It was the spectacular indifference of the UK business community, patronage we’d naïvely assumed would be a shoe-in considering the Unique Selling Point on offer, which sowed the early seeds of demise with the boat builders. Steve was sending them as much money as he could. Even so, by Christmas, proper compensation for their efforts was looking no more likely than it had a year previously. Hugo and Chris were becoming understandably disgruntled, and relations were stretched to breaking point.
Our visits to help work on the boat didn’t improve matters. As well as being ham-fisted with power tools, we unknowingly dragged them into working their weekends when all they really wanted was to be taken out to the pub and rewarded for their efforts.
Like the proud parents of an angelic child whom the rest of the world sees as an abomination demanding never-ending attention, Steve and I had fallen into the trap of assuming that everyone working on the project – which already bore the hallmarks of a Frankenstein monster – shared the same enthusiasm of working long hours and drawing unemployment to keep body and soul together.
Money troubles aside, in January Steve decided Hugo needed to be relieved of his role as support team leader, a position that involved transporting a camera crew and supplies through the wilds of Siberia. The boat builder’s fierce independence, natural distrust of authority, and caustic satire made for amusing repartee, but for occasions when everyone needed to be singing from the same hymn sheet, they were considered potential liabilities.
Steve and I drove down from London to the Marshwood Vale for a meeting with Hugo at The Bottle Inn, home of the world-famous nettle eating competition – an appropriate venue for the task at hand. Having known him since the age of five, I asked to be the one to break the grim news. Also, I knew of Hugo’s particular dislike of Steve’s self-styled leadership, and having been through similar ordeals letting band members go in years gone by, I knew it best to tell a person straight up, giving the reasons afterwards.
My request, however, was denied. As expedition leader, Steve wanted to do it himself.
It was dark by the time we arrived. The public bar, with its low oak beams and smoke-stained ceiling, was near empty. We bought a round of Palmers IPA and planted ourselves on a pair of stools next to a roaring fire. Ten minutes later Hugo breezed in, ordered a pint, and took a stool opposite. The atmosphere bristled with tension. He knew something was up.
Steve began: “Is there anything about your attitude, or approach to being support team leader, you feel needs to change, Hugo?”
Oh no, I thought, not a trick question. Just tell him he’s off the team!
Hugo cocked his head to one side and twiddled his waxed moustache. “Err… nope.” He looked nonplussed. “Can’t think of anything.”
Half an hour later, the meeting broke down, everyone bent out of shape. Poor old Hugo stormed off into the night, unsure of what was being asked of him. Steve was exasperated with Hugo for remaining stubborn enough not to submit to self-critique. I was furious with Steve for essentially trying to get Hugo to sack himself.
Would it have made a difference being more upfront? Who knows. Either way the result was the same, and the fallout horrendous. A childhood friendship between Hugo and I was forfeit. Our parents, who had known each other for decades, were forced to take sides. To cap it all, relations between Steve and I were badly strained, leaving the smouldering embers for future resentment to flare.
Chris was also put in a difficult position. Obliged by his friendship with Hugo to down tools, he was forced to make an impossible decision: show solidarity with his boat-building partner and walk off the job, or stand by his commitment to a project he felt proud to be a part of, and ultimately responsible to. Not least, because the very thing he and Hugo were creating, in a sense, defined it.
Fortunately for the expedition, he chose the latter. But it cost him a friendship too.
All Rights Reserved – © 2012 Jason Lewis