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‘Snow’ by Marcus Sedgwick ****

I found the lovely little hardback edition of Marcus Sedgwick’s Snow whilst browsing in the library, and added it to the already large pile weighing down my arms.  I have read a few of Sedgwick’s novels to date, but had never encountered his non-fiction work, and was suitably intrigued to start reading it as soon as I returned home.  It was the perfect addition to my seasonal reading pile, which I like to collate as soon as every season begins to shift into the next.

Sedgwick has always been fascinated by snow, and has travelled to many cold parts of the world in order to get closer to it.  After moving from Kent to a mountain chalet in France’s Haute-Savoie region, which borders Italy and Switzerland, ‘for the first time, he truly understood what it meant to live in a place where snowfall shaped the rhythms and boundaries of life.’

91vxoaic14lSnow is split into six sections, a number which has been selected to represent the six sides of a snowflake; a nice touch, I feel, and it is certainly an approach which works well.  In each of these chapters, Sedgwick explores ‘the art, literature and science of snow’, and places these alongside his own experiences.  Alongside this, he explores the wider implications of snowfall.  The blurb comments that Sedgwick also looks into ‘climate change for himself, asking if snow could become a thing of the past’ – rather a scary thought.

From the outset, Sedgwick’s descriptive writing really helps to set the scene.  He writes from his new home in France, commenting: ‘Looking down the valley now, between the humps of the nearby hills that lie like a line of vast migrating mammoths, the tip of the summit of Mont Blanc is making one of its rare appearances sans chapeau – without a hat – above the cloud that almost perpetually envelops the peak.  But yesterday the snow laid down its marker for the season, made its opening move, letting us know it’s on its way in earnest.  It is October 16.’

He opens with a fascinating section on the origins of different words for snow and their usage, before moving on to explore the scientific elements which will determine which kinds of snow will fall.  I admit that the science geek within me loved revisiting facts such as the following: ‘… the six-armed star shapes, known as dendrites, are not the only kind possible.  It’s also possible for snow to fall as needles, columns, hollow columns, six-sided prisms and plates.’  Sedgwick goes on to write: ‘Once snow lands, drifts, accumulates, thaws, refreezes, slides and so on, it develops even more intricacy, even greater wildness, but that’s another matter again.’

Sedgwick reminisces throughout the book about the winters of his childhood, and how they awakened his great love of snow; of ‘snowmen, snowball fights, icicles as dashers or as ice-dragon teeth, the snow seems to me now to have been a (literally) brilliant canvas for the imagination.’  His vision of the future is nowhere near as rosy as his reminiscences for years gone by, but his stark comments sadly feel realistic.  He comments: ‘At some point in our future then, there will be no more snow, no more ice…  Real snow – fresh, natural, ephemeral and almost supernatural – that will be gone.  Icicles like dragons’ teeth, lakes to skate on: these will be gone too.  The temperature of the world will have risen to the point where such things will live only in the memory of those old enough to remember, and then snow will take on itself an even deeper symbolism; it will become even more magical, mystical.  It will stand then for what we have lost.’

First published in 2016, and coming in at just over 100 pages, Snow would make a wonderful gift, or serve as a lovely choice for something a little different to read during the winter months.  It is a tome by a prolific but quite underrated author, and feels quite different from his other work which I have read to date.  One can see, however, in novels like My Swordhand is Swinging and Blood Red, Snow White, the influence of the winter.

Snow is absorbing, and the scope which Sedgwick has achieved within such a short book is admirable.  He continually notes how the weather is in the Haute-Savoie, and also beautifully captures how whole communities have come to live within, and rely upon, the snow.  He explores the myths and legends based around the snow – surprisingly few of them exist – and reinforces the power and reach of the snow as a weather phenomenon.  For a slim book, there is certainly a lot packed in, and much to consider.

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‘The Snow Tourist: A Search for the World’s Purest, Deepest Snowfall’ by Charlie English ****

I had been itching to read The Snow Tourist: A Search for the World’s Purest, Deepest Snowfall by Charlie English since I purchased it back in August 2017.  I felt that it would be best saved until late Autumn as a seasonal read, and it proved the perfect tome to settle down with in the fading afternoon light of November.

9781846270642Metro calls The Snow Tourist a ‘wonder and a delight’, and Joanna Kavenna deems it ‘an enchanting tale of one man’s search for snow, a report on the precarious state of our extreme climates, an evocative poem to lost childhood winters…’.  Robert Macfarlane says that The Snow Tourist is ‘a finely written and many-sided account of the fascination – both fearful and loving – that we have for snow.’  Wanderlust compares English’s ‘easy-going narrative style’ to Bill Bryson’s, which endeared me to it even further.

In The Snow Tourist, Charlie English has travelled all over the world, over a period of a few years, to find snow.  He begins in his home city of London, and journeys to such places as Vermont, Austria, and the Inuit-inhabited lands of northern Canada.  English certainly has part of an old-fashioned explorer within him; he seems fascinated with everything he sees, and everyone he meets, despite the odd wobbles he encounters due to the extreme cold.

Of his choice to undertake the journeys detailed in The Snow Tourist, he writes: ‘every autumn now my thoughts return to snow.  Snow is something I identify myself with.  Like my father, I am a snow person.’  This inheritance, passed down from his father, is all the more important to English, as his father committed suicide when he was just ten years old.  English goes on to detail his hopes for his travels: ‘The expedition I decided upon one grey day in London consisted of a series of journeys linked by a single natural form – snow.  I would travel to the best snow in the world, discover how people lived with snow, and what they did with it.  As on previous expeditions, the principal objective would be the journey itself, the knowledge and experiences I would gather, and the people I would meet along the way.’

The Snow Tourist is filled with startling facts and conjectures.  English writes, for instance, that ‘someone once estimated that a million billion snow crystals were created around the earth every second, in a jumble of shapes and sizes, from simple hexagonal prisms to flat plates and many-footed stars.’  English also explores such things as the history of skiing.

English intersperses his travels, and writing about those whom he encounters, with memories of snow from his own childhood.  He remembers the following, rather touching moment: ‘A Super-8 film shows me and my brother being towed on the back of a sledge to a famous local hill, Granny’s Bump.  My father is in his wellington boots, red weekend trousers and Norwegian fisherman’s jumper.  My mother is wrapped in a long padded coat, with a woollen hat.  My brother and I wobble about on the sledge and fall off as they haul us along by a rope.  Watching it again now, these three flickering minutes give me a sense of warmth and loss, of nostalgie de la neige.’  Throughout, there is a near-perfect balance struck between facts and personal experience.

The Snow Tourist is engaging and fascinating from the outset, and English’s chatty yet informative prose style makes his book accessible to all.  The travelogue is reflective yet up to the minute, detailing the effects which climate change has had upon some of the snowiest places on earth, and how rapidly the snowfall which some of us live with for many months of the year is beginning to melt way ahead of expected time.  There is an awareness throughout of ways in which snow is changing, and how this affects different cultures which rely upon it.  A lot of historical detail has also been included – for instance, the history of Western snow science.  The ‘Dictionary of Snow’ included as an appendix is a lovely touch, and provides a lot of interesting facts to retain, as well as a slew of different words for different kinds of snow.

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