It can’t have escaped your notice that it snowed the other day. Quite a lot too. Inches and inches of the stuff. And, as always happens when a bit of adverse weather strikes, London shut down. The tube stopped working, the buses were cancelled, and the trains didn’t even leave their depots. Even my lectures were cancelled. There’s an up side to everything. But I don’t want to bore you with yet another rant about how poorly London apparently was for this climatic cataclysm. There’s more than enough of this carping all over the ‘net. Instead I’m going to talk about why they’re all talking rubbish. Not a rant at all, I think you’ll agree. And to make it seem more friendly, I’ll decorate this non-rant with a few pictures of the snow. Aren’t I generous?
I think that Monday was the best day that I’ve ever spent in London. I’ve lived here for nearly five years now, and the majority of that time has been spent ignoring every other human being in this place. It’s not that I’m antisocial, although I am a little. It’s just the way that everyone goes about their lives here. You don’t talk to people you don’t know. If you do, you’re weird, and obviously not a Londoner. This, as I learnt in my sociology classes at UCL, is actually quite a well documented social phenomenon called Civil Inattention. Ignoring people is the only way that we can go about our daily lives without worrying ourselves to death about what everyone else is doing, or perhaps more importantly, what they may want to do to us. But on Monday, this all changed.
Because my flat mate couldn’t get in to work, and I had nothing to do, we went to the park to build a massive snow ball. Obviously. But on the way, walking through the unrecognisable side-streets, we got involved in five or six snowball fights. We didn’t know these people. They didn’t know us. But they quite happily pelted us with snow, and we gladly returned it. We were ambushed by some kids hiding behind garden walls, fought pitched battles through people’s back gardens, and even (gently) exchanged a few with some of the residents of the local old people’s home. The park was only five minutes walk away, but it took us two hours. This wasn’t the London that I thought that I knew.
Me on our giant snow ball. If you were wondering about the scale, I'm 6'4". I also fell off shortly after.
Without any work to go to, or indeed any cars on the roads, everyone was completely relaxed. We all laughed when people fell over, borrowed sledges from each other, and even didn’t mind when someone shoved snow down the back of your shirt. The snow offered a common experience that allowed people to actually communicate with one another. The civil inattention was gone, and was replaced with a healthy (and, it has to be said, extremely pleasant) sense of community and fun: something that’s usually sorely lacking in London. It really is amazing what a bit of snow can do. So why was it that so many people seemed to find monday the single worst day that they have ever experienced?
I was on a train back from Dorset when the first flakes of the great white disturber began to fall. With incredible predictability, ripples of “Look, it’s snowing!” began to roll up and down the carriage, interspersed with gloom-ridden phone calls to loved ones warning of impending tardiness and the dangers of driving in these treacherous conditions. But to everyone’s surprise, South-West Trains did something incredible: they got us to Waterloo on time.
One of many
We Brits seem to expect, and even hope for the worst. Sure, I was happy that I didn’t have to sit on that train for longer than necessary, but there was a part of me that felt disappointed. I’d had a valuable opportunity to complain dangled in front of me, only to snatched away by a piece of excellent service. But, never a people to be perturbed by such rotten luck, one hero of British pessimism complained to me, whilst we queued at the ticket barrier, that we were early, and so he’d wasted his phone-credit telling his Mum that he wasn’t going to be home for a while. Worse still, he wasn’t going to get any Tea.
The belly-aching continued as I waited for a bus to get back to my flat. By now it snowing heavily, and it was getting pretty chilly. But the no. 68 steadfastly refused to come for 45 minutes. The usual muttering began some ten minutes into the wait, but when the bus turned up, the poor bus driver was it for a hail of abuse. At every stop, people berated him for making them wait for so long, and when he had to turf everyone out because he couldn’t get his 12-tonner up Champion hill (about 4 miles from the proper end of the line), people were furious. But I don’t really understand why.
There are opportunities to complain, and then there are instances when it’s not someone’s fault. Like in this case, it wasn’t the bus driver’s fault that he couldn’t get up the hill. He didn’t deserve the agro. It wasn’t the fault of the council for not gritting the roads properly. When so much snow falls in such a short period of time, no matter how much grit you put down, it simply won’t make a difference. It wasn’t even Boris Johnson’s fault, even though a lot of people would have liked it to have been. This was, genuinely, an example of a blameless phenomenon. There was nothing that could be done about it.
It even made the walk to Sainsbury's nice
As we’ve all seen, though, a lot of the media coverage of this ‘fiasco’, ‘nightmare’ or ‘cataclysm’ blamed Monday’s transport problems on improper preparation. London should have got hold of some proper snow-ploughs, laid on more gritters, and generally been faster to respond. Sure, there were some cases where things may have been done better (for instance, clearing the entrances to the bus depots so that they could out in the morning), but it’s a losing battle. If London had invested in a fleet of snow-ploughs, as somewhere like New York or Berlin did years ago, then there would have been no problem. But it barely ever snows here. Wouldn’t it be an enormous waste of tax-payers money? Yes, it would.
As for schools closing their doors, I really don’t have any truck with the parents who have been saying that head-teachers have irresponsibly taught their children to cave in when the going gets tough. Get real. When my school closed for snow when I was a kid, that was the last thing on my mind. I was busy building an igloo.
I recognise that businesses probably lost a lot of money yesterday, and I’m sure the precise figure will soon be splashed all over news bulletins, if it hasn’t been already. But, if you ask me, the break down of London’s civil inattention, the chance to get out and meet the neighbors, made this cost thoroughly worth paying.