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Elvis and the Big Freeze

by David Soulsby, author of the novel, "Somewhere in the Distance"

 

With temperatures plummeting, icy winds cutting to the bone and heavy snowfalls covering the landscape in an eerie white shroud, what became known as The Big Freeze held Britain in its shivering grip from the end of December 1962 until early March the following year. It was all very picturesque at the start, but as the weeks went by the charm wore thin. What started out as fun and games in the snow soon turned to a gritty battle against the intense cold that brought much of the country to a grinding halt. Elvis Presley topped the Christmas charts with Return To Sender, the sentiment of its title often light-heartedly aimed at the inclement weather. If you could have parcelled it up and sent it back where it came from, that would have been, if you pardon the expression, so very cool.

Elvis had ruled the music charts in Britain throughout 1962, notching up four major hits, including Return To Sender, but with what was to transpire in the coming months, it was The King’s last period of chart dominance. He wasn’t by any means left out in the cold, more a matter of not being as hot as he had been.

The birth of The Beatles and all that came with it changed the music landscape. But for now, Elvis was the artist to emulate. His songs were constantly on BBC radio and he was selling records in huge numbers.

Another big hit around that time was Dance With The Guitar Man by Duane Eddy. In his usual vibrant style, it was an instrumental that had me tapping our feet as I warmed my hands in front of the blazing coal fire that I had to get ready before my parents got in from work. The fact that it was freezing outside didn’t seem to matter to me on those occasions.  Snug and warm indoors was the best place to be. Telstar by The Tornados was another popular record that lifted my spirits, along with Chris Montez’ Let’s Dance, Del Shannon’s Swiss Miss and He’s A Rebel by The Crystals. They were lively and took one’s mind off of the bleakness.

That December had started with a choking fog covering many areas of the country.  It took a heavy toll on those with respiratory problems, killing hundreds of people. It was an eerie experience trying to make your way along the street when you could see very little in front of you. Even the headlights on cars and other vehicles did little to pierce the gloom. Traffic jams were horrendous. Many vehicles were left abandoned by the side of the road by drivers struggling to see where they were going. I recall my mother getting becoming confused, getting on a bus that was going in the opposite direction to where she wanted to go and not realizing her mistake until some miles along the way. It made her late arriving home from work and gave my dad and me cause for concern, wondering where she was, fearing she had been in an accident. We laughed about it later that night, but in truth travelling in the dense fog was often a frightening and frustrating experience for lots of people. Though as bad as it was, thankfully, it wasn’t as savage as the Great Smog of 1952 when around 4,000 people died.

When The Big Freeze hit, it brought havoc on the roads and rail network, froze rivers, including parts of the Thames, and disrupted air flights and coastal shipping. Driving was treacherous. I recall vividly having a narrow escape when the car my friend’s dad was driving hit black ice and skidded sideways across the road, coming close to colliding with another vehicle. We weren’t travelling at any great speed, but it scary at the time. We were all badly shaken but fortunately unhurt. I don’t think I got back in car for quite some time after that.

 I was a big soccer fan. I lived just a few hundred yards from the Arsenal ground and regularly attended their home games. So it was something of a disappointment when many of their matches were postponed due to the adverse weather conditions. It wasn’t just that the playing surface was affected but it was difficult and dangerous for teams to make the long journeys across country.

My school managed to stay open throughout the cold snap. Fortunately for me, it wasn’t too far to walk from home to school: it just took a lot longer to do the journey, so slippery was it underfoot. It was a time of thick scarves and gloves, chunky topcoats and heavy shoes. I got used to shuffling along on compacted snow and ice, concentrating on staying upright and avoiding knocking into the wall of shovelled snow that acted as a barrier between the pavement and the roadway.

The first snow had crept in silently on Boxing Day morning. I remember opening the curtains in my bedroom to be greeted by a white vista. Soft flakes fell rapidly, laying down a blanket of snow that gave the impression of a single smooth surface, hiding the grass, pathways, plant beds and shrubs.  By mid-morning the snow had grown to around a foot deep and a cold blast of bitter northerly wind had set in, making your eyes water and your nose run as you attempted to clear a pathway to the pavement, trying not to skid and slide along the way. We sprinkled salt and some coal cinders to try to make the pathway safe to walk on, but it something of a losing battle as the next heavy snowfall reclaimed its territory, whipped into crunchy mounds by gusting winds that created large drifts.

By the end of the day, thin icicles were hanging from the drainpipes and guttering. The following day my dad and I built a snowman in the middle of the lawn, piling the snow into a compact heap for the body and then rolling a huge ball for the head. We finished off with a carrot for a nose and two pieces of coal for eyes: the snowman looked splendid. It survived throughout the freezing temperatures for several weeks before slowly disintegrating into a sad-looking pile of dirty snow as the warmer weather brought some welcome respite.

It was early March before the country started to get back to some semblance of normality. By then, The Beatles were on the scene and starting to stir things up. The Sixties started ever so slowly to swing. And although Elvis may be gone, he’s not forgotten, particularly whenever I hear Return To Sender and recall The Big Freeze.

 

David Soulsby lives in Romford, Essex,David Soulsby England, and is now retired after 46 years as a journalist. During his career, he worked on local and national newspapers and magazines, and in the Sixties met many of his musical heroes, including Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Sonny Boy Williamson, James Brown and Mel Torme. He’s now freelancing as a writer and proof-reader, working from home. He’s the author of Somewhere In The Distance, a novel about four friends growing up in the Sixties.

 

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