Exclusive interview with Ranulph Fiennes
by Karen Shaw
Dubbed by the Guinness Book of World Records as ‘the world’s greatest living explorer’, this chap was the first to cross the Antarctic and Arctic Ocean, and the first to circumnavigate the world along its polar axis. He’s discovered lost biblical cities, journeyed down the White Nile by hovercraft and is the oldest Brit to ascend Everest and that is just the ‘tip of the iceberg’.
He’s also the only person alive ever to have travelled around the Earth’s circumpolar surface, more people have been on the moon! With his serious face, striking blue eyes and furrowed brows, he cuts a fine figure. Imagine The Saint (Simon Templar) and Scott of the Antarctic rolled into one. He’s debonair, rather refined and seriously serious…
Sir Ranulph Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes, 3rd Baronet OBE is one heck of a mouthful, so it’s lucky for me that he’s happy to be called Ran. This guy loves living dangerously, and to prove it he’s agreed to talk with me, about venturing up north with his one man tour of the same name.
In Living Dangerously, Ran offers a personal journey through his life, from his early years to the present day. Both light-hearted and strikingly poignant, his show spans his childhood and school misdemeanours, his army life and early expeditions, right through the three-year Transglobal Expedition to his current Global Reach Challenge, in which he aims to become the first person in the world to cross both polar ice caps and climb the highest mountain on each of the seven continents.
With such a mountain of stories and experiences over his 75 years how does he manage to cram it into one evening?
“The agent publishes the fact that the actual lecture is either one hour without a break or one hour with a half-hour interval to allow the venue to sell wine and coffee at good prices. So, I would say an hour either broken up or not. They advertise, and sometimes they have a Q&A at the end.”
His response to my first question wasn’t what I envisaged, I imagined he’d natter on about the process, on how he decides which tales to tell – but no. He answers with the dryness of someone attempting to eat 20 cream crackers.
I attempt to lighten the mood, by asking, “Ah, there’s a Q&A, do you have a cheeky glass of wine then?” “No.” He answers. “The actual speaker isn’t encouraged to drink alcohol until you’ve finished the talk.”
My light-hearted question has once again been shot down by his blunt tongue. Once again, I try to lighten the mood, saying, “that’s no good, is it?”
To which he replies. “I’d say it’s very good because you need to keep your wits about you to say the right thing!” I read that Ran will often sleep in the back of his Ford Mondeo after his talks, so with him visiting the north with his tour I wondered if he’d had time to spec out any appealing traffic bays for his overnight stay…
“No, not yet. But staying at a fivestar hotel is, you know, a lot easier – a lot better – but horrifically expensive.” But I guess when you’ve braced conditions of -50, a Ford Mondeo would exude luxury (once you’ve got the heater working!)
Ran is direct and honest in his approach. Having encountered many life-threatening moments in his time, I wondered how important humour was when life looked bleak.
“I haven’t studied it in depth psychologically,” he answers. “Ever since ‘83 it’s been Mike Stroud (Mike accompanied him on many expeditions including the first unsupported crossing of the Antarctic continent) as the other bloke, and he’s got a ‘guy’ sense of humour.”
“Like a man’s man, do you mean?” I ask.
“Well it depends on your definition of that. You’ll have to ask someone like my late wife, she knew him well. Or you’d have to ask his late wife, she died a few months ago.” Now, that would be a rather difficult task.
His beloved late wife of 34 years, Ginny died after suffering with stomach cancer in 2004 and in the years after her death Ran has raised almost 20 million pounds for Marie Curie.
“Well, it’s not almost 20 million,” he corrects me, “it’s nearer 18.9 million… so it’s a long way from 20.” Looks like I’m in the bad books again. I hit back with, “Well, you get my drift, don’t you Ran?”
“Yeah,” he answers, “it’s just that I know that it’s a lot.”
“But you’ll get to 20 million, won’t you Ran?”
“I wouldn’t swear to it, but I’ll do my best,” he answers. And, if anybody can, Ran can.
Ginny Fiennes was the first woman to be awarded the Polar Medal, and as such was invited to join the Antarctic Club….
