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The NS Interview: Ranulph Fiennes

“I failed my A-levels – it was the height of the miniskirt era­­”

You're often described as an explorer. Is there anything left to explore?
I wouldn't describe myself as an explorer. My passport has always said "travel writer". People don't explore nowadays at all. Occasionally there are pioneers - scientists who might go to a Brazilian jungle to extract new medicines from plants out there, or specialist glaciologists. In terms of the expeditions I've been on, we probably did the last true mapping exploration in 1979 when we charted 900 miles of untrodden Antarctica along the Greenwich Meridian.

What was the importance of doing that?
It's about knowing what is where. Nobody knew how high above sea level the land was, how much ice there was or how deep the ice was. All of those things added into the model of Antarctica can affect people's workings on global warming and the melt.

How have things changed since the 1970s?
Back then, the latest way of knowing where you were was with a theodolite, which they were using in 1902. At the cold end of the day, when you wanted to creep into a tent, you had to go out into the wind and get the altitude of a sun or star. I stopped using that in the 1980s. The first polar-orbiting satellite that enabled GPS to be used there started working around 1994.

Was boredom a problem when you crossed Antarctica on foot?
Not if you're in an unknown area where, the very next hour, a vast, uncrossable crevasse field is liable to stretch across your horizon.

You conquered Everest in 2009 after two failed attempts. What was different the third time?
After twice getting within three hours of the summit before turning back, I worked out why it was going wrong. I put it right by going with only a Sherpa and not any Brits and therefore my stupid, competitive nature didn't ruin the pace. You can't get competitive with Sherpas; they're like goats.

Did you feel relief - and was there time to appreciate the view?
Out of fear that the media would be unpleasant and make geriatric jokes if they learned that I had failed a third time, I told the BBC News crew who were with me that they wouldn't be allowed to use any film unless I got to the top.

When we got there, I pointed out to Thundu [the Sherpa] that all he needed to do was to get us on film and they could then use the two hours of brilliant filming the BBC had in the can. Unfortunately, the camera that the BBC crew had given him worked only when there was light. For some reason, we had done it extremely fast and got there before dawn. So we sat and waited for the sun to come up and it didn't.

Our hands got too cold to press the buttons and his larynx froze - but we couldn't go down out of fear of the BBC. Finally, a nice Mexican man whom I half-knew came up and said, "You like photo?" And we did like photo. He subsequently sold it to the BBC.

What were your three years fighting in the Dhofar Rebellion in Oman like?
We were heavily outnumbered and lost quite a lot of the Dhofarian mountains to the communists. I had 60 Arab soldiers, wonderful people. I sort of became Muslim-ish for the time I was up there: if they didn't drink, I didn't drink.

Do you support any political parties?
No. I have not voted very often, but I include among the people that I did vote for Harold Wilson, Mrs Thatcher, Tony Blair and David Cameron. I haven't approved of all the things that they did, but I did vote for that lot.

Why are you now supporting the blindness charity Seeing Is Believing?
It would be easier to raise money for cancer: everybody is subconsciously selfish - they think they might get it one day, too. They're
not worried about other people's blindness. In terms of getting bang for your buck, for nine quid you can buy glasses for children who can't read because they are short-sighted.

What has been your greatest achievement?
Being happily married for 40 years, I suppose.

Can you talk about your next expedition?
I would love to, but we've learned from experience that when we do before we've got a sponsor, the - I won't use an adjective - Norwegians get there first.

Was there a plan for your career?
If I'd had the A-levels, I would have done what my father did.

Which was going to Sandhurst?
Yes. In his day, he didn't have to do A-levels, never mind maths and physics, because there were horses, not tanks. I was sent to a crammer and still didn't get them. It wasn't really my fault - that time was the height of the miniskirt era, so my concentration was low.

Is there anything you'd like to forget?
I am sure there's a lot, but I can't think of them now.

Are we all doomed?
Depends on who you read.

Defining Moments

1944 Born Ranulph Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes in Windsor, Berkshire
1963 Joins Royal Scots Greys of the British army; later seconded to SAS
1970 Marries his first wife, Virginia (she dies of cancer in 2004)
1979 Starts a three-year expedition with Charles Burton to reach both poles by surface travel
2009 Becomes the oldest Briton to climb Mount Everest, aged 65

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 22 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The answer to the riots?

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“The guards WANT you to mess up”: meet the prison wives of Instagram

How memes featuring Disney Princesses, Spongebob Squarepants, and saggy jeans have empowered women with incarcerated partners.

