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When Snow Falls

December 28th, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Wonderful to have a white Xmas.  My children, nephews and nieces all went sledging with me down a hill in the Chilterns at great speed – and is there anything more beautiful than travelling across England on a sunny day when it is completely under snow, as it was on Christmas Day? 

That said, the ‘weather events’ of the last few weeks have left me wondering if we have lost the ability (or humility) to know when not to make the journey.  Are we so used to being able to “beat nature” and control it that when clearly uncontrollable forces arrive we still try to soldier on when the wise course of action would be to beat a retreat?

I noticed this when caught myself in a whiteout blizzard on the M25 as it crosses the North Downs in Surrey.  We think of suburban Surrey within the M25 ring road as being about as tame as England gets;  but the hills of the North Downs collect the first wave of any incoming north-easterly snow and can fast turn into a bleak and hazardous environment. 

On this occasion within just 20 minutes the scene looked like something out of the German retreat from Moscow:  heavy lorries lumbering to a standstill (400 ended up parked on the hard shoulder overnight), visibility down to a few yards, the slipways icing up so that it was only with extreme difficulty that anyone could leave the motorway at all. 

It was on just managing to leave myself that the phenomenon of ‘traveller’s hubris’ was most apparent.  At the junction roundabout off the M25 it was immediately clear that all roads into Croydon and London were completely gridlocked.  No traffic was moving for a 5 mile stretch.  Drivers ahead were abandoning their cars and trying to walk.  And yet people coming off the motorway were still plunging regardless into what was clearly an impossible situation, like lemmings following their leader.  

I turned away and headed south to a small village and bed and breakfast for the night. 

Of course I have sympathy for those who were kept waiting at St Pancras for trains and Heathrow for planes.  But I also can’t help wondering if, as the motoring organisations put it, all those journeys are as ‘strictly necessary’ as might be supposed and some not born out of a stubborn determination to get there come what may and not be ‘beaten’ by the weather…… 

The best mountaineers are surely those who know when to turn back rather than carry on regardless.  Has our reliance on GPS systems and arrogant assumption that all destinations must be reachable meant that we have lost our natural ability to navigate, letting our Tom Toms lead us into rather than away from the snow? 

And talking of snow – with quite incredible synchronicity, Craig Raine managed to publish his first collection for 10 years, How Snow Falls, just as the first flakes did.  As with previous outings, like Rich, it’s an abrasively mixed bag of the lyrical and the uncharitable (his unflinching poem on his mother’s death  has raised eyebrows) – at its best, it’s very good indeed, as in the opening title poem: 


How Snow Falls

Like the unshaven prickle
of a sharpened razor,

this new coldness in the air,
the pang

of something intangible.
Filling our eyes,

the sinusitis of perfume
without the perfume.

And then love’s vertigo,
love’s exactitude,

this snow, this transfiguration
we never quite get over. 


See Carol Rumens’s discussion of this poem in the Guardian, with a lovely line about how ‘metaphor teases its way toward metaphysics’.

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