LADBROKES recently received a call from a London company asking if it could bet £600 on a white Christmas - in 600 separate £1 bets. Yes, it could, said the bookies, but why? The firm, the advertising agency Hill Murray, explained that it wanted t o enclose a betting slip as a gift with every Christmas card it sent out.

It is a novel twist to an annual game that is as much a bookies' publicity wheeze as a genuine punters' bet. Ladbrokes are quoting eight to one at the moment if you want to gamble on snow falling on the roof of the London Weather Centre on Christmas Day.

When did it last happen? There have been nine white Christmases this century, but the bookmakers have not paid out since 1976, when a measly few flakes landed. That excludes 1981, when the snow lay deep and crisp and even over the capital on 25 December.The bookies didn't count it, however, because none fell in the course of the day.

We may, in idle moments, think that a white Christmas would be nice this year, but the experience of 1981 should have been enough to cure us.

It was the December of martial law in Poland and of the Bermondsey by-election campaign involving Peter Tatchell. The bad weather started with violent storms in mid-month which sank a fishing boat in the Irish Sea and caused chaos up and down the country. Several people died after being trapped in their cars, or because snow-bound ambulances could not reach them.

In the Cotswolds the Queen and her party of two chauffeurs, two detectives, a staff member and a lady-in-waiting had to leave their Range Rovers in a drift and sit out the storm for seven hours in the Cross Hands Hotel, Old Sodbury. It was the worst disruption to her travel schedule in 18 years.

A couple of days later, as electricity supplies failed in much of the south-west and a 42-car pile-up blocked the M1 in Derbyshire, pitmen at Elsecar colliery in Yorkshire downed tools. They asked for thermal underwear and were offered only hot soup.

As always in cold weather, though, it was the elderly who suffered most. Ambulance services in the West Midlands reported that on Christmas Day in their area alone, 15 old people had been found dead in their homes.

There have been just three other years this century which have seen Christmas conditions as bad as that: 1970, 1938 and 1927. Snow in this country is much more likely to fall in late January and early February. When snow and Christmas do coincide, the reality has always proved less enjoyable than the dream.

In 1938 at Blackpool the receding tide left ice floes on the beach; BBC radio transmitters were put out of action, schools closed and Leeds Corporation was moved by the seasonal spirit to restore gas and electricity supplies to those cut off for failing to pay their bills.

In the South, hundreds turned out in their state-of-the-art ski wear to tackle the slopes of Box Hill in Surrey, but at the same time a group of 50 jobless men were staging a protest in Oxford Circus, London, that seems strangely ahead of its time. They lined up three deep at the crossroads, lay down in the snow and shouted: "We want work; we want bread; give us winter relief!" Police eventually moved them on without making any arrests.

As in 1981, dozens, and probably hundreds, died of the cold. A Daily Mirror editorial observed that, if white Christmases were associated with nostalgia, that might be because people in the olden days were required to move about less than busy, modern 19

30s folk. Now, it said with some bitterness, the only people who did not actually hate the whole idea were skiers and schoolboys. "Dare we suggest that it is completely out of date?"