S1E4 Frank Coles, Adventurer and author

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Frank Coles and Mark Abouzeid on “Walking out of Lockdown”

In a special episode, Mark Abouzeid talks with Frank Coles, an RGS explorer and author of numerous books. The two share memories of expeditions as they discuss Frank’s families experience of suffering Covid-19 as well as thoughts on the necessity of epic failure in inspiring creativity.

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Frank has lived and worked in five out of seven continents, as far north as the pole, and continues to travel whenever he can. As a journalist or contributing editor he has written for publications and sites all over Europe and the Middle East from Esquire and Explorers Connect to Business Traveler, the Guardian and Parliament magazine.

As an ideas generator and visual media manipulator he has run web channels for NatGeo Adventure and Youtube, spent a decade full time in TV/Film and worked on the early days of the digital switchover and branded channels.He has authored the books How to Drive a Tank … and Other Everyday Tips for the Modern Gentleman, Dark Market, Secret Skin, edited a presidential biography and one novel and published classics as an indie publisher.


Every week, Mark Abouzeid reaches out to freelancers, artisans, creatives, culture protagonists and every day people on how they survived lockdown and what the ‘new normal’ means to them, personally and professionally. In an intimate conversation between friends, Abouzeid asks them about the future, what changes they will make to adapt and how they intend to rebuild.

Director: Mark Abouzeid
Producer: Real Lives Channel on youtube

Interviewer: Mark Abouzeid
Editing and Postproduction: Mark Abouzeid

Creative Commons Stock footage:
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Music from http://www.Epidemic Sound.com:
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Thank you to Zoom for webconferencing and recording.

Copyright Mark Abouzeid, 2020. All rights reserved.


Mark Abouzeid 0:19
It is my great pleasure to welcome Frank Coles journalist explorer best selling author of How to drive a tank and other everyday tips for the modern gentlemen Frank and I met literally on our way to an expedition to the North Pole. We spent two weeks in the icy tundra both of us going What are we doing here? The next time we see each other It is the middle of July we are in the Jordanian desert trying to film with a camera that has to be an air conditioning because it’s too hot for the camera.

Frank Coles 0:58
Fantastic. see you as well. I’m all right. Yeah. All right. Well, we’ve got two kids. And we’re separated from the mother and we’ve all had COVID. So we got that about seven weeks ago. And we split the childcare in half. So literally 50% of the time, and the kids have just come up to me after about three, four days, they both started coming down with symptoms. And then so did my ex or her house and then a few days after I started coming down with them, so I had to isolate them here to start with, and then happily, because we’ve all had it at the same time, we, I guess, we really as a divorced couple, we kind of still have a have a one half kind of rule, really. So we’re isolated between two hairs. It’s still early stage. And then one of the things that’s kind of become apparent as time has gone on is isn’t really covered in the media much is fatigue. There was a guy from Cochrane the other day, bemoaning that he’d been living living hell for seven weeks after actually having the infection and like I can say that that’s the same with my kids. And my ex Max is kind of almost fully recovered after five weeks. My daughter’s pretty good. She’s seven, and my son who would normally do four to five days of sports a week is absolutely exhausted after half an hour of either a walk or gentle kick her back. So

Mark Abouzeid 2:18
what was the experience for the adults and what was the experience for the children?

Frank Coles 2:23
Okay, so we had what I guess would be classed as the neurological symptoms. So rather than just the straightforward temperature and cough, we had a bit of that, and but the main thing was aches, pains, eye pain was a really, really big one and massive amount of headaches, the loss of taste and smell. Only we realized that gone last week when it came back with a vengeance. I hadn’t really noticed it wasn’t gone very gradually. But literally, I woke up one morning, got up and my breath the hell is this smell and it was just normal, normal life, and I just couldn’t Yeah,

Mark Abouzeid 3:00
I got to ask you Did you either eat anything you wouldn’t have eaten or did you notice that things that you were eating suddenly Weren’t you know what you thought they were? Did you have any definitely

Frank Coles 3:10
opening the fridge was a felt like a life threatening experience. And it was. So things just know things like cheese, like not even not even strong, smelly cheese, but just normal kind of cheddar was just like, I’m happy. I just kind of went back to I lived in Thailand for a while, went back to eating Thai style, which is very strong flavors and tastes. And that’s kind of sorted me out. Because everything. I just put it straight up. Am I right? Let’s zap the senses. And then we’ll get back to normal. Everything’s too bland again. Yeah, but no, I totally,

Mark Abouzeid 3:44
totally get that. Let me go back a bit as I do in the beginning of these interviews, so let’s talk beginning of the year. Okay, what were your expectations or goals for the coming year?

