Category Archives: Features

The Sunday Times: The super-rich are taking up showjumping

showjumping

Since the Old Season (Ascot, Henley, the Cartier polo) has lost its cachet, the mega-rich have had to find new sports around which to build their social lives. To fill the gap, showjumping, which used to be synonymous with muddy fields and dodgy burger vans, has lavishly reinvented itself.

At the extreme end of this transformation is the Longines Global Champions Tour, which rolled into London this weekend with a price tag few would believe and even fewer can afford. The tour started in March in Mexico City and runs until December in Prague, and will cover 17 of the world’s most glamorous locations in total.

This weekend, the event is at the Royal Hospital Chelsea in west London.

It is shocking even to contemplate the cost for competitors to transport themselves, their horses and entourages around this worldwide event. But these are billionaires, so nobody cares. Besides, the total prize fund is €35m (£31m).

Among the riders — and guests — are some of the world’s richest people, which these days means Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, Russian businessmen and rock stars.

READ THE FULL ARTICLE IN THE SUNDAY TIMES: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/blazing-billionaire-saddles-super-rich-take-up-showjumping-rh8wn2f6m

The Sunday Times Magazine: Every year young British tourists fall to their deaths from hotel balconies. Are the all-you-can-drink party packages to blame?

 

The poolside bar opens at 11am, signalled by an eruption of music, and the BH Mallorca hotel the epicentre of holiday hedonism in Magaluf, blinks to life. On balconies littered with last night’s debris, girls in acid-bright bikinis and groggy boys who look as though they’ve barely left school start to emerge. From now until night, the all-inclusive drink flows. At pool parties with limitless alcohol, girls down cocktails and dance to Beyoncé, as lads with reddening six packs high-five over beers. One boy, dressed as a mermaid, passes out on a sunlounger near the stage where DJs play and former Love Island contestants parade in swimwear to launch their after-show careers.

As evening falls, these balconies become disco boxes. Sounds clash in air ripe with Lynx. Grime meets Come on Eileen, football chants compete with shouted pop lyrics, punctuated by smashed glass and screams. On one balcony, two lads lean over the railings and pour beer on unsuspecting passers-by. I watch them over my balustrade, where a sign reads: “Balconies are the main cause of death and accidents on holidays.”

In 2016, Alexander Forrest, a 20-year-old Scottish charity worker on holiday with friends, fell to his death from his third-floor balcony at this hotel. In May this year, another young man, thought to be 25, fell from another third-floor balcony. His friends tried to grab him as he dropped. He survived, but suffered serious injuries. A month later, a 22-year-old man fell from a balcony on the floor below, breaking a leg and his jaw and losing several teeth.

This year, tens of thousands of British teenagers will embark on package holidays. Tour companies such as Thomas Cook promise them #legendaryholidays, with the motto “Go hard or go home”. So far this season, there have been reports of 16 British people falling from balconies abroad. Eight have died from their injuries.

In June, Conor Morgan, a 19-year-old from Ireland, was found dead after falling from a hotel balcony at the party resort of Aiya Napa, in Cyprus. He had arrived on the island only hours before. The exact circumstances of his death are not yet known. As I write, Tolga Aramaz, a 23-year-old Labour councillor from north London, lies in an intensive-care ward, critically injured after falling from a second-floor balcony in Ibiza.

I began to monitor the growing number of British people dying from balcony falls abroad in 2012, following the inquest into the death of Gethin Williams, an 18-year-old from north Wales. Williams had died nearly a decade earlier, in 2002, at a hotel in the same location as BH Mallorca, then called Fiesta Jungla. He had been one of a group of 15 teenagers from Ysgol Tryfan school, in Bangor, who had been celebrating the end of their A-levels. After a night out, he tried to climb into his room via the balcony, slipped and fell.

In 2013, I saw reports of 12 fatal balcony falls. Seven in 2014. Six in 2015. Ten in 2016. Nine in 2017. This year, I watched horrified as the season began, noticing again that, in most cases, the deaths involved young people, alcohol and package holidays.

