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26 October 2022

Ranulph Fiennes Q&A: “John le Carré was my German teacher”

The explorer on his father, his memories of Mount Maunganui in New Zealand and the 40mph speed limit on the M4.

By New Statesman

Ranulph Fiennes was born in Berkshire in 1944. An explorer and author, he led the Transglobe Expedition (1979-82), a journey around the Earth’s polar axis without flying. In 2009, aged 65, he reached the summit of Mount Everest.

What’s your earliest memory?

Arrival, aged one or two years old, at Cape Town docks from Southampton. My dad had been killed four months before, in the Second World War. His mum was South African and she wanted to be with her family. A cousin was there to greet us. He said, “Oh, is this your son Ranulph? I thought it was your daughter, because of all the ribbons in his hair.”

Who are your heroes?

My father. I never met him. He was an army commander. I grew up with my mother telling me stories about him.

[See also: Andreas Malm Q&A: “Sweden is the sickest country in the Global North”]

What book last changed your thinking?

One Man in His Time, the memoirs of Serge Obolensky. I was at school and a guy called David Cornwell taught me German. He changed his name to John le Carré. He gave us the book to teach us to cut things down, don’t waffle, don’t use too many adjectives and adverbs.

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Which political figure do you look up to?

Both held the democratic world against the Soviet Union and other autocratic regimes: Reagan then and Biden now.

What would be your “Mastermind” specialist subject?

Captain Scott and Ernest Shackleton. All my research into their journeys in advance of my own means I might not make a fool of myself on Mastermind.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

Way back, I went to Mount Maunganui in New Zealand. Wonderful people, wonderful temperature, great place to live. I would have liked to be there in the 1940s.

[See also: Orhan Pamuk Q&A: “My frustrations and angers have made my life richer”]

What TV show could you not live without?

The Big Bang Theory. They’re a funny group.

Who would paint your portrait?

Nigel Cox painted it during the course of that journey around the Earth. He was the communicator of signals on the ship.

What’s your theme tune?

“The Lorelei”. I was in the army in Germany in the Cold War. I used to take Scottish soldiers on army adventure training – we’d canoe, climb, cross-country ski – to keep them from getting bored, because the Soviet army never bothered to attack. We’d always stop at the pub, and some of them drank a lot of beer. The first Scotsman who couldn’t remember the verses of “The Lorelei” had to buy everyone else’s drinks.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Stop smoking. Forty years ago, I did.

[See also: Sian E Harding Q&A: “I have inherited my grandmother’s gravy gene”]

What’s currently bugging you?

The 40mph speed limit on the M4. No work ever seems to be done, but the cones and the speed restrictions stay forever.

What single thing would make your life better?

Learning how to progress from my Nokia mobile to something a bit more modern.

When were you happiest?

I couldn’t pick one moment.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

I would have studied for my A-levels harder, and passed into Sandhurst college. That would have enabled me to do what I always wanted, which was to be like my dad – an army officer in the Royal Scots Greys cavalry regiment.

Are we all doomed?

You can’t see into the future. You just have to do the best you can, try to remain honest and help people when possible.

“Climb Your Mountain” by Ranulph Fiennes is published by Quercus

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This article appears in the 26 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, State of Disorder