Frank Coles 3:55
Oh, wow. Okay, well, I’d had this leptospirosis infection. up in Pakistan, the year before, it had been mistreated, and I ended up wiped out and exhausted for nearly all of last year, I cost me a lot of money, effectively couldn’t work really, and then started a new kind of semi permanent job in November, which I’m furloughed from now. But at the same time, it’s doing that on the side. I was also I was also learning to trade and which was interesting. I know many sports trading, it’s same same principles, exactly the same principles except I have to work everything ran childcare. So for me that the appealing thing about that? Well, the thing is I sat down in January, I literally did an audit of my life previous year because certain things have worked and things hadn’t. And the thing that actually made me some money was trading. My dad used to be a bookmaker. Okay, 20 years ago, before he died, the internet kind of you know, was just kicked. Yeah, just building up speed really and things like that. Betfair exchange, which is a kind of trading exchange for the gambling markets, who come into existence and we were toying with that. So I was just bored out of my mind on the sofa, just trying to find anything to do other than watch Netflix on what I’ve watched everybody boxing under the sun. I just I can’t watch

Mark Abouzeid 5:16
a TV show. Okay, I’m gonna ask you, what was your go to TV series?

Frank Coles 5:22
Oh man, so many of them. I’m literally I was literally sofa harpeth last year, so

Mark Abouzeid 5:27
anything that you wouldn’t usually watch or that just you know,

Frank Coles 5:33
I used to work in TV. So you’d have to watch TV as part of my job. So I kind of come to anything but I think getting to the root cause drag race which

Mark Abouzeid 5:40
I wouldn’t have normally watched. I’d love to hear that because I’ve gone through the entire thing and project Project Runway, but it’s hilarious because there’s some part of me that’s going oh no girlfriend do not put those two.

Frank Coles 5:54
I know. I know totally. Well. The interesting thing about the rule pool stuff is as you know, sort of dental lessons. You know, that book you mentioned earlier on, that’s one book I’ve done. I’ve done other books. But that book was interesting from our kind of male perspective, because it’s kind of it was kind of all the kind of stereotypical male skills. And originally it was titled, and this would have been a far more fun book if we come with every single time. It was originally titled The badass Bible. All I want to do is just do every badass skill set Every man has ever wanted to do, right, including most women, because when you go out and do these things, there’s loads of women there as well. Right?

Mark Abouzeid 6:28
No, I actually go back to the video we made when you were doing the book about how wiring a car. Yeah, because I’d forgotten how to and no, I don’t steal cars, obviously. But as we know, in the desert, when you’re on expedition and things like that, the last thing you want to do is think about whether you lost the keys or not. So you just take the backup.

Frank Coles 6:50
There’s no AAA in the middle of the desert.

Frank Coles 6:54
It’s just one of the things that’s been really important for me recently is um, so one of the things that happened last year as well is that actually go. I haven’t told you this, but I actually got diagnosed with autism last year. And so autism like a specific

Frank Coles 7:08
type of diagnosis. Now, I’ve been working with a guy as part of the stuff I was doing abroad

Frank Coles 7:15
who’s working out in the Arabian Peninsula? Because they have, they have Dubai cup is now expanding this scheme, which is to say that the way they’re treating their own citizens with different skill sets has been wrong. They’ve been trying to emulate the West. And they’re very good at that. And what they realized by looking at their own culture and also Western culture, so with Western culture, they realize that the head of every company in the West has, has a habit of neurological divergence. They’re different. They’re not like normal folk, right? And so they’re, they’re different, in one way or another. And one of the things I got from that they’re doing projects, or big project, I should say, which I share regularly with these kinds of people is and I can’t remember name that you remember there was the guy from the tribe who went down?

Frank Coles 8:04
Yeah. And it was kind of he was part of the culture. Yeah. And there’s a simple take on it. And my friend has taught me is that it’s this is obviously Dubai in the room, family, families there are all bedrooms in origin. Is it their take on it is that a disability as we would call over here is a gift from God is the tribes responsibility to work out how to use that for in, in the best way possible? And I have a great phrase for some people with different abilities with this physical, neurological a nice

Mark Abouzeid 8:39
phrase, it’s

Frank Coles 8:41
persons of determination. So instead of calling it disable, they call people that determination. That’s it. That’s the phrase.

