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.
Metro 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.