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

Scott Fardy: when the tsunami hit, I remember saying, ‘Rugby people stay and help’

Scott Fardy is remembered for his heroics for Australia at the 2015 Rugby World Cup, but less well known is the unstinting care he showed for the devastated population of Kamaishi in the wake of the horrific 2011 earthquake in Japan

At 2.46pm on March 11, 2011, Scott Fardy was participating in pre-season training for his Japanese club Kamaishi Seawaves when the world’s fourth most powerful earthquake, since records began in 1900, struck the nearby coast. Lasting six minutes, it measured 9.0-9.1 on the moment magnitude scale and the impact triggered tsunami waves reaching over 40 metres to decimate larges swathes of civilisation in eastern Japan, in a trice.

The most recent official statistics confirmed that the Great East Japan Earthquake – as it has been named – caused 15,896 deaths across 20 prefectures. Kamaishi was one of the hardest-hit cities, with the tally of fatalities exceeding 1,250 – almost 5 per cent of the local population – and three schools were inundated.Rugby people don’t turn their back when things are tough

The Australian embassy contacted Fardy and offered him a flight back to his homeland, but there was no way he was flying away from the danger zone – it is not in his caring character. “‘We can’t just leave now,’ I remember saying,” he tells the Telegraph and Dove Men+Care. “It’s part of the ethos of rugby: it’s a team effort, and rugby people are like that; they don’t turn their back when things are tough.”

Fardy, the 6ft 6in Leinster forward, will be recalled fondly in sporting history as one of the brightest stars of the 2015 Rugby World Cup. He shone as a tirelessly heroic backrower, helping Australia power to the Twickenham final, where they were ultimately bettered 34-17 by New Zealand.

In the 61st minute the Sydney-born blindside flanker was replaced, with the game finely balanced at 21-10, having given his all to the cause. Such a tournament of selflessness and bravery would have been of no surprise to anyone who witnessed his reaction when faced with that very different challenge in Japan four years earlier.

Fardy – then 26 – and his team-mates, still wearing Seawaves training kit, sped to the frontline of the disaster area, where the dead and displaced were being accounted for and the infrastructure lay in ruins, and “tried to help out where we could”. Displaying great maturity for his age, he led from the front, unloading essential supplies from trucks, and earned the highest respect from his colleagues and the wider Kamaishi community.

Former New Zealand international Pita Alatini, a centre at the club, recalls Fardy’s outstanding contribution in the face of such colossal crisis. “His compassionate side was huge, in terms of how he was just able to make sure he provided for others rather than himself,” he says. “A really caring and soft side came out [of Fardy] at that time.”It will be incredibly special and something the locals will always remember

Understandably, the experience hit the Fardy hard. “It wasn’t about making a personal sacrifice,” he says. “At the time I had a decision to make – whether to help or not – and it was an easy one. I just got on with it. The disaster has taught me about the fragility of life, and how lucky I am. I saw people’s whole livelihoods gone in an instant, families were torn apart.”

Amazingly, despite the disaster and upheaval, the Seawaves played a full part in the Japanese league that season. “Trying to get back to normal as quick as people could was important, and the team playing maybe signified that,” says Fardy, who moved to the Brumbies in Australia the following season and earned his first Wallabies cap a year later. “The team became a symbol of recovery. It was emotional.”

Emotions will be running high for Fardy when, next autumn, at the 2019 Rugby World Cup, the rebuilt Kamaishi Recovery Memorial Stadium hosts two tournament games. It will be “incredibly special” and something the locals “will always remember”, the 34-year-old suggests.

The new-look 16,187-capacity venue has been built on the grounds of a school that was flattened by the tsunami. “It has a story behind it,” adds Fardy, once again showing a caring side perhaps not normally associated with top international flankers. “Not many sporting grounds around the world have that. It creates a soul, and they will be emotional games … for so many people.”

This article was first published in The Telegraph in September 2018

Dave Buckler’s story: ‘I’m chief medical officer for the Everest Marathon’

David Buckler’s job to ensure that every participant gets to realise their dream — and lives to tell the tale

For those of an adventurous disposition, tackling the Everest Marathon is the ultimate challenge. And, as chief medical officer, it’s my job to ensure that every participant gets to realise their dream — and lives to tell the tale. 

The biennial race, which has raised more than £600,000 for Nepalese charities since it began in 1987, is recognised by Guinness World Records as the highest marathon in the world. The starting point is Gorak Shep, a frozen, sand-covered lake bed in Nepal, at an altitude of 17,010ft. At that height the views are sublime. However, the rarefied air provides just 50 per cent of the oxygen available at sea level. Those who fail to adapt properly will be in serious trouble, and could perish on the mountain if untreated. 

My five-strong medical team and I — all volunteers, though subsidised by the race organisers — have a duty to make sure the 80 or so runners are sufficiently acclimatised and in good health at the start line. The course undulates but it is mostly downhill. We end at the Sherpa capital of Namche Bazaar, at 11,300ft, so if you are feeling all right at Gorak Shep, you will probably reach the finish line. 

David Buckler: ‘I’m proud to say no one has died on my watch’ (James Cannon)

I’m proud to say no one has died on my watch, and in the past two events everyone who signed up — and paid the £3,000 entry fee — managed to finish. There have been a few scary moments, though, and in the past we have needed to airlift sick people down the mountain.

My preparation for the race starts about a year out. I gather together a medical team who are compatible with one another, and who can survive without creature comforts for four weeks. Together, we carry the medical supplies required for every eventuality, so that 100 people will be safe for a month away from civilisation. There is no budget for drugs, so we have to beg, borrow and steal to get them.

Three weeks before the race, the group flies to Kathmandu. Then we take a tiny plane to Lukla, one of the world’s most dangerous airports, and the site of many air tragedies. It is carved out of the mountain and has a landing strip of just a few hundred metres. Next follows a two-day trek to Namche Bazaar, the starting point for nearly every Everest expedition in the past 50 years. Gradually we increase altitude, and spend four or five days trekking up to 18,000ft — so as to be fully acclimatised — before dropping down to rest. We then hike to a different valley for the actual run.

Related article Rise of the runners Running in the clouds: a new ultra-marathon in the Alps It’s vital to “stress” bodies — that is, to introduce them to an environment where there is significantly less oxygen, so they naturally make the necessary changes. The body concentrates the blood, squeezing more of it from the bone marrow. This also makes you pee a lot.

The secret to acclimatising is to move up the mountain slowly enough that the body adapts. The two main potential problems are swelling of the brain (cerebral oedema) and fluid in the lungs (pulmonary oedema). The tell-tale signs of these include shortness of breath, an unwillingness to do anything and headaches. 

We employ a buddy system, so you can dob in your tent mate if they are looking peaky and might be too macho to flag up their discomfort. It takes 10 hours for altitude sickness to reach its maximum, and it’s not ideal to treat someone at 3am, when it’s pitch black and -10C.

As a rule of thumb, the Everest Marathon takes twice as long to complete as a road marathon. Because I sweep up the stragglers, I usually register a time of 10 hours or more, and complete the race in darkness, guided only by a head torch and instinct. I’m particularly looking forward to the race next November, because my wife Jennie is taking part for the first time. Completing the world’s highest marathon alongside her will make it an extra special experience; the pinnacle, you might say.

This article was first published in The Financial Times Weekend Magazine in December 2016

John McAvoy’s story: ‘I broke world rowing records while in jail’

I was 26 years old and serving a life sentence for conspiracy to commit armed robbery, with a minimum of five years. It was my second stint in prison and initially I was totally remorseless — even open to breaking out.

But that all changed when I learnt that my best mate from childhood had died in a high-speed police chase in Holland, where he’d been robbing banks. His death hit me like a ton of bricks. I recall looking up in my cell, realising I had spent my late teens and most of my twenties in jail. What had I ever achieved in my life, what did I have to show for it? Nothing. I’d only caused suffering and anguish for my mum. My outlook was completely altered from that precise moment. The problem was I had at least four years left to serve.

To spend less time rotting away in my cell, I used to go to the gym, and soon discovered that I had a gift for rowing. Perhaps because I was so focused on rebuilding my life, I found I was progressing much quicker than other inmates. My talent was spotted by Darren Davis, a PE instructor at the prison I was in — HMP Lowdham Grange in Nottinghamshire. Without my asking, he researched world records for indoor rowing, and I was confident that I could better them.

John McAvoy took up rowing after the death of a good friend changed his perspective (Charlie Bibby)

The training regime was very unstructured at the start. It was a case of simply sitting on the rowing machine and rowing lots of metres, and my body just adapted. Training got harder once I read some fitness books in the library. I hardly ate the prison food as it was like slop and tasted disgusting, so I lived off porridge, tuna and nuts, which I bought at the prison canteen.

In the end, I set three indoor world records (which have since been broken), and seven British records, from within the confines of that poky jail gym. My mum has all the various trophies on her mantelpiece. The first world best was a 24-hour rowing record that I set in 2009. I registered more than 163 miles on the rowing machine.

Darren was an incredible help and showed amazing faith in me. It was only down to him that I was afforded special dispensation to be out of my cell for so long for my 24-hour record attempt. Usually the guards would be reluctant to let you leave your cell at night even if you were dying, thinking you were up to something. But Darren agreed to come in and supervise me through the night on his day off. He ended up staying with me for the full 24 hours.

When I returned to my cell, physically shattered but a world-record holder, it was like something out of a movie. As I walked up I was applauded by most of the inmates. The respect I so craved as a criminal was being earned instead as a sportsman.

I was originally attracted to crime by those around me. My uncle Micky was involved in the infamous Brink’s-Mat heist in the 1980s.

I obtained my first firearm, a shotgun, at the age of 16. I had the links and I’d earned respect. But I was in HM Prison Belmarsh at 18 — in a special segregation unit because I was deemed too dangerous for a young offenders’ institution.

I’ve not seen or even spoken to my old friends and family with criminal ties since I chose to go straight. When I was finally released from prison two years ago, I moved to Putney to be near London Rowing Club. Serco, the company that runs HMP Lowdham Grange, still supports me with sponsorship. I regret not having had the opportunity to try out rowing, and lots of other things, when I was younger but I hope my experiences can influence others in a similar situation.

