Interview with Sir Ranulph Fiennes
PUBLISHED: 12:27 23 February 2015 | UPDATED: 12:27 23 February 2015
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From that unfortunate matter involving the red-hot poker at Berkeley Castle, through Agincourt, to commanding a unit of Muslims in Muscat, the Fiennes have always been at the centre of conflict and adventure. Katie Jarvis talks to Sir Ranulph, the latest action man
Sir Ranulph Fiennes has lost his mobile.
“It’s a little Nokia, 12 years old, and the battery runs out very quickly. So when it answered, I was really happy,” he tells me.
The trouble with being an explorer and losing your phone, I’m assuming, is that you’re unlikely to find it down the back of the sofa. In my head, I hear the ring-tone and watch an icy limb reach out: the frozen hand of a climber, halfway up the Eiger, answering in a voice hoarsened by snowflakes. Or the curious paw of a Yeti looking for a satisfying chew.
But, no.It’s in an hotel in Muscat, where, back in the 60s, Sir Ran once commanded a platoon of 60 Muslim soldiers during a counter-insurgency while attached to the army of the Sultanate of Oman. He’s about to take on another gruelling desert challenge – the Marathon des Sables in April: six marathons across the Sahara, comprising 156 miles in 50 degree temperatures. At 71, he’ll be the oldest Briton to complete the toughest race on earth, earning millions for cancer charity Marie Curie as he does so.
Nothing within the realm of the ordinary then.
But we’re here to talk about something a little closer to home. Despite profound jetlag, Sir Ran has just given a spirited talk at The Convent in Woodchester about his latest book, Agincourt: My family, the battle, and the fight for France. And now we’re sitting, slightly incongruously, in one of the Convent bedrooms where he’s resting before heading off to Bath for another talk. He’s clearly rocking on his feet, eyes closed between questions, chiselled face inscrutable. But despite looking as if he’s longing for catatonia, his eyes snap open at each of my questions. Impressive and slightly scary, both at the same time.
Agincourt, it has to be said, is a cracking book. If you’re not into history pure and unadulterated (and we are singing the battle Happy 600th Birthday this year), then you might enjoy people running each other through with arrows (right in the eye and other squishy bits) while they’re lying, still-alive on the battlefield, rather more weighed down by armour than they’d ideally have liked. Or there are details such as the bloody flux, caught by Henry V’s soldiers from mosquito-ridden swamps at the Siege of Harfleur. Sir Ran knows more than most the havoc that can play with your armour. “On polar expeditions we call it crotch-rot… With no washing facilities for three months and frequent bouts of diarrhoea, I soon became raw between the legs.”
He was asked to write the book by the editor of Hodder because of his direct Anglo-Norman ancestry “whose members, during the Hundred Years War, commanded both the French and the English armies and were closely related to the kings and queens at the very nerve centre of all the Anglo-French wars”. This, it turns out, was no idle exaggeration. Examine most of the bellicose turning-points of English (and French) history and you’ll undoubtedly find a Fiennes looking either irrevocably shifty or nobly courageous, depending on whether they were A Good Thing or not: the family had its share of both.
One of them – Count Eustace of Boulogne - is even preserved for posterity in the Bayeux Tapestry, sporting a cartoon bubble in which he advises Duke William to flee back to the ships at once because the English are winning. William, of course, told him this was de poppycock complète, and the rest is history.
So, I ask Sir Ranulph, gently – invidiously wanting answers but concerned that I should wake him – did it startle even him to learn what a pivotal part his ancestors have played throughout the centuries?
His eyes snap open. “No, though I suppose one ought,” he says. To be fair, he’s already written Mad Dogs and Englishmen about his illustrious ancestors, who participated in all sorts of madcap schemes, from ramming a red poker up the unsunshine-y bit of an English King at Berkeley (if you believe the particulars of that story) to being the first King of Jerusalem. But, he points out, as the family seat (at Broughton Castle, Oxfordshire) would indicate, they had always been considered exceptionally English. “I hadn’t really cottoned on to the big French connection. And when I did, I found it fascinating – absolutely - and sort of put it on a par with a long-range version of the Cromwellian civil war. Because there were cousins against cousin and brothers against brother.”
