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19 December 2016

Dreaming of a white Christmas? Why we’re so in love with snow

Marcus Sedgwick's Snow doesn't just tell us the science of the white stuff – it explores its place in our culture.

By Kathleen Jamie

Marcus Sedgwick is a devotee of snow. “Snow!” he writes. “Contained in the word are excitement, joy, beauty, possibility, change, uncertainty, danger . . .” As a snowflake has six sides, so this beautifully produced monograph offers six short chapters, each concerned with a different aspect of snow and its place in European culture.

The book opens in mid-October with the first proper snowfall at the author’s home in Haute-Savoie, eastern France. Sedgwick and his wife run out of places to put their heaps of cleared snow, and they have to walk through tunnels of it to reach their front door. Sedgwick is anxious when the weight of the snow threatens his satellite dish. He may love snow, but he can’t live without the internet.

The book turns first to the etymology of the word “snow”, debunking along the way the well-known idea that Inuits have 50 words for it but desert languages have none. Apparently, Inuit languages are polysynthetic: you can easily make new words by compounding existing ones. If you need a word for “snow on the ground”, you’ve got it. The Inuit have no reason to stop at 50: they could coin new snow words for ever.

So to the science – and because snow is more various and complicated than it appears, Sedgwick pauses to defend British Rail and its “wrong type of snow”. But eventually the snow problem may solve itself and we’ll wish it hadn’t. It is incontestable that the world is getting warmer. This is what climate scientists and the Met Office are telling us, and our memories agree. Readers of a certain age will recall snow as being deeper and longer-lasting in their childhood than it is now, and not just in the freak winter of 1962-63. In global terms, snow and ice are rare and becoming rarer. Sedgwick offers atmospheric memories of snow during his boyhood in Kent. He is nostalgic for good reason: “At some point in our future . . . there will be no more snow, no more ice . . . Real snow will be gone.”

On that knell, we turn to art and stories. Despite our long relationship with snow on these islands, we have few snowy myths and legends. Sedgwick suggests that we have been too wedded to the Greek and Roman types and so ignored our northern influences, though there is an English version of the “Snow Boy” story, whose protagonist melts in spring. More commonly in northern Europe, ice and snow are personified as female. The “Snow Maiden” occurs throughout Russia, snow tales occur in the sagas and few children are not acquainted with Hans Christian Andersen’s seductive, ice-hearted “Snow Queen”. (Even today, when we are in the business of blaming women for their children’s problems, we talk of “refrigerator mothers”, not fathers.)

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If ever we need reminding of what deep cold did, we have those images that were painted during the Little Ice Age, the frozen canals, and compositions such as Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s masterful Hunters in the Snow. In music, we have Schubert’s Winterreise, which Sedgwick finds to be “one of the most devastating works of art, of any kind”. “Bleak, modern and empty”, he calls it, although it was written in 1827.

Schubert brings us in turn to heroic misadventures, and inevitably we encounter John Franklin and Robert Scott – those frozen touchstones of polar exploration. Here I begin to wonder if Sedgwick is not being a little too predictable. Franklin and Scott appear because they are eternally fascinating, but there is no mention of William Scoresby of Whitby, North Yorkshire, who pre-dates both. Scoresby was a successful and experienced whaling captain, and the first person to describe to a British readership many Arctic phenomena. He took scientific equipment north with him to the ice and was among the earliest Europeans to draw snowflakes in all their wonder. Scoresby, however, did not die of cold. Instead, he retired
to become a church minister and so missed his place in the British imagination.

Sedgwick’s cultural references are not wide-ranging or especially modern. We have Bruegel and Schubert but no popular culture or genre painting. No Joseph “Frozen Mutton” Farquharson, whose Victorian sheep-in-the-snow paintings are still instantly recognisable because they feature on Christmas cards, and nothing on Raymond Briggs’s beloved Snowman, nor anything on modern art, such as Roni Horn’s Water, Selected (2007), an archive of water from 24 glacial sources in Iceland. The water is held in tall, glassy columns and the ice sources, Horn says, will soon no longer exist.

Sedgwick is, however, a deft writer with a warm and confiding tone. He wears his learning lightly and is very good at conjuring atmosphere. He often returns to snow in his fiction. His novel My Swordhand Is Singing, intended for young readers, is a pacy vampire/Gothic love-story adventure set in the deep, silent snows of eastern Europe. In Snow, likewise, there is no floundering in verbal drifts, more an elegant skating from one topic to the next. The book is just over a hundred pages, so perhaps its function is not to be exhaustive, but rather to let everyone consider their favourite snow scenes not mentioned here, be they from the film Doctor Zhivago or the opening pages of The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper – scenes that are thrilling but ultimately safe.

Snow is snow refracted through science and culture and stories, warmed by personal memoir. It is not the first-hand stinging white-out of shepherds, or mountain rescue teams, or the council worker who has to rise at 4am to drive the gritter along the A94. They may be less enthralled by snow.

Yet, for those of us who relish its stern magic, this book will help us enjoy its transformations and contradictions: confining but liberating, calm but exciting. Make the most of it, before it melts, before snowploughs are consigned to museums and the only ice is man-made.

Kathleen Jamie’s poetry collections include “The Bonniest Companie” (Picador)

Snow by Marcus Sedgwick is published by Little Toller (136pp, £12​)

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This article appears in the 13 Dec 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2016