What did they talk about in the Ice Age? The weather, of course

PAUL JOHNSON

This is the time of year when I repeat Christina Rossetti's lines:

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron
Water like a stone.

November was as cold as I remember this once-muggy, foggy month. And December even harder. The Met Office says the rest of winter will be severe, and this is the first of a cold series. I am prepared. I have two lovely, comfortable scarves, one of white, of pure cashmere, bought at an Armani sale by that Prussian beauty Lady Niti Gowrie, which somehow found its way to me, and I also possess an immense long red thing of wool, from MoMA in New York, with matching gloves, a present from Drue Heinz to my wife, which I appropriated as the spoils of war. What war? Why, the war between the sexes of course, particularly hard fought in midwinter, when useful warm properties are pinched by both sides. After all, she has my magnificent silver-buckled belt, bought to go with my tartan trews, from that stately shop Campbells of Beauly, and which fits in so well with her best winter-party frocks. I also have a gloriously warm and comfy pair of wine-red suede shoes, from Finn's in the King's Road, a gift from its owner, Alexandra Finlay, to certain Spectator writers, and a sumptuous pair of indoor slippers from Russell & Bromley, whose emporium in High Street Kensington is one of the nicest shops I know, beautifully warm at this time of year, and with pretty, attentive staff. I also have my grand, soft, enveloping black overcoat, bought from Brooks Brothers in New York in 1980, the year Mr Reagan was first elected (and would that the wise old pro still ruled over us!). So it is nearly 30 years old but as good as new.

I was brought up to disregard the cold. A pious old great-aunt used to say: 'Cold? Blow on your hands, and remember, no matter how cold it is, it's better than the eternal fires of Hell!' No one says things like that nowadays, more's the pity. Those of us who lived north of the Trent expected hard winters, and got them. 'Into the North,' as Twelfth Night has it, 'where you will hang like an icicle on a Dutchman's beard.' We sometimes had snow on the ground for a month, two on Biddulph Moor, that glorious Abomination of Desolation. No central heating then, and the first thing to be done when you got up in the pitch dark was to lay and light the fire. How hyperborean the coal-cellar was! But once the kitchen fire was roaring up the chimney, things began to improve. My mother liked to invite the various tradesmen indoors to warm their hands, while the bodies of their patient horses smoked in the freezing street. Ice formed on the outside of the kitchen windows. I knew how true it was when Shakespeare wrote:

When icicles hang by the wall
And Dick the shepherd blows his nail
And Tom bears logs into the hall
And milk comes frozen home in pail.

I was brought up to disregard the cold. A pious old great-aunt used to say: 'Cold? Blow on your hands, and remember, no matter how cold it is, it's better than the eternal fires of Hell!' No one says things like that nowadays, more's the pity.

Well, it did! Our milkman, Arthur Machin, calling dead on time at 7 a.m., sometimes had to break the ice on the big churn in his trap, to ladle the milk into the jug I brought out to him. He could tell me the name of the cow it had come from, having milked her the evening before. 'Ay, this is Elsie's. She's a good 'un.' 'Mother says you're to come in for a warm.' 'Oh, aye? That's gradely.' He would drink sweet tea from a mug bought at Edward VII's coronation, and tell us farm news. 'Six-foot drifts up at top o' forty-acre. I'm not going up theer, no fear!' If he stayed too long, Daisy, his old mare, would stamp her iron foot loudly, as if to say, 'Nobody's invited me into the warm!'

The first winter I went away to boarding school was one of the coldest on record. It was wartime, and the school's sumptuary regulations were suspended 'for the duration'. The rector of the college sent a letter to my parents: 'Just make sure Paul has the warmest clothes you can provide. It is liable to be arctic up here.' Most of the main school buildings dated from the early 17th century, 'Old King James's time' (some from much earlier, even mediaeval epochs). In front of the façade were two long, formal, stone-lined lakes, known as ponds. They were shallow, and their purpose was to allow ice to form in large quantities in winter, so that it could be cut up into blocks and stored in an ice-house. That would last through the following summer and autumn, to refrigerate food and keep it fresh. If you want to know what an ice-house looks like, there is one in Hyde Park, dating from the early 18th century, but now locked up. These ponds were no longer used to produce ice, but they did of course, and then we could use them for skating. That first winter, the fierce cold gripped the college for eight consecutive weeks without a thaw. I learned how to skate. It was so cold that sometimes we could not play rugby, the ground was too hard, and a fierce tackle could mean a broken limb. For the first time in many years, the big 100-acre lake up the fell was frozen over too, and skating was allowed there.

But at the upper end of the lake, where the mountain stream which fed it poured in, the ice came to an end and there was a large inky patch of deep water, never frozen even in the harshest winter, and 'terribly dangerous'. The place, with its fringes of black woods, was exciting and romantic. To the south was Pendle Hill, the final spur of the Pennine escarpment, where the Lancashire witches had met and cast their spells, now covered in snow said to be 'ten feet deep, at least'. To the north was our own fell, Longrigg, also deep in snow, with its ancient quarry-workings forming caves, where seeping water produced fantastic effects we could observe when night fell as we hurried home to tea

Whether the eave-drops fall
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles
Quietly shining in the quiet moon.

One should never read a poem in chronological isolation, but consider what was going on in the world when it was written. Coleridge was writing in the middle of the night, by a flaming rush and a guttering wax candle.

That is Coleridge's 'Frost at Midnight', another poem I like to recite at this time of year. I love the idea of the 'secret ministry of frost', working transcendental changes in the appearance of things, a typical Coleridge concept, combining visual observation, scientific knowledge and religious musing. It was written in the middle of a hard winter, near where I write this, in Stowey, West Somerset, in February 1798.

I have just turned up this poem, and read it again, and a wonderful little poem it is. One should never read a poem in chronological isolation, but consider what was going on in the world when it was written. Coleridge was writing in the middle of the night, by a flaming rush and a guttering wax candle. Oddly enough, in 1798, Philippe Lebon had just taken out a patent for a system to light and heat the world from coal-gas, the first move towards industrial artificial light in history. But of course it would not have reached Stowey for many years.

What else was happening then? Burke and Horace Walpole had just died. Schubert and Heine had just been born. Haydn was writing The Creation. The French were overrunning Europe, looting and stealing, and Bonaparte was about to land in Egypt, whence Nelson would force him to abandon his army and scurry home, by winning the Battle of the Nile. What a lot of glorious things there were for Jane Austen, then pondering her first novel, to record in her letters. Actually, she was gossiping about delicious meals, 'beafsteaks and a boiled fowl' but 'no oyster sauce', and complaining about the weather -- 'too bad'. It is a curious fact of human life that, no matter what marvels and disasters technology brings us, the weather still tends to punctuate our conversation, in 1798 and today; as, no doubt whatever, it did in the Ice Age.

 


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Paul Johnson. "What did they talk about in the Ice Age? The weather, of course." The Spectator (December 29, 2008).

This article is from Paul Johnson's "And another thing" column for The Spectator and is reprinted with permission of the author.

THE AUTHOR

Paul Johnson, celebrated journalist and historian, is the author most recently of George Washington: The Founding Father. Among his other widely acclaimed books are A History of the American People, Modern Times, A History of the Jews, Intellectuals, Art: A New History, and The Quest for God: Personal Pilgrimage. He also produces brief surveys that slip into the pocket, such as his popular The Renaissance and Napoleon. He is a frequent contributor to the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Spectator, and the Daily Telegraph. He lectures all over the world and lives in Notting Hill (London) and Somerset.

Copyright © 2009 Paul Johnson




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