It’s another one of those words isn’t it? Can you go to extremes? Dare you try these extreme sports? Extreme heat? Extreme cold? Extreme courage, extreme patience or extreme extremities.
Can’t you just hear the macho voice over? In the top right hand corner of our mega smart TV screen, the figure in black appears. He’s sporting a chiselled jaw and three days growth. In the lens of his super size sun glasses you see a reflection of the alpine ridges. With a flourish of muscular pride he sets off down the mountain, slashing a course through the virgin powdered snow.
“Extreme fear, extreme height, can you take it?” The low gravel voice questions our very courage. Dare we watch? I’m fighting the yawns. It’s an advert for deodorant for pity’s sake. I despair at the time and money invested in such mundane frippery.
I just know that many of those involved would have been watching the preview in a darkened room whilst massaging their overblown egos or whatever other extreme part of their persona they like to manhandle. At the end of the screening, Antoine, the male model who stood pouting heroically at the top of the mountain before the stuntman was deployed, says: “Nice one guys.”
He glances at his reflection in the blank screen. He checks his bouffant. “Now I’m off to have sex with my number one fan,” he thinks.
Oh such extremes of narcissistic vanity. By the way, every man is vain but you only catch some of them looking in the mirror. What extremes do I like? Geographical extremes. Even the modest ones.
When I was fourteen years old my parents bought me an LP for Christmas. It was an awesome LP: Side one was the Tchaikovsky first piano concerto. Then on side two was the Rachmaninoff second piano concerto. It was played a lot. But in the tradition of the LP player, I studied the cover as I listened. The cover photo was of Bardsey Sound. Bardsey Sound is at the very edge of the Llyn Peninsula of North Wales. It’s an extreme.
For nine years I dreamed of going there to look over to the little island. I managed it in 1980. I wasn’t disappointed. I stood on the top of the cliff and breathed in the fresh sea air. The weather was perfect. There was no wind. The sun was blazing and the water was calm. The high blue sky sang with the azure of the glittering sea. This was only Wales and only the Irish Sea but it was inspiring. Before the days of steam and super fast car ferries, these waters would have been crossed by the power of nature and the skill of a navigator. It was open sea. The wind would have been fierce and the conditions mountainous. Did I refer to these extremities as modest?
I’ve been back several times. Once the North Westerly was so strong you could lean over the cliff. Of course I tried but I’m not that stupid. I did it several yards back from the edge. The sea looked angry. Under a turbulent grey sky I saw battles of current and angry foam. It was unforgiving. It was not comfortable with itself. The last time I was there, everything was cloaked in a cloud of mist. The sun was trying to break through leaving threads of golden light waving in the swirling grey of the smoky air. As I looked out to where I thought the island was little flutters of breeze pushed the fog into mini spirals. But it had nowhere to go. That day the mist won. Wales is mystical country. Even though Edward I managed to build his castles all over the place it has never been fully anglicised. Welsh is still widely spoken and the country breathes with its own history.
My favourite Welsh extreme is the top of Snowdon. Not only is it the highest point in Wales and England but it has some seriously extreme weather. from the wild winds of winter to the gentle sun kissed days of the summer, you can be certain that mother nature will offer.
The cloud and the wind is never far away. Only once when I’ve sat dreaming in the clouds of the summit has it ever cleared away. Slowly but surely it disappeared to reveal the majesty of our surroundings. The rest of the horseshoe ridge stood proud beside us. In the distance the coastal plain pointed to Anglesey looking far and mysterious.
Then the history floods back. At certain points of the various paths, you can look across the vale of Llanberis. On the other side are the remains of the old slate mines. Almost every slated house in the north west and beyond had once worn a little piece of Snowdonia. Further down is the electric mountain. Under its hard grey top is a hydro-electric power station. The pipes stretching between Snowdon’s upper and lower lake are the only visible clue. That is until it became a tourist attraction and the signs went up all over Llanberis.
In the south of wales is the other bit which sticks out. It includes the beautiful Gower Peninsula but my favourite part is St David’s.
It’s a tiny city with a large cathedral. It’s a calm remote sort of place. I imagined one of its more typical days playing victim to the persistent rain pouring in from the west.
The cathedral itself had a monastic feel to it; not that I’m an expert on monasteries. I think it was more to do with its remoteness. Even within the city it was set apart. I thought it was special. My journeys to the north coast of Scotland and the southernmost tip of Spain have also taken me to extremes. These places all have reasons to be memorable. I think it’s the sense of adventure which appeals to me. I gaze out across the never-ending mass of sea wondering who’d gone before me, never to return.
What were their fears and hopes as the last trace of shoreline vanished into the heaving mass of ocean? Then I think back to the use of the word extreme by those ludicrous marketing people. What right have they to take ownership of this awesome word. Think of our explorers and conquerors of mountains and desert. They weren’t dropped off at their chosen destination by a helicopter piloted by some stubbly hunk in a flying suit. Some of these people never returned.
The last extreme I want to mention was not on the coast. Nor was it particularly high up. I was driving down to Spain on my own in 1994. See previous post “Are we nearly there?” for my account of the journey home. I’d just crossed the border through the Pyrenees. It was a rugged spectacular route but after passing through a long expensive tunnel, the landscape was as flat as a pancake. Buildings and people were sparse. It was dull.
Then up in the distance I could see a tall rocky formation looking very much like the back of a stegosaurus. It took ages to get close to it. Then I realised what it was. On my previous three visits to Catalonia, I’d seen all manner of day trips advertised to the monastery at Montserrat. I was now driving straight towards it and its famous statue of the Black Madonna. After the tedium of a straight flat road, I was beginning to get excited.
It was really just a beautiful building that had been milked in the extreme (note use of word) for commercial purposes. But it was really beautiful and when I stood over the abyss looking towards the coast and my destination of Loret de Mar I became flush with my sense of history.
Yes it was commercial with a fair amount of the usual touristy tack but it gave people a living. And before the roads, the train and the cable car this must have been a cold stark existence for its residents. Another special place. Now my freedom is somewhat restricted by disability, my next adventures need a little more planning. But they will happen.
Thank-you for reading.