Thursday 29 November 2012

Such Stuff as Dreams are Made On

There are stories and experiences from childhood that we all recall with some fondness.  Even if we do not bring them to mind they are in our hearts, a warm glow that never dies.  It is the things we learn and love in innocence that have the greatest resonance.

I was reminded recently of Heidi, a book for children and those who love children by the Swiss author Johanna Spyri.  I was particularly fond of the story of Heidi and her grandfather because I had a very close relationship with my own grandfather, my father’s father, with whom I used to stay when my parents were away on lengthy business trips.  It was my grandfather who introduced me to the Snowman.

I don’t remember when exactly.  I must have been, oh, about four years old.  It was before I went to school anyway.  It was near Christmas, that much I do remember.  The Snowman in question is a story book, pictures without words by Raymond Briggs, another book for children and those who love children.  Like Heidi it tells of a bond, this time between a little boy and the snowman he builds one wintry afternoon in his garden.  By magic it comes to life; by magic the boy and the snowman fly.

It was made into an animated film by Channel 4, one of our terrestrial television companies, with a sublime score by Howard Blake.  When I was growing up it was broadcast every Christmas; perhaps it still is.  With us watching it became an annual event.  The holiday simply would not have been the same without it, as if there was no Christmas tree, no lights and no watch night service in church. 

By far the best bit is the flying sequence.  In the animation it is accompanied by Walking in the Air, a song that still makes me teary with nostalgia;

We're walking in the air
We're floating in the moonlit sky
The people far below are sleeping as we fly

I'm holding very tight
I'm riding in the midnight blue
I'm finding I can fly so high above with you

Far across the world
The villages go by like dreams
The rivers and the hills, the forests and the streams

Children gaze open mouthed
Taken by surprise
Nobody down below believes their eyes

We're surfing in the air
We're swimming in the frozen sky
We're drifting over icy mountains floating by

Suddenly swooping low
On an ocean deep
Rousing up a mighty monster from his sleep

And walking in the air
We're dancing in the midnight sky
And everyone who sees us greets us as we fly

We're walking in the air
We're walking in the air.

There was one Christmas – I was now about six I think – we spent in our family cottage in the north of Scotland, a really remote spot in Easter Ross.  It snowed, heavily.  I built my own snowman in the garden with a little help from father.  It was as big as me, that I remember clearly, with an old hat on his head and a scarf around his neck. 

I waited and waited for him to come to life.  I so wanted to fly like the boy, to go to the North Pole and dance with Father Christmas and all of the other snowmen.  I didn’t and I did.  My snowman remained frozen in the garden, mute and unmoved.  But he came alive in my dreams that night.  And – who knows? –maybe dreams are just a gate to another reality, a world where everything is possible and nothing denied.  It was for me.  The Snowman was the gateway.  


  1. Memoirs of an Imp, mine are a bit different.

    1. Ah, Anthony, we all have our own, good and bad.

  2. A lovely piece of music, and an enchanting memory.

    Briggs was very popular in the 70s, but I disliked the political bent of most of his work. I never saw the animated film.

    My wife builds a snowman every year. His name is Robert J. Putnam.

  3. this is a beautiful little piece of nostalgia. somehow it reminds me an article by Lu Xun, about what kind of books chinese children read in the old time. typically, it was a book called "24 filial piety stories", which was virtually a collection of some child abuse examples.
    somehow i believe, how children are treated, what they read, make a background color of an entire culture.
    anyway, i don't want to spoil your beautiful dream. i had many of those too:-) the pictures of snowman are so cute!

    1. Ah, Yun Yi, you are part of my beautiful dream. :-)

    2. Thanks Ana! You are not only the spikiest, but also sweetest:-)

    3. I'm really just a pussycat, purring more than I scratch. But when I scratch I scratch. :-)

  4. I also read Heidi many times when I was child I must try and find a copy to read again now I'm an adult. I never saw the Snowman, but perhaps it's because our Christmas is Summer and is spent ont eh beach rather than dreaming of snow :)


    1. Robyn, there is another story by Briggs that you might like. It's called Father Christmas, which shows that Santa likes to get away to the sun!

