I suppose most Canadians have an ambivalent attitude towards the cold of winter, but that might be especially so for those whose early years were spent in a temperate climate, like me. I say this in introduction of a piece about a lesson I just learned this week, on the first day of this unusually cold snap, as we are all shivering under this huge, intense body of Arctic air that has descended upon us.
As a guy who in recent decades has gotten most of his exercise from walking a lot, I have developed a disinclination to surrender to the cold. In Ottawa, a city graced with many pleasant walkways along canals and rivers, I went for a walk every day, priding myself that even on the days of minus 30 degrees C I could wrap up, covering most of my face with a ski mask, and set off along the canal for a half hour or sometimes an hour-long walk. I never felt any negative results from these walks.
This week when the temperatures were pushing minus 20, or down to minus 25 with the “feels like” factor of wind chill added, I ignored warnings that I should stay inside, and set off for downtown where I hoped to buy myself a new overcoat at a Boxing Day sale. I recalled for those timid souls who warned me, the occasion on which the Stockholm City Council, confronted with the decision as to whether to allow an underground railway extension in the city centre to be totally buried underground or to emerge into the open air, decided on the latter course, assuming that to be in the open air was always good for people.
I made it all right to the downtown store, where I spent half an hour or more mooching around among racks of coats that didn’t quite fit, and then, having rejected them all, I set out for home. A couple of times, as I walked along beside high downtown buildings, I felt sudden gusts of intensely cold wind, but I finally made it up to the McGill university campus, part of my usual route, where I began to realize this cold was biting into me a bit. Once through the campus I discovered the laces on one of my boots had come undone. A thing like that makes me nervous. It is one of the imperatives of being old that one mustn’t fall down, which could easily happen with loose bootlaces waving around just asking to be trodden on, and lead to a fall. In fact, a week or so before, walking on a rainy day, I had missed a step as I was going into a downtown building, and had come flat on my face. The only result of that fall was a slight knock on one knee.
On this more recent occasion four days ago, being super-cautious, I was unable to find any surface I could sit on, everything being covered with a thick blanket of snow, so I found a spot close to a sturdy railing, and went down on one knee to retie the lace. I succeeded okay in that, but when I reached for a pole to pull myself up, my trailing leg felt like a dead weight, absolutely a dead weight, that had simply decided it would not be moved. Although my left arm is temporarily slightly immobilized with one of those coming-and-going aches of old age, I had to reach up to the fence with both arms, and was able with a great deal of effort to pull myself back on to my feet.
The impact of this slight incident on my body was surprising. I felt somewhat disoriented, in some subtle way not quite in control of my movements, but I did get back home, dragging myself slowly along without any further incident.
When I took off my winter clothing I discovered I had broken into a sweat, and I collapsed in a chair in a completely unexpected state of exhaustion.
When I later described the incident to one of my sons, he laughed and said, “As I always tell you, Dad, you’re not eighty any more.”
The intense cold has persisted through the following three days, and I have to admit I haven’t once ventured out into it, having learned the lesson that my body, which would have been untroubled by the incident described ten or fifteen years ago, is no longer in shape to shuck it all off.
I have been thinking over the adjustments I have had to make to the cold from the first years I was in Canada where I arrived in September 1954. On my first winter I was repeatedly astonished: first I went to Kirkland Lake, in northern Ontario, and a friend there took me out to the nearby divide at which everything north runs towards the Arctic, and everything south towards the Great Lakes. He told me to out my hand on the sign indicating this momentous divide, and in doing so I had a totally new experience as my warm flesh seemed to stick to the frozen iron rod.
When, three months later, I moved to Kenora, in north-western Ontario, I rented a house overlooking the Lake of the Woods, around whose shoreline my wife and I had to walk when carrying carrying heavy paper bags as we returned home from our weekend shopping. It was a surprise to us to find that before we reached home we had icicles several inches long hanging from our nostrils, and a ring of ice round our mouths.
Within six months we moved to Winnipeg, where my first assignment was to cover the Grain Exchange (even though I knew nothing about grain , or commerce.). I lived a mile or so along Portage avenue from the junction with Main street (one of the world’s most famously cold intersections), where the Exchange building stood, and I will never forget walking that mile every day from October to December to get to work. To say I was frozen on arrival would be to describe the effect of the cold on me in the most moderate way. The cold of Winnipeg in winter --- not so bad, they would say, because it is a dry cold --- was something I had never imagined I would have to cope with.
