“I have a theory. It relates to all of us. It relates to our history. And our future.”
Bruce Parry is the stuff of mythology. He is an anachronism, both as colonial style explorer of the ancient and as a harbinger of a profound truth that indicates a possible future so much more fulfilling and vital than our present. The former British army marine is the traveller returned. He went in search of fame, fortune and to prove himself a man.
Yet, in the act of achieving these very things has discovered an insight which is both opposite and more important than what he sought. An insight that he believes can bring happiness not just for him, but for you, for us - perhaps for everyone.
This all seems rather fantastical. So much so, in fact, that as the time passes since our interview in the cafe of the art deco styled Picturehouse Central cinema in London’s Piccadilly I start to question my own memory of what was said, my own excitement at what I was told, and my own belief in the insight he had to share.
Bruce Parry served in Iraq with the Royal Marines, led science exhibitions in South East Asia, and then became an award winning BBC presenter with ahas since presented a series of BBC programmes documenting his experience of living with some of the world’s oldest, most remote hunter gather tribes.
“I have a theory. It relates to all of us. It relates to our history. And our future.”
A remarkable vision of human societies
The call to adventure was initially a burning desire to prove himself, and then to satisfy an ever increasing desire for stimulation and excitement. He climbed mountains no British person had ever climbed, trekked to the South Pole, and lived with tribes people in Africa, South America and Southeast Asia. He was richly rewarded for his pains.
But his experiences with the tribes living as part of nature, such as the Penan of Sarawak rainforests in Borneo, has given him a unique standpoint, and - he has come to believe - a vital insight that could provide a solution to the existential problems of our time, from personal anxiety to the threat of calamitous climate change.
I spoke with Bruce Parry for just over an hour, but in that time he set out a remarkable vision of human societies that once enjoyed an almost euphoric existence, how some still do, and how we could possibly regain this again for our own future.
His claims are so radical, so profound, and so challenging to conventional wisdom that they have been dismissed as merely the product of his exotic drug taking experiences. The BBC declined to set out his theses for human fulfilment, and now he is currently promoting his own independent film, titled TAWAI - A voice from the forest.
Bruce Parry is the traveller returned. He sits in a black jumper and jeans, confident and relaxed. His tanned skin evidences his years spent overseas. We shake hands, and I set the Dictaphone rolling.
Some of what he tells me next, I simply cannot believe. But what I do believe is that he really has identified the secret to happiness, both for the individual and for society as a whole.
Pop music was not deemed as acceptable
Parry was born in Hythe, Hampshire, in 1969, and his father was Major in the Royal Artillery. “I grew up very institutionalised,” he tells me. “English public school, military family, very Christian. Pop music was not deemed as acceptable. I don't necessarily want to be down on my family, because I love my family very much.
“I had been totally against all types of drugs. My mum told me she would disown me if I ever took drugs. And, really, if I had seen someone smoking a spliff I would have called the police. I was very focused on work and anything that took away from that was not cool.”
After school Parry attended the Royal Marines Commando Training Centre. “I kind of ran away,” he explains. “I didn't go to university - I joined the Marines. [That] was an extension and extenuation of home. And that became my new family, if you will. I took on board all their codes and practices.”
His father had not expected him to join the military, so what was it that drove him forward? “I had this yearning, this angst to go and physically push myself to the limit. And so, I wanted to prove myself to the world: that I was a person, a human, a man. So that was the driving force.”
Parry was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant aged 18, and five years later became Head of Fitness and Training. “There is a huge emphasis on us being amazing, and the best, and that we can do anything. There is a lot, in marine officer training, there is a lot of reinforcing of you being superhuman.”
I was still very much the military type
The culture of supremacy of the individual, and as Britain as a nation is - Parry argues - necessary for combat. But it comes at a considerable price, if not for the soldier then for all those who are deemed less than human.
“In the military we have opinions of sectors of society that are not our own, behind closed doors there is quite a lot of vocalising about other sectors of society.” I take this as code for racism, and likely also homophobia. But Parry is careful not to denigrate his former comrades.
At the same time, Parry once again felt a call to adventure. A need to do something other than the expected and the obvious. After six years as lieutenant he left the military. “Some people then carry on in that world, and hence going into the City and they can carry on being like that. But I went a different route”.
He took a job as an exhibition leader at Trekforce, and then led more than 15 expeditions in some of the most extreme and challenging terrains on earth.
“I led these civilian science and conservation expeditions in Asia for about five or six years. I was still very much the military type,” he says. “I was learning about conservation, and learning about the environment from leading these science and conservation trips.
