Winter in the city


Last Thursday I went to the cinema. It was a bitterly cold evening and by the time the film was over, it had started snowing outside. Reaction from the cinemagoers was equally divided. Half of the people moaned about the appalling weather and huddled in the foyer, deciding whether or not to make a break for it or stay in the theatre’s warmth and treat themselves to a post-movie drink. The other half – and here I include myself – bounced out into the night, happy to see London covered again in a fresh layer of powdery snow.

Summer in London is fantastic (as long as the weather plays along) and a walk along the South Bank with sunglasses and an ice cream  on an August Sunday is hard to beat. But winter… London in winter can be a drab, depressing place, with periods of grey drizzle alternating with periods of heavy rain. The Thames takes on a murky brownness and people brace themselves in waterproof boots and tatty umbrellas.

We have been lucky these last few weeks. The weather has been cold and crisp, the winter sun surprisingly bright, and we have been treated to a few days of snow. Not a massive amount of snow, mind you, and Canadian colleagues and friends have been bemused by our tales of traffic gridlock and public transport meltdown at the merest flurry of snowflakes, but enough snow to settle on the ground and profoundly change the shape of the city, albeit briefly.

The way that snow alters the built environment is something that has fascinated me since I was seventeen and read Italo Calvino’s Marcovaldo. In one of the stories – La città smarrita nella neve (The city lost in the snow) –  the title character wakes to find his city covered in snow. For Marcovaldo, a man more attuned to nature than the man-made world, the snow is an accomplice, hiding walls and roads underneath itself, making it impossible to see where one building starts and another stops.

Perhaps that’s why I love snow in the city so much: despite the bedlam it causes, it feels like nature reminding us who really has the power here. Those white otherworldly flakes reshape our pathways, obscure our buildings and slow us down in our workdays. In the city, you also get that wonderful orange glow at night, with the lights from street lamps reflecting against the white, so that it never truly gets dark. It really does remake the city and I am always disappointed when the thaw comes…. but at least there’s not long to go until summer!

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