Book review: My Heroes: Extraordinary Courage, Exceptional People by Ranulph Fiennes

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Known to many as the world’s greatest living explorer, Sir Ranulph Fiennes has put pen to paper to pay his own tribute to the people who have inspired him, from fellow explorers and brave policemen to families and freedom fighters.

Wherever in the world Fiennes gives one of his lectures or motivational speeches, someone always asks who inspired him to embark on his sometimes crazy adventures.

So for the first time, he explores this idea by revealing his own personal heroes and what lessons their actions have taught him in his own often hazardous profession.

There are heroes of faith, great survivors, those who test themselves against natural dangers and those whose courage comes from being caught in situations of unimaginable horror.

This fascinating and revealing book describes the extraordinary and often horrific events that led to these ordinary individuals becoming Fiennes’ greatest heroes.

From polar survivor to a knifed and beaten policeman, from a woman missionary to a special forces soldier, these are stories to both shock and amaze.

Rather than putting together a collection of medal-winning military heroes, Fiennes has cast his net wider to include individuals whose heroism has been part of civilian life rather than on the world’s battlefields.

One of his earliest heroes is the vicar of Eyam, the Derbyshire village which famously isolated itself to protect its neighbours when the Black Death plague struck in 1665.

Clergyman William Mompesson persuaded the residents of Eyam to quarantine themselves inside a set village boundary perimeter rather than fleeing and spreading the disease.

At least a third of the village died in the outbreak but their sacrifice was a stunning example of communal courage in a time of terror.

Another outstanding heroine is Gladys Aylward who was born in London in 1902 and was seized by a missionary zeal to help the people of China where a quarter of the world’s population lived in dreadful poverty and had never heard of Christianity.

Refused an official missionary role because of her lack of education, Aylward paid for her own travel expenses and made a perilous train journey to the walled Chinese town of Yangcheng.

Aylward became a revered figure among the people, taking in orphans and adopting several herself, intervening in a volatile prison riot and advocating prison reform, risking her life many times to help those in need.

In 1938, the region was invaded by Japanese forces and Aylward led about 100 orphans to safety over the mountains, despite being wounded herself.

Another of Fiennes’ heroes is fellow explorer Douglas Mawson whose instinct for survival was so strong that he beat horrific odds to cheat death in frozen Antarctica in 1912.

Rather than accepting starvation and death when his exploration mission went horribly wrong, he and Xavier Mertz, another member of the party, ate their sled dogs. The dogs’ livers proved poisonous to humans and Mertz died leaving the emaciated Mawson to travel alone the 100 dangerous miles back to Cape Denison.

His survival remains to this day a miracle of mind over matter of heroic proportions.

Awesome and inspirational, these are heroes who will live long both in the memory and in tales of exceptional bravery.

(Hodder & Stoughton, hardback, £20)