Each fall haunted me. These were groups of friends going abroad on their first holidays together. Young people, on the cusp of adulthood, testing boundaries; allowed their first taste of freedom by anxious parents. A modern rite of passage, both scary and exciting, echoed across cultures. In Australia, Aborigines have their walkabout. In America, students go on spring break. For the Amish, it is called rumspringa, from the German verb springen, literally meaning “to jump”.

Williams grew up on a farm on the outskirts of Bangor, near the mountains of Snowdonia, a world away from the vibrant chaos of Magaluf. It is so quiet here, you can hear the wind in the grass, sweeping up the field past the church where Gethin’s ashes are buried.

“It’s very, very vivid,” Nerys Williams says of the day she learnt her son had died. It was early morning. Her husband, Emrys, and their older son, Dafydd, were in the fields milking the cows, so Nerys was alone when she opened the door to two police officers, faces drawn and pale. “They said, Gethin … Oh …” She starts to cry, the pain still fresh, “… and I knew.”

READ THE FULL ARTICLE IN THE SUNDAY TIMES: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/every-year-young-british-tourists-fall-to-their-deaths-from-hotel-balconies-are-the-all-you-can-drink-party-packages-to-blame-68qkz030c

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Sunday Times Magazine: Why did Anna Campbell, a young feminist from Lewes, die on the battlefields of Syria?

 

 

It was the first bright morning there had been in a while. The air was clean and sharp. Spring had come late this year to Afrin, a district in northern Syria, and the endless rolling fields were still lined with the stubs of last season’s wheat stalks. At night, the cold wind bit and was thick with the smell of burning wood and plastic. Anna Campbell, a 26-year-old woman from Lewes, East Sussex, sat in an abandoned house waiting for the order to fight.

The date was March 15, 2018, and Campbell had been in the house for a week with three other soldiers: Comrade Siyar, Comrade Sara and Comrade Serhilan. They knew Campbell as Comrade Helin Qerecox, the nom de guerre she had picked when she arrived in Syria as a would-be fighter the previous year. The others were Kurdish and, like Campbell, belonged to local militias that were trying to halt the Turkish-backed advance on the Kurdish-majority district of Afrin. The house would be their base during the battle. Outside, mortar fire whistled in the air and erupted on the front line about a mile away.

For Campbell, this deployment was the culmination of a year’s campaigning. Since she had arrived in Syria, she had pleaded with her commanders in the all-female Kurdish Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) to send her into battle. They hadn’t wanted her to go. Campbell, though deeply committed to the Kurdish cause, was not an experienced soldier. After a year with the YPJ, she had learnt to fire a Kalashnikov and had practised throwing grenades and shooting a machinegun, but had received no heavy weapons training. To dissuade her, her commanders told Campbell her blonde hair made her look “too western”.

For them, her role was obvious: her value as a fighter was negligible, but her value as a propagandist — recruiting others like her to the YPJ cause — was enormous. Much as young idealists from London and New York were drawn to the trenches and mountain hideouts of the Spanish Civil War, hundreds of westerners, including dozens of Britons, have flocked to join the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the YPJ since 2014. They were drawn to an organisation that claimed to stand for anti-imperialism, women’s rights (particularly in the fight against Isis) and a true revolution.

As the Afrin operation intensified, several male British recruits were reported killed. Eventually, Campbell’s commanders relented. On March 8, she was assigned to a position on the outskirts of Afrin’s Mahmoudiyeh district, alongside the three Kurdish fighters.

As she prepared to leave, her hair dyed black, her face covered with a maroon scarf, she spoke in a video of her duty to fight. “If you love your own people enough to fight for them and die for them,” she said, “you also love people far away enough to fight for them and die for them.”

READ THE FULL ARTICLE IN THE SUNDAY TIMES: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/why-did-anna-campbell-a-young-feminist-from-lewes-die-on-the-battlefields-of-syria-pqsj9rw3f

The Sunday Times News: Alesha MacPhail death: Bute grieves for its innocence

In the burning summer heat the ferry from Wemyss Bay, Inverclyde, to the island of Bute heaves with tourists. Older visitors in comfortable shoes and children with backpacks lean over the railings watching the water as the boat pulls out. Sitting on the deck are four young policemen, their faces impassive, holding their hats and looking solemnly out at the waves.

