High life

Why Spectator readers are the nicest people

29 February 2020

9:00 AM

29 February 2020

9:00 AM


It feels like a sepia-tinged melodrama, one directed by the great schlock master Sam Wood. Driving along the winding valleys through 17th-century villages, Gruyères Castle on one’s right, the heartbeat would quicken as Gstaad beckoned in the distance. Gstaad in those days meant beautiful women, parties galore, challenging, snow-covered slopes to swish down, and a friendly atmosphere. Only the lucky few knew about the place.

All that has gone down the drain, except for the prices, which have gone through the roof. It’s called progress. I used to be able to identify the mood of a time, especially here in Gstaad, but no longer. For starters, there is no more snow from upstairs, only the man-made white stuff. The last February with no snow whatsoever was back in 1964, and I spent it hitting tennis balls with Irwin Shaw on the Palace hotel outdoor courts.

Nobody talked about climate change in those days, and those who did were as wrong as the modern maniacs trying to shove it down our throats. One such Extinction Rebellion asshole who drives a Porsche tried to collar me the other day, and he got a somewhat rude response. ‘Talk to the Chinese, tell the African Bushmen to stop burning wood, and the Markles to offset their carbon footprint by staying put in Hollywood,’ I said. ‘I use a sailboat, a mini, and walk everywhere, so shut up.’

From my chalet high above on the Wispile, I can see green all around me. The white stuff is far away, up on the glaciers in the distance. Man-made paths of snow have the suckers going up and down the ski lifts like robots, après-skiing being the operative word. Still, there are those, like my own son, who insist that there is snow and good skiing, but the venue changes a lot — daily, in fact. The only good news in all this is that I will have to give up skiing in the near-future and the lack of the white stuff makes it easier to do so.

The lack of snow was offset by karate camp, with the arrival of my karate sensei Richard Amos and Ben, a tough member of the Swiss team. Implicit in karate is a sense of personal dignity, once a characteristic of the samurai, although even that has now given way to American-style commercialism. But the way of Bushido, at least to some of us, remains a code of moral principle. Richard Sensei, Ben and I went at it hard, but then I noticed they were cheating, taking it easy on the old boy. I truly felt like quitting. But it is the way of Bushido: one does not attack old men. Still, a few bruises make it easy to fool oneself and I celebrated the finish of the three-day camp with a bottle of vodka all to myself.

Throughout these 55 years of karate, especially before sessions that require hand-to-hand fighting, I have inspired myself by reading about real combat, as in James Holland’s brilliant Normandy ’44. I read about my wife’s uncle, a battalion commander in the Panzer-Lehr-Division, ‘the urbane and aristocratic Major Prince Wilhelm von Schönburg-Waldenburg’. Eight Princes Schönburg were killed in action in the second world war. Seven died on the Russian front, Wilhelm on the counterattack in Normandy, taking a direct hit in the turret of his Panzer and dying instantly. The Nazis made sure that nobles were in the thick of the fighting, and the extremely good-looking Wilhelm was all of 25 when he died.

And now for the good news: the group of Spectator readers who came up to Gstaad for lunch and a short speech by yours truly turned out to be the nicest bunch of men and women I’ve met in a hell of a long while. Even the Anglophobe Alexandra, my wife, has become an instant Anglophile on their account. There were about 40 of them, and what struck me was that they were not a silly, jolly bunch, but serious men and women who had obviously reached the top of their professions such as the law, academia and business. Yet they were a happy group who knew more about The Spectator than the little Greek boy and had very interesting things to say. There was not a single bore among them, most likely a first ever here in Gstaad.

My plan was to talk about my 62 years in Gstaad as compared with my 43 years as a Spectator columnist, and how Gstaad has gone to the dogs, whereas the Speccie has gone from strength to strength. It was a good idea but I wasn’t able to do it justice because I couldn’t go full out. Anyway, my visitors were happy to be in the sun and they even thought to bring me a bottle of the great Lagavulin scotch whisky: ‘Your sainted editor’s favourite,’ as my friend Michael put it.

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