Like Brooks Newmark, we all need to take risks. If only the people around us could remain undamaged

The urge to live dangerously is hard-wired into us

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The benighted Tory MP Brooks Newmark might be feeling a bit Britney Spears right now. Oops, I did it again. For having galvanised the entire nation thanks to his Paisley pyjamas and nudity therein, the member for Braintree has been subsequently outed by an actual real person (rather than a fictional woman invented by a tabloid newspaper), as the recipient of a whole lot more photographs, including a rather sweet one where he looks like more a topless character from Sesame Street than a torrid sexual adventurer. Apparently the Minister for Civil Society had been having an affair with this person for two years, and had sent her an entire swatch of sexy snaps, which she has promptly delivered to another tabloid newspaper.

Yet Newmark didn’t say, “Oops”, or anything like it. What he said to the papers was much more interesting. “I was the man who had everything,” he remarked. “I made a fortune, married a beautiful wife, had five children, then fulfilled my life-long ambition to be an MP. Behind the outward façade of success and achievement ....I craved adrenaline and risk. Deep inside I knew I was playing with fire.”

Most people’s lives don’t normally involve much playing with fire, but it is a profound need within us, no matter how civilised and comfortable our lives have become. And when it is not easily available, we invent it. We need to be outside our comfort zone, you see. It makes us feel alive, and not like sleepwalkers going through the motions of routine and tradition. Walking down to the start of the Royal Parks Half Marathon this weekend, where I and 16,000 others were about to run 13.1 miles around the capital for no really good reason other than it was there to be done, I fell into step with another runner. This man was not doing the Royal Parks Half, but the Royal Parks Ultra, namely 32 miles around the capital.

I expressed admiration and remarked that he must be jolly fit. “Oh I only signed up to do this on Thursday,” he said cheerily. “I suspect there’ll be a lot of walking. But what else am I going to do on a Sunday morning? Read the papers? Anyway I did an Ironman triathlon in Lanzarote this spring. As part of my stag weekend. I’ll be OK.”

For the uninitiated, an Ironman involves a three-mile swim, plus a 100-mile cycle ride, topped off by a full (26 miles) marathon. It’s physical and mental torment that might have to be endured for 17 hours.  “I hardly remember the marathon,” confessed the Ultra runner with considerable understatement. “It was all a bit of a blur.” Madness.

So why do we do these exploits – the city marathons, the 100-mile cycle races, the open-water swims? I fully believe that the extraordinary growth of mass endurance in sport is because we need to engage with things which test us, which bring excitement into our lives, and put a bit of jeopardy in there. As Brooks Newmark put it, we all want to “play with fire”. It’s in our DNA. Except the annoying thing is that life doesn’t often put fire in our paths. However we still want to be tested. We want to feel as if we are living.


So let us see if we can run for four, five, or even 15 hours around London, New York, Loch Ness or the Arctic. For those of us who haven’t got the time to go on week-long treks across the Sahara, or jump in the London docks, there is always the internet. If left to our own devices, it seems, we go to our own devices. And so in this context, the comments of Newmark make perfect sense.

So could society invent a way that our need for adrelanine and risk be assuaged without too much collateral damage? Maybe marathons – which are usually invigilated by the St John Ambulance, remember -  are not enough. Should we remove the handrails from escalators on the Underground, turn the traffic lights off, bring back National Service? Maybe it would be a good move to make stints in the Territorial Army compulsory, so we can ensure that all grown adults are obliged to do really dangerous, risky things - hence ensuring the immediate end of nude selfies and extra-marital affairs? Or maybe the government can force people to commit regular employment hari-kiri so they are forced to go through the harrowing duty of searching for a new job. If this sounds a bit overly dictatorial, that’s because it is.

Perhaps we should continue as we are, but have a bit more understanding and tolerance about the fact that it is human nature that we sometimes like to run silly distances and take silly photos which put our own well-being on the line. Because we need to.