Fountain's research of British sexuality comes with a warning for the prude
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What sets this book apart from other accounts of travel into extreme climates and landscapes is its admission of fear. In a moment of revelation and crisis, the author found himself unable to go up a rocky ridge in the Alps fearing the steep drop to death. His guide urged him on: “I know you are frightened of the mountains... Maybe, if you make a mistake you fall, you die, yes. But didn’t you come here to challenge yourself?” Charlie English realised then that, “Everyone must draw their own line which they will not cross. I had drawn mine, and it lay far short of where I expected it to be. I felt hollow.” That evening, in despair, he got drunk.
It is not as if English does not push himself repeatedly into places that would freeze the hearts of even the dauntless. He travels everywhere, from the Baffin Islands to Vermont, Vienna and Scotland in search of snow, and discovers its immense variety; the art and engineering it has inspired: from snowmobiles to igloos, to the snowscapes of Brueghel; the scientists behind our knowledge of snowflakes.
The book is a mine of trivia and information. Why do skates and skis slide on ice? How would you survive an avalanche? How many colours of snow can be there? Pink, black, blue, brown and red have all been recorded. At the end of the book he provides — for those who want to attempt it — a guide to igloo-building. And among the many other brilliantly picked quotations in the book, there is this one from Mae West: “I used to be Snow White, but I drifted.”
One of the questions the writer searches for an answer to is this: can a personal passion survive family life? English has a wife and young children. He felt guilty about leaving them behind for his travels, he knew he was making things difficult for his wife, yet he could not resist the lure of the outdoors. When he was away he worried about them and tried to combine his travels and their holidays, then realised, “This was no one’s idea of a good time... Our family holiday had been sacrificed to my obsession.” English’s contemplative admissions of guilt, failure and fear set him apart from the dime-a-dozen tough-guy travel writers who dominate mountain-writing.
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