Sunday, 8 February 2009


This week we've had what is, by my standards, quite a lot of snow. I say 'by my standards' since snow is not something I'm really very familiar with. I grew up in south-west Manchester where a combination of the Gulf Stream and the Pennines means that snow is relatively rare and any weather system of that sort has usually deposited most of its load on Yorkshire, Derbyshire, and higher-lying parts of Manchester* long before it reaches us. In fact, in the whole of my childhood I only really remember one substantial snowfall, which must have been some time in the early 80s.

That occasion was notable for two reasons. Firstly, there was enough snow for my dad, my sister and I to roll a snowball all the way down the hill from near the church to our house, a distance of several hundred yards. In my memory this snowball was the size of a small car, though since I was even shorter then than I am now, I suspect this is something of an exaggeration. It was certainly very heavy and we had to enlist the help of several passers-by to move it the last few yards. I think the original plan was to make a snowman, but by the time we'd got it home we'd all rather lost interest, so it just sat outside the house for a remarkably long time, slowly dwindling and (owing to the interest of passing dogs) taking on a disturbingly yellow tinge towards the bottom.

Secondly, it was the one occasion when we were permitted to break the embargo on playing on the nearby golf course. We spent the afternoon happily sliding down the slope at one end on our newly acquired (and soon to be abandoned) yellow plastic sledge, along with several other kids, the only one of whom I now remember was a lad called Colin, famous for having once addressed the most ferocious dinner-lady in the school using an interesting combination of four-letter words, the existence of which the rest of us had only heard vaguely hinted at.** Again, in my memory this slope included an immense drop worthy of an olympic ski-jump, though given the fact that the place is on the Mersey flood-plain, this can't really have been the case. What I do remember for certain, however, is that the fun came to an abrupt end for me when some sort of aerodynamic instability resulted in my reaching the bottom of said slope with me on the bottom and the sledge on the top, and a large quantity of what was by then very hard, compacted ice went up my jumper and severely grazed my back.

Anyway, this week I have for the first time in my life experienced being effectively snowed in, but not quite for the reasons I'd have expected. In my mind being "snowed in" has always conjured up the tales a Norwegian friend used to tell of only being able to get out of the bedroom windows, but in our case it wasn't getting out of the house that caused the problem so much as getting anywhere else once one was out.

On Monday despite the fact that there was only a relatively paltry inch or two here, London - if accounts on the radio were to be believed - was completely buried in a single 40-foot drift. As a result most of the trains to Oxford (at least all those originating in London) weren't running. A fairly short sojourn in the freezing cold at the station, where there was no information on when, or even if, a train might be expected, convinced both me and my manager that my time could be spent more productively working from home, so back I went. On Thursday by contrast we awoke to a fluffy white blanket 4 or 5 inches deep, but I made it into work with only a fairly mild amount of inconvenience and back with no trouble at all. Friday, however, was a different story.

Again we got up to find that in the night another few inches had been added to the not inconsiderable snow that remained from the day before, and again, with cries of 'Call that snow? That's not snow - I used to live in Chicago!' from C, we set off as normal. However, it soon became apparent that there are some significant differences between Chicago and Didcot when it comes to snow. First of all, Chicago has snowploughs. Secondly, people who live in Chicago know about driving in snow even on uncleared roads.

We made our way towards the station, C adeptly rescuing us from the slight skid that resulted from turning out on to the refrozen sheet-ice that was the ungritted main road and negotiating both the enormous potholes which seem to have opened up in the road surface where it had been mended with what was presumably snow-soluble tarmac, and the imbecile 4x4 drivers still smugly belting about the place at 40mph. On the slight incline which is the closest Didcot has to a hill people were frantically spinning their wheels and cursing and the roundabout at the end of the road resembled a curling rink. It was packed with cars gingerly inching forwards and the occasional impatient idiot sailing inexorably past their desired exit, sideways, at speed, with a look of slight bewilderment.

Having mercifully negotiated the roundabout without incident, however, we then discovered that the queue of traffic on the road to the station did not result, as it usually does, from some kid having pressed all the pelican-crossing buttons, but was in fact nose-to-tail as far as the eye could see with an ominous siren noise emanating from somewhere towards the A34. At this point it started snowing heavily again and we decided that a "snow day" might be in order after all and went back home.

Under other circumstances I would simply have walked to the station, but given that increasing bumpage means that I am considerably less steady on my feet than usual at the moment, this didn't seem like a particularly good idea. It's not that I have entirely lost my sense of balance or become incapable of normal exercise, but the unaccustomed weight/girth means that I am apt to over-compensate if I feel myself start to slide. The day before I only completed the walk from the station to work by a) walking in the road where it had been gritted or b) clinging to fences, railings, and the wall of Worcester college. And aside from the obvious disadvantages of falling on one's face when pregnant, the prospect of being plunged into the grey-brown semi-frozen slurry that was two inches deep on all the pavements - particularly when I only have two pairs of trousers that fit and the other ones were in the wash - was not an attractive one. Added to which there was the distinct possibility that once down on such a slippery surface I would be unable to get up again unassisted, and would be left flapping and floundering in the stuff like some small woolly cetacean.

