One Happy Life
I have known some quite good people who were unhappy, but never an interested person who was unhappy.
A. C. Benson
[On one of those signs often seen outside churches was the message, ‘The happiness of one’s life depends on the quality of one’s thoughts.’ It’s the sort of saying that is very popular in a culture rife with facile advice on how to help yourself by thinking positively. But while it serves to remind us of the often untapped power of beliefs and attitudes, it is, in itself, a notorious half-truth. It misleads and obscures as much as it enlightens. For if you were born in the wrong place or at the wrong time, if you were unwise in your choice of parents, if you have bad health, marry the wrong person, end up in the wrong line of work, then even thoughts of the highest quality will fail to compensate you for such disadvantages. And even if all your external circumstances are ideal, a gloomy temperament will easily outweigh them. (David Hume famously said of himself, ‘I was ever more disposed to see the favourable than unfavourable side of things; a turn of mind which it is more happy to possess than to be born to an estate of ten thousand a year.’) Many things that are beyond one’s control must work together to produce a charmed life, too many things for such a life to be a common occurrence. In the case of Arnold Lunn, most things did conspire to make for an unusually happy life—certainly an interesting and enjoyable life. (Please note that by ‘happiness’ we mean natural earthly happiness, and not the kind of happiness that owes much to religious faith, mystical experience, or indeed anything connected with the spiritual life proper.) Even the misfortunes, like the fall from Cader Idris that shattered his leg and the five years of unrequited love, ultimately worked to his advantage or were overcome. For the injured leg kept him out of World War I, in which his two younger brothers served, and he did win the woman of his choice in the end. Every life contains misfortunes, but it is very important to distinguish between those misfortunes which temporarily impair happiness and those, such as quadriplegia, which permanently impair it and turn life into a struggle.
The basic facts of Lunn’s life are as follows: he was born in 1888 into a middle class English family which had come up in the world thanks to his father’s entrepreneurial skills; his parents were devout Methodists who attempted, unsuccessfully, to be missionaries in India (Lunn was born in Madras); he was the oldest of four; he received a classical education at Harrow, England’s most prestigious public school after Eton; he married up and had three children, one of whom captained the British men’s ski team in the Munich Olympics; apart from Oxford he didn’t care for English institutions, but thanks to his father’s travel agency he spent much of his life outside England; he had three passions: mountaineering, skiing, and religious controversy, and wrote more than fifty books about them; at the age of 45 he converted to Catholicism; he invented the Slalom skiing race in 1922 and got it introduced, along with the Downhill, into the Olympic Games in 1936; he was knighted for “services to British Skiing and Anglo-Swiss relations” in 1952; he died in 1974. In themselves none of his activities and accomplishments amount to happiness. But basing your judgment on the following excerpts from his books, including three biographical memoirs—when someone writes three biographical memoirs it’s a fair guess that the person in question has found his life more than usually interesting—decide for yourself whether such a life deserves to be called happy, and whether that kind of happiness could have been achieved by attitude alone.]
[The following have to do with temperament, parents, marriage partner, life work, and physical environment. Bad luck in one or more of these departments of life will often put happiness, except in a very mundane understanding of that word, beyond reach. The purpose of the excerpts in this section is to give the reader a sense of how things stood with Lunn in each of these areas.]
I have a happy disposition. Money anxieties, ill-health or the loss of friends are the only things which depress me. At the age of twenty I tried to believe that I had a vocation for pessimism. I read The City of Dreadful Night and Omar Khayyam and adopted a most melancholy despairing pose. But “cheerfulness was always breaking in.” I have enjoyed every moment of my hunt for truth, and indeed, now that the problem has been solved, I feel a sentimental regret for the lost joys of the search. Thank God, there are still many problems to solve.
As a boy I was a pagan in the proper sense of that term. A pagan is not an atheist: he is religious in so far as he does his best to placate the gods. But his religious observances are inspired not by a passion for righteousness, but by a practical desire to obtain solid benefits from the gods. When I said my prayers I explained in a businesslike way what I wanted. When I did not get what I wanted, I made the correct remarks in the hope if I accepted a rebuff in a sporting fashion, God would prove more accommodating next time. I was never “converted,” to use the old evangelical term. Religious emotionalism repelled me.
I was once dragged unwillingly to a prayer meeting which was run by a group of boys. I felt profoundly ill at ease until a cheerful youth offered up a businesslike petition for the success of a horse which carried one of his half-crowns. This was thought very irreverent.
On the principle of asking God for the sort of things that God would like to be asked for, I even asked God to make me good. But I had no love of virtue for its own sake. My father once remarked to a Jesuit that I should never become a Catholic because I had “no sense of sin.” There was nothing wrong with his premise. Like most Protestants of my generation [pre World War I] I was only nominally a Christian. My real code was a humanist not a supernatural code. The humanist avoids certain actions, not because these actions offend God but because they injure other people. As a young man I regarded adultery as wrong if, and only if, the adulterer broke up a happy home. Of course it was very wicked to seduce an innocent girl, but I could not see any harm in an irregular sexual union provided that nobody was damaged thereby. “It all depends on the girl and the nature of the affair,” as a candid parson once remarked in my presence.
I was prepared for confirmation by Sir Arthur Hort, the son of a famous Victorian divine. He was very conscientious, but neither then nor later did I receive any education in Christian apologetics. The Bishop who confirmed me made a most impressive remark, “You will meet young men at the University,” he said, “who do not believe in God. As I was coming up the hill today I heard a bird sing . . . Tell them that.” I never told them that for I had no reason to believe that the Bishop’s bird would make more impression on other people than it had on me. If this was the best that could be said for Christianity, then clearly it was time to discover what could be said for atheism. I reverenced Leslie Stephen as a great Alpine pioneer. The fact that he was an agnostic tempted me to invest sixpence in a cheap reprint of his book, An Agnostic’s Apology. I found myself defenseless—thanks to the miserable deficiency of Anglican education—against his onslaughts. One evening I knelt down from force of habit and began to say my prayers. “But there’s nobody there,” I thought, and crept into bed. It was pleasant to go straight to bed.
I returned to Oxford after my [climbing] accident, and made no serious effort to resume my intermittent study of history. I have always found it difficult to interest myself in any subject in which I am to be examined, so instead of reading history I read philosophy. I reviewed the leading Modernists as their books appeared, in the Isis, which I edited for a year, read every line that William James had written, and went for long walks with the great Oxford Pragmatist, Dr. F. C. S. Schiller.
I left Oxford a convinced disciple of William James. I had no religious convictions, but there were certain religious beliefs which I was prepared to defend. I was prepared to argue that theism was more probable than atheism, immortality more probable than mortality. At the age of thirty Professor Salmon added another belief to my list of “probables.” That Christ possessed miraculous powers seemed to me very probable, that Christ rose from the dead by no means impossible.
And there I stuck. . . .
And was content to stick, for, though I did not know it at the time, I was not in search of objective truth, but of truth which could pass the test of my subjective prejudices.
I was attracted by William James’s philosophy because I shared his dislike of an omnipotent and omniscient deity. The God of Catholicism, so I felt, left far too little scope in the universe for the activities of Arnold Lunn. I could not see how omniscience could be reconciled with freewill, and I was not going to waste five minutes considering any theological scheme which seemed to impair the complete freedom of my will.
I was delighted and surprised when Father Knox agreed to collaborate in a volume of controversial letters about Catholicism. I discussed the projected book [published in 1933 under the title Difficulties] with many eminent divines who were attending a reunion conference at Mürren. They were convinced, one and all, that the book would never be published unless it ended with my surrender to Rome.
My father was pleased with the book, as were many other eminent Protestants. I think I may claim to have stated the anti-Catholic case with considerable vigour. Father D’Arcy once remarked, “I have recommended your book to many Catholic apologists in the Press and on the platform, for you start where the ordinary Protestant leaves off. You know the routine answers to the routine difficulties, and you force the Catholic to meet the real difficulties.”
I have never enjoyed writing a book more. When Father Knox’s letters arrived my wife used to sigh with resignation, “I shan’t get a word out of you for the next few days.” As the correspondence proceeded I was beginning to feel unsettled. “I’ve written a very good letter to Father Knox,” I remarked to my wife. “You’d better write a good letter to yourself,” she replied acidly, “if you want to remain a Protestant.” When at a later date Professor Haldane accepted my challenge to debate Science and the Supernatural in a similar series of letters, my wife’s only comment was, “Well, I hope you won’t go over to his side too.”
In the autumn of 1930, after we had exchanged a few letters, I asked Father Knox if I could come up to Oxford and see him. He was far from encouraging. The drift of his reply was to the effect that his time was very fully taken up with the undergraduates entrusted to his care, and that he had very little time to spare for non-Catholics. If I was easily snubbed I should have stayed put, but this kind of letter merely provokes my pugnacity. I persisted, and Father Knox surrendered. I lunched with him at Oxford and went for a long walk which I thoroughly enjoyed. At the end of it he knew that he had been beaten. He remarked resignedly that if I cared to come and see him again he would not mind much.
My second visit, like my first, was on a Friday. “Fish again,” said Father Knox. “Perhaps you were wondering, ‘Are they the same at home?’ ”
Reviewers were kind to Difficulties. They commented on the good temper of our controversy.
A great friend of mine, a most gifted young man, who was recently killed flying, bought the book. I stayed with him and he showed me the book copiously underlined. “You score point after point,” he said, “and indeed you seem to me to win on points. The odd thing is that you don’t make the least impression. There is a curious reserve of strength about Knox’s letters which is most impressive. Look at this for instance. You rub in the horrors of the Inquisition and the badness of bad Popes, and all Knox says is, ‘Yes, it is odd that such should be the effect of having a divine Church in the world, but there it is, we know that the Church is divinely founded and all we can do is to fit in these facts as best we may into the knowledge we already possess. We do not know why God has allowed things to work out so, but evidently he has; in a divine Church, as in a divine creation, there are anomalies.’
“Of course, he begs the question,” said my friend, “but he begs it most persuasively.”
One comment on the book made independently by two friends of mine struck me as very much to the point. My friend, Mr. Lythe, pointed out that my main “difficulties” were Christian rather than Catholic “difficulties.” The Infante Alphonso d’Orleans-Bourbon made the same point when I visited him in Zürich, just after the book appeared.
“You can reassure your wife,” he said, “there is not much risk of your becoming a Catholic. You will have your work cut out to become a Christian.”
His eldest son, by the way, produced on this occasion a brand new argument in favour of the obligation to hear Mass. “If I had not been going to Mass last Sunday,” he said, “I should have been killed. The front wheel of my car came off, but as I was driving to Mass I was, of course, driving very slowly.”
A few months after this book appeared I was wandering round Westminster Cathedral, which I love because it reminds me of Italy. A Redemptorist, Father Nicholson, had just finished preaching. He was a missionary priest, and in the course of his long and active life he had made a habit of accosting visitors to the Cathedral. In this manner he has started no less than twenty-eight converts on the road to Rome. After a few introductory remarks he provides them with an introduction to some priest, who carries on the good work.
He approached me and asked if I knew the Cathedral. I was attracted by his manner and his smile. “Yes, I know the Cathedral well.”
“Are you a Catholic?” “Well, no, not exactly.”
“Do you believe in God? Do you believe in the Incarnation?” I admitted that I did. “Why aren’t you a Catholic?” he said, with a puzzled look.
“Oh, I don’t quite know, but you’ll find some of my reasons in the book, Difficulties.”
“Surely you weren’t impressed by the arguments of that man Lunn,” he said impatiently.
“I was rather,” I confessed. “I thought he made one or two rather good points.”
“How odd! As the book interested you, will you let me give you an introduction to Father Knox?”
I thanked him for his kindness.
A year later I asked him to come and stop a night with us at Suttoncroft. We fixed a meeting place at Charing Cross. “I shall recognise you by your smile,” he said. It had been, I fear, a very broad smile indeed.
At Warwick the carriage was invaded by three men who seemed on very friendly terms with each other. They studiously ignored the young man [Lunn’s father] in the corner until they were quite sure that they had attracted his attention. Meanwhile, one of the men had produced three cards. . . . It seemed an easy trick, so easy that the young man returned poorer by three pounds than he should have been. It was his own money, but he was anxious to prevent his father discovering that he had lost it. So he decided to replace it before the nakedness of the land had been revealed. He began by exchanging mice at a profit in a paper called The Exchange and Mart. From mice he moved on to sword sticks, and from sword sticks to the requisites for a new game which had just begun to capture England, a game called lawn tennis. Everybody wanted to play this new game, and there was, at first, a difficulty in supplying their requirements. Meanwhile, the young man had invented a scoring dial to attach to tennis rackets—it was so confusing to master this new scoring and keep it in one’s head—and he was highly delighted when the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Connaught both bought sets.
He took his father into partnership [as a junior partner!] at twenty, and the business continued to prosper. Then one morning he woke from a dream, which was to alter the whole course of his life. He was walking with a friend past a large house and grounds. “That is my house,” he said to his friend, “and those are my family, and there is not a scrap of religion about the place.”
He decided to retire from the tennis business, and to draw enough money from the business to go to Dublin University with a view to becoming a medical missionary in India.
