Friday, 4 April 2014

Narrative Composure

As I've been bobbling down the mountains - big, scary, beautiful, eerily similar from every aspect - I've been thinking.  Occasionally about the "three most important things to remember" - er, leaning forward, leaning valley side and …

I can't remember the third thing.  There's leaning - forward, downhill.  Oh yes, and shoulders - ten and two.  Like driving but fast, downhill and without a brake pedal.*

But mostly my mind has been wandering, and because my mind works in diagonals, starting in one place and ending in an obvious-to-me but possibly tangential spot somewhere far removed (anyone else think the idea of training a dog to ceilidh and asking a friend if they'd help you bury your girlfriend in the woods are on the same spectrum?  No, well there you go - people who coast past the tabloids online will know both of these things have actually happened and for my tuppence worth, my answer would be "do you know what love, I'd rather have a cup of tea" while I discretely called the RSPCA in the first instance and 999 in the second).

And my mind was wondering about the idea of Londoners skiing.  Because I am a Londoner and I'm attempting to ski.  The two things seemed to make sense to think about at the same time.  Admittedly, my little spot of SE London heaven was pretty hilly and, when it snowed, some roads were essentially impassable.  Not least because all the salt went to wealthier boroughs and Lewisham seemed to have to make do with whatever Saxo could spare which was a shame because they're a tremendously efficient borough council in my experience.

Somehow, the book I'm reading to review and the ideas of skiing as a cultural activity (perhaps more than skiing itself) have come together.  The title of this post is a deliberate theft from oral history approaches; it's a mouthful isn't it?  Sitting side by side they give a pause for thought.  I am composed,  I am composing, I am a composite.  And each of those activities ruptures the narrative that we all work so hard to pull together and project.  That narrative, those connections we hope will help us segue easily between different parts of our lives, the syntax that will hold those different sides of ourselves together.  And staring at the people flying down the slopes and wandering around resort brought to mind an article I have read called something like "why do cowboys wear their hats in the bath" which  struck a chord because there are some seriously composed ski ensembles that absolutely speak to the heart of the person as a serious snow bunny.  But this person is probably from Wandsworth and skis for five days a year.  The article is a serious and interesting look at constructed masculinities in the context of American culture.  This is obviously not very serious and perhaps only interesting to me but it is a few thoughts on constructed ski identities and the tension between those and an urban day-to-day reality.  It is also specifically urban-centric and not about those people who've skied since they were toddlers and for whom it has always been a way of life.  There is something determinedly different to me, so I apologise for any sweeping generalisations because offence is not intended.

There is something constructed and composed about a specifically tourist ski identity though.  I've been wrestling with why I'm so excited to be here, and so resistant to it - my feet literally try to escape their boots at the same time that they really want to head downhill. I want to engage with it but I'm also turned off by it.  The culture of skiing sits uncomfortably.  It's a real privilege to be here, and I do see that.  At the same time this is not a democratic sport - it certainly wasn't an option when I was a child although some of my best friends were skiers.

Nonetheless, there was something about the families who could afford it that was unsettling, they represented a closed world, protecting their entitlement to something others could not have.  If they were in, then they were defined as such by the outness of others.  This is not to argue for skiing as indicative of a social issue.  It probably doesn't even signify anything and these are just the ramblings of snow blindness and too much vin chaud.  But that discomfort - and it is more than simply fear, although that's a part of it - remains.  It remains when I see young children experiencing the opportunities that skiing represents, and seeming don't appreciate the luxury of the experience.

And what is that fear?  It is of course in part a fear of not fitting in.  The culture of skiing puts me outside my comfort zone - a long way out.  The culture is one defined by binaries, the inside and the outside.  In the same way that marginalised subcultures might appropriate everyday dress to blend in, deploying subtle signifiers to let the right people know who they are and hiding under the radar of the others, ski culture seems to have a way of letting you know if you are one of them.  So the technical act of skiing is not enough.  The markers are legion and you need to get them right to actively participate.

It has its own language - visual, verbal, behavioural.  And what if you can never learn the language.  Or worse, what if you become fluent but people still see through it, they know you don't really belong there.  The 'C' word is unavoidable in this context.  We might like to avoid it but the rhetoric of class is present in those cultures for whom skiing is not part of the everyday hurly-burly; and I'm speaking from a specifically West London perspective.  There isn't much call for it there as a form of transport or weekend activity like cycling or going to the park.  It's pretty flat there, Horsenden Hill is not a munro.

This isn't to suggest it's malignant or malicious and some people might never realise they don't speak the language and then ignorance probably is bliss.  As a persistent member of the out gang, I am not entirely uncomfortable lurking on the fringes.  Some times are more comfortable than others and at times I've successfully navigated the in(ish) crowd and pretty convincingly too.  That little detail got just right, or just wrong enough if circumstances demanded it.  In fact, chances are I couldn't tell you what did or didn't fit.  Perhaps with skiing it is partly the locked out-locked in geography of it too.  One is, after all, stuck in a small place with an economy dependant upon the wholesale acceptance of the identity of the skier, of skiing.  It may well be different for those who grow up in a country where skiing is just a thing that is done, like football or the Star Wars movies or tiddlywinks or whatever floated your boat when you were learning to be part of mainstream culture.

Perhaps it is also because I felt shut out of mainstream culture, and even this last six months back in education found myself observing - this time impartially and at my age thank goodness for that - the same principles of exclusion and inclusion at work/play.  Where skiing isn't a part of the mainstream though, the lingering sense that some people have access to these things and others do not remains and it is uncomfortable, it should be.  It's not like other holidays for those who get them; those are fun and frivolous and pass in a flash. This requires effort and commitment and time.  Repeatedly.  It is a lifestyle you have to buy, quite literally, into and it is premised upon elitist ideals but at the same time, it isn't a culture that money guarantees you entry into.

I'm not explaining myself very well.  It's just a musing on that lingering feeling of something being great and something being odd that I'm still trying to put my finger on.  Of course, it might just be that I'm trying to rationalise being crap.  And on that note, as if proof were needed of my obvious not in-ness, here is me on skis … note I'm not moving (one too many at lunchtime).  And I'm not trying to have an agenda here.  Although I also wonder when I'll stop apologising for having an opinion, and hardly a radical one at that.  It doesn't 'alf disrupt a narrative.

As an aside, might this have been useful this week …

Also, today I've mostly been kept company by Nina Simone, Edith Piaf and Pop Levi.  Thanks chaps …

* all failure to learn how to actually ski = students own and not the very proficient teacher at ski school in Val Thorens.

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