From Pole to Pole is a fascinating account of the life of maverick sailor and explorer, Quintin Riley, says Claudia Myatt
From Pole to Pole
Golden Duck, £14.99
From Pole to Pole, an account of the extraordinary life of Quintin Riley, is the latest in the Golden Duck ‘Yachtsmen Volunteers’ series, writes Claudia Myatt.
The biography, by Riley’s cousin General Jonathon Riley, was first published in 1989.
This is a completely new edition drawing on more extensive research into the wartime activities of 30AU – Ian Fleming’s ‘Intelligence Commandos’, within which Quintin Riley played an important role.
It’s a substantial paperback of over 300 pages simply because there’s a great deal to say about a man who could be described as many things – a polar explorer, a sailor, an outspoken eccentric, a courageous if maverick RNVR officer and secretary of the Olympic Sailing regatta with Peter Scott (with whom Riley was also involved in a search for the Loch Ness Monster).
Riley describes himself simply as a ‘gentleman’.
The 1930s were a time of great change.
There was plenty of pioneering work to do for those with a restless spirit, independent means and the ability to be impervious to – or even embrace – physical discomfort.
Like others of his background, Riley was brought up to endure the rigours of boarding school where ‘physical fitness underpinned moral rectitude; success was applauded but did not convey celebrity on the individual.
Discipline and integrity mattered above all …’.
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These qualities suited Riley perfectly; challenge and hardship were far more to his taste than the comfortable life of a gentleman.
Meeting explorer Gino Watkins at Cambridge led to his first expedition in Greenland as part of BAARE – the British Antarctic Air Route Expedition.
Much of Greenland was then unknown and the expedition had to be self-sufficient.
Riley seemed to have been impervious to the cold; having capsized in his kayak he was pulled out of the icy water none the worse for wear.
After Greenland he was the perfect choice for the next expedition – this time to the south.
It seems extraordinary now to think that in 1935 it was still not known whether Graham Land (now known as the Antarctic Peninsula) was part of the Antarctic Continent or whether it was in fact a large island separated from the mainland.
Riley was the right man at the right time to join what became known as the British Graham Land Expedition.
With the world in the middle of an economic depression, the expedition leaders struggled to raise funds and a budget of £20,000 had to cover everything including the wooden sailing schooner Penola, which leaked badly and had unreliable engines.
In spite of these constraints the expedition was a success and Riley again was in his element.
He returned from Antarctica to find the country on the brink of war, the perfect next focus for his energies.
Riley’s wartime duties are a fascinating insight into a little-known part of the war effort which General Riley is well-placed to evaluate.
After the war, his restless nature kept him busy although family responsibilities kept him closer to home on the Essex coast where he kept his cutter Jean II.
Riley’s was a full life and this book is a full and fascinating account of a man whose character was formed by the times he lived in – a time that seems so different to our own, with such different attitudes and ideas, that it’s hard to believe that less than a century has passed since he and his companions first set off to Greenland.
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