Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Incredible Endeavours: Martin Strel

(Written for MSN's In Search of Incredible with ASUS/Intel website, originally published here.)

Long-distance swimmer Martin Strel likes a challenge, taking the likes of the Amazon River in his stride…

Martin Strel has stunned people around the world with his feats of endurance in long-distance swimming. The 57-year-old Slovenian has claimed a succession of Guinness World Records for swimming the lengths of the Danube River, the Mississippi River, the Yangtze River, and the Amazon.

His epic 66 day, 3,300 mile swim of the Amazon was documented in the award-winning film Big River Man, securing Strel’s notoriety as an unconventional athlete – known as much for his hard drinking as his incredible physical achievements.

In Search Of Incredible spoke to the fearless swimmer as he prepares for his next big swim.

How did you get into long-distance swimming?
When I was young I swam up and down many times and people didn’t understand me. I swam non-stop, sometimes for 10km, even though I was very young. It was very hard for people to swim with me, I was pretty fast already. Maybe I was born like this, who knows.

What motivates you when swimming?
When I started, I swam in competitions for money, so a better position was better for your pocket. Then a little later, when I started to swim long rivers, I kept surprising myself. At first, swimming for 55 hours non-stop was almost impossible. Now I can swim maybe 100 hours.

In the Mississippi I swam for the people that died on September 11th, 2001. I told myself I simply have to swim, even though I was tired. In the Amazon, it was everything that was happening in this beautiful, precious part of the world – I heard a lot of terrible news about people simply destroying forests there. So I said, okay, I’m going to swim the Amazon because this planet must understand what’s going on.

How do you prepare yourself for a long river swim?
Physically I must be strong, so I train twice a day in the swimming pool, in the ocean, rivers, lakes. Then as well as cross-country skiing, I’m doing a lot of hiking. Then your health is very important, you have to be very strong, a very tough guy. I’m never sick. That’s part of why I’m doing this successfully. And there’s also mental preparation. My son is with me, that’s very important. He works on the logistics. It couldn’t happen without him. That would be a huge problem for me.

On the ship’s crew, the cook is very important – what to eat, what to drink, you have to know all that before you start. Then you have to organise the media. And when you start, don’t give up. Now it’s time to show the world who you are.

Which swim has been the most challenging?
The Amazon swim was extremely hard and risky. I risked my life, it was 50/50. On the Yangtze, every day was a lucky day for me. We passed many rapids, and there was lots of pollution. On the Mississippi there was the danger of lightning. I’ve seen many deadly situations. But the Amazon was definitely the most challenging.

What river would you like to swim next?
It’s in my head to do the Grand Canyon next year. I’m still trying to find one sponsor. I’ve swam parts of the Canyon for TV shows this year, I know it pretty well. It’s beautiful. It’s very risky as it’s extremely cold water and there are many rapids, but people could follow it on the internet and TV and I think it could be a great story.

What do you love about swimming?
Swimming makes me healthy, swimming gives me power. You get to see beautiful nature and you can get a connection with animals. Also, I want to raise awareness about drinking water because clean water is very important for future generations.

Will you retire in the future and do something different?
I’m 57 and would like to swim until the end of my life. Even if you’re 100-years-old you can still swim. I might not be able to go cross-country skiing, or play basketball, but you can swim forever.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Wireless 2011

I wrote some words in sentences in paragraphs in a grammatically sensible (ish) order about my pleasant afternoon and evening partaking in the musical performances of a host of popular and electronic acts on a stage in Hyde Park during the Wireless Festival.


Sunday, 8 May 2011

Down by the River

(Written for ITV's Perspectives website, originally published here.)

Why has House star Hugh Laurie suddenly become a blues musician? He tells us about his love of the blues.

For many, the recent foray of House star and British comic stalwart Hugh Laurie into the blues has come as something of a surprise. As the actor himself puts it: "I've broken the cardinal rule."

"Actors are supposed to act," he says, "and musicians are supposed to music. That's how it works. You don't buy fish from a dentist, or ask a plumber for financial advice, so why listen to an actor’s music?"

But for Hugh himself, his latest incarnation as a blues musician and performer is the inevitable result of a lifelong love of blues and jazz that began when he was just 10 years old.

