team, and Eduardo Gomes. The top 17 finished within four seconds of the victor.

Next year, with actual practice, cutting out the lining of my jacket and a sub-10 unfold, I reckon I can crack the top 150. Or perhaps I should just be happy with my tremendously fun experience; for certain, the Brompton World Championship is a one-off.

This article first appeared in The Telegraph in August 2015