December 13, 2012

At six leagues an hour the loudest noise you can hear is…

…the jingling of bells.

Don't you ever wish, when your car gets bogged down in the mud, or slithers across the surface of the snow, that you could simply put down a pair of skids and swish away?

In past centuries, when the snow made mountain passes impassable to ordinary carriages, everyone piled out of the cumbersome and useless wheeled coach and onto the sledge, to continue the journey over the Simplon or the St. Bernard Pass.

But sledging was not always the jingle-bells, oh-what-fun-it-is-to-ride-in-a-one-horse-open-sleigh affair of cosy mythology.

That blanket that kept your knees warm in the temperate climes of wintry Austria would be a laughable effort at protection against the hideous, probing cold of a Russian freeze-up. 

Sledging overland from Moscow to the Caucasus was, moreover, a very long and time-consuming business.  In Tolstoy's The Cossacks, the hero, Olenin, comfortably settles into his sledge, wrapped in furs protected from the cold.

As they pass out of Moscow his thoughts run on the friends he is leaving behind, his misspent youth, love. Then, as the staging posts he has been through begin to multiply, he starts to calculate the distance he has yet to travel, methods of paying off his debts. And then, days later, he passes the time in thinking of the places where he will stop to drink tea, where he will change sledges. Finally, his mind begins to dwell on the prospects afforded by the Caucasian women, among whom he is about to begin life. He hardly notices his surroundings until, in the warmth of southern Russia; he abandons his sledge for a Cossack cart.  Olenin's serf had to wait outside his master's Moscow club until the small hours of the morning before they could set off on their important journey.

A friend’s grandfather who was born in southern Russia, once had to journey with his mother from the town of Ordzhonikidze to visit his sister, living in Ismail, about twenty miles distant, as she was about to give birth to a child. He and his mother were to leave their home town at nine in the morning. At 9.30 they were sitting, freezing, on the open sledge, waiting for the driver. Fifteen minutes later, he had still not arrived. His great-grandmother dispatched her little son over the road to see what had become of the driver. At 10.15, still freezing, only now feeling a little stiff in the joints as the cold inexorably found its way under the blankets and inside their clothes, he returned to say that the driver had gone to bed appallingly drunk the night before, that he had been sleeping, dead to the world, but that he would certainly be over now within the next five minutes.

At twelve o'clock, the sledge set off for Ismail. Bells were jingling-that much at least can be said; but no one was smiling. Other sledges were passed, travelling in the opposite direction, and the drivers exchanged friendly abuse. The vodka was passed round, and passed round again. Most of the passengers dropped off to sleep in the cold. That is the best way to cover long distances they say.

At length, after it had been dark for some time, a light was seen lying straight ahead. Passengers began to wake up and look forward to arriving in Ismail, where there would be a warm welcome and steaming borscht. It was after nine at night when the sledge eventually drew to a halt in the middle of the town. For those staying at the inn there was a long wait, as the luggage was unloaded and then as each person, swathed in furs, entered the inn to take off his coat and wraps. Meanwhile, only six hours late, the family was able to rush to the side of the sister, now delivered of a baby, unaided.    

In Lapland sledging was even harder-one drove one's own sledge, a narrow affair, only two feet wide, and pulled by a reindeer that often had a mind of its own. A well-schooled reindeer needed practically no driving at all: he knew the way better than his master. A young reindeer with an inexperienced driver, though, was a recipe for instant catastrophe; pull too hard on the reins and the beast would bolt to the other side of the plain for fear you wanted to make the sledge crash onto his hind legs. The best way to stop him would be to pull him sharply round and turn the sledge over. Halliday Sutherland, in his book Lapland Journey, describes how this happened to him the first time he took the reins of a reindeer. The guide, in the leading sledge, caught hold of Sutherland's reins, and both sledges overturned. The author says he was about to apologize when he noticed the guides pipe had not even fallen out of his mouth. Again, as in Russia, the best way to combat the cold was to fall asleep, letting the reindeer do the work.

Yet another method of taking a nap in a sledge was that of the sinister Klamm in Kafka's The Castle. It was a spacious, enclosed sledge, whose floor was strewn with furs and rugs. There was a desk for working at . . . but ordinary mortals were permitted to glimpse no more than that.

But if it is the effete one is looking for, the France of Marie-Antoinette with her rustic nymphs-and-shepherds yearning saw the apotheosis of the sledge as a thing of maximum beauty and minimum utility. She, and the wives of Louis XIV and XV, had sledges built for their winter amusement that are miracles of deft fantasy.

They owe more to the spirit of Hans Christian Andersen than to the needs of expecting sisters in Ismail. You'd be a fool to go to sleep in one of these, even if the temperature was at absolute zero. Any poacher in the royal parks, seeing these fire-spitting dragons, eagles and princesses seated in giant oyster shells looming up out of the snowy mists, must have thought himself amply rewarded for his temerity. Or perhaps thoughts of Nordic ancestors, to whom a sledge was not a toy, made him blow ruefully on his numb fingertips, reflecting on the sheer luxury of aristocratic folly.

This was no longer travel, it had become a Diaghilev ballet, a gigantic, fairy-tale extravaganza on snow, with the most elegant sets the craftsmen of eighteenth-century France could devise. These sledges never overturned-or, if they did, there were no pipes to stick in their passengers' mouths-and their horses never felt the tug of an inexperienced driver's hand. It was either apotheosis or total decadence.

But, whether a Christmas morning flight of fantasy or necessity drive you, next time the snow lies deep around the garage, harness the reindeer, the dogs, the pony, or the prancing white stallion to your sledge, it will be pleasant to reflect to yourself that the loudest noise you will be able to hear is ... the jingle of the bells.  Thoughts about polluting won't have to bother you at all.


Aloha Bruce said...

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Merry Christmas Ms Edna

Ms. Edna (squared) said...

thank you-
and Happy Holidays to you too.

C and C (Lake Tahoe) said...

Come with us on my sleigh ride. Come enjoy a glorious sight.
They are glorious, and I love snowy sleigh rides, too, a yearly tradition C and I still enjoy every December.

Bill (Santa Monica) said...

Very nice Ms Edna. I've never been on a sleigh ride. Not too many of them offered in California *smile*, but you made me feel as though I was on one while reading your post. Thank you.

Charles said...

Its always lovely weather for a sleigh ride together with you.

Mona said...

This is lovely, Ms E.makes me long for days of yore.