Veterans are another topical thread of my life that’s weaved it’s way on and out of my existence since before I can remember. In part they’re twinned with my documentary upbringing because my father used to watch WW2 documentaries like “The World at War” on repeat loop. I must have seen it more times then HeMan growing up so often was it on our television. It was at church that my mother introduced me to my first veteran in real life: A big burly mustachioed man called Dennis, barrel chested with facial hair more at home in a WW1 movie epic. He screamed “Sargent MAJOR” to me from across any distance without him ever knowing the confusion of emotions from fear to admiration that struck my heart whenever I saw him.
Veterans were commonplace where I lived, like my neighbor across the road growing up, I found out he was a Desert Rat and fought in WW2. Other friends would invite me out to the local ‘Legion’ club, where there were loads of WW2 veterans, I remember clear as day chats with old Battle of Britain pilots and all sorts of others that fought in ‘the war’ – my father’s endless stream of war documentaries on the subject had stemmed from his own fascination with the apocalypse that WW2 represented. Both he and my mother were born during the war, growing up in a part of London that was heavily bombed in the Blitz. The scars of conflict were everywhere in my neighborhood; the sudden changes in architecture were impossible to ignore wherever you walked but more powerful were the tears shed by my mother every Remembrance Sunday. As a young child I never understood why she got so upset but in adulthood I learned that her grandfather, my great grandfather, was killed by the 251st V2 rocket that fell on London, his name was William Hammond, aged 49. It hit the local Woolworth’s store where he was queuing up to buy a teddy bear for my mother from the first consignment to reach the city since the war began. Alongside him were a huddle that had showed up to buy saucepans from the same shipment of goods – all in all 168 people died that day including my great grandfather and my mother has held the guilt that he died trying to do something for her, all her life.
The scars of conflict
This is what it’s like for many in the UK, everyone knows someone touched by the war, although now of course it is waning from the public consciousness, but at least my generation touched those that were there it and it always left an indelible mark on me, hearing the first hand accounts from my Grandmother & Great Grandmother. I grew up revering veterans, hearing stories of the war and learning it’s history inside-out from a very British perspective. Ironically enough it’s likely that this was the basis for my fascination with America: Both nations were allies in the second world war. However, post WW2 British history diverges significantly as weren’t involved in Korea or Vietnam and the military traditions are different – the UK doesn’t have a government agency dedicated to serving veterans (although we had the NHS which would also treat veterans of course).
It was during the research for my civics test to become a US Citizen that I first came across the Dept of Veterans affairs aka ‘the VA’ – created as a result of the Civil War which I knew because of the Ken Burns documentary. I also watched the whole Burns series on the Vietnam war just after passing my civics test in 2017, which lead me on a path of discovery into PTSD and understanding the stories I’d been reading about veteran suicide. That was a big shock to the system – heroes taking their own lives? How could this be? It all reached a conclusion with an article a work colleague printed off for me triggering the idea for VETSGROW and the end of my ignorance for a great many things.
The cost of cannabis legalization
It was a story of a journalist and their dive into medical cannabis that included the tale of an Afghanistan War veteran that had lost both his legs to an Improvised Explosive Device or IED. Once he’d healed enough to be discharged the VA had him on over 40 opiate medications making him high as a kite every day and barely able to function. This lead him to try and take his own life twice, before a friend introduced him to medical cannabis which gave him his life back, allowing him to reduce his opiate use to just 2 from 40, but there was a catch – he now had a $2000 a month habit to support on a disability pension.
I learned this all just as I was working on a show idea for my client Monster Gardens: A grow your own cannabis segment for 2018 to celebrate the legalization here in California with me to be the protagonist learning to grow in my own garage. However, I didn’t needto learn to grow and veterans from what I’d learned did. Maybe I could get some of Monster’s suppliers to cough up some free gear? Maybe we could find a veteran to grow on camera? Maybe we could start a revolution?
