AROUND THE ICE IN EIGHTY YEARS: AN IRREVERENT MEMOIR BY AN ACCIDENTAL CHAMPION
by Courtney Jones OBE, with contributions from Christopher Dean and Jayne Torvill, Robin Cousins and Bobby Thompson
Compiled and edited by Helen Cox
Published in 2021 by Herstory Writing/York Publishing Services
Paperback, 208 pages, 37 b & w photos
Available 9/12/21 from YPD Books
This review – like Around the Ice itself – has come about by one of the lucky flukes that so mark the career of ice-dance legend Courtney Jones. You can read the full tale in the ‘Acknowledgements and Gracias’ section of his book; meanwhile, suffice to say that over the past twelve months I’ve gone from giving him odd tips on style and presentation to compiling, editing, and publishing his extraordinary memoir – a unique privilege, and a completely unexpected coup for Herstory Writing, my modest self-publishing venture.
Around the Ice in Eighty Years is a great nostalgia trip for anyone who remembers the Fifties and Sixties, and an enjoyable lesson in social and sporting history for those who don’t. Courtney aimed to tell his story in the style of his hero Alan Bennett, and succeeds remarkably well considering that he’d barely touched a keyboard let alone attempted a writing project of such magnitude before. Easy to read and instantly engrossing – I can still enjoy reading it at any point, despite being so familiar with the text – Around the Ice is interesting and informative, sometimes hilarious, sometimes moving, frequently stranger than fiction, and always entertaining, (my favourite anecdote is Courtney going into Harrods for a pair of socks and coming out with a gay Siamese kitten, closely followed by ‘Lunch With The Queen’).
A slim volume compared with, say, Bill Clinton’s brick-thick My Life, Around the Ice nonetheless covers everything essential to understand Courtney’s story and the unique nature of his achievements. The first six chapters follow a conventional narrative path from his birth in 1933 to creatively gifted parents who always recognised and nurtured their only child’s talents, through his idyllic early childhood of playing the piano and ice-skating with his teddy-bear, the terrifying interruption of World War Two when he was aged six, his later schooling, and the teenage passion for ballroom dancing which, translated to ice, would turn him into an ‘accidental champion’ of global renown. Further flukes led to his training under ‘the doyenne of coaches’ Miss Gladys Hogg, and introduction to not just one but two perfect ice partners. The experienced and confident June Markham guided a novice Courtney to second place at the 1957 British and 1958 European Ice-Dance Championships within a few months of their meeting, topped the podium with him at the subsequent World Championships, and stayed there until her retirement from competitive skating after holding their World title in 1959. Against all the odds, Courtney then retained all three crowns for another two years with a new partner, the accomplished figure skater Doreen Denny – an astonishing feat given that she had never previously skated with a partner, knew none of the Compulsory Dances, and only had six months to learn everything from scratch before helping Courtney to defend his British title in late 1959!
Courtney and Doreen had planned to retire after the 1961 World Championships – hopefully still unbeaten – to pursue their respective careers in fashion design and coaching. However, their skating career came to a tragically premature end when this event was cancelled due to the devastating loss of the entire United States figure skating team in an air crash disaster. Chapter 5 describes Courtney’s farewell to ice later that year in a special final performance he and Doreen filmed for the BBC, and Chapter 6 relates his slog up the rungs of the fashion industry from lowly pattern-cutter to London College of Fashion lecturer, designer of the British team uniforms for the 1984 Winter Olympics, and creator of iconic costumes for his good friends Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean. (He still has the wooden spoon they used to stir the purple dye for ‘Bolero,’ pictured on Page 188!).
Chapters 7 – 11 take a more thematic approach, covering aspects of Courtney’s parallel career as a skating judge, referee, and long-serving member on the boards of national and international ice-skating governing bodies. His friendships with the great, good, and not-so-good feature prominently, along with the many fundraisers and major events he helped to organize, his passionate advocacy of the traditional pathway to skating success, his globetrotting with and without his partner of sixty years, Robert ‘Bobby’ Thompson, and the beautiful homes, ‘thirty rooms short of a mansion’ they created together in London and Spain. Chapter 12, ‘Creating a Winning Performance’ is primarily aimed at aspiring champion skaters and their teachers, but is nonetheless interesting even to a non-skater like me; and the final two chapters on Britain’s last Olympic ice champions John Curry, Robin Cousins, Christopher Dean and Jayne Torvill, (featuring personal contributions from the latter three, who have also provided the Afterword and Foreword respectively), round the story off in suitably inspiring fashion.
Courtney and I then share a final word in thanking the many people who helped bring to fruition what he generously describes as ‘our book,’ primarily our small editorial team of Elaine Hooper, Heather Jones, and Peter Morrissey. Whether or not it sells well, I feel we can be justly proud of Around the Ice in Eighty Years – a book I’d be glad to find in my own Christmas stocking, and a must-read for all skating fans and skaters, especially anyone who remembers being judged or coached by Courtney or Bobby. If you buy a copy – it’s available to pre-order now on www.ypdbooks.com – I hope you’ll agree, and enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed editing it!