Mark Abouzeid 8:48
All right. But now let’s look at this. You guys have gone through COVID you’ve gone through everything. It’s four months later, we’re looking at today. How is your change? How’s your work changing? How’s that? Your situation changed.

Frank Coles 9:02
Well, all of the stuff that I’d started doing so the trading stock was all sport, I mean, literally. So that was the end of the day with a day job that I do, which is a kind of a partnership thing for a my friend who works at Cypress is developing property out there. All of that suddenly on a is because obviously nobody could travel. And so it’s and nobody knows what’s happening economically. So a lot of this was based around high net worth individuals, investing in tourism, infrastructure, but tourism. There’s nothing to invest in. So. So yeah, so all of that kind of, so in the UK, we have a furlough scheme where employed workers get paid up to 80% up to 80% of their salary and is kept to a certain level. It’s kind of doesn’t quite cover my costs, but it kind of almost does. So it’s regular. It’s Yeah, yeah, I mean, they changing it. I haven’t covered everybody So self employed to basically shafted small business owners are basically shafted, after all this sort of impetus to you know, be entrepreneurial. They basically just left them in the dirt. They’re kind of going to start restricting it from the end of July. So that that will change quite rapidly. I think I think things after that change quite rapidly.

Mark Abouzeid 10:18
And that kind of leads us to Today’s the first day that you can walk out of lockdown, you’re standing at your door, you can do anything you want, you can go anywhere you want. What’s the first thing you want?

Frank Coles 10:33
To maintain? Yeah, yeah, I love a mountain. So after all our types of experiences abroad, and the one thing I realized was that at the lift, before I met you, I’d lived in rural Thailand. So I lived in a jungle and I lived in in a variety of places and I lived in rural France in a variety of places and then I came back to big cities. I especially remember coming back from the North Pole trip, and getting to For planes to get home, but I remember getting to Paris and then just sitting in Paris, the airport, Charles de Gaulle just kind of Ganges all these people are like landing on a and an alien planet.

Mark Abouzeid 11:12
Yeah. And he and the noise and

Frank Coles 11:16
the noise especially don’t realize, I think until you’ve kind of really been exposed to proper wilderness. I mean, the wilderness can be noisy as well don’t get me wrong, but it’s a different kind of. It’s not like there’s always like, I think with what I notice in Newcastle, where I’m based now is that it’s that there’s cars everywhere. And but that’s stopped recently. Yeah. So.

Frank Coles 11:38
So suddenly, your anxiety levels actually go down. And it makes me wonder whether

Frank Coles 11:44
the constant roaring of traffic is just simply like a constant, underlying war of a lion or something like that. That kind of raises everybody’s anxiety levels a bit because you can see it in everybody around here.

Mark Abouzeid 11:54
There’s an effort required, ignore it. Yes, I noticed during lunch Down here, suddenly a vacuum of void. And it was so beautiful to me. Yeah, maybe it’s because you and I actually do better away from cities and civilizations. It was so beautiful to me that I must admit, there’s a big part of me that hates the end of lockdown. The noises come back, the vibration has come back all of this. There’s some fear of the way people reacting but more than anything. It’s just the noise of cars and things like that. And I think the effort to block those out, creates a baseline stress for a lot of people I know it does for me

Frank Coles 12:43
very much very much. I mean, I have with the autism stuff. I have a hypersensitivity to sound and to light anyway. So that kind of added to that. I’ve learned to manage that over the years. But as you say it requires a kind of hazard. Cognitive cost if you like it, you know, there’s you know, there’s there’s energy expended just doing that.

Mark Abouzeid 13:04
Um, all right. So do you think there’s anything you miss about lockdown other than the noise? Which we are? You know?

Frank Coles 13:11
Yeah, for me, it’s, I mean, for me just the the sheer amount of free time to do stuff with my kids. So the whole homeschooling thing very quickly became apparent that all the teachers have been asked to provide lots of homeschooling material in a panic in a last minute rush and close down schools in about three days. So we just bombarded with all this stuff. And then it’s like, well, there’s no way and there’s no point. And they’re all going to end up being taught at different standards. Yeah, the teacher will bring them up to speed again when they get back to school. So I kind of knocked on the head in the first week and and then I kind of figured, well, what what can I teach them from the things that I know from travel from making TV programs from writing books from all that sort of stuff, and so we’re doing homemade I guess is home education, as stuff I can teach them. So I’m teaching them to the minute we’re doing a whole sort of channel breakdown. They both love YouTube and they’re gaming. So I’m teaching them how to record different video feeds how to add narrative, how to add intros, how to create channel, how to create structured content to kind of keep it easy and keep coming back, keep making more without get bored, and they have to reinvent it every time. So that’s just one thing. Brilliant cooks now. They’re really good

Mark Abouzeid 14:28
to us, so you’re pimping out your children, basically?

