The National Snow Breakdown

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Britain’s recent brush with snow leaves me wondering what would happen to our infrastructure if something more significant actually happened.

I’m not sure I have anything original to say on the topic of snow. It seems that the whole of Britain is engaged in moaning about why it is that we grind to a standstill at the first snowflake when other countries don’t. Both the standstill and the moaning, however, continue.

I flew back from Nepal into Edinburgh last week, a very long flight, ending with two hours at a standstill on the runway, because the tunnel which delivers the passengers into the airport was frozen. This was patently ridiculous. It was possible for anyone worldwide to follow the forecast and be aware that it might be wise to nip to the corner shop and buy a can of anti-freeze, let alone people in charge of the infrastructure of an international airport. Here I join in the traditional British moan. I should be inured to this by now as Brexit develops, but I still felt an irrepressible wail rising inside: how is it even possible for people to be so incompetent?

Then the actual presence of the snow hit, and the place I live started to look like a proper participant in winter, at last. By the standards of Poland, where I spent the best part of two decades, it was a mild start to winter. It made me feel at home in the natural world again. The pavements were covered with real stuff, non man-made material. People were forced to adjust and co-operate with it. Reality intruded into the civilisational bubble. It felt good.

On top of this, a certain holiday mood set in, a suspension. Everything was shut. Many of the clients who made it to their appointments, due to living locally and being brave enough to come on foot, experienced this time as an unexpected gift, a time both for reflection and for some spontaneous joy. The parks of Glasgow are jumping with sledgers and even skiers. People find themselves playing instead of working, in a very literal sense. We’re jolted out of the everyday. This can be a rich opportunity, or quite distressing.

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Going into the shops and finding empty shelves was quite a shock for me. It was the everyday items which were missing — milk, bread, the papers. There has been no post. It did make me wonder how quickly the infrastructure would collapse should something actually happen — say, a war. I was not inspired with confidence on this as I bought some coconut milk I usually judge too expensive and discovered that I really loved it. Is there actually a plan in place, for anything? Do any delivery vans have a set of winter tyres on standby? Does the technology that allows railways and airports to function normally in winter across the world exist in Britain? Might it be a useful investment? Is it possible to have that discussion at all, or do we automatically assume that for better or worse we’re just different?

Basically, the illusion that we are entitled to have safety and what we consider to be basic products and routines on tap, provided for us, is exposed for what it is — an illusion, one that it’s best not to be attached to. Once we realise that safety is ultimately in our own hands; that we may have to do our own shovelling, and some extra for people who live around us who aren’t able to; that we may have to eat what there is and not what we think we require; we feel better. It’s not really a Blitz spirit on which we should be massively congratulated, but common sense. The strain of entitlement and the possession of some kind of essential difference marking us out from the rest of the human race, is what has always irritated me the most in British culture. It all explodes into view with the appearance of snow.

The dramatic narrative of danger and a common enemy works quite well to unite people in this moaning-standstill with its individual bursts of freedom and joy. Of course conditions are dangerous for people who are infirm, but this simply points up how people are isolated and not looking after each other in the normal course of things. I find it all quite amusing. But I am still wondering what would happen, if something really happened.

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