The Snows of Childhood

There’s snow in Manchester today, and it’s been coming down steadily and evenly since I woke up and it’s still coming down. I sit on the fifth floor, facing the Pennines and all I can see is snow-covered roofs, a church tower and a great drifting whiteness. It is surprisingly Dickensian, which is something you can’t often say about Stockport.

But the weather machine has been working its way back through my memories, and it’s lodged in 1979, which it always does when snow is in the air.

For those aware at the time, 1979 was the infamous Winter of Discontent that did so much to precipitate upon us a Conservative Government, under the late Margaret Thatcher, with effects about which we are still arguing to this day. I was just turned 23, the previous November, and had been living in Nottingham for just about nine months, and my memories of snow were those of a young kid.

In those days, what snow meant to me was winters in Brigham Street, Openshaw: the snows of childhood are always the deepest, the whitest and the most fun. We lived opposite the Croft, half rough ground, half a maze of lock-up garages, and there would be all sorts of snowball games, and sledding. And at my Grandad’s in Droylsden, just around the corner was the Pinchy, another area of rough ground, and one time dad and I spent nearly two hours trudging round there looking for a suitable slope down which I could sledge, and ended up finding the best place was the side-street outside Grandad’s.

Yes, snow was innocence in my head because I never had to deal with the potential adult consequences, the risk of slipping and falling, the cold, the traffic impact. But after childhood, snow seemed to disappear, failing to fall in the Seventies, or at least failing to impress itself upon my memory if it did. Except in 1976.

Oh yes, the year of the Great Drought, that’s what 1976 is remembered for by all who lived through it, but it was also a year of great weather extremes, driven out of memory by the heat. There were excessive winds in the January/February, the worst fog I remember being in in November (postponing my 21st Birthday Meal), and in December, I remember deep snows, immensely deep.

I was at Law College by then, at Christleton, near Chester. Two of us, schoolfriends, were on the same course, but Glyn, after three years in Student accommodation in London, fancied six months of home comforts. He drove, and it was only 45 minutes from my door to the College, so we split the petrol, and gave lifts to and from Manchester at weekends that defrayed the expenses even further.

After intensive heat, and random banking fires in August, fog in November, December brought snows. We gave a local classmate a lift that month, to a cottage out in the local sticks, about a mile and a half from Christleton, down narrow back lanes in open country, inching along lanes that were at least six inches deep in snow, undisturbed, thickly-laying snow, each of us wondering what the hell we would do if the snow got any deeper, and if we couldn’t get the car back out of there to roads that had already had the worst of the snow dispersed. I remember the whiteness most.

By Xmas 1978, I was in Nottingham, over a quarter way through two years of Articles of Clerkship. I’d arranged my holidays to have off the days between Xmas and New Year, enabling me to go home to Manchester for about ten days all told and, rather than me be deprived of my music for such an unconscionable long time (and it be left unattended for so long), my mother drove over to collect me and my hi-fi and my suitcase.

All was well until the snows started blowing over Britain just before New Year. The roads were incredibly treacherous: there was no way my mother was going to risk driving me and my things back to the east Midlands like that so, on New Year’s Day, I packed everything I could carry into a rucksack and shoulder bag, and made a cold, lonely way back to Nottingham, by train, via Sheffield, with cold and wet ankles.

I still remember that lonely walk from the railway station, through a dark, empty City centre, trudging quietly along like the last survivor of some John Wyndham disaster, nothing but dark buildings, sodium lights and drifting snow, still settling.

Where I lived in Nottingham was halfway up its only hill, north east of the City Centre. I can’t remember if I walked the whole way, or if buses were running and I caught one from the main road at the bottom: it being New Year’s Day eve, I suspect no buses were running. It was very late in the evening, and my room cold and dark when I finally got back, but at least I was in time for the top 10 of John Peel’s Festive Fifty. I might not have had my hi-fi, but I had a bedside transistor radio – which I now found was not working. Sigh.

Back at work, on January 2, my Principal expressed surprise at the sight of me, having assumed the weather would have kept me stranded in Manchester. He didn’t realise that his Pupil was made of stronger stuff, determined to put himself out to fulfil his duty (I had been brought up that way and besides, my mother would never have allowed me to stay in Manchester when I had a job to go back to).

Though I quickly got the radio fixed by a grateful client, it was almost three weeks before the snows relented enough for my mother to risk driving to Nottingham with my hi-fi etc. The balance of my clothes arrived in a brown paper parcel, but for entertainment in the evening I was forced to rely on the two television lounges, starting a few unexpected TV habits, most notably _Blake’s 7_, whose second series was just starting.

But before I was relieved, the snows got worse, not better. There was permanent snow/slush on the pavements around our offices, it was freezing cold and everything seemed to take place in slow motion.

The worst days was Wednesday, mid-January. It snowed immensely, coming down in white-out fashion, with forceful winds behind it. Our offices spread across several floors in two back-to-back buildings and there was a tannoy to summon untraceable folk, and at 12.30 they announced that, in view of the weather, the office would close at 3.30pm, but that any employee who would need additional time to get home should leave when they felt appropriate.

