September 18, 2008
GSTAAD—Walking up mountains is not only healthy, it gives a man time to think. In fact, climbing in solitude offers one marvellous inner adventures, with epiphanies being the order of the day. There are no boulders where I climb, just a lot of green, steep hills separated by gorges, with lots of cows to keep me company. About 15 years ago, I tried climbing up steep mountains tied to a rope, but it wasn’t for me. I suffer from vertigo and the way down was hell. But I did manage to conquer the steepest overhang of Videmanette, the highest mountain in the region. Never again. The fact that the only thing preventing me from flying off into space was a rope attached to a man above me and two thin steel picks helped make up my mind. Judo, tennis, skiing and karate, yes, overhangs, no.
Still, I occasionally dream that I’m fighting for my life perched on some perilous slope and what a pleasure it always is when I wake up. The pain in one’s chest when walking up a mountain is the only thing that bothers me nowadays. The legs can go on forever but the lungs ain’t what they used to be. The booze and the smokes do not help, but I get around the lung problem with frequent stops, even a smoke now and then. The few people who walk up mountains around here usually attach all sorts of contraptions to their chests and necks, tiny gadgets to monitor their heartbeat and blood pressure. A bit like having a brain scan between rounds while boxing. A generation ago they would have been laughed off a cliff; today the laugh’s on me, or so I’m told.
A week ago, climbing with Charlie Glass under blue skies, fresh mountain breezes and a few puffs of Tiepolo clouds, it was as good as it gets. As we walked, the old wedding cake, the Prisoner of Zenda Palace Hotel got smaller and smaller, and as we plugged on the air got thinner and the legs heavier. Getting to the top is a wonderful feeling, because one did what one set out to do, and also because the torture is over. Mind you, the real torture is on the way down, when the knees take all the weight as well as the beating, instead of the much-abused heart. (Anyway, my ticker is by now immune, what with the way my fiancée — the deputy editor of The Spectator — has treated me lately.) We crossed wheat-covered fields, forests with sweeps of meadows and wild flowers, smelled rosemary and cow dung, and then, suddenly, we were in thin air and free from pylons and other modern inventions man uses against nature.
As I said, I like to walk or climb alone, but as I hadn’t seen Charlie in a couple of years — he has been busy writing a book about Americans in Paris during the occupation — we shot the breeze all the way up but I didn’t do much day-dreaming or thinking. Norman Mailer told me the most tiresome time he ever had was when he had Gore Vidal stay for a week at his house in the Cape. This was recently, after the two contemporaries had seen the finish line ahead and decided to make up. Being with Gore was like being in a ring, said Norman, ‘every time I said something he came back, bang, and I had to be on my toes.’
This week I walked up alone under stormy skies, Götterdämmerung weather. As the skies opened up the adrenaline went haywire. Onwards and upwards under rain and lightning keeps one’s thoughts pure. What is this bloody thing all about? Just before I took off that morning, I had read Rod Liddle’s interview of John Le Carré in the Sunday Times. So I thought of David Cornwell — his real name — and how he’s probably the only man I have never disagreed with over a single word he’s written or uttered.
Back in 1985, in the Big Bagel, I had gone up to West Point to watch the cadets slaughter Yale at football. Needless to say, I had gotten extremely drunk after drinking on the way up the Hudson, during the game and on the way down the Hudson. Afterwards I had gone to dinner at Indochine, a trendy Vietnamese place on Lafayette Street, owned by a friend of mine who had started off as a busboy in Saigon, had left with the Americans, and had worked and saved enough moolah to buy the place. In the men’s loo I noticed a tall, curly-haired, good-looking but very inebriated man talking to himself while having a pee. It was Willy Shawcross. He invited me back to his table where a sober David Cornwell waited patiently. As everyone who’s ever had a drink too many knows, the epiphany sometimes comes along with the hiccups. ‘Did you have a small walk-on part in a recent film?’ I asked him. ‘Yes,’ was the answer, and that was it. But I agree with what he had to say about Salman Rushdie, knowingly offending Muslims for publicity, how appalling it is that we are provoking Russia, how small David Cameron and David Milliband look while playing tough guy, and how ghastly the neocons are trying to get us into wars as long (my words) as they and their children never have to carry arms.
Such were my thoughts as lightning and thunder burst all around me, something that would have induced heart attacks for the neocons, but they, after all, would never be foolish enough to pursue such non-profit practices as mountain climbing.