At over 30, I’m too old to develop into a world-class rower but I’ve now turned my attention to Ironman endurance racing, and am competing in the European championships next July, with the dream of ultimately becoming a professional sportsman.

This article was first published in The Financial Times Weekend Magazine in January 2016

Why England rugby star Jack Nowell cares so much about the RNLI

The England wing explains that because the RNLI has braved the high seas to come to the rescue of generations of fishermen in his family, he feels compelled to give something back

Jack Nowell is lionised for his bravery and determination on the rugby field, yet his on-pitch courage pales in comparison to that shown by the many of his family members and childhood friends who put themselves in danger at sea on a daily basis.

The England winger, 25, was born and raised in Newlyn, a small seaside town in south-west Cornwall, and the Nowell family has been a central part of the caring, tight-knit fishing community for centuries. “We have always been fishermen, generation after generation, for as long as can be traced back,” he says. “I’m actually the first one to have not followed that career path.”The tiny Penlee Lifeboat Station has always been a big part of my life

Nowell recalls that when he was a child, his father Mike would be forced to spend week-long stints out on the water to earn his living and care for the family. “He and his brother – my uncle – would come back with lobster, monkfish, sole, crab, and other fish, and that would be our food for the next week,” he continues. “I probably overdid the fish eating when I was younger. Now I tend to choose a burger over lobster if I’m at a fancy restaurant.”

A video, taken on Mike’s phone, made a big impression on Jack as a youngster. “Waves were coming over the front of his boat and the whole vessel was being swallowed up,” he says. “It was scary but Dad had to do that. He showed great mental toughness to go out in all conditions to provide for us. I could never compare that to what I do on the rugby field.

Jack’s admiration for his father’s job is as deep as the gratitude he has for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI), whose members have rescued Mike on numerous occasions – most recently in November when, in the early hours, his trawler’s motor failed 23 miles out to sea.

“I’ve worked with the RNLI for a couple of years now and I am delighted to support the charity because I feel like I’m giving back something for all the care they have provided to my family and friends in Newlyn,” Jack says en route to his home town to shoot a film, showcasing this special relationship, for the Telegraph and Dove+ Men Care. “It is special for me to support things where I come from and the tiny Penlee Lifeboat Station has always been a big part of my life. When I was offered the chance to get involved with them I bit their hand off.

“Our house is just up from the station and I remember as kids me and my brothers would watch crew running across the bridge and the RNLI boat rushing off into the sea. It was exciting to see and we would wonder what was happening, whether it was really serious, or not.

“I was brought up on the water and made well aware of the dangers. I know all the RNLI guys because everyone knows everyone here in Newlyn, and they chuck themselves in the water to save people, putting their own lives at risk.”

Indeed, RNLI Penlee Lifeboat Station is synonymous with bravery and its crews have been garlanded with close to 50 awards for gallantry in a history stretching back to 1803. There have been tragedies, though, with the worst happening one December night in 1981, a dozen years before Nowell was born, when all eight RNLI crew perished in an attempted rescue.

“That happened a couple of miles from our house,” Nowell says. “The weather was awful and unfortunately they lost their lives, but every single RNLI crew member is aware that could happen – and they are still willing to go out and do it.”

To show his appreciation for the RNLI’s selfless and risky work, Nowell has fronted a number of awareness campaigns. Last year he produced a traditional English Pale Ale, with the help of the nearby St Austell Brewery. Five pence from the sale of every pint of Cousin Jack during the 2017 RBS Six Nations Championship, in which Nowell featured in and England won, went to the RNLI. More than 100,000 pints were bought. “I think most of them were poured in Newlyn,” he jokes.

Jack’s relatives have displayed their thanks to the RNLI for their care too. In April his mother, Louisa, and her sister raised more than £5,000 by running the London marathon. Bravery, it seems, runs in the Nowell family. This England star has the strength and desire to support the RNLI, whose care has kept his father and Newlyn fishing community safe for more than two centuries.

This article was first published in The Telegraph in May 2018

What it’s like to play against champion poker stars

As the 2014 World Series of Poker begins, amateur poker player Oliver Pickup takes top tips from Jake Cody before pitting his wits against the pros

The World Series of Poker, held annually in Las Vegas, is the mecca for professional players – and those who have enough money and confidence to give it a shot at the big time. Legends are created and dreams destroyed as millions of dollars exchange hands during 10 unbelievably debauched weeks in Sin City. Forget The Hangover, this is the real thing.

The 45th edition begins this week. Jake Cody, a baseball-cap wearing 25-year-old multi-millionaire from Rochdale, will be in attendance, along with his two-month-old daughter Arianna and partner Alex. Vegas holds many great memories for Cody – and some he would rather forget.

Four years ago, Cody became only the third (and youngest, aged 22) person to complete poker’s holy grail: the ‘triple crown’. In January 2010 he won a European Poker Tour event in Normandy (€857,000, merci), before taking £273,783 in the main event of the World Poker Tour event in London that August. Then in Vegas he won his first WSOP Bracelet, and $851,192, to round off his remarkable trinity. It’s little wonder that he wears a sparkling, five-figure Hublot wristwatch.

“Yeah, it’s probably a little too flashy,” he concedes with a winsome grin when I point it out, as we enjoy a game of Heads-Up – playing for pride only, thankfully – ahead of a UK and Ireland Poker Tour event in Nottingham (at the suitably named casino Dusk Till Dawn) earlier in May. “It was one of the first things I bought when I won my first major.”

As we are dealt another hand each, Cody admits that he struggled to keep up with the hedonism on his first trip to Vegas in 2010. “Me and four guy friends – all professional poker players – shared a house for the 10 weeks, though I had to leave midway through as it was an actual nightmare,” he recalls.

I playfully suggest champagne, dwarfs and girls in the Jacuzzi. Cody’s eyes widen. “It really was not far away from that,” he admits. “It was our first year in Vegas, so there were a lot of distractions. There was a lot of partying and basically no one cleaned the house. Cockroaches started appearing but it was when I saw a rat in the pool I moved out. I needed to get out of there.”

Cody, now sponsored by PokerStars, serves a fascinating example of what can be achieved in the game, and also provides a frank and breezy assessment of its evolution. He folded his studies aged 17 when he realised he had a talent and had made £55,000 (tax free, of course) by the end of his first year. It was at that point when his mother stopped insisting he do low-level jobs to make ends meet.

“I was always into games and very competitive. I guess I have quite an addictive personality and when I got into poker I got obsessed with trying to be good,” he continues. “I would play day and night, waking up and logging on. There was a period when I would play for 16 hours straight. It was probably not great for other aspects of my life, but looking back now that dedication and practice has helped me no end.

“For the older generation, poker is viewed as something that happens in a smokey back room with dangerous people; a game in which you could lose your house. In reality it is really mainstream and well regulated. Anyone can play and there is no discrimination. In fact, it’s the only sport in the world in which you can play at the top tables against the world’s best, if you have the money. It’s not as if you can tee off with Tiger Woods, for instance.”

Good point, I suggest, as I steal a few chips off Cody with a successful bluff. Stories of occassional fist fights still do the rounds, as do tales of hotel rooms being broken into and booty swiped, though Cody insists all that seldom happens. Instead, poker is increasingly urbane and popular. When Victoria Coren Mitchell became the first ever two-time winner of the European Poker in April it gained the game even more exposure.

Like so many others, Cody fed his early poker curiosity online. “I’ve played an online game for about 24 hours,” he says. “I know some people who have played for three days straight – I’m not sure how you function after that, though.” Online poker has boomed in the last decade; according to Christiansen Capital Advisors, worldwide revenue from online poker grew from $82.7 million in 2001 to $2.4 billion in 2005.

“A lot of it is down to Chris Moneymaker,” suggests Cody. He’s referring to the aptly named 39-year-old former accountant from Atlanta who became an overnight star after winning the 2003 World Series of Poker main event – claiming the gold bracelet and prize money of $2,500,000 – a victory which is said to have revolutionised the game, as he was the first person to be crowned the best on the planet after qualifying through an online poker site’s $86 satellite.

Moneymaker single-handedly proved to fellow online poker players that there was no restriction to becoming the world champion. “Everyone was like: ‘Wow, I can do this.’ It exploded after that,” says my opponent. The avalanche of interest in the game that followed is what’s known as the ‘Moneymaker Effect’.

Consequently, that collective confidence has bred a species of more savvy poker players – online and at live tables – making it harder for people to catch an edge. Ironically enough, Moneymaker arrived the day after my conversation with Cody in Nottingham and crashed out of the tournament at the first hurdle, highlighting the point that to reach the final stages of these events Lady Luck needs to be cozy on your lap.

Cody, who starts to pay more attention after I win my fourth hand in a row, recalls how his fortunes flipped for the good en route to his first major final in Deauville in what proved to be a career-defining moment. “It was the first EPT I played,” he says with his eyes firmly locked on the three-card flop presented in our game. “It was a €5,000 buy in and it was huge for me. I’d been doing really well all tournament and I made it to the last 15 and things were getting tense. The payouts were starting to become the size of houses.

“There was a French player called Hugo Lamaire, and we had been warring all day. I made a huge bluff on him with a 10-4 off suit before the cards came out and he had a pair of kings and called. And I somehow made a straight, became the chip leader and went on to win it. If I had lost that hand I would have been out, and who knows what would have happened. It was a life-changing hand for me, for sure.”

As Cody begins to win chips back from me, I ask him for some advice that I can put into practice later on that evening, when playing for real with 125 others looking to be parachuted into the main UKIPT event in Nottingham towards the back end of the week.

“You have to be one step ahead of your opponents,” he starts. “If they are playing lots of hands and going crazy you should be doing the opposite, playing your hands selectively. And if everyone is playing really timidly then you can start raising and you will be able to steal a lot of hands. You have to go in to it open minded and adjust to your opponents.

