Essays: Ski-ing down Everest |
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Ski-ing down Everest

YUICHO MIURA is the Man Who Skied Down Everest (BBC1). Like the novelist Mishima, who trained his body to perfection and then disembowelled himself in response to a metaphysical imperative, Miura is a man of action with a profoundly lyrical inner nature.

‘THROUGHOUT TIME,’ ran the rubric at the head of the programme, ‘MAN HAS ASPIRED TO GREAT HEIGHTS IN SEARCH OF PEACE OF MIND AND A QUIET HEART.’ Such a statement needed a certain amount of qualification, but Miura’s diary is more of a poetic anthology than a logical tract: it was left to the viewer to reflect that while many men bent on self-discovery have aspired to great heights, only a few have tried to return from them on skis. But why chop logic? Really it was better just to settle back and let Miura’s numinous prose work its magic in a mood of acceptance, while the screen filled with the 800-man expedition it took to get him up Everest.

Having already set a world speed record of 108 m.p.h and skied down Fuji and Popocatepetl, Miura was as ready as he would ever be for the ultimate challenge. True, he would have to use a parachute, even though starting 3,000 feet from the peak, but the aesthetic aspect need not suffer. ‘I would like to use a parachute, it would add grace and beauty to the adventure, like an airy lotus blossom on the sacred mountain.’

Onward and upward toiled the expedition, threatened at every turn by the fury of the mountain and the gathering fog of Miura’s mystical jottings. Four square miles of ice collapsed and killed six sherpas. ‘A shadow covers the expedition. How can I justify the adventure now?’ It took some dedicated juggling of the ideographs, but he managed it. He compared himself to the wind, to Icarus, to everything except a yo-yo. ‘I can’t tell where the mountain ends and I begin.’ (One obvious difference between them was that the mountain had no intention of ski-ing down him, but he neglected to consider this.) ‘I had a strange feeling that I had been here before. Was it in my earlier incarnation?’

Finally, after a mystical anabasis, which had consumed almost the whole programme, Miura — inscrutable in a crash helmet and an oxygen mask — stood at the departure point for his plunge into destiny. Miles below on the 40 degree slope of Lhotse face, a camera team had him framed in a telephoto lens. After a final invocation of Icarus, who apparently ranks in Japan as a kind of honorary kamikaze, he was off. He covered 6,600 ft in 2 min. 20 sec., the first half of the journey rating as a fall and the rest as a crash. The cameraman held him dead centre all the way, and you knew already that this stretch of film would live long after Miura had joined his ancestors. It was a wonderful sight: a man not only asking for it, but getting it.

In a maelstrom of bouncing skis and exploding snow, the adventurer at last scraped to a halt. Silence. Surely there could be no spark of life? But above the wreck, like calligraphy decorating the cloudscape of a Japanese print, there slowly formed one of Miura’s unmistakable Thoughts. ‘That I am alive must be the will of some higher power.’ It would have been quibbling to point out that the same higher power must have written off the six Sherpas. Besides, Miura’s mind was already on the future. ‘The end of one thing is the beginning of another. I am a pilgrim again.’ Where would his heart find peace? Only one thing was certain: next year a team of Japanese women paraplegics will make the same trip on a tea-tray.

It might seem churlish, after greeting ‘Oil Strike North’ as marvellously silly, to dismiss the new spy series Quiller (BBC1) as detestably silly, but they are different in their moral obligations, even if precisely the same in their level of achievement. ‘Oil Strike North’ is just rubbish. ‘Quiller’ is blasphemous rubbish, reducing real suffering and real dying — in the first episode the plot turned on the Middle East conflict — to the status of raw materials, and for no better reason than to seem up to date, although such is the ineptitude of its creators that they could tell you about tomorrow and make it sound like yesterday.

The title character, invented by Adam Hall, might have bean flogged into a semblance of life by Harold Pinter in his script for the film ‘The Quiller Memorandum,’ but here he is in less inspired hands. Michael Jayston is the actor unfortunate enough to have been chosen to play him. Quiller’s personal gimmick is that be carries no gun. Everything else that happens around him is derivative to the last frame of footage and word of dialogue. He works for an unnamed Civil Service department. (‘The Bureau does not exist.’) He is goaded by his controller in a scene which might have come right in from ‘The Spy Who Came In From the Cold.’ ‘Perhaps you’re slowing up... touch of mission fatigue, perhaps?’ ‘I’m losing my nerve, is that it?’ ‘I didn’t say that.’

As well as being Alec Leamas, Quiller is also Harry Palmer: ‘I can’t push a pen or wash a car on Sunday. I need excitement, get the adrenalin flowing. It’s the only way I function.’ If only he could talk about his job to pretty Roz, the committed lady lawyer. ‘Do you know,’ she probes, ‘that most of the world’s food is gobbled up by a third of its population?’

It turns out that not carrying a gun is of small consequence, since those who do can’t shoot. The embittered ex-second-in-command of Israeli Intelligence (‘a skilled ruthless assassin’) goes after Quiller with everything from a high-velocity self-loading rifle to an Uzi sub-machine-gun and is unable to hit him even at point-blank range. Quiller’s ludicrous capacity to stay alive would scarcely matter if it were not set against a background where people on both sides are dying all the time. But since it is, it does.

Critics should not delude themselves that they have, or ought to have, the power to get a show taken off the air. Indeed, power of any kind is what they should resolutely avoid seeking. But equally there is no point an pretending that a series like ‘Quiller’ is just a joke. It is a symptom. No one is asking for genius — just ordinary attention to the realities of thought and feeling. Angels (BBC1), for example, looks as if it might possess that.

The Observer, 7th September 1975