Monday, 1 April 2013


Back in the summer I wrote about the perils of Holiday Reading for Book Slam. I talked about 'Environmental Mismatch', when your chosen book is all out of kilter with your holiday destination. For last week's snowboarding trip to Austria, I packed a surf story. Tim Winton's BREATH is set over a sequence of endless summers, on the other side of the world. Its pages are steeped in sun and salt water. At one point the following exchange takes place: 'I've never seen snow, I said. White, she said. And cold.' A good book for a winter trip, then? It turned out to be the best. The very best. In fact, I don't think I've ever had a more perfect holiday reading experience. 

I first came across Tim Winton when I heard his coastal memoir, Land's Edge, read on Radio 4 last year. BREATH, Winton's 2008 novel, is a sea song of tough beauty, ceaselessly poetic, never less than controlled. It's a coming-of-age story, tinted with nostalgia, joy, and deep dark regret, and imbued with passion for the extraordinary (never 'extreme', Winton tells us) sport of surfing. The most stunning passages take place on the water, and the book succeeds in leading us all the way into a specific experience and making us understand and feel every single aspect of it. I can imagine the book is no less of a powerful read for those who've never stood sideways (through surf or skate or snow), but if you've had a taste of it - no matter how fleeting, or how diluted, compared to the protagonist Bruce Pike's experience - the effect is all the stronger. And if you're getting up every morning as I did last week, taking your board and heading into the white world of the mountains, BREATH's poetry ringing in your ears, and spurring your every powder turn or swift descent, the line between book life and real life criss-crosses in beautiful, breathtaking, fashion.   

Tim Winton's writing is tinglingly good. There are three passages in the book that make me cry every time I read them (even on a casual flick - I know, I've tested it), and it's not because they're sad - it's because they're perfect. I've never known the intoxicating, addictive fear that Winton writes of, nor the extremity of Pikelet's experiences on a surf board, but I get it. I've always got it. He calls surfing dancing, and as I read, I know I've danced too. I learnt to snowboard when I was nineteen and living in Switzerland. I can remember almost everything about that first day in early December. It was made of 'bluebird and pow' - blue skies, fresh snow - I knew it was beautiful, I didn't figure it for rare. Maybe I thought all days on the mountain were like that; untouched, and above the clouds. We hired boards in the village and went up without an instructor, falling our way chaotically down the hill. The colour-coding of slopes meant nothing to us (only now do I know that the first run I rolled down was Red), and we had none of the restraint of orderly ski school snakes. I was out of control, cartwheeling, a rag doll on a runaway board. When I got home I cried in the shower as the water hit my still-screaming muscles. The next morning I woke up back in my student lodging feeling as though I'd been hit by a car. I struggled to turn my head or lift an arm to switch off my bleating alarm. I lay still, stretching out my fingers and my toes, every part of me aching in a way it never had. For all the pain, I already knew I loved everything about le surf.  Fifteen years of snowboarding holidays later, including two season-long trips, and just a single winter missed (I was finishing writing The Book of Summers) and I love it still.

First ever day on the mountain, in 1998. I'm the one on the right - bad style, big smile.

On last week's trip, more than ever before I examined how I feel about snowboarding. That was the BREATH effect - no matter that it was snow not surf - it's an act that is every bit as 'completely pointless and beautiful'. I've never been one of Winton's grommets or 'hell men', but for a while back there, when I lived in the mountains, I was swept up in the season's buzz - I wanted to ride faster, jump higher - progression was everything, and daring yourself to do the things you were afraid of was part of it. Last week I guess I accepted that now I'm more of a daytripper, and it's the romance of the ride that I appreciate the most. Haring down twisting, pine-lined paths, catching the biting scent of woodsmoke, sticking my board in the snow and watching the view. My husband, however, is still fuelled by that nip of fear, and the thrill of over-coming it. Last week he dropped into the park, flying off too-big kickers and clattering his board over slick and unforgiving boxes, and I watched him do it. I felt a little envious - not of his ability, but of his unending desire to step up and push his luck, knowing that for every smack down, the moments when you ride away with a half-crazed smile are worth it a thousand times over. I always weigh up the risk, and ride within what I see as the bounds of my ability. It's safe, but in its way it's limiting. I know I can change that at any moment, ruefulness is a foolish sort of self-deception, but I also know that I don't really want to. Not now. So I console myself with the words of BREATH's Bruce Pike as he recalls his first wave. Not his biggest, his toughest, his bravest, but his first. He tells us that even now, as an old man, he judges 'every joyous moment, every victory and revelation against those few seconds of living'. Everyone has their own bliss, and perhaps it's about finding it, and recognising it. In life, in memory, or glimpsed through the pages of a graceful, vital story.