Will Self: Peak condition

PsychoGeography: Which philosopher said that reading his fellow thinkers was like watching an ape play with a box of matches?
Click to follow
The Independent Online

You left me last week plodding up Mont Ventoux as any other man might tread up and down on a 6,000ft-high Stairmaster covered with conifers, and ruminating on the hell that is other people's trousers. Petrarch climbed Ventoux wearing a dress, and toting a copy of Augustine's Confessions; in his account he tells us he stopped occasionally to take spiritual sustenance from random readings. I had nothing save a map, the quail I mentioned last week and my own disordered thoughts:

The climb – 10 miles, 1,500m – is a doddle; it's the drive that's the killer. The drive compresses consciousness; the plodding explodes it. If not fractals, why not fructals? (Namely the symmetrical shapes assumed on the ground by discarded tangerine peel, and seen ubiquitously in nature.) Which philosopher said that reading his fellow thinkers was like watching an ape play with a box of matches? To die of cancer is for your great tragedy to dwindle to other people's anecdotage. Woody in Toy Story is the archetypal film character of the past 20 years...

I motored past some oldsters: a pair in jeans, another in hideous culottes, two in cargo pants. Cargo pants! The trail switch-backed into a vast arête, then mounted a spur; it narrowed; tall pines ceded to smaller spruce. The morning wore on, up above on the mountain were huge clearings of limestone scree, beneath my feet the same old seabed tinkled and chinked – how metallic can the sound of rocks become? In between the trees I could see the sculpted peaks of lesser eminences, falling away below me as I climbed, while in the valleys there was the intense purple of myrtle fields. I stopped from time to time to admire a fleshy beech, or the fructals of a juniper – then pressed on.

I thought of other rocky paths where I had walked between conifers: with my late father, out in the Mudgee Valley in New South Wales, or else in the Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve, where from above, the galumphing kangaroos were as alien as the velociraptors in Jurassic Park; or else with friends, in the high noon of thoughtless youth, along the calanques from Cassis on the Riviera, the scents the same as now – of piney sap and herbs – only the nose different.

At Mont Serein, where I exchanged Grande Randonnée 9 for 4, which would take me to the summit, I returned to hell: Gore-Tex, nylon netting, Lycra, denim – everywhere I looked there were nether garments, and I ascended as if in a thicket of moving trunks; a humanoid Birnam Wood en route to Dunsinane. Besides, it's difficult to abandon yourself to the joy of great vistas if accompanied by people with rivets in their faces. I exaggerate – the truth is les jeunes gens were quite adorable, and sweet to chat with as we breached the tree line and chinked up the scree to the summit.

Besides, I knew full well what to expect: Mont Ventoux is no isolated and inaccessible peak: a metalled road runs to the top, and it's often a stage in the Tour de France. Still, for those of us who normally puff up Scots mountains, there was something bizarre about gaining a summit to be confronted with a road sign warning of falling rocks, followed by a collection of the ugliest meteorological and observatory buildings imaginable. The whole point of walking up to these places is that they're inaccessible – once any morbidly obese person can rest on an accelerator and get there the whole gig is invalidated. It made me think of a clip I'd seen on YouTube: a German TV show that spoofs celebrities had coptered a sausage stall to the top of the Eiger when they knew Reinhold Messner was about to scale it. As the mountaineer reached the top, he was confronted by a couple of jokers offering him bratwurst and a beer. To his credit he took it rather well.

Me, less so, for atop Mont Ventoux the cloud had closed in, and instead of the famous views – on a clear day you can see Russia expanding to the east and the United States contracting to the west – there were those infernal nether garments! My dear! You simply couldn't imagine – for while it's true that there's nothing more stylish than a chic Frenchman or woman, so also there is nothing more vulgar than a chi-chi one: they were gathered by the nougat stall – the saucisson one too; and more were buying hateful wooden knick-knacks in a hateful wooden knick-knack shop. There seemed to be an awful lot of cyclists who had driven to the summit, together with their machines, purely in order to pose in cagoules and disturbing codpieces, before mounting their bikes and caroming back down the D974.

Misanthropic little existentialist that I am, I beat a retreat to the Bar Restaurant Vendran for a grande noir and a cigarette. Here I racked my brains, trying to remember the name of the British Tour de France cyclist who had collapsed and died of a heart attack on Mont Ventoux. Or, rather, I tried to remember the circumstance – that had occurred within the past week – in which an interlocutor had said: "His heart literally exploded!" Then it came back to me: I was standing in the grounds of Her Majesty's Prison Blantyre House, in Kent, with my friend Noel Smith, one-time bank robber now turned writer, and we were chatting with the literary agent Mal Peachey. Noel was wearing elephantine tracksuit bottoms (or sweats), I was in kidult jeans – Mal had on a sociology lecturer's Frenchified suit of blue denim.

You see, I inveighed against myself as I got up and started off back down the mountain, hell isn't only to be found on Mont Ventoux – it's everywhere.

Comments