Saturday, October 17, 2009

My hero / Fridtjof Nansen by Sara Wheeler

Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen

My hero Fridtjof Nansen

Sara Wheeler
Saturday 17 October 2009 00.07 BST

olar exploration tends to attract more testosterone than talent, and in the Arctic department expeditions have generally concluded with an inglorious bout of shoe-eating. One man towers over the other ice-encrusted sledgers: Fridtjof Nansen, colossus of the glaciers. In August 1895, he and stoker Hjalmar Johansen battled to 86 degrees north on maple-wood skis, just 230 miles short of the pole. Theirs was the biggest single advance in polar travel for four centuries.

A long-faced Norseman with a touch of the archetypal brooding Scandinavian (as well as a hint of the Sphinx), Nansen was born near Christiania, the former name of Oslo, in 1861, and in the course of a tumultuous life became an outstanding scientist, diplomat and humanitarian as well as an explorer. He was a founder of neurology, discovering that nerve fibres, on entering the spinal cord, bifurcate into ascending and descending branches. They are still known as Nansen's fibres. A Nobel peace prize was among many laurels bestowed for his work as a League of Nations high commissioner, in the course of which he had originated the Nansen passport for refugees.

Following independence in 1905, he became his country's first ambassador to the Court of St James's, and at one point almost rose to the position of Norwegian prime minister. Perhaps that is why he was a better explorer (and writer) than the rest: he did other things – a man for all seasons. Nansen sensed at a profound level the "yearning after light and knowledge", and, almost uniquely, was able to marry that understanding to physical capability and snowcraft.
When I camped on the Greenland icecap, I sensed the ghostly presence of Nansen. (It was he, along with five companions, who made the first crossing of that huge country). Of all the frozen beards who had been there before me, only Nansen communicated a sense of the true subjugation of the ego that endeavour can bring. Failure, he acknowledged, would mean "only disappointed human hopes, nothing more". This great poet of northern latitudes concluded: "If we perish, what will it matter in the endless cycle of eternity?"


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002 My hero / Harley Granville-Barker by Richard Eyre
003 My hero / Edward Goldsmith by Zac Goldsmith
004 My hero / Fridtjof Nansen by Sara Wheeler 
005 My hero / Mother Mercedes Lawler IBVM by Antonia Fraser

007 My hero / Ernest Shepard by Richard Holmes
008 My hero / JG Ballard by Will Self
009 My hero / Alan Ross by William Boyd
010 My hero / Ben the labrador by John Banville

011 My hero / Vicent van Gogh by Margaret Drabble
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018 My hero / Francisco Goya by Diana Athill
019 My hero / Max Stafford-Clark by Sebastian Barry
020 My hero / Arthur Holmes by Richard Fortey

036 My hero / Robert Lowell by Jonathan Raban
037 My hero / Beryl Bainbridge by Michael Holroyd
038 My hero / Charles Schulz by Jenny Colgan
039 My hero / Oliver Knussen by Adam Foulds
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048 My hero / Gwen John by Anne Enright
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051 My hero / William Beveridge by Will Hutton
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079 My hero / Gene Wolfe by Neil Gaiman
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097 Lucian Freud by Esi Edugyan
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190 My hero / Iris Murdoch by Charlotte Mendelson
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199 My hero / Albert Camus by Geoff Dyer


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