“She was a great driving force,” says Ran, “I mean not pulling heavy sledges. But don’t forget in those days, it was Morse code, there was no satnav, sat-phone, radio-GPS or anything like that. Radio was Morse code, and you had to have a base with communications, obviously, and she was the base commander who kept everything running smoothly.
“When I married Ginny, she didn’t have money and she worked for the Scottish National Trust, and I’d come out of the army after eight years and we had to make money somehow. The only thing that I had been doing in the Cold War in Germany was taking the Scottish soldiers canoeing, climbing, and skiing – and the taxpayer pays, obviously, it’s called Adventure Training. It stopped them beating each other up because they were bored waiting for the Soviet army to attack. They were ready for war, you know, all the training, shooting at model Soviet tanks on the range, and they became very good at it. They just wanted to show how good they were. But the Soviets, as you know, didn’t ever attack. So, Ginny suggested that we did that as civilians without the taxpayer paying.
Ran has amassed a wealth of achievements throughout his career, a successful writer, explorer, public speaker, and fundraiser – however, he swells with pride when he talks about his time in the Wood Pigeon Patrol.
“I was a Wolf Cub when I was 12,” he smiles.
And then his tone drops, he’s going into serious mode again.
“Now, Karen, listen carefully,” he demands.
I shut up.
He continues, “On my honour I promise to do my duty to God and the Queen, to help other people at all times, and to obey the Scout law Sir!” He giggles when I check if he’s standing up straight when reciting his vow.
“Ah, good point, I’ll do it again.” Which he does.
This time I ask him if he’s polished his shoes.
“Obviously, and I’ve also tied the knots!” He laughs.
I congratulate him. “Good lad.”
“Well, you have to. It’s not a question of wanting to. Old age makes you – well, it’s extremely annoying.”
Annoying, it must be. But age most certainly hasn’t slowed him down. He’d still certainly give that hare a run for his money.
It was in 2003 that Ran suffered a massive heart attack, which led to him being in a three day coma followed by a double bypass but despite his major health issues it didn’t stop him achieving the first 7x7x7 (Seven marathons in seven consecutive days on all seven continents) just a few months after.
“I also had prostate cancer in 2007, just before doing the Eiger North Face. When I came back three years ago from Antarctica– I was told that I had pre-diabetes.”
He reels his illnesses off like my mother does her shopping list, and I guess if you were to check out Ran’s shopping list, chocolate would most certainly be at the top…
“You know you shouldn’t, but you see the choc bar and your hand goes out of control,” he smiles (he really did!). “I had to try and stop my addiction to Cadbury’s chocolate – and it is an addiction, you know!”
Ran, trust me, I know.
Despite being born in Windsor, growing up in South Africa before returning to Eton to study, Ran has roots in both Lancashire and Yorkshire. Both dynasties were, at some point, mothered by Fiennes DNA. On the Lancastrian side, Henry VI’s grandmother was Mary, the granddaughter of Joan Fiennes. On the Yorkist side, Edward IV was Margaret Fiennes’ great grandson four times.
“EUSTACE DE BOULOGNE WAS HIS GREAT GRANDFATHER TIMES 30, HE LED CONQUEROF’S ARMY AT HASTINGS IN 1066. EUSTACE CAN BE IDENTIFIED ON THE BAYEUX TAPESTRY”
“Yeah, our issue was that we had trouble with each other,” he laughs. So, c’mon Ran if you’d have been around in the days, where would your loyalties have lie?
“Now, Karen, I’m afraid that is too hypothetical.”
Laughing, I answer, “I’m guessing you don’t do hypothetical. Just cold, hard facts…”
“Absolutely,” he confirms.
Another cold, hard fact about Ran is that Eustace de Boulogne was his great grandfather times 30, he led William the Conqueror’s army at Hastings inEustace can be identified on the Bayeux Tapestry!