So, I called in and opted to take the day as leave and we sat around the house doing the sort of thing that seemed appropriate to being snowbound, which in my case was mostly knitting and eating hot buttered crumpets. C worked from home on his laptop except for a brief interlude when in a fit of Chicago-inspired nostalgia he went out to "shovel the sidewalk". Since he is in fact British, however, he drew the line at doing any more than the bit immediately in line with our property, and since neither of our neighbours even cuts their grass or opens their curtains on a regular basis, this made very little difference. In fact the only effect was that periodically an unpleasant gritty sound accompanied by muttering emanated from outside the front door as a parent who was happily towing their small child on a sledge hit the snowless section and started spraying up sparks.

Nevertheless, it's secretly always good to have an excuse for an unexpected day of idleness, particularly when it's not accompanied by illness and is accompanied by tea and crumpets. And it meant that I finally reached the end of my bootee-knitting marathon and made some serious progress on the second Mingus sock which has been languishing since before Christmas. Today the temperature finally made it above zero, most of the roads are clear, and an increasing number of the pavements, and even in the garden the occasional thing is beginning to poke its head back up above the (now rock-hard) snow. Now there's just the small matter of the "severe winter storm" they're forecasting for tomorrow...

*Like Liz's house.
** As I recall there were extenuating circumstances: in a bizarre accident the dinner-lady in question had just inadvertently sliced off the tip of his finger while opening the gate onto the playing-field.

Friday, 6 February 2009

A Good Read?

One of the small perks of a job like mine is coming across books you'd never encounter otherwise, particularly those with weird and wonderful titles, and the last few weeks have been a particularly productive period in this respect. Usually I don't get to read enough of the book in question to establish what it's about, so, for instance, I never did get to find out what was so impossible about Babs the Impossible (1901) or who or what the "Nobbles" of Me and Nobbles (1908) was. Neither was I able to take the time to discover precisely what sort of climatic conditions the author might have had in mind when he entitled his 1944 book The Incredible Year: An Australian sees Europe in 'Adolf Hitler Weather'.

Sometimes, however, ignorance on the point of subject matter is to be preferred, as the book itself turns out to be nowhere near as interesting as the title might lead one to expected. Imagine my disappointment, for instance, when one of my all-time favourite eighteenth-century titles - The Coal-Heaver's Cousin Rescued from the Bats; and his Incomparable Cordials Recovered (1788) - turned out to be a rather dull religious tract and not a rollicking tale of derring-do at all. Likewise The Mental Accountant (also 1788) proved to be a self-help guide to doing long-division, rather than, as I'd hoped, an early novel about a young man driven to insanity by the exigencies of double-entry book-keeping.

One work which does sound as though it might be a good read, however is The Life and Adventures of Bampfylde-Moore Carew the noted Devonshire Stroller and Dog-Stealer (1745) which purports to be the autobiography of one 'Gypsie Carew'. Described by the Oxford DNB as 'Carew, Bampfylde-Moore (1693-1759), impostor', he was apparently the son of a Devonshire rector who ran away from home to take up a career in swindling and general blackguardry. At various times this included eloping with (and later abandoning) the daughter of a Newcastle apothecary (goodness knows how since his portrait suggests he was a remarkably ugly man with an even uglier dog - presumably stolen), being transported to Maryland as an 'idle vagrant', managing not to be press-ganged on the way back by pretending to have smallpox, being elected 'King or Chief of the Gypsies', and travelling the country with the Young Pretender.

Carew seems to have got away with quite a lot of his nefarious undertakings. Not so another unsavoury character I recently came across in Lloyd's Weekly London Newspaper for Sunday, February 27, 1848. W. Johnson, alias Montroe, alias 'Jim the Greek' and his accomplices J. Flower and J. Bunton were apparently involved in arranging and executing a number of burglaries in and around Woolwich. According to the newspaper, on this occasion they approached a Mr Duffill to see whether he would help them set up another job and the following (rather comical) exchange took place:

'Bunton said, "Would a thick one or two be convenient this cold weather?" Duffill said "I do not understand"- when Bunton rejoined, "Can you tumble?", meaning, understand, Duffill said no, and Bunton said, "Do you know of any one that has any dust?" Duffill said, "I know not what you mean."'

and who can blame him!

You'd have thought that this would have been enough to indicate to the gang that this Duffill chap wasn't perhaps a dyed-in-the-wool crook of their own caliber, but they apparently explained to him in words he could understand that they would "go regulars in" (i.e. give him a share in the proceeds from) any job he could put them up to. At which point Duffill agreed and then promptly went off and told the police, who arranged a set up and caught them in the act. When Flower's house was searched "skeleton keys and various burglarious instruments most ingeniously concealed, were found".
And that, as they say, was that.

Now why don't you get crime reports like that in the papers these days?