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Books by Ranulph Fiennes:
He is a paragon of accomplishment. No really. To the degree that sitting across from him asking him questions seems an incredibly trivial way to use up his time. Surely he has other things to do? Mountains to scale. World records to break. Lost cities to find. Oh, and books to write. He has slotted books into his schedule the way most of us make time for lattes or movies: in the downtime when nothing else is pressing. And he's done it 16 times. The cousin of actors Joseph and Ralph Fiennes, Sir Ranulph Fiennes has accomplished amazing things in his 56 years. Listing them all would, alone, take more space than we have, but a teensy synopsis is in order, just to get the scale of it all:
In the 1960s he was, according to a February, 2000 BBC article, "kicked out of the SAS for deliberately blowing up a Twentieth Century Fox film-set in Castle Coombe, Wiltshire." (In fairness, the piece does not say why Fiennes might have been doing this or for whom and what's been left out here might be as interesting as what's been included.) His stint with the SAS was, as it turns out, only the beginning of what has proven to be a remarkable journey. The Guinness Book of World Records describes Fiennes as the world's greatest living explorer. He was at the helm of the expedition that found the Lost City of Ubar. Fiennes has led over 30 expeditions including the first polar circumnavigation of the Earth and the first unsupported crossing of the Antarctic continent. In 1993 Queen Elizabeth awarded Fiennes with the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for "human endeavour and charitable services," because, on the way to breaking records, Sir Ranulph has raised over £5 million for charity.
His most recent, and perhaps his final, polar expedition ended in disaster. In February, 2000 Fiennes set out to become the first person to reach the true North Pole, solo and unsupported. He didn't make it. One week into what would have been a 700-mile, 80-100 day journey, Sir Ranulph attempted to rescue a pair of sledges that had fallen through the ice. He suffered severe frostbite as a result. His recovery was long and arduous -- he lost lower portions of all of the fingers on his left hand as a result -- and the expedition was shelved indefinitely. It was while languishing in hospital that Fiennes remembered a manuscript he'd found five years before in Antarctica. In an abandoned hut in an inaccessible area, Fiennes found, among scientific journals that appeared to have been onsite for three decades, a curious logbook that was far more recent. In fact, the last entry had only been the year before Fiennes found the books. While recovering from frostbite Fiennes began finally to peruse this log. What he found fascinated him. Though the book had been damaged by damp and was, at first, 60 per cent unreadable, Fiennes managed to glean that it was the journal of a 55-year-old Jewish Canadian of German descent named Derek Jacobs who had been stranded at the hut in the early 1990s. The logbook proved to be Jacobs' account of his life: from the death march of wartime Germany to the advance of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in 1974 to the Arctic, where Jacobs had come as a member of the Secret Hunters, an organization devoted to seeking out Nazi war criminals.
"It's called fiction," Fiennes says of The Secret Hunters. "But you'd have to read it before you called it fiction." There were, Fiennes says, "woolly areas" in the narrative as well as several uncheckable facts that forced the decision to label the book as fiction rather than non-fiction. And, says Fiennes, "everything I've told you now could be from my imagination. I maybe never went to Antarctica. See what I mean? So everything I've just told you could be the truth, so therefore it can be called fiction. I know exactly what I know and nobody else does. Apart, of course, from Derek Jacobs. If he turns up you'll know I haven't invented him."
Sir Ranulph Fiennes lives in Exmoor with his wife Virginia and several hundred Aberdeen Angus cattle and black Welsh mountain sheep. Sir Ranulph says he's not planning any polar expeditions because they've all been done. "There are only two poles and me and my rivals from Norway and places have been battering away at them for 30 years and the only ones left are gimmicky: you have to go by camel or motorbike or [something] to be first." He's been forced, he says, to move on to other things. "Lost cities are not in such short supply." Although, "They are possibly more difficult to find than the poles."
Linda Richards: Tell me about The Secret Hunters.
Sir Ranulph Fiennes: In 1995 I was hired by Abercrombie & Kent, who [are an] exotic travel company for rich people I think, to go to some places, including Antarctica in a ship which has ice breaking capacity. They have lecturers on board and I was hired to be one of the lecturers. That year happened to be very, very warm: loose ice so the ship managed to go right in to an area where no cruise ship had previously been.
