This week, 28 inches of it fell on Washington, DC, leaving even the Clintons, the world's most powerful family, pretty comprehensively stranded. For once, I can sympathise with Bill and Hill. Holed up, over Christmas, in a village near the North Yorkshire coast that was transformed into suburban tundra, I had ample opportunity to observe the meteorological bully that is snow at close quarters. In London, its shelf life is brief. After being stamped on, kicked and generally given a bit of a seeing-to, it ends up snivelling in the gutter. Nothing looks more passe than slush. But in the countryside, snow takes the place over, like a Bronx racketeer. "Dis is my burg now," it announces in smugly threatening tones.
No wonder children adore snow. Aside from providing a free and limitless supply of natural Play Dough, it transfigures the world into something they might have drawn. The sole bonus for adults is that it hides blackened, rebarbative winter gardens under an amnesiac layer of shaving foam.
The worst thing about snow is the way it clogs things up, especially conversation. It whirls into verbal drifts, creating communication white out. Exchanges are reduced to a mystic numerology. "I went out at seven and it was six-and-three-quarters, by half-eight it was ten," one's neighbour will say chattily over the glacified privet. "And at 11, it was 14. We had another five this morning..."
On the fourth day of my incarceration in Yorkshire, cabin fever set in. Shovelling away like a stoker on a pre-War Cunarder, it took an hour to free the car. Almost immediately, huge flakes began to swirl down in a celestial feather fight. The temperature plummeted and night slammed down the shutters. The neighbourhood's icy gangster had put the word out: "You wasn't about to skedaddle, was you? Tink again, pal." It's difficult to imagine how Mr Clinton can go about legislating against this form of civic disobedience.
The Weaslets all got wristwatches for Christmas. The air was rent with cries of frustration at the non-appearance of the UberRanger MegaZords that they tastelessly craved, but my heart was like flint. It's about time the little beasts learned to keep a schedule of their own rather than consulting a) the long-suffering Mrs W, b) the much-battered digital clock on my computer, and c) Graham, the put-upon local bobby, whose relentless one-man war against crime on the South Circular Road is constantly interrupted by cries of "Is it time for Baywatch yet, Graham?" No, they got sensible watches with steel backs and waterproof guts and a little window to tell them the wrong date each day.
In buying them, however, I was struck by the change in the marketing of watches since my day. When I was a nipper, we'd extend our forearms to each other and say, "Look at that. What a beauty, eh? An' it's 18 jewels." Every watch featured, underneath the maker's name, a claim that it possessed nine or 15 or 20 jewels. We never knew which jewels were involved (ruby? quartz? rhinestone?) nor what runic function they performed among the little wheels, but we believed utterly in the jewel-quotient's importance. Today, you can squint through your jeweller's lens till your eyeballs itch without finding so much as a carat of Perspex trumpeted on the face.
There was also the magic word "Incabloc" which sounded like some form of Aztec torture and meant (we were led to believe) "Has passed several incredibly difficult quality tests with flying colours". There were watches which you simply had to own because they told you the time in Lithuania; watches which would advise you of the time underwater if you adjusted a plastic "bezel"; watches which weirdly managed to wind themselves up ...
The latest cinema advertisement for Tissot features a small boy trying to harness a unicorn and being dragged (rather painfully) through jungle, sand and surf until the equine phenomenon meets a herd of its peers and stands around in the sunset as the boy (presumably) expires. Terrific. Later in the Pearl & Dean section, you'll see a male model clambering inside a six-foot metal ring and self-wheeling himself down a perilous slope. It's meant to encourage you to buy a Seiko Quartz. But if that's what you have to do to wind it up...
When it comes to royal clocks, of course, it's a different world. I was intrigued to see, among the 29 latest recipients of the Royal Warrant, Mr Kevin Sheehan, a clockmaker and repairer from Tetbury, Gloucestershire. Mr Sheehan will in future be able to display the words "By Appointment to HRH the Prince of Wales" over the lintel of his shop, because of the efficiency with which he has performed a single function. He goes to Highgrove, the Prince's main residence, and winds up Charlie's 15 antique clocks. And that's about it. This is not, however, as breathtakingly basic as it may sound. "If any clocks aren't behaving, I report it to the housekeeper, and if necessary I do whatever is needed to get them going," he gravely told one of the Sunday papers.
Hmm. The words "money", "jam" and "old rope" come to mind. I thought you got warrants and commissions for manufacturing something unusually fine and precious and valuable and original, but not, it seems, any more. Does this mean that if I put in the hours popping in to Highgrove twice a day and Applying Paste to the Royal Toothbrush or Removing the Teabag from the Royal Mug, I could get a Royal Warrant too?
Writing recently about his stay in a friend's home, Alan Bennett noted that firewood in that locality was still purchased in the ancient measure known as the "cord", equal to 128 cubic feet. Which musty spot retains this delightful but evidently practical archaism? Calcutta? Giggleswick? The Isle of Man? No, it was that cobwebby stretch of the backwoods known as New York City. Americans, so avid for novelty in many respects, retain a lingering affection for English units. Avoirdupois reigns supreme in US delicatessens, road signs rely on feet (admittedly one sign I saw in Utah, giving advance notice of a junction in "5220 feet" prompted some rapid mental arithmetic) and heating energy in measured in BTUs (British Thermal Units). Amid the whirling perplexities of metrication on this side of the Atlantic, we have the tweedy buffers of the racing fraternity to thank for the retention of both the furlong and the guinea. And the traders of Billingsgate Fish Market, renowned for their love of colourful language, still use the stone for all piscine transactions.
But these are scant exceptions. So many congenial and harmless measures have gone the way of the paperweight (1.555g) and cubit (between 17 and 22 inches). The quire of paper (24 sheets) disappeared even before A4 replaced foolscap. And the peck (554.84 cubic inches) would have followed the rod, pole or perch (5.5 yards) into extinction long ago, were it not for its role as the measure du choix of Peter Piper.
Perhaps the solution is to borrow colloquialisms from Europe to match the Continental measures which have been forced on us. The Italians, for example, are very fond of the etto, meaning 100 grammes, almost the same as our quarter, but handier. An etto of humbugs anyone?Reuse content