Indeed. In the medieval equivalent of a family split between Arsenal and Tottenham, Agincourt begins with four English Fiennes knights fighting for Henry one side of a valley, while four French Fiennes await to do them serious damage on the other.
That personal connection is indubitably fascinating. But even more compelling is the way Sir Ran’s own experiences tally with that of these ancient soldiers. His personal accounts of planning for expeditions clearly show his insight into Henry’s own battle preparations, which included loading 25,000 horses onto thousands of ships clustered around the coast of Southampton and Portsmouth for the journey to France.
Sir Ran might not be a qualified historian (indeed, he’s delightfully self-deprecating about his own academic prowess, which even a post-Eton crammer failed to dent: “I was sent to a place where everyone got their A-levels. It was amazing that I broke their record.”). But he clearly understands aspects of history that would pass historians-in-armchairs by.
“When you talk about historians,” he says, politely, “I think ‘Antony Beevor’ or the guy who begins with S-C-H [Simon Schama]. I wouldn’t know if they’ve spent their lives in odd places getting cold or hot or not. I wouldn’t like to say that I’ve been out on a limb more than some of them; but it certainly must help to have an attitude vaguely about what you know.
“When I wrote about Captain Scott, I felt that I was more likely to hit the truth than the previous man [Roland Huntford], whose most cold experience was as winter sports commentator for The Observer in Sweden. Yet he ruined an entire reputation as a result. Which is quite easy to do because his readers didn’t really know much about Antarctica, either, so they believed his lies.”
No beating around the bush with a machete there, then. And it is good fun, interviewing even a jetlagged Sir Ranulph. He’s gloriously un-pc, at times. We talk a little more about Scott and his party, including Apsley Cherry-Garrard, who wrote a mutually favourite book about the Terra Nova Expedition, The Worst Journey in the World. “He went a bit cuckoo,” Sir Ran says.
No – he’s certainly not afraid of expressing his views. But what he won’t do are hypotheses. When I ask him whether his research into ancestry has given him an insight into his own expeditionary zeal – frostbite in the polar regions; marathons in the desert - he courteously demurs. “No – I’ve never been hypothetical. Never been good at hypothesis.”
He demurs again when I ask about the fragility of life; tiny moments on which history turns: a hand-hold on a mountain that crumbles; the Duke of Normandy rejecting advice. Because, my golly, Sir Ran has known a few of these pivotal seconds.
He shakes his head again. “The problem is that, for me, it’s again slightly hypothetical. Do you remember Anthony Clare? [The late host of the Radio 4 series, In the Psychiatrist’s Chair.] He was really fed up with me because, not being even faintly introvert or psychological or wondering about ifs and maybes, I annoyed him. He gives you coffee after [the recording ends] and he said to me, ‘Ran, to be honest with you, it was like stirring a void with a teaspoon’. When I told my wife afterwards, she said that was rude.”
Maybe. But I was thinking the opposite: Is that actually his secret, that unquestioning pragmatism? After all, if you’re stuck halfway up a mountain, you want somewhere who’s remembered the crampons, not someone in the grip of an existential crisis.
“Could be,” he agrees, with a darting soupçon of accidental introspection. “We do find that most of the people on the team, over the years, aren’t the sort who passed their exams. Ex-military people seem to be quite reasonable. Or, as my friend Ollie Shepard, who’s been on expeditions over many years, commented the other day when we were selecting people: ‘He’s pretty thick; he should be OK.’”
So, banned from hypotheses – though in the nicest of ways - I ask more down-to-earth questions. He has plenty of connections with the Cotswolds, from the unfortunate ancestral incident at Berkeley Castle to his attempt to blow up Castle Combe during the filming of Doctor Dolittle in the 60s (an hilarious story, which time doesn’t allow me to retell. Suffice to say, it cost him his SAS job and a hefty fine.) Less controversial is his friendship with Quenington-based climber Kenton Cool, who took him mountain-climbing to try to rid him of lifelong vertigo. (He used to scale Eton by night, as a schoolboy, so he couldn’t see the drop.)
