Writer and broadcaster Gordon Snell was married to Maeve Binchy for 35 years. “I Was a Winter Sport,” he says, “really encapsulates and is a great example of Maeve’s ability to laugh at herself and situations she found herself in, with great wit and style and sympathy.”
November 21st, 1974
I knew that I would probably fall, but I didn’t expect to fall coming out of the railway station. Crowds of elegant Germans in posh ski wear tramped over me, a few British looked embarrassed and then looked away, an Italian man bent down and told me that it happened to the best of us and went away without picking me up. When the station was empty three porters got me to my feet and begged me not to take the next train home. Madame would be skiing like a bird, they assured me, and like a fool I believed them, and slid and crawled my way to the hotel.
It was full of sweat and heat, and pipes gurgling, and basements with people throwing skis around like darts, and radiant faces talking about the south piste, and worried brows discussing ski bindings. There was registration for the nursery school and a lot of hot rum, and a view from the bedroom like the best Christmas card ever and a very deep, slightly bruised sleep.
Next day, hot chocolate, plenty of buns to keep up the strength, into the ski pants that looked great in Dublin and cost a week’s salary. Beside everything else on the patio they looked like fancy dress. On with about four sweaters, in case I got frostbite and a jar of cream rubbed into my face in case there was sunstroke going around as well. Left, right, left, right, and we marched to the foothills of a crag.
The ski instructor was called Mike, and nobody fell in love with him. In three languages he told us how to put on our skis, which were waiting in battered splendour on the snow. A man fell over just bending down to pick them up, and I was so sympathetic that I rushed to help him up and fell on top of him, which was a bad start, since Mike said in three languages again that there would be time for that sort of thing later, could we concentrate on getting the skis on now please. We extricated ourselves, and a nice 12-year-old tied on both our skis for us.
It was the most awkward thing I have ever done. Each foot seemed to weigh a ton and to be 20 feet long. It was impossible to point oneself anywhere without doing damage to someone else and one woman became quite hysterical because she found herself sliding sideways with gathering speed and couldn’t stop. Mike had to go and head her off before she went into a wall at a hundred miles an hour and that caused a lot of alarm in those of us who stood rooted to the ground. Skiing sideways was a new horror we hadn’t thought of.
He put us in two circles like a Paul Jones and we were asked to walk around to get used to the feel of the things. The space between each walker increased to huge distances because everybody seemed to be sticking a ski into the bottom of the person in front, and you couldn’t turn around to protest because you fell over at once if you moved in any direction except purposefully forward. So there were great oaths in many languages, as we marched gloomily around the churned-up snow dragging these fiendish appendages.
Just when I was wondering would it be time for the après ski to begin, Mike said that it was now nine-thirty a.m. and that we should all have the feel of the skis, so would we please follow him and we would learn walking on a slope. A small gradient, he explained, in case the nursery school became frightened by the word ‘slope’.
It looked like the wrong face of the Eiger when we had to climb it, and the scene began to be like one of those dreams where you try to move but find yourself constantly in the same place. Worse really, because in those dreams you are at least vertical, there is no sense of constantly hitting the ground. The Falling Man and The Hysterical Woman and a Twitchy Swede and I spent most of our time clutching each other and dragging each other down again. About ten of the group seemed to have mastered it and were scaling the small gradient as if they had been born to such things.
‘Cheats,’ said The Falling Man. ‘I’ve read about those kind, they know all about skiing. They only join nursery classes to look good and improve their egos.’
‘I think I’m going sideways again,’ screamed The Hysterical Woman, and we all plunged out to rescue her, knocking her to the ground in the effort.
‘The rarified air is doing nothing for my heart, he is beating too rapidly,’ said The Twitching Swede. So The Falling Man gave him a nip of brandy, thinking that this might slow it down.
Mike skied back to us in a show-off way from the front of the group. He rolled his eyes to heaven. ‘Drinking is bad,’ he said in many languages.
We were all sitting in the snow drinking The Falling Man’s brandy at this stage, and if ever spirits are said to be medicinal it was in this case. Mike thought, however, it was loose living. ‘I will take that,’ he said like a school prefect and confiscated The Falling Man’s flask. We watched it disappearing like you would a life raft, but were too mute with fear to do anything except agree. Drinking was bad, we admitted humbly and repentantly.
Mike dragged us all to our feet, and pushed us towards the ascent again. It was a sorry progress. The Swedish heart was beating much too rapidly, hysteria was coming on strong with The Nervous Lady, The Falling Man and myself dragged ourselves painfully towards the summit, and Mike whizzed around us like a butterfly telling us always first in German, then in Italian and finally in English that we mustn’t lift our feet so high, and finally we made it to the group who were on top of the hill. ‘Now comes the interesting part,’ said Mike.
Great, I thought, about to take off my skis and run back to the hotel, it’s time for lunch. Not at all. The interesting part was apparently the exercises. The limbering up, the bending and stretching. The kind of thing in fact that I used to tell terrible lies in school to avoid, and here I was on a glass mountain abroad, at great cost, trapped and unable to get out of them. It went on until my body cried out with the agony of it all, and I wondered what would happen if I said I felt faint.
I tried it. ‘You are out of condition,’ said Mike. ‘Keep bending, it will make you less faint and more fit.’
I don’t remember coming back to the hotel, but I gather we stumped and spiked our way down, falling, and knocking down others, and the good ones in the group were beginning to be released from the rest of us and to have two beginners’ classes: one for good beginners and one for bad beginners. I went to bed immediately, and didn’t wake until the next morning, which was roughly 18 hours’ sleep.
We kept it up for three days, the bad beginners. We were joined by a fifth bad beginner who was an elderly Brazilian learning to ski secretly so that he could accompany his young wife on her winter sporting holidays. The third day he agreed that he didn’t mind if she made off with every ski instructor in Europe. He wasn’t going to join the game. We assured him that if they were all like the dreaded Mike, he would have no competition at all, she’d only be screaming to get back to him and to Rio.
This cheered him so greatly he decided to hire a sleigh one day and take us on a tour. So we climbed in with rugs and flasks and great goodwill and roared past the good beginners and Mike, who were walking around in circles practising an elementary turn, and we had a beautiful day in a forest where there was no cracking ice, and you could walk in powdery snow without falling at all. The next day we advised the Brazilian to write to his wife saying he was passing through a posh ski resort but the snow didn’t seem to be good. We advised this because he was becoming morose and guilty and wondering what she was thinking; he was the kind of man who sends telegrams rather than letters, and that night he had one back from her saying she loved him, so he took us all to a great log cabin and we kept drinking her health all night.
And The Falling Man taught us to play canasta, so we sat all day out on the terrace and got great suntans playing cards. And the Swede, who had stopped twitching, said that his heart felt much better and he had gone and discovered a very cheap place where they had schnitzel and salad so we wouldn’t get fat. The Hysterical Woman had become as calm as the Mona Lisa. She asked us to take pictures of her in various ski poses, and we did, and in return she gave us a great recipe for cheesecake, and we went to the kitchen of the hotel and tried it one day when everyone else was out doing elementary bends and falling and breaking their limbs. I told them all about proportional representation, which is a great party piece for foreigners, and wrote down how it worked, with explanations of quotas, first counts, eliminations, distribution and transfers. They loved it and said that the whole trip had been worthwhile for this alone.
And then the week was up, and we avoided Mike’s eye and went to the station, where nobody fell and the porters remembered me and said that it was always the same, people came nervously but they left being able to ski like birds.
Maeve's Times is published by Hachette Books Ireland, priced £8.99