One lady had her coat and gloves on before the echoes died away, but to be fair to her, she did live in a very rural area, well outside the City. Welcome though the announcement was, it didn’t give me much leeway: there were two of us, both Articled Clerks, who lived virtually opposite each other up Woodborough Road, and we were nearest of everybody to the office, so 3.30pm it was.

Conditions were still ferocious when we left. Anywhere outside the city, it would have been a case of battening down the hatches and staying indoors, but in urban conditions it was merely intensely unpleasant. Buses were still running, but Sharon and I took one look at them, considered the steepness of the hill, and came ot the mutual decision to walk it (which we did most of the time anyway, to save precious pennies).

The wind and the snow was in our faces from the moment we reached the bottom of the hill and, after a few moments, I did the noble thing and, King Wenceslas-like, moved in front, letting Sharon walk a couple of paces behind me and shielding her from the worst of the weather. We struggled uphill, the snow crusting on my coat and my face, the bottom half of my suit trousers getting exceedingly wet.

Though she’d often invite me in for a cup of coffee when we reached her bedsit, on this occasion Sharon just shot indoors, not ungrateful, but in need of warmth and the chance to get out of a wet skirt that wasn’t going to happen in front of me. I agreed entirely: I needed to get into clean, and dry, jeans and relax.

It was never that bad again, at least not in terms of storm, but that wasn’t to say that the fallen snow started to recede. Manchester United were playing Nottingham Forest at the City Ground that coming Saturday, and my mate Glyn had got me a ticket: we had not yet made any arrangements but the plan would have been to meet beforehand in Nottingham and pick up the ticket (and pay him for it). I did have some reservations: these were still the golden years of the Red Army and whilst I had no experience of away matches, I was conscious of the risk that, after the game, the Police would escort all the United fans up the road to the Railway station and herd us onto the Manchester-bound train, despite my anxious protestations that I lived in Nottingham, and I didn’t even have a train ticket!

That fear disappeared on the Thursday when, at about 12.30pm, over fifty hours ahead of kick-off, they announced that the game was called off. Glyn posted me the ticket to use when it was rescheduled. This proved to be a Monday night, only for it to be postponed again when United had a cup replay that week. It was fnially played in Easter week, when I was in Manchester on holiday. I still owe Glyn for the ticket, so if he reads this, contact me: I’ve got £7 for you. No interest though, not over 37 years.

There was no respite in the fallen snow, but on Saturday I woke to an even thicker blanket, and large, swirling flakes falling slowly in silence, onto a deeper blanket than I’d seen yet that astonishing month. I watched ot from my window for a while, taken back. This truly was the snows of childhood, pure and clean, free of any associations but those forming in my head and my memories. I longed for my old sledge back, to toboggan dowmn the hill all the way to Mansfield road.

In the mid-morning, I left to get the paper, umbrella raised against the still-tumbling flakes. Slow, fat, wet, whispering in an endless rustle against the fabric of my brolly, the snows underfoot scrunching with deep satisfaction as I trod steadily. I could have been any age, in any year: I was a world in space and time but most of all I was infinitely younger than I was that Saturday morning and if I had closed my eyes, I would have seen sights no longer available to me.

That was, in my memory at least, the end of it. Whatever the truth of it, for me in recollection the snows begin to fade from that point. Slush turned to black slush, turned to wet, greasy pavements. The snow retreated. My mother signalled a willingness to drive over midweek, and I shot out of work to be there to help unload my things out of her car into my room, and back after lunch for 2.00pm. That night, I reconnected my hi-fi, and all was back as it should have been again.

Of course it’s snowed since, and when it’s thick like it is now, still snowing firmly after at least five and a half hours, my memories of 1979 come out again. But there are other instances I recall: I had the duty to ferry three colleagues to the office Xmas lunch in Prestbury at the snow-laden Xmas of 1981, which involved a lot of cautious travelling around and at least one instance of being caught on something of an ice sheet where the wheels had no traction and it took some manoeuvring to get us away. I also recall lying through my teeth about Altrincham being on the way back from Prestbury to Burnage in order to run our very attractive Articled Clerk Roshan home and collect a Xmas kiss (more than one, actually). Poor Roshan, taken by cancer, less than five years later, in only her mid-twenties.

Snow’s been a feature of winter in recent years and I’ve had my fair share of falls, when a foot has shot out from underneath me and I’ve gone crashing down, but the last couple of years it’s been in recess.

But today was the real deal, as is the tight calf I’m now experiencing, back at home, from cautious negotiation of the snow-filled streets. It may not be the snows of childhood, when immediate fascination was the rule, and I would sit in the parlour, staring out of the window, willing for it to snow faster, lie thicker, so I could go racing around the Croft, dragging my ledge by its rough, stringy rope handle, but the memories are never so deep buried as the snow itself falls, and I remember a long-gone Saturday in Nottingham.



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