Locals travelling home speak in hushed tones about the events that are unfolding. “You put them to bed and you think they’re safe,” one woman says to her friend. “Imagine waking up one morning, coming down the stairs and she’s gone.”

Last Monday at 6.25am six-year-old Alesha MacPhail was reported missing from her grandparents’ home on Bute. Less than three hours later her body was found nearby in the overgrown woodland of a former hotel. On Tuesday the police launched a murder investigation. By Wednesday an arrest had been made. In that short time this peaceful island had changed for ever.

Bute lies in an archipelago off the west coast of Scotland. It is not a remote island (Glasgow is barely 90 minutes away), but the waves washing the ferry across the Firth of Clyde seem to carry it to another world. To a world that is not wealthy but is rich in natural beauty and the warmth of a 6,500-strong community.

On the seafront in the town of Rothesay, where the ferry docks, stone cottages breathe the sweet-salty smell of the sea. Behind them dense woodland becomes majestic hills, which turn blue as the sun fades.

During the day seagulls, their bellies fat with chips, skim the water in the bay and perch on mossy rocks. In the evening the water glows silvery gold.

Bute was once a thriving destination. It still attracts tourists in the summer months. They head to the seaside at Rothesay, with its amusement arcade and bucket-and-spade shops. But it is also a place of tranquil pleasures: a moated castle, a putting lawn on the front, prettily planted flower gardens.

The town feels old-fashioned in a friendly, genteel way. Shops with hand-painted signs are named after locals: Jess May’s florist, Liz’s cupcake heaven, Elle’s hair and beauty salon. “Everybody knows each other,” one woman says. Doors are left unlocked.

“My mum wouldn’t even know where her keys are,” she grins.

Alesha lived with her mother, Georgina Lochrane, 23, in Airdrie, north Lanarkshire, but often came to the island on her school holidays. She stayed with her father, Robert MacPhail, 25, who is separated from Georgina and lives in his parents’ seafront house on Ardbeg Road, north of Rothesay.

Alesha was known by locals and often played with their children. “I saw her on the bus,” one woman told me. “I remember — she had such blonde hair.”

This summer Alesha had come for a three-week stay. One parent, whose daughter was to have a playdate with her on Thursday, described how her grandparents had recently created a bedroom for the little girl on the top floor.

It says something of the island’s close-knit community that when Angela King, 46, and Calum MacPhail, 49, discovered their granddaughter was not in her bed, they first turned to friends.

On Monday at 6.43am King posted on Facebook: “Alesha has gone missing from our house please help look for her.” Worried neighbours shared the post, offering support and help in looking for her, or suggesting where she might be.

That morning, in the Bonnie Clyde cafe in Rothesay, Raymond Yost heard helicopters whirring overhead. He assumed they were taking somebody to hospital on the mainland — their usual job.

At about 9am one of his customers received a text message to say “a wee lassie” was missing. Yost immediately logged on to Facebook to see if he knew who it was. “We’re all one big family here,” he said. “Most of us grew up together, we went to school together, then we came back.” That’s when he saw Angela’s post.

It was amid this social media activity that it seems Georgina learnt her daughter had disappeared — and later discovered that she had died. In a series of increasingly desperate posts, she wrote, “Someone tell me what’s happened that’s my daughter”, and, “Angela answer me now”.

Alesha MacPhail‘s body was found on the Isle of Bute last week
Alesha MacPhail‘s body was found on the Isle of Bute last week
By Tuesday bouquets were piling up outside the house from which Alesha had vanished. Flowers with cards reading “Sleep tight beautiful girl” and “You’re with the angels now” lined the whitewashed garden wall facing the sea, along with fluffy toys and purple balloons floating in the breeze.

Georgina travelled to the island, escorted by police, and visited the memorial. Bending down to read the messages, she sobbed. Beside her, police vans guarded the house.

As police launched a murder investigation, they warned the islanders to secure their homes, to “be vigilant and look after each other”.

