Goodbye England (Covered in Snow)

In Nick Hornby’s About a Boy, the central character has been born into a life of leisure courtesy of the royalties from his father’s success in writing a perennial Christmas song, Santa’s Super Sleigh. This is probably rooted in some sort of reality as from about October onwards, many shops feel the need to start playing their musical loops of seasonal Christmas cheer, usually with the unimaginative mix of Slade, Wizzard, Wham, Jona Lewie et al. Within these, however, there is a sub-genre of songs focusing on snow, which tend to be more effective in raising associations with places than the generic all-purpose Christmas ditty.

By and large, songs featuring snow fall into one of two categories. The most common are those inextricably linked up with Christmas and, given the reality of snow, have an odd feel-good factor. In these songs, snow is a paradoxical backdrop to a warm feeling of goodwill to all men: Let it Snow, for example, or Winter Wonderland. These can easily veer to the Hallmark card end of songs, overly sentimental and cute, though even the most trite can shine in the right hands. Take Frosty the Snowman: a children’s song about a happy jolly soul becomes transformed by the Ronettes belting it out over Phil Spector’s wall of sound and Hal Blaine thundering round his drum kit or takes on a rather haunting, even slightly eery, tone, with the Cocteau Twins.

However, there are others that paint a much harsher picture of a snowy landscape. Little Feat sang of Six Feet of Snow. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds more than doubled that with Fifteen Feet of Pure White Snow. Midlake painted a grim picture of survival in It Covers the Hillside: “It covers the roadways, it covers the hillsides it covers the houses, it covers the frozen pines”. Lindisfarne drew an equally dismal vision in their English urban setting of Winter Song,a kind of Newcastle version of Streets of London: “The creeping cold has fingers that caress without permission, and mystic crystal snowdrops only aggravate the condition....when winter comes howling in”. A long way from ‘the lights are turned down low, let it snow...’

In England, snow has played an iconic part in books, films and song, part of a hazy picture of a bygone country and age that perhaps never existed in reality and songs about snow can evoke real or imagined memories. In reality, a white Christmas is not that common. In the imagination (and on the front of christmas cards of course), it always snows, creating a magical landscape. Robins sit on snowy branches, couples skate over frozen ponds, hot chestnut sellers ply their wares, small boys spin their hoops down a cobbled street and peer wistfully into the frosted windows of a sweet shop full of humbugs.

Whereas American songs about snow and Christmas tend to look to an era of a semi-mythical 1940’s and 1950’s, English ones often reach further back, to the Nineteenth Century and beyond. Much of the robins/chestnuts/ice skating paraphernalia comes directly or indirectly from Charles Dickens and the Victorian invention of a traditional Christmas. However, this is mixed up with folk memories of a more ancient rural past of old England: in Snow Falls, The Albion Band described the annual death and rebirth of John Barleycorn: “And the snow falls, and the wind calls, and the year turns round again”. The result is an almost Pavlovian response by the listener to songs about snow and England, a mixture of real and false memories and nostalgia. It is a response perfectly captured by Ray Davies in his Postcard from London: ‘I found a postcard the other day, a faded photograph taken of a cold winterscape…It was a city I used to know and as a child when it was Christmas I played in the winter snow” .In memories of childhood, it always snowed at Christmas, just as summers were always shimmering and hot.

The song here also brings such echoes, in a rumination set against England’s snow. Goodbye England (Covered in Snow) is by English folk singer-songwriter Laura Marling from her 2009 album I Speak Because I Can and released as a Christmas single, despite its lack of festive cheer. Behind the observations on a shifting relationship and independence lies the imagery of a snow-covered English countryside. Laura Marling has spoken of this being rooted in a childhood memory of walking to the local village church: ‘I remember my Dad saying 'Please bring me back here before I die.' I was probably about 9 when he said this to me and I remember thinking 'What an horrific thing to say!'. But I hope I go back there before I die. I've got quite long roots in England, and because I grew up here, the beauty of England resonates with me more than any other kind of beauty”. This is sentimentalism with a harder edge: “I want to lay here forever in the cold, I might be cold but I'm just skin and bones, and I never love England more than when covered in snow”

The associations for me sparked by the song are a kaleidoscope of memories of places. Some are real: digging a Mini out of a snow drift in Hebden Bridge one New Years Day, watching the birds and ducks on a frozen Northamptonshire river a few days ago. Some are perhaps imagined. Did I really stand watching, at the age of maybe 5 or 6, people skating on a frozen lake in the local park or has this image been put there from too many Christmas cards and pictures of Victorian scenes? England covered with snow: places I remember, places I think I remember, places that never really existed.

