Snow limits to creativity

21 January 2013

AND's Museums, Libraries & Heritage Advisor John McMahon ponders what the weekend's snow tells us about the value of spontaneous public creativity

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The faintly dysfunctional relationship that we British have with snow these days has been clearly emphasised this week. It may all seem a touch peculiar to our fellow Europeans, most of whom – if asked to state the defining characteristics of these sceptered isles – would undoubtedly place our reliably dismal weather at the top of any list produced, perhaps just ahead of 'bland cuisine'. For our own part, however, each year we seem to find ourselves surprised anew (in a baffling blizzard of collective memory loss and denial) as the first flakes of snow begin to fall, and our fragile infrastructure of travel, business and communication begins to feel the strain.

In central London, the sense of shock and wonder felt with the initial tickle of Jack Frost's icy fingers often seems particularly acute; perhaps this is because the day-to-day engagement that we make with the natural environment is markedly less than that of many beyond the M25. Our public realm is one of the most 'built' in Europe, and the City's natural rhythms are accelerated to a lightning pace by our place at the heart of the global nexus of commerce, ideas and information. Meanwhile, as individuals we find ourselves sped through subterranean tunnels between gardenless apartments and strip-lit offices, doubly cocooned by our hermetic immersion in free papers and the soothing glow of ever-more-sophisticated multimedia devices.

For citizens of a city with the longest working hours in the Western world, wintery complications to our commutes seem to cause particular consternation; however, the grumbling dies down and a splendid transmutation of collective sentiment seems to take place on weekends like the one just past.

On such occasions we awaken as one, bleary-eyed and brew in hand, cast open the curtains and regard the pristine vistas of the snow-bound city that greet us, reacting not with indignance and frustration, but with a collective sense of possibility. We pull our Wellingtons from the back of the cupboard; don hats, scarves, gloves and multiple pairs of socks; and tumble out of our houses to congregate in open spaces (the larger and least-previously-trodden the better).

People flock to and fro, the cold air alive with excitement, laughter and the warmth of fellow feeling. Children shriek with delight as their parents, preoccupied by who-knows-what sober professional concerns during the week, sprint and stumble along, tugging their sleds (both bought and improvised) behind. We engage in light-hearted and malice-free snowball exchanges with strangers, and – more remarkably – neighbours that we know by sight but seldom speak to.

However, of all of the rituals brought forth by the weather, the most remarkable is that of snowman (or, might we say, snow person?) building. A tradition known to be of at least medieval origins (the earliest known depiction of a snowman comes from a Dutch Book of Hours, dated 1380), the building of snowmen is one of the truest forms of spontaneous, collective public creativity that can be seen in our society today.

The inherent ephemerality of snow means that people are both eager to seize the opportunity to build, and unburdened by the pressure to produce anything 'perfect'. Children and their parents, friends, couples, neighbours and –again – even complete strangers work harmoniously towards a collective goal in full view of the wider community. Creative decisions and surprisingly demanding physical toil are shared. Time-honoured techniques are largely adhered to, as are core characteristics (carrot noses, twig arms, coal eyes) that reside within the collective cultural subconscious. At the same time, a remarkable scope for technical and artistic innovation is not only permitted but celebrated.

Short of pristine open spaces in our immediate area, my partner Alice and I packed a flask and caught the tube to Clapham Common, finding an as-yet-untouched space before working for nearly two hours to fashion a Victorian snow lady, five feet tall and clad in monochromatic-yet-distinct bunched skirts, with a pinned bun in her hair and eyes and mouth made from plane tree seed-heads. From the relatively early stages we were surprised and delighted to find our work complemented and admired by passers-by.

By the time she (now named Lady Felicity Frostingham, Dowager Duchess of Clapham) was completed and we bid her a reluctant yet fond farewell, another three hibernal humanoids had sprung up in the immediate vicinity; the wider Common was a hive of continued activity, with icy figures of all shapes and sizes being brought into being ceaselessly by other Londoners. Still more people seemed engaged in the construction of edifices harking back to even older, pre-Christian portions of our collective heritage - a series of six-foot-high snow boulders and menhirs.

"All very interesting," some of you may be thinking (or not!), "but why write about this on a blog about creative and cultural learning...?"

It's a question that I was just beginning to ask myself, but I think there are some intriguing things to consider here. The Government's ongoing intention to annually measure our individual and collective happiness is an exciting exercise that gives a clearer snapshot of how we're faring as a nation than long-established but perhaps narrow measures like economic growth. It has also stimulated an active and diverse wider academic and public debate about the factors that can truly be said to raise our wellbeing, and how such things can be effectively be measured.

Given the extremely challenging global socio-economic circumstances of recent years, it seems amazing that any Government would risk painting itself into a corner by measuring public happiness; however, through this discourse there are some common themes emerging that give us a means of 'reading' the widespread merriment that ensued over the weekend, and a way of linking this to the work that we are able to do as creative and cultural professionals focussed on involvement and participation.

We are happier when we spend time together as families. We are happier when we know and interact positively with our neighbours. We are happier when we are able to explore and experience the natural environment. We are happier when we find and participate in activities and traditions that bring a shared experience with the wider community and with our own past. We are happier when we are able to be creative for its own sake, without putting pressure upon ourselves or each other for 'perfection'.

We often feel that we know such things implicity; that these are such core assumptions in the field of creative and cultural learning as to be considered almost truisms, but I think there's an amazing opportunity here to tell everyone – from national and local government decision-makers to our fellow individual citizens – about contribution that we make. The terms provided by the Happiness agenda bring, if used correctly, the chance to position the work of the arts, museums, libraries and the wider built and natural heritage environment not as things which sit on the fringes of the debate, but which make a central contribution to it.

Let's make sure that we remember to remind ourselves, and forcefully make the case to others of our on-going ability to contribute, and to keep and further develop the spirit of openness and spontaneity that many of us felt at the weekend in our own practice.