One mother spoke about how she had moved her three children here from Glasgow nine months ago because it felt so safe. “We could let our children run free outside. Now we won’t let them out of our sight,” she said.

“My kids used to play in the woods where they found her [Alesha]. The thing that’s so wonderful about it here — the fact you can be all alone — now that’s what’s so terrifying.”

In the bookshop in Rothesay, Alesha’s death was being reported on the local radio news bulletins. In the post office her photograph was on the front page of all the newspapers. Many locals, unsure about speaking to the media, asked not to be named. But when they came together, the case was the only thing they were discussing.

In the pubs and cafes and on the seafront, groups gathered, sharing their grief. “The whole island is in shock,” said one local woman in the pub. “Nothing like this has ever happened before here. It doesn’t feel real.”

It is an island with little serious crime: it is rare for residents even to see police officers on Bute, one resident, Janet Vernal, told me. Now officers were drafted from the Argyll & Bute and West Dunbartonshire division, driving round roads in marked and unmarked vehicles, dotting the coast in their yellow jackets, conducting 24-hour high-visibility patrols.

At times the contrast between the tranquil island and the police activity was so jarring that it felt surreal. Blue-and-white police cordons fluttered across leafy lanes, running between stone walls and ivy hedges. Police vans rolled heavily along the seaside lanes while officers in black uniforms combed the beach near rocks where seals lazed, overturning sun-bleached rowing boats. At night the still, quiet bay was pierced by the shriek of sirens and flashing of blue lights.

Stranger than the police presence was the eerie silence. Last Wednesday night the streets were empty. Residents peered out from behind windows. Although the summer holidays had started, the beach and children’s park were empty.

 

“It’s a lot quieter than it usually is,” one resident told me. “A lot of the children are being kept in.”

One local claimed his children were so terrified that they would not sleep in their own beds.

“Everyone is so shocked. No one can believe something like this has happened here,” said another resident, Elizabeth Taylor.

“It will change it for a while,” Vernal agreed. “Especially for parents with children. They’ll feel it longer and be scared to let their children out.”

Last Thursday a 16-year-old boy was charged in connection with Alesha’s death. It is said that he is known to her family. Police have not released details of how Alesha died.

On Friday the teenager appeared in Greenock sheriff court on the mainland. He was charged with rape and murder. He entered no plea.

Everyone in this small community has their opinion about the tragedy. But nothing will be known until a trial is held.

For now, this once peaceful island and Alesha’s family are left only with questions — and their grief.

https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/alesha-macphail-death-bute-grieves-for-its-innocence-d8vr256ll

The Sunday Times: Can Weight Watchers ever be cool again?

weight watchers

In the basement of a church in Islington, seated in a circle on plastic chairs, a group of middle-aged mothers and housewives are confessing. Julie (whose name I have changed to protect her identity) fell off the wagon this week. She doesn’t want to admit to her husband what she did. By contrast, Amy is feeling so confident she doesn’t even stay for the meeting, so she doesn’t get to hear Tanya fretting about quiche. If you haven’t guessed yet, this is no AA meeting. I am at Weight Watchers.

It may still feel like the 1980s in the basement of the church, but above ground, Weight Watchers is — whisper it — in the midst of a reinvention. In the second quarter of 2018, it reported 4.5m members worldwide, an increase of 2.1m from the end of 2015. Now WW — or dub-dub as millennials are calling it — has signed up some trendy celebrity ambassadors including DJ Khaled and the director of Clerks, Kevin Smith, who had a heart attack earlier this year and is now a committed vegan posting Facebook videos of himself trying quinoa. (“My favourite new dish is vegan nachos, at eight SmartPoints per serving,” he chirps via WW’s PR.) These are savvy signings: Khaled has a huge social following — 11.5m on Instagram, as well as being known as the “King of Snapchat”. Meanwhile Smith, a cult figure, brings the street cred lacking in LighterLife’s Denise Welch campaign (sorry D) or Subway’s diet plan featuring a nerdy-looking bloke standing next to his old jeans.

DJ Khaled

Weight Watchers is not a name you expect to hear in fashion circles. As a brand, it feels about as on trend as the Rosemary Conley Flat Stomach Plan, which is the other diet my mum was doing in the 1990s. Throughout that decade Weight Watchers was phenomenally successful.

