This piece, which appeared in the Guardian for 1st January 1994, is, both in style and subject-matter, very much in the tradition of the essays that Arthur Ransome himself used to write for the Manchester Guardian in the 1920's. I am grateful to Martin Kettle and to the Guardian for permission to include it.
Commentary: Dreaming of the deep and crisp and even
by Martin Kettle
THERE must be someone other than me in this country who likes the snow, but I'm really beginning to wonder about it. Winter's my season and I'm happy as Larry when it snows, but the white stuff seems only to make most people miserable. For me, snowfalls still mean glowing cheeks and tobogganing all day until it's too dark to see, but it's clear that the rest of you think only about slipping over and your burst pipes. There's a big New Year job here for Martyn Lewis.
Of course it's childish to love snow, but then what's wrong with that? When it snowed in our southern town this week, the years fell away. But then they always do when it snows. Snow's irony is that it is eternal, trapping the ephemera of seasonal change and human society beneath a covering which in this case was all too predictably short-lived. At breakfast I was again a boy with his nose pressed against the windowpane watching the gentle inexorable fall. By mid-morning, it had all disappeared and I had to be a man again and go out to work.
It always snows more and deeper in the imagination. We all know how Christmas cards perpetuate an unrealistic vision of a permanently snowbound merry Victorian Yule. But we are so aware of how unusual it is to have a white Christmas that we seem to have decided that we're actually better off without one. To those who fear that a cold Christmas means a tragic seasonal freeze-up of pensioners I would merely counter with the old Cumbrian observation that a green Christmas makes for a fat churchyard.
It's undeniable that it never seems to snow as much in adult life as in childhood. Ou sont les neiges d'antan? indeed. But in this case absence has made the heart grow less aware of what it has been missing. It's not just childhood but comradeship that we've missed out on with all these warm winters. Snow doesn't divide people; it unites them. Snow is only superficially hostile. The blanket of snow is also a blanket of security. It cuts people off with themselves, comforting, enveloping and cosy. Paradoxically the quality which I most associate with snow is warmth.
The perfect snowfall of my own imagination takes place in a book. ''Softly, at first, as if it hardly meant it, the snow began to fall,'' wrote Arthur Ransome in Winter Holiday. It's a magical sentence, animate and mysterious, as well as scrupulously punctuated, as you would expect from any Leeds-born Guardian journalist.
Winter Holiday is my favourite Arthur Ransome, the one into which I want to walk even now - if only it would just snow. Its depiction of the Lake District in winter is totally compelling. You can teach yourself to skate from Ransome's descriptions of the first tentative pushes across the ice-bound tarn (as a boy in Adel, Ransome enjoyed the exotic luxury of being taught to skate by no less a tutor than Prince Kropotkin). And the description of the frozen lake was based on his school experiences in the big freeze of 1895 (the year when Britain's lowest-ever temperature was recorded at Braemar), when he saw a coach drive right across Windermere and they roasted an ox on the ice in Bowness bay.
But the book is principally effective because of Ransome's device of distancing his reader from the familiar heroes of his cycle. We see the whole story refracted through the eyes of Everyman - ordinary, well-brought up, not very practical Dick and Dorothea, ''the Propers'', as Ransome described them in his sketches, rather than through the superhuman Nancy Blackett (who in this book manages to make even mumps romantic) and the priggishly practical older Walkers. But it's the snow that makes the book so transcendent, that and what I suppose is its almost religious quality. As a childhood reader of Arthur Ransome this never struck me at all. To my pre-modernist naivete they just seemed good stories. But then a friend pointed out the pubescent symbolism of the final pages of Ransome's last book, Great Northern? and the deconstructionist worm turned within me.
IF I READ Winter Holiday now, such qualities seem overwhelming. Dick's Christ-like bringing of life to the cragfast sheep is the good deed which redeems the whole story. And the picture of old Silas - a good Old Testament name - making the toboggan that is to be Dick's material reward irresistibly evokes the miracle in the manger. But it is Dick's emotional reward, completing the allegorical quest for the North Pole, which is the crowning point of the book. Stumbling through the dark, amid storm and suffering, Dick finds what none of the more worldly-wise characters can find; the Pole, a place of ultimate contentment, a dream-world which Ransome cocoons in everlasting images of motherhood, sleep, warmth and death.
I've been going up to the Lake District in winter for at least two decades now, and nothing like that has ever happened to me. Sure, there has been snow on the fell tops sometimes, and I broke my arm one winter, slipping on an icy patch coming down Skiddaw. But mostly it simply rains at this time of year. My own Cumberland winter holidays are always wet, bleak and dark, sometimes not even cold, never warm and cosily freezing like they are in Ransome. You're more likely to find snow at Easter than at Christmas.
Yet my conviction that it will one day be different is as completely undiminished as any political certainty. When you read this, I shall be up there again, waiting for the snow, undeterred by the numerous past disappointments. Earlier this week the reports were encouraging. The ice wasn't quite bearing at Tarn Hows on Tuesday, but after that milder spell . . . Still, keep your fingers crossed for me.
I've always promised myself that if there is ever a really big freeze in the North then I shall go up there and stay for the duration, acting out a fantasy that is part Rogue Herries, part Roger Walker, tramping across Bowfell and skating down Windermere by day, coming home in the dark to warmer comforts. Reason says it will never be, and that the drizzly reality will be as cluttered with mountain-bikes and orange anoraks as the Lake District is at other times of the year. But spare me my dreams.
Anyhow, it's not impossible that the long-awaited moment is nearing. The weather expert Dick File says we shouldn't let a run of mild winters disarm our judgment and thinks there could be another cold one due in 1995. That's fine for starters, but my real money is on 1997.
Ransome based his book on 1895 and on the subsequent big freeze of 1929. Since then, there has been only one real winter in the Lakes, in 1963, when my wife was at school in Keswick and her class used to go skating across Derwentwater, exactly like Dick and Dorothea. On this basis there's a serious winter once every 34 years. So book now for 1997. Who knows, there may even be a Labour government by then too. Well if you can't be an optimist on New Year's Day, when can you be?
SOURCE: The Guardian DATE: 01 January 1994
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