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The Baltic Sea

Pigeon-holing other countries has a persistent attraction, as a recent series of maps of Europe labelled according to national stereotypes showed, with over half a billion hits.

This has a long history but some countries seem to face a bit of a struggle. In a programme from the 1970’s TV comedy series, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads, upwardly mobile Bob Ferris(Rodney Bewes) quizzes working-class traditionalist Terry Collier (James Bolam) on his views on foreigners. After running through stock stereotypes on a list of nationalities – 'Russians? Sinister. Spanish? Lazy’ - he is asked, ‘What about the Danes? ‘ There is a pause, then the answer comes ‘Pornographic’.

The English have often seemed to find it hard to get a handle on Scandinavian countries, something parodied by Monty Python in their Finland song: “You're so near to Russia, so far from Japan, quite a long way from Cairo, lots of miles from Vietnam”. Views on Sweden seemed to have sporadically shifted but seem to only focus on one thing at a time. In the 1950’s and early 60’s the association was depression, the existentialist angst of Ingmar Bergman films - playing chess with Death  - and endless dark forests and long winters. There was also a mistaken belief that Sweden had a very high suicide rate, a myth that seems to date to the Eisenhower presidency and American alarm at the cradle - -to - grave welfare state and social democracy of Sweden and the effect this must have on its citizens. Later on, the image was of liberalisation of pornography and providing a haven for draft dodgers from the Vietnam war, before its major exports in Abba and the Volvo car shifted public perception again to reliability and efficiency. Now, I suppose, the standard association is with Ikea, its furniture and the side attraction of Swedish cuisine. On Fathers Day one year I was treated to lunch in the Brent Cross Ikea cafe: Swedish meatballs, cranberry sauce and potatoes, a Daim bar and unlimited coffee, all for £1.99. How do they do it?

The same uncertainty has been found in songs. Sweden itself has exported plenty of pop music, notably Abba, of course, but a string of others from the instrumental Spotnicks in the early 1960's through to the Cardigans, Europe, Roxette, Ace of Bass and Peter, Bjorn and John. Songs about Sweden from outside observers, however, have been less common. Australian singer Darren Hanlon took a novel angle with his vocal plea, Operator-Get Me Sweden: “I really must apologise for my compulsive behaviour, one left his heart in San Francisco, mine's in Scandinavia”. Others have tended to generalisations about being worthy but boring. The Stranglers 1978 Sweden began’ Let me tell you about Sweden, only country where the clouds are interesting”. The Divine Comedy’s Sweden saw it as “ Safe and clean and green and modern, Bright and breezy, free and easy”

The song here is The Baltic Sea, from the 2008 album Nothing Personal, It's National Security by Swedish-Scottish indie pop group, The Social Services, originally formed and based in Stockholm. It is in this same genre -‘You’re as cold as the Baltic Sea and you close your doors so readily’ - though with the virtues of the country ,from forests full of blueberries to recycling facilities, recognised. Stereotypes, of course, can contain some truth and the closing chorus of ‘We can be your friends’ does seem to echo the sometimes less than comradely attitudes of Sweden’s Nordic neighbours to their big brother. The Danes and Finns, in particular, seem to have an often acerbic attitude: perhaps that of unruly classmates to the school swot. (‘You know you have been in Denmark too long if you feel comfortable laughing at jokes about Swedes’).

My own main experience of Sweden some years ago was rather coloured by its circumstances: a family holiday, including my 2-year old daughter and mother-in-law, in a Mini. All of the party came down with food poisoning on the 24 hour ferry to Gothenburg - not the fault of the smorgasbord – and on arrival there was a 3 hour drive to Varmland as the symptoms took hold. On the bright side, however, we did get to see the inside of a Swedish country hospital, as well as forests full of blueberries. And, contrary to the song, the staff there all smiled back.