“People who have less experience will act terribly. If they have a horrible decision they will let our a huge sigh. Sometimes you will give things away subconsciously. It’s like in films you might see someone scratch their nose, or it might be the nervous way they put their chips in.

“The more you break it down, the more layers there are to it. The more you play poker, the more you realise how complex it is.”

By now Cody has managed to claw back all of his own chips, and also a number of mine. I tell him that my own fears are of being overawed by superior players, and meekly limping in and out of hands.

“You want to be aggressive when you are entering the pot,” he says. “I won’t call too much, because it means the blinds get to see the flop for free if you check. And you want to make people pay. I would play quite selectively, but come in raising. Play tight and aggressive and give yourself a chance of winning the pot. The worst thing you can do is not be confident. Don’t worry about feeling stupid, just go with your gut. You have to trust your instincts. Go for it.”

The pep talk emboldens me, and with a rush of blood I go ‘all in’, shoving my chips across the blue baize towards the dealer, having struck two pair on the river. “It’s suddenly got serious,” says Cody, flashing an assassin’s smile. He produces a pair of aces, matching the two already overturned. “What a great hand: quads! That is pretty sick. That’s how you win, make quads!”

I feel sick, embarrassed and sucker-punch winded. It’s a feeling anyone who has played poker will be familiar with: the adrenaline-pumping excitement of calling ‘all in’, the thoughts of conquering and glory, which are then brutally swept away to leave you raw. It’s then your humiliating duty to stumble, while stunned, away from the table. “Hitting the rail,” the jargon has it.

On this occasion I’ve lost no money, only a little pride. I shake hands after our eye-opening and educating hour, and wish the affable Cody all the best for his tournament. From here on, we’re rivals. I have four hours to plot my strategy before the tournament begins.

From boom to bust in Dusk Till Dawn

In the taxi from my central Nottingham hotel to Dusk Till Dawn – an out-of-city casino hosting May’s UK and Ireland Poker Tour event with a record-breaking price pool of £1,223,000 – I rapidly remind myself of the order of winning hands, scrolling Wikipedia on my phone.

Wikipedia being what it is, I’m soon distracted by other information. Conventional wisdom, I learn, posits that poker is likely to have originated from a French game called poque and, in turn, that name may have descended from the German pochen – literally “to knock”, meaning to brag as a bluff. I ponder whether there might be scope for a George Gershwin gag at the table later (“I Loves you Poque …”). Maybe not.

Night has fallen and the casino has taken on a slightly sinister complexion, akin to the 1996 cult vampire-film staring a gun-wielding George Clooney, from which it surely takes its name. Outside From Dusk Till Dawn, there’s not a free space to be spied for vehicles. Mean-coloured cars with blacked-out windows dominate. My pulse begins to quicken as I spot a gold Porsche, and then a black Lamborghini that boasts the rather pugnacious numberplate PI0KER. I silently muse whether it might be missing the letter N in the middle.

Inside, the casino is a whirr of activity. Hundreds of people are crowded around dozens of blue-baize tables. The sounds of clinking glasses and card chatter fills the air.

Snapping out of a temporary paralysis, I make my way to my tournament place – only to find that someone is already plonked on seat number four, my allocated stool. Not the suave entrance I was hoping for. I apologise, as the game is already underway, and settle in to seat seven. The dealer hands me a cluster of chips of varying values. All in, they amount to 5,000 (the initial buy in is £50).

Taking a moment to calm myself, I eye my fellow eight competitors. All blokes, most unshaven, and some already nursing imposing stacks of chips. I try to remind myself of the knowledge and advice Cody had imparted on me earlier that day: “The worst thing you can do is not be confident … You want to be aggressive when you are entering the pot.”

Steeled, I call ‘all in’ on my third go. I have jack-king off suit, which is much better than the ‘computer hand’ (queen-seven off suit, representing the average winning set; in theory your chances of success diminish with less potent combinations). My sudden guilt of foolhardiness at the risk of going out so soon are assuaged when I conclude with a full house – three kings over jacks. I double up my chips and breathe a little easier. On the outside I’m cool; inside a flame is lit.

Next I am dealt a pair of sixes and, in a delightful twist, after hitting ‘quads’ – four sixes – I knock out the chap who is sitting in my rightful chair, number four. Delightful revenge. Only he’s not knocked out, because he reaches inside his deep pockets and shovels another £50 to the dealer for more chips. He’s buying back in – the cheat! As someone with no intention of purchasing more chips I’m suddenly filled with dread. It’s going to be a long night.

Indeed, by the time we reach the first break – two hours later – I’m pretty much the only person at the table who hasn’t bought back in, and rather proud of that fact. Cody’s words of wisdom have served me well, and as I keep making ignorant mistakes (like re-raising my bets in an ungentlemanly fashion, and missing my blinds) few view me as a serious threat; rather, a clueless chancer who has been lucky to be leading the table with 25,000 chips. Some have already thrown hundreds of pounds at the dealer, hoping to catch the cards that will take them to the latter stages of the tournament. They need their fix.

During the interval, I speak to my fellow competitors about their poker lives. A common theme begins to emerge: these people depend on poker, for competition, for comradeship, for vaguely attainable glory, if the cards are kind. It’s a heady prospect, and as with all things intoxicating, it can be addictive. Here, and on the other fifty or more tables, the players are settling in for the evening. All things being well, they won’t depart until the fag end, around 4am.

With a train to catch at 7am and little genuine chance of reaching the final 20 (which is rewarded with a place at the main UKIPT event later in the week), I begin to play recklessly. For an hour it works wonders, forcing everyone else at the table to buy back in. Then, as the clock ticks to midnight I call ‘all in’ with a pair of eights, heart thumping. I lose to triple aces. The sense of competitive failure is overwhelming. “Rush of blood,” says Alan, a cheery medical consultant to my right.

Extinguished, chastened and shaking, I resist the huge urge to buy back in, hop down from my stool, and awkwardly make my way past the throng of whispering watchers surrounding the table. No longer warmed by the jocular badinage of the poker table, I now feel cold and lonely.

Outside, I notice that the gold Porsche and PI0KER are unmoved. I wait for my taxi, and think about the long train ride home.

All of poker’s world had been on show at the Dusk Till Dawn theatre: its late nights, its characters, its esculating sums of money, its fix. In the face of such a circus of addiction, moderation is key. You can’t win a top event without selfishly sacrificing everyone and everything else, I theorize pompously later that morning as I sit on the train back to London, before dozing off to dream about driving a gold Porsche to a Gershwin score.

The next day I drop Alan a line to see how he had progressed. Neither he nor the rest of our group had made it to the final 20. Out of the 1,223 who entered – including most of the top professional poker players, such as Victoria Coren Mitchell and my mentor Jake Cody – the winner of the whole competition, trousering £202,372, was a 50-year-old bricklayer from Corby.

While the top 183 earned a payout (with Cody just finishing inside that number, and gaining £1,770, tax free) Duncan McLellan, after six days of poker, blew away the final table, scorching to victory in the fastest UKIPT finish so far in three hours and 49 minutes.

In his victory speech he perfectly and beautifully disproved my neat theory. “I want to go out to Vegas and play the main event,” he starts with a grin, “but I’ll be back on the scaffold tomorrow.”

This article was first published in The Telegraph in May 2014

Forget about union and league – sevens is the fittest form of rugby, as I found out

Well-lubricated, fancy-dressed revellers in the notoriously riotous South Stand will inevitably be targeted by cameramen when the 42nd edition of the Hong Kong Sevens kicks off this Friday. Forget the wig-wearing, beer-swilling ‘legends’ at the sport’s mecca, though; the real heroes are the players themselves. And, boy, do they deserve the utmost respect for their commitment to putting on an entertaining show.

That’s because, of all the various games one can play with an oval ball, I can vouch that sevens is far and away the most physically demanding, having spent an afternoon training and toiling with members of the high-flying England team at Twickenham.

Don’t believe me? For a second opinion just ask Sonny Bill Williams, arguably the world’s greatest ever multi-sport athlete. Or how about the raft of other megastars from 15-a-side rugby who tried, and failed, to keep pace ahead of last August’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, when sevens made its Games bow?

It’s absurd to regard Williams – a two-time Rugby World Cup winner, occasional professional heavyweight boxer (unbeaten in seven fights), and former rugby league international – as not fit enough to master any sport. But it took over six months of brutal graft to complete his transition to sevens; and even then he only just got the nod to be part of New Zealand’s 12-man squad in Brazil.

Other stellar names of the longer version of the game, including Quade Cooper, Bryan Habana, and Nick Cummings, missed out Olympic selection by some distance, having fluffed their auditions. In the pre-Rio tournaments they featured in on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, the talented trio were made to look as though they were running in slow motion, or “hitting the fudge” as it’s known on the circuit.

Williams was 30 – and therefore still at the peak of his considerable sporting powers – when he announced within weeks of lifting the Webb Ellis Cup for the second time, in late October 2015, that he was giving sevens his full attention and eyeing a podium finish in Rio. His headline-stealing switch exploded the sport’s profile, and when the 33-cap All Blacks centre made his Sevens Series debut last January, in Wellington, he was expected to sparkle immediately.

There was one signature high-risk, out–of–the–tackle offload which led to the winning try for his team in the final against South Africa; but there were two similar attempts which were costly errors. Moreover, Williams was obviously struggling to match the fitness of his new teammates and lagged behind play despite only being afforded limited game time. That his initial performance was so incredibly disappointing surprised many viewers, though it shocked neither those in the know, nor the hardened players. “I left my lungs out there on the pitch,” he offered in a pitch-side interview with an embarrassed, haunted look.

In April last year, at the Paris Sevens, I spoke with George Gregan, the most-capped Australian Test player and HSBC Sevens Series ambassador, about Williams’ fitness struggles. “Sonny’s lost about five kilograms to get himself ‘sevens fit’,” the legendary scrum-half said. “Sevens fitness is on another level. You’ve got to have that ability just to start a match at a really high intensity and speed level, and finish a game the same way – that’s not easy. After 90 seconds you pretty much know that you’re going to reach the lactate threshold, and then you’ve just got to deal with it, hang on, trust your technique and have the mental resolve to get through it. That first game of sevens hits you like no other experience you’ve had before.

