"The ninjas of the future," says Bear Grylls, "are going to be those who can learn how to navigate the fear. It's like a firefight. You can't move backwards. You've got to move towards it, you know?"
Not really. But I’ve never been in a firefight. And if I saw one I doubt I’d move towards it. I’ve been raised in a mimsy, risk-averse country. Few of us have acquired the wild wisdom of Edward Michael “Bear” Grylls OBE. Unlike the 46-year-old TV adventurer, we have never simmered a sheep’s eyeball in geyser water, paused on Everest to reflect on the corpse of a late friend, wrestled snakes, outrun lions, or broken our backs parachuting.
Grylls wants to change all that. He wants kids to embrace fear and risk. “If you meet somebody who says they don’t have fear, it means one of two things: one, they’re not telling the truth; or two, they’re not going for anything big enough in their life. What I’ve learned through many trips and many failures is that you have got to move towards the difficult stuff. And the irony is that the things we fear most often dissipate.”
Lockdown put paid to our plans to meet face to face in Hyde Park in London, where, ideally, we'd have bench-pressed each other naked and then cemented our relationship with sauteed police-horse testicles
There's another irony. In the trailer for one of his new You vs Wild films for Netflix, we do actually see Grylls running for his life. He's not so much moving towards the difficult stuff as exiting screen right pursued by a lion. The show's interactive video-game conceit is that you the viewer choose what he should do next during a mission in the wild – for instance, dive under a truck or climb a tree to avoid becoming lion lunch. The choices are limited, though. When the series launched, in 2019, one reviewer found himself unable to feed Grylls to a crocodile, however much he tried.
Lockdown put paid to our plans to meet face to face in Hyde Park in London, where, ideally, we’d have bench-pressed each other naked and then cemented our relationship with sauteed police-horse testicles. Instead, we speak via a video call as Grylls is driven back from filming in the wild, or rather the English countryside.
The wild, he says, is a better teacher than any of the ones he had at Eton. “I wish I’d been taught the stuff that really matters. What I struggled with is that schools celebrate traditional heroes, whether sporty, academic or good-looking. Schools in general – Eton, American ones, state schools – celebrate these things and therefore teach you nothing about the real world, where rewards go to the resilient. You don’t need muscles or good looks.”
I wonder if Eton gave him a sense of superiority, arguably a key characteristic in Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister, a former pupil. “No, that’s not what I got from Eton. Listen, everyone’s experience of extreme places is different.” This is certainly an interesting way to describe the £42,501-a-year school.
“My thing is I came away with a real sense that friendship matters, and that I’m not as strong as I’m sometimes expected to be. I also came away with a willingness to go for things and follow my own path. I think Eton is pretty good at that – don’t be scared to pick the path less trodden.”
I was within a whisker of not being able to walk again. So I have a gratitude for life – I've been given a second chance
His less-trodden path led to disaster. “The first time I put myself up for 21 SAS selection, I failed. It was devastating because I’d given so much and dropped out of university for it and I’d burned all these bridges. I was, like, ‘Here we go!’ – and suddenly you’re left with nothing. If I’d listened to certain voices I would have given up. Why put myself through it all again? Why risk another failure? Why not choose an easier path?” He tried again and passed. “That was the turning point in my life. Dealing with failure has been the key to any success in my life.”
In 1996, aged 21, Grylls broke his back when, on an SAS training exercise in Zambia, his parachute failed to deploy. “I should have cut the main parachute,” he told one interviewer, “and gone to the reserve but thought there was time to resolve the problem.” He crash-landed on his parachute pack, breaking three vertebrae and spending the next year in 10-hours-a-day rehab.
“I was within a whisker of not being able to walk again. In those braces, in that military rehab place, I thought that was it. So I have a gratitude for life. I feel I’ve been given a second chance. What life asks of me is to live it with positivity and boldness.” Eighteen months after his near-death experience in Zambia, he climbed Everest.
