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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?

Biteback and James Wharton
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“It was the most traumatic chapter of my life”: ex-soldier James Wharton on his chemsex addiction

One of the British Army’s first openly gay soldiers reveals how he became trapped in a weekend world of drug and sex parties.

“Five days disappeared.” James Wharton, a 30-year-old former soldier, recalls returning to his flat in south London at 11pm on a Sunday night in early March. He hadn’t eaten or slept since Wednesday. In the five intervening days, he had visited numerous different apartments, checked in and out of a hotel room, partied with dozens of people, had sex, and smoked crystal meth “religiously”.

One man he met during this five-day blur had been doing the same for double the time. “He won’t have been exaggerating,” Wharton tells me now. “He looked like he’d been up for ten days.”

On Monday, Wharton went straight to his GP. He had suffered a “massive relapse” while recovering from his addiction to chemsex: group sex parties enhanced by drugs.

“Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army term”

I meet Wharton on a very different Monday morning six months after that lost long weekend. Sipping a flat white in a sleek café workspace in Holborn, he’s a stroll away from his office in the city, where he works as a PR. He left the Army in 2013 after ten years, having left school and home at 16.


Wharton left school at 16 to join the Army. Photo: Biteback

With his stubble, white t-shirt and tortoise shell glasses, he now looks like any other young media professional. But he’s surfacing from two years in the chemsex world, where he disappeared to every weekend – sometimes for 72 hours straight.

Back then, this time on a Monday would have been “like a double-decker bus smashing through” his life – and that’s if he made it into work at all. Sometimes he’d still be partying into the early hours of a Tuesday morning. The drugs allow your body to go without sleep. “Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army expression,” Wharton says, wryly.


Wharton now works as a PR in London. Photo: James Wharton

Mainly experienced by gay and bisexual men, chemsex commonly involves snorting the stimulant mephodrone, taking “shots” (the euphoric drug GBL mixed with a soft drink), and smoking the amphetamine crystal meth.

These drugs make you “HnH” (high and horny) – a shorthand on dating apps that facilitate the scene. Ironically, they also inhibit erections, so Viagra is added to the mix. No one, sighs Wharton, orgasms. He describes it as a soulless and mechanical process. “Can you imagine having sex with somebody and then catching them texting at the same time?”

“This is the real consequence of Section 28”

Approximately 3,000 men who go to Soho’s 56 Dean Street sexual health clinic each month are using “chems”, though it’s hard to quantify how many people regularly have chemsex in the UK. Chemsex environments can be fun and controlled; they can also be unsafe and highly addictive.

Participants congregate in each other’s flats, chat, chill out, have sex and top up their drugs. GBL can only be taken in tiny doses without being fatal, so revellers set timers on their phones to space out the shots.

GBL is known as “the date rape drug”; it looks like water, and a small amount can wipe your memory. Like some of his peers, Wharton was raped while passed out from the drug. He had been asleep for six or so hours, and woke up to someone having sex with him. “That was the worst point, without a doubt – rock bottom,” he tells me. “[But] it didn’t stop me from returning to those activities again.”

There is a chemsex-related death every 12 days in London from usually accidental GBL overdoses; a problem that Wharton compares to the AIDS epidemic in a book he’s written about his experiences, Something for the Weekend.


Wharton has written a book about his experiences. Photo: Biteback

Wharton’s first encounter with the drug, at a gathering he was taken to by a date a couple of years ago, had him hooked.

“I loved it and I wanted more immediately,” he recalls. From then on, he would take it every weekend, and found doctors, teachers, lawyers, parliamentary researchers, journalists and city workers all doing the same thing. He describes regular participants as the “London gay elite”.

“Chemsex was the most traumatic chapter of my life” 

Topics of conversation “bounce from things like Lady Gaga’s current single to Donald Trump”, Wharton boggles. “You’d see people talking about the general election, to why is Britney Spears the worst diva of them all?”

Eventually, he found himself addicted to the whole chemsex culture. “It’s not one single person, it’s not one single drug, it’s just all of it,” he says.



Wharton was in the Household Cavalry alongside Prince Harry. Photos: Biteback and James Wharton

Wharton feels the stigma attached to chemsex is stopping people practising it safely, or being able to stop. He’s found a support network through gay community-led advice services, drop-ins and workshops. Not everyone has that access, or feels confident coming forward.

“This is the real consequence of Section 28,” says Wharton, who left school in 2003, the year this legislation against “promoting” homosexuality was repealed. “Who teaches gay men how to have sex? Because the birds and the bees chat your mum gives you is wholly irrelevant.”


Wharton was the first openly gay soldier to appear in the military in-house magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

Wharton only learned that condoms are needed in gay sex when he first went to a gay bar at 18. He was brought up in Wrexham, north Wales, by working-class parents, and described himself as a “somewhat geeky gay” prior to his chemsex days.

After four years together, he and his long-term partner had a civil partnership in 2010; they lived in a little cottage in Windsor with two dogs. Their break-up in 2014 launched him into London life as a single man.

As an openly gay soldier, Wharton was also an Army poster boy; he appeared in his uniform on the cover of gay magazine Attitude. He served in the Household Cavalry with Prince Harry, who once defended him from homophobic abuse, and spent seven months in Iraq.


In 2012, Wharton appeared with his then civil partner in Attitude magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

A large Union Jack shield tattoo covering his left bicep pokes out from his t-shirt – a physical reminder of his time at war on his now much leaner frame. He had it done the day he returned from Iraq.

Yet even including war, Wharton calls chemsex “the most traumatic chapter” of his life. “Iraq was absolutely Ronseal, it did exactly what it said on the tin,” he says. “It was going to be a bit shit, and then I was coming home. But with chemsex, you don’t know what’s going to happen next.

“When I did my divorce, I had support around me. When I did the Army, I had a lot of support. Chemsex was like a million miles an hour for 47 hours, then on the 48th hour it was me on my own, in the back of an Uber, thinking where did it all go wrong? And that’s traumatic.”

Something for the Weekend: Life in the Chemsex Underworld by James Wharton is published by Biteback.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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