Leon McCarron: “You never feel more alive than when you are about to fall off a cliff in China”

Veteran adventurer and Kent graduate, Leon McCarron, opened this year’s series of open lectures at the University of Kent with a dynamic tale of guns, tornadoes and opportunity.

Leon McCarron was just weeks into his trip when he was held at gunpoint. His only route of escape was towards a tornado.

The Northern Irish adventurer had barely started what was to become a 14,000 mile journey from New York to Hong Kong when he was offered a bed for the night in the American Midwest.

He was later told how all non-Americans should be shot and shown into a shed lined with hundreds of guns.

Speaking at the University of Kent tonight, he recalled: “He then cocked [the gun] and pointed it at my head. It took about three days to sink in […] I was physically shaking on my bike.”

The Kent alumnus then attempted to escape by road but was chased towards an oncoming tornado, forcing him to run blindly through farmland.

He eventually found refuge in the basement of an elderly couple.

Surprisingly, Leon is still confident of the good of strangers, insisting he recounts the tale to highlight his positive experiences.

He said: “I am a firm believer that 99 per cent of the world’s population are good and are there to look after each other.”

“There are nutters out there, but with a bit of common sense [it’s fine]. This was the only negative experience I’ve had.”

McCarron has travelled over 17,000 miles by both foot and bike, recording his adventures in film and print.

He has cycled from New York to Hong Kong alone, walked from Mongolia to Hong Kong and is currently planning a trek through Oman.

However, speaking at this year’s first open lecture, he denied that adventure had been a lifelong ambition.

He explained: “This is what I do with my life now, it’s a real vocation and it happened really organically – I didn’t want to be an adventurer.”

“I didn’t know what to do with my life when I left school. I picked film as I thought that would be an easy three years of watching movies and cheap cinema tickets.”

It was more than a year after graduating that McCarron decided to combine his love of bikes and camera in adventure.

He has since battled temperatures as low as -50, been arrested more than 15 times and lasted 16 days without a wash.

Reflecting on his experiences, he said: “The world really is an exciting place. There’s something really liberating about being on a bike and experiencing the world for myself.

He added: “Opportunities come in lots of forms; it’s so easy to say no because of real change or security but embrace opportunity and embrace change”.

“You never feel more alive than when you are about to fall off a cliff in China.”

Pictures from leonmccarron.com

Sky News Day 20: That’s all for now folks…

Something very distressing has happened. I’ve finished my placement at Sky News and can no longer bend the truth when speaking to rich men in cocktails bars about where I “work”. There”ll be no more looks of outraged horror from those who believe they work for “principled” news companies (he worked for a bank, I think I had the moral high ground personally) or free shots from those who’re willing to take the ethical gamble. No longer can I have sophisticated chats about my “occupation” with business men on the train or expect the Devonshire taxi driver to exclaim “you’re the lady from Sky!” as I attempt to stumble home after one too many ciders. But perhaps even more distressing than all that, is that my time at one of the forefront international news operations in the UK has come to a close.

How best to follow a month a Sky News? Holidaying in the South of France of course!

Working at Sky has genuinely been one of the most amazing experiences of my life. I’ve got to spend four weeks not just residing in the amazing environment that is Sky News, but actually doing things and seeing the end result. I’m quite concious that throughout these blog posts it might have appeared as if I haven’t done a lot, as I’ve been very aware that an “I’ve done this today” list would make extremely dull reading. Seeing as this is the last one, I thought I’d break the rules a bit, just to prove I haven’t been sat on my bum eating Wispas and chocolate cake.

I’ve booked scores of interviews, made so many phone calls I started to think the phone was an extension of my ear and researched until I thought my eyes were bleeding.  I’ve written scripts for radio, for Kay Burley and even today, the last day, I wrote a script to accompany the Olympics summary graphic. I’ve made things to go in the iPad app, I’ve commissioned graphics for on TV and even told the graphics designers how to do them. I’ve worked at the Olympics, accepted the title of general dogsbody and rushed bottles of water to more famous people than you can shake a stick it. And I’ve loved every single second of it.

Alright, there have been days where I’ve felt so tired and ill I’ve wanted to cry, working a part time job on the side hasn’t been easy and there have been times when it seems like nothing working and I’ve wanted to bang my head several times against a steel reinforced concrete wall. But absolutely none of that takes anything away from the absolutely insane experience I’ve had these past four weeks.  It’s been no secret to people who know me that I haven’t always been sure I’ve been doing the right thing but this whole process has really shown me that this is what I want to spend the rest of my life doing. And looking back, the only thing I can say with any certainty, is I’ll be back.