“It’s all about VO2 max [the maximum rate of oxygen consumption as measured during incremental exercise], and the ability to work at a really high heart rate. Some people are predisposed to having a good VO2 max, but sevens is no place for a plodder. Top players can perform quickly, with a high level of skill and accuracy, and then repeat it, and deal with the stresses of being fatigued – that’s what different to 15-a-side rugby and makes sevens a unique sort of fitness.”

It was only on the eve of the Olympics, some seven months after Wellington, that Williams was confident that he had finally reached the requisite standard. “The fitness levels are [now] up where they should be for sevens,” he said before suffering a long-term injury in his first game of the competition, cruelly. New Zealand finished outside the medals, in fifth, and with Williams’ Olympic dream shattered there was no surprise when his return to the 15-a-side variant was confirmed soon afterwards (after all, there’s a British and Irish Lions tour for the gong-hungry star to contest this summer).

James Rodwell leads a media team on a sevens training day
James Rodwell leads a media team on a sevens training day

Williams’ sevens travails were at the front of my mind when I rather sadistically signed the waiver form to participate in a training session with three of England’s top players – James Rodwell, Philip Burgess, and Ruaridh McConnochie, who all won Olympic silver medals with Team GB – at the Rugby Football Union’s headquarters in late March.

As I tugged on my workout gear (which had helpfully shrunk in the wash, making it skintight – perfect!) in Changing Room Five, located in the bowels of the stadium, I thought: “If sevens fitness had turned the lights out on Sonny, how dark is this experience going to be for me? Besides, any ‘gas’ I once possessed has long emptied since I last played rugby, some dozen years ago. These days I possess the turning circle of a ferry.

Wafting away the smells of nervous energy emanating from the loos, our group was ushered to the gym, where Rodwell, Burgess, and McConnochie greeted us, grinning. “We want to give you guys an idea of what we do on a day-to-day basis, with the aim of being the best athletes we can for the Sevens Series, which finishes here at Twickenham in May,” started 6’5” Rodwell. “We can’t do the full-contact rugby training with you, so we decided the best thing to do was put you through a bit of fitness.”

Following a 15-minute warm up – hamstrings and legs; upper body and shoulders; and some foam rolling – Rodwell, the most capped England sevens player of all time, explained with a smirk that we would be going outside, on to the hallowed ground, to perform the ‘Yo-Yo Intermittent Recovery Test’. This is effectively the old-school bleep (or beep) test: run out 20 metres to a cone, turn and sprint back, and beat the beep; but this version has a five-metre run-off area and 10-second pause between the gradual speed increases. Two strikes and you’re out.

Oliver Pickup (bright T-shirt and blue shorts) during the Yo-Yo challenge
Oliver Pickup (bright T-shirt and blue shorts) during the Yo-Yo challenge

“As England players we do this every few weeks,” said red-headed Rodwell, “and basically if you don’t reach level 19 – or a pace of 19 kilometres per hour – then you’ll be forced to do it the following week, and made to undergo extra fitness sessions to catch up. Yo-yos are fantastic for acceleration, speed and endurance – all vital for sevens.”

Tom Mitchell, England’s captain and playmaker, currently holds the Yo-Yo record, McConnochie told me; just before Christmas, he managed to hit level 22. “My best is 19.5,” the 6’3″ 25-year-old back revealed. “I really want to make 20 – that’s the golden mark – but it’s always the shorter players, like Mitch [5’10”], who do well at this, because they can turn more easily.”

I lined up alongside six other journos. The first few rounds felt fairly comfortable; then the pace quickened, and our first elimination came at 14.3. By 16.1, with a taste of blood in the back of my mouth and my legs beginning to wobble, I “hit the fudge” and was dismissed. Considering it was the first – and most likely last – time I had graced the venerated Twickenham turf, I was satisfied to finish a reasonable third in our press party.

I was still trying to catch my breath when beanie-hat wearing Burgess pointed us back through the stadium to the gym, where the 28-year-old forward had mapped out a gruelling eight-station circuit. “Highlights include the TRX row, the prowler push, the sled pull, and medicine ball slams,” he said. “You’ll buddy up and it’s not full out; you will have 30 seconds on, with 30 seconds off, but supporting your mate. Encouragement is key.

“One circuit is just four minutes of work, so give it everything. A game of sevens is only 14 minutes long, so we need to give it our all in these sessions, and make sure there is no ‘comfort zoning’, as we call it.”

The exercises were as hellish as one can imagine. My Sonny Bill Williams moment of extreme fatigue and inelegance arrived as I grunted and shunted the heavy duty ‘battle ropes’. “Good form is better than repetitions,” Burgess shouted to me across the gym. Cheers, Phil.

Oliver hits the fudge
Oliver hits the fudge

We only had time to finish one circuit, thankfully, but Rodwell said that he and his teammates would normally push on and complete three before hitting the showers. “We train four days a week, with Wednesday our recovery day, when there is an option to have a soft-tissue massage at the Lensbury, our team base,” he continued. “Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday are typically lighter training sessions compared to Mondays. The rugby will still be really hard, but the weights won’t be as heavy.

“On Mondays we have a speed session first thing, and then we will go straight into the gym for a weights session. From there we will go back out to the pitch to do some skills, all before lunch. And in the afternoon we will do a full-pitch session for about 90 minutes – it’s a mixture of set plays we want to work on and the full-on smash, which is part of rugby.”

I didn’t see an oval ball all afternoon, and left Twickenham shattered, though with an even greater respect for the super-fit England sevens players.

Ahead of Hong Kong, Amor’s team is second, behind South Africa, in the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series standings, after six rounds. The tenth and last stop is back at Twickenham on May 20 and 21 – and tickets are still available. It will be a grand day out, especially if England, who haven’t won at Twickenham since 2009, are still in contention. Whatever the case, the action on the pitch is sure to be more entertaining then anything you spy in the stands.

This article was first published in The Telegraph in April 2017

Oliver’s mediocrity makes it the perfect boy’s name for our times

Oliver, Oliver, never before has a boy’s name achieved less – and yet here it is, top of the popularity charts once again. 

On Wednesday morning, when the Office for National Statistics published its annual data about babies born in England and Wales during the previous year, it came as no surprise that Oliver was the most selected boy’s name in 2019. There were 4,930 new Olivers in 2019 – some 357 babies ahead of second-placed George. That makes it seven years on the trot.

It’s an embarrassing run – even for us Olivers – not least because we have registered so very little of note, in terms of fame or infamy, recently. Think about it: there are no genuinely prominent Olivers in our society right now (no, Jamie doesn’t count).

But herein, I think, lies the reason behind Oliver’s popularity. It’s a name that succeeds through mediocrity. The dearth of Olivers on the A-list (or B-list, for that matter) means that while we’re not known for our rampaging success, neither are we connoted with modern infamy. I can’t think of a single unpopular, toxic, living Oliver. There’s nothing to put parents off when it comes to naming their nippers.

You may recall that in 2016 there were no new Nigels registered in England and Wales. Is it any coincidence that the divisive Nigel Farage was so dominant in the media in the run-up to a country-splitting vote on June 23 that year? Last October, in the heady days before anyone knew or cared about social distancing, one Nigel, a pub landlord in Worcestershire, even held a party for his “dying breed” namesakes.

And who calls their child Gary these days? (Actually, the answer is 20 sets of parents in 2019, according to the ONS – but you take my point.)

Personally, I’m proud to be an Oliver. I consider it a smart, charming name, though most of the time it’s shortened to Ollie, or even Ol, which are scruffier – but unobtrusive and generally fine. Given my unusual surname, I’ve always felt that Oliver’s commonness and ordinariness serves me well.  

You have to cast your net wider, beyond living celebrities, to find examples of notable Olivers.

Oliver Reed features in almost every list. And every list is short of genuine stardust. The notorious hell-raiser died in 1999, aged 61, of a heart attack during a break from filming Gladiator. The tragedy happened after a drinking session – involving lager, rum, whiskey and cognac – in Malta during which he reportedly triumphed over a handful of much younger Royal Navy sailors at arm-wrestling.

Ironically, Reed shot to acting fame after starring as Bill Sikes in Oliver!, the 1968 film – based on Charles Dickens’ second novel (more of which below) – that won an Oscar for Best Picture. The epitaph on his gravestone, in Churchtown, County Cork, where Reed lived in later years, reads: “He made the air move.”

How many Olivers have made the air move in the last 21 years, since Reed tapped out? The most recent truly famous UK-born Oliver died in 2015; but even Oliver Sacks, the celebrated neurologist and author, spent most of his career in America.

With all due respect to Oliver Dowden, the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, he’s unlikely to trouble historians one way or another.

Overseas, there’s Hollywood director Oliver Stone, and footballers Oliver Bierhoff (now retired) and Olivier (sic) Giroud. Not bad – but not in the same league as your Quentins or Lionels.

Of course, there’s one historical figure who looms like an elephant in the room: Oliver Cromwell, the man who led the Parliament of England’s armies against King Charles I during the Civil War and ruled the British Isles as Lord Protector from 1653 until his death five years later.

Oddly, Cromwell had the Normans to thank for his forename: it was they who introduced Oliver to England, during their conquest in the 11th century. The name waned somewhat after Cromwell’s reign, then surged two centuries later, thanks to Dickens’ Oliver Twist.

And what does Oliver mean? It’s derived from the Latin “olivarius”: olive tree – a symbol of peace. Indeed, it can be traced back to mean “kind one” in Old Norse. Perhaps that’s the real, underlying reason for Oliver’s continued popularity: in these times of great highs and lows, mediocrity allied with peace seems like a good combination.

So, who fancies organising a socially distanced party to celebrate Olivers? There will be plenty of us in attendance.

This article was first published in The Telegraph in August 2020

When did stag dos get so messy?

I woke up this morning and knew I was not feeling well when I spotted a sausage flying past the window. It was, in fact, a seagull. I then realised that I’d taken a tern for the wurst.

