Books: The Blaze of Obscurity — 6. Alpine Idyll |
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The Blaze of Obscurity — 6. Alpine Idyll


I was lucky it didn’t break my neck. For several years the family had gone skiing in Italy, mainly at Bormio and Madonna di Campiglio. At Madonna there was a ski instructor called Italo who was much loved by our daughters and who taught me a lot about life, if never enough about skiing. Taking me out for a solo lesson, he carved a turn on a slope covered with fresh snow and explained the resulting sculpture using a ski-pole as a pointer, like an art critic decoding a doodle by Brancusi. The tiny amount of displaced snow at the start of the curve showed how the weight had been applied in a smooth progression as the knees were gradually bent to push the skis down. But then there was a symmetrically equivalent crescent indicating how the knees had been straightened with similar gradualness to complete the turn, thus maintaining the curve instead of its degenerating into a skid. Done this way, a completed turn would prepare for the next as the unweighted skis floated naturally into the fall line. Though my own turns continued to look like a demonstration of elementary ditch-digging, what he had shown me served as an ideal in my memory of how the application of effort should always be exactly measured: nothing by force, everything by logical progression. Too much disturbance in the medium was a sign of strain. The lesson is still with me today. It serves me like the passage in Johnny Weissmuller’s autobiography about how the essence of swimming the crawl is to relax the arm when it’s out of the water, so that it wastes no energy. Fully relaxed, it will fall into the water under its own weight, without a splash. The secret of composition in any form is the appropriate application of effort. The result is an aesthetic effect that should never be aimed at directly, but only reaped as the harvest of correct preparation. If skiing in Italy had always been like that, I could have gone home and written a sequel to Byron’s Don Juan or a companion volume to War and Peace. But at Bormio the whole family traumatized itself by following a less judicious instructor across the slope that had been prepared for the World Downhill Championship.

Trekking cross-country, we came to the edge of the championship slope about halfway up its initial precipice, where the competitors would be riding their hissing skis at full clip in the tuck. If the high-speed pista had been covered only with snow the view downward would still have been enough to chill the blood, but it had rained the previous night and the whole thing was a sheet of ice. We were about a mile up the mountain and we had this highway of frozen water diving past us. Everyone else edged their way across successfully to where the soft snow started again on the far side, but I was the one who lost his edges and started down like a crate of pig iron. As I approached the speed of sound, I could only just hear my instructor’s voice as he came streaking down after me crying ‘Joe! Joe! No, Joe!’ He called me Joe because he couldn’t manage the name Clive (no Italian can: it comes out as ‘Cleevay’ if you’re lucky), and he was yelling ‘Joe, stop! Stop, Joe!’ He had the English word for ‘stop’, but if I had known how to stop I wouldn’t have been on my way through the sound barrier on the road to certain death, would I, you dumb bastard? His next shouted imprecation was even more useless. ‘Too fast, Joe! Too fast!’ Luckily, when he got below me, he managed to get his skis in parallel under mine and bring us both to a halt only about a kilometre below where my family, with varying degrees of compassion, were watching the nominal head of the house revealing his fragility on the path to oblivion. Trembling all over in the nearest I have ever come to liquid fear, I vowed to shake the ice crystals from my heels and never ski in Italy again. Too many people knew me. As I started the long slog of chipping my way back up the glacier there were groups of people on either side of it taking photographs. One of them had a little film camera.