“Did you ever realise,” I once remarked to my brother Hugh during one of the more acute crises of the family business, “that if father had stayed on in the tennis business he would have been a millionaire.”
“Good Lord!” exclaimed my brother in disgust, “that’s what comes of taking dreams seriously. It’s enough to make one an atheist.”
“Perhaps,” I answered, “but if he hadn’t had that dream he would not have gone to Ireland, he would not have met your mother, and there would have been no Hugh Lunn.”
“By Jove! You’re right,” said Hugh, “that was a near shave. It never does to jump to rash conclusions. I’ll never say a harsh word against missionaries again.”
I was born in India on April 18th, 1888. My father remained only one year in India because his health failed. On his return to England he was involved in an unfortunate controversy over the policy of the missionaries, and, as a result of this controversy, he left the Methodist ministry but refused, with reluctance, Bishop Temple’s offer to ordain him [as an Anglican]. Instead he went into journalism and founded The Review of the Churches to promote Christian unity. In 1892 he summoned a conference at Grindelwald to discuss Reunion. The conference, which was attended by an Anglican bishop and many leading Nonconformist divines, was destined to change the course of his life—and mine. He had made the travel arrangements for this conference, and drifted gradually into the travel business. I should never have seen the Alps, as a boy, but for his enthusiastic interest in Reunion.
My mother used to take me to the Anglican Church in the morning, and my father to the Methodist chapel in the evening. Perceiving that two forms of the same faith doubled my church attendance, I naturally followed with sympathy his endeavours to merge all Churches into one.
My father as a young man was impressed by Wesley’s denunciation of wealth. He has made a great deal of money, he has lost a great deal of money, he has given away a great deal of money. When he was making money he lived in three rooms in one of his hotels, and spent the balance furthering the reunion movement and helping indigent parsons. My mother’s spare cash went in the East End. Again and again, when dog-tired, she has taken a penny bus in order to be able to give away the equivalent of a taxi fare. The result of my father’s quaint belief that Christ meant what he said on the subject of wealth was that he and my mother would have been left with virtually no resources had the family business crashed, as it would have done but for a miracle. “I always have a queer feeling,” my father remarked, “that the ravens will feed me as they fed Elijah.” So far these obliging birds have carried out their side of the contract, but it is sometimes a little trying to live with a man whose plans are based on faith in the resourcefulness of ravens.
My father is a staunch Liberal. His instincts are autocratic, but he made a determined effort, so far as I was concerned, to allow me to develop my views freely. My love for dialectics was sharpened at an early age by arguments within the family circle. My father was the natural person with whom to thrash out any problem. There has never been any constraint between us, nor do I think that the step which I am now taking will impair our relations. “I’d just as soon you did not become a Catholic,” he once remarked, “but I should never pray that you should not.”
It was my mother’s love for Ireland and for Irish Catholicism which first turned my mind towards the Church. And here I may, perhaps, interpolate part of a letter which she wrote a few days after I was received into the Church. “. . . even as a child of about twelve years I used to steal up to see the nuns in our convent in Midleton, and sometimes I had the courage to enter the Catholic Chapel. This in those days was an unprecedented act, as I belonged to the class which as a whole despised the Irish Catholics socially and my father was a Protestant clergyman. Whenever I went to Cork for the day I never failed to go into St. Patrick’s Catholic Church to pray, and later still one of my best friends in Cork was an Augustinian priest. I cannot account for all these things, perhaps I was impelled to by a sympathy with the ‘multitude’ and also from the feeling of intense nationality. I discovered after I married that one of my great-grandmothers had been a genuine Irish Catholic. My life would have been robbed of much of its joy had all this been non-existent, though I have no wish to be an English Roman Catholic.”
I had spent the Easter vacation of 1909 with my friend Scott Lindsay at Hexham, before returning to Oxford, and it was at Hexham that I first met the lady who is now my wife. Mabel Northcote had never met anybody in the least like me, and she explained to her aunt that she hoped the experience would remain unique. In those days I had not begun to mellow, and whereas I have now succeeded in concealing, then I was anxious to emphasize my unpleasant eccentricities. I owe my marriage, as I owe almost everything good in my life, to the mountains, for I was asked to lecture on mountains, and in the course of the lecture I displayed my less repulsive characteristics, and I noticed to my surprise that the most interested member of the audience was a girl whose disapproval I had amused myself by provoking. Mabel shared a room with a cousin, and we carried on a long conversation about mountains through the keyhole. Towards midnight I slipped a copy of a mountaineering journal under the door. “It’s getting late,” I said. I looked at my watch. It was twelve o’clock on April 18th, 1909. I had just come of age.
A few days later I startled Miss Northcote with the first of a long series of proposals which broke down her resistance many years later.
[In another book he recounts his first reaction to Miss Northcote as follows:]
I had accepted without enthusiasm an invitation to lecture on mountaineering, and I delivered the lecture on the eve of my twenty-first birthday. I gave the usual kind of talk and told the usual stories, Balmat’s ascent of Mount Blanc, the long struggle with the Matterhorn and so forth. Suddenly I caught sight of Miss Northcote, who was sitting in the front row. Her expression of eager interest surprised me. She had never seen mountains, and my slides which were more eloquent than my prosy remarks, had brought something of the magic of the hills into the lecture hall. Then, to my great astonishment, I found myself trying to explain what mountains had meant to me, for the benefit of one member of my audience.
I should never have been married but for a lucky accident. I am indebted for my good fortune not to my virtues, but to my most irritating, if not my most serious, shortcoming—absent-mindedness. After my fourth proposal had been rejected Miss Northcote felt that it was unfair not to give me a definite congé [parting ceremony or dismissal], which she did. A few weeks later the lady undergraduates’ magazine published a brilliant review of my articles in the Isis. I was flattered and intrigued and invited the unknown reviewer to meet me. “Ten to one,” I remarked to a friend, “that she’s got side whiskers or a beard, but it’s worth taking a chance on it.” The reviewer replied that she could not come to tea with me in Oxford because she had just been sent down (another link between us), but that she would meet me in London. So we met at the Author’s Club. The reviewer had neither side whiskers nor a beard. On the contrary, she was beautiful and witty, a dangerous combination. We exchanged the scintillating epigrams which were the period pieces of the Edwardian age, and, mortified by a sudden lull in the conversation, I proposed to her, to see what she would say. She accepted me to see what I would say. She was never in the least in love with me, but she thought that it would be fun to be engaged. She had literary ambitions, and to the novelist in embryo all experiences are valuable. We exchanged letters in which sentiment and humour were felicitously blended, and during a visit to her people I came across, while searching at her behest for a book, no less than six drafts of the first ingenuous love letter that she wrote to me. I produced these six drafts with a slight air of reproach. She looked at them with interest. “I could not make up my mind,” she said, “whether to send you the letter I actually sent you or this second draft. . . .”
A few days later I wrote two letters, announcing my engagement, one to a literary friend and the other to Miss Northcote. My first letter was a pen picture of my fiancé which rather pleased me. I kept a copy. It would be useful as material for a novel. I did not keep a copy of the letter to Mabel Northcote and I did not enjoy writing it. And then I put the letters into the wrong envelopes. Worse still, the first letter contained a phrase tolerant of an interpretation which I had never intended, an invidious comparison between my fiancé and Mabel. She assumed that I had chosen this oblique method of conveying to her the news of my engagement and my own estimate of my good fortune in escaping from a previous entanglement. I was horrified when I discovered what I had done, and followed it up with a letter of apology and a call. A few weeks later my fiancé told me that I had ceased to interest her; my stock of epigrams had run dry, so she broke off the engagement.
“You little know,” my wife often remarks, “what a nuisance you are with your absent-mindedness.”
“But if I hadn’t been absent-minded,” I reply, “I should not have had a chance of being a nuisance to you,” an answer the controversial effectiveness of which is perhaps more apparent to me than to my wife.
I suffer from a not unnatural constraint in writing about my wife. References to married bliss are always faintly irritating, for it is difficult to avoid giving the impression that one thinks one has done something very clever, and that both one’s wife and oneself must be very charming to hit things off so nicely. Also, the reader may easily suspect that these advertisements of matrimonial bliss are inspired less by affection than by prudence. Even so, I cannot omit all reference to the beloved companion who has shared all my interests, whose acute mind has solved many difficulties, whose humour has lightened many of my troubles, who has never irritated a most irritable person, or failed to interest a husband who is easily bored, or lost courage when things looked black, and who has ever been prodigal of love when I was most tiresome. What more can I say but Domine non sum dignus [Lord, I am not worthy]?
But for the grace of God, and the Alps, I might have remained a doctrinaire Radical all my days. Fortunately the summer and winter holidays which I spent in the Alps provided a useful corrective. Among the mountains I came into contact with reality. The Radical thinks in abstractions, and his enthusiasm for the working classes is often qualified by his uneasiness when he comes into contact with individual members of those classes. I was never interested in the status of the Alpine peasantry, but my best friends have been Alpine peasants. As a boy I spent long hours playing with Hans, whose father owned the chalet where we lived. We quarrelled and fought, and experimented in rock climbing on a rocky boulder near the chalet. I respected him because he could lead up the steepest face of that boulder, a face which had defeated all my attempts. Few men in later life have inspired as genuine a reverence as that which I felt for Christian Amer, the great Grindelwald guide, who led Whymper on many of his most famous climbs.
The Alps helped to correct the inferiority complex which I had acquired at Harrow. My melancholy display at Harrow football convinced me that I was a coward. Intellectuals are sometimes heroic, but as a class they are less courageous than other men. My mountain passion helped to overcome my natural infirmities. I was reassured by the discovery that in moments of peril I could behave with that bare modicum of self-control which decency demands. And because I instinctively admired (and envied) the courage of the great mountaineers, I felt no temptation to applaud that belittlement of military gallantry which was one of the more nauseating symptoms of the post-war literature of the Left, a symptom which disguised that envy of courage which is nowhere greater than among intellectuals.
My father was determined to make a barrister of me. He entered me for the Inner Temple, where I ate my Law Dinners and passed the first of my Bar examinations. But I never reconciled myself to his wishes, for if I had become engrossed in the Bar I should have had to sacrifice two ambitions—the first to write, and the second to shape the development of British skiing.
I was supremely happy for the first months of married life in Cookham, but the wander years have transformed me into a “wave man”—to quote the apt Japanese epithet for a man without roots. It is all wrong to feel, as I feel, a sense of home-coming when I enter a carriage labelled Boulogne, Delle, Biel, Bern, Brieg, Domodossola, Milan, Verona, Venezia—a litany of lovely names which mean infinitely more to me than Harrow, where I lived as a boy, or Bickley, where I spent some years as a man. The reproductions of Italian paintings which decorate the carriages that travel between Calais and Rome have the same homely atmosphere as the pictures which hang in the home which I lave let.
To the townsman one bird sounds very like another, and to some people all train noises are uninteresting and indistinguishable; but no country-bred exile returning from the towns could listen with greater rapture to the farmyard sounds of his home than I to the metallic noise when wheels are tested with a hammer, the slow hiss of escaping steam, the “Pass, friend, all’s well” of the station bells at the Swiss frontier, or the sonorous ding-dong which invades one’s slumber as the train draws up at Delle or Biel. And just as the exile from the towns knows that he is among his own people when he meets those who grew to manhood with him, so I have friends along the great Continental highways—station-masters with whom I played as a boy in Alpine villages, porters with whom I have exchanged grumbles, not only about Hitler, but about the Kaiser. They belong, as I do, to the Estate, the Estate of Travel.
Interesting Experiences and/or Famous People
[Based on a diary he kept while at Harrow from 1902 to 1906, Arnold Lunn wrote a very accurate and very critical description of life at England’s second most prestigious public school. Entitled The Harrovians, it was the first public criticism of England’s elite schools and it attracted a lot of hostile attention. In the following excerpt the author makes it clear just how good Harrow was at inculcating class consciousness.]
The captain of the house Eleven had invited me to attend his leaving supper. A compliment, for only those who moved in the upper ranks of house society were invited to such functions. I blushed and murmured my thanks. “Take that grin off,” said my courteous host. “There is no reason either to grin or to swank. I have asked you because you are a funny little madder, and you’ve got to make a speech, and, my Lord, if you don’t make us laugh you’re for it!”
This was not mere badinage. If my speech had been a failure I should have been lucky to escape a summary beating.
I slunk into supper feeling unhappy, for I knew that my presence lowered the social tone of the party and provoked the resentment of those who had only just scraped an invitation, the value of which was clearly discounted by the fact that I was included among the guests. I sat at the end of a long bench. My nearest neighbour edged away from me and ostentatiously addressed his remarks to his other neighbour. Nobody addressed a word to me throughout this cheerful function. I was left to my thoughts, and these were by no means reassuring. I had never spoken in public, and I had no reason to suppose that I would speak well. And if I did not earn my dinner by making my host laugh there would be trouble—grave trouble. Seldom can a maiden speech have been delivered under more trying circumstances.
“Now then, Sally,” said my host genially, “get on with it, and remember what I told you.”
I did remember what he told me only too clearly. Fortunately my first joke, a pretty poor one, was a success. From that moment public speaking had no terrors for me.
Nineteen-nine  was a decisive year in my life both for good and for ill. Fortune has few favourites, and good luck seldom lasts.
