Preface to SNOW CRAZY

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MAN IS PERVERSE, wrote Arnold Lunn in 1920. “He leaves the green valleys with delight, and wanders among the glaciers with joy, only to discover that he is haunted among the snows by the beauty that he has deserted, only to long for the welcome of meadows and streams and flowers and trees scented with the promise of May. A few days later, and he will be looking from those same meadows at the peaks of old adventure, and if three or four days of tantalising fair weather follow, he will scarcely find strength to resist their upward call”
Plagiarism, so the joke goes, is appropriating another author’s work – but if you steal the works of more than one author, it’s called research. In which case I have done an awful lot of research – mainly, as it happens, into one author’s work: Sir Arnold Lunn. But there have been many others, so fortunately I can glory in the title of researcher rather than robber.

For the past year, aided occasionally by young helpers – for whom the skiing annals of yesteryear must seem even more surreal than they do to me – I have been breathlessly tip-toeing through a remarkable treasure-trove of the skiing world: engrossing myself in the priceless records of the Ski Club of Great Britain, which celebrated its centenary in May, 2003. These records comprise the British Ski Year Book and Ski Notes and Queries – the club’s two principal publications, which eventually made way for a ski magazine, Ski survey, now Ski and Board, which I am fortunate enough to edit.

The anecdotes I have been lucky enough to “re-discover” have been a revelation. Partly because of the times in which they were written – during the ‘golden age’ of skiing before the First War, the ‘silver age’ between the wars, and a ’gothic’ age thrown in for good measure. Don’t ask me to recite the dates of these ages. They are somewhat arbitrary, and loosely defined, but Arnold Lunn gave them substance, at least in his mind and writings. These anecdotes are poignant, charming, quaint, and often hilarious (but not always deliberately so). They also provide, en passant, a fascinating window on the world as it was before, during and after those savage wars which so pre-occupied and devastated the lives of previous generations during the 20th century
As I pored over these accounts, not only burning the midnight oil but sometimes finding myself still spellbound as the first hints of grey dawn streaked across the horizon, I felt a keen sense that all the wonderful real-life but now, sadly, mostly long-gone characters were standing over me, looking over my shoulder, making sure I selected the crème de la crème of their writings.

If I failed them, heaven forbid, they would surely be turning in their graves. Come to think of it, though, they might welcome the opportunity of making a few more turns! After all, didn’t Arnold Lunn mention, in the 1920 British Ski Year Book, a letter from one of his great ski-touring friends Ralph Evans, who said: “Perhaps the four of us will get together for another May run when we have gone over to the other side. We shall never get all the conditions right again in this life.”

They are all here: Arnold Lunn, whose noble musings more than any other, perhaps, sum up the unique ambience and mysticism of skiing’s golden age; the dry wit of his great friend Hugh Dowding, who was to steer the RAF to their greatest victory during the Battle of Britain; Lunn’s staunch Swiss ally Walter Amstutz, master-skier, and inventor of the ‘flying kilometre’ on ski ; E.C. Richardson, the feisty and amusingly quarrelsome ‘father’ of British skiing, and the principal impetus for the formation of the Ski Club of Great Britain; the pedantic but sincere Vivian Caulfeild, (born 1874 – but ‘should, personally, have preferred a later date’), who could argue till the cows came home – and frequently did – about the finer points of ski technique; the joie de vivre of Alan d’Egville, whose colourful and amusing drawings and paintings – a joyful reflection of his own high jinks – captured the spirit of the age; the eloquent Gerald Seligman, and his lifelong fascination with the composition of the humble snowflake, who said of skiing: “very few other sports do quite so completely cater for both the athlete and the artist”; his brother Richard Seligman, a founder member who rounds this book off so poignantly; and the delightful Jimmy Riddell, elegant of ski and eloquent of pen, and many more.

When I wrote this book, back in 2003, one or two, were still with us, most notably Arnold Lunn’s son Peter, captain of the British team at the 1936 Winter Olympics, when downhill skiing was allowed for the first time, who has since been skiing just about every winter’s day (and water-skiing during the summer months), although now at an age when most ‘mature’ skiers would be happy just to settle into an armchair to watch Ski Sunday.
In 1961, then a young man of 47, Peter, who describes himself as a “skiing glutton” told how he had been ticked off by his doctor for skiing with a swollen knee. At his happiest while enjoying his passion, Peter wrote: “I do not ski to make money…I do not ski to satisfy ambition…I do not ski because the exercise is good for me, because I am quite prepared to ski against medical advice. I cannot even claim that I ski because it enables me to return refreshed to my work…I ski only because I love ski-ing, even when it hurts me. My skiing is harmless…it does not help make the world a better place; it profits nobody but myself.”