I thought VETSGROW was possibly the start of my documentary career, when in fact it was an entirely new direction for my whole life and all the effort, expense and hours it took to make VETSGROW was really just a hint of what it would take to get America to pay attention.
I’m planning to make sure that what comes next, will be big enough that nobody in American can ignore it: I want to bring VETSGROW to America – in person – during the 2020 election – with cameras to ask; will we “Take the high road”?
It’s probably evident from the imagery on this website (courtesy of my good friend Thomas K. Sorensen) that I like motorbikes. They are just as much of my personal story as documentaries themselves because they’ve been a part of it since I can remember, it just took until my 40’s to actually get a motorbike. One of my main influences is a motorcycle travel documentary series called “The Long Way Round” from 2004 and one day I want to ride their route backwards from my home here in the US to my old home in the UK – it’s something that’s been driving all this madness from inside my head for 5 years now however my connection to motor cycles is actually a much deeper one and it’s something I wanted share because I wasted a LOT of time not riding due to external influences and their opinions – so this for anyone that’s ever wanted to ride…
The need to ride…
Unless you’ve ridden yourself you won’t understand it when I say that the motorbike is a truly wondrous invention. To me they represent the last bastion of human-mechanical interaction. They offer transportation, meditation and really the best seat in the world at viewing it all as it goes past because unlike cars, you remain a part of the world you’re travelling through. Don’t get me wrong, I love cars: I love driving them, travelling in them and talking about them, I love road trips and trucks and off-roading and I always will – but the everyday car is no longer has quite the emotional hold in me that it once did. Today’s cars are more concerned with convenience and being quiet, about getting you to your far flung destination without so much as a hair out of place which means for the most part they are insanely competent and devastatingly boring…or soon will be.
There’s cars and then there’s CARS
Of course not all cars are boring and I’ve had the pleasure in riding and driving in quite a few nice ones over the years, but the trouble with four wheels is that you do have to spend an awful lot of money to escape the general yawndom that greets you at the rental parking lot of most people’s levels of affordability. This is not to criticize the modern car as a product as I am clearly not the demographic that they go for having never owned an automatic gearbox. I’m one of the last drivers that will actually miss the process of driving in an age when the principle motivation in modern motoring is to create the perfect ‘self drive’ system. It’s obvious that human interaction is only going to take a back seat as time progresses, as indeed will humans themselves which in fact is one of the things that’s always driven me towards the motorbike; I’m a bad passenger meaning I like doing the driving which is a real bugger as a filmmaker I can tell you.
There are other forces at play, for as the world becomes increasingly connected and digitized, I find myself increasingly needing to disconnect and be as analogue as possible as often as possible…and when you’re riding a motorcycle across the land it’s analogue meets monologue, the ultimate selfish yet open experience. On a bike you are simply a bigger part of the equation that makes a journey; you’re part of the aerodynamics, you’re a part of the balance, you’re a part of the bike. In comparison a car is a cocoon of controlled environment, almost lulling you to sleep by design, so from that perspective I’m all for automation as soon as possible because if you like driving one of those you don’t like driving because the fact is that most cars today are less an extension of ‘you’ and more something you become when you step into ‘them’.
The rider relationship
A motorcycle is basically useless without you. Yes, yes, I’ve seen the self driving motorbike demo’s which are all very impressive from a technical standpoint but they are also about as useful as a chocolate teapot – it’s not like a riderless horse, without a human atop a motorcycle what’s the fucking point of it? The point of a motorbike is to be ridden – it’s the simplicity of this equation and the fact that it requires a certain level of expertise and an understanding of fear to ride one competently for any length of time is what forms the basis for the the appeal. I think it’s this line of thought that’s behind the kinship all riders seem to feel – when you’re riding at least half the riders will wave, signal or nod on the way past – all are part of a universal two wheeled club who’s only entry fee is to ride but who all acknowledge that the passion could cost the ultimate price, because that is the reality of living life as any sort of balancing act, gravity is always waiting for you.
