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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 New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times