Another Peter – my old Fleet Street friend and colleague Peter Hardy – also still very much alive, I am glad to say, has also been looking over my shoulder, so to speak. I have shared more skiing adventures with Peter than most, and I like to think we share the same sense of humour too, especially when it comes to ‘gripping yarns’ from the slopes of yesteryear. So as I trawled through the venerable tomes in the Ski Club of Great Britain’s “Sir Arnold Lunn” Library in Wimbledon, I imagined Peter watching over me too, and whenever I found anything which made me chuckle helplessly or filled me with astonishment or delight, I mentally sought confirmation from him as well that it should be rediscovered.

He, I knew, would share the hilarity of a letter received by the Ski Club from the Swiss resort of Lenzerheide in 1921, describing the antics of two skiers. One was an Englishman who “should have broken his neck years ago – who was so keen on skiing that he often got some practice in England by skiing on hoar frost in his garden. He said it was quite exciting and the ski ran fast; but the last time he tried it they ran away with him, and in the end he was deposited in a heap of manure – the only advantage being that the fall was softer than he was expecting. When particularly bored he used to try skiing down his front stairs and doing Christianias in the hall. “

The other was a German from the Black Forest, who “was not particularly keen on skiing through trees, but there are so many in the Black Forest that sometimes it had to be done.
“So on these occasions he used to fasten a thick piece of rubber round his head to save his brains from being spilled in any argument with a tree; in so far as I know, they are still ‘reposing in peace in his skull’. But then he was odd. He was always supposed to wrap up each toe separately in brown paper to guard against frostbite, and had his skiing coat lined with dried figs in case he got lost in a fog, of which they get a fair number in that district. “
Marvellously eccentric detail from the 1920s.
I make no excuses for lingering over the early years. It seems to me that the further back in history one goes, the more interesting it becomes, whereas the most recent events are less interesting because we are more familiar with them. It has been the most extraordinary and unexpected privilege to be able to sift through the thoughts and minds of these dedicated ski-runners (as the early skiers dubbed themselves). I have been helped immeasurably by the redoubtable Elisabeth Hussey, who worked for Arnold Lunn for many years, and then edited Ski survey for a remarkable 18 years. I have also occasionally borrowed from her excellent but unpublished biography of Lunn, Arnold Lunn – Ski Pioneer.

To add laziness to larceny, I have also rather ungallantly left Elisabeth to bridge the gap between the years of the British Ski Year Books and Ski Notes and Queries and the Ski survey years leading up to the new millennium. If she will forgive me, I see her, and indeed Peter Lunn, as bridges between Now and Then, enabling Arnold and his colleagues to communicate with us today. Peter has been a truly invaluable help in proof-reading my efforts, which produced this wonderful aside: “So conscientious am I about checking your facts whenever possible, that I looked in the mirror to make certain that my eyes in fact are blue.”

My old friend, the late Nigel Lloyd, one of the original ski-writers of the modern age, with whom, like Peter Hardy, I skied for many decades, was inspirational too, as has Caroline Stuart-Taylor, the Ski Club’s former chief executive, whose unwavering support and sense of humour kept me going on the long trail through the archives. Another close friend, former TV colleague and long-time skiing companion, Chris Tizzard and I also produced a video, ‘100’ using substantial archive footage, to help celebrate the Ski Club’s centenary.

The result of our labours in the library – reviewing the rich past both on celluloid and in the printed word – is, I hope, a spirited attempt to condense into a single book some of the great ski writing of the past. And some of the happiest, funniest and most evocative of tales of British ski pioneers relishing their role as they explored the mountains they felt so passionate about.

If Arnold Lunn, who started skiing before the Boer War and kept going for most of his long life, seems to dominate this collection, it is because his writings were both prolific and wonderfully descriptive. And since for so many of its 52 volumes he had to shoulder the responsibility of writing much of the contents of the British Ski Year Book, his thoughts run like a rich seam through every volume. Sometimes I have tried to resist including him on various topics, but usually I have surrendered to his tellingly descriptive, if sometimes slightly purple, prose. Here and there, I have taken the liberty of re-arranging extracts of his essays to enable them to be spread more easily through the chapters.
Is that all right, Sir Arnold?

Then here goes.

© Arnie Wilson