Keep up with what I’m doing next on my Twitter or have a look at The Medwire, my student newspaper!

Ps. I’d just like to say thank you to everyone who’s been reading these blogs. I’ve been stunned by the number of people who’ve checked them out and even left me messages to say how proud they are of me. I just hope I haven’t bored you all too much!

Sky News Day 19: There’s an app for that (and I made it)

I hate iPhones.  I hate Macs.  I hate iPads. And I especially hate the iFags who do absolutely nothing else with their lives other than stare at an Apple manufactured screen, occasionally prodding it in the smug self-satisfaction that they have enough Apple products to start an extended family, whilst still craving more. I, on the other hand, have to make do with a “mere” Nokia and you can almost see the distaste flowing from every orifice in their body as I pull it from my pocket. I’m not quite sure where my hatred came from, or where it started, but I can feel my heart sink whenever a new acquaintance reveals an iGadget.  Upon discovering that my boyfriend is the proud owner of  an iPad, iPod and currently lusting for both an Mac and an iPod I nearly ended it there and then. Restraining myself slightly I settled for a rant in front of most of his family about how’d I’d never shell out the best part of a grand on some hyped up piece of metal. Then I went to Sky’s iPad department.

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Whilst it probably goes without saying that there are a lot of iPads floating around in the Sky News iPad department, I was a little bit surprised to handed my own for the day, as a seemingly necessary prerequisite for the job.  I mean, you can’t spend ALL your time working on one app? After I’d got over the fact that I was holding the devil itself and had a bit of prod around myself, I finally had a chance to look around. There are at least 15 people working on content for one app which only works on one device which was only launched a few years ago. They even have their own news reader who records specific bulletins. Either Sky have gone clinically insane or I guess this must be kind of a big deal.

The whole place is like a mini newsroom in itself. They record and upload live TV onto the app, run two separate unique bulletins from their own mini studio, supply a constant stream of articles and create more interactive slideshows and features than you can shake a stick at. Whilst none of them really get the chance to leave and do any proper on the ground journalism, there’s a really nice element of creativity with app building which you don’t get elsewhere. It doesn’t really get more creative than being asked to make a fact file on a Russian cult leader no one know anything about or has ever seen. By the time I’ve made my second feature (a pictorial history of women’s boxing if you’re interested), I find myself absently mindedly checking how much the damn things cost and wondering why more of my friends don’t have one so I can show off what I did. Just no one tell my boyfriend.

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Sky News Day 18: Olympics conversion complete

I must confess, I’m an Olympics convert,  though I’m not quite sure if it was by choice.  I started off two weeks ago unable to muster the enthusiasm even to watch the opening ceremony,  probably muttering something along the lines of “pissing non-existent money down the drain whilst cutting actual benefits”. Then I spent a month with Sky. They seem to have spent their entire working and resting lives with another screen open, frantically checking just in case some more tickets drop and huddled around the BBC big screens every time something big was happening. Or in fact even when something big wasn’t happening. In the end I gave in and bought some Paralympic fencing tickets.

At least the boyfriend was happy with my weak willpower…

 Now I’ll happily sit there, glued to the screen and watching something I don’t really have the faintest clue about, crying as they belt out the national anthem and squealing at just how cute everyone involved is, (I blame you for this Murdoch). Yet if you thought the transformation stopped at just throwing aside all of my cherished left wing views, oh how wrong you’d be. Royal Mail, our beloved national post service, have pledged to paint a golden postbox for every single golden winner at London 2012 and what’s more they’ll even get a special stamp with their name, picture and event on. My task for the day at the online desk – find out everything you’d ever want to know about every single one of our golden athletes and a couple of groovy action shots and hey presto – we can make a golden postbox map of the UK!

The idea itself is actually pretty swish and seeing as we’ve accrued some 29 gold medals, you wouldn’t think it to be that lengthy of a task. Then you realise that a lot of these medals are won in team sports and you can fit a hell of a lot of people in one boat. Suddenly your number of profiled personalities jumps to 42 and you realise just how hard it is to find an action shot of just the one guy in the boat of four. Thus my day in online evaporated into a flurry of research and all of a sudden it was coming up to six o’clock. Now, not only do I have the pleasure of looking at the gallery map on the Sky News website and thinking, “I pretty much did that” I also know everything there is to know about our top performing athletes. If you’re going to be an Olympic geek, you’ve got to at least do it properly.

