John Fahy’s evocative image for the front-page of today’s Irish Times. The caption reads:
A rare sighting of a bottlenose dolphin breaching at Killiney Bay in front of a snow-covered Dalkey Island, Co Dublin.
A strange month. It shares with early February (when one senses the lightening of winter) a sense of ending: in some ways it is far more the “end of the year” than December. Come the solstice (this year 11:38 pm on 21st December), one can begin to anticipate the New Year. Annually, Malcolm’s old Dad would that evening solemnly puff his pipe, look out the window into the lowering darkness and pontificate: “The night’s are getting shorter”. But what to say about November, as it leaves us yet again?
Thomas Hood’s poem, a stand-by for every dusty school anthology, catches this moment of low-spirits and worse moods:
No sun — no moon!
No morn — no noon!
No dawn — no dusk — no proper time of day —
No sky — no earthly view —
No distance looking blue —
No road — no street —
No “t’other side the way” —
No end to any Row —
No indications where the Crescents go —
No top to any steeple —
No recognitions of familiar people —
No courtesies for showing ‘em —
No knowing ‘em!
No mail — no post —
No news from any foreign coast —
No park–no ring–no afternoon gentility —
No company — no nobility —
No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member —
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds,
That was November 1844. Eight years later Dickens, at his magnificent best, excelled at the same tone with In Chancery, the superb opening chapter of Bleak House, which symbolically locates the majesty of the Law in the worst squalor of metropolitan slime:
LONDON. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes — gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill-temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if the day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.
Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ’prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds.
Gas looming through the fog in divers places in the streets, much as the sun may, from the spongey fields, be seen to loom by husbandman and ploughboy. Most of the shops lighted two hours before their time — as the gas seems to know, for it has a haggard and unwilling look.
That, of course, became the required atmosphere for any Hollywood-conceived London historical mystery or chiller. Today, now that Clean Air Acts and a switch to smokeless fuels have purged the worst of the London particulars, the effect is achieved by digital “enhancement” of stock scenes, generally shot around the Inns of Court (or, when that fails, Prague has to become London-on-the-Vlatava). The Pert Young Piece of Redfellow Hovel, whose legal education took her to such quarters, watches the cinematography while rattling off the street names, and how the cartographically-impossible sequences can exist only in the eye of the filmic beholder.
Dickens’s conceit of “mud” suggests the seasonal dry, crunchy leaves which quickly churn into sludgy muck. He is, in all truth, being euphemistic. His “mud” was the ankle-deep droppings of the thousands of horses that plodded London streets. This filth provided employment for the crossing-sweepers, the urchin-with-broom equivalent of the Venetian traghetto, providing uncrapped paths for the gentry, who in return were expected to subscribe their farthing.
Suddenly the trees are skeletal against grim, grey skies. Thanks to politicians we have that depressing Monday evening when the clocks have reverted to GMT, for the trudge home through a suddenly-dark evening. By the end of the month children go to and come back from school in twilit mirk.
London shares a latitude (approximately) with Irtutsk and Saskatoon. Only the North Atlantic drift and the jet stream prevent continental winter. This time last year Malcolm was sur le continent, enjoying (for want of a better word) that penetrating cold, with added scent of sewage, of le Plat Pays. Cue Brel:
Avec le vent du nord qui vient s’écarteler
Avec le vent du nord écoutez-le craquer
Le plat pays qui est le mien
Perhaps so, if one is native to such things. Malcolm had to purchase ski-ing roll-necks to survive. East Anglia can manage something similar (generally, unless Farmer Giles is slurry-spraying up-wind, sans sewage) when the easterlies set in. Try Aldeburgh or Sizewell beaches in a black March frost, or Ely station anytime.
This year the jet stream got it amiss; and Britain has its early snowfall. Tuesday morning London awoke to its first splatter of the winter; and it is promised to worsen through the day. Since southern England has never fully grappled with the issue, we confidently expect road and rail to clog up imminently. Pubs across the Home Counties will resonate with tales of how the drive home on the A10 (or whatever) was akin to Scott’s last expedition.
Providentially, the winter fuel allowance has dropped through the letter-boxes and into bank accounts of the over-60s. As the ConDem coalition weasel-words its way around the various contradictory commitments (to preserve? to restrain? to abolish?) on this quite-modest expenditure, the facts are that last winter, a severe one, the excess seasonal deaths amounted to 23,100 souls — but still a statistical decrease on previous years. Take a bow, Gordon Brown.
Ever-unfashionable Walter de la Mare poignantly made the connection between this dark despond of the year and death in his account of November:
There is wind where the rose was,
Cold rain where sweet grass was,
And clouds like sheep
Stream o’er the steep
Grey skies where the lark was.
Nought warm where your hand was,
Nought gold where your hair was,
But phantom, forlorn,
Beneath the thorn,
Your ghost where your face was.
Cold wind where your voice was,
Tears, tears where my heart was,
And ever with me,
Child, ever with me,
Silence where hope was.