Wintry discontents


It was St Matthew who observed that God ‘maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust’ (Matthew 5:45). Still, some people—very few of whom will fall into such clear-cut categories—get a lot more sun than others; or a lot more rain; or snow; or just weather, generally.

BBC weather reports mention strong winds disrupting events at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang; a tropical storm threatening the Phillipines; and, just over a week ago, the extreme weather in Moscow. The Russian capital had seen its heaviest snowfall in a day since records began, with more than 2000 trees brought down and air travel disrupted, according to official statements. This followed the breaking of another record in December, when the city registered the least amount of sunshine ever seen in a month there.

And here, in the mild South? Glumly dutiful rain today: no snow, of course (though more Northern parts of the country have had plenty), and it’s not even that cold. I turn the thermostat up one degree and it’s comfortable enough. But yes, some days lately have been pretty murky. ‘We just sat and grew older’, Frank Kermode recalled of his early naval experience in the Second World War, parked off the coast of Iceland, ‘as lightless winter followed nightless summer and the gales swept down the funnel of the fjord’.[1]

Patrick Hamilton was probably right to observe that, certainly in the twentieth century, ‘Wars, on the whole, are remembered by their winters.’[2] In the First World War, 1916-17 was claimed to be ‘the coldest winter in living memory.’[3] And the next year? Holidays for some. ‘Even in the doom-struck winter of 1917-18’, E. S. Turner observed, ‘British newspapers carried advertisements headed, “Where to Winter: Monte Carlo.”’[4]

Friedrich, Caspar David, 1774-1840; Winter Landscape

(Caspar David Friedrich, Winter Landscape:
photo credit, The National Gallery)

In war or peace, though, winters take their toll, physically, financially, psychologically, emotionally. ‘Wynter wakeneth al my care’, an anonymous medieval (early fourteenth century) lyricist wrote – or sang, sighing and sorely mourning, ‘When hit cometh in my thoht / Of this worldes joie, hou it geth al to noht.’

Nou hit is, and nou hit nys,
Al so hit ner nere, ywys[5]

(Now it is and now it is not,
As though it had never been, indeed)


( )

It might well seem that the world’s joy (and much else) was pretty fleeting when the average life expectancy for a male child was not much more than thirty years. In later centuries, people would take a longer view: Gilbert White could look back almost the length of that medieval lifespan when, writing of the winter of 1767-8, he noted that there was ‘reason to believe that some days were more severe than any since the year 1739-40.’[6]

On to Victorian England, where the Reverend Francis Kilvert can record in his diary for Septuagesima Sunday, St Valentine’s Eve, 13 February 1870: ‘the hardest frost we have had yet.’ Arriving at the Chapel, he writes, ‘my beard moustaches and whiskers were so stiff with ice that I could hardly open my mouth and my beard was frozen on to my mackintosh.’[7]

Ah, that old beard and mackintosh combo.


A little later still: though Virginia Woolf defined ‘the greatest pleasure of town life in winter’ as ‘rambling the streets of London’,[8] the disquieting character of the first winter of the war certainly unsettled her. ‘It’s a queer winter—the worst I ever knew, & suitable for the war & all the rest of it’, she wrote in her diary for Friday 22 January 1915. And, three weeks later: ‘I am sure however many years I keep this diary, I shall never find a winter to beat this. It seems to have lost all self control.’[9]

It was in the winter of the next year that D. H. Lawrence retrospectively placed the apocalyptic moment from which there was no real coming back. ‘It was in 1915 the old world ended. In the winter of 1915-1916 the spirit of the old London collapsed, the city, in some way, perished, perished from being a heart of the world, and became a vortex of broken passions, lusts, hopes, fears, and horrors.’[10]


(Ottoline Morrell by George Charles Beresford, 1864-1938)

That was through the eyes, or in the voice, of his protagonist, Richard Somers, still traumatised by his encounters with officialdom. Lawrence’s letters of the time are not, though, hugely different. To Harriet Monroe, he wrote on 15 September 1915:‘This is the real winter of the spirit in England.’ Less than two months later, though, to Ottoline Morrell, he wrote with—if not optimism, then at least a crack of light—‘There must be deep winter before there can be spring.’


(D. H. Lawrence)

No, definitely not optimism. He is advising her to drift and let go. His postscript reads: ‘Only do not struggle – let go and become dark, quite dark.’[11]


[1] Frank Kermode, Not Entitled: A Memoir (London: Harper Collins, 1996), 125.

[2] Patrick Hamilton, The West Pier (1951; in The Gorse Trilogy, Black Spring Press, 2007), 30.

[3] Michael Hurd, The Ordeal of Ivor Gurney (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), 94.

[4] E. S. Turner, Dear Old Blighty (London: Michael Joseph 1980), 49.

[5] The Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1918, edited by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966), 9, 10.

[6] Gilbert White, The Illustrated History of Selborne (1789; London: Macmillan, 1984), 46.

[7] Kilvert’s Diary, edited by William Plomer, Three volumes (London: Jonathan Cape, 1938, reissued 1969), Volume One (1 January 1870—19 August 1871), 34.

[8] Virginia Woolf, ‘Street Haunting: A London Adventure’, in Selected Essays, edited by David Bradshaw (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 177.

[9] The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Volume 1: 1915-19, edited by Anne Olivier Bell (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979), 26, 33.

[10] D. H. Lawrence, Kangaroo, edited by Bruce Steele, with an introduction and notes by Mac Daly (1923; Cambridge edition, 1994; London: Penguin, 1997), 216.

[11] Letters of D. H. Lawrence II, June 1913-October 1916, edited by George J. Zytaruk and James T. Boulton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 393, 469.


