Secretarial: I Work For... `Sorry, my boss is in Antarctica'

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The Independent Culture
Gina Rawle Is Pa To Sir Ranulph Fiennes, Explorer And Writer

In 1993 Ran returned to his Exmoor village after completing the longest unsupported crossing of the Antarctic continent and I was one of a large team who organised the welcome home party. Later, Ran gave a talk about his experiences to help raise money for our village hall and asked me if I could do some work for him. Initially I would type on a table at one end of his sitting room until the office was moved to a converted army chapel behind the house. It was so cold there that I had chilblains for the first time in my life; despite Ran's hardiness, he didn't make me feel like a wimp when I told him. I now have a large office in a converted generator shed with all mod cons.

It is always clearly understood that if there are any problems, on either side, we can air them without any fear of resentment. Because I am his first proper secretary at his Exmoor office, we've had a chance to forge a working relationship from scratch. Ran is totally flexible about my working hours, which means I can also do secretarial work for other people locally and help my husband, who's a sheep farmer, at lambing time.

Most of the time there is no one else in the office and the only person I will see all day is the postman, for when Ran is not on an expedition he is often away giving motivational presentations. I mostly work on my own initiative, but Ran is always careful to keep me informed and encourages me to check everything that passes over my desk.

For the last couple of years the focus of Ran's work has been his next expedition, Exel Logistics Northpole, due to leave in February 2000. He controls most of the organisational work with the help of a fantastic team, many of whom have been working with him for more than 20 years - Ran's loyalty engenders the same emotion in others. It's obviously very worrying when he goes off on a dangerous expedition. I'm aware of the tension but it's certainly not noticeable in the way he behaves, and he never loses his temper. He approaches danger practically and makes all the preparations he can.

At the moment he's in training - an essential aspect of his job for his life could depend on it. When he recently had a fitness test, which included being immersed in cold water baths, he was at the same level as an active man half his age. He doesn't really talk about his expeditions. I think he's a bit like my father who was an army man yet never spoke about the dangers he had encountered. He may belittle his own achievements, but when I recently completed a 31-mile walk, he was full of interest and admiration.

My work mainly involves helping things run smoothly. The closer we get to the expedition, the closer we get to the nitty-gritty and my role in making sure Ran has the space to focus on his preparations becomes all the more important. For example, the suppliers working on his clothing equipment will call in regularly to check all his particular requirements. I have to decide whether these queries are worth disturbing him for - a question like whether a jacket needs a flap over a zip may seem trivial until you realise that an exposed zipper could be the route to hypothermia. Every single item has to be examined in minute detail because Ran's life will depend on it. He will spend hours removing all extraneous labels and laces because weight is everything when you're dragging your kit for 700 miles across the arctic wastes.

Within the village he's a prophet in his own land, known more as a friendly employer than "Sir Ranulph, the explorer". Of course, there are times when he's incredibly high profile, but as a private man he's not interested in the glitterati lifestyle. His wife Ginny is similarly self -contained and private and copes very well with Ran's expeditions. Exploring is very much his job, how he makes his living; if he's a restless, embattled soul, he keeps it to himself. Ran regularly quotes Dr Anthony Clare's statement about him being like "stirring into a void with a teaspoon" because it causes him a great deal of amusement. We certainly don't discuss life and the universe together.

My function is to make my boss's life easier and his day run smoother. But I don't work as hard as Ran does. He is absolutely non-stop and never wastes even a second. He likes to be busy and if I can get him away from Exmoor at the crack of dawn to do a morning, afternoon and evening presentation in London, returning in the early hours of the next day, he would consider it to be an ideal use of his time.

My admiration for what he has achieved is coupled with my respect for his personal kindness. While my husband and I were building our bungalow, Ran must have noticed that it was beginning to get me down because one weekend he and Ginny arrived unannounced to help us with the plasterboarding. He's also very unassuming; when we recently stopped off in order to see an elderly relative of mine, he spent the visit discussing with her the best way to replace her carpets rather than boasting about his expeditions. He really is an incredible one-off person.

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