Last week I went to London and spent three happy hours in The Wellcome Library, taking advantage of their beautiful reading rooms. I was researching shell shock and PTSD to inform Shell Shocked Britain, the book I am writing for Pen and Sword for 2014, and although a trip up on the coach from Wellington only leaves me with three or four hours of concentrated study, I had a very successful afternoon.
And then of course, the weather changed and a trip up would have been difficult – delays on the M5 and M4 resulting in time for a cup of tea and a piece of cake in the cafe and little else (you can see where my priorities lie.)
I was born and brought up in London but have spent 25 years of married life away from the city. My husband, also born there, isn’t keen on a day trip, let alone going back to the capital to live. I put this down to his early years in Streatham; living in a big house right near the Common must have been a horrid experience….(you may sense I feel he has little, if no excuse for his continuing antipathy).
The moment I cross the boundary into the familiar suburbs I feel that first excitement; it is a genuine ‘buzz’. I am not so naive as to think that ‘buzz’ wouldn’t eventually become exhausting if I had to make a long commute every day. I had to travel from the northern suburbs into Holborn every day for three years and standing on an open platform – even at the beautiful Arnos Grove Station – was pretty hellish in winter. Readers of my blog might know of my love of poetry; little snippets or whole poems ‘speaking’ for me of an immediate experience. So remembering last week, and realising how different the experience of the City, and indeed Somerset (it is snowing heavily here as I write) is as the snow tumbles down, I give you this poem by Robert Bridges.
For me London Snow brings the city, with all its inequalities, together under a blanket of snow which ‘hides difference’ and makes ‘unevenness even’. Even those living in the darkest spots wake to ‘unaccustomed brightness’. The perfect lines, They gathered up the crystal manna to freeze/Their tongues with tasting, their hands with snowballing; so describe the innocence and thrill children still experience as the snow starts to fall that for a moment I forget what a nuisance it can be, and how frustrating it was to get to college with slush splashed up the back of my tights and three hours ahead of me to sit, damp and cold, in a lecture hall. Those men of Bridges’s poem are for a moment taken away from the toil of the day ahead by the sight of the ‘uncompacted lightness’ of new fallen snow and the charm they are about to break with their heavy boots.
By Robert Bridges
When men were all asleep the snow came flying,
In large white flakes falling on the city brown,
Stealthily and perpetually settling and loosely lying,
Hushing the latest traffic of the drowsy town;
Deadening, muffling, stifling its murmurs failing;
Lazily and incessantly floating down and down:
Silently sifting and veiling road, roof and railing;
Hiding difference, making unevenness even,
Into angles and crevices softly drifting and sailing.
All night it fell, and when full inches seven
It lay in the depth of its uncompacted lightness,
The clouds blew off from a high and frosty heaven;
And all woke earlier for the unaccustomed brightness
Of the winter dawning, the strange unheavenly glare:
The eye marvelled—marvelled at the dazzling whiteness;
The ear hearkened to the stillness of the solemn air;
No sound of wheel rumbling nor of foot falling,
And the busy morning cries came thin and spare.
Then boys I heard, as they went to school, calling,
They gathered up the crystal manna to freeze
Their tongues with tasting, their hands with snowballing;
Or rioted in a drift, plunging up to the knees;
Or peering up from under the white-mossed wonder,
‘O look at the trees!’ they cried, ‘O look at the trees!’
With lessened load a few carts creak and blunder,
Following along the white deserted way,
A country company long dispersed asunder:
When now already the sun, in pale display
Standing by Paul’s high dome, spread forth below
His sparkling beams, and awoke the stir of the day.
For now doors open, and war is waged with the snow;
And trains of sombre men, past tale of number,
Tread long brown paths, as toward their toil they go:
But even for them awhile no cares encumber
Their minds diverted; the daily word is unspoken,
The daily thoughts of labour and sorrow slumber
At the sight of the beauty that greets them, for the charm they have broken.
So as I wake up tomorrow morning, perhaps unable to do all those things I had planned for the day, I will not let my first thought be ‘Oh damn it’. I will remember Roberts Bridges and be greeted by its beauty and its charm.
Oh well, it is still a beautiful poem….