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The Holland Song

In the 1970’s, British TV was fond of showing police detective dramas, sometimes British but more often American. With shows like Kojak, Cannon, Columbo, The Rockford Files, New York and Los Angeles came to seem as familiar to the British viewer as London. One detective series, however, Van Der Valk, was different. The detective was Dutch (though the actor playing him, Barry Foster, was British and later popped up playing Sherlock Holmes) and instead of the usual American mean streets, the drama was played out against a backdrop of the bridges and canals, bicycles , trams and cafes of Amsterdam. And instead of the routine car chase screeching to an inevitable finale, Van Der Valk often had a more leisurely boat chase, with the villain in one boat and the detective in the one behind as they pootled round the canals before a convenient bridge offered the opportunity for an arrest (and perhaps the words “u wordt ingekerft, zonneschijn”)

I suspect that the popularity of the programme – its theme tune, Eye Level, was Number One in Britain for 4 weeks in 1973, finally knocked off by David Cassidy and The Puppy Song - had much to do with the outdoor locations.  (In much the same way, I had an aunt who sat through TV Westerns because she liked the scenery).The city is, of course, very photogenic and has been the setting of numerous films since then, including Snapshots, Girl with a Pearl Earring, Oceans 12 and the 1999 Silent Witness. It has also been well covered by songs since Max Bygraves and Tulips from Amsterdam in the 1950’s. Perhaps one of the most well known has been Jacque Brel’s In the Port of Amsterdam, recorded by Scott Walker and David Bowie amongst many others. In English language versions, however, the lyrics can seem totally overblown, as far away from the image conjured up by Tulips from Amsterdam as possible – “There's a sailor who eats only fish heads and tails,And he'll show you his teeth that have rotted too soon, that can haul up the sails, that can swallow the moon”

In some ways, songs about Amsterdam have been less successful in capturing the city’s landscapes than TV and film. In some, the ‘Amsterdam’ seems either purely incidental – as in Coldplay’s song of the same name –or in a lyric that could really be anywhere: as in Janis Ian’s Amsterdam. Mainly, one of two sets of imagery have cropped up. One, predictably, has focused on the drugs and hippy legacy. Amsterdam, by American group Guster, for example: “From way up on your cloud, You're never coming down, Are you getting somewhere? Or did you get lost in Amsterdam?” Or Van Halen’s Amsterdam: “wham, bam, oh Amsterdam. yea, yea, yea, stone you like nothin' else can”

The second has been to go back to its art and history-famously with Don Mclean’s Vincent, the sheet music of which is in a time capsule buried under the Van Gogh Museum. Jonathan Richman also had a stab at both the painter and the museum with his ode to Vincent Van Gogh: “Now in the museum what have we here?
The baddest painter since God's Jon Vermeer.” The prog rock outfit King Crimson chose a Rembrandt painting as the inspiration for their 1974 Night Watch epic. Neutral Milk Hotel went back to another famous icon of Dutch history - Anne Frank- with their deeply obscure lyrics of Holland 1945.

Yet there have been some songs that reflected more the writer’s personal experience of the place . Al Stewart, whose sojourn in Brooklyn was the subject of a previous column, wrote about a tour of Holland in his 1972 Amsterdam song. Michelle Shocked reflected “It's 5 a.m. in Amsterdam and this is how I know. There's a church beside a park and it fills the dying dark with five strokes”. The song here, The Holland Song, by Two Nice Girls, from their 1989 album of the same name, is another such personal response to the place. Two Nice Girls, a self-styled ‘lesbian rock group’ from Austin, Texas, came closest to commercial success with Sweet Jane (With Affection), a merging of Lou Reed’s Sweet Jane and Joan Armatrading’s Love & Affection. The Holland Song was written by group member Kathy Korniloff when she was 16 and, in an odd way, it is maybe this that makes the song suit the place. Though the lyrics are clumsy at times- “These Dutch are too much, they built this land from the sea” – there is also an almost gauche enthusiasm that, with the harmonies and jazz-tinged folk backing, manage to give a warm and sunlit feeling to the place despite the rain and North Sea breezes. As so many people feel when they visit Amsterdam and wander along the canals and in and out of cafes, the message is - I think I could live here.

Maybe people seem to feel at home so quickly in Amsterdam because they find what they expect to find, whether that is windmills and tulips in the market, Van Gogh’s landscapes or Panama Red - though the unexpected is always there to delight, like mayonnaise on hotdogs and chips. And taking away an image of a watercolour land is as good as any.

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