frost fairs

A mind of winter

Although it has been an increasingly regular occurrence over the last four winters, Londoners of my generation still consider snow a novelty. Suddenly, the population of the city turns child again, breaking into impromptu snow ball fights, erecting elaborate snowmen in local parks (although the prize for best urban snowman goes to one last winter, constructed atop a toilet discarded on the pavement near my house). To commemorate this common miracle, I decided to take a stroll along the river, starting at the southern side of Tower Bridge, and finishing at Vauxhall Bridge, a walk of approximately 2.5 miles. In all the years I have been exploring London, this walk may have been the most memorable. I chose not to bring a camera, or my iPod; I wanted to concentrate on looking and listening, without imposing extra demands on my attention.

The experience of looking was greatly altered by the haze of snow, steadily falling as my walk began, and continuing for the rest of the day. London is impossibly beautiful in the snow, perhaps because snow seems to cleanse and purify; it softens blemishes (cloaking some of the more horrendous examples of misguided architecture) and renders what is already imposing, such as St Paul’s and the Houses of Parliament and Southwark Cathedral, with an even greater majesty. Somehow, London looks more ancient in snow, and I had a vision of the Elizabethan frost fairs that sprang up on the surface of the Thames (during what was known as the ‘Little Ice Age’) as soon as the river froze. This reminded me of a beautiful poem, ‘The Other Side of Winter’, by my fellow Salt poet John McCullough, where he writes of this ‘crystal weather’:

Overnight the Thames begins to move again.
The ice beneath the frost fair cracks. Tents,
merry-go-rounds and bookstalls glide about

on islands given up for lost. They race,
switch places, touch – the printing press nuzzling
the swings – then part, slip quietly under.

Perhaps what is surreal in John’s poem – the vision of an alternative city balanced on the fragile ice – can still be imagined, as snow erases landmarks, renders ordinary routes unfamiliar, simply by covering our accepted routes of travel: roads and pavements are hidden, margins and boundaries are less pronounced. The snow showed me vistas I hadn’t noticed before, simply by masking others.

It was striking was how quiet the city became. Normally that stretch of the river would be heavily populated on a Sunday by tourists, dogs, families. Apart from the odd jogger and determined Japanese sightseer, the city was emptied, as if the snow had blotted out its citizens as well. Only around the London Eye was there a crowd; a long queue to ride the wheel, which puzzled me, as the visibility was terrible, but I realised it was the miracle of the snow which drew them, as if they needed to reach its source to understand its movement. Snow muffles sound, draws everything closer, so that the peel of City church bells was incredibly clear even from the southern banks.

I have been reading Nick Papadimitriou’s extraordinary book, Scarp, the result of a lifetime’s work of chronicling his corner of outer London, around Hendon, Edgware, Pinner. Not a part of the city I know well, but his book does not necessary require knowledge of the region (although it has inspired me to perhaps take a tour); what he is espousing is the idea of ‘deep topography’ – a complete immersion into a landscape, so that you know not only the names and landmarks, but the native plants, the cast of characters who have populated the area (in the present, and in the past), a full picture of the region in all seasons and aspects. Papadimitriou talks about laying aside knowledge and concentrating on ‘sensory properties of locations encountered while visiting or passed through’, and maybe this was why I (sub)consciously decided against equipment which would aid me in recording my walk (or distracting me from it).

It reminded me why I love London so much (as if I need to be reminded), my adopted city of these last twenty-five years. Johnson was right, of course, it is never boring, in its constant flux and flow, and each time I think I know an area well, it surprises me with some new revelation. I look out the window now and see the snow has begun to fall again; the kid in me wants to get out and be in it, to see what its veiling might uncover.

Here’s John’s poem in its entirety on Declan Ryan’s Days of Roses site:

Images are Whistler’s Nocturne in Grey and Gold: Snow in Chelsea
A 1684 etching of a frost fair by Granger
Snow-White by Gerhard Richter