ONCE again I’m sitting in my office, in front of my Mac, with the french doors wide open to let in some of that lovely sunwarmed air that I wish I was enjoying outside.
The problem is that I have a busy couple of weeks coming up and I have to get the writing done now. That’s the downside of being an outdoors writer. Walking the hills or riding the bike or making television programmes about these things are all great, but the downside moment inevitably comes when you have to sit down and write it all up.
After 35 years of doing this for a living you’d think I’d be used to it by now but the truth is I’ve always found the writing side of it to be a burden. How I envy those writers who love playing with words, who get a thrill out of constructing clever paragraphs and who enjoy nothing more than locking themselves away – in purdah – to create a book or a magazine article without disturbance from the outside world.
Hiking or climbing or cycling or canoeing or backpacking are the things I enjoy, the elements of my life that give shape to everything else. To allow me to do these things as often as I possibly can I have to turn the activities into some kind of business – or starve.
In the early years of my career I had a choice to make. I could be an outdoors instructor, or I could become a writer. At decision time I was running the activities at an outdoor centre and writing before I went out to work in the morning and when I returned home at night. It got to the point where I had to make a decision – one thing or the other. I couldn’t continue doing both or I wouldn’t have had the time to go out and enjoy the outdoor activities for myself – a classic scenario. I honestly couldn’t see myself teaching snow plough turns or how to line up a map and compass for the rest of my life so the prospective life of an outdoors writer won the day. I’ve no regrets.
No regrets until I find myself with too much writing to do, deadlines approaching, and the sun is shining outside. Ho-hum…
I’ve been very fortunate. I was going to say lucky but I’ve realised that you make your own luck. Twenty-odd years editing outdoor magazine – Footloose, Climber, The Great Outdoors – gave me a great base to work from, and I was very, very fortunate that I had publishers who realised I was first and foremost an outdoors guy, and a magazine editor second.
That kind of situation has changed a lot these days. Outdoor magazine editors tend to be wage slaves. The demands from publishing companies are high and profits related and most of these publishers don’t actually give a toss about outdoor activities. It’s just another subject to make a magazine and make money. That’s not to say my old publishers didn’t want to make money, of course they did, but they all realised that I couldn’t operate at the required level without a regular fix of the outdoors. That had to be explained to them, time and time again, and often in difficult circumstances, usually when they were being pressurised by profit-seeking shareholders.
Much the same goes for my television career. I’m not a television presenter who does some outdoor activities. I’m an outdoors guy who does some television. There is a huge difference. I don’t do other things on television because I’m not interested in quiz shows, or chat shows or hosting a programme about farming life. A number of years ago, just after the success of Wilderness Walks, I was approached by an independent television company who asked me to front a series about caravanning. I’d never towed a caravan in my life, I had never been interested in caravanning and I had little enthusiasm to learn, so I turned it down without a second thought. No regrets.
At much the same time I was invited to appear on a number of radio quiz shows and I accepted a couple of offers. I hated it, made a complete arse of myself and vowed never to do it again. Likewise with after dinner speeches. I now have a rule that I only give talks or speeches to outdoor folk, with one glorious exception that I’ll come to in a minute. In the past I’ve given after-dinner talks to groups of folk with no interest in the outdoors and I can see them looking at me with absolutely no understanding or appreciation of what I’m talking about. I should say many of these gigs pay extremely well, but I often feel completely out of my depth, often trying to be a comedian or entertainer when basically I’m not. I’m an outdoors bum..
This weekend I’m speaking at an event, one that I’m looking forward to immensely. It’s the Moray Walking Festival and I’m going for a walk with my old friend Heavy Whalley, retired mountain rescue guru. Heavy is leading a walk up Ben Rinnes near Dufftown and I will be his helper! In truth, my role is to blether with whoever else comes along and help make a great day of it. We’re all meeting in the Ben Rinnes car park at 10am on Saturday. Come along if you can.
Later in the evening I’ll be giving an audio-visual presentation in the Drouthy Cobbler in Elgin. I’ll be talking about some of the projects I’ve been involved in over the past few years – the Scottish National Trail, television, magazines and some of the fascinating folk I’ve met. I think there are a few tickets left and you’ll get all the information you need from http://www.moraywalkingfestival.co.uk
So what’s the ‘glorious exception’ to the kind of talks I give?
Some of you will be aware that I’m currently trying to help campaign for an independent Scotland. I’m sharing a platform with the redoubtable Lesley Riddoch in Newtonmore Village Hall on Thursday 26th June and with Mike Russell MSP and Rosie Kane in Benderloch, near Oban, the following evening. A few weeks ago I shared a platform with Derek Bateman at the highland launch of the National Collective in Inverness and that was a wonderful event. I’m still feasting off the buzz that event gave me.
I firmly believe Scotland has the ability and the resources to be a wealthy independent country and I believe Scotland’s future should in Scotland’s hands, so that we can build a better, fairer, greener, more prosperous country that many of us believe is possible.
This isn’t an anti-English stance – far from it. I’m passionate about parts of England, just as I’m passionate about parts of continental Europe, but I despair at the current UK political system and I believe Scotland is being prevented from meeting the aspirations of Scots people.
As an independent country I believe Scotland will become a fairer and more equal society, a nuclear-free society, an environmentally sensitive society with a burgeoning renewable energy industry and one in which we can bring an end to the grotesque situation where 7% of people own 84% of the land. We simply can’t achieve these things under a Westminster regime, no matter if it’s Tory or New Labour – both tend to sing from the same hymn sheets these days anyway.
Let me finish this blog with a message to Scots ‘don’t knows’, from the arch-capitalist and ‘child of Thatcher’ Richard Branson. This is what he once said;
“If someone offers you an amazing opportunity and you’re not sure you can do it, say yes – then learn how to do it later.”
I think that’s very good advice.