When we got there, the skipper decided to let all 100 American tourists off but, in case it wasn't safe, [I went ashore as well].
And you found an abandoned hut there.
Nobody had been to this old hut before, it was like history even though Antarctica isn't very old. The last scientists who worked there were 30 years previously. So the chief lecturer, who is Europe's top polar geologist, Dr. Reynolds, and myself got in a rubber boat and went to the hut. It wasn't locked and we went inside and it was just like it had been left the day before. Lots of tinned food and lots of books: scientific books from the scientists including the first studies of the ozone hole. So these books were of historic value.
It was decided by Dr. Reynolds to take them back to Cambridge to the Scott polar [Research] Institute [at Cambridge] and so we did that. [However] two of the 86 books were not Her Majesty's stationery. And I looked at them and they were quite clearly from some non-governmental source so someone had obviously been at the hut who wasn't a scientist at some point. So I kept them: didn't give them to the people and told the director I had kept them. He didn't seem to mind. And I did intend to look at them but then I went on an expedition and years passed.
It wasn't until last year when I was waiting for a frostbite operation [and] I had nothing to do for quite a few months and I remembered the books and I started to try and open them up. To begin with only about 45 pages did open up. And it was all written in Biro [ball-point pen], but what I could read was very fascinating indeed. What I could read. But the bits that I got into were totally disconnected. So I got help from some people called the Greenwich Maritime Museum [the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, London], who are famous for paper conservation and showed me how to unstick stuff like pulp using Goretex layers and, to cut a long story short, by the end of it I probably opened over 60 per cent of the original log book. I took it to a literary agent who took it to a big American publisher based in London who said that, assuming I could open the rest of the book, they'd give us a very good contract to regurgitate it, which I started to do. But the publisher said: You know, it might be a hoax. Somebody might have left it as a hoax.
It seems unlikely there, doesn't it?
Well, they have to be careful. Someone wrote a thing called The Hitler Diaries which seemed unlikely too.
I then proceeded, at considerable expense, to check out what I could check out. Not everything is checkable, but I went all over the place. I went to everywhere he [Derek Jacobs, the narrator of The Secret Hunters] was, I tried to find him, I tried to find traces of the yacht. I also tried to find survivors: I tried to find if the murderers had lived all these years.
The narrator of The Secret Hunters, Derek Jacobs, was the author of the notebook that you found?
And you're sure it was Jacobs that wrote the notebooks?
Yes. I know that the man who wrote them is called Derek Jacobs. And I know everything that I've written in the book because he wrote it. Where there was a chunk missing I either decided that book could do without it and left it completely -- I don't know what's in those chunks and I couldn't possibly guess. So it isn't fiction.
But it is fiction.
It's called fiction. If I'd written it before 1994 what I would have done is I would have put on the front a big thick thing: Fact or fiction? And the bookshops would have been happy with that. But since 1994 computers have made it impossible to have anything described and cataloged as anything other than fiction or non-fiction. There aren't any woolly areas. So the publishers, for various reasons, decided to call it fiction. One is the obvious reason, which is more people buy fiction than non-fiction. Another one is that [Derek Jacobs] might not be dead in which case if he reads it and says: How dare you reproduce my intellectual property? I'm suing you in a big way. But if it's called fiction they can't. And there were one or two other reasons, as well. But you'd have to read it before you called it fiction.
The way you've set it up it doesn't sound like fiction at all.
No but, the way I've set it up, everything I've told you now could be from my imagination. I maybe never went to Antarctica. See what I mean? So everything I've just told you could be the truth, so therefore it can be called fiction. I know exactly what I know and nobody else does. Apart, of course, from Derek Jacobs. If he turns up you'll know I haven't invented him.
What makes you think he may be alive?
Well, given the circumstances which he describes, he is in an area which I know has got food which could have sustained him for a minimum of two years: him and the person that was with him. I know, also, that there are an increasing number of yachts that after the year he quite clearly wrote the last entry, which was February 1994, after that in the summer seasons yachts from all over the place used to go down to Antarctica and that would have been a place that they could have got to. Maybe he hopped on board. However I have checked with the British Antarctic Survey [and] the South American Harbors and there's no records subsequently and if they did [get on a ship] they didn't bother to tell anybody.