The telling of this – admittedly terrible – joke in the early hours of a Sunday morning in a Brussels pub, while dressed (against my will and better judgment) as a moustachioed French maid, led to immediate retribution from the great friend I’d honoured by making master of ceremonies at my impending wedding.

“Let’s finish him,” said Julian, a wolfish grin curling up his lips, evoking the infamous and chilling Mortal Kombat termination line. “It’s the humane thing to do – ending Ollie’s night now, for the sake of everyone else.”

The faux justification made little impression on the other members of my stag party. They nodded in boozy agreement, and the “barracuda” was ordered for me. “Une grande, s’il vous plait, patron!”

For those not familiar with the undiluted tequila-gin drink, I envy your ignorance and wish I’d never encountered it. But there I was, dressed in tights, sloshed with a clutch of my closest pals, knowing that I’d have no option other than to take the forfeit meted out, regardless of its size.

Gamely I pinched my nose and gulped down the the repulsive contents of the tumbler. It slipped and slithered down my throat, and Julian had his way, soon enough.

The high-jinks could have been much worse, of course. New film The Stag, a Irish comedy caper about a camping trip with the boys to celebrate the last weekend of freedom for Fionnan (played by Hugh O’Conor), follows in the tradition of stag movies from the accidental-prostitute-murdering Very Bad Things to the Mike-Tyson-baiting Hangover series. All of these films highlight the ritualistic laddish aspects of this modern-day rite of passage: the humiliation; the fancy dress; the jocular badinage; and of course the intoxication through drink, drugs – or both.

We’ve all heard stories about lonely stags being chained naked to lampposts or gaffer-taped to toilets, and the scattered horror stories of tattoos, arrests, hospitalisations – even fake kidnappings. (A personal favourite is the story of a groom who, having been informed in his hungover state that he had fallen and broken his leg the previous night – hence his leg being in plaster – had to use crutches on his wedding day and throughout the official photographs, only for his best man to hammer off the dressing and reveal he had no injury, to the shock of his already-fuming bride.)

It’s difficult to separate the true-life terror from the urban myth when it comes to stag stories, but it’s certainly true that these crazy weekends away – whether in Las Vegas, Brussels or Blackpool – seem to tease out the vile, prurient über-lad lurking menacingly inside all men. Add to that the mentality of the herd and it’s a toxic mix – and big business in 2014.

A study, carried out by The Stag Company and Hen Heaven, published last January found that stag-night spending has soared by over 50 per cent in five years, from an average of £91 a head in 2008 to £153 in 2012. (And hens are spending even more: £158.)

When and why did stag dos become so wild? Our fathers – and certainly grandfathers – never indulged in such hedonistic, barbaric behaviour. On the whole they had a couple of pints in the local with their mates, if anything at all.

Depending which historical experts you believe, the modern stag do can trace the origins back to either Henry VIII (he would have had six, don’t forget, and is unlikely to have restrained himself at any of them) or to the Spartans. Ahead of a wedding those notoriously hard soldiers would hold a dinner in their friend’s honour, and make a toast on his behalf. Tame by today’s standards. No paintballing, no cow-tipping, no stripagram. No nothing.

If you believe the movies, it’s the American bachelor party tradition – tied up in a tradition of frat-house dares and forfeits, that has ramped up the danger level of today’s stag events. But perhaps the British ritual is closer in nature to its French version: the enterrement de vie de garçon, or “burial of the boy”.

This is one last chance to act like a child – it’s a celebration of immaturity and base, juvenile humour – before the man is forced to put away childish things and take on his adult responsibilities; a final hurrah before he must embrace marriage and fatherhood, cooking sausages for the family and taking out the binoculars for a spot of twitching with the wife.

Now that would be life taking a tern for the wurst.

OK, OK – I’ll grow up, and draw a line under those embarrassing youthful pursuits and duff gags. Just don’t make me down another barracuda.

This article was first published in The Telegraph in March 2014

England women’s rugby team are tougher than you’ll ever be

As the Women’s Rugby World Cup gets under way, a chastened Oliver Pickup explains why you should never compare yourself to the players you see on screen

Over the next three weeks the very best female rugby players in the world will squeeze, dip and drive in their quest for World Cup glory. And England, who have been defeated by the New Zealand Black Ferns in the finals of the past three editions, are heavily tipped to still be standing come the August 17 climax at Stade Jean-Bouin in Paris.

On Friday, Gary Street’s team will kick off their campaign against Pool A opponents Samoa in Marcoussis, a suburb 20 miles south of the French capital. Like the rest of England’s games, the match will be broadcast on Sky Sports – a sign that women’s rugby is finally getting the recognition it deserves.

And yet, the sight of the ladies flinging about the oval ball will inevitably flick a machismo switch in parts of the male population. Silently and priggishly, these men will puff their chests out and think: I can match up to these female international players.

Fools! Believe me, unless you’re a professional athlete at the top of your game, you can’t.

England Women Rugby World Cup: Could you compete against female international players?

Warming to the task: Oliver stretches with the England team. (PIC: LEWIS MILES)

When I was invited to take part in one of England’s notorious ‘toughen-up Tuesday’ training sessions – which captain Katy Mclean calls a “total beasting” – earlier in the summer, I confess I took to proceedings a certain air of superiority. “I’m bigger, stronger and faster,” I thought to myself, playing a highlights reel from my university team heyday in my mind. “They’re not even professional sportsfolk.”

It didn’t take the England team long to knock such idiotic thoughts out of my head.

The England women’s rugby team is professional in everything but name (and, of course, pay packet, although there are whispers that the sevens team will be rewarded with contracts after the World Cup). For instance, in the past year the squad have spent 112 days on international duty. They juggle their jobs – the squad includes policewomen, teachers, and a vet – with these strenuous commitments to England. Each player effectively spends all her spare time either training or playing rugby.

Indeed, they are backed by a team of 12, including a doctor, three physios and three coaches, one of whom is Stuart Pickering, formerly the strength and conditioning coach at Worcester Warriors. Pickering would became my worst enemy that afternoon.

The training camp started with Pickering ordering the squad to strap on heart rate monitors, which would be constantly studied by the team of physios on the sideline. We were told to take on electrolytes as a mounted video camera was readied to scan the action. I felt a lump in my throat. This was not going to make pretty viewing.

We began the session with some touch rugby, which was mellow enough, and my only key involvement was a rather clumsy dummy run which led to a try for my side.

Next up was sprints. I was ushered out towards where the wingers and fullbacks were standing. “He’s a boy, so he’ll be quick,” I heard someone say. Buoyed by the comment, I kept pace with the speedsters for about the first four try line-to-22 bursts, though tailed off for the final six. I was tactically preserving my energy – or so I told myself.

Pickering barked: “Malcolms next.”

I queried what this involved. Mclean winked at me and said: “Just make sure you keep your head up and your hands on your hips; if you show signs of tiredness we will all have to do it again … so don’t.”

The next 10 minutes were horrific. It transpires Malcolms are a rugby league drill invented by the evidently sadistic Malcolm Reilly, the former Great Britain coach.

You start lying on the ground face down with chin on the halfway line, push up and run backwards to the 10-metre line, go down completely flat on the ground again before pushing up once more and sprinting to the far 10-metre line. Even describing it is an effort.

We had to perform this six times and by the fourth I was blowing hard. During the final repetition I was last by some distance, my legs were burning, and I was already expelling deeply unattractive noises of effort which would come to punctuate my afternoon with increasingly regularity.

On their fronts, their heads turned to watch me complete the set, the women cheered – rather than jeered – words of encouragement. “Suck it up Ollie, imagine it’s the last five minutes of the World Cup final,” shouted fullback Danielle ‘Nolli’ Waterman, daughter of Bath legend Jim Waterman, with a grin. I welcomed their collective mothering, and needed it for what was to come shortly.

While the squad and I completed our Malcolms, on the adjacent pitch the coaches had mapped out the ultimate rugby training circuit. It was killer, as though Martin Johnson had been granted carte blanche in designing the obstacles on a special edition of Gladiators.

England Women Rugby World Cup: Could you compete against female international players?

Group huddle: Oliver and the squad during their session (PIC: GPPICS)

Having just about caught my breath, I buddied up with 28-year-old Mclean. At 5’6″ tall and weighing 11st the South Shields primary schoolteacher is one of the more diminutive of the group, and certainly possesses more modest dimensions compared to me.

Side by side we performed farmers’ lifts, raising weights before running half the pitch and back, twice. Then, with a 30-second breather, we were heaving weights on the end of ropes between our legs. By now my grunts were incredibly loud, and embarrassing next to the silent, efficient Mclean.

On and on we moved, from one challenge to the next, and as my energy levels dipped uncomfortably low it became a delirious blur. There was the plough, which required a low body dip and straight drive (rather than into the ground, as I could only manage in my shattered state), downing stand-up tackle bags, hitting and rolling other bags. And then, once all that was over, it was time for the coup de grâce.

We were tasked with wrestling the rugby ball off each other. I started with it, gripping as hard as I could – but Mclean stole it from me within five seconds. Completely zapped of stamina and spirit, I attempted to wrest the ball back, and simply couldn’t – not to save my life. And I think the skipper was even giving me a chance.

Emasculated and humiliated, I feigned willing to take part in the 40-minute game that followed the circuit training, slipping a bib over my head. As the women, who showed no sign of tiredness, took to the field one of the coaches, Graham Smith, tugged me back and said: “I don’t think you should do this mate … you might actually get hurt.”

He wasn’t wrong. Mightily relieved that I had an excuse to stop the punishment, I silently took my place on the touchline and watched on, humbled.

So as you watch Mclean and her amazingly focused England team-mates charge into their World Cup battle, dispel any thoughts that you, dear boy, could match them. Instead, give them the respect and support that they deserve.

This article was first published in The Telegraph in July 2014

Nick Yarris: innocent on death row for 22 years

Nick Yarris spent 22 years on death row for a crime he did not commit. He reveals what life is really like on death row and why this system of justice doesn’t work

“The death penalty is not the worst thing we can do to a human being; putting someone away for the rest of their natural life while they sit and watch everything they have ever loved rot and die is the worst. That’s why I volunteered to be executed rather than languishing in eternal hell.”