A broader, international understanding of the world
“I worked with tigers, orangutan, turtle, rhino out in Asia on all these different islands, mostly in Indonesia. I guess my motivation at that time was variety and enjoying this wonderfully, extraordinary life of variety and excitement and stimulation.”
The post military life brought Parry into close contact with nature, and also with people from vastly different cultures and backgrounds. But there was one person, a young woman with whom he fell in love, that would change his life fundamentally, and for ever.
“I was very lucky to have a number of girlfriends who allowed me to reflect on my life,” he explains. “They were more normal. Like, ‘Bruce, why are you stood to attention in front of the television?’ The national anthem is on. ‘Get back into bed!’ It was that bad.
“I had a girlfriend who I was very in love with. I was in my mid-twenties. She grew up in other countries, she was half Italian, half Irish and she grew up in the Philippines. So she had a much broader, international understanding of the world.’
Then, one evening, she suggested to Parry that he try an experience that he had always assumed he would never try. “She was like, ‘you would like this’, and somehow…I guess love. She didn't push me or persuade me too strongly. But I ended up taking a massive overdose of magic mushrooms. And then basically my Christianity was over in that moment - it was like that.
I wanted to go to places no-one had been too
“I was completely confident that I was who I was. And then this thing totally turned me upside down. I realised, none of that is the case and there is something very different going on here.”
Parry recovered from the experience. But it had changed the course of his life. “I came back to the UK. All my friends from the Marines had gone into the City and were in this bastion of hierarchical dominant society, and I having had this experience with this girl have come back and then going to festivals and was living a very different kind of life.”
At this time Parry was still very much focussed on adventure, on proving himself. The desire to be above all others, to increase his stature went from the metaphorical to the literal, when he journeyed to Puncak Mandala, the second highest mountain in Australasia.
“I went off at the Millennium to climb this mountain that I had seen on a map on the island of New Guinea in the middle of nowhere and thought, ‘I don't think anyone has ever been there, so I would love to go there’.
“We got sponsored by Ginger Television who gave us some cash and off we went. But the trip at its heart was to go to places that no one had been to, to meet people that no one has met. It was still very much the individual: look at me! Look at what I can do!”
I started living with tribes
The show - Cannibals and Crampons - aired as part of the BBC1 series Extreme Lives in 2002 and launched Parry as a TV adventure presenter. “I got the gig at the BBC. And then I start living with tribes. I had lived with these indigenous people doing the exhibitions over the years, and met these tribal people on the film I had just made when we climbed the mountain. And then I had this realisation.”
Parry believes that the experience of taking magic mushrooms, of opening up a space for a more spiritual understanding of the world, proved useful when making the television programmes, and in relating to people who lived such different lives.
“Having come from this place, having had my worldview turned upside down on a number of occasions, I realised I had better not start jumping up and down saying, ‘I know what's going on here’ because I clearly don’t.
“So that ended up being part of the success of the series - my sort of tolerance of what was going on, and my willingness to listen and understand and just be there and not judge. So that was a really beautiful thing.”
He added: “The more times you look at the world through another person’s set of eyes you have more opportunity to reflect on yourself and your own circumstances and your own society.
Your perceptions are going to shift
“You start see their world, the difficulties they are facing as a result of external pressures, and then you see those external pressures are coming from that the way you live your life. So in time, if you are in any way listening, or aware, or empathic, it's a no-brainer that your perceptions are going to shift so that slowly grew for us.”
Parry for the second series of Tribe lived with communities in Ethiopia, Gabon, India, Indonesia, Mongolia and Venezuela. The second series brought him to Bhutan, Brazil, Malaysia, Polynesia, Siberia and Tanzania.
Parry won the Best Presenter award for Tribe at the Royal Television Society Awards in 2007 and emboldened by the success decided to produce something more hard hitting. The documentary Amazon took on the serious problems facing indigenous people, such as the production of cocaine, oil, wood, and meat - very often for Western markets.
“I did a series down the Amazon where we went and basically looked at globalisation, because we could see the tribal people were suffering, often as a result of external forces - what were these external sources,” he tells me.
“I did meet the loggers and I did meet the miners and they’re great, and I don't have any issue with them - more of an issue with us buying the gold and the wood. The coltan in our phones, all of these things. So the curtain has definitely been ripped back for me looking at our behaviour in the world - and yet, a deeper, wider understanding also comes.”
I did the jungle medicines
I ask him what it feels like to value the culture and philosophy of indigenous people so highly - he is a supporter of Survival International - and see their existence under threat. “It feels very painful, when I really do sit with it. In my day to day life I don't really sit with it enough, but when I do I feel very close to tears - not least because I know people who are suffering as a result.”
Integral to Parry’s learning and experience of indigenous peoples is his willingness to engage in their practices, including the use of powerful drugs. He believes this drug use has given him new insights, but this view was rarely shared by his colleagues at the BBC.
