Yesterday I travelled through a monochrome landscape. It reminded me of those 17th century Dutch winter scenes with skaters and dogs, pedlars and musicians, taking their pleasure or plying their trade under leaden skies, all watched over by crows in the branches of leafless trees.
I loved those scenes as a child because they seemed to echo some of my own happiest moments: bitter afternoons on the ice, knowing there would be a good fire waiting at home, tea and toast, and maybe the prospect of a party in the evening at which I’d dance with whatever pretty girl had been in my thoughts. Then it mattered not the least that the sun was nowhere to be seen. Those skies meant more snow was on the way and that was enchantment enough.
Yesterday the journey took me from the East Riding of Yorkshire to Edinburgh. There had been a hard frost the previous night – minus eleven, one of the participants at the workshop I was running told me – and the snow remained where it had fallen two days before, furring branches, softening rooflines, concealing the contours of the land and flattening out perspective.
My journey began with an hour on the local two-carriage trundler. This took me from Driffield to Seamer, an unmanned halt and signal box, where I stamped my feet on the platform for fifteen minutes until the York train came through. On the way we had stopped at Kirkham Abbey. The abbey ruins lay in a whitened meadow in the bend of a slow-moving river, its banks overhung by frosted willows. It took little to imagine monks, pinched with cold, processing through the cloisters on the way to prayer.
As we pulled away I saw a fox in a field. At first I thought it was a small deer lying down, but its ears were pricked in an un-deer like way, and when it got up and trotted off I knew at once from the full brush – almost as long as its body – and confident gait, what it was. A little further off it stopped and sat down to look at us. A fox in a snowy field. In the moment there was something almost mythical about it; it filled me with an intense nostalgia for some imaginary winter Eden.
Earlier in the day, during the workshop, I’d been explaining to a group of business people what a story was. It’s more than a simple sequence of events, or series of facts chronologically recounted, I said. For it to be a story, something has to happen that engages our interest, there has to be some change, some turnaround that ignites a spark of human emotion.
For example, I said, I could tell you that I boarded the train in Perth, changed in Edinburgh, changed again in Doncaster, and arrived in Driffield at 18.42. That is not a story. But were I to say, I boarded the train in Perth and changed in Edinburgh, but it was only when I got to Doncaster that I realised I’d left my bag in Edinburgh, that would be a story. It wasn’t true, luckily, but it served to make the point.
I wish now that I’d been talking to them today. Then I could have said, I boarded the train in Driffield and as we stopped at Kirkham Abbey, where the monks once walked by the river, I saw a fine fox in a snowy field and I experienced a moment of great joy and sadness. Now that would have been a story.