So we went to Davos, which is a bit more swish, and has many slopes kinder to the average skier, as part of the Swiss plan to send every visitor home happy. Even the black runs are less likely to get you killed, and on the red runs I fancied my style. My wife, naturally elegant in everything she does, was a neat skier, but she knew she was no Ann-Marie Moser-Pröll. With her sensible nature, she could take it when our elder daughter, thriving on the advantage of having started as an infant, turned into a notably graceful expert who could slalom down a mogul field like a gull through waves, and even our younger daughter collected a medal for going downhill faster than the other tots in her class, many of them wearing designer crash helmets bought by doting mothers in mink hats. I couldn’t take it at all. If you make your start, as I had, by doing stem turns, it is frustratingly hard to persist with a parallel turn when things get sticky: you revert to the stem, as a badly trained singer in a panic will revert to singing from the throat instead of the diaphragm. Still relying too often on brute force — always the main reason why men learn more slowly than women — I bullocked my way down a tight gully when I should have linked carved turns together. Instead of winding a silent, snaky trail down the fall line, I hauled myself noisily though a rough and unlovely zigzag. But there was a long, empty, straight and inviting slope ahead, ending about half a mile down with a set of apparently gentle bumps. With the rest of the family behind me, I went into full Franz Klammer mode and dived down hill with my speed building up all the time, like a P-47 leaving behind a flock of Me 109s. For almost a minute I just kept on going faster until there was no faster I could go. My velocity was far beyond the point where I could contemplate any kind of turn at all. But I didn’t have to turn. I just had to negotiate the first bump. I did, but I went airborne, nosed over and, after long enough in the air to mentally rewrite my will, hit the speeding snow with the full length of my body from nose to toe. The quick-reaction bindings worked all right and my skis came off in the advertised manner, but there was no such automatic mechanism to prevent the loops of my ski-poles from practically pulling my thumbs off even before I had come to a sobbing halt halfway up the next bump.

After what seemed an age the family accumulated around my crucified form, kindly asking if anything was broken. Judging from the pain, almost nothing wasn’t. After I reassembled myself I was ready to pretend that it had all been planned as a comic routine, but the agony in my thumbs prompted involuntary cries that rather spoiled the effect. Advised to turn myself in at the clinic and have my thumbs put in plaster, I typically preferred to wait until the piercing throb went away by itself. Decades later it still hasn’t.

This disinclination to get my medical problems attended to has been with me throughout my life. I would like to think that it sprang from a magnificent detachment from material concerns, but I can’t deny that there might be an element of fear. The doctor, like the dentist, is a judge of behaviour, and I quailed at the thought of being sentenced. Even if I had been blessed with moral courage, however, I would probably always have been inclined to just let things go. I lack the time. I have things to do. To the objection that procrastination is bound to cost me more time in the end than prompt attention would have cost me at the start, and that I would have got more done if I had been sensible, I can only answer: don’t you try reasoning with me. To be aware of the doomed struggles going on within my soul, however, gives me an edge as a commentator on politics and culture: I know from internal evidence that the capacity of the human mind to fool itself can be infinite. Turpitude, even when it looks energetic, almost always springs from mental sloth. When the real Berlin was burning all around him, Hitler went back to tinkering with the scale model of his dream Berlin which would never now be built. Rather than face facts, he took refuge in his art. Greater artists than him have done the same. Think of Charlie Parker, who must have known that drugs would kill him. He even knew that they made him play worse. In fact he said so. But he went on reaching for the needle anyway. You can see the whole picture and still miss its point.

For the last two days of the holiday I sat alone in the bar of our hotel, working on the opening chapters of a second novel, for which my provisional title was The Remake. Perhaps the spasms in my torn thumb muscles had gone to my brain, because I found myself planning a book which was bound to fail. It was going to be a novel comprising all the modernist narrative techniques that I most hated. Thus I would demonstrate that I cared nothing for my reputation. Looking back on the self-immolating folly of this intention, I can’t counsel firmly enough against the inadvisability of deliberately flouting elementary propriety, especially for anyone whose reputation is already under threat. Inviting your critics to come and get you is a very bad way of proving that you don’t care what they say. But I already knew all that, and planned to put it in the book. It would be a book about the centrifugal multiplicity of a personality. It would even be a book about the monumentality of its author’s stupidity. It would be a book with everything, which is rarely a good aim with which to start out, because it courts the employment of overloaded prose. Luckily there was a compelling reason to dictate that the opening lines of my suicide note would at least be carefully composed. With my right thumb useless, I had to hold my pen between the next two fingers. As a result, the dangers inherent in fluency were staved off, at the rate of about one paragraph per hour.

On the plane home to England, with my thumbs held erect, I distinguished myself by transferring the food on my plastic tray directly into my lap. It is always a bring-down when the people to whom you are most closely related can’t bear to watch you eat. When I went to the toilet I had a lot of trouble with the zip and what happened next was a farce, as if I was trying to aim an unlit cigar. In cold weather it still happens. Laugh, Pagliaccio. But the new studio show was waiting for me to join it, and the pain in my thumbs was soon sidelined by the pressure in my head. There was a lot to think about.