They say that one of the key topics of conversation in the UK is the weather. To some degree it is unoffensive so can be the basis for discussion between strangers (though saying this, the rise of bigotry in the UK shown by the current industrial unrest in the UK against foreign workers, seems to make people think that condemning immigrants is also an acceptable topic these days!). The other thing is that British weather varies quite considerably. This stems from the fact that the UK is on the edge of a vast ocean yet has warm currents coming up from the Gulf of Mexico which moderate the fact that we are next to a large continent (large land masses tend to have wider extremes of climate both hot and cold, in any year) and get weather systems coming from the Arctic, Scandinavia and Russia but also from both northern and southern Europe and also sometimes North Africa. Thus the British Isles are a meeting place of lots of climatic occurrences which means the weather is particularly unpredictable even when compared to neighbouring countries on the continent. Britain (i.e. UK without Northern Ireland) get more extremes than say the Republic of Ireland where you can guarantee and average of +6ºC throughout the winter, the temperature that needs to be maintained for grass to keep growing. We tend to have mild summers and mild winters.
In recent years in particular snow has been far less common than in my youth which has led to a shift in some seasonal patterns of plants and animals. We do have some wet summers whereas in the 1970s it was dry summers, and yet even when we have had heavy rainfall, some areas like Kent in South-East England have had water shortages (though a lot of that is to do with how greedy and bad at their job utility companies are). There are mountainous regions in the UK which get more snow, but the bulk of the UK population lives in a broad corridor of land running from London North-West to Manchester. There are some uplands in that belt, but mostly it is undulating lowlands. Britain is an urban country and the heat from buildings generally stops snow falling in many areas or melting quickly if it does. There are oddities such as around the Bedfordshire-Buckinghamshire-Hertfordshire area North of London with towns such as Luton, Bedford, Stevenage and Milton Keynes often experiencing snow more than equivalent areas of southern England. Last October even, a football match in Luton was cancelled due to snow, something which did not affect the rest of the country. I put this anomaly down to the flatness of Norfolk-Suffolk-Essex to the East of this region and so exposure to winds off the North Sea and Scandinavia beyond.
People tend to think of December as the heart of Winter, with the shortest day and winter festivals. However, of course, in the UK the worst weather does not come until the new year and you are far more likely to see snow at Easter in the UK than at Christmas. However, so many people find this a difficult concept to accept. They think by February they are in the clear because they are not seeing snow scenes on Christmas cards, but of course in fact this is the toughest time. This is not only the case in the UK, the Russians used to talk about 'General February' being one of their strongest defenders against foreign invasion. I suppose if we had had this snow in December people would have been more mentally prepared. Having it now has caught them out.
The UK does not experience regular snow as, say, Belgium, the Netherlands and North-East France do. The British Isles stop the warm Gulf Stream reaching these regions (the Atlantic coast of France, Brittany, etc. benefit from this warm current the way Britain and Ireland do) so temperatures like -10ºC are not uncommon, whereas in Britain anything below -3ºC is rare. Similarly we tend not to have hot summers and anything over 22-25ºC is exceptional. Here is where I think the problems start that we are witnessing today across the UK. Generally we have a mild climate without the extremes of hot and cold. We have some frost, we have a bit of snow which melts quickly; in summer we might have a few very hot days but very rarely exceed 30ºC and generally we do not suffer droughts (1976 and 1995 are memorable due to this). This means we are unprepared when suddenly we encounter such temperatures and the weather they bring; things that neighbouring states have no problem with. London is as far North as Moscow, Newcastle is farther North than Copenhagen and Inverness is about as far North as Stockholm. So you would think we would be able to cope with the kinds of temperatures those countries face and the snow that comes with them.
Today has proven that the UK's infrastructure is unprepared for dealing with snow (just as it is with hot weather or heavy rain). London has a population of 10 million people and a further 15 million live in the region around it which is economically dependent on London. London's population is equivalent to that of one of Belgium, Portugal, Greece, Hungary, the Czech Republic or Belarus, it has 1 million more people than Sweden; the South-East region of England has more than a third of the population of the UK, more people than Romania or Canada. Yet, today, there are no buses running at all in London, despite the fact they are used by 6 million people every day (more people than the entire population of Denmark, Finland or Slovakia); only 1 of the 11 underground train services are running and train companies are advising people not to travel. Imagine if Sweden, Belgium, Portugal or Greece declared that there was not a bus running in the whole country, you would think the place had plunged into civil chaos.
