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Monday, 24 November 2014

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Don’t call it a snap: a month of frost is just what we used to expect – pre-global warming

His enquiry was the kind most likely to invite a chortle, since it had classically corny connotations of double entendre.

“So, Anne, how was it for you?”

The question was put in one of those mock did-the-earth-move voices some men use when they’re retelling old jokes they like as much as their nastiest socks.

“Oh very nice, thank you.” I refused to snigger or surrender to a blush. “And you?”

“Very enjoyable. We had three 90-year-olds staying with us over Christmas.”

“Ah yes. Well I had my 80-year-old parents and their 15-year-old Westie.”

“Oh dear... and they smell.”

“No they don’t! And anyway, you’ve never met my parents!”

He coloured feverishly. “I mean old dogs tend to smell. Obviously not your...”

It was then I sniggered. Irresistible really. Misunderstanding with added chortle-factor is very satisfying. A touch contrived, granted – with maybe a little of the verbal dance about it. But a hiccup in normally polite conversation is generally harmless enough.

“And for the record, Charlie doesn’t smell either... although he does like to sniff a lot on his walks around the tarn.”

Another misunderstanding is circulating more widely right now. National TV and radio news bulletins are making little hairs on the backs of northern necks stand up and bristle. To be kind we might describe their faux pas as an easy mistake. Not to be confused with an old joke.

“We’re in the grip of a cold snap.”

Snap? They call this a snap? Fingernails and bra straps snap. Ginger biscuits and brandy snaps snap. Snapping’s a fleeting thing. Over in a trice.

They might be snapping in Islington, feeling a cheeky draught under their doors in Kent, twanging the elastic in their thermals in Oxford – but we’ve been turning blue in this sub-zero chiller since November.

This is no snap, boys. This here is bleak mid-winter with icicle and hoare frost dressing. The coldest in living memory... and it feels like the longest. Get out more. Go north, young men. Then tell us what you know about snaps.

“Oooh snow! You lucky thing!” She shrieked into the phone loudly, as though propelling screeches to an ear-muffed trekker in the higher reaches of the Himalayas.

“We never get decent snow down here. You should be out sledging! Are you building a snowman?”

Only she, who never had to dig her way out of snow or skid and slide to work through it before dawn, would think of asking such a question.

She’s a teacher, of course – as well as a southerner. Puffy clouds need only form with threat of drizzle for her employers to declare a health and safety holiday, sending her happily back to her duck down duvet .

“Proper cold snap here,” she shrilled. “Freezing last night. Too cold to snow.”

My mum always says that (she isn’t a teacher though). She never could quite work out how – by her reckoning – it might be too cold to snow here at a degree or two above zero and bucketing down in Siberia where it was -40C. No matter how many times I refer her to Dr Zhivago and Omar Sharif’s frosted eyebrows, she sticks stoically to her too-cold-to-snow theory.

There’s something oddly competitive and fiercely panic-stricken about snow and freezing conditions. Everyone seems to want to claim the worst extremes for themselves.

“You think you have problems wearing a vest in Dorset? You reckon frozen fountains in London are a national emergency? Derwentwater has frozen over here in Cumbria. Shap plunged to -12. Ducks are skating on Bassenthwaite Lake. Snow fell on Carlisle... and it Never snows in Carlisle!”

That’s what they insist on telling me, even though it very clearly does, because it inconveniently did, during the longest cold snap known to man – the one that sent me tumbling base over apex into next door’s ornamental garden.

Gosh! Hold the credit crunch, lads. Shelve the decline and fall of Marks and Spencer. Skip Gaza’s woes. It’s cold and it snowed... in winter! Who’d have thought it?

“If winter comes, can spring be far behind?” Another one of my mother’s oft-repeated optimisms – well, Shelley’s originally, of course. Wonder if he also considered it too cold to snow?

The answer to both of those hopeless romantics is: “Yes, it can.”

Spring rightly seems a long way behind the ravages of a winter which once again took us completely by surprise, shocking us to the core of sore, bruised shins, swollen snugly into allegedly non-slip boots.

Call it a misunderstanding. Wintry weather in winter invariably is. Call it memorable, exceptional, a test of endurance for brass monkeys on transplant waiting lists. But – however it was for you – please don’t call it a snap.

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