But it’s not an easy time to be in the business of weight loss. We live in an era when it’s deeply uncool to talk about dieting. No one diets any more — they eat clean, they cleanse, they go vegan or gluten-free, they do a juice fast, a HIIT class, a 12-week fat-blasting programme or start following an Instagram pin-up such as Joe Wicks. It’s no longer politically correct to aspire to thinness; you’re supposed to want to be strong.

Armed with this insight, Weight Watchers has ditched the diet label and is shifting to a more holistic approach to wellness, says Mindy Grossman, who took over as CEO in July 2017. “Healthy is the new skinny,” says Grossman, 60, who first used Weight Watchers as a teenager.

 

READ THE FULL ARTICLE IN THE SUNDAY TIMES: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/can-weight-watchers-ever-be-cool-again-js5m2b075

The Sunday Times: Megan Barton-Hanson, Love Island and the rise in cosmetic surgery for the young

love island

Once, all it took to look polished was a blow-dry, a leg wax and maybe — if you felt enthusiastic — a fake tan. But now, in an age of extreme beauty, it seems some millennials pursuing perfection will stop at nothing short of full-body mutilation.

The evidence put forward last week was a contestant on the reality TV series Love Island. It has been claimed that Megan Barton-Hanson, 24, could have spent up to £40,000 on cosmetic surgery “enhancements”.

According to Dr Julian De Silva, a leading facial cosmetic surgeon, who did not treat Barton-Hanson, the pneumatic blonde looks to have undergone procedures including Botox, rhinoplasty, chin reshaping, fillers, cheek implants, dental veneers and breast and lip augmentation.

It’s ironic that, among a generation that claims to celebrate diversity and embrace natural beauty, cosmetic surgery is growing in popularity. It seems social media movements such as #nomakeupselfie haven’t led young people to accept how they look so much as make them more aware of it.

According to research by the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons, 56% of surgeons surveyed last year reported an increase in clients under the age of 30; and 55% of practitioners saw patients who wanted surgery to help them look better in selfies (compared with just 13% in 2016).

READ THE FULL ARTICLE IN THE SUNDAY TIMES: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/megan-barton-hanson-love-island-and-the-rise-in-cosmetic-surgery-for-the-young-m2wgb5vbr

The Sunday Times: After five days undercover, I took up a new position on sex addiction

sex addiction

Does anybody really believe sex addiction exists? Even some sex addicts I’ve met don’t seem convinced. Sex addiction sounds suspiciously like a get-out clause for philandering men. No wonder all the usual suspects — Russell Brand, Charlie Sheen, Tiger Woods and Robbie Williams — claim to suffer from it. And now, more problematically, Harvey Weinstein joins the list.

Sex addiction strikes us as a label to excuse bad behaviour. And unlike alcoholism or drug addiction, it’s a diagnosis with few apparent downsides for the “patient”. So when last week Relate, the relationship counselling service, suggested sex addicts (who are apparently rising in number) should be offered treatment on the NHS, the response was typically incredulous.

As if the health service were not struggling enough, are we now going to compel overworked junior doctors to treat people who have created a condition out of having too many one-night stands? Some might wonder whether the increase in sex addicts indicates not a new epidemic, but a new puritanism among millennials. Not content with giving up alcohol, gluten and meat, they have decided they are allergic to sex.

In the Swinging Sixties no one seemed bothered about sex addiction — they were too busy having threesomes with the Rolling Stones. Indeed, the term “sex addiction” came about only in the late 1970s, gaining popularity in the 1980s as society became more socially conservative.

Now a questionnaire on the Sex Addiction Help website (completed by 21,058 people since 2013) suggests the largest group seeking help for sex addiction (31%) are aged from 26 to 35. Could it be that a generation of snowflakes would rather claim a mental illness than own up to their mistakes?

READ THE FULL ARTICLE IN THE SUNDAY TIMES: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/after-five-days-undercover-i-took-up-a-new-position-on-sex-addiction-gnfsj3rcb