Dear Lucy and Isobel,
In England snow is unexpected, a bonus. Yesterday I woke up to a transformed landscape; snow was falling steadily on to a pristine whiteness covering the earth. Proper deep snow, stirring childhood memories of exhilarating sledge rides down the hillside, of frenetic snowball fights and of many mittened hands rolling the largest snowball the world has ever seen. No snow in the north and so you skyped, Lucy and Isobel and I showed you the soft fall of the snowflakes on to the street outside the sitting room window. Great excitement, mixed in your minds I imagine with the advent of Christmas. On the radio I hear that the bookies have shortened the odds on a white Christmas. It is unlikely given the changeability of our climate and the gradual warming of the planet. But who knows? Perhaps Bing Crosby’s annual crooning of White Christmaswill finally come true. In countries not warmed by the Gulf stream, those in the heart of continental Europe for example, or in Scandinavia or Russia, snow in winter is a given. And they are prepared. We are not. I walked into town in the morning through the gently falling snow, detouring to the University Parks, and taking childlike pleasure in tramping off-piste through the white virgin surface leaving my tracks temporarily behind me. I had hoped to hear the Adderbury Ensemble at the Holywell Music Rooms, but found the concert cancelled because of the snow. Adderbury is 20 miles north of Oxford. Despite forewarnings the roads were probably not gritted and so the ensemble sensibly stayed at home. I trudged back up the Banbury Road as all the buses had been cancelled. Many schools in Oxfordshire were closed too, causing havoc to beleaguered working parents and delight to the children no doubt. You are fortunate though. If your school were to be closed, your father could look after you. You love school, your mum tells me, and so you might well be disappointed.But the snow would have made up for it. Sadly the only snow that came to York that day was the wet, fleeting kind that fails to settle.
Snow as metaphor
Snow blankets a familiar landscape, obliterating all landmarks: the world is turned white. From this spring metaphors of transformation. In Emily Brontë’s novel, Wuthering Heights, Lockwood, a wealthy young man from the south of England, seeking peace and recuperation in the north, stays the night in the remote moorland farmhouse that is Wuthering Heights. There he has a terrifying experience. Woken up by tapping on the window he opens it, believing it is a wayward branch only to find his arm grasped by “the fingers of an ice-cold hand!” It is the ghost of Catherine Linton who pleads to be let in. “I’m come home,” she cries. “I’d lost my way on the moor!” Horrified, Lockwood is unable to break her hold. “I pulled its wrist on to the broken pane,” he recounts, “and rubbed it to and fro till the blood ran down and soaked the bedclothes; still it wailed, Let me in! and maintained its tenacious grip, almost maddening me with fear.” Eventually Lockwood prises himself loose and slams the window shut. The horror however has left its mark. The next morning the moor’s landmarks all disappear under snow. Lockwood falls ill and during his recuperation the housekeeper, Nelly Dean recounts the story of Wuthering Heights. The snow symbolizes the obliteration of reality, of all that is familiar, allowing the imagination full rein and the story to emerge onto the blank white page. And what a story that is! I hope you will read or have read Wuthering Heights. It is perhaps the best novel to come from the pen of the talented Brontë sisters. Emily never wrote another. She died the year following its publication, robbing us of a precociously gifted writer.
Lightly falling flakes of snow occur at the end of what has been called the best short story ever written, The Deadby James Joyce. I was sceptical when I first read this claim. I love short stories, those of Anton Chekhov in particular. How could Joyce better The Lady and the Dog, for example? I read The Deadand when I put it down, I sat for a moment stunned by the brilliance of the story. It was like a diamond that revolved and glittered as each facet shone one after the other. The story ends in a beautiful paragraph describing snow falling over Ireland, a metaphor that contains several meanings from the ending of the old Irish culture to the death that all of us must face.
A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
Snow in poetry
There are many poems that feature snow. Poems condense meanings and metaphors abound. Consider this poem by Emily Dickinson:
It sifts from leaden sieves,
It powders all the wood,
It fills with alabaster wool
The wrinkles of the road.
It makes an even face
Of mountain and of plain, —
Unbroken forehead from the east
Unto the east again.
It reaches to the fence,
It wraps it, rail by rail,
Till it is lost in fleeces;
It flings a crystal veil
On stump and stack and stem, —
The summer’s empty room,
Acres of seams where harvests were,
Recordless, but for them.
It ruffles wrists of posts,
As ankles of a queen, —
Then stills its artisans like ghosts,
Denying they have been.
