The phrase ‘living legend’ is, I suspect, overused and often undeserved. Equally, ‘national treasure’ is something easily misapplied.
Both of those terms would probably cause Ranulph Fiennes –‘Sir’, in fact, by birth rather than award, although award would doubtless have come— to cough awkwardly or, more likely, deliver a cutting remark. He is relentlessly self-deprecating, and deprecating, indeed, of seemingly everything associated with the tremendous feats that he has somehow, time and again, achieved over his staggering career.
For many decades, he and the same group have been heading out on what he calls, with perhaps the barest trace of a small smirk, ‘package holidays’. The only connection between the members of this group is, he suggests, that they’ve never been paid. ‘But they’re still doing it,’ he says matter-of-factly. ‘Well, not all of them; some are dead, of course.’ Whether they died in the field or in bed (Fiennes himself is now seventy-four) is not mentioned.
Let us rewind. Fiennes’ clipped tones, upper lip so stiff it might have been starched, and self-deprecation all suggest that he is the product of one of the old British boarding schools; this is correct. Historically, the Fiennes family has been educated by Winchester, one of the elite schools, as a happy consequence of a surname shared with the founder. By the time young Ranulph came knocking in the 1950s, however, Winchester had revised its policy, and he was told that he could attend only if he passed the necessary exams. His grades, however, were charitably very poor, and Winchester turned him away surname notwithstanding. ‘The only place that would take me then,’ he says with a thin smile, ‘was, of course, Eton.’ He spent three years there, but was withdrawn by his mother when it became clear that Eton was not going to secure him his A-Levels. He was moved to a school with a far greater focus on examinations – Eton, at that point, felt itself aloof from them— and a track record in which no student had ever failed to obtain their A-Levels. Fiennes pauses for a half-beat. ‘I was proud, therefore, of disrupting that history.’
Without A-Levels, Fiennes couldn’t enter Sandhurst, but was able to find a commission to be trained in the field. Raised on stories of derring-do, he wanted to join a cavalry regiment, but didn’t realise, he says, ‘that horses were no longer used, and that now it all consisted of driving about in great big tanks.’ Posted to West Germany during the country’s division, he spent several years ‘learning to retreat from the German border’ before growing bored. He joined the SAS, pretending as he relates this to be nonplussed by their selection of him over a battalion of ‘brick houses’ keen to join the Service.
Eccentricity, hearing Fiennes speak, would appear to have been the universal hallmark of those years. At one point during their training, he and his comrades were told to find a bank and steal £220,000. SAS training took place in a small rural village; the instruction was given on a Sunday evening; the banks were closed. Fiennes, persevering, explored his options –a Lloyds, or a Barclays— and, choosing the Lloyds, hammered on the back door until the manager –‘a nice chap; rather naïve’— opened it up and poked out his head. Fiennes, channelling the spirit of his family as made evident in his third cousin Ralph, played the part of an earnest returner from Germany: he had, he claimed, the family’s silver to be looked after, but wanted to see the bank’s security before bringing the valuables to be stashed the next day. The obliging bank manager took him on a tour of the security; Fiennes dutifully noted it down and then fleshed out his plan ready for a robbery the next morning. In the evening, he and his colleagues went to another village to have supper, and discussed their plots; when he returned to his own village, however, Fiennes discovered that he had left his annotated paper behind. It was turned in to the police, and the ensuing scandal made it to the front page of the national papers.
This did not see Fiennes evicted from the Service, however. That episode came some time later, when Fiennes used Her Majesty’s explosives to blow up an American-built dam at the request of a friend. The SAS, disgusted by the nuisance he had caused them, ultimately sent him back to his original regiment, ‘who were,’ when he returned, ‘still retreating from the German border.’
Bored again by this state of affairs, Fiennes took the chance, when he saw an advert pinned to an Edinburgh mess-hall bulletin board, to join the army of the Sultan of Oman as a commanding officer. The Sultan of Oman, he relates, was rapidly assembling an almighty military. ‘This,’ he says, pointing to a photo, ‘was the navy’; ‘this is the army on the navy’, another photo; ‘this is half the air force.’ The first photo showed a single yacht; the second, a dishevelled-looking group of hirsute men lounging with Kalashnikovs on a deck; the third, a single plane. The third photo, he says, ‘was of course taken from the other half of the air force.’
