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.

Link to song


  1. Beautiful lyrics! Here are are if anyone wants them.

    You were so smart then
    in your jacket and coat.
    My softest red scarf was warming your throat.
    Winter was on us,
    at the end of my nose,
    but I never love England more than when covered in snow.

    And a friend of mine says it's good to hear you believe in love even if set in fear
    well I'll hold you there brother and set you straight
    I wont make believe that love is frail and willing to break.

    I will come back here,
    bring me back when I'm old.
    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.

    I wrote my name in your book,
    only god knows why,
    and I bet you that he cracked a smile,
    and I'm clearing all the stuff out of my room,
    trying desperately to figure out what it is that makes me blue,
    and I wrote an epic letter to you,
    but it's 22 pages front and back and it's too good to be used
    and I tried to be a girl who likes to be used
    I'm too good for that.
    There's a mind under this hat,
    and I called them all and told them i've got to move.

    Feel like running
    Feel like running,
    running off.
    And we will keep you
    we will keep you little one,
    safe from harm,
    like an extra arm you are part of us.

    You were so smart then
    in your jacket and coat
    and my softest red scarf was warming your throat.
    Winter will leave us,
    left the end of my nose,
    so goodbye old England 'till next years snow.

  2. What a winter delight this song and the column was this week Geoff! The melody on this song gives me goosebumps!

  3. I heard her earlier this year supporting Daniel Johnston and she was brilliant...some of the sweetest singing I ever heard.

  4. Cool cover:) - http://strangeglue.com/show_image/1260359991/472.jpg

  5. This is on her new album, which I just got a couple of days ago (it came out earlier this year though I think though, not 2009).

    Great column Geoff, very festive!!

  6. It's cool how this feels like a Christmas single, even though it doesn’t mention anything remotely Christmassy. It’s the snow that counts I suppose!

  7. I love this singer - she is like an old soul living in a young body.

  8. This is a very cool interview with her: http://www.smh.com.au/news/music/quiet-but-not-soft/2008/03/28/1206207381037.html

  9. I thought at first this was going to be all sorrowful and dark from the title and the opening notes, but this is quite uplifting actually. I'll be playing it during Christmas dinner Geoff:)

  10. I don't celebrate xmas Geoff but I will play this song!

  11. Such a relief from the usual Christmas music - terrible stuff (not to sound too much like the Grinch!).

  12. Geoff! Thanks for posting this just before xmas eve! One of the only things my family respects as 'me time' is reading your blog, so I was able to sneak away just now for half an hour to read it in peace on this super-duper family time day!:) Lovely break from in-laws and the kids!

  13. Saying goodbye to England covered in snow sounds a really good option to me right now!

  14. I was into Laura Marling before she got big - I saw her in a festival tent. AMAZING.

  15. This is so delicate yet strong. I love the hushed strings and melodies. We’ll be playing this one at Christmas for years to come!

  16. Thanks for comments-I am glad it suits this time of year

  17. Geoff, I found another great assessment of this singer online - they discussed her "English folk's gravitas and storytelling tradition via a sprinkle of Americana's rootsiness and desire to pass down a generation's cautionary tales". Fascinating!

  18. This is such a homesick song! I love it - it could be a whole genre of songs about missing a place, I think.

  19. Geoff, here is our "Snow Falls" that you wrote about........

    Also, maybe there is something on an album I did with a different band, not Albion, called Muckram Wakes, that you'd be interested in a bit. We did an album called Map of Derbyshire in 1973.

    I like your blog.

  20. I had never heard the song you mentioned Geoff, winter song by Lindisfarne, but I really like it - here it is for anyone else curious: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yg_dsk7u26A

  21. Geoff, what a fantastic column. I have been away for Christmas and just got back online to read this incredible meditation on nostalgia.

    It is so interesting that the British still have the Charles Dickens version of Christmas in England; a Victorian era mythology as you point out. Yet even the Victorians were nostalgic for something, weren't they? I feel like this Victorian Christmas we still yearn for was itself yearned for by the Victorians, which is why they invented it. So when Dickens' A Christmas Carol came out, it not only inspired ideals of what Christmas should be, it seemed to the imagination of the British and American middle classes that this was how Christmas USED to be. But I read somewhere that for sure it was the Victorians who gave us the kind of Christmas we know today, reviving the tradition of carol singing, borrowing the practice of card giving from St. Valentine's day and popularising the Christmas tree. And it's fascinating that you explain that they were really just reviving the Christmas of medieval Britain, though adding some Anglo-American inventions.

  22. Here's the beautiful version of Frosty the Snowman by the Cocteau Twins that Geoff mentioned - lovely! - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pds_K2j3RKM

  23. Ah Geoff, you mean it isn't like this where you live?:) "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". Here is my local "village" at Christmas.... http://s0.geograph.org.uk/photos/01/22/012213_f18af190.jpg......

  24. I think Laura Marling seems heavily influenced by Mumford & Sons, which is no bad thing.

  25. Anyone who just tried to fly out of Heathrow and was caught by either the London snow (me) or the New York snow (me again) and so lived at Heathrow for days (still me), will probably want to scream at the idea in these lyrics:

    "Winter was on us, at the end of my nose, but I never love England more than when covered in snow."

  26. For me, lots of her songs have a sort of fairytale element to them. Like the old time English folk tales that people would whisper in their crumbly stone houses amidst green pastures. There are lots of really fantastic musicians out there but Laura would have to be really high up there on my list, if not the top. It's just insane how she can make this whole story out of one of her songs and paint this gorgeous picture in my head.

  27. Geoff, did you hear the very recent Hurts single 'All I want for Christmas is new years day'. That was this years independant flag-bearer in the world of holly jolly christmas tunes.

  28. Geoff, I agree with you that not all of the best Christmas songs are full of festive joy. Often the best tracks are the ones that tug at your heartstrings, transport you to a particular time and place or are full of yearning. And this song is an undeniably beautiful track set in deep mid-winter; feeling more like the cold January light of the new year than the heart-warming notions of Christmas itself.

  29. There's always been a surplus of "joy to the world" and "tra-la-las" for gloomy loners around Christmas, but since the mid-2000s, I feel like there's been a surge in the production of cripplingly depressive holiday music, courtesy of acts like Okkervil River, Casiotone for the Painfully Alone and The Magnetic Fields, whose frontman Stephen Merritt pens lyrics like, "Oh Mr. Mistletoe, wither and die / You useless weed, for no one have I."

  30. Sorry to hear about your week, Hugh-it is what Alanis Morisette would no doubt have called 'ironic'!
    Thanks for the other song references-including the crippingly depressive ones!