However, just as important as the awareness of this reality is the language that most four wheeled travelers miss but being so isolated from the road. When you ride a bike, you become a part of the bike. After a short while I don’t feel the handlebars & controls, I feel the road itself in my fingers and it speaks to me. It tells me how old it is and how well maintained. I feel the road underneath me through the seat and the foot pegs, I can feel as the road tells me when to speed up and slow down, how much I can lean and how hard I can brake – warning me, reminding me of the limits of my reality: The two small patches of rubber that suspend my moving world. I relish every moment on a bike because those moments are the most aware moments: Everything is in use, the physical and mental, I am more aware of my fragility and mortality while riding then while doing anything else. I enjoy the challenge they present and the needs they make of me because when you’re on a bike, it’s more then about just getting there.
But they’re dangerous
The only dangerous motorcycle is the one about to fall on you, the rest of the danger is generally dependent on the point you stopped travelling on the bike and who caused it. Of course a motorcycle can be a dangerous thing, so can a well aimed smartphone I can tell you from experience. When you’re on a motorbike you’re basically sitting on an engine that’s balancing on two wheels. There is not a single part of that sentence that lends itself to safety, but neither does sailing or for that matter flying. We’ve created the illusions of safety to convince more people to experience travel, but each other mode of travel requires you to give control to other people and I get nervous doing that so for me, riding a bike feels way safer then getting on an aeroplane – so when you tell me it’s dangerous, I say “compared to what?”
So in concluding; although I know this short article will not convince one single person that isn’t already thinking about doing so, to jump on two wheels; that’s something that some people just won’t ever feel like they want or need to do like Snowboarding or Skydiving. No, I wrote this for the late bloomers like me that might have the urge but think they’ve left it too late: Don’t miss out on this. One day nobody will be allowed to ride motorcycles, one day we’ll all be forced to travel in bubbles, divorced from the land around us whisked by auto-pilot from pick up to destination. Get a bike, it doesn’t matter if it’s new or its old. Get a bike a learn to ride it properly and learn about how you effect travel and how travel effects you…because it might change your life.
I have asked myself that very question so many times because as a boy growing up in London watching tons of American TV shows: The A-Team, Knight Rider, Streethawk, Airwolf, M.A.S.H etc. I never dreamed I’d be living here, certainly not that I’d be an American citizen myself and if I’d have told that young chap that I’d be pursuing the dream of becoming a documentary film-maker in my 40’s? I’d have probably taken the remote control away & asked my mum to call a good therapist. So how did this all come about? Well, it’s a very long and winding story that weaves its way throughout my entire life, and really I do need to save some stuff for if anyone ever asks me to write an autobiography, so I think a good place to start is probably at the end, of my last marriage.
After it blew up in my face quite spectacularly in the middle of 2009 I found myself on the day of discovering it was over driving north up the 280 Freeway from San Jose towards San Francisco wiping tears from my eyes and feeling utterly empty, but as I drove something else happened: A little voice in my head said “well at least you can do what you want now…” and it whispered promises of adventures & derring-do I’d dreamed of as a child: I gave me the urge to do something…I don’t know what exactly, but just something crazy. Something I wouldn’t normally do or wasn’t supposed to because I was a ‘grown up’ and for some inexplicable reason that something was to climb mount Everest.
It was an odd decision, one that made me wonder if I hadn’t completely lost my marbles because I’ve never been what you’d call a fan of heights. However, that didn’t deter me and I spent weeks pouring over how one went about it with the deadly serious intent to do it, until I found out how much it cost and how long it would take to even be capable of doing it. At the same time the economy was in free-fall after the housing collapse the year before and the company I’d founded with my business partner was in dire straights and so I forgot the daft idea and knuckled down to try and fix the business, however the voice in the back of my mind & the urge to do something bonkers that I could call my own never left me, it just lay dormant in the background lurking in my subconscious waiting for the perfect time.
