…there can be ‘good masculinity’ — which taps into how men are wired, that gives us a chance to release testosterone, take risks and our need to be part of something ‘tribal’… but in smart modern ways which aren’t self-destructive or harmful to others or in any way against the interests of women. These are crazy times to be a man. We’re still walking around in the bodies designed for hunter-gathering — we’re cavemen in suits — but living lives totally ill-suited for that design. And, like a bad OS, we’re constantly crashing. There are smart new ways to feel like a man — which respect the bodies we’re in and the ways we’ve lived for millennia.
I had the pleasure to interview author Tim Samuels, author of Future Man. Tim is an award-winning documentary filmmaker, broadcaster, and journalist. Tim has been a leading name on the BBC for many years. He now also appears as a global correspondent on the National Geographic channel. Tim’s films have won the top UK and international honors, including best documentary at the World Television Festival and three Royal Television Society awards. He has written for the New York Times, Guardian, and GQ. Tim’s acclaimed new podcast, All Hail Kale, was the number one new BBC podcast according to the London Evening Standard. Future Man, when published in Britain — as Who Stole My Spear? — was an Amazon bestseller. Born in Manchester, England, Tim now lives in London but works between the UK and US.
Thank you so much for joining us Tim! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?
I got into this at a precociously early age… When I was 13 I was really into animal rights and vegetarianism — and was asked to go on the main kids’ TV show on the BBC to talk about it all. I loved the experience and seeing how the media worked — so, whilst still at high school, started working at my local radio station in Manchester, England doing news reporting. Fortunately, my voice had just about broken by then.
Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?
I made a BBC documentary where I took a group of lonely old people on a crazy journey. From their old people’s homes, bingo-halls being shut down, stuck in tower blocks — and turned them in the world’s oldest rock group, The Zimmers (we call walkers ‘zimmer frames’ in the UK).
They covered The Who’s My Generation — with 89-yr-old Alf signing ‘I hope I die before I get old’ — at Abbey Road in the Beatles studio, and then became a global sensation. They went to number one on YouTube around the world, were covered by media from 50+ countries (99-yr-old Winnie was door-stepped by South Korean TV outside the BBC), appeared on Graham Norton, and then were flown out to go on Jay Leno alongside George Clooney.
The most rewarding aspect was the enduring friendships it all created — and a sense of reawakening amongst depressed old people. At Alf’s funeral the vicar quoted lines from The Who, band-mates danced in the pews, as his coffin went through the curtain to the sound of him singing My Generation
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I was working as a hardcore investigative TV news reporter, I was doing a tragic case about a guy who was on death row — who was 100% innocent. I’d been tracking down one of the key figures who’d been involved in framing this innocent man. It took ages to find him — but we eventually discovered he was about to board a plane to Florida. I found the bad guy at the airport and accused him of being complicit in the murders. It was important and gripping TV… until we realised the camera hadn’t been recording. So I had no choice but to then board the same flight as him to get some shots of him. That was a pretty awkward flight. I guess the lesson is always check the camera is recording before ambushing an accomplice to murder.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I’m doing a great new podcast called All Hail Kale (https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p06wwsrk/episodes/player) — which is bringing proper journalism (and hopefully wit) to wellness. Exploring which fads to follow and which to run a million miles from. It plays into my strange love for Whole Foods — but never knowing what’s a total waste of money. So I’ve been exploring whether dairy is scary, how to rewire your brain to try and become a morning person, how to potentially improve your mental health via the gut… all sorts of fascinating things.
What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study) Can you share a story or example?
I’d like to think it’s a willingness to be honest — even when that leaves you feeling quite vulnerable or exposed. My mantra is that men need to be more open with how they’re feeling — less of the stiff upper lip, or bottling it all in. If you look at the dire rates of men’s mental health, that old machismo approach just isn’t working. So I try to lead by example — and have written very candidly about childhood experience or times when I’ve had a wobble. It’s weird that total strangers will then know more about you than some friends — but hopefully it helps break down stigmas.
Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your book?
In the chapter looking at the impact of the porn industry, I write about a trip I made to the rural north of Ghana. In a village, without electricity and where people lived in mud huts, somehow porn shot in LA had made its way in. With shocking consequences. As I wrote:
“The village looked like something from a National Geographic photoshoot: barefoot kids, goats wandering around, mud huts with thatched roofs, no electricity. But the lack of power is no impediment to determined men. Once a month, they bring a generator to the village — and turn one of the mud huts into a pop-up porn cinema, screening those Western films. What turns this from the surreal to the deeply disturbing is that, culturally, the men in the village don’t believe in masturbation. So after the screenings, younger boys are sent out to go and bring back girls for their aroused older brothers.
I talked to a sheepish group of those older boys, who were sitting on a ledge by a hut, one wearing an out-of-date replica Arsenal shirt. He says he has “sleepless nights thinking about having sex.” Another chillingly reveals, “You’ll be thinking about having sex, but you don’t have a partner. So it sometimes prompts you to go to rape somebody, to rape a woman in order to satisfy your sexual desire.”
On the other side of the dusty village, I talk to a group of fifteen or so women, each with colorful scarves wrapped around their foreheads, the odd one clutching a baby. The looks are solemn when I bring up the videos. Many have stories to tell about their husbands being affected by these foreign films — of men no longer being satisfied by sex with them. One says that since her husband began watching porn three years ago, her marriage of thirty years has been collapsing.