On August 28th, 1909, Scott Lindsay and I walked up Cader Idris. Scott did not feel like climbing, so I left him and began to descend the east ridge of Cyfrwy. Our British hills provide the rock climber with problems as exacting as those met with in the Alps . . . .
The day was perfect. The burnished sliver of the sea melted into a golden haze. Light shadows cast by scudding clouds drifted across the blue and distant hills. The sun flooded down on the rocks. I slid down the crack and reached the top of the steep face of rock above “The Table.” The usual route dodges the top fifteen feet of this face, and by an easy traverse reaches a lower ledge. But on that glorious afternoon I longed to spin out the joys of Cyfrwy, and I found a direct route from the top to the bottom of this wall, a steep but not very severe variation.
It was one of those days when to be alive is “very heaven.” The feel of the warm, dry rocks and the easy rhythm of the descending motion gave me an almost sensuous pleasure. One toyed with the thought of danger, so complete was the confidence inspired by the firm touch of the wrinkled rocks.
I was glad to be alone. I revelled in the freedom from the restraints of the rope, and from the need to synchronise my movements with the movements of companions.
I have never enjoyed rock climbing more. I have never enjoyed rock climbing since. But, at least, the hills gave me of their best, full measure and overflowing, in those last few golden moments before I fell.
A few minutes later Lindsay, who was admiring the view from Cader, was startled by the thunder of a stone avalanche. He turned to a stray tourist, urging him to follow, and dashed off in the direction of Cyfrwy.
And this is what had happened. I had just lowered myself off the edge of “The Table.” There was no suggestion of danger. Suddenly the mountain seemed to sway, and a quiver ran through the rocks. I clung for one brief moment of agony to the face of the cliff. And then suddenly a vast block, which must have been about ten feet high and several feet thick, separated itself from the face, heeled over on top of me, and carried me with it into space. I turned a somersault, struck the cliff some distance below, bounded off once again and, after crashing against the ridge two or three times, landed on a sloping ledge about seven feet broad. The thunder of the rocks falling through the hundred and fifty feet below my resting point showed how narrow had been my escape.
I had fallen a distance which Lindsay estimated at a hundred feet. It was not a sliding fall, for except when I struck and rebounded I was not in contact with the ridge. The fall was long enough for me to retain a very vivid memory of the thoughts which chased each other through my brain during those few crowded seconds. I can still feel the clammy horror of the moment when the solid mountain face trembled below me, but the fall, once I was fairly off, blunted the edge of fear. My emotions were subdued, as if I had been partially anaesthetised. I remember vividly seeing the mountains upside down after my first somersault. I remember the disappointment as I realised that I had not stopped and that I was still falling. I remember making despairing movements with my hands in a futile attempt to check my downward progress.
The chief impression was a queer feeling that the stable order of nature had been overturned. The tranquil and immobile hills had been startled into a mood of furious and malignant activity, like a dangerous dog roused from a peaceful nap by some inattentive passer-by who has trodden on him unawares. And every time I struck the cliff, only to be hurled downwards once again, I felt like a small boy who is being knocked about by a persistent bully—“Will he never stop? Surely he can’t hit me again. Surely he’s hurt me enough.”
When at last I landed, I tried to sit up, but fell back hurriedly on seeing my leg. The lower part was bent almost at right angles. It was not merely broken, it was shattered and crushed.
I spent half an hour on that ledge before my cries were heard, and four hours before the search party arrived. Long hours. Dr. Warren, a first-class London surgeon, happened to be in the district, and thanks to his skill my leg was saved, though on two occasions preparations were made for amputation. I was in bed for four months, and two years passed before I could climb again, and I should still be wearing a queer iron contrivance to take the weight of the knee if the contrivance in question had not gone through a window at the banquet following our first victory in the Anglo-Swiss University Ski Races. But I accepted this as an omen, and none of the gloomy things which were predicted have happened to me, and the libelled leg has carried me up many mountains and helped me to collect some cups in ski racing in the days when the standard of racing was infinitely lower than it is today. So 1909 still has a large balance on the credit side.
I married in 1913, and my eldest son, Peter, was born a few weeks after the outbreak of the War. I went out to Flanders early in 1915 with a Quaker ambulance, and arrived just after their hospitals and dressing stations had been taken away from them owing to a disagreement with the Royal Army Medical Corps (R.A.M.C.). I had a very entertaining time, and rode my motor bicycle to the chief points of interest in the neighbourhood. I shall never forget the tragic beauty of Ypres in the spring of 1915. A squadron of horse artillery had just been blotted out by a big shell a few hours before I passed through the Grande Place. They lay where they fell. I remember the gaily coloured creepers on the walls of the moat and the little gardens behind the half-ruined houses, gardens in which Flemish tidiness and Flemish accuracy of arrangement enforced the contrast with the beginnings of unkempt wildness and neglect. The town had been evacuated a few weeks before.
Unfortunately the unit had been reduced to complete inactivity owing to some misunderstanding with the R.A.M.C. I twiddled my thumbs hoping that the R.A.M.C. would relent. This enforced idleness was all very well for bachelors, but I had only 30 pounds in the bank, and did not think it fair that my father-in-law should continue to keep my wife and child while I was joy-riding round the Front. I returned to England and made a vain effort to obtain a commission, first in the Army Service Corps and then in the Navy. Medical authorities looked at my right leg, which was short and misshapen, and at my open wound and shook their heads. “But this leg took me up the Eiger in winter,” I said. “I can do a twenty-hour day on it.”
“Perhaps, for your own amusement,” was the acid reply.
Shortly afterwards I got a job in connection with the interned British prisoners at Mürren and the French prisoners at Montana.
I was present at two sittings with the well-known Welsh medium, Evan Powell. The physical phenomena were certainly impressive. I saw a grey cloud emerge from his body, and gradually organise itself into the shape of a delicate hand, like a woman’s, extended over a ball of flame. The light of the flame showed through the edges of this ectoplasmic finger much as an electric globe would show through the edges of a human finger placed above it. The hand moved slowly round the circle.
We had promised not to touch the hand, an undertaking which aroused my suspicions, but I did not think it unfair to move my foot about so as to come in contact with any accomplice who was manipulating the hand. The hand paused within two inches of my body, but my foot touched nobody. At that time I was wearing a large and cumbrous iron splint, which I should still be wearing if I was in the habit of obeying medical instructions. I never could remember to keep the wretched joint of this splint oiled, consequently it squeaked abominably. “Listen to the psychic vibrations,” observed an earnest spiritualist.
The physical phenomena included tongues of fire very like the Pentecostal flames, and the movement of objects without contact. These phenomena were more impressive than the medium’s “control.” “Great Hawk,” an Indian, talked pidgin English with a Welsh accent—Mr. Powell is Welsh—and managed quite long words like “hallucination” easily enough, but inevitably stumbled over monosyllables. “Me no talk English welly well. Was that a hallucination?”
On the way to the séance somebody had made some remarks about my book, The Harrovians, and I was amused to see how naturally Great Hawk wove this information into his remarks. He referred to me throughout as “Chief Push Pen.”
The direct voice was an impressive phenomenon. Suddenly Great Hawk, who was beginning to bore me, ceased to speak. The room filled with voices, a delicate woman’s voice among others. Ventriloquism is impossible in the dark, since the ventriloquist depends for his effect on nodding his head towards that point in the room from which the voice is assumed to be emerging. Suddenly I heard a whisper in front of me. “It’s horrible, it’s horrible.” A pious spiritualist who was sitting beside me, remarked, “Don’t be afraid, we are all trying to help you.” But the spirit remained unconsoled. “It’s horrible,” he repeated.
“Can’t you do anything about it?” I asked Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “your friend here seems rather distressed.”
Sir Arthur, who is a little deaf, said, “You haven’t heard him properly. The word is ‘Horace,’ not ‘horrible.’ “
Sure enough, the spirit, anxious to prolong his social outing, did his best to be agreeable. The whisper moved gradually over towards Sir Arthur, whom he found more sympathetic, and perceptibly changed. “It’s horrible, it’s horrisable, it’s Horace.”
At a second séance a big table travelled round the room some feet above the ground. One of the sitters, a woman, lost her nerve and screamed, and the table crashed to the floor. I caught it second bounce and collected a nasty bruise on my bad leg which did not disappear for some weeks. This annoyed me. My confidence had been abused. I had always assumed that these spirits were extremely adroit, and could throw things about in the dark without hitting anybody.
Gradually I lost interest in these researches, for I felt that I had come to a dead end. I had convinced myself that the phenomena were genuine, but I was no less convinced that the possibility of discovering the true explanation of these phenomena was remote. I may be wrong, but I am content to leave the task of proving me wrong to others.
The sceptic who assumes that mediums produce their phenomena by fraud for the sake of gain must explain why these mediums do not proceed to earn handsome salaries on the music-hall stage. For their performances, whether fraudulent or not, are far more impressive than those produced by the best conjurors.
Evan Powell is the best-known British physical medium. He is a coal merchant by profession and is not a professional medium, for he never charges more than his out-of-pocket expenses for a séance.
For each of the two séances at which I was present we paid him exactly ten pounds, which certainly did not represent more than reasonable expenses for his journey from Devonshire, hotel bills in London, and compensation for loss of time which he might have been devoting to his own business. On both occasions he produced phenomena which would have made his fortune if he cared to reproduce them on the music-hall stage.
I once met a well-known conjuror who was giving a show in a Swiss hotel. The programme advertised the fact that he proposed to expose Spiritualism by duplicating the phenomena produced by mediums. I offered him there and then a hundred pounds if he could reproduce under similar test conditions the physical phenomena which I had witnessed at Evan Powell’s séances. The offer was declined. Conjurors dictate conditions and supply their own equipment. The leading physical mediums accept the conditions imposed by the researchers.
I have survived five long falls among the mountains, and my memories of these falls are among the imponderables which have lessened my own fear of death because death never seemed to me less real than in those moments when death seemed inevitable. Nor can this apparent paradox be explained on the assumption that my reasoning power had been temporarily put out of action, for one can pack an amazing amount of concentrated thought into a long fall.
Falling is an emotional experience so intense that ordinary life seems unreal by comparison. The dominant sensation during my last fall was the feeling that the intervening years since I fell on Cader had been nothing but a dream, and that real life began again during the moments when gravity had taken complete control.
The strangest fact about these experiences was that never once did the possibility of extinction cross my mind, not even during a long slide down an ice slope towards a glacier many hundreds of feet below. The movement, though swift, was smooth. There was no violence to distract my thoughts. I remember an intense feeling of irritation against myself for slipping and with my companion for failing to check that slip. Two friends on another rope seemed curiously impassive and unsympathetic as we shot past them. There was nothing they could have done, but I felt that they might have made a gesture as we passed. Even a ritualistic gesture of farewell would have relieved their irresponsive immobility.
But I never said to myself, This is the end. In a few seconds my existence comes to a full stop. On the contrary, I felt that the experience through which I was passing was disagreeable but not decisive, an episode but not the end.
That particular slide was checked by a friendly little spike of rock which protruded a few inches above the ice. The rope between us caught on this rock, and some loose snow which had been swept off the ice by the rope packed between the rope and the rock, but for which the rope must inevitably have been cut.
The most useful form of debating is the debate in book form because the book remains long after the memory of a verbal debate is forgotten. I have engaged in four such debates; with Ronald Knox before I became a Catholic (Difficulties), with Cyril Joad (Is Christianity True?) And with Professor J. B. S. Haldane, F.R.S. (Science and the Supernatural) and Dr. G. G. Coulton (Is the Catholic Church Anti-Social?). . . .
J. B. S. Haldane was a more formidable but less friendly sparring partner [than Cyril Joad]. Our first real meeting was at Mürren in the ‘twenties. My father, who at that time was chairman of the Palace Hotel, enjoyed inviting eminent Englishmen to lecture to his guests, and therefore persuaded himself that the said eminences would attract many visitors to the hotel, which in point of fact they did not.
When we met at Mürren, Haldane was still Reader in Biochemistry at Cambridge and a member of the Senior Common Room at Trinity. He had just married a lady whose marriage to her previous husband had been terminated. Haldane retained his Readership in spite of an academic storm provoked by the circumstances of his marriage, and he was, I suspect, agreeably surprised that my father had been wholly uninfluenced by this Cambridge fuss.
My wife and I liked the Haldanes and often had tea with them on a terrace outside the hotel. My wife was impressed by Charlotte Haldane’s uncanny knack of picking out four-leaved clover. Mrs. Haldane was a Jewess and from time to time Haldane would interject a defiant remark, “My wife being a Jewess.” It was with some difficulty that I suppressed a temptation to counter with “My wife being a Christian.”
Haldane was well-born, and the nephew of Lord Haldane. He had been educated at Eton and New College, Oxford. He had indeed the ideal background for a left-winger, for he could make depreciatory remarks about the aristocracy and public schools without being suspected of envy. He enjoyed the best of both worlds, for it was as fashionable in intellectual circles to be left-wing as it was to be Etonian in social circles. He achieved at a comparatively early age that most coveted of scientific distinctions, the right to add F.R.S. after his name. He had fought with distinction in the First Wold War and had proved himself embarrassingly courageous—embarrassingly, for his fellow-officers, who accepted the normal risks philosophically, were often irritated by Haldane’s puckish delight in positively attracting enemy fire. After the war he made a series of dangerous experiments on his own body in the interests of biological research. He was and is a very brave man.