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Here is the gallery in screenshot form, just in case you’re interested.

Don’t forget you can still follow me on Twitter for all the latest updates!

Sky News Day 16/17: Going live in ten, please cease all your bodily functions

If you imagine Sky News as the big glamorous diva, with lovely open plan studios to lounge in and hundreds of people checking on her to see if she’s okay, Sky News Radio is definitely the runt of the family. There’s a meagre collection of staff, struggling to break into double figures, who run the whole show from a tiny little side room with no windows and pretty much no contact with the outside world of “Murdoch Empire”. In fact, when I was given my tour three weeks ago, radio was pointed out with a hushed voice and the wave of the hand; the kind of wave that actually means “it’s scary and weird in there so we don’t go in but just point at it instead”. Safe to say radio isn’t scary at all, it’s just TV without the pictures, though they do look a bit light deprived.

Okay, yea, I just didn’t have a better picture

Sky News Radio is a bit of a weird one, it’s essentially regular news bulletins for stations which are either too lazy or too cash strapped to make their own and also offers scripts and sound bites on an astronomical amount of the news agenda, so they can add their own dash of creativity. As a very lovely man who sails the ship from 4am to 12pm explains this all to me, I can’t help feeling like a bit of a smart arse; if there’s one thing doing a Bob Friend Scholarship proposal properly teaches you, it’s every single one of their fifty squillion outputs. Here’s to hoping that actually doing your research on the company and offering some free hot chocolate vouchers makes you look like a nice and engaged person and not a know it all knob.

Sitting in on some live broadcasts presented yet another problem; I appear to have developed what can only be described as the shittiest illness in the world to have in a recording studio complete with continuous outpourings of snot, phlegm and the general appearance of death. I’d also forgotten to take advantage of the Travelodge all you can eat breakfast (I say forgotten, narrowly avoided disaster is probably a better phrase) so aside from contending with unruly coughs, splutters and sneezes there’s also the growing growl of a stomach, which if anyone asks is definitely not mine. I’m quite relieved when they actually give me some writing to do, so I can snivel away without the worry of it being heard by millions of people nationwide. I’m even more relieved when the boss man tells me it’s perfect and he couldn’t have done it better himself. Ka-boom.

Sky New Day 14/15: I wrote it, Kay Burley said it

Whilst I’d like to think I’m not one to brag about my achievements, if any, I’m also not ashamed to admit that I do like them to be known. It can sound a somewhat contradictory notion, but to me it seems perfectly achievable. I want my byline on the piece, so I can prove it’s mine and justifiably slap it down on the table mid job interview and say that was mine, I did it, all by my little old self. But by the same token I’m not looking to ram it down anybody’s throat. One of the things which has always left me slightly dubious about working within broadcasting is that though I’m not searching for the limelight and gagging to get in front of the camera, I’m not quite comfortable with the idea a lot of hard work goes generally uncredited and is completely untraceable.

I guess she can be the star of her show if she wants too..

Working with a production team was always going to be a test of that attitude; everything you do goes into the programme and there’s not so much of a closing credit to say what you did and getting to work on some of the NIBs to be read out in the bulletin was perhaps one of the weirdest experiences I’ve had at Sky so far. They’re hardly substantial; about 15 seconds of text to be read out over the top of some live visuals by the presenter, who just so happens to be Kay Burley. Having edited and written a few myself I didn’t really think much of the whole anonymous affair until whilst rushing around like a blue arsed fly trying to get graphics for the latest  British golds (oh yea, GO TEAM GB!!! The Olympics makes into an excitable and hormonal teenager all at once) I happened to hear Kay Burley reading something that I wrote earlier on. And, I have to admit it made a bit of a funny feeling in my stomach and I felt kind of proud; something I’d never have expected.

This blog post is verging on the territory of deep and meaningful, which I’m concious to avoid like a runaway lion, but it seems to me there’s merit to being part of the bigger picture. There’s no way that journalism on a large scale can be achieved by one person alone and being just one of those tiny cogs that help make it all happen can actually feel quite rewarding, there’s even a weird sense of pride found in the fact that no one else know what you did. Perhaps sometimes, it’s alright to leave the limelight to Mz Burley.