“During my time with these [Amazonian] tribes I had these experiences, I had a moment of relief from my usual perspective. It reminded me of the early mushroom trip. I did these jungle medicines. Iboga, Ayahuasca, Yopo. And I met the Shaman.
“Not only was I living with these indigenous groups, but I was also seeing the world a little bit through their eyes and then having experiences, on occasion, that were really doing something to me on the inside.”
Parry is the archetypal explorer, deep in the forest. He is in direct contact with nature, away from the trappings of ‘civilisation’, and capitalism. But the success of the television programme means he is at the same time being richly rewarded, in the only way capitalism understands.
My life became so fast, so accelerated
He explains. “Money starts coming towards me, and attention starts coming towards me, and having public attention too. So, my life goes off on a very fast and weird trajectory which was impossible to prepare for and very hard to understand from the outside. It’s a very interesting and complex experience.”
He adds: “The hardest thing is you walk with this sort of perfect veneer around you … people just think you're amazing. My life just became so fast, so accelerated. I moved to Ibiza. I would come back and I am being introduced to 20 people a day.
“There's this team, this mountain of people, taking me to these places, organising everything for me, … every day there is a new stimulation, every day there is new excitement and everyday a new horizon and new group of people, then back home so there's extraordinarily rapid road to stimulation overload.
“My life and my understanding are going in two very different directions. I am understanding about community and simplicity. But then my life is about rapid-fire celebrity and money and all that.”
If dealing with the contrast between deep forest and Ibiza beach life was not enough, Parry then decided to take himself off to the South Pole, to film Blizzard - Race to the Poll. “I pretended to be Captain Scott and I went across Greenland for three months with a team of dogs and a team of people. Greenland is flat for 3,000 miles as far as the eye can see in every direction.”
The sense of empathic connection
He explains: “You get out of your tent and every day it’s just flat white - no trees, no foliage, no birds - no stimulation at all. You can’t even talk to your friend because the wind is blowing and you have to cover your face. You're in your head, all day.
“I went fucking insane. I really felt like my life is trickling through my fingers. Time has slowed down to zero. The sun never went down because it’s just around our heads. It was a sense of timelessness drifting into oblivion. I went mad.”
Parry at this time decided to take some much needed time out. The rest allowed him to process and try and come to terms with some of the intense experiences he had lived through. It was then that he began to think that the tribes had lessons to share that really were of epochal importance. This came from a “sense of expansion, the sense of empathic connection”.
The people around him remained sceptical, often putting it down to the drugs he had taken. So rather than resting, he began researching. He turned to the academic community to try and understand and give context to what he had experienced.
“I saw this lecture, a TedTalk by a lady called Jill Bolte Taylor who has this brain trauma on the left hand side of her brain, called, ‘My Stroke of Insight’," he tells me.
My addiction to stimulation
“It's about a left and right hemisphere; how the language centre gets shut down, and how she then feels; she looks at her hand and can't see any difference between the molecules of her own hand and the rest of the world around her; and this sense of expansion. ‘Oh My God, that’s the experience that I've been having doing these things - and here is how this scientist talking about it, that's amazing’.”
He also turned to more traditional routes to understanding, at the behest of his increasingly concerned friends. “Because my addiction to simulation was getting so excessive, I had a dear friend who basically almost handcuffed me and took me to a meditation retreat and said, ‘you just have to have this’. And it totally changed my life. It absolutely did.”
During the period of reflection, he keeps remembering the Penan, the last indigenous group he had been living with during the filming of Tribe. “I just remembering there was something so, so unique about them - and it wasn't just that they were the only nomadic hunter gatherers, because I got that, there was a rational explanation for that.
“I did more research into these groups, and met the anthropologists that know about these particular groups. And then I was like, ‘okay yes, something emerging here that I need to make a film about that’.”
The teachings of the Penan. The feeling of empathy from taking Ayahuasca. The expansive experience of the neuroscientist. Parry felt that he was arriving at a deeper truth, and decided he simply must make a film about it. His mission changed from one of proving himself to the world, instead he wanted to prove he had discovered something of real importance.
“I had a theory. I realised it was backed up by now because I had done my research. And also it relates to all of us. It relates to our history. And our future,” he explains.
“I find it to be incredibly compelling and it certainly helped me in my life and I feel in the space we are now in this world where we are looking for answers and we realise there is stuff going on, I feel this is a piece of the jigsaw that’s absolutely essential.“
Tomorrow: Bruce Parry talks exclusively about the valuable insight he gained from the Penan tribe which may provide an answer to the individual anxiety, the social uncertainty and environmental catastrophe of our times.