Four years later, despite every effort to save the business from the effects of social media and web publishing, our company failed in the summer of 2013 almost ten years to the day since I’d landed in the US. But all was not yet lost: I’d been studying science media for some time and developed a new web based content exchange site that could fill the niches being left by the collapse of the old publishing world…I thought it was a really good idea, sadly those with the funds to make it a reality didn’t share my enthusiasm and so after 18 months it too closed down and I was back to square one without anything to show for two decades of hard work. It was the bitterest of pills to swallow.
It’s an odd thing indeed to wake up one day at the more unfashionable end of your thirties without a pot to piss in, an extinct career, or any idea what to do with the rest of your life: I was the publishing equivalent of a Detroit auto worker, obsolete, but in the midst of my malaise I got a phone call that would set me on an entirely different trajectory. A old industry friend was an investor in a neuromorphic chip start up that needed someone capable of building a crowdfunding campaign. If it worked out, I’d be employee No. 1 at the company, I’d have a healthy pile of shares and a career in a new industry segment, with nothing else on the horizon, I was all in. The website and copy for the campaign I could pretty much do in my sleep with a little help from my new colleagues, however, every successful campaign also needed a video and so I’d have to learn how to create one – from scratch.
I’ve been a storyteller since I can remember, it was how I survived my time sales and it was a talent I’d honed whilst a publisher, where I’d ghost written many articles and knew the basics of how to communicate it. What I didn’t know was how to work a camera, or how to use the editing software or how to render it into a video. I battered YouTube watching every tutorial I could find, called a friend I knew was in the film business who was gracious enough to help me by filming the interviews I needed (thanks Ben) and I set to work, not for a minute suspecting I was about to unlock the answer to a question that had pissed me off for over 30 years:
What did I want to be when I grow up?
I’d actually given up hope of ever knowing that and it did seem like a moot point really as I have been fully grown for quite some time now, but the question still bothered me from time to time, it was like I was missing something really important right in front of me. As soon as the filming was over and the edit began I started working around the clock to get it all done as soon as possible. I think it was a day or two of working until the early morning hours before it dawned on me that editing didn’t feel like ‘work’ – come to think of it I’d loved every minute of the filming too…and the light bulb went off: THIS is what I wanted to do with the rest of my life! Then reality dawned on me; how in the hell do you break into one of the most closed industries on the planet without any money for school, contacts or famous friends? All I had going for me is the ability to learn very quickly and all the nervous energy from an impending mid-life crisis…
Of course the crowdfunding campaign didn’t do anywhere near well enough to create the company or the job I’d been promised so at the start of 2015 after creating a slew of product demo vids I was out of work again, but as luck would have it one of the contractors at the company that was also working on the project knew a company called Monster Gardens that needed an editor.
The money wasn’t great, but it was a job doing what I loved to do and it was where I cut my teeth. I began just editing, then I took over filming, lighting, directing. Inside a year I’d learned to create shows, train presenters & write scripts. I re-learnt audio correction, learned lighting, colour correction and almost everything else I’d need to make my own documentaries to a decent if basic level…but I still didn’t have an idea of what I’d do for my first work. I picked up other clients, mainly small businesses that wanted video but didn’t know how to go about it, and learned more with every one…but it was while working for Monster that I stumbled into an old TV show that would show me the way. I (re)discovered it after finishing a rush job for a trade show that meant 3 nights of limited sleep and the resulting jet-lag like crash afterwards that caused me to be wide awake at 3am… and what does one do at a time like this when not wanting to wake the entire household?
The NETFLIX binge.