It is almost beyond belief that a film shot in a Los Angeles suburb can somehow cause women to be raped and marriages to end in an African village 7,000 miles away that’s barely been touched by modernity.
Nor do the ramifications end there. With just that one studio committed to condoms, the overwhelming majority of porn emanating from LA depicts unsafe sex. For their target audiences in the United States or Europe, there should at least be some level of sex education. For their inadvertent audiences in Ghana, the same cannot be said — which leads to deadly consequences.
In Accra, I met Kofi and Frank, two men who had watched rather a lot of porn over the years but had never had any sex education. So instinctively, they copied what they saw on screen, complete with its lack of condom use. “They were not using condoms, so I was not using,” says Frank. They are both now HIV-positive.
Kofi took me back to his tiny shack of a house to meet his family. His four-month-old baby girl sleeping on a mattress was born HIV-free, but he has infected his wife. She pins her illness on the porn he watched. And Kofi says he just copied what he saw: “white is right.”
What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?
That there can be ‘good masculinity’ — which taps into how men are wired, that gives us a chance to release testosterone, take risks and our need to be part of something ‘tribal’… but in smart modern ways which aren’t self-destructive or harmful to others or in any way against the interests of women. These are crazy times to be a man. We’re still walking around in the bodies designed for hunter-gathering — we’re cavemen in suits — but living lives totally ill-suited for that design. And, like a bad OS, we’re constantly crashing. There are smart new ways to feel like a man — which respect the bodies we’re in and the ways we’ve lived for millennia.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming a bestselling author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?
The biggest challenge was people not taking men seriously. Lazy stereotypes which dismiss that this ‘dominant’ gender could somehow have problems. I got a lot of flack for daring to suggest that men might need to be taken seriously… But the more time I spent with men, from all sorts of backgrounds and experiences, the more I knew I had to tell their stories. One day I was in a boxing gym in south London meeting guys who suffered from crippling anxiety — to the point where they could barely leave the house. But the boxing was giving them the confidence — and tools — to face down their demons and come to class. Burly guys who — just by appearances — you’d never suspect might be struggling. These are stories which need telling — stories which are an inspiration. So, in the end, you just say sod any knee-jerk criticism, this stuff matters.
Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?
I mainly read modern fiction for the escapism — lately it’s been Murakami, Paul Beatty and Andrew Sean Greer. But on the non-fiction front, the New Yorker is an inspiration for its story-telling — it has a fabulous ability to draw you into a narrative you didn’t think you cared about but find yourself unable to put down the magazine.
How do you think your writing makes an impact in the world?
On a micro level, I’ve had a lot of message from guys who say they feel less alone — whether that’s being able to express the thoughts (around say sex or relationships) we might have but daren’t say out-loud, or who’ve been having a bit of a mental health wobble.
Women too have been in touch to say it’s given them a real insight into how men think — and perhaps what needs their male partners might have.
I’m not sure any of this has changed the world! But I’d like governments and places like the UN to really start putting men on their agenda — or we’ll be reaping the political and social consequences of angry, frustrated men for years to come.
Can you share your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first became an author”?
1. Treat your home as Enemy Territory. The hardest part about writing isn’t the actual writing — it’s the social isolation. Being at home all day — cut off from other people — is a crazy way for a human to live. We’re tribal creatures. View your flat as a hostile place to avoid during the day — the couch is not your friend — and write with other people around. Either in coffee shops, a library, or in a dedicated writers’ space — surrounded by people all stopping each other from going mad.
2. Don’t fight your body clock. I recently learnt, doing my BBC podcast All Hail Kale (hyperlink: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/p06yq72t), that we have a genetic tendency to be a morning or a night person. It’s something to do having a polymorphism on your period 3 gene. And my period 3 gene says don’t even bother trying to write first thing in the morning. Work with the DNA you’ve been dealt.
3. There’s so much misunderstanding of men out there. Because men are still overly-dominant in the likes of politics and business, there’s a sense that everything is OK for all men. But it’s really not! So many guys are having a tough time and are feeling lost. Yet, the simplistic knee-jerk reaction I keep running into is, “what have men got to complain about?”. It’s so vital for men, women, politics and society as a whole that we take seriously what’s going on with men at the moment.
4. Meditation is your salvation. Just as the mental fog descends, when you feel stuck or the brain is going on strike, the quickest way to get back to clarity is to take time out for a 20-minute meditation. I find T.M. a particularly effective way of resetting the brain. I wished I’d committed to doing it every day — as regular maintenance rather than as an SOS. Especially given what I’ve learnt (in the podcast) about how meditation can harness epigenetics to actually rewire your brain to function more effectively.
5. Bad dates are good stories. All the challenges that life throws up — from the serious obstacles, to the the dead-end dates that have ended in farce — are all great fodder for writing. Writing comes from baring your soul, showing your vulnerabilities — which I’d say men, especially, need to do more of these days for our mental health. So, after this book, I’m feeling rather naked.
What advice would you give to someone considering becoming an author like you?
Write the book that’s bursting to get out from inside you. The one you’ll be happy to spend your company in for months at an end. The one you’d be proud of no matter how it goes down.
And get a proper chair! I think I’m spend more on physio than I made in book sales. But that’s what happens when us cavemen are too sedentary.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
I still feel the plight of our elders is shocking. I’d love to change the way older people live; create communities which you might want to look forward to going into — full of life, young people, learning, great food and scale. The sheer isolation of ageing is appalling. Creating oldie utopias would one revolution I’d sign up for.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
I’m pretty allergic to social media — but am on twitter @TimSamuels