Everything as something else


When I read John Banville’s novel, The Sea, some years ago, one statement stuck in my head, when the narrator observed: ‘Everything now reminds me of something else.’ It stayed with me because this seemed increasingly my own case. If you have an associative memory, in which details tend to cling to others like burrs, as the sheer quantity of matter in that memory becomes unmanageable, it’s increasingly difficult to dredge up a thing cleanly. ‘To see the object as it really is’—a central concern for Matthew Arnold, meaning rather to remove the incrustations of orthodoxy or class habit or cultural assumption: perfection ‘can never be reached without seeing things as they really are; and it is to this, therefore, and to no machinery in the world, that culture sticks fondly.’[1]

How much of a problem is it if something read or heard or, increasingly, seen recalls something else, quotations, images derived from similar-sounding words, parallels and echoes? And, problem or not, is it in any case avoidable—or even desirable that it should be?

‘Now, this power of suggestion is one of the most mysterious properties of words. Everyone who has ever written a sentence must be conscious or half-conscious of it. Words, English words, are full of echoes, of memories, of associations—naturally. They have been out and about, on people’s lips, in their houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries. And that is one of the chief difficulties in writing them today’. This is Virginia Woolf, who gives the example of ‘incarnadine’, adding: ‘who can use it without remembering also “multitudinous seas”?’[2]


‘Incarnadine’ isn’t a word I’d use that often anyway, to be honest, but the essential case is made and plenty of other examples confirm it. The word ‘swaddled’, for instance, is now, I think, inextricable from images of the Christ-child, even in the minds of those least-versed in Christian imagery and symbolism. Yet that’s immediately complicated by the example of the word’s use that first springs to mind, T. S. Eliot’s ‘Gerontion’, where, to borrow a phrase, ‘the quotabilities swarm’:[3]

Signs are taken for wonders. ‘We would see a sign!’
The word within a word, unable to speak a word,
Swaddled with darkness. In the juvescence of the year
Came Christ the tiger


The poem is two and a half pages long; the commentary, twenty. ‘Swaddled with darkness’? ‘The Book of Job’ (38, 9) via a sermon of Lancelot Andrewes.[4]

But the Banville, yes. At some point, without foreboding or focused intention, but merely happenstance (how often and how genuinely are things ‘merely happenstance’?), I browsed my way back to it and noticed (of course) that what I recalled so vividly was not present at all. He had actually written: ‘…everything for me is something else, it is a thing I notice increasingly.’[5]

And (of course) this, or something like it, had cropped up before; many times, probably, but one occurs to me without searching or straining. Towards the end of To the Lighthouse, James, the Ramsay son to whom the first words of the novel are addressed, recalls what the lighthouse has meant to him in the past and compares it with the reality of the structure very close to him, as the boat journey to the rocks on which it stands is almost ended. And he understands that ‘the Lighthouse’ is neither one thing nor the other, not simply, not always. ‘For nothing was simply one thing.’[6] And in Orlando, a work notable above all, I suppose, for changeability, mutability and instability: ‘Everything, in fact, was something else.’[7]

Something else as well, I want to write. Everything turning out to be something completely different from what we believed it to be is too scary a thought; but multiplicity is fine, better than fine, desirable, no, indispensable.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.[8]

We are deluged with information now, much of it crazy, much of it incorrigibly plural—and much of it by routes where nothing is filtered or ordered. The internet is a wonderfully accurate reflection of this: a hundred or a thousand or a hundred thousand links brought up by a typed keyword or phrase. We may recognize a few of the sources and already have them arranged in a loose hierarchy in our minds; but in most cases we can’t tell without clicking on them, assessing, questioning. Many people assume, based on other contexts, that the ‘best’ links are at the top of the page. Alas, it ain’t necessarily so. And the question we ask of them can often not be answered since the lack of the information required to answer it was what prompted the original inquiry. I recall this from the novelist Nicholas Mosley: ‘The experiment is to discover the mechanisms of the brain. But the instruments are constructed by these mechanisms, so the operation is impossible.’[9]


Information overload. Recreation overload. Writing a letter to Lord Byron (as you do), W. H. Auden remarked:

Indeed our ways to waste time are so many,
Thanks to technology, a list of these
Would make a longer book than Ulysses.[10]

I remind myself that we’ve had eighty years since Auden published his poem to develop ways of wasting our time – and that my favourite edition of Ulysses is 933 pages.


[1] Culture And Anarchy (1869; edited by J. Dover Wilson, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), 35.

[2] Virginia Woolf, ‘Craftsmanship’, in Selected Essays, edited by David Bradshaw (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 88 (referring to Macbeth, II, ii, 59).

[3] Hugh Kenner on Part II of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, in A Homemade World: The American Modernist Writers (London: Marion Boyars, 1977), 194.

[4] The Poems of T. S. Eliot. Volume I: Collected and Uncollected Poems, edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue (London: Faber & Faber, 2015), 31, 474.

[5] John Banville, The Sea (London: Picador, 2006), 138.

[6] Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (1927; edited by David Bradshaw, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 165-166, 152.

[7] Virginia Woolf, Orlando (1928; edited by Rachel Bowlby, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 138.

[8] Louis MacNeice, ‘Snow’, in Collected Poems, edited by Peter McDonald (London: Faber, 2007), 24.

[9] Nicholas Mosley, Natalie Natalia (Dalkey Archive Press: Victoria, Texas: 2006), 130.

[10] Auden, Letter to Lord Byron, Part II (first published in Letters from Iceland, his 1937 collaboration with Louis MacNeice), in The English Auden: Poems, Essays and Dramatic Writings, 1927-1939, edited by Edward Mendelson (London: Faber, 1977), 177.