Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Ghosts of winters past

Pretty, innit? Snow on Newhaven Harbour, with the Forth Bridges in the distance. A good cue to get me started, as the Forth Road Bridge was closed for a time last week because of snow/ice/not-gritting-lest-the-bridge-is-corroded-by-salt. Now the country is closed, it seems - all these poor souls stuck on the M8 yesterday, and perhaps still as far as I know. Could have been us, too - but we left Edinburgh on Sunday, when the road was absolutely clear. Someone loves us ...

But to my theme. It's obvious why yesterday's terrible stramash happened: people rose early for work, as the world now seems to do, saw that it was dry - and set off. When they were on their way, strung along the ends of the motorway or whatever, the snow began. Someone jack-knifed; they all ground to a halt. Result: blocked road. Gritters couldn't get along it. No point in whining that folk ought to have stayed at home, as several moaners did on Radio Scotland this morning. They didn't have the choice when they set out. Perhaps the gritter moguls should have trusted the weather forecast and sent the lorries out early - but that's easy to say now. Besides, it was apparently too cold for the salt to have much effect - certainly the bit of path I spilled water on while emptying a basin (our waste pipe was frozen) is now a sheet of ice, despite my immediate application of salt at the time.

I don't remember this massive disruption from my past. I do remember fierce winters - for heaven's sake, I can just remember a morning when we had a coal briquette in the range surrounded with potato peelings*, in what must have been the winter of 1947 when the pipes in the tenements all froze and people had to use stand pipes in the streets. I can remember being sent home from school when the outside lavatories froze - the joy when the jannie would appear in the classroom with his mop in his hand and whisper to the teacher and we'd all go home just after playtime. (Presumably our bladders were supposed to last till we got home). I remember the joy of sledging all alone when I was home and my pals weren't - the virgin snow above the old air-raid shelters in Novar Drive. And of course I remember the brown sugar of the old snow in Great Western Road, and trudging up the hill in the snow to the number 10 tram terminus. And there were wonderful patterns of ice on the inside of the windows in the mornings - ferns, mainly, and starbursts. They were especially beautiful in the small maid's room off the kitchen where I slept, I remember. And I was the lucky one - the range in the kitchen kept the temperature in my wee room bearable.

Of course it must have been bad. And writing this has answered my question to myself, now I think about it. I saw only the effect on me. We didn't have a car, and there were trams (though I don't know how well they functioned in snow, and now there's no-one alive in my family who can tell me, dammit). We were accustomed to put on multiple layers of clothing and walk. We had wellies - though once I had a warmer pair of boots, in blue leather with crepe soles to which the snow clung in such layers that walking became impossible. We made fantastic slides in the playground and hurled ourselves along them; we were consumed with rage when the janny salted them while we were in class (presumably they had rudimentary Health & Safety even then). I loved the snow, my parents didn't seem unduly perturbed by it, we didn't have to worry about loved ones who were driving across the country/flying to London/travelling to Paris. My father had the longest commute - from Hyndland to Springburn - every day, and the rest of us took the tram, about 4 stops, I think.

Maybe we expected less. Our shopping was local, our messages limited to what we could carry. The shops had basics, and seasonal basics at that. When I was really small, we still had rationing. We had powercuts and candles, coal fires and a range in the kitchen. I can remember my mother cooking on it in a powercut. We all had chilblains every winter. It must have been grim, and I would probably hate it now.

We did, however, survive - and I look back on my childhood winters with undiluted pleasure. But excuse me while I go and turn up the heating ...

*This was, I believe, because the stockpiles of coal were frozen solid and no coal could be taken off them.


  1. As well as expecting less, I think we've all forgotten as individuals how to cope with all this cold. It's 1pm here and there is still ice on the inside of our windows, despite the central heating(closing the shutters at night keeps the warmth away from the glass). And the milk came in mid morning, frozen and with the top popped off - I haven't seen that for years but it was a regular feature of my childhood. So many people don't have decent grippy winter boots or wellies and so they complain that the pavements aren't gritted. We've forgotten how to take responsibility for ourselves.

  2. The weather forecast I saw on Sunday night said that it would snow at 9 a.m. Lo! It snowed (I want so much to write "snew"!) and the country was aghast. We do indeed react as though Ragnarok had arrived with an icy blast.

