"When Hell Freezes Over"

"When Hell Freezes Over (Should I Bring My Skates?)"
by Toller Cranston with Martha Lowder Kimball

Reviewed by Sandra Loosemore

Toller Cranston was the skater who first got me hooked on the sport, back in the early 1970's, when he was in his prime as a competitive skater. I remember him as being a wildly extravagant and individualistic stylist; everything about his skating had a larger-than-life quality about it, very different from the stiff and conservative skating of most of his competitors in those days. You can see the same approach in the bright colors and sometimes bizarre themes of Toller's artwork; in his skating commentary for television; and in his books. Even if you don't like or agree with what Toller has to say, he's sure to get your attention.

"When Hell Freezes Over (Should I Bring My Skates)" is a new volume of Toller's reminiscences, a companion to his earlier memoir "Zero Tollerance". It's a combination prequel and sequel, focusing on the beginning and end of Toller's skating career instead of the middle.

The first part of the book actually covers Toller's early development as an artist, as much as his skating career. The truth about strawberries -- a recurring theme in Toller's artwork -- is finally explained. This section of the book culminates in Toller's account of the 1974 World Championships, which he labels the defining moment of his career. Toller notes that a "mild riot" followed his performance in the short program, something that no doubt gave him great pleasure.

This is followed by more tales about Toller's adventures as a professional skater and artist, and some of the oddball people he's met along the way. Towards the end of the book, the clear focus of his stories becomes the end of his skating career; how it came about and how he came to accept that it was time to move on with his life. According to Toller, when he finally made the decision to stop skating, the problem was not physical deterioration, but that he had lost the motivation and desire to skate. His last few public appearances gave him what sound like massive anxiety attacks.

I will confess that at several points along the way while reading this book, I wished that I could whack Toller over the head with it a few times in an attempt to knock some sense into him. Reading about his self-destructive behavior, like drug binges and pointless extravagances and general irresponsibility, gets frustrating and depressing; these are all things Toller did to himself to screw up his own life, and it's not like he didn't have a choice to straighten himself out, or not to get himself into these situations in the first place. Enough already with being the hapless victim of fate! On the positive side, it seems like Toller has found some measure of peace in living on his estate in Mexico, and in concentrating on his painting. It seems that Toronto brings out all his bad habits and neurotic tendencies, and that he's happier for staying away.

Sandwiched in towards the end of the book there is also a chapter where Toller expresses his opinions about the state of competitive skating today. It seems a bit out of place, like his publisher asked him to put it in so the book would have more topical interest. In any case, Toller grumps about many of the same things the rest of us fans do -- outlandish costuming, the over-use of boring movie soundtracks, the endless sameness of the professional competition circuit, and so on.

My favorite thing about this chapter, called "How to Guarantee Skating Immortality", is that it features a full-page photo (unfortunately only in B&W) of Toller as Tybalt in "Romeo and Juliet On Ice", in which he performed what will probably long be remembered as the ultimate skating death scene of all time. It's a curiously contradictory juxtaposition of ideas. I think, though, that perhaps I always envisioned that Toller would leave skating in a blaze of glory, like his exit as Tybalt, and I'd rather remember that image than his tales of anxiety attacks and drug binges.

"When Hell Freezes Over" is published in Canada by McClelland & Stewart. As of this writing, it is not yet available in a US edition.

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