Erna Low: Aiming High by Mark Frary

I’ve been enjoying a preliminary dip in to Mark Frary’s biography of Erna Low, Aiming High.

Miss Low, as I was brought up respectfully to refer to her, was a towering figure in the British ski holiday industry and remained active in it until the early 1990s, by which time she was in her 80s.  She publicised unheard-of resorts, introduced clever prepayment schemes as a way to combat exchange control,  took school parties to the Alps, and brought the London Underground to a halt when her chartered tube train needed to get her skiers to Victoria in time for the Snowsports Special.  Take your seats for Calais Maritime, Bludenz, St Anton and all stations to Kitzbuhel.

There may seem to be an irony in the fact that Erna Low made her name selling the delights of skiing holidays in pretty little Austrian villages with good hotels and thigh-slapping après-ski, and ended up promoting the exact opposite – self catering in the ghastly tower blocks of La Plagne.  But as this book makes clear, she was always keen to promote new places, open to new ideas and nothing if not responsive to the market.  Flexibility and pragmatism were essential to stay afloat in the notoriously choppy seas of the holiday industry, and mostly she did.

Among many obscure places promoted by Erna Low, Frary mentions the Spanish Pyrenean resort of Sallent y Gallego as an example of the budget destinations she offered as a solution to the problem of recurrent sterling crisis.   She sent some friends of ours to Sallent. They never went skiing again.

But it was to a small Austrian village that Miss Low sent me, in the mid-1960s when my mother took over the job of escorting me and my two cousins skiing in early January.  Entirely ignorant of skiing, she telephoned Miss Low and was summoned to an interview/audience in South Kensington, where she was doubtless told to wait in the corner until Miss Low was ready to see her.

The brochure had arrived and been well studied by us in advance, but you did not tell Miss Low where you wanted to go on holiday, she told you, and all day we waited anxiously to know where she would send us.

The answer was the Hotel Hammerle in Brand.  I am not sure what priorities and budgetary constraints my mother had set out that led Miss Low to select the Hammerle for us, but there was a bottle of wine for my mother when we arrived, so that may be a clue; and a basket of fruit for us. The fruit itself was less important than an envelope discreetly tucked between two apples, postmarked Vienna and addressed to my mother at the hotel, ‘Ankunft zu erwarten‘.  It contained a thick wad of Austrian Schillings, a ‘present’ from a business associate of my father’s called or at least known as Mr Eggli.  It was our solution to exchange control and the £50 allowance, and it meant that my mother could take an afternoon off skiing to have her hair done, and my cousins and I could have hot chocolate and sachertorte after skiing, mit schlagobers.

Mark Frary describes other dodges skiers used to sidestep Mr Wilson’s attempts to ruin our skiing.  Some chalet party organisers managed to include someone from the Republic of Ireland, and there may have been Irish skiers who demanded a high price for their participation.  A Swiss hotelier told me recently that her family opened an account in a bank near Heathrow, where clients could deposit payment.  On receiving a tip-off that the authorities were showing an interest in this account, they flew to London the same day and emptied it of every last penny before flying home.  Skiing was exciting cloak and dagger stuff in those days.

My mother may have had her own bath at the Hammerle, but I doubt it and we certainly did not.  Having to queue for the bathroom at the end of the corridor was a great incentive to get up early, as if any were needed.  The sausagey smell in there after breakfast, always blamed no doubt unfairly on the head waiter who was known as Herr Oberleutnant, remains fresh in my memory and I am afraid it may have permanently stained my attitude to Austria in much the same way that Mr Wilson’s devaluation and the £50 allowance gave me a lifelong aversion to Labour.  I am an early riser to this day.

At least the Hammerle did not charge for baths by the litre, as was the case on the Hardy family’s Austrian ski holiday.  All junior Hardys had to share the same water and Peter recalls that his bath water was always ‘scabby.’

Our holidays were a great success.  In the early evening we socialised with our fellow guests who included some bright young things from Oxford, much admired for their parallel turns and clip boots.  “How do I know this table is real, and not just an idea in my mind?” asked the debonair philosophy student and du Maurier smoker, famously.  “Turn the lights out, walk across the room and you’ll find out that the table is real when you bang in to it,” said my mother, who was as practical in her way as Erna Low.   After supper my mother taught us bridge in our bedroom, with the thud of Puppet On a String’s base line rising through the floor from the hotel’s night club.

When not travelling and driving a famously hard bargain, Miss Low spent most of her time writing: dozens of brochures every year in her own idiosyncratic first person style, with her own photographs which reinforced the impression that holidaymakers were getting a personally tailored holiday, as indeed they were. At least, we thought we were.

The first person style of brochure writing was influential on travel journalism as well as marketing, encouraging British skiers to expect lots to read and a high level of information, as they still do.  “Her brochure is loved by travel writers seeking something different,” wrote Candidus in the trade magazine Travel World (1963), while bemoaning the brochure’s ‘jumbled’ structure.  Journalists don’t like to be made to work too hard for their ideas.

In later life she moved on to writing an autobiography which she never finished, and Mark Frary’s work consisted of sorting and editing a great volume of papers.  Much of the book is her words, he says, elegantly deflecting criticism of the way it is written.

The literary merit of the book is less important than its contents and these betray diligent research. To anyone interested in the workings of the ski holiday business, Aiming High sheds fascinating light on them.  The question of who  invented the chalet holiday is examined in detail.  Was it Miss Low or Colin Murison Small, who worked for her in Verbier and might have gone on working for her but for the uninvited attention of two young ladies?  “I could only conclude that the enormous authority which representing Erna Low conferred on me gave me a macho image to which I could not aspire,” says Murison Small, who went off to do his own thing in Grindelwald.  Frary gives the last word to the insurance broker Michael Pettifer: “Erna invented the chalet house party, Colin the chalet holiday.”  I find it hard to get excited about this argument. There is always a precursor if you look hard enough.  Ask Roland Huntford, whose hilariously biased history of skiing Frary cites on occasions, and he would probably refer you to a chalet operator in medieval Norway.

Colin Murison Small’s brochures also specialised in lesser known and in some cases non-existent places, and are also collectables. At 80 something he is still involved in the travel business and he is also working on an autobiography.  Let’s hope he will not be so careless as to leave it unfinished.

Aiming High contains a good deal of information about Erna Low’s love life, with the required speculation about sex and homosexuality.  Not having known her personally, I was more interested to read about Michael Cox from Shrewsbury, who met the 16 year old Princess Anne on a Benenden school skiing holiday in Davos organised by Erna Low in 1966.  Cox gave her a gold brooch in the shape of an edelweiss and told a German magazine soon afterwards: “I love Anne very much and the Royal Family has been very kind to me.”

What happened to Michael Cox?  In this instance Mark Frary’s research has failed or at least drawn a blank.  Declaring himself to a German magazine may have been enough to bring Cox’s invitations to Windsor Castle to an abrupt halt.

Ski holidays from Erna Low – ‘the experts to the Alps since 1932’

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