The Haldanes did nothing to ingratiate themselves with Cambridge society. In spite of his outstanding qualifications he was not elected a Fellow of Trinity. “I rank with the Chaplain at Trinity,” he remarked with disgust, “we’re neither of us Fellows.” In due course he left Cambridge and accepted the Professorship of biochemistry at University College, London.
Later he became associated with the Communist Party as chairman of the editorial board of the Daily Worker though he was, I believe, never a member of the Communist Party. I have often wondered whether in his case, as in so many others, his association with Communism was not, in part at least, the consequence of frustrated ambition. His relationships with the Daily Worker were never happy, and he finally broke with Communists as the result of the persecution of scientists in Soviet Russia.
Our controversy was not particularly friendly. Haldane flattered himself that he was one of those exceptional secularists who have taken the trouble to read St. Thomas Aquinas. My criticisms of his scientific beliefs did not ruffle him, but he lost his temper when I convicted him of attributing to St. Thomas a belief which in point of fact St. Thomas got into trouble for repudiating. He was angry when I mildly suggested that it is not easy to understand St. Thomas unless one knows something about the intellectual background of his age. . . .
Haldane and I have at least one thing in common. We are both fantastically absent-minded. It was therefore not surprising that Haldane, who had volunteered to collect the typescript of my chapters from my office and then take them with his own contribution to the publisher, should have left one of my chapters in the taxicab. I rang him up when the loss was discovered. “Unfortunately I cannot, like an evolutionist, appeal to the missing links in my argument, so please find the missing chapter.” Luckily I had a copy.
[King Albert of Belgium seems to have been an usually enlightened European monarch. A mountaineer like Lunn, the beloved and heroic King, who led his troops during the First World War, died in a fall while climbing alone in 1934. Lunn and his wife spent a week as guests at the royal residence in 1931 and did some skiing with King Albert and his wife.]
The King was the most modest man I have ever met. He continued quite simply to ignore the universal conspiracy to treat him as one of the heroic figures of the age. Out of office the one thing which he was anxious to forget was that he was a king. This, perhaps, explains his fondness for a very uncomfortable form of travel. The King and Queen often went for long tours in the Alps on a motor bicycle, the Queen riding pillion. They travelled incognito and put up at the smallest of inns. Once when the King turned up with his bicycle in front of a smart hotel, the concierge waved him on. “You will find the kind of hotel you want further down the road.”
His conversation was salted by his sense of irony. Of a friend of mine, a great mountain painter and a convinced spiritualist, he remarked: “I enjoy your friend’s conversation on art, for he is a fine artist, and I am glad to hear his views about Europe and its difficulties; but though I can listen to him I cannot discuss European problems with a man who replies, ‘Excuse me, but that is not correct, for the spirits have told me so-and-so.’ ”
To no man has the freemasonry of the mountains meant more. He loved, when the day’s work was done, to collect a few Alpine friends and to forget what Burke calls “the solemn plausibilities of the world.” My wife and I had been honoured with an invitation to stay with the King and Queen at the Château de Laaken. The King had just returned from a day’s scrambling on the pinnacles of the Meuse. “We’re lucky,” he said, “to be able to train our muscles for the Alps on these crags. They’re short but difficult.” It was on one of these short but difficult crags that he was to die. After dinner the King produced albums full of Alpine photographs. I remember him pausing over a photograph of one of the Oberland peaks. “This ridge. . . has it been climbed? I think it would go. . .” And then followed an animated discussion with Count Xavier de Grunne, a gallant Belgian mountaineer. And the two heads bent together over the album. “Just like two schoolboys plotting some new devilry,” as somebody disrespectfully remarked. My last memory of that event is of Xavier de Grunne canvassing the possibility of reaching the first floor of the Palace via the chimneypiece in the main hall. . . .
The Queen was the daughter of the Duke of Bavaria. Her father would have been a scientist had Fate permitted. He studied medicine, passed his examinations as an oculist and was at the disposal of the tenants of his estate when their eyes gave trouble. The Queen’s sister, Countess Toerring, inherited her father’s scientific tastes. I remember a long discussion about the difference between the Darwinian and Lamarckian theories of evolution. The Queen asked us to explain the distinction. “The essence of Darwinism,” I began, “is natural selection, which selects the variations fitted to survive. Creatures which are ill adapted to their environment become extinct.”
“Did you hear that, Albert?” said the Queen. “Creatures that are ill adapted to their environment gradually become extinct. That is sad news for kings and queens.”
But if all kings and queens were like King Albert and Queen Elizabeth there would be no republics.
Many years ago Sir Oswald Mosley attempted to convert me to Fascism. He assured me that personally he was very sympathetic to Catholicism. “You may be,” I said, “but the chances are that your successor won’t be.” As long as England remains a democracy, even small minorities are far from impotent. There are many constituencies in Great Britain where the two parties are evenly balanced, and where the Catholic vote, if it were solid, would prove decisive. Fortunately in normal times there is no such thing as a solid Catholic vote, but in times of persecution Catholics close their ranks. Parliamentary parties are concerned to retain the allegiance of minority groups, but dictators can ever defy majorities with impunity. The Church, which can organise effective opposition in a democracy, has no redress against a dictator.
I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. H. G. Wells some years ago, when he entertained me at the Garrick Club. Although often vitriolic in print he is friendly and disarming in personal contacts; and I was encouraged by a message, which he sent to me through a mutual acquaintance at a time when we were both lecturing in the States, to write him on my return home. I asked him whether, in view of King Leopold’s complete vindication in the British courts, he would not be prepared to make public reparation for his outrageous attack. He replied that he proposed to leave King Leopold in the obscurity to which he had been consigned. The obligation to repair an injustice, and to make reparation for wrong, does not seem to be binding on the prophets of the new dawn.
[The World Alpine Ski Championships, the highest level single event outside the Winter Olympics, were organised by Lunn and first held in Mürren in 1931. The 1936 event was held in Innsbruck, with Lunn being one of the officials. The snow conditions were appalling and led to numerous casualties, as he describes below.]
When I arrived at Innsbruck I learned to my dismay that the course chosen for the 1933 World Championship, of which I had written in unsparing condemnation, was to be used again for the championship of 1936. The finish of this course was far too low, less than 2,000 feet above sea-level, and I had the most vivid memories of tree stumps and stone protruding through the thin snow of the 1933 course. The weather, which had been perfect at Garmisch, broke as the games ended, and a heavy thaw removed most of the snow from the Innsbruck course. On the evening before the race a sharp frost transformed the wet snow into sheet ice. I had never seen such conditions on any race-course. The ice was so hard that a spectator walking up the course fell, slithered down the slope, and sprained an ankle on the projecting tree stumps. I was neither the referee nor the setter of the course, but as a member of the Race Committee I insisted that the race should be postponed until the sun had softened the ice. I should, of course, have been more explicit and demanded the immediate cancellation of the race. My position was difficult, as Peter [his son] was racing, but I should have ignored the possibility of being criticised as a fussy parent and used all my influence to prevent the race from being held. . . .
I waited at the bottom of the Devil’s Glade, for I believed that it was in this glade that the casualties would occur. Nor was I mistaken, for, though some of the most sensational falls occurred on the lower section, it was here that four out of six of the French team, and many other skiers, came to grief. I have never felt, as I did at Innsbruck, that a fatal accident was more likely than not, and Ruud’s miraculous escape from death confirms rather than refutes the accuracy of predictions which made miserable the long, dragging hour of waiting at the bottom of the Devil’s Glade. I looked from the sky to the snow and from the snow to the sky... There was one little bank of snow which faced due south. I turned to this bank again and again, prodding it hopefully with my stick. I can still shut my eyes and see every detail of its fretted surface, the feeble trickle of intermittent drops from a little icicle at the top of the bank. . . .
A shout—Bahn frei—and a stir of sudden excitement among the crowd. And here comes Willy Steuri, lurching rather than skiing down the course, blood streaming down his face, the first victim of the Devil’s Glade. Peter had drawn No. 3. No. 2 was a Jugoslav, and I might have spared myself much anxiety had I known that he had scratched. I set my stop-watch when Steuri appeared: 70 seconds—80 seconds—and still no sign of the Jugoslav—visualised a collision in the Devil’s Glade—100 seconds—and then came Peter. He had taken the ribbon straight and held it. He disappeared out of sight.
For the account of what happened below I depend on the reports of eye-witnesses.
Just below the Ladies’ Glade there were two sharp turns and then a ledge. From this ledge a winding glade had been cut down through the trees, involving four fast turns. The last turn brought the racer on to a sharp icy traverse on which snow had been plastered during the days before the race. If he lost control at this point, as Ruud did, he was shot sideways past the snow-plastered earth down a steep slope dotted with tree stumps. The traverse ended with a tremendous schuss leading to the finish, interspersed with tree stumps.
The first skier to appear down these last slopes was Willy Steuri. He saw one of the tree trunks just too late. On that appalling ice his steel edges refused to bite, he struck a trunk at a fantastic speed, was hurled head over heels, and thrown with tremendous violence on the corrugated surface. He tried to get up and then collapsed. No bones were broken, but he was seriously injured, and the flesh was torn off his face and hands. He lay there saying, “Es ist leid. Es is sehr leid,” in a quiet tone until at last the stretcher-bearers removed him.
Then came Peter. Othmar Gurtner, who thinks that straight racing should not be decided by speed alone, but by good skiing, summed up his views as follows:
“Peter did not want to die, and so he did a turn, and so, poor fool, he could not win.”
Unfortunately he fell on the last schuss and was thrown among the spectators, and thereby lost all chance of being placed in the first three. He finished ninth out of fifty-seven, just ahead of the well-known Swiss runner, Schlunegger. Sörensen, the Norwegian, who shared Peter’s distaste for death, put in a turn at the right moment and got down uninjured. Zanni lost control after a tremendous schuss and was thrown into the spectators. Rudi Matt also crashed after an involuntary leap into the spectators.
Incidentally, this race made skiing history, since the casualties among the spectators numbered three stretcher cases, including one broken leg. By this time people were getting hysterical. Women were fainting, men were shouting imprecations on the organizers. Frau Simon, the wife of the President of the Swiss Ski Association, was weeping quietly, and a small Austrian boy said to her, “Gracious Lady, shut your eyes tight and I will tell you what happens to the Swiss as they pass.” Some members of the public seized flags wildly and waved them at the approaching competitors. When people fell they were cheered loudly, as men might be cheered who had escaped catastrophe. When they started to move again people shouted to them to go slowly. “Es ist nicht so wichtig” [It’s not that important]. Suddenly Graf, the Swiss reserve, got on to a tree trunk and shouted to the public to keep quiet. Immense cheers.
Now comes Sigmund Ruud, skiing as Norwegian jumpers ski. He tries to traverse at a fantastic speed, his steel edges fail to grip, he slides sideways at a speed faster than the speed of most straight schusses, strikes a tree stump, is hurled into the air, and down a steep slope studded with stones and tree trunks, and performs five somersaults, striking the ground again and again with his head. Groans from the crowd. Many people had shut their eyes at the first somersault and did not dare to open them for some seconds. Nobody thought he could possibly have survived, but as the stretcher-bearers leapt to his aid, he staggered to his feet with both skis broken off at the bindings, his face bleeding, mild concussion, but comparatively unhurt. The public went mad, and Gigilione leapt on the course like a wild dervish and screamed, “This isn’t a race. This is a circus.” A Swiss competitor staggered through the finishing-posts and shouted, “The organizers ought to be hanged.” A Viennese answered him, “Young man, if you’ve lost your nerve, go home to your mother. Hier wird gekämpft.” He was right, for the slopes near the finish were beginning to look like a battlefield. Out of the fifty-four competitors no fewer than seventeen were too seriously injured to finish at all, and of those that did finish a large number were badly hurt, cut about the face and more or less concussed. Some of them just held out until they had passed the finishing-post, and then fainted. The hero of the day was Hermann Steuri, the climber of the North Face of the Matterhorn, who dislocated his shoulder, slightly concussed himself near the top, fell heavily again on the same shoulder, and none the less finished high up. I asked him whether he had been more frightened on the Matterhorn North Face or on this course. He said he was far more frightened in the race, and added, “I won’t race at Innsbruck again without my ice-axe”. . . .
Meanwhile the wretched women were waiting at the start. The casualties were reported by telephone, and announced by the starter in a voice of ever-deepening melancholy. Grossly exaggerated accounts of Willy’s injury sent poor Erna Steuri, his cousin, into a flood of tears. Conflicting messages added to the nervous strain... The Ladies’ Finish was just below the Ladies’ Glade. Finishing-posts were placed on each side of the glade, and below the finish there was a steepish slope covered with a quarter of an inch of snow. Meanwhile the crowd had been climbing up to the finish, and the air was full of imprecations. Somebody came up to me. “I hope you’ll raise a stink about this.”
There was no lack of expert stink-raisers without any assistance from one who was himself in the dock.