  5. I see it all now: the witchcraft, the real flying lessons, even maybe the hunt, all attempts to recapture that childhood vision. Or something like that! What's really sad (and I feel this whenever I see delight and wonder in children's eyes) is that it turns out to be a false promise. Though maybe you don't share my cosmic pessimism...

    (A lovely piece, by the way.)

    1. Ah, Mark, in some ways yes, in other ways no. I still remember crying bitterly when I finally discovered that Father Christmas did not exist. But deep down the child is still in my heart.

  6. Lovely piece, Ana. Very moving. Childhood is such an impressionable time. There is no resistance. One succumbs so willingly to one's emotions and imagination.

    1. Thanks, Marty. That's absolutely right. I should not really admit this but emotionally I'm still that little girl.

  7. I care not for cold or heat;
    Frost and flame, or sparks, or sleet,
    To my essence are the same;-
    But I honour more the flame.

    Blast, this is the third time I'm typing this. My writings have a habit of deleting themselves once written as here, as always. That is one reason to explain why I produce so little. What remains was once passed off as “shit”:

    Beneath your feet's a poet, then a pit.
    Poetry supporter, if you're here to find
    How poems can grow from
    (beat you to it!) SHIT
    find the beef, the beer, the bread, then look behind.

    Ivy who lived opposite us would always be seen at her kitchen window, waving at whoever passed by (expecting one back, she’d get cross if you didn’t). She used to complain about the kids playing on the grass patch outside her window. She was well into her 80s and lived alone after having been widowed in the early 1980s. Christmas 1984 – My sister and I went to deliver her present and card. She invited us in and told us to be quite as her husband was sleeping. An advert for The Snowman was on on her TV and she led us to the bedroom and said that people keep telling her her husband was dead “But he isn’t dead, is he? See for yourselves he is asleep there” she said pointing to an empty bed. We made out of there as fast as we could!

    In such a world things are retained complete as in a photograph or the mind’s eye as Bosch has done with his fruits. Such are the possibilities of contravening physical laws in order to time travel – Of casting dreams as realities – Of writing as a form of time travel where one can, for example, go back in one’s mind in order to conjure up a sensation, thought, smell (See Marina Warner's Phantasmagoria: Spirit Visions, Metaphors, and Media into the Twenty-first Century). It would be interesting to see how much control one has on these things, if any.

    Christmas is not Christmas without The Snowman which I still watch ritually even when spending it out of town or if my thoughts stray elsewhere during it. It serves a herald and the only thing Christmasy I do now. It embodies the Christmas spirit much in the same way as Dickens' A Christmas Carol does or the Queen's Speech to an extent. I won't watch the video link to the song please as I'm not yet quite ready. This year has been pretty low to say the least, even by my standards! Don't get me wrong I love the winter. I can't take the English summers, too hot even if the cold will inevitably see me off:

    I heard a bird sing
    In the dark of December.
    A magical thing
    And sweet to remember.

    'We are nearer to Spring
    Than we were in September,"
    I heard a bird sing
    In the dark of December.

    1. Rehan, try, if you can, to get hold of A Christmas Reader edited by Godfrey Smith. It's a charming collection of literary extracts, short stories, memoirs, poems and so on. It's been out of print for years but it's still possible to order a used copy from Amazon. I think you will love it.

    2. That's right up my street. You know exactly how to please a man. I shall consider this your Christmas present to me, my only one.

    3. I'm glad. :-) I'll add my own assessment just before signing off for Christmas. You see, it was the first book I ever bought. It has a dedication inside - "To mama from Anastasia, Christmas 1986" I was all of six months old. :-)

    4. In amaze
      Lost I gaze!
      Can our eyes
      Reach thy size!
      May my lays
      Swell with praise,
      Worthy thee!
      Worthy me!
      Muse, inspire
      All thy fire!

      (Alexander Pope. ‘Verses on Gulliver’s Travels – I: To Quinbus Flestrin, the Man-Mountain A Lilliputian Ode’. 1727. The Poems of Alexander Pope. Edited by John Butt. Routledge, 1963. 481).