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The Archer Who Found He Needed a Snow Plough

Article for "The Mail on Sunday"
© Tim Bentinck Oct 17th 1999

I can't imagine what David Archer would be like on skis. I think he'd be bound to come back on crutches because it would make a great storyline. Great from my point of view because storylines mean episodes which means payment from the BBC which is a rare event. I probably aspire to a bit more style than David would have on the snow, but icy black runs do now give me serious reminders of my mortality.

I've only ever skied at Easter, and that means salopets, T-shirt and a fleece. So when Will (15), Jasper (11) and I arrived in Val d'Isere last April, I was encouraged to hear how incredibly hot and sunny it had been for the past week, how great the snow was and how much sun block we were going to get through. We woke the next morning to torrential rain.

"It'll soon turn to snow" said Harry the hotel manager.

He was right; big wet dollops of slush that soon turned my quite trendy but utterly impractical duck down jacket into a sodden, heavy, steaming pillow of very wet duck down that had created a kind of Michelin tyre around my waist. This, combined with trying to ski in thick fog and driving sleet when your sunglasses are misted up because your woolly hat's dripping into them, your leather gloves (vintage 70's) are ringing wet and your bum's frozen from sitting on a slushy chair-lift was not what eldest son (with sodden puffa jacket) and I had been looking forward to. Respect the mountain.

There's something faintly desperate about Brits on a package holiday. "I've paid for this and I'm going to sodding enjoy it if it kills me". I hadn't actually paid for it yet it was still on the credit card, but I wasn't giving up. In the afternoon Harry the Hotel kindly lent me his full Gore-Tex kit which was a revelation. Dry, warm, windproof - now I understood why everyone else had always seemed to me to be so deeply overdressed.

Skiing in Val d'Isere after the small places I'd been before was like going to Toys R Us having spent your childhood at a small village toyshop. The resort absorbs an enormous number of people without apparently developing lift queues. For example if you want to get to the very very top of the absolutely highest mountain, you take the tube. Seriously, there's an underground railway.

The Gallic air of superiority is never stronger than in a ski lift. Apart from the almost fetishistic attitude towards ski kit, the French positively reek of overweening individualism. I suppose it's because to ski fast you have to have strong inner confidence, also it's 'me against the rest' - there's very little camaraderie on the ski slopes. When my younger son fell and lost his skis, some way above me, I watched as scores of people swept past, their Schadenfreude quite obvious, until finally a Scottish girl stopped to help - co-incidentally a member of our group. Part of the fun of a Mark Warner holiday is you get put with different people for dinner every night. This 'fun' is entirely optional and has its ups and downs but generally pans out okay because even the greatest bores have usually got an evening's entertain-ment in them, and sometimes complete strangers are utterly wonderful.

There is an anonymity of bright colours on the ski slopes. Sober-suited businessmen happily don ten-year-old dayglow one-piece jump-suits and think they look the business. Shy girls with braces transform into Kandinsky-painted downhill racers while anyone under 6 looks completely lethal in helmet and goggles. The Brits though do seem to be the only ones who will wear old kit those too-short-for-you flared skipants that have a zip down the back are surely late 70's? One guy in our group, who looked like Clark Kent, wore a gingham shirt and tie every day and the man who appeared to be spying for a rival holiday firm was resplendent in Sherpa Tensing hat with mad ear-flaps.

Andrew the ad-man (white one-piece c.1969) analysed the situation - he reckoned the tattier the kit, the better the skier, but this could be a double bluff. It may however explain our world renowned national shambolic-ness. Is it our confidence, individualism, cynicism, prudence, a desperation not to be a fashion victim, or simply laziness, bad taste and lack of cash that allow the British to wear what they like? A mixture of all perhaps. However a rain-proof jacket did seem to be de rigueur. I thought I'd better go shopping.

Val d'Isere is like the Asté version of an Alpine town. It hosted the Winter Olympics of 1992 and it shows. For the visitor, the town is essentially one street, a line of bars, ski-shops, restaurants and thankfully no McDonalds. In its centre there is a large shopping mall, self-consciously built in an 'Alpine' style of stone and timber. In contrast, further down the valley near our hotel at la Daille was the ugliest group of high-rise apartments you could possibly imagine; apparently they had won an architectural award (French) for blending in with the mountains. Oh yeah?

I ended up with a black reversible fleece/jacket in an end-of-season sale at the market - £35 instead of £200 (was I ripped off or what?) also some enormous gloves that I think were designed to handle pig-iron. The weather of course instantly cleared from then on and they were never used.

By the end of the week Jasper had gone from beginner to red runs, Will had tried snowboarding and, it seems, alcohol, and Andrew the ad-man and I won the pub quiz on 70's and 80's music, so firsts for all three of us, and great fun - we'll be coming back. Mark Warner give great service, but after six evenings of new people, the "so what's it like being in the Archers?" conversation is beginning to get repetitious. Next time I think I'll be a computer programmer.

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