FELIX FRANCIS on researching his latest novel, ICED

Written by Felix Francis

Iced, my 15th novel, is published this month. It was written pre-pandemic but publication was postponed. Hence there was no Dick Francis novel written in the last year, but I am now working on my 2022 story.

Writing is something I do best in the quiet of my home office in Oxfordshire but, before you can write the words, you have to think up the plot and, more importantly, to do your research. For me, research often means travelling to different horse-related events and, in the case of Iced, attending the annual White Turf jamboree in St Moritz, Switzerland. Quite often it is the presence at such an event that sparks the idea for a plot in the first place – as it was in this case.

The words, The Turf, have been used as a euphemism for horse racing since Charles II escaped from the plague in London in the 1660s to the wide open spaces of Newmarket and started racing his horses there on the lush Suffolk sward. But at White Turf there is not a blade of the green stuff to be seen. Here the horses race not on grass but on ice, two-feet-thickness of it on the frozen lake.

Horses racing on ice?? Surely not – wouldn’t they slip and slide like Bambi in the Disney film? Not a bit. The ice on the St Moritz Lake is not smooth and shiny like an ice-skating rink. Instead, the surface here is harrowed to break it into small pieces, allowing the hooves to grip with their specially insulated and studded horseshoes.

My wife, Debbie, and I were invited by the sponsors to White Turf in February 2019, flying out from London to Zurich and taking the amazingly scenic train journey up 5,000 feet to the luxury Alpine resort, specifically to the majestic Kulm Hotel, a venue that also features large in Iced.

A good friend from my village in Oxfordshire, a man who once flew single-seat jet fighters for the RAF, told me that, if I was going to St Moritz, I had to visit the Cresta Run, a three-quarter-mile-long steep ice chute down which grown men, and recently women, hurl themselves, head first, whilst lying on a glorified tea tray with no brakes and precious little steering – and only for the thrill of it. “It’s great fun,” he said. “Bloody dangerous, but great fun.” I wondered if he was trying to convince me or himself. If a man who’d experienced aerial combat thought the Cresta Run was bloody dangerous, it certainly was.

So, after breakfast on our first morning in St Moritz, I ask the concierge at the Kulm where I would find the Cresta Run. “Down the road, sir,” he replies. “Two hundred metres at most.” We’d better go, I think, if only so we can tell our friend we’ve been.

With careful small steps on the ice-encrusted pavements, we walk the 200 metres and, unexpectedly, it is the pathway to a new novel. The Cresta Run, or more precisely the St Moritz Tobogganing Club, is a slice of England in the middle of Switzerland. The Union Jack flies proudly atop the white-pained clubhouse, alongside which men in full-body Lycra suits and crash helmets flash past on the ice at nearly eighty miles per hour. And there is a competition in progress called, no less, the Grand National. Although it’s nothing like the Aintree Grand National I am more used to, the excitement here is also palpable and the completion just as fierce.

Quite suddenly the plot for a new novel begins to unfold in my mind – an ex steeplechase jockey, forced to stop racing by problems over weight and confidence, misses the excitement of guiding horses over huge fences at thirty miles per hour so seeks a new adrenaline rush by riding the ice of the Cresta in their version of the Grand National and, with White Turf going on in the background over the same weekend, gets enticed back into the world of horse racing with unforeseen and perilous consequences…  

Debbie and I spend time on the terrace watching the brave young men zip by in a blur, hanging on to their toboggans for dear life. We sip hot-spiced gluhwein for warmth, and savour the special atmosphere of the last bastion of true amateur sport. After the action is over and the new Grand National champion is crowned, we gather in the clubhouse bar in good humour and companionship with the members. By lunchtime, I have the full skeleton of my story in my head and, in the months to come, I will add the flesh to the bones, the sinews and the muscles, the skin and the fingernails, until the full body of work is complete and a new novel called Iced is ready for the bookshelves – and that’s right now! Enjoy.

Iced by Felix Francis is published by Simon & Schuster, £20 (16th September, 2021)

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Felix Francis

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