It happens once or twice a year, and it’s always glorious. The temperature drops and out of the dreary overcast of the normal British winter sky comes the snow.
Nothing special about snow, you might think. It’s winter, in the northern hemisphere, it snows. Get over it.
For a start, we don’t get much of it. When it comes, it’s always a surprise and a thrill.
Add to that the fact that we’re always thoroughly unprepared for it.
Roads become impassable and trains and buses pack up rapidly once an inch or two of the white stuff has fallen. Schools close and people find that it is impossible (or – let’s be honest – unappealing) to get to work.
In that magical way of fresh snow, for a day or two the ugliest of neighbourhoods is transformed into a marshmallow wonderland. The bare trees are lined with a cotton wool covering and the carpet of snow lays a gentle hush over the inner city streets.
A benign hysteria grips the neighbourhood. Within hours, everyone has scoured their homes for the sledge that has been shoved into the cellar and neglected for a year. Failing a sledge, tin trays, the tops of wheelie bins, bits of plywood; anything that can slide down an icy hill is pressed quickly into service.
Our local park becomes a fantastic playground where whole families tumble down the modest slopes. People bring coffee and hip flasks of whisky to keep the cold at bay. You find yourself talking to strangers in a way that would be amazing to anyone familiar with normal London behaviour. For a precious day normal rules are suspended. Work is forgotten, chores become less urgent, and even the most buttoned-up adults remember how to have fun.
This year the snowday fell fallen on a Sunday, which is obviously ideal, giving more of us the chance to set aside any task other than snow-based fun.
But it doesn’t matter what day it comes. A couple of years ago it suddenly snowed heavily all night at the end of a Sunday. On the Monday morning, our attempts to travel to work and to get children to school quickly foundered on London’s usual hapless surrender to the elements.
Once it was obvious that the normal routine was impossible, we were completely liberated. We went sledging in the park and met people we hadn’t seen in months. An old friend who happened to be staying overnight had to abandon his work plans and join in the fun, giving me a bonus of a fantastic day with someone I normally don’t have enough time with.
I cooked a huge vat of soup for lunch and friends dropped in to help us eat it. During the afternoon, as the light finally drained from the day, we got a coal fire going and opened some wine.
It couldn’t last, it never does, but that is part of the magic. If the snow lasted longer we would have to learn to overcome it. Or else it would lose its appeal. In London it is usually just right; a rare event, gone before it overstays its welcome. And while it lasts you can be a child again.
Not everyone sees it this way, of course. Every time there’s a bit of snow-related disruption we get the usual killjoy voices telling us we should not give in so easily to the weather.
“With the economy in a fragile state,” says someone called Howard Archer of IHS Global Insight, “even relatively limited disruption from snow and freezing conditions could very well be enough to tip the balance towards modest GDP contraction rather than modest growth in the first quarter of this year.”
Yeah? Well it’s worth it for a snowday. I know it’s failing in our duty as consumers, but just now and again we should take a break from shopping for shit we don’t need.
And get the sledge out.