Frank Coles 14:32
Yeah, sure. Many chefs, many videographer

Mark Abouzeid 14:36
isn’t dad can relax.

Frank Coles 14:39
That would be nice. But yeah, that’d be the main thing. I think just that kind of lack of, again, from living in wilderness areas as well. And then areas where there’s different economies. So we’re very fixated on them. Making money and all the rest of it. But it’s not really necessarily it’s not always the effective way to get funding either so you might get this way you are but when I lived in rural France and I’ve heard about this years ago, it was loaded nonsense but they still have a barter economy. Yes in parts of it anyway and and people don’t realize how rural France actually is. And I just remember there was this I’ll be staying in a place just outside here in the north end. A local farmer asked if I come and help build a barn for one of his horses with it. I did Hands up. It

Mark Abouzeid 15:31
was tough. But my payment wasn’t money. It

Frank Coles 15:33
was excess from the farm. So they had goats so every day for the next two, three months coming along, I’ve got milk and cheese delivered to my to my doorstep every morning. Beautiful milk and cheese as well. If I’d gone to the local market, I would have had to drive 1520 kilometers. I’ve had to pay the premium for the people who hold having the market all the rest of it stepped in at my doorstep every morning. I’d go and help him at anytime he wanted to top that up by simple things from the shops or what was what was in season, life was much simpler, much richer. And I had the same thing in Thailand as well, actually. And

Mark Abouzeid 16:06
you get the same thing in Tuscany, but our needs are little anyways, and be really friends and other people because we have an NGO and we have to watch costs and stuff I Oh, we only have a vehicle when we need one we only have you don’t have those base costs. And therefore after the initial shock after the initial panic if you want Yeah, after a week, we were like, you know, nothing has changed that much here. You brought up a major characteristic that I’ve found in freelancers in independent workers, which is it’s not only the word they’re adaptable, we’re adaptable is that we’re willing to try even though we don’t know if it will work, but there’s this assumption that you have to try several things before you find one that works.

Frank Coles 16:55
You don’t know where you don’t know what good or perfect is gonna look like sometimes until you’ve kind of veered off And you’ve gone that way and kind of fell into a bit of that kind of old habitual thinking if you want to call it normal life, but sort of, you know, everything’s got to perfectly plot it out, you know, you’ve got to go to school, you got to go to university got to do this job go this way, get them all. Kind of pre planning way.

Mark Abouzeid 17:18
There’s nothing wrong with cliche, but do you think that children had impact on that desire?

Frank Coles 17:23
crusade? Ha.

Frank Coles 17:26
No, it wasn’t even designs unconscious, kind of, but I noticed it in my writing work. In the end, I stopped writing at this point. So I stopped enjoying it. And I liked planning out my stuff. And I was good at like a story. And actually that improved my storage. And but I found I got too anxious about it. And I think this you see this a lot in society and then what you’re kind of talking about there is almost anxiety that you can’t do it because you’ll fail. But actually, the point of failure is to get to the good stuff and you learn from feeling so that’s probably the lesson I teach my kids more than anything busy. You know, the good stuff is in the failure.

Mark Abouzeid 17:58
Because to me, epic failure is actually where you need to get to to understand it’s time to change, rethink, transform, whatever the failure is in still trying to stay in the direction you’re going. It’s like skiing. It’s like mountain climbing and everything. You don’t all you’re not trying. You’re not.

Frank Coles 18:20
If when you were talking about bankruptcy earlier on, I had that experience. I went bankrupt in 2001 2002. But I remember going through this process and probably similar to what a lot of people are going through now. I put it off for a year because of the shame. And the shame comes from the it comes from really the old workhouse mentality. Yeah. And I did a project on work as is the 90s. And it was it was fascinating to see because it was it was all about shaming. Yeah, it was all about you know, you’ve you’ve corrupted things you’re evil you’re this you’re that the other and there was something to threaten people with so they stayed in debt and they stayed working and keeping them in slavery effectively. One of the things I do still this day is judged myself probably too harshly. I think we all do.

Mark Abouzeid 19:06
Yeah. Especially creatives especially, we would not be pushing ourselves. We wouldn’t be trying the things if we could accept what other people accept.

