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.

His next step, a voluntary one, was secondment to the Sultan’s armed forces in Oman, where he served alongside ‘contract officers’, as mercenaries prefer to be called. The enemy were the guerrillas of PFLOAG, otherwise the People’s Front for the Liberation of the Occupied Arabian Gulf, operating out of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen. Taking up arms against an acronym was real enough: ‘Never before had I seen a man’s soul in his eyes, sensed his vitality as a human being, and then watched his body torn apart at the pressure of my finger.’ (Perhaps the epigraph here should have been Newbolt’s ‘To honour, as you strike him down,/ The foe that comes with fearless eyes’.) Although no political animal, Fiennes began to doubt whether his talents were best employed supporting a backward old Sultan, but he was persuaded to stay on until the Sultan could be forcibly retired to a suite at the Dorchester. A measure of the author’s furious energy is that he spent a hard-earned spell of leave conducting his first sponsored adventure, demonstrating mini-hovercraft in the hyacinth pools of the Upper Nile and ending up in Uganda (where he refused a ride to ‘a fat corporal called Idi Amin’). The taste of this commercial foray appealed to him and when he left the Sultan’s service, aged 27, he saw where his future lay. Meanwhile, he joined the mercenary band of Foyle’s lecturers at £25 a time.

It was essential to keep performing feats of derring-do that would kindle the interest of sponsors. When the Norwegian Hydrological Board wanted one of its highest and most difficult glaciers surveyed he talked himself into doing it the spectacular way, by means of a team parachute drop, with ITN cameras whirring from accompanying aircraft and other rights sold to the Sunday Times. Then came a transnavigation of British Columbia to celebrate the province’s centenary – a pell-mell traverse of rapids, cataracts, sinkholes, flumes, log-jammed maelstroms, canyons and walls of death. Like the best accounts of exploration, this one gains an extra dimension by the growth of friction in the team: in this case between the leader and the ‘professional moaners’ of BBC Television, who are all for proper lunch-breaks on dry land and eight hours sleep at night. The leader finds that the BBC is tape-recording dissidents, who testify that he ‘couldn’t organise a piss-up in a brewery’. What would the sponsors say to this? In the event, ‘the two BBC films led their sixteen-million-strong British audiences to believe that I was a cruel and incompetent publicity-seeker.’ But the gallant army of sponsors was not unduly frightened and the adventure proved a hide-hardening one.

On the Canadian exploit Fiennes had the help of a young woman of action, his newly acquired wife Virginia, who had a mind of her own (their honeymoon was all emotional rapids and sinkholes). It was she who suggested the Transglobe expedition, which took seven years to prepare and three years to execute. ‘Mad and suitably British’ was the Prince of Wales’s description of the much-bally-hooed voyage of the Benjamin Bowring. In between the set-pieces of Pole-bashing eight sales exhibitions were staged in the world’s more congenial places and members of the expedition contracted 17 marriages, either to each other or to outsiders: all very different from those old-time circumnavigatory voyages in which most of the ship’s crew died. Not that life was cushy on the ice-caps, where trousers froze solid, the groin glands swelled, the haemorrhoids raged (‘haemorrhoids’ have their own entry in the index), the breath froze and dropped like dandruff and the unwary were stunned by static electricity. ‘For seven months we were to remain in precisely the same clothing without washing.’

Much of the fascination of this book lies in the extent to which its author is able to recruit, not only captains of commerce, but the media and the Armed Forces to his personal banner. His Whitehall file might be marked red for caution, but he is able to write sentences like: ‘An RAF Hercules flew us to Edmonton, Alberta with 9,000 pounds of equipment and a ten-year-old Land Rover ... which the Army had declared “Beyond economical repair”.’ When the Transglobe expedition was being prepared, a spacious attic of the Duke of York’s barracks in Chelsea was given rent-free for storing equipment. ‘I decided,’ writes Fiennes, ‘to look for people who were good-natured, patient and fit, then have the Territorial Army train them, free of charge, in the necessary skills.’ Reviewer’s italics. Virginia Fiennes joined the Women’s Royal Army Corps to learn all about radio communications. Meanwhile her husband trained periodically with a reserve squadron of the SAS.

Prince Charles, who steered the Benjamin Bowring on her first lap, may have wished that his own tours in support of trade and the flag could be organised with similar lack of protocol. An unsparing account of old-fashioned princely progresses is to be found in The Diaries of Lord Louis Mountbatten 1920-1922, describing tours with an earlier Prince of Wales (Edward VIII). Some reviewers have sensibly wondered why this schoolboy-style log was disinterred. If it has any lasting value, it must be to the social historian with an eye for the vagaries of upper-class behaviour. The editor, Philip Ziegler, tells us that the King (George V) felt that an extended imperial tour by his first-born would not only strengthen ties of friendship but weaken the infatuation felt by his son for Mrs Dudley Ward. This cure for love called for the services of the battle cruiser Renown, which used 35,798 tons of fuel oil on the Australia-New Zealand tour alone, with India, the Far East and Japan still to come.

