Another weekend of false hopes and broken promises. Oh, the weather bulletins hyped it up, the way they do these days, with talk of “high wind chill” and “blizzards”. Ever since forecasts became primarily designed for those seeking to plan a safe crossing of the supermarket car park, this has been the way of things.
So, even as the magic words sent a shiver of anticipation down my spine, I knew it would all come to very little. Blizzards! A bit of sleet perhaps, even a light covering of snow if we were lucky, but it would be transient: a fleeting strike of cold weather running fast before yet another warm front, which would serve only to make us fretful and nostalgic, yearning for the ice which will never come. And so it has proved to be.
I have a problem, you see. Increasingly, I am in mourning for the cold, for the hard bite of winter: for the thrill of the north coming to visit and staying for a while. I love the impact of cold weather the way some people adore the Sun; and with its failure to arrive, these last few years, comes a deep sense of loss.
Few people admit to feeling the same way, of course . The world is now full of radiator-hugging philistines, who at the first hint of normal temperatures start to complain, as if the weather was part of the general blame culture that surrounds them. Who can they sue because their nose is cold? “It’s freezing today,” whined shivering specimens last Friday, as the temperature began to slide below 10 degrees. I wanted to cry: “Get over it. It’s mid-December. A few years ago we got these temperatures at the end of October.” But I didn’t, because it would have made me look irretrievably odd, and, besides, I was too busy rejoicing at being able to see my breath in front of my face.
But there is actually a serious cultural issue here. With the loss of proper winter weather, we are about to lose something terribly profound. As the world heats up, we are subconsciously expressing this. Intriguingly, almost every Christmas card I have received so far this year has been a snowy contemporary scene, as if snow, like the Victorian paraphernalia of carriages and robins and sleighs, is aspiring to some list of new yearnings.
In 50 years’ time, when Britain is mired in bland, damp, grey, mild permanence, and when children peer at their parents’ Christmas cards, will they ask what the white stuff is? This will be a generation who will never stamp on ground frozen hard as stone with frost, or burn their mouths on icicles.
What is at stake, with climate change, is actually the whole “idea of north” – the spiritual and cultural pull of the icy wastes, of high, empty, pale places; a theme which has persisted through history, literature, mythology, philosophy and art for centuries.
I was beautifully ignorant of this – I thought it was just me that had a peculiar affection for the cold – until I read Peter Davidson’s book The Idea of North, which draws on the work of the Canadian Glenn Gould, and I discovered the delightful, symbolic idea of something that sits in people like a compass.
Hence the world can be divided into two kinds of people: those who are drawn south, to sunshine and rich, dark, warm sensuous places; and those who are pulled to face north, to the austere thrill of hard, cold, icy places. Do you prefer to visit Alaska, Norway and Sutherland to baking on a beach on the Med? Does skiing attract you as much for the chairlift rides, face raised towards awesome, blinding white mountains, as it does for the whiz down the piste? When, behind the wheel, you see a road sign “To the north” does it make your heart leap; make you feel as if you are escaping to a place where you will find your soul?
Or do you find the sign foreboding?
“It’s grim oop north” is a Southern joke with a bite. “We leave for the north tonight” a fateful cliche from dramatic fiction. “We leave for the south” – by contrast, everything is going to be all right. “North of Watford” – a verbal shudder that expresses fear of some cold, wet, deprived wasteland. Funnily enough, the ancient Sami nomads of Russia weren’t familiar with Watford but they believed the north was a point halfway between this world and the next, so they buried all their dead chiefs in the equivalent.
The Norse legends have Satan as a creature of ice. Dante believed freezing wind was stirred by the batwings of Lucifer. The Greeks – and I am indebted to Professor Davidson for this – liked it both ways. The north for them was an ambiguous paradise. It was a malign and freezing place, but if you struggled through the cold to the back of the north wind – literally hyperborean – you found the Hyperborean people, living in an oasis of peace, sunshine and plenty. Even today we still use figures of speech about that “trek to the sunlit uplands”.
But this pleasing, freezing conceit is threatened. What will global warming mean for the idea of north? When will the manufacturers of 4x4s admit that Lucifer’s wings will never beat hard enough for them again?
What will happen to those of us who crave that lasting, icy bite on the wind, and cannot abide the blandness of modern winters? Must we sit and moulder, rotting from the soul outward, shouting at the television when the weather forecasters patronise us with their talk of those “nice mild days”?
The reality is this: that climate change will impoverish us spiritually as well as environmentally. We need the cold to sustain us in every way. And if the idea of north retreats before warm seas towards the polar night, then some of us will just have to buy holiday timeshares in Greenland or Murmansk, and follow it. It is perhaps the only way I will get to wear that duck-down jacket again.