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Sky News Day 12/13: Let’s all tune in to the BBC…

Working for the Sky during the Olympics has got to be one of the weirdest experiences of my journalistic career so far and not just because it’s only one of the biggest sporting events ever and just, y’know, that massive news powerhouse that is Sky News. Even with my own meagre experience of filming for television, it has always been a case of find a story and asking yourself “do these pictures work?” Pictures are paramount to television news; who’s going to sit watch and watch the same voice simply read a couple of headlines  over and over again, only to be intercepted by some dullish men in suits saying equally dull things. They really do make or break a story; things that barely get a look in on radio are instantly bumped up the running order due to amazing footage and vitally important updates are glided over when there’s truly no hope of a good visual; hence the trouble in covering the EU financial crisis.

I’d probably have found it more weird that all of Sky HQ was glued to these two on the beeb if I wasn’t so gripped myself

And whilst you make the think the Olympics poses little problem, with every possible coverage right afforded to the BBC, Sky is faced with a massive conundrum; how to keep the viewers watching when you can’t show ANY footage of the events at all. And it’s not like the Olympics is one of those things you can just shunt off to the side. It’s an exceptionally weird feeling to be sat in a Sky newsroom watching almost the entire room huddled around a screen with the BBC on. Yet whilst many reporters, including myself on occasion, have sat and bemoaned some of the more ridiculous regulations around the event, I think there could actually be some good to come of it. I’ve spent pretty much the entirety of the last two days, along with the rest of the team at Sky, chasing alternative locations, different guests and brainstorming creatively to try and achieve the best possible output with what we’ve got. Whilst I’m not for a minute suggesting that our coverage wouldn’t immensely improve if we were to have some live shots or that things won’t instantly change back after the games, I can’t help but think this catalyst for creativity must surely be bringing some good for the broadcasting future.

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Sky News Day 11: How to make a news story without any pictures..

As happens often in the wonderful land of Sky News, plans are subject to change at the very last minute.  When I rocked up at 8am this morning I fully expected to be working with Kate McAndrew’s afternoon team, turns out I’d instead been shafted to the Live at Five posse once more and faced with the wonderful conundrum of how to illustrate a story when you don’t have any pictures. After the initial mind-blowing concept of creating a broadcast piece without even the measliest of stills, you eventually come to the notion that clearly the piece will be based around some pretty snazzy graphics. But just because you can get some computer genius in the back room to knock up something quick doesn’t mean to say that you’ve solved you’re problem.

To be honest, even I found my eyes wandering to Jimmy’s jewels..

How do you keep an audience entertained when all you’re showing them is some pretty moving lines instead of picture of the late Jimmy Saville’s auction, or whatever else happens to be showing on BBC news at the time? The problem get’s even worse when you realise you’re working on a story centred around the financial problems within the EU – it’s hard enough to get people to listen to that even when you do have pictures. It genuinely does call for some pretty creative thinking, in an area of journalistic work I’d never really considered  and it’s a problem Sky are contending with a lot recently after the BBC were awarded sole coverage rights within the Olympic park.

The man I’m shadowing, Steve, seems to be a pro at the whole thing though and is keen to get the whole gig together without the need for any stats, figures or even words and comes up with some pretty creative ideas involving scissors, falling cranes and the reorganisation of the world map. Crazy as it all may sound, it works, and an advantage I’d never really thought of before sitting at the pre-production end of a Sky graphic is that you can simply write your script to fit whatever it is you dream up on screen. What I hadn’t expected was how long it takes, even for certified graphical whizz kids to make the damn things and how difficult it can be to convey what you actually want. Moral of the story? Because an all-singing-all-dancing one man band and do the whole thing yourself.*

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*This is not to say that the graphics team are not the most talented people in the world ever, just seems like being able to do lots of good stuff is a good skill lots of people want.

Sky News Day 10: Jem Collins, Olympics Runner

Ever since I started at Sky people have been asking me what my best day has been so far, but I’ve held off answering in anticipation of today. When I’ve explained that I’m waiting on Sky’s Olympic coverage I think I’ve probably, and somewhat inadvertently, given a false impression of glamour and living the high life. That’s not to say that my day at Tower Bridge was not, quite frankly, amazing but it’s probably one of the longest and hardest slogs I’ve ever experienced. The day was always going to be an interesting one, particularly given our rather alternative choice  in venue, but I don’t think even I predicted how I’d be practically passing out on the way to Cambridge on Friday evening.