Nick Yarris is certainly well qualified to make this powerful statement. In 1982 the troubled delivery driver was wrongly convicted of the rape and murder of Linda May Craig and spent 22 years on death row in his native Pennsylvania.

Yarris’ prison nightmare ended in 2004 when he was exonerated thanks to DNA evidence. He had read about the nascent science of DNA testing in a newspaper article in 1989 and became one of the earliest of America’s death row inmates to seek to use it to prove his innocence.

“The majority of people given the evidence that was presented would think that it was an open-and-shut case against Nick,” Robert Dunham, a venerated appellate lawyer – who represented Yarris in the state post-conviction appeals (though was not responsible for his exoneration) – and now executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, tells Raconteur.

“He had the same blood type as the murderer, by unfortunate coincidence, and four separate eye witnesses claimed to have seen someone who matched his description at the shopping mall from where the victim was abducted.

“He had falsely implicated someone else in another case an attempt to cut himself a deal, and his only defence was an alibi, with one witness being his mother who had good reason to support his defence, and the other being a store clerk. Objectively most juries would have convicted Nick.”

Following years of distressing setbacks, including when a box of DNA samples was accidentally destroyed en route to a laboratory, Yarris sought the most extreme relief from his imprisonment: in 2002 he dropped his legal appeals so that the execution process could be carried out. It was only when a judge demanded one last round of DNA testing that he was cleared, after the evidence came back that there were traces of two unknown people on the victim’s clothing.

“The DNA not only showed that Nick didn’t do it, it showed that all of this other evidence was wrong,” adds Dunham. “And it’s that type of error that we see in case after case. DNA testing erodes confidence in the reliability of these other forms of evidence.”

How it happened

Yarris grew up in a Philadelphia suburb and a happy childhood was irreparably fractured at the age of seven, when he was set upon by an older boy. The teenage aggressor whacked him on the head – so hard it caused brain damage – before raping the youngster, who couldn’t face telling his parents or five siblings what had happened. The resulting trauma triggered a downward spiral, and by his late teens he was “a drug-addled kid”, Yarris says.

Aged 20, he was arrested, at the wheel of a stolen car and under the influence of drugs, and was accused of the attempted kidnap and murder of a police officer. Although he was acquitted of those charges, while in custody before that trial, and in a desperate bid to reduce his jail time, he concocted a story, naming a drug-addict acquaintance he thought had died as the suspect in the rape and murder of Linda May Craig, which he had only read about in the newspaper. When it transpired that the person he had accused was alive and had no involvement in the incident he effectively made himself the prime suspect.

Once convicted, and sentenced to the death penalty, Yarris spent almost all of his time in prison in solitary confinement. For 14 years, between 1989 and 2003, he was not touched by another human being – apart from in anger. In a pitiful attempt to combat loneliness he resorted to lying on his arm until it became numb, and would then use it to rub his face to pretend he was being stroked by a loved one.

They didn’t turn us in to monsters with their torture, they made us loving, because we were able to forgive them when they got it wrong

There were numerous other unimaginable, unforgettable horrors, not least when he was forced by prison guards to fight with mentally disturbed inmates. “Oh man, I’ve been strangled, broken my hand, and much more,” Yarris tells Raconteur, recalling the brutal enforced scraps. “They would last five minutes, or until one man went down. A couple of times I had to fight men who were seriously psychopathic, with mental derangements and anger issues. They didn’t have medication to control them, and they were being taunted and pumped up by the guards. By the time they entered the cage they were like frothing, crazed animals. Thank God I’m 6’2”, weigh 14st, and know how to fight.”

On another occasion, an utterly defenceless Yarris was ambushed and battered viciously by unidentifiable guards in an attack that ultimately led to him contracting hepatitis C. “They got me good,” he continues. “It was a year and day after I had tried to escape prison, and I was tricked in to going into a room where four men dressed in black masks and riot gear were waiting for me. I was beaten up for four minutes, which seemed to go on forever.

“They shattered the side of a transverse bone in my lower back, busted my right eye socket, the retina of my left eye became detached, and 12 teeth were broken out of my mouth. Then they paraded me around on their truncheons to show the other inmates what punishment they would suffer if they tried to escape.

“Unfortunately, the dentist didn’t clean the returns on the units, and infected me with hepatitis C. So when, at the age of 42, I stepped out of a maximum security prison, where I’d spent 8,067 days, I was expected to die within two years, because my renal output was so bad. Back then there were no real cures for hepatitis C, just the old treatments which toxified my system so badly it blinded me and nearly killed me. That was until I had a liver transplant. I was one of the first cases cured; I’m actually a miracle. I was clean within six months of walking out of prison.”

On death row

When asked about how he readied himself with the prospect of being executed, and in error, Yarris says: “I was not a righteous person, so I wholeheartedly flung myself in to paying for the misdeeds that I did as a young man – for every window I broke, everything I stole, every drug I took, everything I did wrong in my life.

“It is not the sword of Damocles that bothers you when you are on death row; it’s the fact that everyone has a sword over them and the pressure is so intense that they act differently, as desperate men do. Those who are facing the worst situations can act with the worst behaviour, but also the most beautiful behaviour. It’s crazy how it is diametrically different, but it’s true.

“I chose very diligently to tap into whatever was worth living for, and read so much; most men don’t do that on death row. I saw my family as the victims more than myself, because they had no protection, no walls to stop the scorn of society. People would spit in my mother’s face, and call her the mother of a murderer, because she was my alibi witness.”

Yarris was freed with no apology and, after over two decades on death row, found the transition to ‘normal life’ incredibly tough. “Without guidance I was expected to settle back in to society, with people flinging themselves at me with hugs and emotion,” he says. “It was full on, and I had no support system, no money, no job, no qualifications. It was the greatest challenge you can imagine.

“For so long I lived in a world where if I expressed anger someone was going to bust me in my face, so I knew better. Out here we don’t know that penalty, so that’s why I’m not bothered by everything I went through, and I learned how to control my emotions.”

In a pitiful attempt to combat loneliness he resorted to lying on his arm until it became numb, and would then use it to rub his face to pretend he was being stroked by a loved one

In 2005, Yarris moved to England, and currently resides in Ilchester in Somerset, having become enamoured by the country following an invitation to speak to members of parliament about his travails. The 51-year-old, who has since become a father, now campaigns for the abolishment of the death penalty, and has addressed United Nations and European Union officials, and spoken at hundreds of schools.

“The fact that 159 people have been exonerated in America since 1973, with something like 22 cleared thanks to DNA evidence, shows that capital punishment is insane,” he adds.

“I, like the other 158 men set free from death row, am a living example that it’s a lie, and doesn’t work. We didn’t get out of prison and start killing people in vengeance, in anger, just like the state tried to do to us. The remarkable thing is all of the people that I know who have been exonerated from death row are the most caring, gregariously sweet-hearted people you could imagine.

“They didn’t turn us in to monsters with their torture, they made us loving, because we were able to forgive them when they got it wrong. We like to think that we are perfect as human beings, but we are not. At the end of the day, we don’t have any right to play with people’s lives, and kill one another.”

This article was originally published by Raconteur in August 2017

Humans of the near future

The world’s preeminent ‘cyborg artist’, Neil Harbisson (pictured above), has been stopped “several times a day, every single day, since March 22, 2004”. It’s impossible for him to forget the date: that Monday, 13 years ago, he had an antenna fixed to his skull in order to ‘hear’ colour. The attention generated by the unique appendage can be “really tiring”, London-born Harbisson admits to Raconteur. But, he believes, such sights will be the norm, and sooner rather than later thanks to the inexorable march of technology.

“Initially people questioned whether my antenna was a reading light,” says the 34-year-old, who sees in grayscale but can sense colours (the majority of which are beyond the visual spectrum) 360 degrees around him through audible vibrations. “By 2005 those who approached me thought it was a microphone; in 2007 most reckoned it was a hands-free device; and the following year a lot of them suggested it could be a GoPro camera. In 2012 the top guess was something to do with Google Glass, and more recently a selfie stick has been popular. Lately, people shout ‘Pokémon’ at me.”

Similarly, officials at Her Majesty’s Passport Office didn’t quite know what to make of Harbisson’s antenna to begin with. “On the photograph I submitted I argued that it was not electronic equipment but a new body part, and that I felt that I was a cyborg, a union between cybernetics and organism,” he continues. “I’m not wearing technology; I am technology. It doesn’t feel that I’m wearing anything, it’s just an integrated part of my body; it’s merged with my skull so it is part of my skeleton. There is no difference between an arm, my nose, an ear, or my antenna. In the end, they agreed and allowed me to appear in my passport photograph with the antenna.”

Harbisson had no real issue adjusting to sleeping with an antenna atop his head, but there were other teething problems. “As I had become taller, at the beginning I would bump into doors upon entering cars, and get stuck in branches of trees,” he says. “And I would struggle to put jumpers on. I had to become used to the organ, the body part, as well as get used to the new sense, and it took a while. Having a new sense is something that most people have never experienced. It transforms your life because you perceive absolutely everything differently.”

Moon Ribas, Harbisson’s Catalan partner and fellow cyborg artist who he met when the pair studied at Dartington College of Arts in Devon, has two implants in her arms that allow her to perceive the seismic activity of the Earth and the Moon. Formerly, she warped her vision for a three-month period by using kaleidoscope glasses, and would wear earrings that quivered depending on the velocity of people moving behind her.

For fun, the out-there couple enjoys linking to satellites using NASA’s live feed from the International Space Station. “Instead of using my eyes to see the images, I simply connect the antenna to the data that comes from the satellites, and then I receive vibrations in my head, depending on the colours,” Harbisson says. “They have so many sensors in space that are collecting data, but no-one is actually looking at it. I feel I’m a ‘sensestronaut’ or a ‘mindstronaut’ because my senses are in space while my body is here on Earth.”

