'Midwinter spring is its own season
Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown,
Suspended in time, between pole and tropic.'
T.S. Eliot Little Gidding
Last Sunday was very much its own season, a day of brutal frost and low scudding sun. Picturesque in the extreme, and moderately hostile.
Yesterday was less clearly so. We have a small innovation at the Cambridge school – a ‘live’ weather board, where students and teachers can add their own annotations during the day, to comment on the weather. Yesterday we started off with ‘dull’ ‘freezing’ ‘icy’; Kensuke wanted to add ‘miserable’, so that went up; and Vibeke, more English perhaps in spirit, wanted to post ‘improving’, whether because the weather was in some sense morally improving, or was in fact getting a bit better at that point, was not absolutely unambiguous.
Sunday was, to repeat, a short day of frost and fire (as Walter Pater would have had it).
There is in Cambridge – near the school as it happens – a museum of brutal frosts, the Polar Museum, which memorialises the history of polar exploration. I was at a similar museum in Tromsø in Norway last year, where I was able to inspect Roald Amundsen’s sledding compass, the one which he took, and which took him, to the South Pole. In Cambridge there are similar mementos of British Polar exploration which, between Ross, Franklin, Scott and Shackleton, is a rich seam of Boy’s Own adventure-type narratives. In Tromsø, they tell the story of Nansen’s extraordinary three years trapped in the polar ice, but that story is, if not dwarfed, then overshadowed by the epickest of all Arctic and Antarctic epics, Shackleton’s 1914-17 expedition; and out-tragedied by that most tragical of them all, Scott’s fatal drive to the South Pole in 1912.
What better way of passing a winter Sunday, than among these Titans of eternal winter? Certainly not ironing shirts, which is mostly how I passed mine. Scott wrote in his journals that at the Pole, the bounce and swagger that gets people through in the civilised world, where people pretty much take you at your own estimation, falls away, and inner steel, or the lack of it, are revealed. That may be so. But other corruptions of civilisation also fall away, prominent amongst which is the need to iron a shirt. I might not be a possessor of inner steel, but under my winter jumper my shirts are still ironed, down to their invisible tucked tails. More fool me.