This occasional investigation is my friend Danny’s Big Idea, so it seems appropriate that he (with some help) built its first subject.
It’s also a salutary reminder that the Sleep Project – about travelling places by sleeping in them; about the unique intensity and intimacy of places at night and unconscious, and about the mysteries of sleep itself – has a serious side.
After all, some people don’t get to sleep out by choice; some people die doing what for us is an indulgence. A dirt cheap holiday, then, in other people’s misery; as well as other people’s poetry.
It’s also an Adventure Close to Home. To have a full day in London, cycling from Paddington to Holborn and back in a snowstorm; have time to go home, have supper and put the kids to bed; and to still get to sleep in a cave of ice: that is about as adventure-close-to-homey as one can get.
The discovery of night that is one crucial element of the project began as I followed the footpath from Danny’s house. Immediately, it was clear that snow at night has special qualities. It is luminous.
Even in the thick mizzle that marks the dawning of a thaw, this blanketing of whiteness reflects and receives enough white to make it possible to walk without a torch; though without an occasional flash to pick up other peoples’ footsteps, one would soon be helplessly lost, even in a small wood like this. Branches are an infinite maze of variations, without a single landmark to orientate the eye; gaps between bushes indistinguishable from actual routes of paths, masked by identical mounded white burdens.
And as the wood falls away and you enter the nearby field – a shallow dry valley in the dip slope of a clay-with-flints covered Down – one encounters a different kind of disorientation. I know this to be a large field fringed with trees and the sky above; but in this light it is Rothko-gone-tonal, an infinite depthless off-white merging into an infinite depthless darker-off-white merging into an infinite depthless near-black.
At all times of course, even in daylight, this tonality is the great visual gift snow gives to landscapes. Colours stand out, sore thumbs in a world rendered off-black and off-white. Even the soft shades of grey and brown, of bark, or the feathers on a pigeon’s back – are rendered deeper, more variegated by it; this is partly because everything is covered with nature’s non-colour, white; and partly because everything reflects off everything else, and is to boot crystalline with ice. All this, snow does, and all this it does uniquely. Yet in other ways it is ‘like’ other things, and some of them unexpected: the mounded, duning piles of tiny specks are ‘like’ sand; though it strikes me that, while this seems an unlikely contrast, the reasons for it being so are cultural ones. Surely it’s only since the dawn of flight that we’ve associated sand only with hot places. Surely medieval people, for example, only encountered it at the sea edge, where, just like snow, it was cold, and shot through with the dangers of being near dangerous natural forces, and intimately associated with water. And – and this is relevant to the bedrock of tonight – it is ‘like’ chalk, not only in that it gives the landscape the unexpected, unnatural, bleached-out non-colour that is white, but also because the combination of smoothness and whiteness does something similar to our expectations.
Chalk hills, even with their thin patina of grass, distort space; they seem larger, more expansive, than they really are; and walking in them thus gives an illusion of moving faster than usual, of moonwalking. And both chalk and snow store up water, giving an illusion of dryness to world that, Winterbourne, can suddenly turn to river.
And now here’s the igloo itself: a mammoth-shaped thing on the field-edge, with a crawl-in gaping entrance shielded only by thick blue and white rug. A snifter of Laphroiag-and-ginger wine and I’m in.
It’s a cold womb in here, its edge undulated by the hands that packed it out, enclosing without particularly sheltering, instead bringing the frozen landscape into sensurround closeness. And it’s strong: you could sit on it without it collapsing. But also, and here is my intimations of the hardships such experiences can bring, soft. There is just room to lie down, but if I lift my head or seek out something from a bag I am very likely to brush the walls, and each time I do, frozen specks fall down my neck or into my bag and immediately turn to cold wetness, precisely what one doesn’t want.
Indeed unpacking is surprisingly hard; everything you want to stay dry has to be enclosed in plastic or somesuch, and doing this is quite slow given that you don’t want to imprison meltwater with them. Such things must be obvious the Arctic explorers and mountaineers, but they are easily overlooked to the Adventurer Close to Home.
There are plenty of thin but insulating layers between me and the snow that is the ground’s lowest carpet; there’s also no real darkness. The self-reflecting world of faint greys penetrates in here as much as it does the fields and woods around me; if someone walks past with a torch it shines through my translucent cave like some unearthly, refracted spotlight through grisaille. In spite of this I fall asleep with surprising ease. Perhaps it’s the Laphroaig-and-Christmas-cake nightcap.
But I awaken in the small hours. This is the time when elderly couples in unheated flats shuffle quietly and coldly off the mortal coil; it is the time when even ordinary campers are most likely to awaken with a jolt. One even wonders if there is not some body mechanism that triggers a moment of survival-instinct wakefulness just as the combination of the coldest, darkest reaches of the night and the slowest, lowest dip in the body’s own rhythms can otherwise spell the greatest potential danger.
