Snowed up and very glad of socks in my stocking

Jonathan Wills in the Shetland Islands endures - and also enjoys - a 79-hour Christmas power cut
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The Independent Online
THE first snow fell on the Wednesday before Christmas, four inches of standard issue, deep, crisp and even.

Our children, who are nine and seven, had never seen proper snow before, just enough for a quick sledging trip before it melted in the night. Christmas Card White Christmases were what happened in The Old Days when Daddy was a baby, back in the first half of the century (1947, to be exact).

This time it did not melt. The last day of school was cancelled and plastic sledges were hurriedly bought in Lerwick, a mile across the water from our home on the island of Bressay.

Dave Wheeler, the lnternet weatherman on Fair Isle, became more confident in his predictions of a White Christmas. The printout of his Zetnet forecast was thoroughly discussed outside the Bressay shop and post office, where the elders meet daily to regulate parochial affairs and tell me, their loyal joumalist, what I should and should not report to the "Sooth papers".

The general consensus was that it would be fine for the bairns but bad for the sheep. It might also clear this damned 'flu out of the island.

I am a sound sleeper but at six o'clock on the morning of Christmas Eve I was woken by a mighty commotion. I switched on the bedside light. It didn't work. Closer inspection showed the source of the chaos to be a conflict between a Polar Low and my wife, in bare feet and wildly flapping nightie, vainly trying to close the front door against a snowdrift which was growing by the second in the lobby, engulfing the electric torch on the floor.

This was an outside job and Man's Work. To hell with equality. It took several minutes for me to don the survival suit I had bought for a trip to Alaska the previous winter. I opened the back door and another snowdrift slumped into the house.

After a quarter of an hour or so, we got both doors closed and went into our 'Oh-My-God-Another-Bloody-Power-Cut!" routine. Outside of Chechniya, Bressay must be the power-cut capital of the world. This is partly because of our appalling windy weather and partly because, unlike British Telecom, the Hydro Electric company has not yet worked out a way of keeping power lines up and running during normal winter gales, let alone blizzards.

Usually they get us back on line fairly quickly. This time it would be different. We were in for a Whiteout Christmas and what proved to be a 79-hour power cut. Many houses in Bressay have portable standby generators. We don't, but we do have an open fire in the sitting- room and a large store of driftwood.

Over Christmas the house and our several layers of clothing became very dirty indeed, what with the vacuum and the washing-machine taking an enforced rest. But with hot water from the fire we were personally cleaner than we've ever been and washing up was a joy.

On Christmas Day the blizzards eased long enough for us to see some very big drifts indeed. The presents under the tree revealed remarkably few electronic toys, which will ease the drain on the special account I've opened to pay shop bills for Ever-Readies. I got socks, lots of socks. For once I was grateful, as my other socks were all in the dirty- clothes basket.

Rather to our surprise, we had a wonderful Christmas Day. After the morning survival routine I started cooking Christmas dinner on a single hotplate, my wife having succumbed to this damned 'flu. Then I took the boat through half a gale to fetch four transmitter engineers from Lerwick to start the standby generator which would at least restore VHF radio to 22,500 Shetlanders so they could hear the Queen.

The engineers, including a retired BBC man who turned out just for the hell of it, were half-way up the hill when the next blizzard struck. I alerted thecoastguards in case the rescue helicopter with its infra- red body-detector was needed to fetch them down. Fortunately, Rescue Oscar Charlie was not,although it made more than a dozen air-ambulance flights in the following four days.

At 4pm, as we finished dinner and were wondering what to do with food intended for the missing guests we'd invited, the engineers staggered in at the back door, looking like members of Captain Scott's expedition. I have never seen men eat like it. With a cheering dram or two inside them, the heroes then returned to Lerwick, where, I later heard, they ate a second dinner.