Last Friday, a middle-aged man was rescued by RNLI volunteers while attempting to sail around the UK on a small dinghy. His wife’s verdict on his mission before he set off: “I think it’s absolutely bonkers.” Earlier in the same week, a middle-aged man had to be rescued after trying to break the record for surviving on Rockall: a tiny, beguilingly pointy and storm-lashed “islet” in the North Atlantic that’s mostly used as a place for seagulls to defecate on.
In a statement after his rescue, his family asked: “Why couldn’t he just have bought a sports car in the first place?” They were being funny, but I’m starting to wonder if – in the wake of a recent high-profile submersible accident – it might be time to reassess how actually funny it is when middle-aged men try and fail in such extreme ways.
I remember when I first developed an awareness of the strange place in society occupied by what I call “Misadventure Man”. It was while I was bored out of my skull watching the 2010 film 127 Hours, in which James Franco plays a supposedly heroic real-life adventurer whose hand was trapped under a boulder whilst alone in a canyon – a hand he eventually had to sever in order to escape. Between him drinking his own wee and hallucinating a child he might never have, I sat there wanting to scream: “This chump absolutely, definitely did not need to put himself in a damn canyon.”
I felt quite alone then, and still do now, as I encounter an almost daily sweep of uncritical stories about men causing harm or needing huge amounts of professional rescue while doing totally unnecessary things. Google the phrase “man dies trying to...” and you’ll get a roughly 50/50 split between genuinely heroic actions such as “save daughter” and a cavalcade of dumb stuff like “drink 21 cocktails”.
Papers are always awash with cheery, bone-crunching idiocy – from Gloucester’s annual Cooper’s Hill Cheese Roll to a recent favourite about a man attempting an Evel Knievel-esque car jump for a local food bank (“a daring endeavour” was the verdict of the local paper).
And then, when these misadventures turn fatal, there’s the sombre-yet-predictable tone-shift. Words – dare I say, clichéd words – like “brave”, “hero” and “tragedy” are reached for like a reflex. But right now, in this calm downtime between a recent avoidable underwater “tragedy” and a grimly inevitable space-tourism “tragedy” (again, avoidable), I’m wondering why we can’t also be honest and add the words “futile” and “selfish” to our vocabulary around Misadventure Man, too?
Despite being a nation that loves to point and jeer at any perceived drain on the taxpayer, we really don’t seem to care that the financial burden of saving Misadventure Man always gets picked up by the state. The boys-who-will-be-boys are never called “scroungers” or a “drain on the public pursestrings”.
A vessel in distress would never be pushed back into the sea, as the last home secretary tried to do with migrant crossings. This changed after the OceanGate Titan accident, when people started asking aloud who should be paying the staggering rescue costs for a staggeringly expensive bit of extreme tourism. To be clear, despite the trip being for the personal enjoyment of five people, there is no provision to compel the related parties to contribute. The US taxpayer will take on the burden – some say $6.5m (£5m), others say $20m.
I think an even more depressing and undiscussed aspect of all this, though, is when Misadventure Man inflicts a human cost on the emergency services, many of which – like the aforementioned RNLI – are made up of volunteers.
Some can experience life-changing injuries themselves in the course of saving others. Take Chris Lewis, who suffered severe spinal injuries while rescuing two people in the Lake District who were later fined for breaching Covid lockdown rules. Give me a movie about a volunteer rescuing a thoughtless party of people in danger. Or maybe, in a post-Cocaine Bear age, a souped-up retelling of the recent story about hikers rescued in the Lake District while on magic mushrooms.
While it’s common for Misadventure Men to feel like they’re contributing to society by framing their private, ego-boosting and frequently costly missions as a benevolent act of charity fundraising, what’s more stark is how lives are increasingly being affected in the name of something much less valiant: basic influencer content.
In June, a five-year-old was killed in Rome when YouTubers called The Borderline crashed a Lamborghini they had reportedly rented to drive around for 50 hours straight. A few years ago, a man called Jeff Wittek was spun around by his YouTuber pal David Dobrik on a crane travelling at wild speeds before it stopped suddenly, causing Wittek to slam into the digger and shatter his skull in the process.
Though horrific and stupid in equal measure, at least influencer stunts are so cravenly about the ’gram that they never feel like they’re trying to conform to the classic narrative of “the hero’s journey”. What feels saddest to me is when we unthinkingly extend the honour of hero, or the badge of bravery, to those whose actions are objectively, well, pointless. It’s a sad reflection of just how little we value service, consistency and purpose among ourselves.
Call me old-fashioned, but I like a hero to have some endurance. In my eyes, a hero is – to subvert dating-app parlance – someone who is around for a long time, not just a good time. This is my ultimate issue with the explosion in the efforts of the ultra-rich to prove that the sky is not the limit: they think they can buy hero status, but they’ve got it all wrong. Altruism beats heroism every day of the week.
Eleven children lost their fathers as part of the OceanGate Titan disaster. While Franco’s character in 127 Hours dreamed of a child, the sad fact is that too many Misadventure Men actually have children, which to me is the most damning aspect of all of this. It would be cruel to mention them by name, but there have been a few incidents over the last few years in which feted men have died while trying to break quite extreme records – men who are called “hero”, yet are survived by their children.
I hate being so judgemental, but I wonder whether the time for adventuring stops when you become a parent? Or even why the law doesn’t forbid parents from doing glory-seeking and foreseeably fatal activities? Do we all need to remind ourselves that the top line of any definition of “parental responsibility” is to “protect and maintain” your child?
Yet our reactions never seem to touch on how these avoidable deaths – done in the name of one man’s thrill-seeking pleasure – leave a lifetime of impact. Pain in the form of losing one’s parent is one thing. The pain of knowing that you were ultimately a lower priority than being a thumbnail-sized entry in Guinness World Records is really quite another.