The British explorer has first-hand experience of polar expeditions and provides an engaging biography of the restless and flawed Irishman
When a young Irishman secured a post with a British monthly named Royal Magazine in 1903, he was sure he could make a good fist of it as a journalist.
His track record seemed impressive: he had published a book, written a series of articles and produced his own newspaper while at sea. Though he badly needed the job, he didn’t last the pace. He became bored of subediting and proofreading, and his editor Percy Everett felt he had little technical skill. Everett did deduce one thing correctly, however: Ernest Shackleton knew how to tell a good story.
So does Ranulph Fiennes, the writer and poet who has been voted Britain’s greatest living explorer, and here he tells Shackleton’s. Several of his adventures have involved succeeding where his predecessor did not.
Since he was thrown out of the SAS for blowing up a dam built by Disney for the 1966 Dr Dolittle film, Fiennes has set records in crossing Antarctica and the Arctic Ocean. These include traversing the Antarctic on foot in 1993, testing and disproving the theory that Shackleton’s plan to do so was doomed.
Like Shackleton, he understands the lure of the ice. Despite all the discomfort and suffering, the urge to return is “mesmeric”, Fiennes says. Memories of gangrene, “crotch rot” and frostbite are “eclipsed by the rose-tinted spectacles through which the prospect of a grand adventure is viewed”, he says. The Danes, he adds, have a word for this ache for the globe’s icy extremes: polarhullar.
His biography of Shackleton, however, is less about derring-do and more about the many facets that make up an explorer. Shackleton, who was born in Co Kildare in 1874 and left school early, was drawn to the sea by its promise of adventure and fame. His father tried to break his interest by sending him on an awful first voyage but it merely strengthened his resolve.
When he spotted an advertisement in 1900 seeking crew for an expedition to the Antarctic, led by Lt Robert Scott of the Royal Navy, it was a chance “straight from the pages of Boy’s Own”, Fiennes writes.
Shackleton had neither the exploration experience nor the scientific expertise, but it didn’t stop him. He was appointed third officer on Scott’s Discovery expedition of 1901-1904 and set a record with Scott and Edward Wilson in marching 960 miles to latitude 82 degrees south.
He barely survived after contracting scurvy, and was sent home. Scott omitted to specify Shackleton’s illness in his later account, instead describing him as an “invalid”.
Fiennes empathises with this cruel wound to pride; the fact that Shackleton did not have Scott’s navy background also made it harder for him to raise sponsorship when he resolved to return south. The Norwegian Roald Amundsen won the contest to reach the South Pole in December 1911, and there was a period of national mourning in Britain when Scott and his party perished on their return leg having been beaten to the pole by Amundsen by 34 days.
Yet Shackleton made himself a household name thanks to his communication skills and his shrewd recognition of the power of the camera: he took the photographer Frank Hurley on Endurance for the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-17, for instance.
Fiennes recalls how an “explosion in interest” in the Irishman came after the South African journalist Roland Huntford wrote a book portraying Scott as less of a noble hero and more of a bungler. “To my mind, Huntford engaged in character assassination, which was designed for nothing more than to sensationalise and sell books,” he writes.
So incensed was Fiennes by Huntford that he published his own book on Scott in an attempt to restore his fellow Briton’s reputation. Some of that research is recalled here, while Fiennes acknowledges that Scott was prone to outbursts and to petty behaviour when he learned of Shackleton’s plans to return south.
Fiennes clearly agrees with much of Huntford’s assessment of Shackleton, however. He admires the explorer’s “classless” approach to recruiting crew, his humour, his loyalty to his men. He recognises the constant struggle to raise funds for adventures, noting one has to be both a salesman and a beggar.
Yet this is no paean to a hero. Fiennes explores Shackleton’s lack of business acumen, his dabbling in politics, his failure to repay a loan to help his brother Frank, a suspect in the 1907 theft of Irish crown jewels from Dublin Castle.
He relates how Shackleton’s restlessness and his attraction to other men’s wives contributed to a deteriorating marriage. He had almost no relationship with his three children. His wife, Emily, had once said she did not believe in reading them the sort of stories that ended “and they lived happily ever after”.
Fiennes also reminds us that not all members of Shackleton’s feted 1914-17 expedition survived. A party was sent on a separate ship, Aurora, to support the transcontinental trek by laying supply depots along the latter stages of the route. Three of them died, as did most of the dogs.
What makes this book so engaging is the author’s own storytelling skills. His text is peppered with interludes on everything from food to psychology and why three can “be a crowd”. As he writes, he feels he is on the ice in sub-zero temperatures or in the ship’s cabin, and he takes us there with him.
Ever the salesman too, Fiennes acknowledges that more than 60 books have already been written on Shackleton. “To write about Hell,” he writes, “it helps if you have been there.”
Biography: Shackleton by Ranulph Fiennes
Michael Joseph, 416 pages, hardcover €16.99; e-book £10.99