Arnie Wilson: The Thrill of Skiing with Novelist Peter James
From ski writer and Ongosa guest contributor Arnie Wilson. The latest in Ongosa's series exploring the impact skiing has had on people from all walks of life, here Arnie speaks with friend and thriller writer Peter James.
I once wrote a funny story about Peter James, after we’d been skiing together in Alagna, in the Italian Alps. It was called “A Deadly Duel”.
I wrote that Peter, one of Britain’s top thriller writers, was shaking me awake soon after dawn with a glint in his eye.
“It’s a stunning day” he said. “Why don’t we nip over to Alagna?”
“What about everyone else?” I whispered, anxious not to waken Vivianne, my wife.
“Oh, never mind them” said James. “They’d never keep up. This is just the two of us.”
We had been invited here to a birthday party by Kerstin, a mutual friend. The birthday girl and her family, plus the other 30 or so party guests were still slumbering. So we grabbed our skis and off we went…but a nightmare would ensue!
Peter James is, of course, famous for his un-put-down-able crime novels centred around the Brighton Detective Superintendent, Roy Grace. But had he not opted for a career in writing fiction, he would have had a good stab at skiing for his country.
“Skiing has always been part of my life” he says. His mother Cornelia (the name behind Cornelia James, suppliers of gloves to the Queen) was Austrian and took him skiing from the age of four.
“We went to places like Igls, Seefeld and St Anton” he says, “before regularly going for two weeks after Christmas to Lech and another two weeks every Easter to Zürs.”
But surprisingly (maybe four was a little young?) he hated skiing at first, being put in ski school “every day, all day”.
He recalls: “In 1952 there were no ‘beginners’ lifts so we had to side step up, then ski down. Up, down, all day - it felt like a ski boot camp!
“I can still remember when I was six, throwing my poles at my mother saying: ‘I don’t want to do this stupid sport any more! It’s worse than being at school!’ So she said, breezily, ‘right, no problem darling, we’ll go back home tomorrow!’ That did the trick!! The last thing I wanted to do was go home, and from that point onwards I gradually fell in love with the sport.
“Good instruction is critical to any beginner taking up skiing. If you don’t have lessons, it will always be a struggle. With the right technique skiing becomes a joy very quickly. And just like riding a bicycle, you never forget it once learned. You can even have a gap of several years and it all comes back within minutes.“
“When I first skied, in 1952, on wooden skis, safety bindings had not been invented. Gradually, year by year they came in and improved. I was bullied a lot at my prep school and at Charterhouse, the public school I went to. For me the two fortnights of skiing became the escapes I looked forward to throughout the year.
“When I was 15, I was invited to train for the British Olympic Ski Team. My parents turned it down because I was about to do my O Levels and they felt it would interfere too much. But skiing continued to have a huge influence on my life – and still does! I met my wife, Lara on a ski lift in Courchevel in 2013! My sister, Genevieve, met her husband Andrew at a Ski Club of Great Britain training course. So my family is steeped in and pretty immersed in the sport!”
But to return to that early morning when Peter urged me out onto the slopes when everyone else was still sleeping…
“Come on” he said more urgently. “Don’t be a wimp!”
This was a challenge I couldn’t resist. And yet…there was something slightly sinister about the look on my old friend’s face.
The last time we’d skied together, I’d beaten him in a race.
Peter had been furious when I’d clipped a second or so off his time in the Giant Slalom. He wanted revenge. I knew it. Deep down I was suspicious of his motives. But I didn’t want to let on.
Peter’s skis glinted in the early morning light. They were new. The edges flashed like cutlass blades. Soon we were on our way to try the long run all the way down to Alagna.
Peter seemed tense and surly, and it was a relief when I was able to ride the occasional Poma lift alone, keeping my thoughts to myself. What was his game?
Peter didn’t seem to be interested in the scenery. “Right” he said, his lips curled into just the hint of a snarl. “Now we’ll see who’s the best skier! You go first. I’m going to give you a five second start and then I’m going to whip your ass!”
I could see his eyes narrowing menacingly. ”But Peter” I started to say nervously, “this really isn’t necessary – we both know that technically you’re a better skier than….” But he interrupted, almost savagely. “Just get going, you creep.”
I skied off.
It wasn’t long before I heard the harsh clatter of a skier creeping up on me on the black Olen run. It was Peter all right, his black ski jacket flapping in the slipstream like Dracula’s cloak, with an almost manic expression on his face, tail-gating me so closely that the slightest hesitation or deviation on my part could have send us both tumbling to our doom. This was Holmes and Moriarty on skis, engaged in a violent death struggle.
Faster and faster we went. Terrifyingly fast. Everything became a blur…..for goodness sake, Peter, just overtake me. I don’t care if you beat me down!…….
…..And then suddenly, there was my wife, drawing the curtains of our room, letting the sunlight glint in, and saying: “We’d better be quick – breakfast is almost over.” On the floor by my bed, half open, was a copy of Dead If You Don’t, Peter’s latest Roy Grace detective novel.
“I’ve had the most extraordinary dream, darling”, I said, sweating profusely. “I dreamt that Peter was chasing me down a mountain and trying to kill me.”
“You shouldn’t read Peter’s books last thing at night” said Vivianne.
We went down to breakfast. Peter was just folding up his napkin. “Morning you two” he said with a beaming smile – a lot friendlier than he’d been in my nightmare. “I thought Arnie and I could whip over to Alagna. It’s quite a long way and we’ll to ski quite fast. You up for it, Arnie? I’ll race you down!”
“In your dreams” I said.
Later – this time when I was wide awake, Peter told me how important skiing had been his life.
“I’ve written skiing scenes in a number of my books, most recently my Roy Grace novel, Love You Dead, which begins in Courchevel in a whiteout.”
I’ve skied with Peter many times – not just in my sleep! – and even at my wedding in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, in 2000 - and we are still (jokingly) somewhat merciless about each other’s skiing skills. Oh, all right – he’s just a shade better than me!
“We always have a joke about ‘proper’ old fashioned long skis which you had to be a fairly good skier to turn” says Peter, “and more modern and shorter carving skis which make turning so much easier. In fact it could be said that carving skis virtually turn themselves.
“When carving skis first came in around the turn of the century (the trend actually started in the mid-1990s) I teased Arnie about using them (although of course I secretly liked them too). I pretended (eventually in vain) that anyone who needed to use them was an inadequate skier. ‘Proper’ skiers, I maintained, skied on good old ‘skinny’ skis.”
In fact Peter and I love skiing together – he keeps up with me, I keep up with him. Except in my worst nightmares!
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