Yet it’s not a very clear-headed wakefulness. My perception of my situation comes slowly, slipping in and out of unconsciousness, and it takes a while, for which read seconds or perhaps hours, to analyse. At first I am just very aware of cold. It is emanating all around me; not the passive, almost cosy-coldness of a cold room and a warm bed, but a radiating cold coming from inches away from my body and pressing its energy upon me, like a radiator reversed. The contrast between my freezing face and my legs, which are so hot I have had to take my trousers down, is so great it is uncomfortable. And gradually I become aware of other things. There is a strip of coldness running thin and hard down one side of me, where the sleeping bag’s zip runs. I’ve not been aware of cold with such precision before. One of my feet has two layers of socks, the other does not; and the one that does not is getting that heavy pain of the unshakeable Cold Foot. Again, a certain precision of perception that perhaps goes with a body protesting at what is being done to it. I realise I am getting more, not less, uncomfortable.
Hours, or perhaps seconds, later, I realise that one layer of sleeping bag has slipped off, and pull it back on again. This seems to be the root of the problem. Why did it take me so long to work that out? Something approaching comfort slowly returns.
From then on, the sleep-pattern is typical of outdoor sleeping; one wakes more often than at home, and a bit of one is always ready to wake completely, halfaware of the occasional gaw and flap of a partridge, the footstep of some invisible mammal, frozen from its burrow or food-source (there is, I note, no dawn chorus). Yet one also seem to draw a unique kind of restedness, from the freshness of the air, the openness of the environment, the firmness of the ground; a kind of rest one never gets at home. One suspects that a hunter-gatherer would sleep more like a cat than we do, not imagining that nights should be unbroken by wakefulness or days unbroken by sleep.
At some point, however, the final key to comfort is found: put you face beneath the cover of the sleeping bag. Not easy when you are as tall as me – the bag is not designed for such treatment – and entailing occasional discomfort, as breath is slower to draw in, which the body never likes; but snug-as-a-bug warm. And there is really no shortage of fresh air: Danny’s equivalent of my 3am survival call, which occurred a couple of nights ago, entailed a brief, and probably equally ill-thought out, concern for the shortage of fresh air in here. And this led to a midnight engineering trip with his fingers that punched neat little air holes in the roof. Thanks, Danny: the result may or may not be life-saving, but they presumably put paid for good to any attempt to test out the myth that igloos are warm. This one is (perhaps it always was) an inexhaustible fount of frozen air.
I think I’m awake, but when there is footfall outside and a flask of tea and a bacon sarnie I realise I was dead to the world. The outside has lifted a few shades of grey; details have revealed themselves in the field, which has revealed itself to be tussocky and broken, but had still pixilated its way to unbroken whiteness in the ‘darkness’ of the previous light.
I lie for a long time, watching the lightness shift on the crystal walls, listening to the frozen spaces. Then I leave for the school run, at once rested and sleepy from my first dose of the Sleep Project, and one thrilled by Adventures Close to Home.
And then the earth’s air-quilt shifted, and the landscape went to deep-freeze again. A mole frozen out of its earth; foxes and sparrowhawks on red alert; towns looking like something from The Road, supermarket shelves empty, roads blanketed in ice. Avebury sarsens hard and fine against their mantle; Tan Hill – glorious Tan Hill – rippling its way into the Vale. I once dreamed that someone had stripped all the grass from it, rendering it a great white rolling whaleback: here was the reality.
It’s not been a year of major transformative life events. There have been many good times, no major crises and a lot of very hard work. Yet as I look back over it, four very specific moments keep repeating on me.
Snow in February. Climbing high above the village with a local sheep-farmer to help her establish if any have been lost after a week of white-out. Crossing the high down in a blizzard, trying to count the white lumps as they shake themselves from the landscape and form an orderly line moving away from us. Our heads seemingly brushing the low snow-clouds. The spacious, curving form of the valley below suddenly made vivid, its emptiness and limits defined cup-like by a billion falling points of white.
Beijing in March. Cycling back from the Starbucks in the Golden Resources Shopping Centre, where I had enjoyed putting together a talk about medieval Ripon surrounded by the comings-and-goings of twenty-first century China. The ride home should have taken 20 minutes, but with every turn of the gearless pedals, Fighting a Cold matured more certainly into Having a Cold, and the low particulate haze of a Beijing Spring revealed itself to be a serious rainstorm in disguise. And where I was meant to cross the Fourth Ring Road I got lost, and instead of being home in ten minutes I found myself in a time warp, a seemingly endless suburb of potholes and mud and decaying one-storey brick shacks and people living their lives in public: China 1985, just a kilometre away from China 2025. And I had no idea where I was, was damp from head to feet, and well on the way to being ill. Yet somehow I loved it.
