Melanie McDonagh

Sir Ranulph Fiennes: a living Lawrence of Arabia

  • From Spectator Life
Sir Ranulph Fiennes and HRH Prince Charles at the 1983 premiere of To The Ends of The Earth, a film about a three-year expedition led by Fiennes (Getty Images)

Sir Ranulph Fiennes (a third cousin of Ralph, since you ask) has written a book about Lawrence of Arabia. He feels an affinity with him: he too has led Arabs in fighting, in Sir Ranulph’s case, for the Sultan of Oman. ‘I’d been in Arabia, leading Arabs against the Marxist rebels. In Lawrence’s day, the British were fighting the Germans and the Turks’.  

‘It’s my DNA. My ancestors did lots of travel in new places’

The circumstances differed. ‘Lawrence had camels and was dealing with a huge body of men; I had six open-topped Land Rovers with two machine guns and I led 30 men; a mixture of Belushis and Oman Arabs and Zanzibars. I felt about the men as a family.’ What does he make of Lawrence’s extraordinary career? ‘It mystified me’, he says.

Not everyone can compare himself with Lawrence of Arabia, but not everyone has had Ranulph Fiennes’ curious career – a gentleman adventurer or, as the Guinness Book of Records has it, the world’s greatest living explorer, chiefly in the Arctic and Antarctic. He’s now 79 and he has the incisive diction and rather gentle manner of an Etonian of his era. He has a 17-year-old daughter with his second wife, Louise – ‘it’s wonderful’ – but he finds the screen habits of her generation baffling – ‘I’m not into tablets and looking at things in your hand, pressing buttons’.  

Sir Ranulph has been telling his story, promoting his books and giving lectures for so long, he’s heard all the questions. There are several YouTube interviews where he recounts some of his hair-raising exploits – like sawing off the tops of his own fingers after a bad bout of frostbite or trying to conquer vertigo by climbing the North Face of the Eiger (it didn’t work).

The obvious question is, why, why, why? His exploits and records seem both dauntlessly heroic and (if it’s not a girly thing to say) unnecessary – discovering the lost city of Iram in Oman is one thing, being the first to walk across Antarctica unsupported (in 93 days) is perhaps less compelling.

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