I had been in Canada for almost six years when I finally decided I had had enough of the cold. In the summer of 1959 my assignment was to cover the Royal tour of Canada. Though always anti-monarchist, and working for a pro-monarchist newspaper, I accepted the assignment because it gave me a look at Canada over its immense length and breadth, that I would never have been able to afford myself, from Montreal to Victoria, up to Dawson City in the Yukon, and back to Halifax. I determined I would never descend into the usual Royal guff, and I never did so, sending stories mainly about the wide variety of people who met the Queen, and including as many funny and slightly disrespectful stories as I could find about --- for example --- the hammer-and-tongs competitions among the young daughters of Canadian mayors for the honour of presenting flowers to Her Majesty. I received one wholehearted tribute that I appreciated, from the sob-sister for one of the London dailies, who said how delighted she was to find me arguing for republicanism with the ladies-in-waiting at a cocktail party held on the Royal train, espousing my views vigorously in what she insisted was my strong Kiwi accent. Back in the office, the sub-editors enjoyed my pieces, they told me, and then spiked them, using no more than, I figured, 40 per cent of what I had written. Never mind, they just put my by-line over the suitably reverent agency copy. A shoddy practice, but what the hell?
When the assignment was over, I had six weeks of time off owing me, along with a $600 sort-of-unofficial overtime package, (one of the efforts the company made to stave off unionism, this unofficial overtime system). The time off and the money enabled us to fly to Trinidad, and spend six weeks moving back up through the Caribbean islands, the paradisical holiday of one’s dreams. We arrived back in Montreal in mid-January, straight from the sunshine and warmth of the West Indies, and my reaction was, “Why the hell are we living in this climate?” Impetuously, we decided we would quit our jobs by May and head back to London, with the vague intention of returning to New Zealand overland through Europe and Asia. Of course we did not have the money that would enable us to carry out this plan, but we had always travelled in the cheapest way possible, taking our holidays first on a tandem bicycle in France, then on a scooter across Europe, before graduating, in Winnipeg, to our first, third-hand, Austin A30, one of the smallest cars in existence at the time, in which we made two trips to Mexico, reaching as far as Mexico city the first year, and returning through California. On the second year we got as far as Monterrey, when discretion got the better part of valour and we headed north hoping we could reach home before the car breathed its last. We conked out again in Houston, where we had to stay five days to get the car fixed, just long enough to be appalled by the city and its uncivilized customs that required us to sit in front of the blacks on the city buses.
In our customary spirit of using the cheapest conveyance, we booked steerage passages to London, leaving in May, and began by trying to sub-let our apartment on Chomedy street, down near the Forum.
Eventually, we realized we would need at least enough money to give us the time to settle into jobs in London, so we postponed our departure until September, cancelled the steerage passages, and continued to live in our apartment. Two weeks before the s.s. Homeric, on which we had originally booked, was due to sail, my boss, who had no inkling of my wish to leave, called me into his office and asked me if I would like to represent the newspaper in London. Yes, sir! So our friend Noel Mostert, who later became the author of the brilliant bestselling books Supership and Frontiers, but who was for the moment working on the shipping beat after having been the paper’s columnist in New York, went down and joyfully rebooked us on the Homeric, only this time in a first class passage. So we left this cold country where we had arrived only six years before on a small immigrant ship, carrying in our pockets only the few dollars we needed to see us through the first few weeks, having travelled cheap all the way until accidentally hitting the first-class passage back across the Atlantic.
The final episode of this Chronicle of Cold Times takes place eight years later, after we returned to Montreal with our family of three small boys, who were born in London and brought up in a cramped apartment in South Kensington from which they could emerge only on an expedition supervised by one or other of us.The comparatively vast expanse of our house and backyard in Outremont were among the chief joys that came from quitting London, and I remember a day I was standing looking out at our backyard in our first winter back, watching the three kids playing in the snow without the slightest concern about the cold. I realized suddenly that if they could enjoy it, there was no reason why I couldn’t enjoy it “This hatred of the cold is all in my head,” I told myself. “I’m going to forget it from now on.”
Since that revealing moment, I have simply adjusted to it, even sleeping for three weeks in a tent in minus 40 degree weather in northern Quebec while shooting a film about Cree hunters, and doing so without complaint, and even with a certain sense that the experience gave me some particularity.
So, the cold be damned: I knew that eventually it would go away, and I hoped that I would not.
And what do you know? I still am here.