When it comes to family, the Fiennes brood are rather exceptional. This family have helped to carve out British history and how we live today. I’d read that the Fiennes’ family stem back over 49 generations, but it looks like I may have that wrong…
“Now,” says Ran in his rather dusky tone, “I think it’s more like 42, there was a slight problem with the people in London called The Heraldry or something, they said that 42 withouta- doubt passed all their investigations but the seven original ones came back to 700-hundred-and-something, were open to doubt and if I wanted not to be doubted over the 42 I would be advised to keep away from the previous seven. So, 42 generations is permitted.”
Worried about my abundance of what Ran calls hypothetical questions, I warily enquire if he’d consider space travel.
“That is not a hypothetical question,” he says.
“No, definitely not! That is a no. It’s pointless, because they do not take people up without testing them first – astronaut type stuff – which involves mathematics, and I’ve never been able to think about anything mathematical or digital.”
“Is that why you failed your A levels?” I ask.
I get a wry smile.
He’s got a rather sexy smile. It’s easy to see why he was once considered to be cast as James Bond. So, before we talk 007 questions, I begin humming the Bond theme tune.
“That sounded like the news,” he says.
So, I try again.
“Bond! Oh, that was 1970!” He laughs.
“Broccoli (Cubby) decided he wanted somebody who did Bond-type things and train that person to be an actor. They approached around 200 of us from all over the place. I auditioned because it allowed me to have a free rail ticket from Inverness to London, which I wouldn’t have been able to afford otherwise!
“For some reason unbeknown to me—I got into the last six. I got into the room where Cubby was smoking a cigar, he took one look at me and said to the director
‘This one looks like a farmer. Look at his hands.’”
“That was before I lost a lot of fingers,” he laughs.
The beginning of the end for Ran’s fingers occurred while travelling on a solo mission to the North Pole weighed down with 70 days’ worth of supplies which slipped into the sea and become trapped under a slab of ice.
Ran removed the outer glove on his left hand to grab his icy supplies, but once he’d retrieved his equipment he exposed his hand to air temperatures of -63C, at that point he knew he was in trouble, “My fingers were ramrod stiff and ivory white,” he wrote.
“They might as well have been wood… I had seen enough frostbite in others to realise I was in serious trouble. I had to turn back.”
The former SAS officer was airlifted to hospital in Canada, but the damage had been done.
The first one to two inches of each finger and thumb became what he called ‘mummified’. On his return to the UK, surgeons told him he would have to wait five months for the necessary amputations to allow the partially damaged tissue halfway down his fingers to heal sufficiently to be made into finger-ends. They also said the procedure would cost £6,000.
“Over those five months, if I touched anything with the dead bits it went right down to my nerve endings and it was very painful,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. So, in true Fiennes’ style, he performed the operation himself. There was no need for operating tables and surgeons, why would they be when he had all the necessary tools in the shed! Out came his hack saw and Black & Decker Workmate bench….
I’m almost sweating in sympathy as he casually goes onto to tell me how he managed to hack his own digits off.
“If it hurts, you move the sore finger in a Black and Decker workbench,” he says in his nonchalant tone, “so it can’t move. Move the saw further away from the live part of the finger, up into the dead part – away from where it hurts and bleeds…”
Fortunately, Ran didn’t yearn for a career as a nail technician and when I asked if he could give my fingernails a quick trim, he politely declines. “No Karen, nail clippers for you is definitely the answer!”
His late wife Ginny was at their home farming when he sent her the news that he was now a few fingers lighter.
“I sent the message back– she was on Exmoor farming with all the cattle and the sheep by herself, and all she said was, ‘That’s typical of you, Ran, we’re already short-handed on the farm!’ That was typical of Ginny,” he grins.
“So, where are your fingers now?” I ask Ran.
“You know Karen, I had lost them, and they did turn up again. After that, they were put into a tin screw-top tin!”
“You’re not considering having them sewed back on, then?” I ask.
“No, I had them for over 60 years,” he answers.
No doubt he’s still kind of attached to them!
Ran’s Living Dangerously Northern Tour Dates
Bingly Arts Centre September 27th 2019 bingleyartscentre.co.uk
Pyramid Parr Hall, Warrington October 31st 2019 Parrhall.culturewarrington.org
Leeds Town Hall January 16th 2020 leedstownhall.co.uk