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In mourning for real winters of dim and distant past


Children slide in the snow in Central Park in New York

Children slide in the snow in Central Park in New York

AFP/Getty Images

Children slide in the snow in Central Park in New York

I miss winter. Those cold, dark, exciting months of my childhood are lost forever it seems. We simply don't have the winters we used to, when my dad would take me outside, show me a sky filled with twinkling stars and throw down a bucket of water. In the morning it would seem like the sky itself had fallen, giving us a long, sparkling star-strewn slide to career along.

Scientists, meteorologists and politicians can point to graphs and charts and argue among themselves. But we have much stronger evidence - it's what we feel in our hearts. Something fundamentally disturbing is happening.

Where are the snows of yesteryear, indeed. Yes, I know we had the deep freeze of 2010, but despite those annual setpiece warnings of "Northern Ireland set for coldest winter in years" we drift through the long months of the shortest days in relatively balmy temperatures.

Some will accuse me of looking at the world through rosy - if frost-flecked - spectacles, but this doesn't look like a proper winter to me.

While the north-eastern United States is suffering from a near apocalyptic white-out, over here we get reports of daffodils being out.

It may be pretty, but it's not right. And, no, I don't want Snowmageddon either. I know that heavy snowfalls cause problems here, too. But I do want winter to feel like winter.

The root of the problem is that the seasons seem to be mulching into each other. True, summer tends to be a bit warmer than winter and it would take a fool not to recognise the onset of autumn or spring, but things seem much less clearly defined now.

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The summers seem wetter. The winters less brittle. Give or take a few degrees, our year seems to be turning into a climatic beige.

And nowhere does that loss of definition mean more than in the case of winter.

Winter needs at its heart a little bit of extremity. Few of us would wish to be trapped in snowstorms like the US, but for winter to mean anything it has to have a bit of bite, a bit of wonder. It has to literally and metaphorically take your breath away.

And, yes, fully confessing to the vagaries of memory, that's what my childhood winters had. Bite. Snap. Narnia.

I confess that winter has always been my favourite time of year. Spring, summer, autumn - all the other seasons have their beauties and images, but none are as special as the stark beauty of winter.

Maybe my fondness for the season is a bit of Ulster stubbornness. We always have a soft spot for the apparently unpopular, the dour, the unflashy.

Certainly, our winters can display those qualities in spades, but I always feel more at home with that - the dark mornings, the donning of warm clothing, the camaradie of complaining about how "it's sooooo cold". Paradoxically, it always seemed to me to be the season that allowed us to be most ourselves - not under the draconian lash of the other seasons demanding that we have fun.

Winter understands us. It doesn't demand anything. Relax, it says, put on the fire, make that round of toast, watch that old Columbo.

Come for a walk, it says, be invigorated by my stepmother's breath and piercing sunshine. It's a bit like a grumpy but deeply loved uncle.

Every so often winter - almost unexpectedly - produces wonderful tricks, like pulling a tenner from behind its ears. Sudden, unexpected, joyful. And his (and, yes, I always think of winter as indubitably male) best one is snow.

You'd have to be pretty done with the world not to feel your heart skip just watching this stuff fall from the sky. And when it lies there making the world seem almost new, the strange muffled silences seem to carry so much meaning, so many memories.

Like frost. Out walking at night, I can recall only one occasion this winter when the pavements were transforming beneath my feet. As I pounded on, the prosaic and the mundane were suddenly sprinkled with magic, rendering our city both familiar and strange.

No other season can work this magic. But it needs proper cold. It's is the season of clearness, of definition, when even your breath - our essence - can be seen by all and sundry.

Not this year, though. And not many a recent one either. Most of our winters are not winters now - just bad weather. No matter how excited the weather forecasters get about "what's on the way", often it's just rain and a bit of wind.

The floods caused havoc, yes, but that's another strange one - they're not confined to winter, but can happen in any season. No, winter is now mainly just a miasma of nothingness.

And early daffodils don't make up for such a shocking loss.

Where is winter? Only in our hearts - and more's the pity for that.

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