Stanley Johnson: has the Royal Geographical Society lost its sense of adventure?
By Stanley Johnson. Published in The Telegraph, 9th May 2009
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A storm is brewing at the Royal Geographical Society, whose critics take issue with the fact that it has not sent out a major expedition for 10 years. In the run-up to a crucial vote, tempers are rising
In the summer of 1961, I was coming to the end of my second year at Oxford. A notice had been pinned up in the porter's lodge at Exeter College. "Gentlemen are reminded that they should study for at least ten weeks during the coming Long Vacation." It was an instruction I was determined to ignore. Instead, I spent the summer term planning an expedition across Asia, following in the steps of Marco Polo who, towards the end of the 13th century, had travelled overland from Venice to the court of the Kubla Khan at Dadu, now Beijing.
In the course of those preparations, I had occasion to visit the Royal Geographical Society. In the society's map room, we were able to study the terrain in minutest detail. The route would take us through Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan on more or less passable roads. But Marco Polo's caravan had gone on into China through the Wakkan Corridor in the High Pamirs. We hoped our BSA 500cc twin-cylinder Shooting Star motorcycles would be equal to the challenge. The RGS experts were polite, helpful, but a little sceptical.
The respect I acquired almost 50 years ago for the RGS has endured to this day. Few institutions can be more quintessentially British. Situated next to the Royal Albert Hall at the corner of Exhibition Road and Kensington Gore, the society has been associated with some of the most stirring chapters in our history. The search for a North West passage; the crossing of the Australian deserts; the quest for the sources of the Nile; the conquest of the North Pole; the race for the South Pole; the ascent of Everest – it is hard to think of a more glorious, if sometimes tragic, portfolio of adventures.
On the walls of the RGS hang splendid portraits of the society's heroes. Livingstone, Stanley, Burton and Speke – those great men from the annals of African exploration – as well as Captain Scott of Antarctic fame and Sir John Hunt, who led the successful 1953 Everest expedition.
Yet even in those 19th-century glory days, the RGS was far more than a source of derring-do. There was usually a serious scientific purpose associated with these expeditions. Of course, the precise mix of science and adventure changed over time. With fewer undiscovered regions to explore, and with the challenge of emerging environmental and social issues, the society moved its focus to large-scale research projects in a single location.
But there hasn't been a major RGS expedition in the past decade, and because of this, a storm is now brewing. John Hemming, who served as the society's director for almost 20 years, led the society's largest ever research effort with more than 130 scientists: the Maracá Rainforest Project, an ecological survey of the riverine island of Maracá, an important forest reserve in Brazilian Amazônia.
When I visited him at his home in deepest Kensington, he told me: "The 18 multi-disciplinary research projects that the society sent out since the war did nothing but good. They yielded a mass of scientific research. They attracted top scientists from this country and abroad, and helped these individuals' careers by providing optimal research conditions. They established enduring links between British and host-country researchers – many of whom are now scientific leaders in their countries; and they greatly enhanced the society's prestige."
Then Hemming threw in his punchline, no less lethal for being quietly delivered. "It is a great pity that the RGS has stopped organising field research of its own."
Next day, on Hemming's advice, I drove to Bodmin Moor in Cornwall to talk to Robin Hanbury-Tenison, the founder of Survival International and a man who, like Hemming, has run one of the society's own major field-research projects. Robin, his wife Louella and I talked late into the evening about the RGS and its work.
The Gunung Mulu National Park in Sarawak, Borneo, where Hanbury-Tenison led a major RGS expedition at the end of the Seventies, is one of the most remote and untouched regions of tropical rainforest left in the world. Even though it is almost 30 years since Hanbury-Tenison and his team of scientists began their study, he believes passionately that the legacy of the RGS expedition lives on not only in the volume of published research but in the practical steps the Sarawak government took to implement the management plan they commissioned from the society's team.