So it is possible that somebody could have picked them up but personally I don't think so. Particularly as one of the entries -- the last entry -- was that: We're going to go and look for another hut. Now, I know that there isn't any other hut. Well, I'm pretty certain that there isn't any other hut that they could have gotten to. They could have, from where they were, seen something on an island that could have looked like another hut. And they could have thought: Well, we can get there. And gone out on the ice. What I guess -- and I haven't put this because it's just a guess -- if a wind gets up the ice can very quickly crack and that bit that they're on can go out to sea. In which case they'd never get back. You find a lot of local scientists down there -- the Argentineans, the Brits and the Chileans who use that area -- have died in some cases trying to get around [in that way]. So it's possible.
And that part of the world is very unforgiving.
Well, if that's the circumstance, they'd have been very lucky to have survived.
The Secret Hunters is your 12th book?
No. I think it's the 16th or 15th.
And not the first novel, either.
I've written 16 books and three of them have been about other people like that and 12 have been about my expeditions or about fighting communists or...
Fitness. Yeah: a sort of mixture of different subjects.
You've done an amazing amount of stuff in your life. And had time to write 16 books. It makes my head spin.
Well, I have to say that the most interesting and fascinating stuff has definitely been where I've found -- through luck really, over 32 years -- I've had three bits of luck. And I've used them: I've grabbed them. Maybe I've had others which I didn't spot, but... I wrote a book called The Feather Men because I got peripherally involved in something. And through that peripheral -- literally half an hour -- involvement I got asked to write The Feather Men book and got given everything. So I didn't have to invent anything. I wrote it and in the U.K. it was a number one bestseller for about two months.
When did that book come out?
Oh about 10 years ago. Something like that.
And a guy read that book and about 1996, I think, rang me up and said he'd read The Feather Men and that his life was a lot more interesting and would I write it because he liked the way I did it, providing I did stick to what he told me was the truth. I said that I couldn't promise him what I would stick to because I would have to check that what he did tell me did actually fit in with known history. So I wrote that and that was called The Sett. That was about 1996. So both of those were just sheer luck. Then this came up, which again was just sheer luck. Anybody could have got in there and I didn't actually realize the luck for five or six years. It was just sitting in the attic, untouched. So in each case where I've strayed from my own stuff, I've been very, very lucky. So I do keep my eyes open and my ears open.
How much of your military background is helpful in what you do?
Military? That's an awful long time ago.
Your bio says, for instance, that you were posted to the Sultan of Oman.
Oh. Yeah. I suppose the fact that I was in the old sultan's army meant that I had a personal relationship with the man that chucked my boss, the old sultan, out. Which was his son, the new sultan, who is there now. So I got to know the new sultan quite well. He didn't have any animosity against the people who had worked for his father so I was able to start looking for lost cities in Oman when international archeologists were forbidden to go into Oman. So the army did help on that occasion.
Oh, right: because then you found the lost city.
Yeah, quite. Which I wouldn't have done if I hadn't been in the army so it was obviously some sort of help.
You must be very self-disciplined to have accomplished all that you have.
Well, because it's hard to write a book. And you've written 16. And it's hard to go and put an expedition together and you've done so many.
Well, over a very long period.
You're still the world's greatest explorer, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.
Right and that's very nice, but it doesn't necessarily mean that I'm self-disciplined.
I don't think so. I mean, I can write a book called Fit For Life [that] on page something or other says quite clearly that you should not drink Coca-Cola. [He taps his glass of the iced beverage in front of him.] The books I write like that, I'm basically saying: Do what I say, not what I do. I don't think that matters particularly, as long as you know that when you are doing [things] correctly you will be a lot healthier.
You say you're not self-disciplined, but what is it then that drives you to be, as the Guinness Book of World Records says, the explorer that you are? Is it simply curiosity or...?
No, no. Not at all. I know the answer to that which is very clear. Some people don't really know what they want to do with their life, but I knew from when I was born that I definitely was going to be the commanding officer of the Royal Scots Cavalry Regiment, which my father had been commanding when he was killed in the Second War. And right up until I was about 24 or something like that, that was my aim. I really tried very hard. Unfortunately, by the time I came along -- which wasn't the case when my father was around -- you had to have certain exams. A levels and O levels. I couldn't get these things. I was badly designed for that sort of thing and I never did get them so I never managed to be a regular officer. So I couldn't do what I wanted to do and I was quite old by the time I'd accepted this and at that time I just needed to make money.
