Winter is a season greeted in these islands with a mixture of panic and levity. It seems curious that “snowflake” should have become a term of contempt for the emotionally fragile when the merest covering of snow causes the framework of our society to totter.
Horatio Clare lives in the Calder Valley in West Yorkshire, where the social infrastructure is less inclined than that of southern Britain to wobble when the temperature falls below freezing. “We’re Northern. it’s just snow,” says his wife Rebecca, who comes from round there. Horatio is not from round there but he has internalised enough Northern sang-froid to have been irked by the overheated reactions to last year’s “Beast from the East”.
“The spiral from fact to hysteria to... crisis makes a whirling, see-sawing narrative,” he notes in his Winter Journal. He begins writing in early September, in a frame of mind that swings between pleasure at the season’s beauty and fear of what is to come: “If it were followed by spring or summer, I would love autumn unreservedly... But for all its gilding I shrink slightly at autumn, as if I too lose leaves and thin, because I have come to fear winter.”
The previous winter Clare had thought: “I would go mad with depression...But this year it will be different.”
He intends his journal to be “a torch raised against it... I will embrace this winter like a summer”. This brave resolve is soon shaken by an event of pure horror: five sheep on his elderly mother’s farm in Wales are savaged by dogs belonging to badger-baiters.
The brutal darkness of this presages a growing inner gloom. Despite his efforts to distract himself Clare finds his mood inexorably sinking: “I am fighting dark fantasies of the future... of dragging us all down.” By winter’s end his wife, a stalwart and resilient figure in these pages, agrees: “We can’t breathe,” she says.
Though Clare’s winter journey is often harsh it is filled with redemptive moments of love, conviviality and delight in the natural world. As a nature writer, he tends towards the ecstatic (“the days as bright as a magpie’s cackle”) but he is a fine observer, and the lushness of his prose offers a striking contrast with the stark lineaments of the winter landscape, both physical and spiritual.
The year before keeping his journal Clare had traversed another winter landscape, tracing the footsteps of the 20-year-old Johann Sebastian Bach, who in the winter of 1703 walked the 250-odd miles from Arnstadt, where he was organist and cantor, to Lübeck, to seek out the renowned organist Dieterich Buxtehude, from whom he hoped “to comprehend one thing and another about his art”.
“Every long-distance walk is a pilgrimage,” writes Clare, whose account of his journey was broadcast as part of Radio 3’s 2017 “Spirit of Bach” season. Reworked as a handsome little book, Clare’s pilgrimage has a vigour, curiosity and vivid emotional range that engagingly summons the spirit of Johann Sebastian.
The Light in the Dark: A Winter Journal by Horatio Clare (Elliott & Thompson, £12.99)
Something of his Art: Walking to Lübeck with J S Bach by Horatio Clare (Little Toller Books, £12)