The Indiana/Michigan borders. No place-shock has ever been more deep or more profound than my first experience of America. Never have I known a more bewildering, compelling and almost-terrifying combination of factors: the apparently virgin landscape, ancient woodland with lakes and clearings, as if the Saxons had just started clearing the primeval forest. The school-less, shop-less villages and hamlets with their little clapboard houses and handsome red-painted identikit barns. The radio dial, which revealed a world without News as I recognise it; in which the only music is country or country rock or Christian rock, and the only spoken opinions – rare in themselves – assert without hesitation a world view that makes the Taliban sound progressive. The reality and recentness of creation. The human landscape: Amish villages, the grid suddenly petering out into dirt roads, an Indian reservation, Vietnam vets proclaiming their identity from the verandah. All this 3 hours from Chicago, cosmopolitan, connected: nowehere in my country can a three-hour drive render you into a world so shockingly strange and beguiling.
Walsingham realisation Three days in Walsingham, which I found to be a very, very odd place. Somehow coming up for the first time against a brick wall in my dilettante spirituality: uncertainty is not provisional; it is fundamental. I will never believe these things. Driving to Binham and on to the coast with Van Morrison singing of ‘tales of mystery and imagination’ as if the tale-telling, unknowing and imagining were themselves the deepest and bestest we can expect. And then a drive home that felt like a drive to heaven: Walpole St Peter, West Walton: luminous barn-churches in the strong summer light. The glorious broken poetry of Crowland baking in the sun in the middle of the fen; then west an hour, to Wing as the light fell, silent and bathing. Like poems whispered by a cracked angel.
This close encounter with the much-anticipated White Christmas came as something of a shock: with the oil topped up, and by chance an hour south and an hour west of the places that faced *real* problems in those days, all we could do is glory in it and weep at its fading, and dream of holidays to Spitsbergen, South Georgia or Kamchatka, black-and-white places not quite yet turned to new costas by climate change.
Which got me to thinking about White Christmases. How they are a north European imposition on an event which we are meant to be celebrating, but which took place in the Middle East. If this was really All About Jesus, we would celebrate a Hot Christmas, or at least not a snowbound one. But it’s not: Jesus’ birth day us unknown, and History has chosen midwinter, and something older and more fundamental than a very good man (even a Divine one) is written in the DNA of this festival. That’s why we lug fresh evergreens into our living rooms, and send each other cards where Babylonian mages wade through dune-high snowdrifts and the star is crystalline on a freezing night.
But also that a White Christmas in reality is not just about snowballs and hot toddies and evenings round the fire. It’s about failed trains, blocked roads, people getting stuck, rough sleepers losing their lives. And in a funny kind of way, that thought *does* tie us in to the Christian layer of the rich midwinter/Christ child/consumer feeding frenzy layer-cake that is Christmas in the North Atlantic Archipelago. Because that tired story is all about ordinary people having hard times; the blind actions of distant, all-powerful states; refugees, childbirth, compassion and gifts.
I fantasised about relocating the whole shebang to one of those benighted EuroStar trains: what if they had failed deep beneath the Channel on Christmas day itself; and on board there is a family who are making the journey because of the blind whims of a distant state – west African refugees, perhaps, forcibly ejected from one side of the Channel or another – and in the hold-up one of the woman goes into labour; and a kindly employee with a torch shows those on board – three executives coming back from late meetings, a handful of OrdinaryPeople on a last minute bargain-rush across the water – where they can help by giving from their supplies of ungiven gifts and on-journey refreshments….
It came in like a wave, an oceanic coldness that spread across the landscape and pinned down every living thing. It was joyous, some days manifesting from invisible, spiky air as a fresh snow-dust, others sending everything from puddles to lakes to taps into deep freeze; on one morning a hoar-frost millimetres deep made the world a landscape of spiny glory; the next it had gone, and a sequence of snap-thaw snap-rain snap-refreeze had turned every surface into a transparent ice rink.
And then, with the shocking unpredictability of all tides, it had gone. I mean, we know when high tide will be as surely as we know when it is midwinter: but the actions of a given wave are subject to a billion factors of chance, are of incalculably unpredictability, and thus it is with real weather. And Christmas in the countryside was not-quite-white, if still with very real stretches of unthawed patina on the landscape.
Today, the sky was blue and hard like porcelain; the ice clamped everything down like a deep glaze, fired in some frozen kiln. The trees were lit low, their shades of grey and soft brown cast hard and yellow by the burning eye of a winter sun, their branches from below a million capillaries, faultlines of frost reaching skywards.