"Life should be a great adventure."
He stopped to think, looking at the covers of his own books, originals and translations, piled on the coffee table between us.
"I mean, you cannot lead a little life."
I tried to work out his accent. The way he said little, with a long i, it sounded Italian but everything else about him was English. Then, as if to emphasise the force it took him to break out of his little life, he shot out his right arm and opened a hand whose skin was hard and calloused from outdoor contact.
"I don't know what it is, but there's something in my spirit, the human spirit, in all of us. We have to have a sense of adventure in our lives. We have to know that we are achieving something, that our life has a meaning. It's like, it's like…"
He gestured at the bookcase. I looked over to it and the first book that caught my eye was Marik van Hammeren's From Lucknow to Iwanaddhi: Troubled Travels.
"It's like everyone has a story, their life is a story and they have to live it to the full, and if they're stopped from doing that, they sicken and die."
I asked him about his early years, working in the family business.
"That's it exactly. There I was, working away very successfully, selling shipping insurance, playing tennis in the evening, engaged to a very nice girl who worked on the floor above me, but all the time I was thinking, 'I can't stand this any more—I have to get out.'"
I made a mental note of the scar above his right eyebrow. I'd ask him about that later. He probably got it from a fall while descending a mountain.
"And then one day I had to travel out to Bombay to arrange a large amount of cover for a new shipping line. I travelled out as a passenger on one of the freighters. There were eight passengers and one of them was this amazing amazing woman who was going out there to open a hospital for children with spinal disorders. She'd raised all the money herself by badgering rich people in England, getting them to subscribe and commit, and now she was going out there to manage the construction and everything. What really impressed me about her was her spirit: nothing could dent her self-belief, and she had done this amazing thing just by having an idea and carrying it through."
The phone went.
"Sorry, I have to answer that; I'm in the middle of arranging finance for our next voyage."
He walked over to the phone, which was on an enormous Welsh dresser overflowing with books, pamphlets, piles of paper and various bits and pieces of equipment whose use I couldn't guess. Pinned all over it there were photos, postcards and notes. Pictures of men at the tops of mountains, smiling behind beards and goggles. Groups of serious men and women in narrow clearings by the side of jungle rivers. The back of a man behind an ice-sledge, in silhouette against an impossibly low sun whose needle-like beams radiated from the man's frosted profile like the spikes of a diamond flower.
He held the phone firmly in a gnarled, hairy grip.
"No. No. No. Damn it, no! Why don't people ever do what they say they are going to do? Why does it take me personally rubbing people's noses into it to make them do what they have committed? It's so pathetic. Tell them that they will get their money back twice over when the film is syndicated. We'll get some bloody actor with a nice voice to do the voice-over, someone like Ralph Fiennes, who'll go down well with the overseas market, English as a bloody battleship, and then we'll sell it all around the world. We've done it before. You have a word with them and if they don't budge, I'll ring old whatsisname—Martin—Crowcroft, that's right. I'll ring him. His dad was at school with me. Okay, ring me later."
He sat down and shook his head, looking out of the window. His eyes seemed to film over with a crowd of problems which his hardened, rock-like features repelled like unsuccessful assailants of a castle wall. Then he waved his hand to dispel them.
"Where were we? Oh, yes, India, now, by luck, I met this amazing woman and we split up at Bombay but as soon as I'd finished my business, I cabled back home and said: 'Job done. Life begins.' It sounds very pretentious now but that is how I felt. I had this feeling that I'd been leading the wrong life, like I was a character in the wrong story for all those years and then, suddenly, I got this great burst of joy and enthusiasm. It was like being a child again, waking up on a summer morning when the sun is already humming in the sky and you get this very physical sense of the future opening up from inside your being. Do you know what I mean? The world just feels full of promise, that you could do anything. It's like riding a wave, you know, those surfers in Hawaii, picking up an elemental force that crossed an ocean. It seems scary but in the middle of it you have this great sense of calm. Because you're doing what you should be doing, you see. Even if you have difficulties and problems, you get depressed like anybody else, but somehow you know you are where you should be and nothing can make you give up. You're living your own narrative, the one that's born inside you and develops till you die. That's the great adventure."
So, you joined your first wife, Susan, at the hospital?
"I travelled by train to Kerala and then I went on foot up into the mountains. She was already laying out the foundations with some local builders—I mean, she did the plans herself, that's the kind of woman she was—she'd turn her hand to anything. So I stayed there with her for almost two years and we built it ourselves with help from the locals. We laid the pipes, installed a generator—we even baked our own tiles for the roof. What that experience taught me was the power of the human spirit and will—if you believe in something strongly enough and you're prepared to work hard at it and not give up, you can achieve your dreams. That's what we should be teaching young people these days, not sitting them down in classes and stuffing them full of stupid facts so that they can pass exams. We should be firing their imaginations so that they can go out and remake the world for us, for themselves."
