Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Boy wonder

What's up, Doc?
There are many extraordinary and inspiring stories about Dr David Livingstone. Here’s one that has nothing to do with Africa or exploration: the story of his childhood.   

Livingstone was born in the small industrial town of Blantyre, near Glasgow, two hundred years ago today. His family was pious and poor, seven of them living together in a single-room factory tenement. By the age of ten, David was working in the local mill, 6am till 8pm, six days a week. His sole day off was Sunday, much of which was spent at chapel.

Few children who endured such harsh upbringings at that time ever broke free from their lives of drudgery. Barely one in ten learned to read. Many were left bow-legged and broken by the long days spent clambering over and under dangerous machinery.

But even at an early age David Livingstone showed himself to be special. After clocking off from his gruelling 14-hour shift each night, he would study for a further two hours at the mill school. Back at home he then continued his reading till midnight. He studied Latin, theology, botany and maths. He never played. He even read at work, balancing his textbooks on the loom and earning the mockery of his fellow child-workers for his pains.

But it paid off. By his mid-twenties, the poor boy from Blantyre who would one day walk across Africa was studying medicine at Glasgow, working during his vacations to pay for classes. Training with the London Missionary Society followed. In November 1840, aged 27, he qualified as a physician. A few weeks later Dr Livingstone was ordained as a protestant minister in London.

If he had died that day, if he had never gone to Africa, Livingstone’s accomplishments would have still been mind-boggling. The chances of a working-class factory lad becoming a professional missionary-doctor in the mid-nineteenth century were virtually nil. Historian Tim Jeal calls his achievement “grotesquely improbable”. Put simply, David Livingstone was a boy wonder. “Sometimes,” Jeal writes, “it is hard not to be chilled by his resilience and almost inhuman perseverance.”

* Two biographies worth a read - Tim Jeal’s  “Livingstone” and Andrew Ross’s “David Livingstone”

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Ran the man

Sir Ranulph Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes
No more heroes any more? Try Sir Ranulph Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes, who turns 69 today.

Sir Ranulph is a blast from the past. A Boy's Own adventurer. A Scott or a Shackleton for our time.

He’s climbed Everest after a heart attack; walked across Antarctica (twice); run seven marathons in seven days on seven continents; slogged around the world, pole to pole, without leaving its surface – a 52,000 mile journey that took three years.

But the ordeal for which he’s most famous is of course the toe-curling surgery he underwent at his home on Exmoor in 2000. DIY surgery. Involving a fretsaw and a vice.

Fiennes, a former SAS man, had just returned from the Arctic with a badly frostbitten left hand. The fingers were black and mummified, the slightest brush against them agony. But doctors said it was too early to amputate. So Sir Ranulph decided to act alone.

“After four months of living with grotesque, witch-like talons, purple in colour, sticking out of my stumps, I could take it no longer…” he writes in his autobiography. “The answer was obvious. The useless finger ends must be cut off at once.”

One by one, Sir Ranulph put the dead digits into his Black & Decker table vice and “gently sawed”. Six days later the job was done.

When Fiennes’s surgeon, Donald Sammut, heard the news he was not impressed. “I apologised to Donald,” Fiennes writes, “but felt secretly pleased with myself since life improved considerably once the gnarled mummified ends no longer got in the way.”

Those same finger stumps last week forced Sir Ranulph to pull out of his latest mad adventure: a first ever attempt to cross Antarctica in winter. Frostbite again. The world’s greatest living explorer could be facing more surgery.

But typically he is unfazed. Fifty percent of his expeditions so far have failed. He’s used to setbacks. He’s used to picking himself up and giving it another go, 69 years old or not.

So happy birthday, Sir Ranulph, and many happy returns to the world's most remote and frightening places. Like most of the great explorers of the past, you’re as daft as a badger. But you’re also an inspiration, a shining example of human courage and endurance.

Read more about Sir Ranulph's improbable adventures in his autobiography Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know