Future of humanity

Mindstronauting aside, it’s been a busy year for Harbisson, and a significant one for the future of humanity, with cyborgs in the ascendancy. At March’s South by Southwest – the annual conglomerate of film, interactive media, music festivals and conferences held in Austin, Texas – Harbisson, Ribas, and BorgFest founder Rich MacKinnon presented a draft of the declaration of cyborg rights and also introduced an accompanying flag “which you can only detect if you can sense infrared”.

“We believe it should be a universal right for anyone to have a new sense or a new organ,” argues Harbisson. “Many people can identify strongly with cybernetics without having any type of implant, and there has been a lot of support. There may even be a ‘cyborg pride’ parade in Austin next year.”

Additionally, in February his startup Cyborg Nest, co-founded with Ribas in 2015, began shipping its first product, North Sense – a $425 DIY embeddable device that gently vibrates when the user faces magnetic north.” (Mind-boggling pipeline projects, kept under wraps, reportedly include silent communication using Bluetooth, a pollution-detecting device, and eyes in the back of the head.)

I’m not wearing technology; I am technology

Cyborg Nest is just one of a growing cluster of ‘biohacker’ startups offering a variety of sense-augmenting implants, with body enhancements, prosthetics and genetic modifications are increasingly popular. Pittsburgh-based Grindhouse Wetware, for instance, has been developing ‘implantables’ since 2012, such as Circadia, a device that sends biometric data wirelessly via Bluetooth to a phone or tablet, and Northstar, which allows gesture recognition and can detect magnetic north (as well as the rather gimmicky feature of mimicking bioluminescence with subdermal LEDs).

What does it mean to be human? The answering of this existential puzzler has powered progression for millennia, but now, as nascent technologies fuse physical, digital and biological worlds, it has never been more complex, and critical, to define the age-old question. Alarmingly, we are hurtling inexorably towards the ‘singularity’ – a hypothetical point when artificial intelligence advances so much that humanity will be irreversibly disrupted. But, in fact, the migration from man to machine has already started.

(Photo credit: Lars Norgaard)
Cyborg king (Lars Norgaard)

What is transhumanism?

Entering ‘Sir Tim Berners-Lee’ – the Briton who created the World Wide Web 28 years ago – into a Google search throws up almost 400,000 results. That figure is almost six times fewer than ‘transhumanism’, a movement few have heard of, yet one which is beating the heart of progress, albeit beneath the radar.

The touchstone definition from a 1990 essay by Dr. Max More, the Oxford University-educated chief executive officer of Arizona-based Alcor Life Extension Foundation, states: “Transhumanism is a class of philosophies of life that seek the continuation and acceleration of the evolution of intelligent life beyond its currently human form and human limitations by means of science and technology, guided by life-promoting principles and values.”

The benefits would be even broader across the whole of society if everybody got a little bit smarter

A raft of tech billionaires are considered either ‘de facto transhumanists’ or are fully signed up to the movement. Luminaries include Peter Thiel, the PayPal co-founder and Facebook’s first professional investor worth an estimated $2.7 billion by Forbes, Elon Musk, of Tesla Inc. and SpaceX fame, Google co-founder Sergey Brin, and – according to H+Pedia (an online resource that aims to “spread accurate, accessible, non-sensational information about transhumanism”) – Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

Dr. Anders Sandberg, a research fellow at Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute, suggests that transhumanism “questions the human condition”, and tells Raconteur: “It is in many ways a continuation of the humanist project, seeing human flourishing as a goal, but recognising that human nature is not fixed. Rather than assume it is all going to be an entropic mess, transhumanism suggests that many serious problems can be solved and that we do have a chance for a great future.”

There are practical, utilitarian, reasons why submitting one’s body to technology makes sense – at least to Dr. Sandberg and his fellow transhumanists. “Consider that the Government spends £85.2 billion on education every year; even a slight improvement of the results would either be a huge saving or enable much better outcomes,” he continues. “One intelligence quotient (IQ) point gives you about a two per cent income increase, although the benefits would be even broader across the whole of society if everybody got a little bit smarter.

“Childhood intelligence also predicts better health in later life, longer lives, less risk of being a victim of crime, more long-term oriented and altruistic planning – controlling for socioeconomic status, etc. Intelligence does not make us happier, but it does prevent a fair number of bad things – from divorce to suicide – and unhappiness.”

While Dr. Sandberg suggests that the aforementioned DIY ‘grinder’ self-surgery movement “problematic” he is “firmly in favour of self-experimentation and bodyhacking”. He flags up the apparent triumph of Elizabeth Parrish, CEO of Seattle-based BioViva, who in September 2015 underwent what her company labelled “the first gene therapy successful against human ageing”; it was claimed that the treatment had reversed the biological age of Parrish’s immune cells by 20 years.

The Swede is also optimistic about the prospect of ‘mind uploading’, or ‘whole-brain emulation’, as he prefers to call it. He acknowledges that the enabling technology is “decades away” but believes we could “become software people with fantastic benefits: no ageing; customisable bodies; backups in case something went wrong; space travel via radio or laser transmission; and existing as multiple copies.”

Little surprise, then, that Dr. Sandberg is keen on ‘cryonics’ – the deep-freezing of recently deceased people in the belief that scientific advances will revive them – and is fully signed up for Dr. More’s Alcor, the largest of the world’s four cryopreservation facilities. It currently houses 117 ‘patients’, who are ‘considered suspended, rather than deceased: detained in some liminal stasis between this world and whatever follows it, or does not,’ Irish author Mark O’Connell writes in To Be a Machine on the subject of humans of the future.

For Dr. Sandberg, the $200,000 cost of whole-body perseveration is justifiable as it would be “irrational not to” take the negligible odds that technologic advances will revive him, at some point. “Sure, the chance of it working is small – say five per cent – but that is still worth it to me,” he says. “And after all, to truly be a human is to be a self-changing creature.”

Is it morally wrong to augment humans?

David Wood, chairman of London Futurists, counters that question by firing a cluster of his own, asking Raconteur: “Is it morally wrong to teach people to read, or vaccinate people? Is it morally wrong to extend people’s lives by using new medical treatments, or seek a cure for motor neurone disease, or cancer, or Alzheimer’s? They are all forms of augmentations.”

Having warmed up the Scot, who spent eight years studying mathematics and then the philosophy of science (specialist subject quantum mechanics) at Cambridge University, he says: “Recall the initial moral repugnance expressed by people when heart transplants first took place. Or when test-tube babies were created, or when transgender operations were introduced. This moral repugnance has, thankfully, largely subsided. It will be the same, in due course, for most of the other enhancements foreseen by transhumanists.”

Wood, a science-fiction lover from childhood, was switched on to transhumanism “in the early 2000s”, after reading The Age of Spiritual Machines, a seminal book written by futurist Ray Kurzweil, who would later be personally hired by Google co-founder Larry Page “to bring natural language understanding” to the organisation. Famously, the American author has predicted that the ‘singularity’ is on course to happen in 2045, though many critics dismiss his forecast as fanciful and dogmatic.

We could become software people with fantastic benefits

Regardless, transhumanism is on the rise in Britain. “The UK Transhumanist Association (UKTA) used to half-jokingly refer to themselves as ‘six men in a pub’,” says Wood, who in July 2015 co-founded H+Pedia “The UKTA was superseded, in stages, by London Futurists – which covers a wider range of topics – and we now have over 6,000 members in our Meetup group.”

So, what does the near future hold for humanity?

“We can envision ever larger gaps in capability between enhanced humans and unenhanced humans,” adds Wood. “This will be like the difference between literate and illiterate humans, except that the difference will be orders of magnitude larger.

“Transhumanists anticipate transcending the limitations which have been characteristics of human experience since the beginnings of Prehistory: ageing; death; and deep flaws in reasoning. Maybe once that happens, the resulting beings will no longer be called humans.”

This article was originally published by Raconteur in June 2017

Three-sided football, could it ever take off?

It is nearing 2pm on the first Sunday in June, and I’m at Deptford’s Fordham Park in south-east London, a paintbrush’s throw from Goldsmiths, alma mater of the arty glitterati. I’m wearing studded boots for the first time in a decade, ready to make my debut in the Luther Blissett Three-Sided Football (3SF) League, on the last day of the 2016-17 season.

Greg, a Polish builder sporting a scarlet Mohican, introduces himself with a wink and a hearty handshake. A player from another team snakes across the hexagonal pitch – six, 27-metre-long sides have been marked out by fraying string – on his rusted bicycle. He dismounts flamboyantly, twirling a hoary, upturned, waxed moustache that Salvador Dalí would have envied.

A third character, modelling faded neon-pink socks, is Chris Collier, the towering captain of Strategic Optimism Football, who enjoys playing ‘psychogeographical incidental urban poker’ in his spare time. He hands me a brooding jersey with a hexagram sigil at its centre. “This auto-destructive shirt was painted, splattered and dunked with a specially mixed brew of bleach and sulphuric acid, during a particularly violent thunderstorm,” the 35-year-old teacher tells me. “Welcome to the side.”

The rise of 3SF

I’ve come to experience the subversive, cultish alternative sport of 3SF, which Mark Dyson, one of collective group of 20 trailblazers responsible for establishing the league three years ago, suggests is “football fused with chess, and poker”.

“The rules are very simple,” he continues, cheerily, while clipping the last of the netting to the three makeshift goals. “And there are only three of them.” Namely, three teams of (in this case) five players are required on the pitch at the same time; the ball used must be round; and – here’s the kicker – the victors are the ones who concede the fewest goals.

The games, which last 60 minutes (with three – of course – rotations of 20 minutes), adhere to some elements of conventional football: goal kicks; throw-ins; and corners. There is no extra-time, though, and no offsides, unsurprisingly. And no referee. “Teams agree democratically on whether an infringement has occurred,” says Dyson, who in January 1994 played in what is widely regarded as, if not quite the first, the most-significant 3SF match in history.

The wiry, 51-year-old architect recalls being one of the “lucky people” to take to a frosted Glasgow Green to try out the bizarre game. It was a direct response to late Danish artist and philosopher Asger Jorn’s conjuring of the concept as a method of explaining his refinement of the Marxist dialectic (resulting in what he referred to as “triolectics”) in his 1962 book The Natural Order (Naturens Orden).

