Sir Ranulph Fiennes OBE could have been a wine merchant if he hadn’t flunked his A levels. Instead he went on to become one of the world’s most celebrated explorers, racking up amazing feats of endurance and guile. Johnnie Walker sponsored this Explorer Series at Mr Fogg’s of Mayfair and supplied cocktails made of Blue Label just so the audience wouldn’t get squeamish at the amputation and frost-bite bits.
Plenty of Sir Ranulph Fiennes’ ripping yarns were to be heard at Mr Fogg’s – the venue set up by the Inception Group – and what was driving our great explorer? To beat the Norwegians.
Travellers’ tales are notoriously embellished and embroidered. But there was none of that at Mr Fogg’s evening in Mayfair with explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes OBE.
Launched in 2014, the Explorer Series talks are held monthly and feature some of the world’s greatest ‘seafaring daredevils, survival maestros and courageous adventurers’, though one suspects Fiennes is in a league of his own.
Inside, Mr Fogg’s is a pastiche of Victoriana, crammed with pith helmets, weathered flags, memorabilia and heads of stuffed ibex. Though only a stone’s throw away from Berkeley Square, the club is slightly tricky to find even with modern navaids, but ahead of our arrival the bar staff have been busy.
The evening is sponsored by Johnnie Walker Blue Label and much to everyone’s delight they are mixing cocktails for the adventurous amongst us. We start at base camp with a cocktail called Down to a Fiennes Art. We move up to The Man who N’Everests. And then we summit with Pole Position, comprising Johnnie Walker Blue Label, Mancino Chinato vermouth, home-made Lapsang souchang and cinnamon syrup, a snip at £28.
Once the talk is under way Fiennes, now a lean 72-year-old, stands before the projector flicking through slides in time honoured fashion. It’s all a bit like the Geographers’ Guild lecture in Paddington Bear. Fiennes is a beguiling narrator, and there is a string of mirthful stories laced with witty self-deprecation, (a hallmark of Old Etonians). But it is as well that the warming Blue Label is afire in our bloodstream.
After a few perfunctory maps come the images, first of blackened frost-bitten toes, then a gangrenous hand. Then matter-of-fact descriptions of amputations, dismal months waiting and waiting in tiny tents, starvation diets and painful medical tests without anaesthetic. The rapt audience is almost willing him to say, this is all made up! But this is Sir Ranulph, a man who apparently doesn’t know what ‘faking it’ means.
Fiennes’s most notable treks include being the first person to circumnavigate the world along its polar axis, which was a three year, 52,000 mile odyssey. He achieved a world-first for completing the first unsupported crossing of the Antarctic, the longest, unsupported polar journey in history. He was also the first person to cross the Antarctic and Arctic Ocean, led the first hovercraft expedition up the Nile, the longest river in the world, and achieved the world-record for unsupported northerly polar travel.
In 2003, only three and a half months after a massive heart attack, falling into a three-day coma and then undergoing a double bypass surgery, ‘Ran’ achieved a 7/7/7 – that is the first seven marathons in seven days on seven continents.
Oh, and he is signed up for the maiden flight of Virgin Galatica.
Ask Sir Ranulph about his motivation and he says simply, “To beat the Norwegians”. But why he wants to beat his Norwegian rivals so ferociously, sacrificing fingers to frost bite and years of his life in the process, seems a mystery. And Fiennes himself is convinced that attaining a couple of decent A levels at school would have saved him from all this and secured him a job as a wine merchant like many of his school friends.
Still, sponsorship is the lifeblood of adventuring nowadays and Fiennes is loyal. Ambitious trips require years of planning (often by his late, and clearly very much missed wife, Ginny) and in one case no fewer than 1,900 sponsors. “A sponsor is God,” Sir Ranulph declares.
Themed around the Victorian explorer Philias Fogg, Mr Fogg’s was the first West End project from Inception Group, whose founders Charlie Gilkes and Duncan Stirling also created Chelsea speakeasy Barts, ’80s-themed nightclub Maggie’s and Bunga Bunga. Most recently, they opened Mr Fogg’s Tavern, a Victorian-inspired Pub, Gin Parlour and Salon in Covent Garden.
And Johnnie Walker Blue Label? Like Fiennes it is a one-off. Johnnie Walker’s most prestigious whisky, this super premium brand has clocked up one gold medal for excellence after another. It is reassuringly expensive with a RRP of £200 for a 70 cl bottle. The purist will want to consume the blend served neat with iced water on the side. But even in a cocktail its mellifluousness makes you ask, can this be for real?
Tickets for the Explorer Series can be purchased by clicking here