A few days ago a woman from the Telegraph called me to ask what I thought of Bear Grylls’s new TV series, which is currently in post production. Apparently a bunch of ‘lost blokes’ were taken to a desert island to ascertain whether modern man can still work out how to survive – catching and killing dinner, making shelter etc. Invited to pontificate about pap reality telly, poor one-dimensional Bear, and the shortcomings of outdated masculinity ideals – I was delighted! I scribbled down a whole tirade, of which the Telegraph quoted a little bit here. Read on for the rest and tell me what you think…
The Channel 4 publicity blurb claims this programme is an attempt to counter the romantic view of getting back to nature, but in my opinion the view of the world that they are pushing is just as much make-believe. It’s the classic TV fodder of a big polarised contest – man versus Nature-with-a-capital-N, where Nature is something that lives only on remote islands, not in every crack in every pavement in the UK.
Channel 4’s language is deliberately macho. The ‘blokes’ will be: “stripped of comforts”, “cast away”, face “daily fears” and “brutality”, be “pushed to the limit” with the “odds stacked against them”, in “extreme circumstances”, etc etc.
Women are quite useful too…
Bushcraft expert Lisa Fenton says the show is “inherently sexist” because women are just as cut out for working out how to survive as men are, and more importantly in ancient and indigenous cultures both genders have important and complimentary roles, but I think there’s more depth to the question. Even the idea of playing at ‘survival’ seems outdated to me – part action man, part pith-hatted Victorian in the jungle; utterly wrong in a time when what we really need is a constructive, comprehensive, involved and above all gentle view of our custodial role in the battered world. We need to think in terms of relationships with the world rather than combat against it.
Instead of seeing ourselves as part of the landscape, our world is so sanitised that people go crazy to see a celebrity eat a bug on TV. Setting up this kind of televised battle against nature is no help at all at a time when we really could do with appreciating that we are just domesticated animals ourselves.
We are the most amazingly adaptable creatures – our continuing existence proves that. We can live on a diet of nothing but MacDonalds, vitamins and air conditioning, so of course we can adapt back to how we were for the vast majority of our time on earth. Most people feel this instinctively, it’s why people ‘like’ beautiful landscapes on Facebook, grow plants, keep animals, gravitate towards the outdoors for leisure time.
‘Nature’ doesn’t just live on a remote desert island
Skills are something that are learned and honed and are to do with getting to know your own landscape and resources. We’re obsessed with ‘deep-end’ telly – plunging ill-equipped people into environments that are alien to them – for the shallow false jeopardy and squeamishness. Channel 4 are right when they say that people are interested to know if they could ‘survive in the wild’, but I’d say anyone would find out a lot more by spending an afternoon outside, learning the names and uses of trees.
There are important discussions to be had about masculinity these days, of course, but that’s not to say we need to embrace an outdated shouty view that claims masculinity is about tearing down trees, killing animals, or looking after women. It’s also not necessarily helpful to look at masculinity in isolation from femininity, or in fact from the pressures and expectations of the culture that defines it.
More outdoors for all!
The discussion is more about working out what makes us happy and healthy, which I would argue is generally being constructive rather than destructive, letting children play outside and build dens so they don’t become whatever poor, paunchy ‘lost blokes’ this programme will have cast. It’s valuing time over money, watching less telly, valuing our use of resources, and spending time outside every day. Not on some desert island where ‘Nature’ lives, but right here, where you live.
Channel 4 are just doing the sensationalist reality telly they think people like, and there’s no surprise there. But in my opinion if they think they’re going to find out something useful about humanity, they’re barking up the wrong palm tree altogether.
(If you are enjoying looking around the internet for inspiration, read this rewilding manifesto by George Monbiot, all about enormous animals, elephants in Europe, allowing nature to recover and adapt to the landscape as it is now rather than trying to return it to how it was pre-humans. He’s also very enthusiastic about bringing wildness into human lives, which I like a lot. I’m only on page three of his book!)