High Spirits

E.S. Turner

  • Living dangerously by Ranulph Fiennes
    Macmillan, 263 pp, £14.95, October 1987, ISBN 0 333 44417 5
  • The Diaries of Lord Louis Mountbatten 1920-1922: Tours with the Prince of Wales edited by Philip Ziegler
    Collins, 315 pp, £15.00, November 1987, ISBN 0 00 217608 4
  • Touch the Happy Isles: A Journey through the Caribbean by Quentin Crewe
    Joseph, 302 pp, £14.95, October 1987, ISBN 0 7181 2822 2

William Blake’s Proverb of Hell, ‘Sooner murder an infant in his cradle than nurse unacted desires,’ appears unexpectedly as a chapter epigraph in this autobiography by the once-notorious ‘Bomber Baronet’ of the headlines, Ranulph Fiennes. It is probably as good an excuse as any for indulging a compulsion to circle the globe by way of both Poles, a feat which Fiennes accomplished with the blessing of the Heir to the Throne and many hundreds of sponsors. In a life of turbulence he has shown a singular talent for getting others to subsidise his unacted desires, which is the secret of true happiness. Were all his commercial sponsors equally happy with their investment? Did some of them, perhaps, hope to see the names of their products perpetuated in the Polar landscape – Mount Weetabix, Cape Oxo and so forth? As it is, the natural features in those parts tend to be named after the more lowering emotions like Dread, Disappointment and Despair.

Fiennes – otherwise Sir Ranulph Twistleton-Wykeham-Fiennes, Bart – comes from the same family as Celia Fiennes, that admirable ‘fine’ lady of Banbury Cross, who rode side-saddle about 17th-century England, visiting one stinking ‘spaw’ after another and crisply recording all she saw. He became a baronet while still in the womb, for his father, commanding the Scots Greys in Italy, was killed in 1943 soon after he was conceived. The title brought neither cachet nor protection at Eton. ‘My great misfortune was to be a pretty little boy,’ he laments. Without justification, he was universally mocked as a tart and neither the assumption of a scowl nor an addiction to dangerous roof-climbing could dissipate the calumny. Again he finds a useful epigraph, this time in Elizabeth Bowen’s ‘There is no end to the violations committed by children on children, quietly talking alone.’ He is not one for self-analysis, but he says: ‘I was full of self-confidence when I first went to Eton ... Public school and three long years of remorseless nastiness squeezed every last trace of confidence from me. It would take a long time to get back to a balanced state.’

To the reader, it will seem that self-confidence returned pretty fast. Life as a young Scots Greys officer in Westphalia called for the high spirits that go with bruising sports and the release of greased pigs. Tickings-off for Fiennes came from the well-born: from his adjutant, the Duke of Kent (for rifle practice in the bedroom block), and from the divisional commander, a future Duke of Norfolk (for causing a car crash, though the culprit could well have been nailed instead for an unlawful exercise on the Kiel Canal which imperilled a Russian tanker). Costly trouble came when he was training in England with the SAS. Using hoarded explosives, he blew up Twentieth-Century Fox’s much-criticised ‘improvement’ to the village of Castle Combe, where Doctor Doolittle was being filmed. This ‘misplaced conservationist gesture’, as he has elsewhere described it, ended his hopes of some day commanding the Greys. ‘Why, I now ask myself, did I do these things?’ It was not, he insists, revenge for the bad years at Eton, but congenital devilment, ‘inevitable and unfortunate as an inherited malady’, which he struggled insufficiently to quash. That explanation will have to do; at least Fiennes does not plead the fashionable excuse of searching for his identity.

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