Dr Bunhead - the Very Best Man

Dr Bunhead, aka Tom Pringle was first, my sparing partner at the Plymouth Judo Club but our competitive tendencies began to quickly impinge on all areas of our lives and lead us to act upon a number of increasingly risky, down right dangerous and sometimes unbelievably stupid challenges. Using my superior intelligence, I placed myself in the role of Indi-point master (an idea we dreamt up after watching Indiana Jones in 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' whereby fantastical feats of skill, endurance and cunning were rewarded with Indi-points for sheer audacity and vivaciousness). Over the years we matched each other stride for stride, smashing up pianos, leap-frogging for miles through the city, sitting 12 hours in an industrial freezer all to raise funds, climbing the public library naked, mid-night swimming in stormy winter seas, walking 65 miles up and down the A38 non stop from Plymouth to Exeter, kayaking around East Greenland, enjoying the mid night sun in Arctic Norway, hitchhiking randomly across the country (and sometimes not getting very far at all) and best of all beating up Colin Rook 'the magnificent' on the Devon Schools judo circuit when we were around 15 years old. 

My points scoring system, as I mentioned was criminally suspect and highly biased, favouring myself from the outset and placing Tom in the unenviable situation of always having to outperform me, and himself in each subsequent act of outrageous stupidity. He eventually triumphed but to no particular acclaim. I finally gave up when fear overtook the senses and I refused to traverse the high reaches of a small suspension bridge in Bath during our years at university. However, Tom seemed to unilaterally thrive on ever more wacky and mind boggling challenges and has subsequently broken a number of world records for truly ridiculous feats. He also renamed himself Dr Bunhead as he turned his passion for the sublime and ridiculous into a business. He now delights school kids across the globe in blowing up, setting fire to, and practically destroying anything he can lay his hands upon in the name of science. He earnestly claims, it is all done in the name of educating kids but I suspect he just never wanted to grow up or conform to society's expectations of what a scientist is all about.  His two stories, setting fire to his own head and drowning himself in Xenon gas are amongst my all time favourites, though his vast repository of madcap adventures, truly deserve a book/blog of their own. 


Dr. Bunhead setting flame in his head
Dr. Bunhead setting flame in his hand


I am allowing him just a short space herewith, lest he upstage me again, this time in public!! Oh! And finally his oratorical skills are exemplary and I could never allow his best man speech at my wedding go to waste;

Why are you reading this nostalgic, self-indulgent essay on my relationship with Gary? More to the point, why am I writing it? Well, I'm being paid, so my motivation is financial gain, rather than friendship. I am pimping my writing skills to blow another man's trumpet, as it were. I'm earning this week's meals as a low-grade biographer to a man that, in coronavirus 2020, can barely cover his own family's needs.


Relationship of Rivals

Gary Campbell is an idiot; a deeply learned soul who manages to convince almost everyone he is an incompetent fool. To know Gary is to spend much time in the company of a jovial potato. Christened Gary Bell, he is the sort of person that would take his wife's surname to fulfil her father's desire to carry the family name forward. When they married in 1993, patriarchal values viewed this as quite a sacrifice. I was quietly impressed by this clear act of devotion to his wife, Jill, and this flicking of two fingers to authority. However, rather than praise him, I insisted he was selfishly distancing himself from the treacherous slaughter of MacDonald clan members at the Massacre of Glencoe. Our rivalry runs deep enough that I have determined never to praise him. I am not about to break the habit of our forty year friendship. Not for any of his endless string of incredible endeavours and sacrifices, his depth of reading, worldly travels, his willingness to understand others, his humility, self-deprecating wit, nor any of his other manifold qualities, shall I show an ounce of admiration.  Rivalry is at the core of our friendship.  One-man-upmanship has fuelled our camaraderie since we met, in 1980.