Frank Coles 19:16
Yeah, there’s a little, there’s a little quote, which goes something like, if you realize that you weren’t going to fail, what would you try? But I’ve been playing with this last week. It’s like, if you realize that nobody’s gonna judge you, what would you do? And that’s quite, that’s quite a liberating little one to play with. So it’s making me go Alright, well, I’m going to do this and that suddenly, it’s opened up a little

Mark Abouzeid 19:36
channel of things for joining us say that because my, my immediate reaction is my creativity will disappear. So it’s actually the trying to prevent failure that opens me to try different things I wouldn’t otherwise Yeah, there’s part of me that thinks the fear is necessary, but the judgments, yeah, it’s maybe negative. I’m not sure but you know, Why don’t you make me reconsider? I

Frank Coles 20:02
want to reconsider. But you’re right in terms of the creative thing and judgment as well, because sometimes you judge yourself to kind of push yourself a bit further. But I think we can go too far with it. So I think it’s finding that balance. It always is going, right. Come on, you can do better than this. But at the same time, once you’ve done a bit is going now I’m going to put that down there. I’m not gonna worry about it. I’m not gonna take it bear with me. I’m not gonna do this. Do that. Yes. And just know how big can we how big can we be? One thing I have found is that I don’t. Coming back to the UK. I’ve been here for what 10 years and a kind of fairly formulaic, kind of middle class existence, I guess.

Mark Abouzeid 20:37
Is that

Frank Coles 20:40
I relish a bit of anxiety and danger really, but a different kinds of different kinds. So they

Mark Abouzeid 20:46

Frank Coles 20:47
Yeah, totally. So it’s more the situations that you’re I would put ourselves into where people would feel uncomfortable, which I see I feel very comfortable and

Mark Abouzeid 20:56

Frank Coles 20:57
Yeah, more comfortable the normal life. So for me normal life is a creates more anxiety than something probably more dangerous and more anxiety inducing or more

Mark Abouzeid 21:06
No, you’re in. You’re in the middle of an expedition. You aren’t thinking about the rent, you’re not thinking about the next job. You’re not thinking about any of that. Okay? And I think it’s that bringing me to the moment, the absolute moment that I love about that Victor boyarsky when we went with him to the first time we met him was in a hotel conference room. He looks so small and so uncomfortable that I thought, Oh my God, this guy’s leading us to the North Pole. Next time we see him is out on the ice pack, his hair standing up and other rack is huge. And let’s not even talk about the morning he woke us up to do an Arctic shower in bikini shorts and poured like I know there’s so much more to me, and so much more I can do give whatever that sometimes is When I get into this normal life I feel less not like a superhero but just less like me.

Frank Coles 22:08
Yeah less less capable less able all those sorts I totally get it so people that aren’t going Why are you doing this you’re gonna put yourself in harm’s way you can do that you can do other stuff. Well, I can see I can join the dots. I can see why I do this. It’s obvious to me. And so because it’s obvious to me that’s a skill I’ve got I should probably go do and that’s almost that’s almost the thing

Mark Abouzeid 22:27
that I think is exactly what I mean. It is that it’s the full use of whatever this organic instrument was born with and has developed. Is there anything that scares you or makes you nervous either for yourself or for your culture with lockdown ending

Frank Coles 22:46
with lockdown ending

Frank Coles 22:48

Frank Coles 22:51
it’s more than it will be business as usual. I think we have a an amazing opportunity here to change things for the better. We have This is a relatively minor

Frank Coles 23:03
hiccup on the humanities road, we’ll bump up mixing metaphors. They’re both a minor bump in humanity’s path, you know, and, and, you know, we’ve got bigger things we’ve got

Frank Coles 23:16
the environment, that greenhouse gases, population, we’ve got a belief in economic, economic systems, which are basically, listen, they’re they’re invented, but we’re trapped by them. So that’s my main concern is that we just go back to business as usual. And the thing that coming back to the UK made me realize and I realized it beforehand, but it really is this country being the second largest media market in the world is really, really dangerously media lead. It’s easy to persuade people to do what you want to hear.

Mark Abouzeid 23:48
That was so perfect. I really liked him there because that I think, was important message that I feel, and I know you feel, I want to thank you, Frank. It’s great to see you again. Hopefully Someday in the near future, we’ll be somewhere interesting together.

Frank Coles 24:04
Yeah, that’d be good. That’d be very fun.

Frank Coles 24:07
racking up racking up. I got a bit of a bank to make me a safe house. Shake it up, shake it up. She got her hands on a visa. She’s bringing a case out. I got some get some tax some up in a greenhouse. Pull it up. I’m with the gang taking shots off the rebound.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

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