The Ladies’ Race provided nothing as sensational as Steuri’s crash, as none of the women tried to take the ribbon straight in the Devil’s Glade, and there was only one serious casualty, a member of the Italian team, but it was a nerve-racking race for the women, for their friends and for the spectators. Only one competitor succeeded in stopping beyond the finishing-post without a pretty severe toss, and those who fell continued to slide helplessly down the ice, sometimes feet first, sometimes head first, while gallant volunteers leapt on to the ice and interposed themselves between the flying Damen and the tree stumps. I contented myself with placing the field, appointing Kessler wicket-keeper, Bracken longstop, and so on. The ground work was good, and few catches were dropped. . . .
Now came Evie Pinching. Her control on the top bumps was faultless, and now she put her skis together and prepared for the final schuss. “Hold it, hold it!” shrieked Bill Bracken. “My God! She’s going to,” said Duncan Kessler. Through the posts she came erect, skis well together, and finished with a superb Christiana in front of the long row of waiting fieldsmen, the only competitor to swing to a standstill without a fall... I was amused by the puzzled faces of the spectators.
Es scheint eine Engländerin hat gewonnen—Kaum möglich [It seems as if an English woman has won—hardly possible]. . . .
The most prized memories of the mountaineer are not those of easy victories beneath cloudless skies, but of mountains stolen from storms and of the reaction of relief following tormenting anxiety, and I think those who were present either as racers, organisers or spectators will look back to the Innsbruck F.I.S. with a curious and paradoxical pleasure.
As the train steamed out of Innsbruck Station, bearing with it poor Willy Steuri swathed in bandages, I knew that we should never hold another meeting at Innsbruck. Time, which is selective and sanguine in its treatment of the past, was already at work, softening in retrospect the memory of the grim hour of waiting below the Devil’s Glade, without in any way lessening the pleasurable memories of Innsbruck, most lovable of Tyrolean towns, or the grateful recollection of that warm welcome which we received from our Austrian hosts.
[Hannes Schneider, along with Lunn, was one of the great ski pioneers. Shortly after the Nazi takeover of Austria Schneider was arrested because he was a Jew.]
I was in Rome when Hitler marched into Austria. That night I dined at the English College. During dinner I was asked to take a personal call from St. Anton am Arlberg.
“It’s Mrs. Wolf,” said an agitated voice. “I’ve got to be very careful. Please be careful what you say. They’ve arrested Schneider. Isn’t it terrible? Be careful what you say because I’m sure there is somebody listening in who will report everything we say. I’ve told them that I’m sure you will cancel the Arlberg-Kandahar, but do be careful . . .”
I took Mrs. Wolf’s advice, and confined myself to saying that I would leave Rome next morning for St. Anton.
Hannes Schneider, the founder of the famous Arlberg School, was perhaps the most outstanding personality in the world of skiing. I first met him in 1928. At that time I had not yet carried to a successful conclusion the campaign for the international recognition of downhill and slalom racing, and I realised that Schneider’s personality and co-operation would ensure the success of an international meeting of downhill ski racing . . . .
After lunch I interviewed Herr Moser, the new Burgomeister of St. Anton. Moser had been a ski teacher under Schneider, and had been expelled from the Arlberg School for Nazi propaganda. Schneider himself was no politician and did not take an active part in the anti-Nazi campaign. He was first and foremost a skier, and he did not tolerate the intrusion of politics into his ski school. Moser, whose personality did not attract me, began by reproaching me for mixing up politics with sport.
“I hear you want to cancel the race. Your only reason for cancelling it is political.”
I asked him if Schneider was in prison because he skiied badly or because his politics did not commend themselves to the authorities, and then Moser became abusive.
“You have no right to cancel this race. We have spent a lot of money on it. It is your duty to hold it.”
He was puzzled, poor man, by my odd reaction to the fact that the man with whom I had founded this race had been ejected from his school and thrust into prison. I explained to him that I understood his point of view. “Nazis race out of what they call Pfichtgefühl (sense of duty), inspired by keen sense of duty and loyalty to their Führer. We English still race for fun. We came to St. Anton in the old days because we liked the old atmosphere, and we propose to leave,” I added, “because we don’t like the new atmosphere. It was fun to race here when St. Anton was Austrian. It would not be fun to race here now that St. Anton is German.”
He scowled. “You are trying to bring pressure to bear on us to release Schneider. We shan’t yield to pressure. On the contrary, if you cancel the race the consequences will probably be very serious for Schneider.”
The hostage argument. There are, as I pointed out, some things which weigh with us even more than the effect of our action on Schneider. We owe a duty to our Club, to the tradition of British sport and to ourselves. To hold the race when one of its founders was in prison for no reason would be an indecency.
“Well, anyhow,” Moser continued, “you can’t prevent us calling the race the Arlberg-Kandahar, and we shall do so.”
“No, I can’t prevent you,” I said. “If you raced three donkeys round a field near St. Anton and described the event as the Derby, the Jockey Club would be powerless to interfere.”
After our discussion I telegraphed to Reichssportsfüher von Tschammer und Osten and asked him to prevent the Arlberg Club from appropriating the name of a Kandahar race for one of their local events. The German sport leader was an old type of Prussian aristocrat, rather uneasy in his present surroundings, who could be relied upon to be correct, and he gave the necessary instructions that the races which were to be held next Saturday were to be described as the “First Arlberg Race,” and the winner received a thermos flask decorated with a swastika.
I left next morning, and I was glad to go. The train was detained for three hours at the frontier while suspects were searched for smuggled money and jewels. We were all turned out of our carriages and formed up into a queue to wait our turn for examination. A Nazi with two days’ growth of beard was standing in front of a big poster on which was written Der Deutsche Grüss heisst Heil Hitler.
“You people,” I said to him, “may be pleased about the Anschluss, but you are not half as pleased as the Swiss hotel-keepers. They are delighted. There is nothing like making English skiers stand for three hours in a queue in order to ensure that they will not return to your country.”
This pleased the crowd, but it did not please the Nazi. I began to sing the famous Grindelwald song, and I sang it very loud and clear. The enjoyment of the crowd was highly offensive to the officials, who were alarmed, for they did not know exactly what to do. The Nazi system cracks when confronted by a situation which cannot be solved with a prod of the bayonet. At least I saved myself a long wait in the queue. I was hurriedly taken into a little room for examination. The first question was characteristically inept—in fact, a museum piece of Prussian officialdom: “Jews have been smuggling jewellery in the train lavatory. Have you seen anything of this?” Such is my love of solitude that I never share that part of a train with anybody. I allowed a remark to this effect to sink in, and then added that even if I had seen Jews smuggling valuta I should not have reported them.
“Even if you had seen Jews smuggling,” he repeated with solemn astonishment, “you would not have reported it. Why not?”
The bewilderment of that Warum nicht [Why not] was rather touching. The existence of people who were not ready to co-operate with officials in the discharge of their official duties perplexed him.
I came out of that little room and he did not seem anxious to detain me. I caught sight of some people who had been detained, and I shall not easily forget their expressions of blank despair. As the train steamed out of Feldkirch even those who had nothing to fear sighed with relief. In the old days I had always left Austria with regret, but in this new Austria the very air that one breathed seemed infected by cruelty.
As the train drew into Buchs we saw a flag which, like the Nazi flag, had a red background, with, like the Nazi flag, a cross in the middle; not the swastika cross, the symbol of oppression, but the cross with an older tradition which will still stand for freedom when Hitler and all he stands for has passed away.
It was at Avila [during the Spanish Civil War] that I first met Captain Aguilera... Every Press Correspondent whom I met spoke in the highest terms of Aguilera. Everybody knew that his sympathies were enlisted on the side of the journalist attempting to get a story, and that he would pull what wires he could for the Press.
In the little room where correspondents waited for the evening bulletins I saw a familiar figure who seemed curiously unfamiliar. I thought I recognized the face, but the red beard was puzzling until Randolph Churchill set my mind at rest. The beard, he explained, was a wartime hardship.
Except for the beard Randolph had changed little.
“I wish you’d go back to Salamanca,” he exclaimed, “and tell those damned people at the Press Office that they’re losing this war by their idiotic censorship. The Reds have got them beat so far as publicity is concerned. They let the Press go where they like, and consequently the Press send back great human stories from the front, and that’s what the public want. They don’t care a damn who’s right or who ought to win. A few excitable Catholics and ardent Socialists think this war matters, but for the general public it’s just a lot of bloody foreigners killing one another. If only we could put across some good stories we could get some sympathy for France. But in Salamanca they’re more interested in killing stories than in killing Reds”. . . .
The first reactions of the Spanish officials to Randolph were unfavourable, but Randolph improves on acquaintance.
“I like that boy,” said Aguilera. “I was against his coming here, because I knew that we couldn’t kick him out if he was a nuisance; but he grows on one, and I like his great reverence for his father.”
Aguilera, Randolph and I dined with an American journalist, Charles Foltz, and a representative of the French Press and his wife. . . The talk turned to atrocities. Randolph quoted a remark of his father’s. “The most merciful side will win in this war. Grass grows on graves; it does not grow on scaffolds.”
“You are right. We shall win. We are the most merciful. We shoot, but we do not torture.”
A few minutes later Aguilera turned to me and remarked in an aside, “There is, of course, one aspect of this business we can’t expect our young friend to understand, the existence and the influence of satanic powers. But my friend Kaid Ali Gaurri,” he looked towards a Moor at the next table, “he would understand.”
A few days later I met a Spaniard who probably would have agreed with both Aguilera and Kaid Ali Gaurri. He was a man of fifty-five who had been educated in England, and spent much of his life there. He was in business when the war broke out, and suddenly found himself promoted to the presidency of a court martial appointed to try various cases of atrocities in a village captured by the Nationalists.
In this village, Ximena de la Frontera, the local “capitalist” was Victoriana Pachaco, a woman of forty-five. She owned about 5000 pounds and was the richest woman in the village, but an ardent Communist. When the Reds were in power she hired workmen to dig up the bodies of buried nuns, and having made a collection of bones, she threw them one by one on to the fire on which the village priest, Father Marcelino Bayo, was burned alive on September 6, 1936.
My friend who presided over the court martial told me that he started proceedings with a strong prejudice in favour of the woman. He could not believe this story, and suspected that somebody in the village was trying to pay off old scores. There have been occasions of this kind, and some Spaniards have already been shot by Franco’s army for bringing false accusations of Communist terrorism against innocent men.
“I tried to help her,” said my friend, “and cross-examined the witnesses for the prosecution rather carefully. But did she help me? Not a bit. She gloried in her crime, and declared that she would do the same thing again with the greatest possible gusto. She had made something of a local reputation as a prophet of Free Love, but volunteered, rather bitterly, the information that in spite of this she died a maid. I have sometimes wondered if her failure to escape from a state voluntarily embraced by the priest whom she had helped to burn, may have set up an anti-clerical complex. There was nothing for it, as the villagers would have shot me if I had let her off (and rightly so). The country outside the village was the place fixed for the execution, but this woman sat down in the village street when she was being led out to execution and said, ‘You lazy scum. I don’t see why I should help you to execute me. You can carry me to the cemetery. I won’t walk.’ She died shaking a clenched fist with a cry of ‘Long Live Russia!’ ”
During dinner Randolph Churchill defined his political credo.
“I believe with passionate conviction in free speech,” he declared. “I think there’s a case for denying free speech to Fascists and to Communists in England because it’s part of their programme to deny free speech to their opponents, but I’d fight cheerfully to preserve the sacred right of every Englishman to hold forth in Hyde Park and to shout ‘Damn Baldwin’ at the top of his voice.”
“And ‘Damn Churchill’? I asked.
“Certainly. ‘Damn Baldwin,’ ‘Damn Churchill,’ ‘Damn Attlee,’ ‘Damn them all.’ As long as an Englishman can damn politicians in Hyde Park, England will remain one of the few civilized spots on this mouldy planet.”
“It might be more civilised,” I suggested tentatively, “if the Englishman were free not only to damn Baldwin but also to damn Selfridge, Beaverbrook or whoever happened to be his boss.”
“What are you driving at?” asked Randolph.
“Just this. Mussolini is the only dictator in Italy, but there are many industrial dictators in England. In Italy the workman who is sacked has the right to appeal to a Labour Court on which both workmen and employers are represented, and I am told that the majority of these appeals are decided in favour of the workman. I am sure, however, that our great industrialists would be horrified by any attempt to introduce economic democracy in England.”
The problem of free speech is not so simple as Randolph Churchill seemed to imagine.
Captain Aguilera, in whose care I was to spend the next three days, is not only a soldier but a scholar. . . I was more impressed by Aguilera’s driving than by his scholarship. The Spaniard is oriental in his fatalism and in his stoic indifference to death. Nobody who has been driven for a few hundred miles by a Spanish driver would dispute these facts. We left Avila in the early morning and for the first hour on the road we met nothing coming from the opposite direction. During this hour I tried in vain to discover the Spanish rule of the road. I did not like to ask, for it seemed to me that any intelligent man should be able to answer this question for himself, so I tried to guess. But as we were always on the centre of the road on the straight and invariably cornered on the inside of the curve, I did not solve this problem until we missed by inches a lorry, fortunately met not exactly at a bend, but a few yards beyond it.
On a good open road Aguilera would slow down to sixty miles an hour before turning a corner; on bad roads he would crawl round at a miserable forty miles an hour. I am not guessing. I kept my eyes on his speedometer.