“Ah, Kenton,” he says, fondly. “I saw him last week. Why did I want to go climbing with vertigo? Well, I’d got rid of a spider-phobia because, in the desert with my Arabs, spiders were all over the place. If you showed fear in front of the soldiers, you lost their respect. And over the three years of having them crawling around sleeping bags, they never bit me so I began to realise being frightened of them was pointless.
“When my wife died – my late wife [he remarried in 2005 and now has an eight-year-old daughter] – I was just useless; I was mentally completely off it. I thought, the only way I can snap out of it is to do something really meaningful, like losing the vertigo. So I thought, I’ll go up Everest. Well, after three trips, including with Kenton, I realised that you don’t because there aren’t any drops on Everest. It’s all a white shoulder.”
Kenton was having none of it, however, and proposed instead a trip to the Eiger – a 13,000-ft peak in the Bernese Alps, considered one of the world’s most challenging climbs. “He did the north face of the Eiger [with me], which was very brave of him because taking someone who can’t climb properly could drag the others off. Amazing guy. I was privileged to be taught by him. But, after the Eiger, I determined I would do no more vertical trips because I realised I was just as frightened as before.”
We discuss – even in our a bare, jetlagged but very obliging half-hour – numerous other topics, such as exploration in a post-Scott age: “When I was able to know where we were in the middle of nowhere by pressing a button on a GPS, I was a hell of a lot happier than at the end of a long day trying to find the altitude of the sun with a sextant.”
There’s also that hot topic of multiculturalism in the light of his own experiences commanding an all-Muslim unit: “I sort of behaved in a Muslim way for the two to three years I was out there; when they didn’t drink or eat in the heat in Ramadam, it would have been wrong for me to, so I didn’t.
“They were not in the least fundamentalist. When I found that they didn’t dislike the Israelis, the answer was pretty simple; no one had told them that they should dislike the Israelis.”
And – a question I’ve been bursting to ask: has he ever found the frost-bitten fingers he cut off with a fretsaw at home, but which strangely disappeared from the desk in which he was storing them.
“No, not as yet. I mean that, to me, was odd; but, as soon as you talk about it, somebody might think you think it was them that took them and I don’t suspect any particular individual of that. Someone said a mouse, but a mouse can’t go into a drawer.”
When I ask him if he thinks the world has gone namby-pamby – this man dubbed the world’s greatest explorer by the Guinness Book of Records; who has led countless expeditions, including the first polar circumnavigation of the Earth; this man who became the oldest person to scale Everest and once had a heart attack 1,000 feet from the summit; this man who has raised nearly £17 million for charity along the way.
“No, not at all,” he says, giving a detailed account of the bravery of the British Schools Exploring Society in Svalbard, when a polar bear so horrifically killed one of the 17-year-old participants.
OK. So, I think, I’ll go back to where we started – history - and have one more go at hypothesis. If Sir Ranulph could travel back to a moment in time – time-machine at his complete disposal - when would he pick? I ask this, expecting to find him with Scott and Wilson at the South Pole. Or alongside his fighting ancestors, advising William; marching with King Henry.
How wrong I turn out to be.
“I would love to know exactly the relationship between Jesus and God, according to what one has been told over the years,” Sir Ranulph says. “Though if one went back to that period, you might not actually learn the answer.”
Oh! So, I clarify, somewhat nonplussed: not about Jesus’s life but about his relationship?
Sir Ranulph nods. “His relationship with the creator.”
If only I’d started the interview with that question. Because, for a man who doesn’t do hypotheses, that’s an interesting answer.
Agincourt: My family, the battle, and the fight for France is published in hardback, price £20, by Hodder & Stoughton. For more on Sir Ranulph Fiennes, visit www.ranulphfiennes.co.uk
To donate to Sir Ran’s desert marathons challenge, visit: www.justgiving.com/ranulph or text RUN to 70007 to donate £5.
Future literary events at the Convent in Woodchester, include Charles Spencer talking about his Killers of the King, The Men Who Dared to Execute Charles I, on April 30; and James Runcie talking about his Grantchester Chronicles series on May 28; www.theconvent.netgig.co.uk