Laurence Inman goes exploring heroism and wonders just who we should be celebrating.
I’m a bit of a fan of blokes who go off into very cold places, or climb very high mountains. I don’t think I’d ever do it myself, because I want to die in a warm place with all my extremities still attached. And I say ‘blokes’ because women are noticeably absent when groups go striding off into snowy wastes, often never to return. They have very good noses for pointlessness.
When it comes to endurance I’m a Shackleton man. Scott (he of the Antarctic) was, apparently, a bit of a nutter, hated by most of his men and prone to moods; not the type you want leading you off into a wilderness, possibly unto death. Sir Ranulph Fiennes: I just don’t like the cut of his gib.
But Shackleton was a real hero. He sailed away and was promptly forgotten by everyone, who were much more concerned with World War One, which unfortunately broke out shortly after he left. His expedition was beset by disasters from the start. Eventually his wooden sailing ship was crushed in the ice and he led his band of men across half a continent, dragging their supplies and shelter in a rowing boat. He then rowed this boat hundreds of miles to South Georgia, pulled it overland again over a mountain range, got more supplies, went back the way he’d come and rescued every man he’d left behind. He did all of this dressed in gear which nowadays we’d think inadequate for a hike in the Peak District.
This month marks sixty years since the ‘conquest’ of Everest. I haven’t seen much in the media about this and I think I know why.
For several decades we were told a story about Everest, a story involving intrepid adventurers battling the elements, overcoming impossible odds to achieve what had previously been thought beyond human endurance.
But then dents and gaps began to appear in this narrative. About twenty years ago Brian Blessed climbed Everest. Now, I’ve met Brian Blessed and the word ‘mountaineer’ is not one you would reach for first when describing him. Even ‘gardener’ would be pushing it. Then other people, even more unlikely, began to conquer Everest. Some went up and then came down on skis. Some went up on skis and then ran down. Nowadays one-legged six-year-olds roller-blade up and pirouette down.
It’s very tempting to believe we’ve been sold a pup here.
And it makes you want to know what the truth behind other stories might be. The war, for instance, and certain people’s actual contribution to the overall victory: Why is Churchill about to be put on the new fivers and not Alan Brooke? Or Stalin?