First Meeting First Beating

I was fifteen. He was stupid, and the same age.  The first thing we did was fight.  I beat him.  Or did I?  Memories favour the story-teller.  Truth is, I can't remember anything other than I would have wanted to have beaten him, and him me. We were both fiercely competitive, brightly academic, joyfully immature, disdainful of authority and mad keen on judo. We met on the tatame (judo mat) at the dojo (gym) of Plymouth Judo Club. We liked the exoticness of the Japanese language and the disciplined physicality of the sport. If Gary beat me it would not have been because he was better than me but because he was fatter than me. Quite a bit, I like to think, hence the school nickname Pigsy. I thought it was harsh but he did remind me of the character from the superb Chinese TV series 'Monkey' - a rollicking yarn based on the sixteenth-century Chinese novel "Journey to the West" which recounts the irreverent Monkey King's enforced journey to enlightenment through martial arts, magic, mysticism and mayhem; our four favourite 'm's.  Buddhist sayings were sprinkled throughout this overdubbed series. We loved repeating them back in the Chinese accents we'd learnt from TV.

"The father Buddha said 'With our thoughts we make the world'"

These scriptural seeds grew into our earliest philosophical ping pong matches that have cemented our multi-faith fascination ever since. Whilst Gary threw all his eggs into the basket of Catholicism I remained resolutely agnostic - perhaps more suspicious of alleged authority than him.


Different Paths Same Destination

Our disdain for authority may well be born of our shared desire to become authorities! Our wish to unravel the deepest mysteries of life through our own exploration of all areas of spiritual practice, but tied to none.  However, neither of us succeeded in going it alone.  We both found an anchor.  Gary through his daily Christian faith and myself through my daily meditation practice.  Both have failed to divorce ourselves from any form of external spiritual reference point.  Both obsessed, in some way, with these chosen beliefs and practices that make sense of the senselessness of existence.  I think devoting a whole website (MOLL-Y) to a memory-trick, tour-guide of Christian text in York is way up there in the obsession stakes.  For all our obsessions, our only enlightenment has been the realisation that we are further from enlightenment than we ever realised before.


Keeping Score

The need to outdo one another intensified into other areas of our friendship. In summer 1981, we burst out the cinema doors chanting the theme tune to the block buster "Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark". Full of gusto we re-enacted scenes; Gary dangled from the top of the multi-storey car park whilst I gently stamped on his fingers until the look of wild fear filled his eyes.  In that moment 'Indi Points' were born. The formal basis of our rivalry had arrived. Either of us would suggest a stunt they felt the other could not achieve, such as climbing a civic building, possibly unclothed. Both would then embark upon the task. Indi Points would be awarded for the most rash abuses of our teenage mortality. We did some really stupid, scary and dangerous things. We laughed a lot. We didn't die. We didn't feel fear so much back then. I like to think I won those earlier Indi Point challenges.


A Bit About Jill

Years later Gary met Jill and he became a better man. Jill is an incredible woman. This isn't about her, yet it is. Because without Jill I don't think Gary would have achieved some of his most extraordinary feats of his life. Jill and their wonderful kids (now adults) Josh and Hannah make up many other chapters. Amongst Gary's family chapters many stand out. Above them all, for me, were the ten years Gary and Jill battled an ugly and powerful paedophile ring in Ethiopia. The endless court cases, threats to their livelihoods and lives, escalated as they doggedly pursued the case against a popular children's charity through to the highest levels of society. As I read Gary's accounts, week after month after year, I felt increasingly fearful for them. Yet they never quit. I have never seen anyone so determined to stick together to do the right thing, irrespective of personal cost. I take off my Indi Point hat to both of them. I am not a man of faith but I believe it was their deep faith, especially Jill's, that carried them through those long, dark years. Even now, when Gary writes to me from war zones with bombs exploding gently around his compound I feel less concerned for his safety, and less likely to concede my Indi Point hat.


