Barbarians at the Gate

GSTAAD—I cross-country ski the old-fashioned way, not skating but on machine-made narrow tracks. It is known to be the best exercise in the world, both upper and lower body getting the maximum workout as one churns along a beautiful course in Lauenen, a tiny nearby village that looks like Gstaad did sixty years ago. I used to bring my children to the lake here during the summer, warning them time and again about a horrible monster that lived underwater and specialized in grabbing little kids. They screamed and screamed in terror until they got a bit older and told me to stop talking nonsense and swam to their heart’s content. Disrespectful little jerks, but such are the joys of fatherhood.

I now cross-country ski more than downhill, if only because it’s such a bore putting the boots on. Even worse is the fear of falling, something I actually enjoyed doing at speed when I was young. The snow is still good, for Gstaad that is, and the weather ditto. I used to know everybody in this town but no longer. The place is full of unfamiliar faces, and some not so friendly, a modern-day phenomenon that illustrates new money, at least as far as I’m concerned. Will some modern-day Waugh (or Sinclair Lewis, for that matter) describe their pretensions and how pathetic their swashbuckling looks to an expert eye? Probably not, novelists nowadays are concerned only with their own feelings.

“In St. Moritz, the Corviglia wagons have been circled and the barbarians are outside and failing to get in.”

I ran into my old friend Nicolas Anouilh, son of the great French playwright Jean, the other day while we were both sliding and sweating in Lauenen and gossiped about the new arrivals. Nicolas prides himself on being a misanthrope, and I’m about to join his club. He’s off downhill skiing also, although he’s much younger than I. Forty-five years or so ago he watched me kick a bag every morning from his next-door chalet, and now he’s decided to start. He’s signed up to a kickboxing club in nearby Saanen and I will be joining him next week. This should be fun. Without having been there, I bet I know the type that will be kicking and boxing: locals with no talent but legs like tree trunks that hurt you more when you kick them hard, and rich boys trying to get tough in order to show off later that night in nightclubs. Oh yes, and women trying to improve their figures, and their figures do improve if they persist. What will be more interesting is sixty years of karate, boxing, and judo experience but aged 85, versus inexperienced youngsters aged 25.

While churning away in the Lauenen valley one has time to think—anything to keep the mind away from the physical fatigue. Boris is of course always in the news, and the other day Munira’s resignation brought back memories. (Munira in demotic Greek means “vagina.”) Munira’s hubby, Dougie Smith, is a hell of a poker player. We used to have a regular game that included Zac before he became Lord Goldsmith, and Bunter before he became Duke of Beaufort. Timmy Hanbury, Dougie, and I made up the regulars. I never won a single hand against Dougie or Zac, both of them besting me by calling my bluffs or wiping me out with better hands. Mind you, I was always too busy gambling rather heavily downstairs at Aspinall’s to concentrate on poker, especially Texas Hold’em, a game unfamiliar to the poor little Greek boy.

Dougie Smith, a Conservative Party adviser back then as he is now, ran an occasional shall-we-say risqué party where adults met other willing adults and you can imagine the rest. A friend of ours begged and begged and begged so finally Dougie gave in and allowed him to attend one such meeting dressed to the nines as a waiter serving refreshments to the weary swingers. Our friend walked in with a tray full of drinks and eager to serve, but he had not left his sense of the ridiculous behind him. As he approached a large fat man with a huge erection leering at an Amazon’s enormous poitrine, my friend literally burst out laughing, spilled the drinks all over the about-to-copulate couple, and was unceremoniously thrown out with prejudice. I believe Dougie decided that from that moment on self-service—no pun intended—would be the rule.

Otherwise, everything’s hunky-dory. Next week I fly to St. Moritz for the Corviglia Club’s 90th-anniversary party; the last time I was there was for the 75th with Tim Hoare and Nick Scott present and partying like crazy. Both now they have gone but are certainly not forgotten. The wife was glamour girl of the Corviglia back in the ’60s, and her presence is required. Prince Augusto Ruffo di Calabria, a good friend, is the president of the club. His wife Tana and her sister Milana Furstenberg were two beautiful Austrian princesses and both married princes. I’m looking forward to the bash and although St. Moritz has been overrun much more than Gstaad with NOCDs, there is a difference. In St. Moritz, the Corviglia wagons have been circled and the barbarians are outside and failing to get in. The barbarians rule the town, the hotels, and the nightclubs, but the encircled club looks as if it can withhold for another ninety years or so. I wish I could say the same about Gstaad, but then I’m a pessimist.

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