Cold, snow, winter and the remote north

Iceland sunrise
Þingvellir National Park at sunrise (southern Iceland). Credit: Meredith Katzman.

We had a few cold days, but for the most part December was horribly mild. It felt like a reverse Narnia; ‘always Christmas but never winter’. That’s not to sneer at Christmas, there’s much to be said for eating, drinking, and irrational, even stupid cheerfulness. But without winter it all seemed a bit thinner, more watery, less convincing. It was more about the trappings and less about the feel of the thing.

My sister and I are different in most ways and always have been. She was born arse first, a breech birth, and came out squalling. I was born head first and, I am told, quietly. And so it has gone on. We have at least one thing in common, however; for as long as we can remember, we’ve both loved cold and snow. As adults, the shorthand for our cold fetish has been a place: Iceland. It’s a strange thing for two very different people born in the heavily watered desert metropolis of Los Angeles.

The hot springs. Geysir geothermal area ( southern Iceland). Credit: Meredith Katzman.
The hot springs. Geysir geothermal area (southern Iceland). Credit: Meredith Katzman.

From time to time I discover the same fetish in other people; there’s a ‘you too?’ moment. We always struggle to identify what’s behind it. There’s the larks, the days off school, the novelty, but that’s not it, not all of it. At least some of it is aesthetic. As C S Lewis wrote in Surprised by Joy

 I desired with almost sickening intensity something never to be described (except that it is cold, spacious, severe, pale, and remote)…

It’s not just that it’s beautiful (not a word I use often or with much comfort), it’s also numinous:

giving rise to a sense of the spiritually transcendent; (esp. of things in art or the natural world) evoking a heightened sense of the mystical or sublime; awe-inspiring (OED 2014)

It’s not only hard to explain, it’s hard even to hint at without seeming affected.

Largest icecap in Europe. Vatnajökull National Park (southern Iceland). Credit: Meredith Katzman.
Ice cap, Vatnajökull National Park (southern Iceland). Credit: Meredith Katzman.

There are those who hate snow, and even more who hate cold. Some resent it for interrupting the comfort and regularity, the predictability of their urban lives. It’s inconvenient; it’s not room temperature; roads are closed and trains are late; you might slip on the pavement or have to wear different shoes. Of course, this is also part of its appeal.

In 1905 G K Chesterton wrote of ‘a great modern desire […] for something to waylay us and lead us splendidly astray’. He went on (with my interpolations)

It has continually struck us that there is no element in modern life that is more lamentable than the fact that the modern man has to seek all artistic existence in a sedentary state. If he wishes to float into fairyland, he reads a book [plays a computer game]; if he wishes to dash into the thick of battle, he reads a book [plays a computer game] […] if he wishes to slide down the banisters, he reads a book [plays a computer game]. We give him these visions, but we give him exercise at the same time, the necessity of leaping from wall to wall, of fighting strange gentlemen, of running down long streets from pursuers—all healthy and pleasant exercises. We give him a glimpse of that great morning world of Robin Hood or the Knights Errant, when one great game was played under the splendid sky. We give him back his childhood, that godlike time when we can act stories, be our own heroes, and at the same instant dance and dream.

Snow, really heavy and lasting snow, gives us something of that. It makes the familiar different and new and uncertain. We even, well, play.

I remember seeing the different attitudes in 2009/10, when we had two cold snow-blown winters in succession. Walking the city streets, there was a peculiar holiday atmosphere in places, a cheerfulness, with strangers grinning at each other, and then there were those who had a sullen, resentful look to them, carrying on as if the weather had offered them poor service, and who was going to fix it? You could say it’s a defining division between people, like Roundheads and Cavaliers.

Probably the first book I fully enjoyed as a child, and can still read with pleasure now, was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Would Narnia have been so immediately and emphatically appealing if it hadn’t been frozen and snowbound when first entered? Not for me. There was the adventure, and I daresay I could sense some of the underlying meaning, but it was the idea of winter that got me. I was even disappointed when winter ended in favour of Christmas, and for a child to prefer weather over Christmas something deep must be happening. Decades on I still feel much the same when the real cold comes and snow falls. And I have mixed feelings when, say, my sister spends a week in Iceland while here even the rain isn’t all that cold.

Paul Fishman (Bristol, January 2015)


Photography by Meredith Katzman © 2014. The full set of Icelandic snaps is here. Meredith is my sister, if you haven’t worked that out.

Charlie Brooker 2010 Newswipe (BBC Television)

G K Chesterton 1905 ‘The Tremendous Adventures of Major Brown’ The Club of Queer Trades (available online and in various print editions, the Hesperus Press one being particularly nice; it’s a series of connected short stories, all leading back to the Club, members of which have all invented the means by which they earn their living—’queer’ meaning ‘peculiar’.)

C S Lewis 1955 Surprised by Joy (London: HarperCollins)

C S Lewis 1950 The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (London: HarperCollins)

(I’m fairly sure the Roman writer Seneca complained in the 1st century AD that Saturnalia (the Roman Christmas, if you like) increasingly took up the whole of December, starting earlier and earlier; we’re just continuing the tradition.)

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