The Gormenghast Trilogy
by Mervyn Peake
I’ve loved this for 30 years. In the 1970s, we were having trouble trying to find sponsorship for a big expedition. We had no money then and, at one point, we decided we would take time off from the organising. My wife’s little sister Arabella told me I was too stressed, and recommended that I read this series of books. Peake has the most wonderful imagination; there have been stories that he had a bit of help from amphetamines – which has not been proven – but in any case, the results are wonderful. You can get lost in the tales and, however stressful life is, you can disappear into Gormenghast.
The Coldest March
by Susan Solomon
For quite a long time now, writers who want to make a breakthrough and make a name for themselves have chosen the means of attacking dead people. The man most maligned and most lied about is Captain Scott. This wonderful book by Susan Solomon is one of the most amazing proofs that those who doubt Scott’s achievement are, as far as I’m concerned, telling a pack of lies. American Solomon, who is a top meteorologist, shows beyond any scientific doubt that the reason Scott’s group died was nothing to do with so-called inefficiencies that I believe were invented by the doubters. She proves that the reason Scott’s men died – 100 years ago next March – was because of totally rogue, unpredictable weather at a time of year when it never normally happens.
The Day of the Jackal
by Frederick Forsyth
This is the most exciting, gripping story I’ve ever read. I read it the year after it came out. Back then I used to listen to Radio 4. Their review of Forsyth’s book was really enticing and didn’t let me know whether it was fact or fiction. When I finished it, I rang a French friend in Paris and asked him to check up on the story; he said that the guy who actually fired a shot at de Gaulle couldn’t have been the Jackal from the novel, so on his say-so (and he was a journalist) I was disappointed. But the book is still wonderful, and shows what a thin dividing line there is between fact and fiction. There was a bestselling book I wrote, about 20 years ago, called The Feather Men – of which a film has been made called Killer Elite, starring Robert De Niro, Clive Owen and Jason Statham – that was billed on the cover as ‘Fact or Fiction?’ Now, for the first time, I am saying that it was fiction.
Survival of the Fittest
by Mike Stroud
Mike is a very good friend. I’ve been doing expeditions with him for more than 20 years and he is without a doubt the top physiologist specialising in physical stress and stress nutrition. He is also senior lecturer in nutrition at Southampton University and a top doctor at Southampton General Hospital. In very weird places I’ve had things go wrong with me, such as frostbite, gangrene and kidney stones, so him being a doctor who is phased by nothing and can operate in bad circumstances – in a tent – makes him a really good choice of companion. So this book represents both the man and his incredible knowledge.
The Small Woman
by Alan Burgess
Gladys Aylward was the greatest heroine of all time, in my opinion. She hooked up with a religious mission in North London and heard about this place called China. She suggested to her brother that he should be a missionary, but he said: “No, go and do it yourself.” She saved up for two years to get a ticket to north China, but in the middle of the forest in Siberia the railway ran out. All of the people got off – there was a war taking place across the railway line between Japan and Russia. She eventually escaped after all sorts of amazing adventures, God knows how. For the next 20 years or so she stayed to help the Chinese people and she became a citizen. She was the local officer so she could stop the painful binding of women’s feet; she saved thousands of children from the Japanese and the Communists. They made a film of these events: The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, starring Ingrid Bergman.
by Peter Godwin
Here is a journalist daring to go into Zimbabwe, even though he is on Mugabe’s blacklist, to try to tell the world what is really happening in the country – none of this total rubbish that they have a shared government with an opposition. It’s just horrific. If you read the book you’ll know what’s going on in Mugabe-land. This is one of the stories that figures in my new book, My Heroes – Godwin is my journalistic hero.
An Ordinary Man
by Paul Rusesabagina
The events of this book take place in 1994 in Rwanda. The author was the hero of the film Hotel Rwanda, at the centre of unbelievable examples of man’s inhumanity to fellow man. His story shows that if you want to find a hero, you have to find horror: out of horror and terror come heroes. Reading about people like Rusesabagina makes you proud to be alive – people who can be that brave just to save others.
by Wilfred Thesiger
I love Thesiger, I think he was a great, great man. A few months before he died, I took him out for lunch. He was in his nineties and wouldn’t let me drive him from the old folks’ home in Kent down to the local pub – he insisted on walking. He was six foot four and at least 80 per cent of the time his mind was clear. When I suggested paying for lunch he brushed my hand to one side and said: “Don’t you dare, this is on me and it’s a celebration.” I asked him what it was we were celebrating, and he said that after much fighting at this lovely old folks’ home, he had “managed to get out of that horrible mixed wing and into the all-male wing”. Of all his travels, the one that I feel most geographically acquainted with is Arabian Sands, because I spent many years in that desert area of south Oman (Dhofar or The Empty Quarter), where he was searching for a lost city that is in the Bible and the Koran, and was mentioned by Marco Polo. I was about 24 when I went there, as a captain in the army of the Sultan of Oman, posted from the British army.
One Man in His Time
by Serge Obolensky
This is a rather odd choice. When I was at school and I was 15, I was made to read the entirety of this, the autobiography of an obscure Russian aristocrat, and to précis it in 2,000 words! I can remember the name of the teacher, James Calendar – he was fantastic. I did it and I thought: “I can write English, it’s something that I can do. I fail every exam, but I can write English.” I’ve written 19 books just because of this book.
My Heroes by Ranulph Fiennes is out now, published by Hodder.