He left the Omani army after several years of effective leadership. He had been with it on secondment. Never having left the British Army, he fell afoul of a new rule dictating that all officers had to have their A-Levels; Fiennes, having of course successfully thwarted the efforts of Britain’s top schools to get him his, was forced out. Now married to his childhood love Ginny, he returned with his wife to London, where they set about figuring out what job he was to hold. ‘I had a great deal of tank-driving experience, of course,’ but funnily enough, ‘that apparently wasn’t enough to land me something.’
Through some creative thinking on his wife’s part, it was decided that the pair was qualified to lead expeditions. Accordingly, they pulled together the necessary sponsors and set out to hunt down a myth encountered in Oman: that of the mysterious ‘frankincense city’ known to lie somewhere beneath the sands of former Arabia. The expedition, and many more pursuing the same end to be undertaken at other stages of their lives, was fruitless (they later found a city beneath the sands, but whether it is the legendary Ubar is still uncertain).
Records, it transpired, were the way forwards. Fiennes and his wife wanted, fundamentally, to have the freedom to set off on their expeditions. To do this, they needed sponsors; sponsors wanted a return on their investment, so Fiennes needed to attract media attention; the media wanted to tell stories of broken records, in addition to tremendous endurance.
Thus Fiennes found himself, in 1969 and aged twenty-five, heading up the White Nile, the longest river in the world, in a hovercraft. The hovercraft was relatively new technology and considered pretty trendy, and the record, of course, hadn’t been set: nobody had travelled the Nile in a hovercraft before. The hovercrafts taken were little things, ‘equipped with two motorbike engines, which could levitate to three centimetres.’ ‘It took us nine months,’ he continues, ‘partly because’ –with infinite contempt— ‘there were a lot of four-centimetre obstacles.’
The next large expedition undertaken was perhaps his most famous. In his search for records, Fiennes quickly realised that many of them were already held. This was particularly the case when it came to cold areas, where the Norwegians, bored perhaps during the dark winter months, had prolifically secured almost all of them. ‘We didn’t call the Norwegians ‘rivals’,’ Fiennes observes. ‘We called them ‘the enemy’. They were.’
There was one record that the Norwegians did not hold, and for good reason. This was the record for surface circumnavigation of the globe— circumnavigation not along the Equator or a similar axis, however, but along the Polar axis, necessitating a crossing of both ice caps. The idea was, as was the case for most of the expeditions undertaken, his wife’s. She had these ideas, Fiennes relates, generally speaking over breakfast. On this instance, she suggested the polar-axis circumnavigation, and Fiennes accordingly went off to the local library to research the possibilities. He returned later in the day fed up and objecting to the idea –‘it was ludicrous’— but his wife, so contradicted, ‘became rather unpleasant’, and they set about conducting preparations.
The circumnavigation operation was to be split into two teams: one on foot, and the other aboard a ship bought to carry the traversers across the seas. The first team, it was decided early on, would comprise three people. Fiennes, of course, was one of them. To select the other two, an advert was placed in national papers, requesting individuals unafraid by the thought of not returning after years of unpaid, tremendously difficult labour. Fiennes chuckles as he relates the account: when the advert was put out, he had expected not to have many takers; in the end, the choice was between eight hundred. To make the process easier, whittling out the mentally weak as well as the physically unable, Fiennes sent all the applicants to enter the SAS selection— ‘which cost us nothing, of course’. The two chosen were –Fiennes does not mention this— both from his own SAS regiment; he presents them, however, as ‘Ollie, a Chelsea beer-salesman of eight years’, and ‘Charlie, a failed South African businessman.’ Fiennes insists that their skills were unimportant to their selection. ‘Can’t teach character,’ he says pithily, ‘can teach skills.’
