Dan Byles: Pole to Poll
Dan is a Conservative candidate and former Officer of the Royal Medical Corps. This is an account of his experience embarking on a recent polar expedition in aid of the The Carpe Diem Trust, and the lessons to draw from it.
"On a Polar expedition begin with a clear idea of which Pole you are aiming at, and try to start facing the right way. Choose your companions carefully - you may have to eat them." (Unknown)
On 1 April, less than a month after being selected at an open primary as the new PPC for North Warwickshire, I found myself flying to Canada for my long planned expedition to the Magnetic North Pole. The timing couldn’t have been worse. As the new PPC, I was expected to play a prominent role in the local election campaign. Instead I would miss the entire campaign, and wouldn’t even know the results until I reached civilisation and found a phone several days after the big day.
As it was, we won an historic victory in North Warwickshire – taking control of the council for the first time ever with over 52% of the votes cast. Unfortunately, I can claim no credit for this success – so my hearty congratulations go to Colin Hayfield and Becky Harding, and to all of the councillors and their supporters who worked so hard to secure a fantastic result (perhaps I should make myself scarce for the General Election too – a trip down the Amazon perhaps…?).
Our expedition to the Pole was just as successful, although there were some moments when I really didn’t think we were going to make it. Walking to the Magnetic North Pole was always going to be hard, especially since I had my 62 year old mother with me! We were a team of three (me, Mum and my friend Richard) taking part in the Polar Race 2007 (we came last, if you were wondering). We knew we had it in us to succeed – not only because we are always optimistic about life, but because this was the second time we’d gone adventuring together. Ten years ago we set a Guinness World Record as the first mother and son team ever to row across an ocean, and mum was the oldest person ever to do so.
This time it was all my mother’s fault. In 1997, I asked her to join me across the Atlantic – and we succeeded in rowing 3044 miles in a 23 foot wooden boat in 101 days. That little adventure set two world records and set my mother on a new career as an after-dinner and motivational speaker. Now in 2007, ten years later, she had thrown my challenge back at me and asked me to join her in walking to the top of the world! What could I say? Our boat was called Carpe Diem, as was our Polar team. Sometimes you need to grab these opportunities when they come along, whether they seem sensible or not!
It turned out to be one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. We hauled sleds weighing over 100lbs for up to 13 hours a day. We spent 4 hours each evening melting snow for water. We woke up each morning after less than 5 hours sleep with icicles in the tent and frost on our sleeping bags. We survived a near catastrophic tent fire, the worst ice conditions the race has ever experienced, and unexpected areas of slush and liquid water. The coldest outside temperature, including wind-chill, was -68°C, while the coldest we recorded inside our tent was a balmy -30°C! But we made it, after 24 days on the ice, setting two more world records in the process.
So what does trekking in the Arctic have to do with politics? Well, nothing and everything. I firmly believe that MPs should come from all walks of life and have a wide variety of life experiences. The House of Commons should be a rich cross section of interesting people, not just a debating society for lawyers and former trade union officials. Interesting people are busy people, and they sometimes do unusual things for no apparent reason.
And look at my mother. What better way is there to show that age is no barrier to achievement? As a society we are telling people they must work until they’re 68 or older, yet we continue to worship the cult of youth. Age and wisdom are no longer valued. Older MPs with a wealth of experience are accused by some of ‘bedblocking’, and urged to stand down in favour of ever younger candidates. Well, my mother rowed across the Atlantic in her fifties, and has just walked to the Magnetic North Pole in her sixties. Try telling her she’s too old! Incidentally, she’s also just been given a place on the Approved Candidates List, so maybe there’s hope yet.
In many ways though, organising a major expedition is similar to running a political campaign. Both the Atlantic and the Pole each took two years of preparation and fundraising. This involved: gathering together a team who believed in us and were willing to offer their time and help; approaching local businesses and individuals to seek equipment, sponsorship in kind, and financial contributions; and managing our PR and cultivating press contacts to ensure a steady stream of positive press coverage. Perhaps most importantly, it taught us not to give up when all looks bleak. When the sponsorship is elusive, the training exhausting, and a loud minority openly scoff at your chances of success – that is the time to dig in your heels and to believe in yourself. We were successful in both of our expeditions, and I’m looking forward to a successful campaign at the next General Election.
My next adventure? I’ll be concentrating on politics from here on in. I’m also getting married in June to my fiancé Prashanthi, who has been extremely supportive. But I’ve had to promise her I’ll shave off my expedition beard – once I’ve done a bit of canvassing in some Old Labour supporting wards perhaps!
"The problems of the world cannot possibly be solved by sceptics or cynics whose horizons are limited by obvious realities. We need men and women who can dream of things that never were..." (John F Kennedy)