"One day a song came on the radio," he recalls. "I'm pretty sure it was I Can't Quit You Baby by Willie Dixon – and my whole life changed. A wormhole opened between the minor and major third, and I stepped through into Wonderland.

"Since then, the blues have made me laugh, weep, dance and… well this is a family discussion, so I can't tell you all the things the blues can make me do.

"The question of why a soft-handed English schoolboy should be touched by music born of slavery and oppression in another city, on another continent, in another century, is for a thousand others to answer before me: from Korner to Clapton, the Rolling Stones to the Joolsing Hollands. Let’s just say it happens."

Now Hugh is indulging that love in a road trip to the birthplace of blues and jazz – New Orleans – for the Perspectives film Hugh Laurie: Down by the River. We follow the actor as he goes on a journey – both literally and figuratively – into blues heartland.

Not only does he explore the city where blues and jazz grew legs and started tapping its feet, he also records and performs blues classics, songs he’s loved for years, and in the process, works with some of his musical heroes.

"At the centre of this magical new kingdom [I discovered as a boy], stood the golden city of New Orleans," says Hugh. "In my imagination, it just straight hummed with music, romance, joy, despair.

"Its rhythms got into my gawky English frame and, at times, made me so happy, and sad, I just didn't know what to do with myself. New Orleans was my Jerusalem."

Now he's keen to share his love of blues with the world, to use his fame as one of the highest paid TV stars in the world to spread the word about a music he is unwaveringly passionate about.

"I could never bear to see this music confined to a glass cabinet," says Hugh, "under the heading Culture: Only To Be Handled By Elderly Black Men.

"That way lays the grave, for the blues and just about everything else - Shakespeare only performed at The Globe, Bach only played by Germans in tights. Its formaldehyde and I pray that Lead Belly will never be dead enough to warrant that.
"I love this music, as authentically as I know how, and I want you to love it too. And if you get a thousandth of the pleasure from it that I've had, we’re all ahead of the game."

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Gallagher and Lowry

(Written for ITV's Perspectives website, originally published here.)

Noel Gallagher talks about his admiration of fellow famous son of Manchester, painter LS Lowry.

Noel Gallagher might not be the first person you’d expect to see in a film about one of the 20th century’s most popular painters. But Looking for Lowry film-maker Margy Kinmonth made the connection when she saw the video for their song The Masterplan.

Inspired by LS Lowry’s paintings of crowds in scenes of the industrial north of the early 20th century, the animated video is a Lowry painting come to life. It even includes a swaggering Liam Gallagher, a character that fits seamlessly into the Lowry landscape.

“Everybody’s on the move [in his paintings] aren’t they,” says Noel. “There’s nobody standing still, everybody’s walking, all slightly hunched over aren’t they? I mean, they’re very brilliant.

“Only works in the rain though, don’t you find? You get great skies up in Manchester, real turbulent. Grey skies and tall buildings. And a little scraggy dog.”

For Noel the connection with and awareness of Lowry goes way back. “It’s like when they say ‘When’s the first time you heard The Beatles?’. It’s like, I don’t know, it’s just always been there for me, always.”

Both famous sons of Manchester with a deep connection with the city, Noel has always admired and related to how Lowry presented their hometown.

“I guess all the people that he ever met were all in there somehow,” he says. “Even though there are hundreds of people in those paintings, they’re all individuals in some way.

“There’s like a solace in them I think, you know. And you see them walking, they seem to be in their own little world. And I guess I was like that when I was younger. I was in my own little world and it was quite quiet, Manchester.

“It would be great to see what he could do with a northern town now because all the factories are dead. All those that haven’t been turned into cheap flats are just huge empty buildings that once housed all these people.

“All the houses around and all the people working there, the whole community was based around the factory. It’d be interesting to see how he would paint all these northern towns that are dead now that the textile industry has gone.”

A topic touched on in the film is the continuing issue of Lowry paintings not being considered worthy of serious art criticism. This has resulted in the Tate not displaying the many Lowry paintings the gallery owns. It’s something Noel is at a loss to understand.

“So [the paintings] aren’t considered Tate worthy? Or is it just because he was a northerner?” asks Noel. “Does anybody know why though? I mean, what’s the official line?

“I find it amazing that an artist that’s got that much of a strong identity is not accepted, because surely that’s what art is all about, you know. It’s reflecting real life and you know what it is when you see it.”