“Why do you always corner on the inside?” I asked plaintively.
“Because at this speed,” he replied, “we might skid into a ditch or over a precipice if we cornered on the outside.”
“And why at this speed? Why not slow down?”
“Well, if you slow down, you lose ten seconds per corner, which means ten minutes in the day, and nearly an hour in the week.”
I pointed out mildly that we had been forty-five minutes late in starting that morning, and so far as I was concerned I would prefer to regard those forty-five minutes as irrevocably lost. Life is sweet, and I made one more feeble effort for its prolongation. “Why not toot? At least you might blow your horn.”
“The other chap wouldn’t hear it,” Aguilera said grimly, “he would be coming too fast.”
The French drive fast, but Aguilera told me with a chuckle that French chauffeurs near the Spanish frontier stop their cars if they hear a car coming from the south. The car may be driven by a Spaniard.
The foreign driver in Spain soon discovers that though it is advisable to observe the rule of the road in towns and on crowded highways, it is safest to take all turns on the extreme outside of the bend.
Two Spaniards, if they happened to meet on a bend, inevitably meet on the inside; one will be legally in the right, and both will be dead.
It would be unjust to Aguilera to imply that he never blew his horn. “I had to hoot,” he remarked apologetically on one occasion, “I wanted to get the sentry out of his box”. . .
It is difficult on any reasonable theory of chances to explain the fact that Aguilera is still alive. Sooner or later, one would think, he would meet his opposite number on a corner, but he has not met him yet. I asked him if he could provide a clue to this question.
“The fact is,” he said gravely, “that I have a curious kind of sixth sense. Call it clairvoyance or telepathy or what you will. I just know when a car is meeting me round the next bend, and I slow up and get to the other side of the road.”
A terrifying remark.
On my return to England I sent him an edited copy of You Have Been Warned, with a contribution of my own to the famous series of “Last Words”:
“I can sense a car by clairvoyance.”
Franco’s confidence in the clairvoyance of Spanish drivers would appear to have been shaken, for I read in Salamanca a public notice, signed by Franco, drawing attention to the ever-increasing number of motor accidents behind the line. . . .
Before we parted I had almost begun to believe in [Aguilera’s] telepathic claims, for more than once he slowed up and moved over to the right side of the road just in time to avoid a collision with a car round a bend which he might have sensed but could not have seen.
And there were more rational grounds for my faith, for his skill was uncanny. I remember one occasion when his clairvoyant talent was not functioning. We were whizzing down a mountain road with a sharp drop to our left. We had cornered, on the wrong side as usual, and as we came round the corner we met a huge lorry. This failed to disconcert Aguilera who swept out of its way with his usual adroitness. He was, however, taken completely by surprise when a big trailer attached to the lorry swung out as the lorry passed us, and almost forced us over the edge of the mountain road.
Einstein alone could explain how Aguilera contrived to render ridiculous the laws of normal time and space and to thread a swift, decisive and breath-taking course between the swinging trailer and the mountain slope below.
So it would seem that telepathy must be reinforced by relativity to explain the continued survival of Aguilera and other Spanish drivers.
I returned to Spain at the beginning of April, 1938, and saw the final phases of the battle for the sea.
On arriving at Sargossa I met an officer who greeted me with the words, “Today our outpost saw the sea.” I shall never forget the mystical enthusiasm with which he said these words.
Thalassa! Thalassa! But the sea meant more to those who had to fight every yard of their advance than it could have meant to Xenophon’s army.
On Wednesday, April 13th, we returned to Morella. We left our cars within a few yards of a battery of big guns. Other batteries were in action half a mile down the road. The violence of their dispute echoed from the mountain walls. Their immediate objective was the Republican artillery which had been shelling our road in an attempt to locate our batteries. A noise of angry wings above and a flight of thirty bombers swept across the sky to administer the coup de grâce to the Republican artillery.
The Republican anti-aircraft spluttered an indignant protest, and the blue heaven was flaked with white cloudlets through which the eagles of Spain dived disdainfully. The hills re-echoed to the continuous thunder of their bombs.
Three friends of mine with whom I was to pass the Easter week-end took part in this attack. I knew that they were at the front. The planes dived perilously near the artillery, which they silenced, and returned unscathed across the lines. An hour later they were back again.
We left our cars and started up the hillside towards an artillery observation post above the valley. Many a time I have scrambled in a crescendo of excitement up the last yards leading to an Alpine pass, but never with a greater sense of expectancy than on the final slope of this nameless hill. I broke into a run on the last incline of limestone boulders, and suddenly the ground fell away from my feet. Beyond the plain and the ultimate hills was a thin blue strip—Thalassa! Thalassa!
The artillery observation officer spoke fluent English. He was sixteen when war broke out, and spent the first six months of the war in London. This was not the first day on which outposts had seen the sea, but it was the first day on which artillery observation posts commanded the Mediterranean. “Today for the first time,” said the boy, “I saw the sea.” For the first time. I knew what he meant. I, too, felt as if I had never really seen the sea until I saw it from this Spanish hill.
Few experiences are more exhilarating than to follow the day-by-day advance of a victorious army. We drove rapidly down the road to the sea, left behind us the ridge which had been captured from the republicans when I first visited this front, drove through a village from which the Republicans had been driven on the previous day, and emerged in a pleasant little valley on to open ground where only on low-lying ridge still separated us from the redemption of the sea. We turned a corner to find the artillery in action. The batteries were firing from a point just behind an abrupt ridge, from the summit of which we watched the battle for the last and lowest of the hill barriers which separated the Nationalists from the low ground leading to the sea. Through our glasses we could just see the reserves moving up to the slopes on which the front line had been established. We could follow every phase of the offensive. The preliminary bombardment had already been in progress for more than an hour, and the big shells were still bursting beyond the ridge, hurling vast sulphurous clouds into the sky. Then followed the shrapnel barrage, which burst, not on the ground, but in the sky, so that the ridge was rimmed with thunder clouds. A pause and the hills re-echoed to the vicious splutter of machine-guns punctured by the staccato of hand grenade and bomb, as the infantry advanced to storm the front lines. The duel between machine-gun and grenade lasted for about twenty minutes, and then suddenly the clamour faded into silence. Had the attack succeeded or failed?
“We shall soon know,” said the Press officer. “If the attack has failed the bombardment will begin again.”
We rejoined the car and drove down the road leading to the ridge which had just been captured, and entered Chert three hours after the village had been captured by the Nationalists. Three tanks had halted in the main square, for a Russian tank was round the corner. “They’ve sent for an anti-tank gun,” said the Press officer, “to put the Russian out of his misery.”
A woman came out of a house and blinked timidly. And then she smiled. It was true, it was really true. The Republicans had gone. The nightmare had passed. There were the soldiers making a bonfire of those monotonous Republican posters—“No passeran” going up in flames. A group of villagers gathered round our Press officer and overwhelmed him in a flood of cheerful babble. A girl just on the edge of this group kept on chanting a kind of lyrical refrain: “They said ‘No passeran,’ but they have passed [chuckle]. They said ‘No passeran,’ but they did pass [more chuckles].”
The apathy of Conservatives is the greatest asset to the Communist. “It can’t happen here” is the slogan which ensures its happening here, but a hostile opposition will often serve to kindle that latent esprit de corps which still unites those who feel, however vaguely, that the values of Christian civilisation are being challenged by subversive forces. Indeed, enthusiasm seems to vary directly with opposition. A striking example of this fact was my experience at Glasgow during the Spanish Civil War. The Friends of Nationalist Spain applied to the City Corporation for the use of a hall. Labour was in power and the Labour majority refused to let the hall on a Sunday. I postponed my visit and my friends applied again for the hall on a weekday. I attended the debate, which was held in the early afternoon. Until the last vote had been recorded the issue was in suspense. The Independent Labour Party spoke up valiantly for the right of free speech. “Free speech!” exclaimed a Socialist. “Pah! It was by allowing the Nazis free speech in Germany that the Nazis got into power.” The hall had been let to several speakers for the Spanish Republicans, and the democratic principle of free speech ultimately triumphed by one vote.
We were warned to expect trouble, and the mounted police were called out. Half an hour before the debate began I was ushered by the police into a committee room behind the platform, but I managed to elude my protectors and slipped out with a friend into the square, where the Communists were organising a demonstration. We joined the demonstrators, an ineffective crowd led by a dispirited little man who urged the bystanders to rally to the defence of democracy.
“There’s no pep about this show,” said my friend; “let’s wake them up.” So he uttered a piercing scream, “Join up for democracy and peace before it is too late.” Two apathetic bystanders were galvanized into enthusiasm by this appeal. They joined up just behind us. “That’s better,” said my friend. “Now then, boys, step on it. Down with Lunn, the baby killer!”
“Down with Lunn!” I shouted.
“Down with Lunn!” the crowd repeated. More mounted police arrived to protect Lunn from Lunn. “Paid agents of Fascism,” I hissed. The police looked contemptuous. “These chaps,” said my friend, “would follow us anywhere. Let’s tell them to storm the hall.”
Eluding the police I reached the platform just in time to see the champions of democracy surging through the door. Thanks to their co-operation the meeting was an outstanding success.
Pittsburgh ranks in memory with Glasgow, for the Community Forum of Pittsburgh provided me with two splendid evenings. In 1937 the Forum induced Earl Browder, who had stood for President on the Communist ticket, to debate Communism with me at Pittsburgh. Browder put up a member of the party to debate with me in the Middle West, and subsequently decided that he would not appear in person at Pittsburgh. He informed my agent that he was ill and that he would send a substitute. I heard of this defection at Chicago and travelled a thousand miles to New York to investigate this sudden sickness. I employed a detective, who traced Browder’s movements and proved that he had travelled to Washington by air on the day when he announced that he was too ill to go to Pittsburgh. I communicated to the Press the details of Browder’s yellow fever a few hours before my debate with Browder’s melancholy substitute.
Communists are humourless folk, and though they can stand invective, and indeed expect it, they cannot bear genial badinage. I am so grateful to hecklers and interrupters that I feel nothing but affection for those who are co-operating to make the party a success, but for some reason or other my gratitude, which is sincere, does not have a calming effect.
[The following passage describes how Lunn became friends with Hugh Dowding, chief of RAF Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain.]
Many years ago British skiing was rent by a schism. Davos was the headquarters of the orthodox, and Mürren of the heresiarch, Arnold Lunn. Hugh Dowding, a former British ski champion, was a devotee of Davos, and, later, president of the Ski Club of Great Britain. I had met him once or twice, but it was not until he came over to Mürren that we became friends. Before the Schiltgrat ski-lift had been built, Mürren skiing left something to be desired, and I was less surprised than nettled by the intermittent acidities on the subject of our ski terrain with which Dowding favoured me.
“You can presumably read a map,” I said. “Why didn’t you consult a map of Mürren instead of waiting till you came over here to discover that our ski runs are not as varied as those of Davos?”
“Oh, I didn’t come here for the skiing,” said Dowding, “but to see you!”
I am easily mollified. “That’s very nice of you,” I purred.
“Not at all,” said Dowding. “I was told at Davos that you were a menace, and I came over to find out if you were.”
In this endearing fashion he conveyed to me the reassuring fact that the result of his researches had failed to confirm the accuracy of the report which he had quoted.
Dunkirk was the turning-point in the war. Once again the lure of Paris had proved fatal to German hopes of victory. Had the Nazis realised that the French Army was disintegrating, left it to its fate, and turned the full fury of their onslaught on the British Expeditionary Force, they could hardly have failed to destroy it. Had they opened their air offensive in May on these islands, it is probable that an invasion would have succeeded in June. Such, at least, is a view expressed to me, more than once, by the man who won the Battle of Britain—Air Chief-Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding.
Few Englishmen dared to hope that we should successfully evacuate more than a third of our Expeditionary Force, and nobody, as yet, suggested a plausible theory to account for our success in evacuating nearly four-fifths of those who had not been killed in the Battle of Flanders. Either the German Army is far less efficient than it has been represented to be, or the thin line, a few thousand in number, who held up the might of the Nazis while their companions escaped were veritable supermen. But the mystery remains. How could an army which overwhelmed the many millions of mobilised by the French fail to destroy the small British force engaged in the most difficult of operations, an evacuation by sea in the face of overwhelming odds?
“What is your explanation?” I asked Hugh Dowding.
“The English are funny people,” said Dowding. “They appoint a National Day of Prayer and ask God for a miracle, and when they get the miracle which they’ve asked for they scratch their heads and look for a natural explanation.”
“You really believe that Dunkirk was a miracle, then?”
Dowding shrugged his shoulders. “I think there are times when other influences than ours take a hand in the affairs of us mortals.”
And we left it at that.
My home is in a south-east suburb, and many of the daylight raids on London were broken up in the skies above our home.
The first air raid of the day was usually timed to catch Londoners on their way to work in the morning. A lunch-time raid and a raid when Londoners were leaving work were routine, and a few extra raids were sometimes thrown in for good measure. I have watched as many as five air battles from our home on the same day. In the early days of the blitz buses usually stopped when bombers were overhead, and it was therefore necessary for people who used buses to adjust their movements accordingly. I have often seen my wife and daughter waiting in the hall during a raid in order to be ready to catch the first bus after the all-clear in the hope of completing their journey before the next raid began. The day’s plans were in fact often adjusted to the raiding programme.