After browsing around for a while I couldn’t find anything that caught my attention, so I scrolled down to the ‘you might like’ window and saw something familiar: The “Long Way Round” (LWR), a 2004 travel documentary series about actors Ewan McGregor & Charley Boorman riding two big BMW bikes from London (where I’m from) to New York (in the country I now call home) the long way ’round. I had a flashback to the first year I was in the US, otherwise known as my ‘Billy-no-mates’ period, where I had no US friends. What sustained me through this time was the TV, indeed as it had during rainy days in my youth, but in-particular two shows: Jackass (because they’re basically me aged 10) and American Chopper which was where the memory had sprung from. In the last episode of LWR the team dropped in on the American Chopper crew, and I’d watched the episode of American Chopped taking a mental note to watch out for the show when it came on BBC America, the channel here in the US I assumed it’d play on. This is how I came to be completely ignorant of LWR for more then a decade, because of course it didn’t play there…it aired on Bravo, a channel I didn’t frequent much, in fact it was something I only found out later by reading the book that accompanied the series.
Overjoyed at finding something to watch I hit play and sat back, not once suspecting that my life was about to be radically changed forever. I watched all nine episodes in one hit, then I watched the sequel they made in 2007 the “Long Way Down” followed by every two wheeled documentary or series I could find on all the streaming services…I was hooked. I loved their show SO MUCH I was gutted there wasn’t more to watch and just like that, I had found the project idea I’d been looking for and the little voice in my head that had been pestering me to do something bonkers fixated on the idea of carrying on in the same vein: I wanted to see how the route they took had changed in the last decade by riding it in reverse and perhaps find some answers to my own identity crisis as an Englishman living in America – my friends back in the UK called me a ‘Yank’ and my friends here all called me the ‘Brit’ – so WHAT the hell was I?
The only trouble was that despite always having loved bikes, the circumstances of my life had always denied me the opportunity to own one (which is a story for another time). I did have experience of scooters & mopeds on holidays, but nothing that gave me confidence that I could ride 20,000 miles around the planet, film it all and stay in one piece, let alone how the hell to fund it all after being nearly bankrupted. I needed something smaller, still a challenge, but closer to home and emergency services. At the time this all happened, I was also considering taking US Citizenship as I’d been living in California for 13 years at that point, but despite all this time stateside, I’d only visited 8 states as I’d invested so much time into work…how about getting to know America first? It was on my doorstep, relatively safe and I’d always wanted to road-trip across the country, perhaps I’d find some answers to my own identity crisis whilst out there.
Two years later I thought I had everything in place. I’d spent the winter fixing up an old BMW K75T – lovingly known as Katie – that a really good friend had donated to the project and all I needed was to earn a little extra cash to boost the savings I’d managed to scrape together and I could hit the road, but as Katie was born in 1990 I’d spent all winter fixing the issues the old bike had. Battery bulb, oil, lights…everything seemed to run OK, but I just thought I’d have one last shake-down ride with a chase car to test everything out and boy I’m glad I did. Not 2 miles up the freeway, which was my first time riding a freeway on a bike, she let go a cylinder gasket and I was forced back home with my tail between my legs and sick to my stomach – she needed a strip down and rebuild, the identity ride which had come to be known as “RiDENTITY” was over before it had begun.
It wasn’t all doom & gloom though, another good friend (thanks Benoit) called me up with the opportunity of a lifetime: a 4 day tour with his silicon valley exotic car club 100OCT. Not only that, but one of my childhood heroes was coming along – the one and only Valentino Balboni, the legendary Lamborghini test driver.
What followed was what became “The RIDEALONG” which was a truly amazing experience and was almost my first completed documentary project…
…except that in the middle of producing the 4 episode series another project I’d been investigating got the green light and I had to drop everything and start pre-production on VETSGROW, a docu-series about my investigation into veteran PTSD, suicide and medical cannabis set to the backdrop of teaching a Vietnam veteran called Al to grow his own at home legally and since that day veterans have dominated my life and work – but that’s a story better told elsewhere or simply by watching the series itself…
…and so my new friend, this is how I came to be where I am today – after completing VETSGROW I had an idea for a sequel to take the program across the whole USA called “Take the high road” and I’ve been working to trying to make it happen for the whole of 2019 and failing miserably, but it’s not like I haven’t had shit fall apart before and so I’m just going to keep knocking on doors until one of them opens…
If you want to help in my quest – reach out to me at