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Winter Nights

Francis Spufford—

Here comes the winter night. If we were our oldest ancestors, tucked into draughty recesses of caves with blue hands hugged around us as we slept, we’d be dreaming of summer: we’d be using our human freedom to step away from circumstances to wish that all mornings were June mornings, all noons burned yellow in the sky, all days ended in easy heat under green trees. But for us the night laps comfortably around warm houses. From within our walls the cold seems something to relish. The sharp air outdoors drives the blood from the surface of our fingers only so the soft air inside can return it, tingling. The darkness beyond the window glass gives us the black outer frame for winter comforts like a still-life. Red curtains, green leeks chopped for soup, oranges in a bowl. All glow more because they stand out from a border of shadow. 

And, our bodies provided for, our imaginations travel—not away from winter, but farther into the elements we’re safe from, towards the heart of them. Snowy days invite strange journeys. Outside our houses, flakes whirl in the cones of brightness hung from street-lamps. Look up the line of their descent, directly along the wind that flies them into your mouth and eyes, onto your skin with a soft sting, onto your collar as temporary stars. They come uncountably, a sweeping hypnotic bombardment. And it’s there that we rise, in imagination, up the levels of the air through tumbling and weaving whiteness, streaking bodiless towards the symbolic source of winter. To the north, of course. 

The shadows of the hedges lie violet on the white fields. Then the land ends beneath us, in a tussle of rocks and black water, and we arrow onwards, a gulf below and a gulf above, leaving home behind. No scheduled airline flies this route. This is the way the Snow Queen’s sleigh carried little Kay in Hans Christian Andersen’s story; this is a vector plotted across the geography of dream. The snow sinks into the black waves without a sound. Islands pass; Spitzbergen, Jan Mayen Land, spiky with mountains like coal pyramids dusted in icing sugar. But the sea’s motion slows now, and as the water thickens, gathers, hardens to ice, the sky clears too, so that the monochrome scheme reverses. It’s a world hard white below now, hard black above, lit by constellations quivering in their places. We have entered the Arctic of our minds: the silent domain of cold something in us demands as the proper form for the place from which the frost is distributed and the blizzards pour out. The six-months’-night that governs here seems the parent to the nights we know in December and January. They’re shavings from this inky, original block. We glide above the tumbled plain of the frozen sea. The second hand sweeps through the last few divisions on the clock-face where the degrees of north latitude register. Eighty-eight degrees, eighty-nine; 90°N and we descend at the imaginary capital of the imaginary empire of cold. The whole Earth spins beneath us, but all the movement we see at the North Pole is in the sky. The aurora airbrushes the dark with stately lilacs and purples. And perhaps there’s a polar bear. Its breath hoods its head in steam. 

But that’s only one winter journey. It’s the one our imaginations have been taking for a while, encouraged by snowy works in every genre, from Raymond Briggs’s The Snowman to Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, from Snow Falling on Cedars to the blizzard of interest in the polar explorer Ernest Shackleton. I thought I’d put all the familiar elements of winter’s snowy journey together and use them up in one glorious burst—I’m fond of them, as you can hear—so that afterwards, some space would be cleared for all of winter’s other journeys; which we need to hear about, because the real snow has been coming less and less often during the very time that imagination’s snow has fallen most heavily. Winter need not be white. It’s natural that we should want to assign one elemental identity to it. We’re myth-making creatures. We need the ancient, slow, general meanings for time to persist behind the quick particular things that happen in our particular lives. That’s how we make sense of the cycle of the seasons, which still overlays its rhythm on the linear time of our lives, even though in Britain now most of us have no working connection to seedtime and harvest. But without snow, winter is still the cold pause when nature slows; it’s still the old year’s death and the new year’s birth, meanings combined in the Christmas feast of the baby born to die; it’s still the ancient season of hospitality, when we put the still-life of winter food into sociable motion, and feed guests whose faces are also warmth in the cold to us. All of those are still there, and still open to all the colouring of circumstance, all the tragedy and comedy and anti-climax and indifference that events may bring. Look around; and take new journeys. 

From True Stories by Francis Spufford. Published by Yale University Press in 2017. Reproduced with permission.

Francis Spufford is professor of creative writing at Goldsmiths College, University of London. He is the author of several highly praised books of nonfiction, and his novel Golden Hill won four literary prizes including the New York City Book Award of the New York Society Library. He lives in Ely, UK.

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