I recalled this conversation during a lunch with Cyril Joad [during the Blitz]. “You people,” I began, “have been urging us now for more than a century to emancipate ourselves from the dogmas of religion and to adopt Science as our guide in place of the Church; that the new Trinity of Science, Education, and Democracy, would ensure us rapid progress to Utopia.”
Through the open windows we could just hear the distant crump of an exploding bomb.
“So far,” I said, “the results of adopting your advice do not appear to be wholly satisfactory.”
“There is something in what you say,” replied Joad. “Russia was the first disappointment for our school. And I now see that pacifism won’t work in a world of gangsters.”
“There was,” writes Miss Bregy in the Commonweal, “a reason and a right to sing the praise of battle in primitive days when war was necessarily close to the heroism of personal combat symbolised by the immemorial legend of knight against dragon, good against evil. Also, war was picturesque in its details then, as the bullfight remains a pageant of sadistic beauty today. . . . Mechanisation has at once so minimized the personal, picturesque element, and so colossally extended the destructiveness of modern warfare, that there is not much temptation any more for the poet to become its laureate.”
But these material changes in the weapons and environment of war are less important than Miss Bregy thinks. For the beauty in war, to which the pacifist is blind, belongs to the realm of the spirit, and is unaffected by the fact that the modern knight rides a Hurricane rather than a charger. Miss Bregy, who wrote in 1939, may have revised her view that “the heroism of personal combat” has disappeared from modern warfare. No warrior of old was more dependent on his own resources than a parachutist dropped over enemy territory or than a modern pilot.
Like many of those who profess to be concerned with spiritual values, Miss Bregy is in danger of over-emphasising the importance of material factors. Had she watched the air battles over Britain last year, she would have revised her view that mechanisation destroys the picturesque elements in war and that there is nothing in modern warfare to tempt the poet to be its laureate.
If modern war fails to enrich our literature with a modern Iliad, this is not because the siege of Britain is less romantic than the siege of Troy, but because we have no poet to rank with Homer. Certainly the long, anxious, glorious months in which our pilots were fighting for the command of the sky have stored our minds with pictures as romantic as those which inspired Homer. I can still see the dynamic patterns of planes crossing and re-crossing in the confused and breathless combats in the skies; the sparkle of Messerschmitts glinting in the low rays of the setting sun; the hawk-like swoop of a Hurricane diving on to the tail of the enemy; the awful splendour of bombers spinning down in flames; the blue waters of the English Channel foiled by funeral pyres; and the white flutter of parachutes safely shepherded by English pilots down to the sanctuary of English earth, which but for them would long since have been desecrated by Nazi occupation.
As the months passed the airmen fought at ever greater heights until at last they disappeared from view. But we could still trace the fortunes of battle by the trailing clouds of diamond dust with which these knights of the new chivalry inscribed their epic on the blue manuscript of heaven.
When Dowding came into the room I was reassured to discover how fit he looked. But, then, far more people are killed by over-eating than by overwork.
I had written asking him if he could fly me out to France to report the battle for an American paper. The Ministry of Information had backed this request, which would, I think, have been granted had not the French collapse been so rapid.
“I got your letter,” said Dowding, “and I won’t put a spoke in your wheel, but I think you are a mutt. I think you may get out to France, but you will have to be a Scarlet Pimpernel to get back.”
“I’ll take my chance,” I replied. “But are things really as black as all that? According to the evening papers the French seem to be holding out pretty well.”
“Are they?” said Dowding. “According to my observation, the French line has cracked wherever the Germans have leaned against it. I give the French a fortnight.” A remarkably accurate prediction. Twelve days later the French asked for an armistice.
“Well, anyhow,” I persisted, “we cannot be invaded so long as we command the seas.”
“I wish I could agree with you,” said Dowding. “But we can’t stop the Germans establishing a bridgehead on our coasts if the Fleet gets no help from the air. The fighter is the only effective reply to dive-bombers co-operating with submarines. God help us if our fighters are swept out of the sky.”
Crete was to vindicate the accuracy of this prediction.
We talked about Dunkirk, and somebody alluded to the complaint that our fighters had not been as much in evidence as the infantry could have wished.
“They did not see the fighters,” said Dowding, “because most of the big air battles took place out of sight of the infantry. Of course, it would have been pleasant for the infantry if our fighters had been in the sky whenever and wherever the German dive-bombers came over. But that would only have been possible had our fighters been dispersed in small groups, and in that case they would have been hopelessly outnumbered and easy meat for the Nazis. Even as it was they had to take on impossible odds. But at least they had a sporting chance, and seldom failed to bring down far more planes than they lost. The morale of our fighter boys is the one thing which stands between England and destruction. It is our most precious asset.”
During the course of the summer I spent a night with a group of pilots who had taken part in the Battle of Flanders. “We were very pleased,” one of them said, “with the letter that Dowding wrote to us after the fighting in Flanders. When you see him he looks so grim that it is difficult to believe that he can have a soft spot in his heart for his ‘Fighter Boys,’ as he called us in that latter.”
I quoted Dowding’s remark about the supreme importance of safeguarding the morale of the fighter pilots. “I have never known any man,” I continued, “who has greater difficulty in making any remark which borders on the emotional or the sentimental. But the other day he said to me, ‘People talk very lightly about casualties. “There were only four pilots lost today,” they will blandly remark. Only four! But I feel as if I had lost four sons!’ ”
A month later I spent another night with Dowding. By then the situation had been revolutionised, largely owing to the genius of Lord Beaverbrook. “He’s a wizard,” said Dowding.
During one of my visits, Dowding took me into the operation room. Most people who have seen the film will remember the vast table, thirty feet in length, on which the map of England is super-imposed. W.A.A.F.s. with long sticks, the ends of which are magnetised, cover the map with counters which register the track of the bombers.
The blitzkrieg on London had just begun, and I watched with special interest the counters which showed the movements of bombers above the suburb in which I had left my wife and daughter that afternoon. I was greatly relieved when the croupiers shifted the stakes from that particular section of the map, but many hours were to pass before the Rien ne va plus of the sunrise all-clear.
Dowding took me into an inner room and showed me, among other things, a map which recorded the weather and visibility. “Meteorologists,” he said, “are very proud people. They do not look out of the window to see if the stars are shining when they have predicted mist, for science never lies.”
Every day, as I travelled up to town, my heart would miss a beat as I turned familiar corners opening on the Westminster Abbey or St. Paul’s or some other beloved landmark. Human life at best is a miserably short affair, but Westminster Abbey would be immortal but for bombers; for restoration is always at work repairing the ravages of time and weather. All of us can be replaced, but Westminster Abbey is irreplaceable.
The barrage did not keep me awake for long. Before going to bed I used to play over my favourite records, which help to transport me into a timeless world uninvaded by Hitler’s bombers. I slept upstairs, for the slight additional security of the ground floor hardly seemed worth the discomfort of moving, and once in bed I stayed there unless the station was being bombed. I soon discovered that it was a mistake to allow one’s curiosity to attract one to the window; for mind and body were simultaneously stimulated by the night air and the wonder of the night-time skies, and it was not easy to get to sleep again.
Danger, up to a point, is stimulating. Beyond that point it has a depressing effect. The point at which danger becomes depressing varies with different people, and in my case is soon reached. Apparent danger, with the minimum of real peril, is the recipe for enjoyable rock-climbing.
Both these conditions were fulfilled during those weeks of blitzkrieg, for nothing could have been more dramatic in its suggestion of danger than the skies lit up all round with bursting shells, whereas the actual danger was very slight.
And one must expect to pay for a front seat at one of the greatest dramas in all history. I made some such remark to my wife one evening when the bombers were particularly active. “The kind of history I like living through,” she replied, “is the Coronation.”
[For Lunn’s skirmish with Bertrand Russell while they were both in the U.S. during 1941, click HERE.]
On my way home [from America in 1941] I was the only civilian on board. This was my third long sea voyage in this war, and it is odd how easily one drifts back into the routine of convoy life. Instinctively one leaves one’s cabin door open, securely bolted to the berth, lest one should be trapped in one’s cabin by a door buckled and jammed by the impact of an explosion. Electric light is often the first casualty, so before retiring one memorises the position of one essential garments and rehearses dressing in the dark.
We were part of an escort of a convoy of over fifty ships, perhaps one of the largest to cross the Atlantic since the Battle of the Atlantic was engaged. I am qualifying as a convoy mascot, for none of the convoys with which I have sailed has lost a ship or a seaman, but I should not describe this particular trip as uneventful. I was on the bridge one night, after a submarine had been reported astern, and we circled round the convoy in search of the dark invader. But we found nothing, perhaps because there was nothing to find. I was aroused one morning by the alarm and arrived on deck just in time to see an unknown warship slowly silhouetting itself against a sky from which the darkness was ebbing. Had the intruder been a raider our task would have been to engage her while the convoy scattered, and though I was much relieved when, after an inexplicable delay, the recognition signal was given, my relief was tempered by that same paradoxical sense of anticlimax which we Londoners experienced after the first sterile raid warning which coincided with our formal entry into the war.
Every escort vessel was anxious to be the first to go into action, and we were all a little envious when another escort dropped two depth charges, but our wounded amour propre was pacified when a perplexed and indignant whale suddenly came to the surface puffing out its frantic disclaimer of Nazi sympathies. We resolved, there and then, against the weight of evidence perhaps, that our sister ship had depth-charged an innocent sea monster. Our signal, “Have you had good fishing?” met with a stiff response: “Repeat word after good.”
An indispensable source for modern historians of the Spanish Civil War is George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. Orwell began as an ardent supporter of the Republicans—“Republican” only because they were not then Monarchists. They claimed, of course, to be the Spanish Government. Their partisans referred to the Nationalists as “the Rebels,” as the Nationalists normally referred to the Republicans as “the Reds.” From the first, the Republicans were influenced and later completely dominated by Stalinists. Homage to Catalonia is an invaluable source for the historian because Orwell not only fought for the Republicans, and was wounded in battle against the Nationalists, but also because he was an eyewitness of the civil war within the Civil War—the Battle of Barcelona, inadequately reported abroad, between the Stalinists and the Anti-Stalinist Radicals. Those who today still believe pro-Republican propaganda cannot afford to read Homage to Catalonia if they wish to preserve their illusions. . . .
During 1944 Orwell and I often lunched together. His combination of intellectual and physical courage evoked my sincere admiration. Though he was disillusioned with Communism he always maintained that a victory for the Republicans would have been the lesser of two great evils.
“The Communists,” Orwell once remarked, “had had their revolution, and consequently became Conservatives.” “What is the point then,” I asked, “of a revolution against Conservatives if victorious revolutionaries only develop into Conservatives?” “I’ll give you my answer,” said Orwell, “when next we meet.” But he never did.
Although his hostility to the Nationalists remained unchanged, Orwell conceded the main points in the Nationalist case, as follows:
He dismissed the popular representation of the war as a conflict between democrats and fascists: “As for the newspaper talk about this being a ‘war for democracy,’ it was plain eyewash.”
Secondly, there was the government propagandists’ representation of the Republicans as anti-clericals provoked by the evils of the Church to occasional regrettable excesses, but not invincibly hostile to religion as such. In fact, the persecution of the Church was carried out with Stalinist thoroughness. Few priests other than those in hiding escaped execution. Obscene graffiti decorated the walls of most of the Churches I entered in reconquered Spain. In one cemetery the coffin of a small child had been dug up, and these mild anti-clericals had cut off the child’s head and laid its truncated body across the coffin. On this point, Orwell wrote: “Almost every church had been gutted and its images burnt.” And: “During six months in Spain I saw only two undamaged churches.”
Lastly, the Republican propagandists had enjoyed great success in persuading the outside world that the Republican government enjoyed the support of the great majority of Spaniards. During the advance to the sea in 1937, I shared a car with a correspondent whose sympathies were with the Republicans. As we entered village after village where the peasants were weeping with unrestrained relief, he said to me, “I know when people are pleased to see an advancing army.” There was no maquis or guerilla warfare in reconquered Spain, as Orwell admitted. “As everyone knows, with a hostile population at your back it is impossible to keep an army in the field, without an equally large army to guard your communications, suppress sabotage etc. Obviously, therefore, there was no real popular [opposition] movement in Franco’s rear.”
Readers who still regret the defeat of the Spanish Republican government are invited to read the testimony of George Orwell, who fought for that government.
War is the most violent form of controversy, and though it is criminal to make war because one delights in war, it would be idiotic to criticise a soldier because he enjoyed fighting. Certainly Lord Montgomery did not regard his war service as a distasteful duty. While my first wife, his first cousin, was alive he spent some weeks at Mürren every winter, and I am proud to possess an autographed copy of his book El Alamein to the River Sangro inscribed ‘To Arnold Lunn in the hopes that he will enjoy this tale of human endeavour by the soldiers of the Empire.’ What emerged very clearly from the book was how much Monty himself had enjoyed this ‘human endeavour.’ ‘It was a wonderful experience,’ he wrote in the Foreword, ‘to command such an Army in the days of its greatest success.’ Monty told me the story of his reception of the German delegation who had come to surrender. Monty came out of his caravan and said to his A.D.C., “And who are these gentlemen, pray?” “These, sir, are the German generals.” “And what do they want with me?”, asked Montgomery. “They want to surrender, sir.” “What a pity. I was just beginning to enjoy this war!”
