THIS week’s Four Seasons is going to be about the somewhat ticklish relationship between charities and adventuring, and as such it has the potential to wind up a lot of people.
So, in an attempt to pre-empt at least some of the hate mail it’s destined to generate, let’s get a couple of things clear from the start: 1) I am not anti-charity. 2) I am not anti-charity. We straight? OK good – then let’s begin...
A few weeks ago, I interviewed Ratho-based adventurer Nick Hancock for The Scotsman’s features pages. This summer, the 38-year-old chartered surveyor is hoping to spend 60 days living on Rockall, a tiny, inhospitable islet 301km west of St Kilda. If he pulls it off, he’ll break two records: one for the longest continuous occupation of Rockall, set by a group of Greenpeace activists who spent 42 days there protesting about oil exploration in the area in the 1990s; the other for the longest solo occupation, set by former SAS soldier Tom McClean, who managed 40 days in 1985. Hancock has raised the majority of the funds he will need for the expedition through corporate sponsorship, and he is also using his record attempt as an opportunity to raise money for the injured servicemen’s charity Help For Heroes. I didn’t think there was anything particularly controversial about that set-up – lots of adventurers do similar things – but after the story had been posted on scotsman.com it soon emerged that there were some people out there who disagreed.
Tim Pickering is a sea kayak guide based in Stornoway and also an adventurer of the hardcore variety – a guy whose idea of fun is competing in gruelling multi-sport races such as the Land Rover G4 Challenge. I had the pleasure of receiving something of sea kayaking baptism of fire from Tim back in 2008, and I know him to be a 24-carat diamond geezer, so I was a bit surprised to see a tweet from him shortly after the article was published, addressed to me and to Nick, saying: “I understand why [go to Rockall] but don’t understand the charity part.” Initially, I thought he must mean he didn’t understand why Nick had chosen Help for Heroes, so I forwarded him a link to the section of Nick’s website where he talks about both his father and grandfather having served in the armed forces and how this informed his choice. But no, I’d got the wrong end of the stick. Tim tweeted again to clarify: “I struggle with the trend for people’s need to ‘have’ a charity – isn’t doing the adventure enough?”
Nick tweeted back, saying: “The adventure is a personal challenge, no ‘need’ to have a charity, but if I can help others, why wouldn’t I?”
To which Tim replied: “I guess I become confused by people’s motivations. Are they doing [adventures] for themselves or for a charity?” And then: “What about charities who take ‘expeditions’? I feel I am being guilt-tripped into paying for someone’s adventure.”
At this point, the official Twitter account of the Explorers Connect website weighed in with some sage, conciliatory words about how there’s nothing wrong with doing the thing you love and helping others in the process, and the conversation petered out. But the points Tim raised got me thinking: why is it that people who choose to spend their leisure time undertaking challenging adventures increasingly seem to use them as charity fundraisers? Is this just a manifestation of good, old-fashioned, middle-class guilt? Or is there more to it?
I know several middle-class Sunday league footballers, but I never get emails from them saying they’re playing the 2012/13 season in aid of Barnardos and please could I sponsor them to the tune of £20 a game. But there’s now a whole industry out there catering for people who want to embark on some sort of adventure on the other side of the world and raise money for charity while they’re at it. Nothing wrong with that, of course – as long as the people involved are paying the costs out of their own pocket and all the money they raise for charity actually goes to charity – but is Tim Pickering right to ask “isn’t doing the adventure enough?” I think he is. And I think we need to avoid turning into a society where going adventuring is something to feel guilty about. Climbing mountains should be as socially acceptable as football.