    I vaguely remember 1947 because my sister was born right in the middle of that freezing winter. I don't recall the cold - only that I lost interest in her when I discovered I couldn't play with what I thought was a new toy.

    What I can remember was the chapped thighs of childhood winters - and the application of a vaguely green substance (Snofire?) which alleviated the pains caused by chafing short trousers. We were tough in those days!

  3. And I remember packing empty sugar bags with dross to burn alongside the potato peelings. And the cold, cold, cold....

  4. Childhood winter memories are the BEST! Here in the US of A, we "sled" as opposed to sledging...but I bet it was the same great fun! My parents (esp. my mother with that Danish bloodline) made sure we had good sleds..Radio Flyers..just like the wagons.We were encouraged to spend time outside and I loved every single minute. A lot of my friends were more "inside" types and they would use cardboard boxes to sled on whenever we could entice them from the warmer confines. Back then, boots slipped on over our shoes. Only hunters wore the "packs" of today...boots with a toasty felt liner that defies all the cold Jack Frost can dispense. I lived in the snow belt and that meant the snow would pile so high, we could walk up on top of it and reach up for the icicles hanging off garage roofs. We would make countless snow angels and grow aggrevated when someone would walk over our awesomely crafted work. Oh, to be young again.....

    The good news is, I am still awestruck by snow and my heart fills with great anticipation as I watch the flakes falling to the ground. I still love the cold...maybe even more, as "modern" winter gear means I can stay outside as long as I like with no fear of chilling to the bone. Add our wonderful woodstove into the equation and...ah, I LOVE winter. We just bought some snowmobiles and now we must wait for hunting season to end so we can go out and enjoy all the snow.

    Chris, we do indeed have 4 wheel drive vehicles. We didn't always. I will never forget the night we came home at about 11 and I had to climb our hill in darkness to get the ATV so I could plow our road so the Volvo could pass up it. That is another of those warm memories. I oft say that my tongue should cleave to the roof of my mouth before I complain about the winter or its cold!!!!!!

  5. hahaha...after my rather lengthy response, the word verification just came up as "terse".

    Oh, I feel so shameful!!!!! NOT.

  6. Oh, more, more! GPM, I too remember the popping milk bottles; ABF - we still get Snofire, tho' it's now in a push-up plastic stick like Pritt rather than a waxed paper in a wee cardboard box whose ends soon disintegrated: I love the smell of it. Did we all have chilblains, though? And I seem to recall my sister having an embryonic form of frostbite on the feet - musta been when we were older, in unsuitable shoes?

  7. We had an outside toilet, so winters meant buckets of hot water to... er... assist the flow. Which brings me to potato peelings. We still had the pig bin (in close proximity to the outside "usual offices", as a well-known father once indicated to me) and did not squander organic waste on heating. Which brings me to fireplaces. Ah, the feeling of warmth on the front of your body! And the sensation of icicles on the back! And the chill of a winter morning before the fire has been kindled and poked into life, sometimed needing a thing like a Roman soldier's shield to be held against the grate opening to encourage draught and set the fire-lighters sizzling. It all changed when we got a Sofono fire - you backed it up with dross last thing at night, and all you had to do in the morning was open the vent at the front, poke the embers, add some fresh fuel and.... warm at the front, cold at the back, but in less time. Burst pipes, anyone?

  8. Snow time was when one swapped bogies for sledges - it was basically the same, hurling oneself down a steep hill head first. Big advantage was when one had to abandon the fast moving projectile, usually because the head was about to make contact with a pile of bricks, it was less damaging to knees and elbows to land in the snow. I suppose clothes got a bit mangled, but I was never a clean tidy child! I recall abf's point about the sores behind the knees (does that bit of anatomy have a name?), but mine was caused not only by short trousers but the torture was increased manyfold by the kilt worn on Sundays. However I do remember, deep in the winter, dancing with my sister in the warm glow of an open fire - the only light in the room on a Saturday evening when Scottish dance music was on the radio. Oh and dancing in and out of the drying clothes on the pulley. What about the "pleasure" of warming your hands in warm water, after you had made the snowman. - no gloves, either lost (most likely) or not used because you needed to melt the snow with your hands to form the shapes - and make good snowballs. As for heating.. paraffin heater in hall... my first bedroom with any heat in it was when I was 20.

  9. I may return to this topic with another cloud of memories - this has been such fun! Meantime, I'm off to ponder anew the process of grandmothering ...