Here is a piece I have done for this week’s Radio Times, about tonight’s In The Wild documentary on BBC 2 (630pm) in which expert Gordon Buchanan takes me on a tour of the Hebrides. I hope if you see it you enjoy watching it as much as I enjoyed making it.
‘Do what you love and love what you do, and everything else is detail.’ So said tennis legend Martina Navratilova, one of the WINNERS in my book of that name. Navratilova is among the lucky ones. As an elderly woman said to me at the Cheltenham book festival ‘I didn’t feel that many of your winners are very happy.’ It took me aback, reduced me to replying ‘this book is not about happiness; it’s about winning. They are not the same thing.’
Looking at my own career through the Navratilova prism, I do not score high. I thought I loved being a journalist. But if so, how come it led to an alcohol and stress induced breakdown that I feared had ended my career before I hit 30? As for my second career with Tony Blair, I am happy that I did the job. But was I happy when doing it? My depression-laden diaries would suggest the answer is, often, No.
Today, in a third career mixing consultancy, campaigns, writing, speaking, charity and sport, I cannot claim to be doing what I love, because what I do is too varied. Some days, I fear I am wasting my life, and should be back doing something full on, full time, in politics. Other days I feel enthused, motivated, making a difference, happy. It helps that the main relationships in my life, after ups and downs galore, are in good shape. It helps too that I earn more money for doing less, (someone once called the public speaking market ‘white collar crime’) which gives me more time to do things that feel like they matter (mental health campaigning is probably the thing I enjoy most, though I couldn’t do it all the time).
So where does the happiness come from in this mix? It comes from freedom. I feel free to make the choices I want to make, and that is a rare privilege. So when wildlife film-maker Gordon Buchanan asks me if I would like to explore wildlife in the Hebrides where my father was born and raised, I am able to say yes, and drop or postpone other pressures on time that may be in the diary.
Now Gordon truly is, so it seems to me, someone doing what he loves, loving what he does, and knows the detail inside out. I could look for wildlife on my own, but having an expert with me, one driven by such passion for his subject, meant I was more likely to see the creatures we were looking for. Otters, eagles, puffins, seals, and, as our boat headed for home at sunset, and we discussed how losing yourself in nature can help deal with anxiety and depression and the stresses of life, an unexpected shoal of dolphins; they put on a display of such beauty I would put it up there with having children, winning elections or playing football with Diego Maradona amid my all time lifetime highlights.
My freedom gave me the chance to see these creatures in the wild; their freedom made them the deliverer of the joy that I felt. To protect our freedom and potential happiness, we should think more about theirs, and try to give every man, woman and especially child the chance to enjoy getting close to them. Watching a sea eagle swoop to take a fish thrown from the back of our boat, I felt almost as free as she did. We helped her feed her nesting young. She helped us nourish our souls. That is a very good deal, and I think we get the better of it.