Sunday, 8 February 2009

Drama in the snow

Exciting times with the snow in England this week.

I know my Canadian friends will say ‘snow? You call that snow? You need to come over to Canada and its ten foot drifts and then talk about snow.’ But that’s not the point. The Canadians take snow in their stride.

Or so they say. Because actually, I’m taking all this on trust. The tales I hear of desperate Canadian conditions, and the general harshness of nature, aren’t borne out by my personal experience. I’ve been to Canada three times in the winter – the period the rest of us call September to May – and I encountered mild temperatures and even, occasionally, blue skies. But of course Canada is a nation of truth tellers, so I’m sure that just before I got there and just after I left, wolves were roaming streets blocked by ice sheets and snow drifts.

Either way, I’m prepared to concede that Canadians know how to deal with snow. In Britain, it’s always a shock. It happens every year, but that doesn’t stop people being startled by it. It’s like those colleagues of mine who told me in December how surprised they were that Christmas was nearly on them. ‘Yes,’ I’d say, ‘it’s on the 25th this year.’

The better analogy is people at supermarket checkouts. I’m consumed by admiration for the magnificent efficiency with which they pack their bags. Not for them the strawberries crushed by the bananas, the coffee packets burst by the weight of jam jars. But when it’s time to pay, all is suddenly consternation. ‘Oh, yes payment,’ they seem to be saying, ‘You want me to pay? Of course. Only too happy. Hold on. I’m sure I’ve got some money in here somewhere.’ And, as though they’re having to deal with a strange and novel experience, they start the hunt for their wallet.

Now, these people nearly always seem to have enormous handbags, with multiple compartments, but no rule as to where they put the money. An extended search is launched through every part of the handbag. Eventually they give up and look in their jacket, where they’ve actually put the wallet.

You think the process is over? Not a bit of it. Because the wallet also has compartments. And, usually, a little pouch for coins. They look there first.

Let’s be clear that the pouch has space to contain enough coins to cover the price of a newspaper, as long as it isn’t a particularly expensive paper. They still carefully inspect the coins. When they’re finally forced to recognise what was obvious to everyone the moment they started looking, that they don’t have the coins for the purchase, they switch their attention to the notes, checking first that the said notes aren’t behind their driving licence or the picture of their grandchild’s christening. Examining their notes involves looking at each of them separately and slowly adding up the total, their lips moving in time with the arithmetic. ‘Five,’ you can see them mouthing, ‘and another five makes twenty. No ten. Then ten. That’s twenty.’ Finally they decide they don’t want to use the notes and pay by credit card instead. But which one? Well, they select one and put it in the machine, but not fully in. The till operator reaches round to push it in for them.

You know what’s going to happen next. They can’t remember the PIN.

Enough of that. Let’s just say that the English react to snow in the same way. ‘Oh, boy,' they say. 'This white stuff is falling from the sky. Shouldn’t we be doing something about it?’

What they used to do in the past was nothing at all. They kept driving as though nothing had changed. Within the first ten minutes of any serious snowfall, there’d be accidents on every main road and the whole country would be gridlocked. Today they’ve learned to cope better. They cut down their speed to under 20 kph. Things don’t grind to a halt any more. They just slow down horribly. Like a supermarket queue.

To reinject a sense of crisis we have the media. The first twenty minutes of a twenty-five minute TV news bulletin will be devoted to the weather, including anecdotes. We are told uplifting stories about schoolkids building snowmen to entertain pensioners in Hampshire or border collies towing their master to work on skis in Lincolnshire. Then we get ‘In other news, fighting between Greater Bassetia and the breakaway province of Lower Beagliana is now estimated to have cost 28,000 lives. The epidemic of Kilimanjaria in Equatorial Africa is now threatening 78 million people and World Health Organisation officials fear it may spread into the Mediterranean basin. And now for the sports news.’

So we understand the priorities correctly.

Officialdom also springs into action. Emergency meetings take place in council offices to assess the problem and plan a response. Unfortunately, the meetings are between officers who have to get to work on ungritted roads. So the meeting starts at 10:00. It then follows the structure of the news bulletin: anecdotes about the snow followed by last night’s sports. Then the emergency debate gets under way. Then there’s lunch. Action happens in the afternoon, to ensure that the gritters are out on the roads just in time to hold up the evening rush hour.

So what by Canadian standards might seem to be mild conditions become the source of quite an entertaining catastrophe. Unpromising material provides the basis for drama.

The Canadians may be better at dealing with wintry conditions than the English. But when it comes to using them to fuel some real excitement for a few days, England is in a league of its own.


Mark Reynolds said...

Well we don't all cope with it well. One year Toronto's mayor called in the army to help them cope with a mere meter of snow. The rest of the country's been snickering at them ever since.

Your Isle's inventiveness with language has risen to the occasion though: gritters? I quite like that. Much better than "salt truck."

David Beeson said...

You've caught me out: I don't even know whether 'gritters' is a standard word in British English. But it clearly works since you've understood it, and I like the echo of 'critters': as I struggled past several of these lorries last night, and they bombarded the sides of my car with a real hail of grit, they certainly felt like critters - or maybe varmint