Snow use complaining: look for the joy!


This is one of those days when it just feels good to be alive. After a bitter cold night – not just by southern standards – yesterday’s semi-melted snow has now hardened to ice, glistering (as Shakespeare would say) in the morning sun under a cloudless blue sky.

I know, I know.

Readers in the north will say that we don’t know what we’re talking about down here, when we mention cold: our low (-6°) of last night is nothing to what you’ve experienced in these last few days – “minus double figures”, I’m assured. On the other hand, friends tell me that north Northumberland remains just about snowless, while the south has had quite a covering.

First snowman takes shape amid the blizzard

This snowy phase has taken the usual pattern. We woke up on Sunday to thick, heavy cloud and a few inches of snow already on the ground: it barely stopped snowing all day. So, though it was dark and grim, families were out enjoying the snow, and our neighbouring water-meadows in Oxford were full of snowmen and even an igloo in various stages of construction.

Even a family of snowmen took shape

Yesterday, Monday, many schools were closed, so plenty of children were to be seen continuing the building work, although the snow was starting to melt amid a bitter wind and a lack of sun.

The temperature plummeted yesterday evening, the sky cleared and the wind dropped: and this morning ushered in a Winter Wonderland. To be honest, I felt sorry for everyone who was back at work: given the amount of ice about, I suspect travelling was more treacherous this morning that it had been yesterday. I was glad not to be among the harassed motorists or rail-commuters who must have had a tough time of it.

Having been in the trade for so long, snowy episodes make me feel particularly sorry for schools, and their leaders. If you’re a parent, frustrated at not knowing whether your child’s school is open or not, spare a thought for heads and their senior colleagues. Heads tend to stay up till midnight, to hear one last weather forecast: then they’re up again at 6am (or before) for the latest update, and phoning their senior colleagues, hopefully living in different directions, to glean information on the state of the roads. I can remember those conversations: “The cars are moving at the end of my street” would compare to “We’re completely snowed in.”

The decision is frequently taken out of heads’ hands, anyway. Public transport may have ground to a halt: and, if the school is dependent on contract buses to bring in large numbers of pupils, it’s not the head who makes the final decision, but the bus company.

It is the cause of bewilderment to most Europeans that even a little snow paralyses Britain: but, in truth, we don’t have much of it, and the zillions that it would cost to be truly snow-proof would hardly provide value for money. Indeed, in my last three winters as a head we saw no significant snow, and I wasn’t obliged to close my school in Newcastle.

Good to be alive in the winter sunshine

So why did I feel so good to be alive this morning? First, there really is a magic in bright sun glistening on the still-very-white snow. Second, I always derive amusement from the forest of snowmen that grows up so rapidly on open spaces: as the pictures suggest, Oxford’s water-meadows seen a lot of building over the last two days.

It was once a proud snowman

I love the ephemeral nature of snowmen. Looking around this morning, few have retained distinctive features. There are more carrots lying on the ground than forming noses, for example: yesterday’s brief thaw wrought that facial damage on them. Yet there is something appealing about the distorted remains of a snowman, let alone the igloo which never quite made it to roof-level.

This something Ozymandias-like about them. Built with enthusiasm and a sense of humour, they now appear forlorn, yet still more full of character. And, when the snow is turned to slush and the meadows are muddy brown, still those hardpacked balls of ice will linger for a few days longer. As the poet Shelley wrote, “Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!“

No, I won’t despair. There’s a joy in witnessing these innocent, naive works of hands, gloves and human ingenuity. There’s a carefree quality to it, echoed in the joy with which kids greet the announcement of a school closure for that day, so they can get out and snowball, sledge and, well, just have fun in the snow.

Dad with his youngest great-grandchild

Good to be alive? Certainly, particularly while the sun shines so brightly. And, even more particularly, on this very special day, my amazing Dad’s 97th birthday. That’s quite an innings, attributable not least to the joy he still finds in life.

Happy birthday, Dad!




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