Grylls hopes he’s passed his wisdom on to his three sons, Jesse, Marmaduke and Huckleberry. “They know that when the reports come in, I’m never looking at the grades – I’m looking at the effort. I’m not looking at their positions. I’m looking at whether they were good guys.” He aims to instil in his children what he learned from the wild. “The wild sees through masks – and masks don’t work when you’re at your wits’ end, in the jungle, or in the desert, or up a mountain. What it teaches you is to be honest and value connections to other people.”
He cites one military exploit as an example. “We had a sergeant called Chris Carter, who was killed in Afghanistan. I always remember the first desert deployment I did with him. The helicopter to pick us up was delayed by a few days. I was out of water and really struggling. I remember him giving me one of his last cupfuls – and he was in bits, you know. It gave me more strength than the water gave me. I told the story to his family many years later after he’d died. I don’t remember him for his fighting or brilliance but for his kindness.”
This, I suggest, isn’t a virtue one would normally associate with soldiers or adventurers. “Kindness is king. I think this year has shown us that. There’s no point getting to the top of that mountain in life – whatever that mountain is, whether it’s getting a degree, or starting a business, or whatever – if you’re an arsehole.”
Eleven months ago, Grylls was laid low by Covid. “I was like, ‘Wow! This is really wiping me out. I’ve been going a month and I’m still rubbish.’ My wife, Shara, said the other day, ‘If you had to go through that now, you’d be more scared because you know a lot more about the virus.’ I feel very lucky. But listen – who knows? Can you get it again? I just don’t know.”
He returned to work last autumn, shooting in Italy. “It was miraculous that we were able to finish. We were filming in the hottest red zone of northern Italy. We were very, very cautious. We had a very small team there. Everything was shut down and we got into the mountains and did it.”
During the pandemic, he realises, most young people haven’t been so lucky. On his website, he advises kids to avoid the dream-stealers, but he agrees that Covid has stolen many childhood dreams. “Life has just got reduced to survival. It’s an incredibly tough time.”
In November, he launched an initiative to encourage children to realise their dreams. Becoming X initially consisted of 16 inspirational films in which Olympic gold medallists, Oscar winners, Wimbledon winners and others identify what has made them successful.
One thing that helps him confront fear, he says, is his religious faith. When he published Soul Food for Young Explorers last autumn, it quickly became the No 1 bestseller in Amazon’s Christian Prayer Books for Children category. “Remember this,” it begins. “You have a light within you, the Holy Spirit, and wherever you go, you will bring a light greater than the darkness around you.”
Hopefully, somehow, the world will emerge a kinder, humbler and more unified place. But there's a lot of pain. A storm's always going to come, and you've got to hold tight to those around you
He admits that it has taken him a while to go public about his faith. “I’m no longer afraid to say I really need it, and that I’m not as strong as people might expect or hope me to be. For me, faith is not very churchy. It’s not very religious. It’s just a sense that I really believe there’s something out there. That we’re loved. We’re given a light and strength to live life. For me, Christ has been a quiet empowering daily presence to tackle life with that sort of light inside me.”
Even the pandemic, for Grylls, has a religious dimension. “The messages are so simple, aren’t they? Be kind, look out for each other, work together. Maybe listen a bit more. It does feel like the Good Lord has taken all of humanity and given some of us a good talking to. ‘I want you to go upstairs, stay in your room in lockdown, and have a good hard think about what you’ve done.’ We’ve all been a bit like that in the world. We’re all guilty.
“Hopefully, somehow, the world will emerge a kinder, humbler and more unified place. But in the way, there’s a lot of pain. A storm’s always going to come, and you’ve got to hold tight to those around you. That’s the key lesson from this time. You’ve got to adapt, use ingenuity – and know that the storm won’t last for ever.” – Guardian
Animals on the Loose: A You vs Wild Movie is streaming on Netflix. Becoming X is at becomingx.com