If only I’d have had my camera. . .

 Luckily, and somewhat exhaustingly for me, it seemed Sky News were short of a runner for the day, which unlike the title’s glamorous Olympian counterpart, basically consists of becoming a general dogsbody for everyone who happens to show up. It’s one thing running “as much water as you can carry” down to Kay Burley and her team on a normal day, but trust me, running it down to the middle of a tower bridge so crowded you start to question if you actually had had claustrophobia all along from the eighth floor of a hotel on a stiflingly muggy London day is an entirely different kettle of fish.  I’ve lost count of the hours spent queuing in Starbucks getting vanilla lattes and bottles of coke and juggling them through posh hotel lobbies and the number of guest’s I’ve shown to the green room and poured tea for.

Whilst I never really had a “star-struck” phase, I’m now starting to find it almost the norm to see Jeremy Hunt and Ken Livingstone just causally rocking up and I’ve even started to develop a “Sky voice”. I’ve always been hugely influenced by accents, which I discovered the hard way after coming out of a summer school with a strange mix of welsh and Mancunian and now it seems I’m sounded more and more like an Oxford posh boy every day. All the same, I’m pleasantly surprised to find that I am actually enjoying myself, somewhat comforting to know in a world where you’re guaranteed to start at the bottom of the pile.

Sky News Day 9: I really hope no one looks at my emails today…

It’s always a bit weird when you’re thrown into somewhere new just for the day; it’s hard to prove your worth and make an impression in such a limited space of time and you’re unable to take on any meaty, long term projects. Thus, I must admit, it was with a certain amount of apprehension that I turned up to work with Live at Five for the day. Well, and the fact that Sara may or may not have convinced me to drink a lot of gin based substances last night. As it happens though, Live at Five is very much a “we’ll sort it on the day programme”, depending on the news agenda and how it changes, meaning that I could get stuck into phone bashing just as much as everyone else.

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Here’s just some of the fun I’ve been having outside of work… I would give you work related photos but seeing as I’ve smashed my phone up I can’t take any, so this will have to do.

My first tasks of the day involved locating a family in either Bristol or Bath who’d be willing to talk about their soaring energy costs, whilst simultaneously hunting down a foreign businessperson who’d decided to set up a new tech company in the UK, but outside London, and is able to talk about the impact of the Olympics. Now, I’d like you to take a good long look at both of those different criteria. Standard family. Foreign businessman with more weird prerequisites than you can write on the back of a shopping receipt. Now which of those do you think would be hard to find and which of them should be as easy as most of the population of Medway? (I’m  aware the more astute amongst you know exactly where this is going).

Three phone calls later a lovely man from Thames Valley Chamber of Commerce is able to get me in contact with a Canadian businessman who’s happy to talk. He set up his techy business in Reading about a year ago and not only is he willing to talk about the impact of the Olympics this time round, his business was in Vancouver when they had the Olympics there. What seems like fifty million calls and emails later, neither me or my colleague have managed to find anyone in Bristol or Bath who’s willing to talk. I’ve signed up to so many “single parents” forums in my scouring of the towns if anyone now looks at my email inbox they’ll most certainly think I’ve got something to hide… Nonetheless our poor reporter on the scene struggles on and accosts a selection of families innocently trying to complete their daily shopping that they really do want to give a vox pop to Sky News on an issue they’re not too sure on.

Sky News continues to surprise me every day, and even though I’ve mentioned it before, I can’t get over just how normal and friendly the place is; in the Live at Five meetings it would be fair to say there was almost as much banter as if you threw Chris Morris in a room with a load of Christians. Another thing which I hadn’t quite expected today, was quite how last minute everything can be, having only ever seen the polished output from the comfort of my front room. When you’re sat in an editing suite, to finish a mere 30 seconds before live broadcast it feels like a completely story. So much get’s “biffed” at the last minute, connections fail and it goes tits-up so much more than you’d ever guess at from watching at home; the professionalism and resourcefulness of the team really is quite astounding – if I can stay that calm in the face of a world war by the end of my three years I’d really feel like I’d achieved something.

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