During a recent trip to visit her boyfriend in federal prison, 27-year-old Makenzie wore a floor-length black skirt and a grey shirt that completely covered the top half of her body. After a brief inspection, the guard on duty deemed her outfit appropriate and waved her through, and she was able to spend a happy eight hours with her incarcerated boyfriend and her six-year-old daughter. The next day, she came back to visit again.

“I wore the exact same outfit the second day of visitation because I didn’t want to fight with the guards about any other clothing,” says Makenzie, who had to drive five hours out of her home state, Texas, in order to visit her partner. “I was sent away by a guard who had seen me the day before.”

Makenzie felt “belittled and humiliated” by the guard, who forced her to go to the nearest shop to buy a new shirt. “I wore the exact same outfit down to my shoes and earrings,” she explains. When she confronted the guard, Makenzie says he said: “I honestly don’t care.

“All I’m telling you today is you’re not going in there dressed like that.”

Being a “prison wife” can be isolating and confusing. When wives and girlfriends first go to visit their newly-incarcerated partners, the rules and regulations can be overwhelming. When visiting her boyfriend, Makenzie has to place her money in a clear plastic bag, go through a metal detector before a smaller metal detector is used on her feet, and be patted down by guards. If her clothing is too loose or too tight, she is sent home.

“The guards WANT you to mess up,” Makenzie tells me over email, emphasis hers. “They want to make you mad, make you get in trouble.” For wives and girlfriends isolated by these experiences, the internet has become a haven.

***

Makenzie’s Instagram account has 1,123 followers. Under the handle “Texas Prison Wives”, she has been posting memes, photographs, and advice posts for five years. After incidents like the one above, Makenzie can use her account to vent or warn other wives about changes in clothing rules. Followers can also submit text posts to her that she screenshots, overlays on scenic pictures, and publishes anonymously.

One, imposed on a city skyline, asks if anyone wants to carpool to a prison. Another, overlaying a picture of a nude woman, reads: “I’m wondering if I can get some ideas on sexy pics I can take for my man. I’m about 85lbs heavier than I was the last time he saw me naked.”

The prison wives of Instagram recently went viral – but not on their own posts. A Twitter user discovered the community and tweeted out screenshots of prison wife memes – which are formatted with an image and caption like all relatable memes, with the crucial difference being that not many of us can actually relate.

“The life that we live is not widely accepted by families, friends, and the general outside world because people hear ‘inmate’ and automatically assume the worst,” says Makenzie, whose boyfriend was sentenced to two fifteen year sentences for drug possession.

“This account has given women a safe space and anonymity to seek personal advice, ask questions, and seek other women within their area if they want to reach out.” Her account, Makenzie says, also allows prison wives to laugh during tough times. She both makes her own memes and shares those from similar accounts. One, from May 2016, features a collage of four celebrities rolling their eyes. The caption reads: “When you hear ‘Babe, we are going on lock down again…’”

To outside eyes, some prison wife memes can seem flippant or – to those who retweeted the viral tweet – laughable. “My Life As A Prison Wife” is an account with over 12,000 followers that posts a wide array of memes, often using stills from Disney movies to portray emotions. A post featuring an image of a crying Belle – from Beauty and the Beast –  is captioned “that feeling when… when your visits get suspended”. Yet though many online criticise what they see as the glorification or normalisation of a life choice they don’t agree with, Makenzie emphasises that memes – especially funny ones – are important.

“I think it’s fun to have so many people relate to funny memes even though the direct meaning behind it is about being lonely or the hard things we go through to make this relationship work,” she explains. “It’s a reminder we aren’t alone in our struggle and we can laugh through the pain.”

Jemma, a 22-year-old from London who runs an account called “Doing time too”, concurs. Her profile – which has 1,369 followers – showcases memes featuring puppies, Disney princesses, and stills from Spongebob Squarepants.“I'm sure ordinary members of the public would disagree with our light-hearted way of looking at our loved ones being in prison and I would totally understand that,” she says – also over email.

 

HAPPY VALENTINE'S DAY LADIES  #prisonwife #prisonwifelife #doingtimetoo #inmatelove

A post shared by doing time too (@doingtimetoo) on

“Before I was in the situation myself, I would have probably reacted in the same way to an account like the one I now own. But sometimes you end up in situations you never expected to and you deal with things in a way that others won’t understand.”

