A Winter Mind

John Burnside

As a teenager, I spent many hours in the section of the library where the art books were kept, partly to be out of the house and away from where anyone might track me down, and partly because I was searching for an ideal of cleanness, a personal Elysium. It probably goes without saying that Corby reference library had a rather limited collection of art books, and in many of those it did possess, the reproductions were blurred and sun-faded, approximations of an original theme, folded into a faint mustiness like the illustrations in wartime children’s annuals. Still, I was an uncritical child, easily haunted by images, and some of those I found in that place have stayed with me ever since, shaping the geography of my imagination. There were Bible scenes, which I skipped, and frequent nudes, which I lingered over briefly before turning the page, the faint whiff of the presbytery at my back. My main reason for being in the library, however, and the pictures I loved more than any others, were Dutch and Flemish landscapes. I could go around for days with a big sky over flat, empty fields running on in my mind’s eye and there were nights when my average 15-year-old’s dream life was conducted in a maze of red-brick courtyards and canals.

Hendrick Avercamp’s ‘A Scene on the Ice Near a Town’ (c.1615).
Hendrick Avercamp’s ‘A Scene on the Ice Near a Town’ (c.1615).

My particular ideal was a frozen river where, bundled up in whatever came to hand, a newly liberated citizenry ventured onto the ice under a winter sky – and my mind would follow, knowing that this was the closest thing to freedom I could hope for. The skies above those frozen rivers could be translucent, almost blinding, touched with willow pattern blue or peach or an elusive pigeon grey, or the dark, textured gold of old vellum, as in Jan van Goyen’s Winter Landscape with Skaters or Hendrick Avercamp’s Scene on the Ice Near a Town, but no matter how bright or dark the heavens, how empty or crowded the ice, what was important was the new space these pictures revealed. That space, I assumed, was short-lived and I believed it was new to the townsfolk captured skating, or driving horse-drawn sleighs or playing some strange, antique form of ice hockey on their frozen river, a temporary condition and therefore somewhere the usual rules, along with the usual religious, gender and class prejudices, were suspended. It was a public space, yet it was strangely intimate and, unlike any public space I had ever known, it appeared to be unpoliced and free.

Not that I thought about it politically – or not at the time. My engagement was emotional and imaginative rather than analytical: when I looked at Winter Landscape with Skaters, all that mattered was what I felt, and what I felt was a mix of raw sensation and a belonging I had been waiting to experience for years, but couldn’t have defined or explained. I knew nothing about the techniques of painting snow, nothing about the Little Ice Age that gripped Europe when these ‘winter scenes’ were painted in the 16th and 17th centuries, nothing about the social and political conditions that prevailed during that era. My response, then, and for years to come, was purely lyrical. Anyone and everyone could walk and skate and flirt there, and such spaces were proof that the world was capable of transformation, just as in the old stories, where time and space could be magically transfigured in a single icy night. Bodies of water that had not frozen over in living memory could suddenly become hockey rinks and dance floors, people could carry braziers out and cook something, men and women could look back years later and say that that was when they fell in love, on the day the river froze and all the usual business was forgotten in an unlooked-for holiday.

I knew snow, of course, and partly because snow occasionally happened in my world, I knew that time falls into two distinct categories: what I thought of as real time, in which I had room to move and to be (which is to say, at my own pace), and what I saw as the time of others, which was not necessarily uncongenial but, being imposed, was never entirely true. When there was snow, everyday proceedings could be suspended by a burst pipe or a blocked road, traffic could come to a standstill, schools close. Yet the effect was also more metaphysical: the snow made the world fall quiet and the day appear to stand, if not motionless, then still enough for real time to prevail. The spaces between the houses on our estate became wider and deeper. Ordinary townsfolk, passing by in a snowfall, were rendered strangely magnetic. Gravity altered. When I went out into the snowy street, everyone I met felt like kin. Most important of all, for those of us who defined everything in terms of relative deprivation, public spaces became places that could be shared. As absurd as it might sound, snow granted us a few days, sometimes even weeks, of something that felt like democracy.

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