Heathrow airport, the largest serving London, plus the smaller Luton and Southampton airports have all their runways closed. These are all in the South-East of England one of the warmer parts of the UK, not remote parts of North-East Scotland. Unlike continental countries, British railway tracks do not have heated points and even before this recent cold snap, a train at Weymouth froze to its tracks. Yet across Scandinavia, Russia, etc., aeroplanes are taking off and landing, buses and trains are running. How can they do it when Britain is unable to cope with one day's worth of snow? The temperature is not that cold, where I live it is only -2ºC; the BBC shows the bulk of the country no lower than -3ºC; London has +1ºC and this will rise to 5ºC by Wednesday. Snow fell in London today and will do so again on Wednesday. It is hardly a new ice age.
How does the Trans-Siberian Railway or the Canadian Pacific Railway keep running when you cannot even get from Brighton to London by train? Yet our transport system for our capital has effectively stopped. To some degree things such as the privatisation of transport companies and the related emphasis on profit has contributed to this failure. As the weather is not even this 'extreme' most years these companies take a gamble and do not bother with sufficient equipment to clear tracks or runways. Local authorities have sold off gritting lorries because they are short of cash and it is politically less sensitive to lose gritting lorries which many years will not be used rather than close a nursery or an elderly day care centre. Transport companies would rather throw their hands up in the air and say 'we can't cope' than put in the investment which would allow them to do so.
For the British public, masochistic as it is, this is wonderful, the attitude of the transport companies and local authorities fuels their greatest hobby, complaining. They can battle to reach work for employers who seem to assume that their workforce must not be affected by the weather, and feel they have that 'Dunkirk spirit' in the face of adversity when they have simply come through weather the average Swede or Russian would give no thought to. It will happen again precisely this way when we next have snow, nothing will change. No-one complains that by now we should have systems that can cope with a little snow (and the depth in most places is less than 5cm) rather than completely collapse. The extent of the paralysis of southern England as a result of one night's light snowfall is incredible. Of course, given the current bigotry foreigners will somehow be blamed. Wearing a fake fur hat the other day I had people bellowing at me in Polish and when I did not respond to their taunts started shouting 'don't you speak English then?' with no recognition that I had no desire to enter into a conversation with them. I am waiting for 'The Sun' newspaper to say that this weather was brought over by Polish immigrants.
Of course, being a Goth, I am far better prepared for cold weather than the average Briton. All Goths have long thick coats, usually have a range of hats and certainly have long and heavy boots which are ideal for navigating frozen pavements and wading through the piles of dirty piled up snow. As I strode out today just in a pair of Doctor Marten boots rather than any of my New Rocks; my ankle-length 'Matrix' leather coat; my leather gloves and fake fur Russian hat, I did notice than no-one was taunting today. If only we could get more Goths in charge of British transport we might not be facing such infrastructural paralysis which must be making us a great laugh for our northern European neighbours.
P.P. - 03/02/2009: well the weather has got worse with up to 30cm of snow in northern England now. In the South there has not been much more snow falling but chaos still reigns and this despite authorities having 5 days' warning of this weather coming. Now thousands of schools across the country are closed so the education system as well as the transport system is grinding to a halt. This latter problem probably stems from the fact that given the level of house prices thousands of teachers cannot afford to live anywhere near where they work. This is the stunning thing travelling along the motorways of southern England, how many teachers are on them in term time. In the 1980s there was a fear among many Britons of a Soviet invasion, it is clear they should have turned up during a cold snap because they would have found the UK utterly paralysed and unable to respond. People have pointed out that London was able to provide a better transport service at the time of the Blitz bombing raids of 1940-1 than it is today. Authorities and companies are unwilling to spend the money or make the preparations to deal with this situation and this time they have lost the gamble. The moron Mayor of London, Boris Johnson said yesterday it was not 'the type of snow' [!] which was the problem, 'but the quantity'. A 5-year old could have told him that. His current incompetence simply adds more weight to the need to simply remove him from office for being totally incapable to do the job.
Today 6000 schools across the UK were closed. Most winters there are a few schools in any large town which close due to problems with the heating, but yesterday there were numerous schools across the country closed. Some were closed to pupils but staff were expected to come in, suggesting the problem was not the difficulties of teachers reaching work that I anticipated. Though it has not been discussed I think it stemmed from the attitude of schools now that are so fearful of being sued if any child has a mishap. It is easier for them to close the school entirely than to clear snow from the playground. The impact on industry with parents suddenly having to stay at home was immense. The Director of the British Chambers of Commerce speaking from Brussels where they have heavier and more regular snowfalls, said that Britain was being ridiculed by the rest of the EU for being unable to cope with one small snowfall. Whatever happened to 'keep on, keeping on'? I am no fan of the faux wartime spirit, but we do seem to have become incapable of coping with anything even mildly away from the norm. Leaving aside the early 1940s, even just 35 years ago the British coped with the three-day week and powercuts. These days the threat of such action would paralyse everything. We do not need a terrorist attack to bring the UK to its needs simply some snow on London.