Gary Campbell with best man tom

The Hundred Mile Journey

In the Dao De Jing, chapter 64, Jing Lao Tzu declares

The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step


Gary the jovial potato, comes across as a man who doesn't care and doesn't push himself.  Neither are true.  Underneath that starchy persona is a super potato waiting for the call to do the right thing.  I first caught sight of his determination and loyalty around 1983.  We were both clearly keen on exploring and pushing ourselves. At 17 years old I had joined the British Schools' Exploring Society expedition to Eastern Greenland. A year later Gary joined them for a, clearly, less adventurous trip to Norway, actually to the Norwegian archipelago Svalbard.  This was the same place a BSES member was avoidably and tragically killed by a starving, emaciated polar bear in 2011. I look back now at how differently we viewed danger. On those trips we had both helped each other fund-raise and train. Whilst I had  leap-frogged around Plymouth dressed as frog to raise sponsorship Gary had himself locked in an industrial freezer to raise income and awareness. We both enjoyed playing the clown card whilst tackling our challenges.


Through Thick and Thin

At 18 years old I had resolved to walk my first Long Distance Walkers Association (LDWA) Hundred. This year's challenge was a hundred miles across Dartmoor in under 48 hours. I had no idea how it felt to walk so far and without sleep. Gary agreed to help me find out, and ensure that I didn't die in the process. The plan was to walk along a busy dual carriageway from Plymouth to Exeter for 12 hours and then walk back. With no more thought than that we headed off with a rucksack, flask, some sandwiches and 2p for the phone-box in case of emergency. We headed for the A38 to measure our 24 hour walking capacity. 60 miles in, with bleeding blisters and hallucinations we discovered the answer. Gary stuck by me the whole way, because that's what friend do.


Another time, I was return cycling the 80 odd miles from Plymouth to Exeter and back. Fifteen miles out of Plymouth I spotted Gary dejectedly pushing his broken moped in the belting heat. I stopped to chat. His spirits lifted. Then I looked at my watch and realised that I was losing too much time and abandoned him without a thought, because that's what friends do.


Like Peter Pan

There were so many things that we did as friends together in those intense teen years. Egging each other on, listening to each others' stupid ideas in order to prove our own idea was better. One of my happiest memories was wild-water swimming in the sea off Plymouth Hoe during pitch black winter nights. Back when it was just called swimming.  We would walk the five miles, meeting each other on the way, collecting Timbo Orsman. Those were the days you could wear Speedos without being screamed at for the fashion crime of being a 'budgie smuggler' or accused of being a sex pest. In those icy black waters, great plumes of trippy-blue bio-luminescent diatoms would spark flares of light with every splash and stroke. It was gloriously magical. We would then shiver our way as fast as possible to Captain Jaspers burger bar for mugs of sweet steaming tea, biscuits and burgers.  We spent almost all or free time together.


All Change

Then it all changed.  Gary went to university (Loughborough) a year before me. I hung about for one more expedition before heading to Bath University. We didn't see each other the same way anymore. To his credit Gary visited. Not like a normal human being. He hitch-hiked from Loughborough to Bath and arrived around 3am, climbing through my bedroom window so as not to wake my flatmates. We wrestled half naked across the landing and saw nothing homo-erotic in it at all. We were still too busy trying to beat each other.


I saw even less of Gary as he left the UK for VSO experiences in impoverished countries trying to make a difference by deploying his civil engineering degree. Throughout that time I started to hear about this friend Jill he would hang out with. In 1993, Gary invited me to his wedding with his new pal Robin as best man and Jill as his wife.


I was devastated. I always thought I was his best man. I spoke nothing of my sadness at this handsome interloper stealing my wedding role. He was such a kind and charming man. So whilst I was annoyed at him I actually liked him a great deal. But not enough to be any less than delighted when he became so sick he was unable to deliver the best man speech. At very short notice I was once again not only Gary's best mate I was also his best man. I scribbled some thoughts down and spoke about Gary and Jill. I can't remember what I said but Jill and Gary were happy. That was one of the proudest days of my young life.

27 years later I'm writing this with floods of memories filling the intervening years. My 2,000 words are complete and now I want my cheque. Though, in truth, my friendship with Gary has been priceless. Even after 40 years I still feel that irreverent teenage enthusiasm when we are in touch. If there is anything meaningful or truly valuable in life that I can count on it's finding true friendship.


Thank you Gary for being a true friend.

You are an idiot.