Saturday, 19 January 2013

Winter: season of ambiguities

One of the worst libels against the British is that, though snow is far from infrequent in this country, we’re always caught unprepared by it. There’s simply no truth in this vile slander.

I mean, it’s true that however much warning forecasters give, the transport services always fall apart as soon as the first flakes drift down. But that doesn’t mean we’re unprepared. On the contrary, every single year we
re completely ready for things to work out exactly as they always do: the snow starts and immediately things snarl up on roadways, railways and runways.

So what do we do? Well many of us try to avoid using the roads at all. A friend tells me that she and her husband have simply left their car under its blanket of snow. 

As for those who can’t avoid driving, at least they have the satisfaction of being able to engage in that wonderful pastime of moaning about their fate. Another friend told a pitiful story of spending an hour and a half driving to work, an hour and a half at work and two and a half hours drawing back. I wasn’t sure, however, whether he was complaining about the traffic or about the unusual experience of having to devote five and hours to work.

Personally, I’ve been enjoying the snow. I had a meeting with a client yesterday and went by train. It’s great to join in the general atmosphere of shared adversity, as everyone stands around wondering whether a train is going to show up or not. That’s the way I imagine the war years, with the solidarity that comes of facing collective hardship, and it was great to experience it without even facing the danger of a German bomb.

It was a pleasure as well to head to a meeting in snow shoes and casual clothes, and see that my client had done the same. Working without a suit? What a liberation.

Overall, the whole was quite a pleasurable experience. Even the travel was fine. The great linguist Saussure brilliantly illustrated the problem of ambiguity with an example based on trains from his home city of Geneva: the 8:00 a.m. train is unambiguously the 8:00 a.m. even if it leaves at 8:05, even if it leaves at 8:15, even if it leaves at 8:25; but if it leaves after 8:30, the departure time of the following train, we get ambiguity. Which train is it?

Well, yesterday the local railways were wonderfully, gloriously ambiguous. As in the 13:48 arriving at 14:40. So – was it still the 13:48 hopelessly delayed or the 14:12 running pretty late or the 14:32 running barely late at all?

And then I realised. It didn’t matter. I wanted a train and if it showed up not long after I arrived at the station, what on earth did I have to complain about? Why should I care which train it was? The ambiguity was neither here nor there.

Considering how much time I spend most days trying to find the word that says exactly what I mean, it was a glorious liberation to be able to forget all that and just go with the flow of ambiguity. And I still got home at a sensible time.
See? There's fun to be had in winter too. I can assure you I’m completely ready for it. Who said we British were unprepared?

Luton winter fun in People's Park
If youre in the middle of winter too - have a great one.

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