"It is intolerable," said Hanbury-Tenison, "to have a situation where the RGS, that great and venerable institution, is no longer putting its own research teams in the field."
"'We shall not cease from exploration'," I commented.
"I'm afraid T S Eliot may have got it wrong," Hanbury-Tenison countered. "If the society keeps going in the direction where it is presently headed, exploration will be a thing of the past."
That night I slept in a small, separate dwelling close to Hanbury-Tenison's house built from straw bales, beside a quiverful of arrows. "Don't touch the tips," advised Hanbury-Tenison. "They're poisonous and there's no known antidote."
Both Hemming and Hanbury-Tenison are supporting the action of the six (relatively) young RGS Fellows who have proposed a resolution calling on the society to resume sending out proper expeditions.
A special general meeting of the society has been called on May 18 to discuss and vote on the resolution,and some of Britain's best-known names in the field of research and exploration have signalled their support, including Sir Chris Bonington, Sir Ranulph Fiennes, Pen Hadow and the still-sprightly George Band who, in 1953, was the youngest person on the Everest expedition. Professor Ian Swingland, who founded the Durrell Institute for Conservation and Ecology, and Professor Gren Lucas, a former keeper of the herbarium at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, have added their names, as has Joanna Lumley, taking time off from her pro-Gurkha campaign.
The RGS has called on its 10,000 Fellows to vote against the resolution. The ballot paper, which has already been distributed, actually carries an appeal by the RGS's distinguished president, Sir Gordon Conway, for Fellows to vote "no". Since even in Zimbabwe you don't expect to find suggestions as to how to vote printed on the ballot paper, I raised this with Sir Gordon and the current RGS director, Dr Rita Gardner, during an interview conducted in the director's office at the RGS. I was assured that the voting process and all the ballot documents for the SGM had been approved by the independent scrutineers, the Electoral Reform Services.
On the substance of the issue, both the president and the director of the society were clearly convinced that the RGS had to move with the times.
"The decision to discontinue the RGS's own research expeditions was taken collectively – and democratically – by the RGS Council after an exhaustive review to which all interested parties had the opportunity to contribute," Sir Gordon explained.
The RGS, of course, would continue to fund undergraduate expeditions and to give grants to other people and institutions, but relaunching large RGS expeditions would, they argued, impose unnecessary and possibly intolerable financial strains.
These are arguments which John Hemming, among others, dismisses. "Because their research aims were of high quality, each RGS project covered its costs with grants from research councils, grant-giving foundations and industry, so they did not draw on RGS general funds or the funds to support other, smaller expeditions. The society, in fact, supported many more research ventures in the Eighties and early Nineties than it does now, because there were far more applications at that time."
The proponents of the contentious resolution expect there to be standing-room only in the RGS on May 18. "There will be queues in Exhibition Road, waiting to get in," Alistair Carr, one of the six "young turks", assured me. Showing exemplary exploratory spirit, Carr had dug out the original hand-written Royal Charter from the RGS archives. Carr thought he had hit the jackpot when he read in the third paragraph that under the Royal Charter, the purpose of the RGS is to ''contribute to the progress of geographical knowledge by carrying out, at its own expense, various important Expeditions in every
quarter of the Globe and by assisting other Expeditions with grants of money".
This might seem to be a killer fact. But the RGS hierarchy has produced a legal opinion that argues that the society is acting in line with its Charter, which is "the advancement of geographical science". The RGS argues that how this is delivered is at the discretion of the trustees.
One thing is certain. Tempers on all sides are continuing to rise in the run-up to the vote. As I sat down to write this article, I received an irate fax from Sir Christopher Ondaatje, no mean explorer himself and a great benefactor of the RGS. "It would be a great pity," fumed Sir Christopher, "if the ambitions of a selfish few were to disrupt the acceptance and progress of one of the great learned societies in Great Britain."
There may be blood on the floor on May 18, and it will not be the blood of slaughtered elephants or wounded hippos. Kensington Gore may well live up to its name.
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