Dyson, with a mischievous grin, proffers me a timeworn flyer advertising the match that was handed out to delegates at that Glasgow Anarchist Winterschool meeting 23 years ago. “You are invited to participate in an experiment in three-sided football,” it begins. “Each team has a choice of goals to score in, but is concerned more with defending their own goal. The winning team need score no goals themselves, but could rely more on keeping the other teams disunited.”

glasgow flyer

That famous 1994 game was proposed by The London Psychogeographical Association’s Fabian Tompsett, who stumbled across the idea after he began translating Jorn’s texts in to English in 1990. According to the flyer, it promised to break “down the tedium of modern football” and required “precision, persuasion, and skill”. The inaugural match was not easy on the eye, however. “Most of us had had a bit too much to drink and certainly a bit too much to smoke when we went out to the pitch,” Dyson, who despite the chilly conditions bravely used his jumper for one of the six goalposts, said in a 2015 interview with Vice.

“I vaguely remember the first five to 10 minutes as about 50 people just running after the ball. None of us were footballers, so it must have looked appalling. This went on for about half an hour, but it was bloody freezing so we quickly abandoned it and fled to the pub.”

Back in south-east London, Dyson tells me he didn’t play 3SF again until the early 2010s. Buoyed by interest, he and likeminded friends of an artistic, anarchy bent founded Deptford Three Sided Football Club (D3FC) in February 2012, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Naturens Orden. Two years later the league – which currently boasts six clubs, including the wonderfully titled Aesthetico Athletico, Philosophy FC, and New Cross Irregulars – was established. And the quality of standard has steadily improved, unfortunately for him.

“When we started, the league attracted a lot of art students, and we couldn’t play football to save our lives; we could just about kick the ball in a vague direction,” Dyson tells Raconteur. “Deptford was perfectly suited to the game for a number of reasons: not only does the area allegedly have the largest concentration of artists per square kilometre in Europe; but, more importantly, unlike most of London’s parks, Fordham Park is a free communal space that is not policed.

3SF is football fused with chess, and poker

“We have always employed a policy of radical inclusivity; we don’t turn anyone away. Initially there were a lot of ladies and kids playing. Occasionally the drunks, who enjoy watching us, come and have a go, and fall over. It’s all lovely. Now it attracts football stars; because of that, I’ve had to relegate myself to goalkeeper.”

Notwithstanding his alleged lack of footballing talent, in mid August Dyson will take his goalkeeping gloves to Kassel, a city in central Germany (“the capital of the German fairy tale route”, informs the local tourist office), where the second 3SF World Cup is taking place. It will be an extension of Documenta 14, an exhibition of contemporary art.

“There are various subversive and surreal things happening, and a lot of different festivals being superimposed on top of each other, because Lithuanian Redas Diržys, the director of the Art School of Alytus, loves the quantum concept of superposition,” says Dyson.

There, in ‘Kathalytus’ – “a psychogeographical merger of the three cities of Kassel, Athens and Alytus” – he will represent “the temporary autonomous republic of Deptford, which secedes from the UK for the purpose of all international matches; there is even a ceremony for the secession”.

Three years ago Dyson featured at the first World Cup, fittingly held in Silkeborg, a Danish town located in the middle of the Jutlandic peninsula and the birthplace of Jorn. He died in 1973, yet his legacy and rebellious spirit lives on through his provocative and pioneering art and literature, and 3SF.

New Cross Irregulars
The New Cross Irregulars

The origin

Jorn was born in March 1914, four months before the start of World War I, to Lars Peter and Maren Jørgensen, both teachers, and committed Christians. He rebelled first against religion, inwardly to begin with, and later against authority, outwardly. Jorn became a founding member of the avant-garde movement COBRA as well as the Situationist International, a cluster of social revolutionaries, artists, intellectuals, and political theorists, prominent in Europe from 1957 until its dissolution in 1972, a year before his death.

The group, disillusioned by everyday life in an increasingly capitalist world, sought to disrupt the possibilities of work and play by throwing up creative alternatives. Triolectics, Jorn’s philosophical system, was manifested through 3SF, though the game was never played in his lifetime.

“Jorn felt that the dualistic antagonisms of the East / West political dialectic could be ameliorated through the introduction of a tertiary power which would engender a rotational series of shifting alliances to neutralise the tension,” Dyson said in a Telegraph article published on the eve of the 2014 World Cup. “To help explain, he suggested imagining a game of football but with three sides instead of two.”

Geoff Andrews, who in 2013 launched the International Three Sided Football Federation, is manager of Philosophy FC, and was another co-founder of the Luther Blissett 3SF League, tells Raconteur: “There has always been an anarchic side to 3SF, which is, literally, the thinking man’s version of football. Asger was looking at modern capitalist society which he thought was divided in a two-class battle and he wanted a way to disrupt or at least challenge the ethos of that system; 3SF allows individuals to express themselves in a more liberating, spontaneous way than in the conventional game.

“There has been a lot of media interest from across the globe as well as at a more local level – from people who just want a kick about, from coaches of semi-professional teams interested in improving training methods, and from men and women, young and old, who seem to enjoy the simple pleasures of playing football, in contrast to the corporate game. It is a modern, or even postmodern, take on ‘jumpers for goalposts’.”

Collier, the skipper of Strategic Optimism Football – a club currently in a ‘chiselling phase’, “during which we hope to eradicate ourselves completely by 2019” – says: “Games have been played from Australia to Alytus, Belarus to Bilbao, Borneo to Bogotá, Malawi to Milan, and New York to Malaysia. They have been played in ancient stone circles, cemeteries, and Soviet fuel silos. There was even a midwinter, midnight game in a remote mountain forest in the Czech Republic, and another on the shore of the Baltic Sea played with a giant football the size of a Ford Fiesta.”

Dyson tells Raconteur that the Luther Blissett 3SF League – which, incidentally, is not named after the former Watford, AC Milan and Bournemouth striker, who won 14 caps for England in the early 1980s; rather, it was adopted because the London Psychogeographical Association had proposed the founding of such a league in back in 1996, and suggested the name in solidarity with the Italian ‘Luther Blissetts’, who were cultural activists who staged urban and media pranks – is “just another one of the many experiments” of the sport.

There has always been an anarchic side to 3SF, which is, literally, the thinking man’s version of football

“When we played one-off games many times we came to understand that in conventional play there is a societal levelling off,” he says. “The nature of the triolectic at work means that there is a built-in advantage to the minority teams, so they would gang up on the winning team towards the end of the game. And that occurred on a regular basis.

“We hoped that by setting up the league, the mathematical dynamics of overall league positions would break that, habit and result in more nuanced games. We were attempting to see whether there were some other methods of organisation which would disrupt that particular dynamic.

“The league – which convenes on the first Sunday of every month, from September to June – has worked, in that there are some utterly bizarre scores. In one of the most intriguing matches, at the end of the 2015-16 season, the players from my team, Deptford, were trying to score in their own goal, while New Cross Irregulars had fled their goal to try and defend any goals from going in against us, because of the triolectical permutation of goalscoring.

“It was wonderful that happened, but at the same time, strangely, within the league there was a reintroduction to the dialectical competitiveness that conventional football exhibits, which was what was being deliberately critiqued by 3SF. So the league has half the spirit of three-sided football, and half the spirit of conventional football.”

Chris Collier and Mark Dyson
Mark Dyson (left) and Chris Collier at the game

The game

As I take to the hexagonal pitch in my fragrant but rather menacing-looking Strategic Optimism Football shirt, Gazzetta dello Sport journalist Filippo Ricci’s description of 3SF being “organised chaos” comes to mind. Captain Collier, a Goldsmiths graduate, ushers me out to the right ‘wing’, and within a couple of minutes I’ve rounded Dyson to score against D3FC, having been played through beautifully by an Aesthetico Athletico player.

We net a few more times, in both opponents’ goals, to make the score 2-2-0 after 20 minutes, when the whistle for the first rotation is blown. During the break, tactics are discussed, and collectively we are urged to dismiss any natural and conventional impulses to attack. It’s hard, and weird, to resist.

As we enter the final third of the match, Strategic Optimism Football are still winning – or not losing – 5-4-3, after Aesthetico Athletico’s goalkeeper rolls the ball to our striker, Matt, who then scores against him immediately, and cheekily. I start to think this 3SF malarkey is a breeze. In a blink that thought, and the mood of the game, changes.

Suddenly, both of our opposition teams are ganging up against us; it’s 10 versus five – and one of our five is Mo, who is playing in slip-on shoes and seems to be checking various social media accounts on his smartphone. We attempt to hold on to our lead, akin to Davy Crockett in the Battle of the Alamo, and like the raccoon-hat wearing commander in the Texas Revolution, it is only a matter of time before our defences are breached, twice, alas. Amazingly, the hugely enjoyable game ends in 5-5-4, with my adopted team having leaked a handful of goals.

“That was one of the best games ever,” says Dyson, taking his mudded gloves off. “Everyone deserves a beer. And with it being the last day of the season who is up for trying another game of football – but without a ball? It’s a card game called Wandsworth …”

I ask Collier about whether he is planning to attend the World Cup, which runs from August 18 for three days. “I will indeed,” he beams, “but the team will not represent any topographical region or nation state. For we hail from the psychogeographical territory of ‘Meonia’.

“There will be five of us travelling over from Meonia in our new ‘I Scream’ van, which is like an ice cream van, but instead of playing the maudlin strains of Greensleeves or Yankie Doodle, passersby will be subjected to a marginally less annoying barrage of auto-destructive noise and shrieking.

“If you fancy it, you are most welcome. Why don’t you bring your boots?”

Maybe I will, I tell him. And I mean it.

After weeks of chasing I finally hear back from Tompsett, who – if Jorn is the father – is considered to be the son of 3SF. Via email I had asked him what the great Dane would think about the flourishing of his game, now that we are approaching the second World Cup.

“He would be waiting patiently for the third,” he replies, adroitly.

This article was originally published by Raconteur in August 2017