***

Prison wives don’t use Instagram just for memes. Makenzie’s account helps women in need in an array of ways: they can find out if there have been riots in their partner’s prison; get advice on gifts to send a loved one; and even find out how to appeal sentences. Alongside her Instagram, Jemma also runs a website called www.doingtimetoo.co.uk

Via @TexasPrisonWives

“I started the website because I was in a relationship with someone a couple of years ago who ended up going to prison. It was totally out of the blue for me and something neither of us saw coming,” she says. “I had no idea how to deal with it.” Her site provides information about individual prisons, what to expect from a prison visit, and what to do after release. She also provides tips on how to send creative gifts made out of paper to incarcerated loved ones.

“I believe the internet has been a massive help in supporting prison wives,” says Jemma, who finds most people don’t understand or relate to her situation. Her boyfriend was charged with GBH (grievous bodily harm) and sentenced to two years in prison, after getting into a fight.

Jemma also feels that Instagram can provide prison wives with information that the prisons themselves withhold. “I can't speak for everyone but in my experience, prisons and the visit centres are far from helpful in providing any information, support or advice,” she says. “Sometimes people won’t hear from their husband when they expect to but through interacting with other ‘prison wives’ they may find out that that particular prison is currently on lock down, providing an explanation and reassurance as to why they hadn’t heard from their husband. Without the internet, this wouldn't happen.”

 

Advice! @mothafukn.irvin

A post shared by OFFICIAL N. CALI SUPPORT (@north_cali_prisonwives) on

When Jemma reached out to prison visitor centres in the UK to promote her website to those in need, she never heard back. When she emailed her boyfriend’s visitor centre prior to her first visit to ask what to do, what to wear, and what to expect, she also never received a reply. “There is no communication with family and no support offered… It’s important to remember that the families themselves did nothing wrong or illegal and so don’t deserved to be punished or treated like criminals themselves.” In such circumstances, information shared online is crucial.

Makenzie also believes that the US prison system has it faults when it comes to visitors. “While I know and understand that inmates are being punished for a crime they committed, the guards treat their families disrespectfully and unfairly almost as if we are being punished as well,” she says. “Being a larger woman, I have gotten in trouble for my clothes being too tight AND for my clothes being too loose. It’s a lose-lose situation.”

Makenzie explains that sometimes visitors are forced to wear gowns similar to those worn in hospitals if their clothes are deemed unsuitable. In the past, she has even been sent away to buy a new bra after she wore one without underwire in order to get through the metal detector. In one prison her boyfriend was incarcerated in, visitors had to wait outside to be signed in, one-by-one, regardless of the weather. “We had to wait two hours several times, sweating, drenched in rain, they don’t care…

“The guards degrade your loved ones right in front of your face, they are mean, hateful, and over the top rude, even to the inmates who are the most well behaved and respectful.”

For these women, Instagram has become an invaluable network of support.

***

There are hundreds of Instagram accounts just like Jemma and Makenzie’s. Many often take memes from each other, but Jemma explains there is no competition. In fact, she says, the network is incredibly supportive. “I spoke to one lady regularly about her situation and I remember counting down to her boyfriend’s release date with her,” she says. Jemma and Makenzie also use their accounts to help lonely prisoners find pen pals.

Instagram allows prison wives to find likeminded people, free from judgement. Yet the accounts can also be incredibly informative to outsiders. By using the “When…” format, memes provide a detailed insight into the lives of prison wives. “When you’re kissing baby towards the beginning/end of the visit and the CO yells ‘enough’,” reads one. “When you check your phone and see… not only did you miss 1 call, you missed two,” is the caption on an image of a crying child.

 

A post shared by doing time too (@doingtimetoo) on

“Nobody understands this long distance, no physical intimacy, and then the added stresses of dealing with prison politics, corrupt guards, and the worry of riots, lock downs, and retaliation like women who are living through the same thing,” says Makenzie. Yet thanks to these Instagram accounts, outsiders do have an opportunity to understand.

For prison wives, memes are an easy and fast way to talk about a topic that many deem taboo. The fact that Jemma and Makenzie wished to communicate with me over email, and the fact many more prison wives didn’t want to speak to me at all, shows how difficult it can be to talk about these issues. For many, memes are just a bit of fun. For prison wives, they can be a lifeline.

 

A post shared by doing time too (@doingtimetoo) on

 “None of us enjoy prison visits or being treated like we are criminals ourselves. We don't enjoy waiting for phone calls that never arrive or having to deal with situations all on our own but if we can laugh about it, that’s something,” explains Jemma.

“Memes allow us all to laugh at the situations we are in, rather than cry.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The answer to the riots?