The word ‘snow’ does not appear in the poem but by the end of the first stanza, the first line perhaps, we know that Dickinson’s ‘It’ means snow. The metaphors tumble one after another from her pen, the sifting of flour through sieves, powdering one’s face, alabaster wool, and crystal veil, a mixture of homely and exotic, underlining the way snow covers everything equally with no regard for any differences. Read the poem out loud and each line follows another like the steady fall of snow. The last stanza made me pause. What might she mean by the last two lines? It puzzled me for quite a while. My thought is that the snowfall obliterates the works of man and makes them vanish [‘stills its artisans like ghosts’]. That is what death does too. What starts out as lovely description of snow falling on to the land ends up as something more profound, a comment on the transitoriness of our lives and the timelessness of the natural world.
Louis MacNeice wrote a short poem called Snow. When I first read it, I was moved by its elegant simplicity and by my sense of both understanding it and not quite understanding it. Here it is:
The room was suddenly rich and the great bay window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.
World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.
And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes–
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one’s hands–
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.
I will leave you to ‘peel and portion’ the poem for its possible meanings. I just want to draw your attention to the last line, that scintillating picture, the contrast of the white snow outside and the huge pink roses inside, and how MacNeice maintains that there is more than glass between them. What might that enigmatic last phrase mean?
When I was taking the MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University, I wrote two poems featuring snow, one a sonnet and the other a poem about my father called The Black Homburg Hat. This is how the latter ends.
We built a snowman once. The hard
Snow compacted by our hands, his large
Mine small. Raisins for eyes and the long
Smiley mouth, a knobbly carrot for the nose.
“No hat!” He put his homburg there,
Black on white. The next morning the hat
Had gone. The snowman lost its shape.
We never built one again.
Reading the poem again, despite its faults and missteps, I do like the last elegiac lines. The event I describe never actually happened. Does it matter that it didn’t? Perhaps. You, the reader, might feel let down if you took the poem literally only to learn that you have been deceived. But truth is not merely literal, not merely a matter of ticking off of facts. There are other forms of truth. My father and I never made a snowman together, not that I can recall anyway and I think it would have been an unlikely thing for him to do, but it doesn’t invalidate the poem, which is about memory and feelings rather than facts. Its truth lies in the tone of disappointment and sadness that the poem conveys at the end. I was not close to my father and like many men of his generation he was not a hands-on parent. The closest we came to playing together was in my adolescence. Leon and I played bridge with our parents on the baize-top card table in the bay window of the lounge. No pink roses outside – they were in the rose garden my mother tended at the front of the house – and rarely snow. And then there were the cryptic crosswords my father, Leon and I sought to decipher in his study on Sunday mornings with no Google, only our wits, the dictionary and the volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica on the shelf. It gave us both a love of crosswords; Leon has taken it the furthest and gone on to set fiendishly difficult crosswords.
I would have liked to have known my father better; I know nothing of his childhood, only that he was born in London on 21 January 1906 to German parents. His mother was the daughter of a rabbi and his father, a gentile some 27 years older than her, a waiter working at the Savoy Hotel and later running a delicatessen. Father had a younger sister, Ida. The family moved back to Germany some time before the 1stWorld War. I don’t know how he fared growing up in Germany in the time between the wars. I know he and my mother first met in the English Speaking Club in Berlin. I know he became a communist and when they moved to England in the early 1930s, he joined the Independent Labour Party and later the Labour Party. He became a successful businessman but that didn’t change his political beliefs. He died unexpectedly in 1979. I am saddened when I think of his death, dying on the operating table at the London Hospital during an attempt to reconnect his colon after a colostomy, with my mother waiting in the wings, her life suddenly and irrevocably altered.
Snow in fairy tales
In 2013 the Disney studios released a computer-animated musical film called Frozen. It was a huge success. You two have seen it several times and adopted the names of two of the characters. You, Lucy, are Elsa, the princess who runs away into the mountains after years of being kept in hiding by her parents following an incident when Elsa’s magic nearly killed her sister Anna. In the mountains, she finally embraces her powers, and turns the kingdom from summer into a winter wonderland of snow and ice (this is when Elsa sings the powerful song ‘Let It Go’).You, Izzy, are Anna who goes in search of her sister, and is helped along the way by Kristof, Sven (a reindeer) and Olaf (the snowman).I have not seen the film except occasional snippets when you are watching it. It is reputedly based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, The Snow Queen. I have just read that on my Kindle, having downloaded it in a moment for 75p, a process that still astonishes me. It bears only a tangential relationship to Frozen.It is a strange mishmash of fairy tales, seven in all, featuring two children, Kay, a boy, and Gerda, a girl. The Snow Queen first appears to Kay outside his window as he is preparing for bed.
A few snowflakes were falling, and the largest flake of all alighted on the edge of one of the flower boxes. This flake grew bigger and bigger, until at last it turned into a woman who was dressed in the finest white gauze which looked as if it had be made from millions of star-shaped flakes. She was beautiful and she was graceful, but she was ice-shining, glittering ice. She was alive, for all that, and her eyes sparkled like to bright stars, but in them there was neither rest nor peace.