A well-known American publisher failed to tempt Mr. Paul Blanshard to collaborate with me in a controversial exchange of letters, but if the challenge were issued by a Society which enjoyed the official support of the [Catholic] hierarchy, it would be less easy for people to escape from the dialectical arena. No professor can be blamed if he is unwilling to risk exposure in front of his pupils. In 1952 I had a public debate with Professor Irvin Edman, head of the philosophic faculty at Columbia. Mr. Edman was a humanist with no belief in any form of supernatural religion and the author of some books which seem to have been widely read. Not only was the large hall in which we debated full, but the debate was relayed to a lower hall which was also full. More than half the audience were non-Catholics.
I liked Mr. Edman. He was a friendly man but no debater. He would have had to be an exceptionally able debater to produce a plausible affirmative reply to the question which we were discussing: “Can the values of humanism be preserved without supernatural religion?” I shall never forget a wistful cri de coeur which he injected into his last speech. “I do so admire this Oxford way of being mean to you. They can be mean in such a gentlemanly way that nobody knows how mean they’re being.”
That was in 1952. Since then I have not been able to secure a debate at any university, but if the kind of society which I suggest were already in existence, there would be debates of this type at every university at which Catholics are represented.
[Evelyn Waugh was tormented by boredom, which he sometimes tried to alleviate by making mischief among his friends. Lunn recounts a typical example.]
Many people have attempted to find in democracy a substitute for religion, and are as dedicated to their egalitarian crusade for the abolition of classes as temperance fanatics to the abolition of public houses. Evelyn Waugh got even more fun out of poking fun at devout egalitarians than some of my ribald contemporaries at Oxford out of poking fun at devout Christians, some of whom incidentally could give as good as they got. Once, when we crossed the Atlantic together, Waugh—who was, of course, travelling first class—accepted an invitation to dine with me. I was travelling second class and, as he entered the dining room, he sniffed and said, “Curious how one can smell the poor.” This amused me but some of those to whom I have told this story were not amused. And it was that kind of person whom Waugh delighted to shock by particularly outrageous performances in his favourite comic role, the super-snob.
One of the most amusing afternoons I have ever spent with Waugh began in the London Library. He took me round in a taxi to White’s, which was only five minutes walk on foot, and ordered a bottle of champagne in the Bar. To the barman he said, “I’d like you to produce a really nourishing sandwich for my friend. He’s an author, but not successful like I am, and he looks rather underfed.”
We took a specially chartered limousine to Paddington where he missed his train. Back to White’s where Waugh ordered another bottle of champagne. He asked me to come down to spend the night with him in the country, but I never accept that kind of invitation after the second bottle of champagne. I did, however, again drive with him to Paddington. “How do you propose” he said, “to go back to the slum in which you live?” I replied that I’d take the Underground. “No, my friend,” said Waugh, “You shall go back in my car. This is a day in fairyland for you.”
When I need a plausible excuse for writing a postcard rather than a letter, I use a specially printed postcard with my name on the top and the words ‘Please forgive postcard but my correspondence is very heavy.’ I sent Waugh one of these cards with the suggestion that he might find a similar postcard useful. He certainly found my postcard useful, but not in the way in which I had suggested. He kept it carefully, and many months later Douglas Woodruff, who had written an appreciative review of Waugh’s Life of Ronald Knox, was perplexed to receive my postcard, with ‘From Arnold Lunn’ printed at the top. On this postcard Waugh had written ‘Deeply shocked by your dishonest review of E. W’s Knox. A. L.’
My penultimate memory of Ronnie [Knox] is a happy one. I was one of the guests at a luncheon party to celebrate the publication of his translation of the Bible in one volume, and to honour a great Catholic whom the Daily Telegraph was later to describe in an obituary notice as “the greatest English convert to Catholicism since Newman.” While we were waiting for lunch to begin I added to the general gaiety of a festive occasion by an absurd mistake. I have known Evelyn Waugh for twenty years and he normally greets me when we meet with ironic friendliness, but he made no welcoming noise when I approached the group in which he was standing. He had grown a moustache since we last met and as he gave no sign of recognition I assumed that he must be Waugh’s double. “But for that moustache,” I said, “I’d swear you were Evelyn Waugh.”
“Everybody tells me I’m like that stinker,” replied Waugh, “that’s why I grew this moustache. My name is Blennerhasset.” By the time Knox rose to speak I had sufficiently recovered from my faux pas to enjoy a masterpiece in the true Knox manner.
[For a youtube clip of Lunn discussing sport with William F. Buckley in a 1966 episode of Firing Line click HERE.]
[For a video clip of Lunn discussing liberalism with William F. Buckley in a 1966 episode of Firing Line click HERE.]
Meditations on Mortality
“The change from progress to decadence,” wrote Lord Melbourne to Queen Victoria, “is a very hard and disagreeable trial—Lord Melbourne has been reading Cicero on old age, a very pretty treatise, but he does not find much consolation in it.” Nor did I when I recently reread De Senectute. The sentiments are irreproachable, as, for instance, ex vita discendo tamquam ex hospitio, non tamquam e domo, but one can agree with Cicero that one should be prepared to leave life “as if it were an inn, not a home,” and yet recall with a certain nostalgia one’s early memories of this most congenial inn. I found nothing in Cicero, or for that matter in other moralists who have discussed old age—Seneca and Epictetus, for instance—which consoled me for the fact that I can no longer climb and that my power to work is slowly failing.
In my sixty-eighth year I wrote two books, of which A Century of Mountaineering involved a great deal of reading, edited and wrote about fifteen thousand words for The British Ski Year Book, wrote some seventy-five articles, including a weekly article, and did a three-month lecture tour in America. Only two years have passed since then, but I find it increasingly difficult to sit down to my typewriter after dinner. Yet though I cannot offer my elderly readers any Ciceronian consolations, it seems to me slightly unfair that I should criticise other people’s recipes for happiness and yet prudently refrain from exposing myself to similar criticisms by the reader. I will therefore make my own modest contribution to the problem of happiness. Here is my formula. “You can avoid unnecessary unhappiness by refusing to dwell on dead options.” I can illustrate what I mean by quoting a comment by a friend on something I had said. I had happened to remark that it was exasperating to suffer a crippling accident at the beginning of a mountaineering career. Phyllis Holt-Needham said, “I’ve never heard you make a remark like that before.” True enough, because it only makes me unhappy to allow my mind to dwell on “dead options.” Instead, I feel profoundly grateful for the fact that though I never led a difficult rock climb since my accident it was not until my sixty-eighth year that I climbed my last big peak. The fact that I still have two legs I owe, under God, to the courageous decision of one of my greatest friends, C. Scott Lindsay, and I should like to take this opportunity to quote from a recent article of his by way of putting on record my gratitude.
At about 11 o’clock that night, when the rescue party were approaching Dolgelly with Arnold on a stretcher, I met them on the road to find him conscious but lucid, though in great pain. His first words were “Do you think I shall ever climb again?” A grim sequel to that question soon pressed upon me at about 2 a.m. next morning. In the hotel at Dolgelly in which we had improvised an operating table, Dick Warren the surgeon, who was to do his best for him, came to me with a grave expression on his face to say that in view of the dirty state of the wound, and of the time which had elapsed since the fall, it was strictly his duty to amputate the leg on account of the danger of gangrene. And that he could only fail to amputate if a third party, responsible to the family, were to ask him to do so. [My parents were on a cruise.] It did not take me long to reflect that Arnold without a leg would find life intolerable, and that the risk should be taken, and I gave Dick Warren the reply he sought. The luck was with both of us, but at twenty-one the decision was not easy to make.
I am convinced that a resolute refusal to allow one’s mind to dwell on might-have-beens—in my case the possibility of being selected for an Everest expedition—saves one from a great deal of unnecessary brooding. The dismissing from one’s mind of dead options does not, of course, eliminate the inevitable regrets as one’s powers decline, but long before I became a Catholic I was impressed by the serene happiness of many elderly people, whom I knew to be fortified against the fear of death by the hope of that happiness which God has prepared for those that love him, and I could not help contrasting their happiness with that pagan sadness which was expressed with inimitable felicity by Horace and Catullus and which finds less attractive expression in the rootless art and literature of modern secularism.
Nobody who adores beauty in any one of her many manifestations can fail to doubt the dogmatic negations of the materialist, for every lover of beauty must be influenced consciously or unconsciously by the doctrine that beauty in its many manifestations is a reflection of the eternal beauty which time cannot corrupt. John Tyndall, for instance, was often regarded as an exponent of a scientific materialism, but in his 1874 address to the British Association he insisted that “it is not in hours of clearness or self-vigour that this doctrine commends itself to my mind.” On the contrary, the doctrines of materialism “dissolved in the presence of stronger and healthier thought as offering no solution to the mystery in which we dwell.” It may have been the mountains which provoked the antidote of “healthier thought,” the mountains in whose beauty this great agnostic saw reflections of a beauty which he hesitated to recognize as divine. “Some people,” Tyndall said to Newman Hall, “give me little credit for religious feeling. I assure you that when I walk here and gaze at these mountains I am filled with adoration.”
It was the mountains which led me, as they had led Tyndall, away from the arid desert of materialism.
I was nineteen at the time. I was just returning from a glorious day among the mountains. The rope had been discarded and we were smoking a quiet pipe on a little pass a few thousand feet above the valley plunged in the rich gloom of an Alpine twilight. The evening breeze served as a soft pedal to the music of a glacier stream which faded into piano when the wind rose. Sixty miles away the white bar of the Oberland snows saluted the setting sun. The golden glow of evening subdued the strong lines of the mountains, and confused the issue of separate and successive slopes. A white speck that was Chillon showed against the purple of the lake. The whole vast shadowed landscape seemed to be haunted by an all-pervading sense of something of which visible beauty was only the sacramental expression. I thought of Haeckel’s dusty nonsense and laughed aloud. And from that moment I discarded materialism forever.
That Alpine sunset on the Col de Breya was the first clue which was to lead me after many years to the Seven Hills. I had been a young man with two legs of approximately the same length when I last crossed the Col de Breya; I was in my seventieth year when I took the new lift from the lovely Lac Champex to the Col and scrambled up on to the little hillock overlooking the pass.
Two young men with rope and axe had just left the pass and were making their way towards the Cabane D’Orny, where I had slept on the night before I climbed my first Alpine peak. And suddenly all the romance of that early initiation into the adventure of the snows came back to me like stars after a storm, the shadowy silhouette of the peaks against the star-pointed night as we left the hut, the glacier wind which ruffled the silence of the snows, the eastern sky lit by Dante’s splendori antelucani, the serene happiness of the summit.
If one returns year by year to the places one loved as a boy, the memories of youth mingle with those of maturity and sometimes lose their distinctness, but there was no such confusion of recollection on the Col de Breya for it was fifty years since I crossed this pass of many memories.
They say that in the unchanging place,
Where all we loved is always dear,
We meet our morning face to face
And find at last our twentieth year.
To a Greek, or to a modern who has inherited the melancholy of paganism, those moments on the Col de Breya when I met my “morning face to face” would have been dominated with the sadness of mortality. To the Greek all joy was centred in this life and even the golden hours of sunlit youth were darkened by the morbid shadow of death and decay, and unconsoled by the prospect of the only future life in which the Greek believed, a spectral hereafter drained alike of vital joy and sorrow. Mimnermus is in the Greek tradition when he writes “when youth has fled, short-lived as a dream, forthwith this burdensome and ugly old age looms over us, detestable and dishonoured,” but on the Col de Breya I was consoled by a certainty which Mimnermus never entertained, the conviction that in those rare moments of perfect felicity which are granted to us on earth there is something which stands outside of time and which is not subject to decay. The serene untroubled happiness of that hour on the Col de Breya was remote not only from the mood of Mimnermus but also from the stoic resignation of Epictetus, however apposite to my state of physical decay might be his famous saying—“What is left for a lame old man but to sing hymns to God?”
No, I was not sad like Mimnermus nor resigned like Epictetus, but serenely content. I looked across the valley to the Doric splendour of the Grand Combin which I had traversed in a snowstorm with my brother Hugh, and instead of mourning my lost youth in the manner of Mimnermus I gave thanks for the mountains among which I had discovered the happiness which is undimmed by age, the happiness which cannot be conquered but which can be earned.
I agree with that distinguished mountaineer Charles Meade that “whatever importance nature mysticism may have in relation to religious mysticism is due to its potentially preparatory character,” but I am none the less grateful for the revelation of God in the beauty of the mountains and for those moments among the hills when we enjoy a foretaste of the happiness which will, perhaps, be “our settled state if we deserve or attain beatitude.”
[Lunn wrote his own epitaph in the form of a prayer.]
Let me give thanks, dear Lord, in the frailty of age for the beloved mountains of my youth, for the challenge of rock and for the joy of skiing, for the friends with whom I have climbed and skied, and above all, dear Lord, for those moments of revelation when the temporal beauty of the mountains reinforces my faith in the Eternal beauty which is not subject to decay.
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