Well, I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but we haven’t had much snow. Three young neighbours of mine, moved here recently (I use the passive case because they are too young for much in the way of independent negotations with Pickfords and are indeed still at that stage of life, familiar to us all, in which we are entirely at the mercy of the whims of our parents), have taken a very dim view of the failure of the far north of England to come up with the goods so far when it comes to the white stuff. When you are less than ten years old and you have a sledge positively panting in its stall in the garage, it is a bit tough if the fells insist on remaining resolutely green. So hurray for the relenting isobars, which have at last given us a graceful covering of white before shuffling off to cause such surprise and consternation in the South of England that it does just cross your mind that a spirit of either total amnesia or heady optimism must rule such ill-prepared parts of this really quite northerly country. Headlines that bandy the words ‘chaos’, ‘misery’ and ‘major threat’ cause northern hearts to beat a little faster for a moment before realising that, don’t worry chaps, it’s just the soft southern press blethering about a bit of winter weather.
But even here in the less easily defeated north, after we have had the delights of walks across crackling snow in brilliant frozen sunshine, the fireside has its appeal. Our annual re-read of Arthur Ransome’s Winter Holiday serves as a reminder that we ain’t seen nothing yet: although Cumbria and the Lakes have seen some heavy snowfalls in the last few days, there is no strapping on of skates to cross the lakes themselves just yet. And how disappointing it was in earliest childhood to realise that there is no snow in Snow White: give me The Snow Queen instead – the best of Hans Christian Andersen’s tales by far. The snowiest scenes ever written, though, must be those set in the Wild Wood in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows: it would take a very frozen heart indeed not to shiver with poor Mole as the whistling begins, nor to share the frantic scrabbling as Mole and Ratty try to find safe haven. The essence of all fiction, whether for children or adults, that ventures out into the snow is the tension between outside and in. Out in the elements there can be exhilaration, freedom, beauty and even magic, but there is danger as well. Try Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, in its way as good an evocation of our primal fear of Something Out There as you will find. Or you might like Peter Høeg’s Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, which as well as being a thriller is a delicately-nuanced study of post-colonialism (don’t let that worry you: read and enjoy). The book ends on an ice-breaker (a ship rather than one of those wearying corporate team-building exercises) out in the Arctic: as, you will recall, does Frankenstein. Yes, of course Frankenstein sets the gold standard for evoking the alignment in our hearts between icy wastes and our fear of the beast (and it is at this moment, perhaps, that the penny drops and you join the select band who have spotted that Mary Shelley is using metaphor).
There is more to life than fiction, as I keep reminding myself. The Snowflake: Winter’s Secret Beauty by Kenneth Libbrecht (who I have seen described as ‘the pre-eminent snow scholar of the 21st century’ which is – well, I can’t resist saying ‘cool’) and Patricia Rasmussen, who took the photographs of individual crystals that will ratchet your sense of wonder at the world we inhabit up a notch or two, is definitely one for the winter bookshelf. If we get a lot of snow, Paw Prints: How to Identify Rare and Common Mammals by their Tracks by OC Lempfert (what a great name) could come in handy. Our own local trackers may be a bit baffled by the caterpillar track through the snow which is the characteristic trail left by Martha, KatePonders’ dachshund, whose mighty personality is not matched by her ground clearance. This is her first encounter with the white stuff, and I am reminded of James Kirkup’s enchanting poem, ‘The Kitten in the Falling Snow’. Kirkup was a man of the North-East, born and brought up in South Shields. In these dark days when freedom of speech is under attack, we should remember him not least for standing trial for blasphemous libel in 1967 (a case brought by the extremely tedious Mary Whitehouse who did not like the idea of a poem he had written and which I suspect she never had the courtesy to read). You might perhaps like to show your distaste for such prosecutions by signing the Amnesty International petition in support of Raif Badawi, whose persecution is quite simply monstrous.
And then out into the sparkling snow. Do not think of the slush to come. And if the relentless cold being promised by the weather-forecasters – gosh, imagine, low temperatures in the middle of winter – begins to get you down, console yourself with Shelley: ‘If winter comes, can spring be far behind?’
PS If you have the great good fortune to live in this corner of the forest, or to be passing through next week, do come to coffee to chat about books. Have a peek at the Walking Book Club page to learn more.