I'd read all the previous interviews he'd given. Most of them had spoken about his legendary 'difficultness' with interviewers, one of them had even called him cantankerous. I hadn't noticed it. He was impassioned and earnest with small signs of irritation that occasionally showed in the way he quickly flicked his hand while struggling to focus on a memory or find a word, but apart from that he was friendly and patient with my questions. Maybe he was doing all this to drum up publicity for his next voyage but I felt that there was a rapport there, that he liked me even. I remembered the story about how he'd met his second wife, Naddiya, when she'd travelled for three months into the Amazon jungles to photograph him for a German anthropology magazine. When she found him, he was laid up with a leg almost gangrenous from a machete injury and it was her who nursed him back to health. It seems that his career was as much driven by the women who nurtured and facilitated him as by his own inner drives. I asked him.
"Firstly, it's not a career. There's no sense of progression. There are just a series of challenges and accomplishments, things you haven't done yet. And as for the women—you mean my wives? well, we're all indebted to people, not just to the women, but to the men to. I've been lucky to have had very good friends who have stimulated and assisted me. That's all part of the journey. Every human being is a beacon of energy and motivation—they radiate. You'd be a fool if you didn't pick up on that and use it, wouldn't you?"
How do you respond to the accusation that you use people?
"Use people? Who says that? What does it mean? Am I using you now or are you using me? You have a need to fill up your magazine so that people will buy your newspaper and I have a need for publicity in order to get support for my next venture. It's symbiotic. Or I could say that you're using me. So what if you're paying me? You get paid for your work, don't you? This is just part of my work."
As he got angry, I couldn't help looking at the scar above his eye. He tightened his forehead and widened his eyes as he lectured me. The scar darted upwards, seemingly anchored at one end to his eye-brow but the other end curving up to make a parabola. I tried to pull the interview back to India by asking him about his first marriage.
"Well, we just fell in love while we were building the hospital so we got married at a Coptic church in Kerala. Once the hospital was opened there was nothing for me to do there and I began to get restless again. Everest had just been conquered and that stirred my imagination so I went to the Himalayas and learnt to climb, intending to come back at the end of the summer but then the K2 expedition came up and so I went on that but only two of us survived. I was badly injured and returned to England for treatment. Then I led the Amazon expedition, which lasted over a year, by which time Susan had met somebody else so we parted amicably."
Once I have him back on track, I just ask him the questions I've prepared and let the tape roll. It's like a performance that I can sit back and enjoy as the afternoon proceeds and the shadows cross the lawn outside the window. Sometimes, I think he's flattering me and other times he seems coldly indifferent. I only ask him about facts, but the facts are all well known. I try not to venture opinions, even in the form of questions. Towards the end, I'm worried that I won't have anything that I couldn't have got from the clippings file or from reading his books.
He's old now. He'll have to give up soon. Why does that make me feel better? What is it about achievers that make the rest of us feel inadequate and admiring at the same time? We identify with their achievements, but their achievements throw our ordinariness into relief. I need something to take back with me, something that isn't a fact.
But isn't it true there are no frontiers any more, nothing left to achieve, everything has been done?
"You haven't understood me have you? You haven't been listening. I spent so long trying to make it real for you but you've missed it completely."
He looked at me with pity and incomprehension.
What? What else is there left to do? The mountains, the Poles, the deserts, the jungles, the caves, the altitudes and ravines—you've done them all. What?
"It's not what you achieve. It's the will and the imagination. It's the discontent with things as they are that drives you out. You leave your friends and your family, never knowing if you will return, because you have a feeling inside you like a bird when it's time to migrate. You cannot stop yourself. You have to be alive. It's inside all of us and will never die. We're prepared to suffer in order to live, to throw away our happiness in order to be happy. Do you understand that? This will be my last voyage. I'm old now. I'm prepared to die. A world like this? No."
It was something of an adventure just getting to meet the explorer Allun Denraith. He lives in darkest Cornwall, half an hour's drive from the closest train station. I found him in his garden, working away with hammer and chisel, building a rockery from the local stone. There's something immediately disconcerting about him when you meet him up close. Maybe it's those gnarled hands that have clawed their way up the face of Everest and K2, or maybe it's the way he fixes his you with his sea-blue eyes, sheltered beneath craggy brows. You feel as if you are in the presence of an elemental force. He's getting ready for his next adventure and I ask him if there is anything left to explore, if everything has been done and there are no longer any frontiers.
"That is a very good question," he answers. "I think after this one I will be ready to hang up my boots."