Sonny, you should have been Jewish, you'd have had more sense

David Aaronovitch en piste with the schmucks

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The sad death on the ski slopes of Nevada of Sonny Bono on Monday brings the score so far this week to Trees 2, American Politicians 0. Like Democrat Michael Kennedy on New Year's Eve, the former pop singer, husband of Cher and current Republican congressman went into a tree at speed. It is rare indeed that our leafed friends get to revenge themselves directly on human beings. Twice in six days, however, must be a record.

While Kennedy died playing American football on skis near Aspen, Colorado, Bono met his maker alone, not far from a chairlift at the Heavenly Ski Resort, 55 miles south-west of Reno. Now, of course, he parts the powder in the real celestial thing. But on the mortal Web site of the earthly Heavenly Resort, I discovered yesterday, one may still find the warning legend - posted before Sonny's death -"on most mountains, if nature stops you this abruptly, you've had a rendezvous with a tree".

It is not, of course, that much of a surprise that both men were killed on the piste. Skiing consists of sliding down mountains at the greatest possible velocity, while attempting to dodge the various impediments that nature and man have so thoughtlessly strewn in the skier's path. These may be as varied as children, ibexes, yaks, snowploughs, pylons, abysses, crevasses and - for the short-sighted - villages. And trees, which - with their soft leaves and hard trunks - still infest large patches of prime skiing slope.

I only attempted downhill skiing once, when I was just into my teens. I went with a party of French schoolchildren and can recall only three things. The first was how manly my profile was in blue tights. The second was the impossibility of mastering those elastic ski lift things that one had to catch hold of and then shove between one's legs. And the third, naturally, was hurtling downhill, out of control, while someone yelled "chasse neige!" at me, at the top of his supercilious Gallic voice. Eventually, as I neared an ibex (or perhaps it was a village), I solved the problem by simply sitting down and using my buttocks as a brake. Inelegant and painful, but effective.

Since then I have never been tempted in the slightest to take up the sport once more. My idea of risky pleasure begins and ends with the Twilight Tower of Terror at Mandelsonland (once Walt Disney World) in Florida, in which you are given the impression of being in an elevator falling 20 floors - while actually incurring slightly less risk of injury than you would had you stayed on the ground with a hot coffee and a bag of popcorn. Considerably less, depending on how hot the coffee was.

Yet every New Year one returns to work to find a colleague or two with limbs in plaster, or swathed in bandages, because of what happened to them pendant-ski. Occasionally they never come back at all. Nice, sensible, intelligent comrades who cross the road with exaggerated care, who always maintain a proper distance between themselves and the pedestrian in front (lest someone stop suddenly), but whose instinct for avoiding danger is annulled by the prospect of competing against a group of sybaritic montagnards for the title of "the conqueror of la piste des mortes". Up they go - and (whooosh!) down they come.

Of course, for some of them, this simple business of careering down a glacier without any method of stopping, soon feels tame. They are, after all, still alive and it is time to try something more radical. If you consult the magazines catering for those who engage in "extreme sports", you will discover heli-skiing, mountain boarding (this is without snow), and para-skiing. New sports include tree-diving (yet more opportunities for arboreal vengeance), zorbing - in which you are loaded into a 10ft- high clear plastic ball and then rolled down a steep hill - and bladerunning, involving jumping out of helicopter on top of a mountain, and then skiing down at incredible speed.

So why are some people so attracted to this kind of thing, and others - like me - so completely averse to it? Could religion or culture be playing a part here? It is very noticeable that those of us of Jewish origin are particularly uninterested in endangering ourselves for fun. It is a contemporary Jewish joke that one of the shortest volumes to be found in any library is The Book of Jewish Adventurers. Or, as Jackie Mason put it, "Jews do not want to be in the Rodeo. Gentiles love it. They love to sit on a horse that's gonna throw them off. They land up on the floor. They can't walk. You gotta be a putz to do it, but they love it. That's their culture, stupid as it is. Ever see a Jew in a cowboy hat looking at a horse? I never saw that. When a Jew wants to sit down, he knows a chair is perfect. He wants to take a chance, he chooses a rocking-chair."

You don't buy it? Well, consider this. Sonny Bono's real first name was Salvatore, and he came from a Sicilian American background, ie he was a Catholic. The Kennedys too are a famous Catholic family. As are the ill-fated Guinnesses. Catholics have a steady belief in their entitlement - given some properly observed formalities - to the afterlife. There again, unlike the experience of the Jews, there is little history of mass anti- Catholic pogroms (as apart from unpleasant bits and pieces of discrimination), so Catholics might be said to have few natural predators.

Think about it. One of the most famous Jewish athletes of all time was the American Mark Spitz, who won a dozen gold medals at one Olympics for swimming. It is a very, very long time since a competitor in a swimming competition was drowned. Swimming we like. Dying we can do without. Sonny Birnbaum would still be alive.

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