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16 December 2002

Mourning a white Christmas

When was the last time we had a snowfall? So long ago that children have never seen one

By Andrew Martin

My children were listening, rapt, as I evoked my childhood Christmases in Yorkshire. “. . . and there was this stuff called sludge,” I said. “It was what happened after the snow melted. It was brown and it got all churned up by the cars . . .”

“So there were cars around at that time, then?” interjected my younger boy, Frank.

“There were cars on the road when I was a boy,” I confirmed, “and they churned up this sludge so that all the streets looked like ploughed fields, and even if you had good boots on you’d have to warm up when you came in with a cup of cocoa.”

“You mean drinking chocolate?” said my older son, Nat.

“No,” I said severely, “I mean cocoa.”

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It’s funny how soon you start sounding 100 years old when you begin talking about snow in a globally warmed Britain, or, to use the more cautious, Met Office terminology, “climatically changed” Britain. Take a look at the quaintly named guide to “British Winter Snowfall Events”, a chart pioneered by one L C W Bonacina, and carried on by his followers today. Each winter from 1875 is classified as “little”, “average”, “snowy” or “very snowy”, and from 1970-71 the commonest word by far is “little”. My children, aged six and eight, have never had an ice slide in their school playground, and are slightly baffled by the title poem in Allan Ahlberg’s Mighty Slide, which is about manic fun on the schoolyard ice: “Some plough the land, some mow or mine it;/ While others – if you let them – shine it.” That was written in 1988, which must make it one of the last British snow-inspired works of art.

I recall that there was just enough snow for the boys to build a snowman in Highgate roughly four years ago on Christ- mas Day, but the poor chap was only six inches tall – and that was after an hour of hard labour.

It was all very sad, and I suppose it’s the snow gods that I am trying to propitiate with my weekly trips to the Camden recycling centre, and other environmentally friendly activities in north London – but on the whole I predict a future of mediocre weather for a mediocre nation. A Met Office spokesman told me: “Over the next 100 years, snow is going to become a very rare event indeed.” On the other hand, he counselled against exaggerating how much it used to snow. “We all have selective memories, you know.”

You have to look no further than the second line of “White Christmas” – “just like the ones I used to know” – to appreciate the truth of that. But then again, the way that a snowscape stays illuminated in the memory is another reason to mourn what we’ve lost.

It seems to me that you could always find snow in Yorkshire when I was a boy. I recall walking through deep snow across the Dales about a week before Christmas with a small party from my school, led by the metalwork teacher. I’d been a bit wary of this bloke, ever since he’d slippered my friend Rob for leaving the chuck key in the lathe, but that walk gave me one of the happiest days of my life.

In spite of that Met Office man, I also seem to recall that it snowed around Christmastime even in low-lying York itself. One Christmas Eve when I had drunk, aged 16, approximately a dozen rum and blacks (bought for me in the city-centre pubs by my friend Pete, who looked mature), I was making my way to midnight mass at the minster, simply because the communion represented to me a form of after-hours drinking. Well, all Christians reading this will be glad to hear that I slipped on some black ice, and still have the scar on my forehead.

I recall seeing later, much later, a very pretty snowfall in the mainly Georgian Lendal street, into which scene walked Norman Lamont wearing a blue double-breasted coat. I always thought he was an elegant fellow, and I could imagine a Christmas trinket that might still have some mileage in it, in a kitsch sort of way: the Norman Lamont Snow Shaker.

I feel sad that my children are unlikely to experience similar Christmastime epiphanies. But wait. As I write, I find that I have closed my study window for the first time in ages, and I am wearing my extra-thick lumberjack shirt. Only this morning, my newspaper brought news that the odds for snow falling on the Met Office on Christmas Day have shortened from 6:1 to 4:1.

Readers should also bear in mind that, earlier this year, I was in the midst of writing about what a wonderful thing it was to have foxes in your garden when a fox attacked and injured a baby- an occurrence so typical of my career that I’m still amazed I wasn’t halfway through a long, humorous essay about the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001.

Yes, I’m afraid the fact that I’ve written an article bemoaning the rise in winter temperatures can mean only one thing. Brace yourselves for immediate snow.

Andrew Martin’s column, Northside, appears weekly in the New Statesman