The Snow Queen is a beautiful, alluring creature who bedazzles Kay. When he seeks her out, she imprisons him. He is eventually rescued by Gerda, who kisses him and so melts the ice that has lodged in his heart, an inversion of the normal gender roles. C S Lewis no doubt drew upon the Snow Queen when he created Jadis, the Ice Queen, in The Chronicles of Narnia. She is unequivocally evil, having magically turned Narnia into a hundred-year state of frozen snow and ice, earning herself the title of the White Witch. In these stories winter turns the land into a desolate, cold, god-forsaken place that stands in contrast to the warmth and fecundity of spring and summer. As Mr Tumnus declares in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, “Here it is always winter and never Christmas.”
The stories of Hans Christian Andersen and C. S. Lewis link back to Roman mythology, the myth of Proserpina in particular. Proserpina, the daughter of Ceres, the goddess of agriculture, crops, fertility and motherhood, is snatched by Pluto and taken to the underworld. Ceres, unaware of this, searches everywhere for her in vain. She is distraught and blames the land. “Ungrateful soil,” she declares, “which I have endowed with fertility and clothed with herbage and nourishing grain. No more shall you enjoy my favours.” The fertile land becomes arid. When she finally discovers her daughter’s fate, Ceres pleads with Jupiter to release Proserpina from the underworld. He agrees to do so on condition that she has not eaten anything there. But Proserpina has eaten the seeds of a pomegranate that Pluto cunningly gave her. A compromise is reached with Proserpina spending half the year in the underworld and half with Ceres above ground. Hence the seasons of winter and summer.
Where people are dependent on crops and livestock, it is understandable that the onset of winter is unwelcome. Days are short and nights long. There’s no opportunity to grow food; you must rely on what provisions you have stored away. You and your animals need to stay inside to escape the cold. Before central heating, the only source of heat would be a fire in the hearth. Before the electric light there were only candles. You had to hunker down and wait winter out. Now, we are protected from the weather in so many ways, warm clothing, insulated housing, food in shops and supermarkets 24 hours a day, the availability of cars, buses and other forms of transport. Winter is no longer to be feared. Instead we search it out for our pleasure.
Sometimes when there is a sudden cold snap and I go out to buy the Guardian from the Coop in the early morning, the sharp cold of the air transports me back to the snow-covered mountains that surround the small town of Arosa in the Grisons region of Switzerland. This is where I learned to ski, where my family spent every Christmas during my adolescence. It is a delight to be surrounded by snow-capped peaks with the sky a cerulean blue, the sun achingly bright and the air pure as crystal. Leon and I would ski all morning, stopping to have gulaschsuppe and a bread roll at one of the chalet restaurants on the slopes before setting off again. After a day’s skiing we would trudge in our heavy boots back up the hill to the Hotel Seehof, humping our skis on our shoulders, tired and happy. In the evenings we dined, danced and played games.
You are just a bit too young to go skiing. If you are to learn though, it is better to start young. You are closer to the ground and so the spills and tumbles are just part of the fun. Will your parents take you? There is the matter of the cost and there is an element of risk – slipping on the icy streets before you even get to the slopes, getting your skis crossed and falling off the ski lift, losing your balance skiing on the downhill piste and crashing badly, being hit by a wayward skier or snowboarder. All of these happened at one point to Leon and me except there were no snowboarders then, only skiers. I have an abiding memory of Leon setting off down a steep and icy slope, falling at the first turn and clattering down to the bottom in a tangle of skis and limbs. He was still for a moment and then got up, laughing no doubt as he is wont to do. Skiing, you may break a limb, tear a muscle or worse. There is a risk attached to most sports of course. Nowadays skiers wear crash helmets and are well padded. But it is impossible to eliminate all risk. One advantage of skiing over, say, a contact sport like rugby is that you decide what route to take and how fast you want to go. There is no need to push oneself to the limit. You can ski gracefully, going at your own speed, choosing the path that suits you. Of all the sports I played skiing is the one I most miss.
Snow falls, transforms the landscape, offering new possibilities. The year ends, the next one begins, offering new possibilities. Winter will eventually pass and new growth will be seen again. Snowdrops will appear, covering the ground with a different whiteness. To you snow is magical. But then to you the world is magical. Slowly, the magic melts away to reveal the hard, bare ground beneath. A necessary process it seems. To be educated, to become an adult and find a way of living in the world. But however old you are, however experienced and knowledgeable you become, retain the magic somewhere. In your mind, in your soul, in your heart, in your body, keep the memory of the soft falling of the snowflakes, the glittering whiteness of a snowy landscape, and don’t forget to build a snowman.
My sister, Evelyn, also does crosswords entering the solutions for competitions. She has won the Oxford Times one many times over. She had left home when Leon and I were growing up and so she never participated in our Sunday morning ritual.