Talking Location With…. author Gary Born – World locations
Talking Location With author Felix Francis – ST MORITZ
16th October 2021
#TalkingLocationWith…. Felix Francis, author of ICED set in St Moritz
My latest novel, ICED, is largely set in St Moritz, Switzerland, during the annual White Turf race meeting. Each February, on three successive Sundays, horses race on a course laid out on the deep-frozen St Moritz Lake. “Horses racing on ice?” I hear you say, “Surely not. They must slip and slide like Bambi in the Disney film.” But, no, the surface of this ice is not smooth like a skating rink, it is harrowed and broken up into small pieces and the horses wear special shoes with protruding studs to provide them with a sure footing.
In 2019, my wife and I were invited to attend White Turf as guests of one of the sponsors. As I describe it in the book, White Turf is a strange cocktail of two parts frozen Glorious Goodwood mixed with one part haute couture, a large slice of cordon bleu, with just a dash of Yorkshire point-to-point for taste. And, while in St Moritz, we also visited the infamous Cresta Run, where fearless grown men, and a few women, hurl themselves head-first down a steep three-quarter-mile-long twisting ice chute, lying on little more than a glorified tea tray at speeds up to eighty miles per hour, with no brakes and precious little steering. And all for nothing more than the adrenalin rush and, just maybe, the glory of winning – there is no prize money. The Cresta is perhaps the last bastion of true amateur sport left in our largely materialistic world and the many would-be beginners are shown a life-size montage of X-rays displaying all the metalwork that has been inserted into the bodies of former riders after crashing, just so they are aware of the risks. And, before they are allowed down the ice, they have to sign a waiver stating that they will not sue the Cresta Run if they are injured.
As soon as I saw these two unique happenings in the same small Alpine town, I was determined to include them both in a novel. By lunchtime on my first day, a story was already crystalizing in my head – a young ex-jockey, forced to give up race-riding horses due to a combination of an ever-present battle with the dreaded scales and his resultant mental-health problems, now seeks his thrills by riding the ice of the Cresta Run instead. But he is drawn back into the complex and uncertain web of horseracing after being asked to help out at White Turf only to discover some weird and dubious goings-on that have a profound significance on his past and also for his future life, that is if he survives long enough to enjoy it as someone will go to any lengths to keep them secret.
Even though the book is primarily set in the Swiss Alps, there are also scenes from Malton in Yorkshire and Lambourn in the Berkshire Downs, plus excursions to racetracks up and down the length of England, including to the former racecourse at Lincoln where the listed grandstand still remains almost 60 years after the horses stopped running past it.
Locations are very important in any book and it is often travelling to new and exotic venues, such as at St Moritz, that inspire a plot. For me, as for my father before me, horse racing provides many such opportunities and we have included the Melbourne Cup in Australia, the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes in the United States, as well as racing at Woodbine in Canada, Happy Valley in Hong Kong, and at various courses in South Africa and across Europe as the backdrop for our stories. I look forward to sometime watching the annual racing on the beach at Sanlúcar de Barrameda in Andalusia, Spain and, of course, the exciting bare-back Palio around the cobbled square of Siena in Tuscany, Italy. Perhaps they too will appear in a Felix Francis novel of the future.
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