Motivation, he emphasises, is of the utmost importance for leaders of not only endurance exercises and record-breaking attempts, but of any group. ‘It’s the key thing to success,’ he says several times. Why Fiennes himself is motivated, however, is something about which he is less clear. He’s raised tens of millions of pounds for charities, but ‘that, though, from point of view, is not it. That [adventuring] is my profession, and we have to have sponsors; we have to stay ahead of the competition.’ For others, he says, a faith –‘any faith’— is helpful when struggling in month four of a dark Polar night; for himself, however, his Anglican faith is ‘not— clearly not’ enough to encourage him forwards. To keep himself going on the trans-globe trip, Fiennes imagined that ‘the two people I most respect –my father, and my grandfather— are watching. Never met them, but I did not want to shame them by giving in to that weak voice in my head [telling him to stop and give up]— so at the end of each day, I would sit in the tent and hope that other bugger had broken his leg!’
Being able to justify continuing, however, is quite different to being able to justify starting, which he doesn’t try to do despite questioning. His wife, as has already been mentioned, was the originator for many of their adventures, and she, it appears, also shared Fiennes’ drive. During the transglobe expedition, Fiennes and Charlie (Ollie having thrown in the towel several hundred miles above Canada) found themselves, for an incredible three months, adrift on an iceberg steadily reducing in size, moving their tent to keep away from rifts opening. Fiennes jokes about it: ‘we weren’t bored, though: Charlie had a solar panel, which allowed us to listen to the BBC World Service for’ –that momentary pause of clipped, world-weary contempt— ‘two minutes each day’. At one point, they were startled to hear the words ‘Britain is at war’; the phrase falling at the end of a two-minute spell, however, they had to wait another five days to discover the country with whom they were now antagonists. They thought it was probably the French; ‘when we found out it was the Argentinians, we thought it was all rather silly.’
Radio entertainments notwithstanding, their situation on the iceberg was a perilous one. Their location was known to the ship, which was plying towards them after urgent repairs in Svalberg after being holed by ice (they had not been able to afford an icebreaker); whether the ship would get there in time, however, was uncertain. ‘Water,’ Fiennes recalls, ‘was coming over the side of the ice up into our tent.’ Panicked, they alerted the sponsors and patrons in London. They convened, decided that it would be irresponsible to allow Fiennes to die, and Prince Charles, the lead patron, ordered a seaplane dispatched to rescue them. The record would thereby be forfeited. To locate them, the plane needed directions from the ship, and from Fiennes’ wife, who manned the radio. Ginny, Fiennes relates with some pride, was renowned for her ability with a radio, having devoted herself to its practice for several intensive years: the prestigious Antarctic Club, recognising her skill, declared her the most able operator ever to work in the Antarctic. On this occasion, however, ‘she didn’t pick up the signal’ –Fiennes thinks it might be the only time she failed to do so— and the seaplane turned back. Was this deliberate? The way Fiennes says it suggests that he has his suspicions.
Ginny, like Fiennes, clearly cared about achieving. It requires somebody with a burning ambition to take the risk of very directly killing one’s own husband in order to win a record. She also, again like him, remains something of a conundrum after an all-to-brief two hours with him: Lady Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes’ (for it is worth remembering this other, inherited and refined, edge to the craggy Fiennes) apparent willingness to disregard life for success perfectly mirrors Fiennes’ own. The fact that he remains alive is scarcely credible; many more near-death encounters are related, without space for them also to be recounted. Despite this, his apparent frostbitten enthusiasm for hurling himself through snowstorms and deserts, up mountains and into hare-brained schemes, he remains deeply engaging. A tremendous storyteller and orator, perhaps surprising given how much of his life has been spent hundreds or thousands of miles from human company, he is engaging and amusing, very capable of leaving an audience thoughtful in one moment and aghast in another. He is a phenomenal man; so brave he might almost be mad, but also, it is fair to say, both a living legend and a national treasure.
Sir Ranulph Fiennes will be sharing his story and experiences in several towns across the UK over the next month. I highly recommend the experience. Tickets can be found here: https://www.ents24.com/uk/tour-dates/sir-ranulph-fiennes