Through my window I can see that the forecast snow has arrived. A thick layer is lying on the scruffy front garden and around the dustbins but the busy main road that the pavements are clear. Flakes are still falling.
Personally I hate snow and cannot relate to some people’s obsessive desire for a white Christmas or for winter sports. Snow is cold, slippery underfoot and, in the city at least, soon becomes dirty and unsightly.
The British seem to have a unique attitude to snow. It is characteristic of our climate that we can have snow at almost any time of year. Sudden blizzards can block roads, leaving hundreds of motorists stranded, bring the railway system to a halt and cut off whole communities for days or weeks. On the other hand, it often happens that we don’t see any snow at all during the year.
It is perhaps this dotty unpredictability of British snow that causes our odd attitude to it. We never expect it. We are never ready for it. So when it comes, life descends into chaos. Out come the usual excuses: the snow ploughs were in the wrong place or hadn’t yet arrived from Scandinavia; snow wasn’t forecast (What? It’s winter and its cold and you weren’t expecting snow? Right…); it’s not the right sort of snow (i.e. we didn’t buy the right sort of machines to deal with it).
Christmas 2005 provided a classic example. Tigger and I spent Christmas in Folkstone. We booked into a modest hotel, paid an exorbitant amount of money for the microwaved “Christmas Lunch”, lived off food we had brought with us and enjoyed ourselves enormously. The weather was dull (well, it was winter) but dry. On our way to breakfast on our last morning, we saw that snow had fallen during the night. Tigger, was delighted: out came her camera and we have a memorable set of photos.
We had planned to have breakfast, phone for a cab to the station and thus make our way back to London. Everything seemed to be going according to plan until the cab arrived.
“You did say the station?” said the driver.
“You do realize there aren’t any trains?”
“Er [gulp] no, we didn’t realize…”
“Well, I’ll take you to the station but you may not be going anywhere.”
We later found out that snow had fallen in a heavy band across Eastern England, bringing rail services in the sector to a halt. We still didn’t know this when we arrived at the station to find an agitated crowd badgering the few railway staff for information. Was that an excuse for ignorance on the part of rail staff, though? We heard one give this reply:
“It’s not our fault. The trouble’s in London. Their trains aren’t running.”
A typical British waiting scenario ensued. We waited, not knowing what, if anything, was going to be done for us, while railway staff made and received enigmatic calls over their short-wave radios. Eventually, we were informed that a coach was on its way from Dover and would take us all to Ashford International.
“What then?” enquired someone, voicing the thoughts of all of us.
“Well, you may be able to get a train there for London.”
The coach did arrive and we all climbed aboard. The journey was uneventful (evoking the question “If traffic is running freely on the roads why not on the rails?”) and we debarked at Ashford. There we found the same uncertainty as at Folkstone. There were no announcements. People scurried here and there questioning anyone in uniform. Completely by chance I heard a railway employee say that the London train was waiting on platform 3. We hurried there and settled ourselves in. The train was cold and had obviously been there all night so the next announcement seemed rather odd.
“This train terminates here,” it said.
We were then informed that the London train was in fact waiting at platform 7. We all rushed thither to find the train crowded. Tigger and I managed to get seats though not together. Apart from that, the journey passed off normally. We soon ran out of the snowbound area, giving the lie to the Folkstone station man’s statement that the fault lay in London.
This incident was not serious and there were no consequences apart from some inconvenience and anxiety for us but it is, I think, symptomatic of how we go about dealing with emergencies that are frequent enough for us to prepare for them. Why don’t we do so? Why do we always deal with them in “fire fighting mode”? Cost has something to do with it, certainly: local authorities don’t like spending money gritting the roads unless they are certain they need to; railway companies don’t like providing alternative means of transport unless convinced they need to.
There must be something else, though, some character quirk that prevents us seeing that the probable is probable or an ingrained habit of procrastination that prevents us preparing until disaster actually strikes and it is too late.
It is said that the British are good in a crisis. Too often, though, they are responsible for letting things reach crisis point in the first place.