When it Snows…

Though the current, Siberian-influenced weather has been predicted to be devastating along the east side of the country, we on the west side of the kingdom (or at least the Pennines) have not escaped.

I woke today to white roofs, coated cars and foot-marked pavements in my side-street off the main road, and twelve hours or so later returned to the same thing, only thicker and darker.

In between, the snow has flurried, thin and thick, in short bursts of only a few minutes each time, but not beginning to stick until after dark, when temperatures fell further.

Snow always casts me back to two memories, a few days apart, neither of which have anything to do with my childhood in Openshaw and Droylsden, when it seemed to snow more often, more deeply, more regularly than at any time since, when my only concern was the thrill of rushing around in the snow, woolen mittens quickly turning wet as I bundled up and weakly threw snowballs, wondering how soon I could get Dad to haul me or push me or send me flying on my little wooden sledge.

No, the snows of childhood are always the deepest and the best of your life, before you learn of any doubts or risks they bring.

But my twin moments of recollection were much later than that, though still decades ago. This was January, 1979, the infamous Winter of Discontent that brought down Jim Callaghan’s Government according to legend, the first winter I spent in Nottingham.

I had already been put out by the weather. I’d got ten days off over Xmas and gone home, my hi-fi and stuff collected and driven to Manchester, on the pretext that it shouldn’t be left for burglars, but really because I wanted my music. But snow had descended before New Year’s Eve, there was no way it would be safe to drive back, so on New Year’s Day, I packed up all the clothes I could carry and set off by train, Manchester to Sheffield to Nottingham.

Though it’s not one of these automatic memories, I remember trekking across Nottingham City Centre, from the railway station to where I could catch my bus, following the shortest route, still and quiet, on thin but packed snow, and no-one else about in a darkness that seemed only half-lit. Though the rest of my clothes arrived in a brown-paper parcel half a week later, my hi-fi and my evening entertainment took nearly three weeks before my mother deemed it safe to drive.

And then there was this Wednesday. The snow already lay thick in the City Centre streets, black and slutchy in the middle of pedestrian ways, piled and dirty against walls and under shop windows. There was a blizzard that day, the air thick and blurred with heavy, swirling flakes, the skies drawn together as if what light there was came up from the ground until it could climb no higher.

On the tannoy, at 12.45pm, there was an announcement that, in the current conditions, the office would close at 3.30pm, not the usual 5.0pm, but that any member of staff concerned that they would need longer to get home safely should  leave when they thought necessary. Hardly had the last echo faded away than one woman was in her coat and belting off, but in her defence, she did live some distance outside Nottingham, in the country.

There were two of us, me and my fellow Articled Clerk, who lived virtually opposite each other, on Woodborough Road. We walked in and back together, five days a week, and it took us only twenty-five minutes, so we had no chance of slipping out early.

By three-thirty, there had been no let up in the snow, and everywhere was full of fallen white, with more descending every second. There was a bus that passed both our homes, that we sometimes took, and though we’d have had to queue, we might have taken refuge there. But we lived up the only hill in Nottingham, and after a brief consultation, we agreed that neither of us fancied being on a bus trying to get up Woodborough Road, so we’d walk it.

Up Mansfield Road to begin with, right at the lights opposite the Newcastle Arms, a little dip to that first long, sustained climb. And now we were walking into the wind, the snow blowing directly upon us, and I remember, oh how I remember, doing the decent thing, the noble thing even, and telling her to move behind me, a couple of paces back, and I  took the brunt of the blizzard and sheltered her, Wenceslas-like, all the way up the hill, not able to talk, not able to turn around, like Orpheus leading Eurydice out of the Underworld.

At the top of this hill, the gradient eased, a long section that rose quietly, but still I sheltered my friend, until we were opposite her bedsit, and mine was a hundred yards further on, at the foot of another, steeper rise towards Mapperley Plains. Appreciative, she invited me in for a coffee, and of course I accepted, because I never turned down a chance to sit and talk with her.

So, Wednesday. On Saturday, United were playing away at Nottingham Forest, and a mate of mine, coming over from Manchester, had got me a ticket. We would meet up somewhere before the match, he’d hand it over, I’d give him the money for it. Except that so much snow had already fallen that, at 10.00am on the Thursday – over 50 hours before kick-off – it was called off.

(Glyn posted me the ticket so I could still go, though the re-arranged game was further postponed when United had to fit in a Cup Replay, and was finally played the Tuesday after Easter Monday, when I was back in Manchester for the week. Our friendship broke down round about the same point, and I did not see him again for four years, by when he’d completely forgotten I still owed him for the unused ticket.)

So on Saturday, instead of worries about Glyn finding whatever meeting place we would have chosen, and fretting about the likelihood of the Police marching all the United contingent straight to the station and forcing us onto the trains, over my desperate protests that I lived here, I had nothing to do and nowhere to go, and indulged myself with a long lie-in. When I drew the curtains, the world was white.

It had fallen, long, until everything I could see was indeed deep and crisp and even. No footmarks in the courtyards behind Alexandra Court. No movement, no sound. Just big, fat, full snowflakes, drifting down through the breezeless air, still, silent, unhurried, filling the air and covering the ground and the heavy, white-headed trees. It was beautiful, and curiously unreal, and I stood at the window and just watched it fall, as if it could do this until Eternity got bored and changed to the other channel.

An hour later, I went out in it, down the road for my newspaper. Nothing was different. There were few footmarks even on a decently busy road, for the snow slid into these and filled them unhesitatingly. These were indeed the snows of childhood, of memory and imagination, pure white, clean and tidy. I remember to this instant the crunch of my shoes in the pavement snow, pressing and compacting it, and the dry whisper of the flakes, brushing against the umbrella held over my head, as they slid past me. I collected my paper, tramped back, went inside, but if the walk out had been five times as long, I wouldn’t have cared or begrudged the extra time spent out there, in time suspended and not really real.

That long transport into the heart of the snow our childish hearts respond to, oblivious of the harm and the threat, and my Wenceslas ascent, keeping the worst of the snow off someone I would have made far greater sacrifices for, Wednesday and Saturday of a long ago winter when our world, our country was not as it is now: when snow falls, I am always transported there when snow comes down. Old times are always still alive in some part of us, though probably not so easy of access.

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