Mountbatten, then 19, went along to jolly the difficult and moody Prince, six years his senior. His log is laced with indiscretions to lighten the otherwise tedious record of receptions, parades, gun salutes and tribal dances. A ‘debagging’ occurs after only seven pages – of a Grenadier Guards courtier by an admiral, assisted by the Staff. There is more hearty fun at the Crossing the Line ceremony, an ordeal now happily wiped out by jet travel. The day’s routine calls for constant changes of uniform, but even in leisure moments the party eagerly dress in anything to hand. It is a foolish hostess who leaves her cupboard doors unlocked, and a foolish servant who leaves an empty pram unattended. In the house of a Miss Walker at Yaralla, in Australia, the unstoppable admiral, in the gear of a pantomime oriental, initiates a game of follow-my-leader which involves everyone ‘crawling under beds, squeezing through windows and generally doing quite the maddest things imaginable’. There follows a free fight, with much hurling of sponges and buckets of water – ‘the admiral could be seen laying out about six ladies at one go, and then rushing at HRH with shouts and screams.’ In the end, a tearful hostess begs her guests not to drench her valuable oriental carpet. A copy of the diary describing these and other heroics was smuggled from Renown by the ship’s doctor, who was later surprised in Kettner’s, London, trying to sell it to an American journalist for £5,000.

On each tour the Prince set himself the task of shaking hands with all returned servicemen, something ‘better worth doing’, in Mountbatten’s view, than most of the tiresome ceremonial. In India, with Amritsar a recent memory, there was much hostility to the tour, but the hunting expeditions went ahead, with at least one graceless dispute over who killed which tiger. In Ceylon the future partitioner of India was able to show his mettle when an officious level-crossing keeper delayed the royal cars. ‘I seized both his hands and held them with my left,’ writes Mountbatten, ‘while with my right I undid his uniform coat, searched his pockets and produced keys, unlocked the gates, let the stream of waiting cars through and returned the keys to the infuriated and jabbering man.’ It is fair to say that the youthful Mountbatten summed up the cultural and economic mess in which Japan found herself both shrewdly and succinctly, adding: ‘A war might save them, as the people are still ultra-patriotic; this is the war I fear.’ And it was the war over which he eventually found himself presiding.

From commercial and princely progresses one turns, not without relief, to a resourceful traveller who tours the world in a wheelchair. Quentin Crewe, his publishers say, was the fourth European to cross the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia (shades of Wilfred Thesiger); he has also memorably traversed the Sahara. Touch the Happy Isles is a refreshingly acerbic account of island-hopping in the Caribbean, one of the notable pleasures of life for those who do not fret too much about missing the odd flight, and who do not panic at the sight of short runways ending in the sea. Crewe’s hosts are suitably variegated: Lord Glenconner (Colin Tennant) in St Lucia; the historian Sir John Plumb (‘peppery but very entertaining’) also in St Lucia; Norman Parkinson, the photographer, in Trinidad. He visits Richard Branson’s house in the Virgin Islands, pronouncing it to be more tasteful than others he could (and does) mention. He finds that Noel Coward’s home in Jamaica is a museum, with a protective ‘bird-cage’ over the Master’s tombstone. In Dominica he interviews the no-nonsense Miss Eugenia Charles, first woman prime minister in the Caribbean.

When sightseeing in a wheelchair is impossible, Crewe sends his young man Hamish to climb battlements or cliffs and report back. Throughout, his curiosity is commendable. He notes the engaging way in which the newspapers describe people as ‘B/K as’ – everyone, it seems, is better-known as somebody else. He broods over the Danes’ disastrous attempts to rehabilitate Western delinquents in St Vincent. He notes that Grenada buys up Regent Street’s old illuminations. He reports which islands ignore colour, which are colour-aware and which are colour-prejudiced. The isle which fills him with blackest pessimism is, inevitably, Haiti. As a traveller, he is admirably sceptical and stands no nonsense. In a restaurant called Rumours, in the Virgin Islands, a pretty black waitress says ‘My name is Apryl and I welcome you to Rumours. Have you all had a good day? It will make my day if you have.’ When Crewe asks, ‘Could you stop all that?’ she cheerfully assents: ‘Yeah, it’s terrible, isn’t it? I mean, it could ruin both our days in no time.’