I got married and I tried to get a job in the city of London and you needed credentials for most jobs at that time and so I thought: Well, I'll use what the army taught me to make money, which was teaching soldiers skiing and canoeing and climbing and that sort of stuff. I looked at what we call adventure training: you know, you have a school to teach people in the outback, but that didn't really appeal. So I thought I'd lead expeditions commercially, meaning I wouldn't use my own money I'd get sponsorship. I mean I wouldn't pay anybody at any time for anything: that was the rule. So no expeditions ever had a bank account or a checkbook. Drawing pens, petrol, everything had to be sponsored. And today we still apply that basic rule to it.
And you've raised very much money doing that for charity, as well.
Well that's the offshoot. One expedition raised £4.2 million -- actually that was from two expeditions put together -- and with that cash we began the building of Europe's first multiple sclerosis research center in Cambridge which is now hiring about 24 international neurologists plus the dozens of students who are not paid and, I'm afraid, about 10,000 white mice as well. I know the figures quite well: there's 86,000 people in the UK with multiple sclerosis and no cure but at least there's a big research unit now.
More recently we gave £1.9 million from an expedition to start the building of the first specialist breast cancer clinic in Europe. We have 1100 women dying every month from breast cancer.
Are you planning any expeditions now?
I'm not planning polar expeditions because they've all been done: every single one of them has been done. There are only two poles and me and my rivals from Norway and places have been battering away at them for 30 years and the only ones left are gimmicky: you have to go by camel or motorbike or [something] to be first. So the genuine firsts -- supported and unsupported -- are all now done. So we had to move to other things. But lost cities are not in such short supply. They are possibly more difficult to find than the poles.
Because they're lost. [Laughs]
Because they're lost, yeah. I mean that one took 26 years to find.
The lost city of Ubar?
Since I started looking for it, it took me 26 years, eight big expeditions and a lot of other people's money before I found it in the 1990s. But when we found it, with sheer good luck, it was nothing to do with NASA. We tried using NASA, which failed, it was just sheer good luck. It was hearing somebody talking: two government officials who were posted to our archeological dig. My wife and I were sitting in the shade and we heard them talking and they were saying that my team had been out there for six weeks and hadn't dug and the American film team that were with us were filming everything everywhere, which was disallowed. We were the first exemption for documentary making [by] the Sultan of Oman and these guys were saying that we were just using the archeology as an excuse to make a documentary. And I knew that they would tell their bosses -- the ministry of heritage -- and they would tell the sultan and we'd be out.
I literally immediately rushed off to the archeologist and I said: Get your toothbrush and start right away. And he said: Well, you know, we haven't found anything worth digging yet, it's a big country. You can't just go and dig. And I said: Well, there's some rubble about 300 meters from where we were based, in the desert. It's rubble rather than flat ground and he said: All right, we'll get some practice for the team. And he started and within three or four days, about nine inches down, he'd unearthed a two-and-a-half-thousand year-old chess set. And within six weeks, I think, he'd found the outline of the city wall. Once you've found the outline it gets quicker. And now it's the biggest active excavation works in Arabia. But it took 26 years to locate it and archeologists have tried to find it before without success: since the 50s.
And you just said: Dig already or they're going to get mad! That's a wonderful story. Was it great just finding it or, after all that time, was it anticlimactic?
It was very relieving. Until the Americans started saying that NASA had found it, which is a lie. That rather took the gilt off the gingerbread. I would have said NASA had found it if it had been true and it took a long, long time to get NASA persuaded to actually fly a shuttle over it, take photographs of the desert in that area with a special camera that brings the relief of heavy objects like walls up. It did help in that it eliminated big areas where we wouldn't have to look, but it still left [large] areas in which to search. So to say they found it was a total lie. And the New York Times said this on its front page. My literary editor, who is a New Yorker in London, tried to get them to withdraw it, but they wouldn't.
From your perspective, what has been your greatest accomplishment?
It's a sorry thing to say but, with today's marital statistics, I would say that remaining married to the same person for 32 years is possibly quite an achievement. Possibly. | October 2001
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.