Thursday, 7 January 2010

Extreme Weather; Extreme Behaviour

As many commentators have noted during the recent snowy and icy weather, the trouble in the UK is not that we experience extremes of weather, and in fact what we have seen is considered normal in many neighbouring states (remember London is as far North as Moscow), but that we do not experience them often enough.  For comparisons we have to look back to 1981, 1963, 1947 and beyond rather than, say, 2006 or even 2001 which other countries could draw comparisons with.  This applies to all 'extremes' of weather in the UK.  The hot summer of 1995 could only be compared to 1976, 19 years earlier.  The bulk of the weather in Britain is tepid and this allows us all to forget how to cope when it gets a little colder, hotter, wetter or drier than has been the case in the past decade.  Combined with this is the tightness of public funding especially at a local level as councils have been facing constraints really non-stop since the mid-1970s when 'cuts' first became a common phrase for British local authorities.  So, given that you are likely to only have harsh weather in winter one year in twenty or thirty, it is clear that it is a gamble they are willing to take to save a little money in not buying salt or grit and keeping it in storage and the necessary lorries maintained. 

The other factor is the privatisation of so many public services in the UK. Why would a train company risk being sued by stranded customers or penalised for a string of late arrivals by trying to run a comprehensive train service.  In a hot summer, it is far easier for water companies to declare restrictions on the use of water and to reduce the water pressure than for them to spend money to repairing the high level of leakages in the British system which means around 25% of British water is lost compared to 14% of French and 10% of Dutch.  Greed and penny pinching make it far harder for the UK to be adaptable when something slightly different occurs.  Of course, we have just finished one six-year war and are still in the middle of one that has now be raging for coming up to its ninth year (almost as long as the First and Second World Wars combined) so costing millions of pounds in resources and a constant haemorrage of British people through death and injury.

Anyway, given the context that the weather and the response of the local authorities, who I acknowledge do the best they can with the resources they have, creates, how do the British people respond to it?  Well, this goes to 'extremes' as well.  People talk of the 'Blitz spirit' or the 'Dunkirk mentality', once again having to rely on nostalgia for a war that ended 64 years ago (in fact going back 69-70 years to those specific events) rather than finding anything of merit from the British public in those intervening years.  It is fascinating how with a single snowfall British people suddenly start talking to each other.  I know the weather is a common topic of conversation but it seems that it needs to really begin disrupting people's lives before they break through to talking to their neighbours let alone strangers.  Even among colleagues I have seen a change.  Those stranded at home yesterday did not sit in front of their radiators whining they were out checking on elderly people, fetching food and helping people dig out their cars.  In some ways the British cannot be stirred from their apathy unless it is by a 'crisis'.  It has to be a tangible crisis, as the failure to alarm us all about terrorists in the early 2000s showed, something which is intangible will not stir us, it has to be immediately visible and physical and so snow and floods in particular flick the switch in the average Briton's head.  Ironically, it seems, in my experience, and I accept that is very limited, to even push aside the usual whining about immigrants, dole 'scroungers' and so on and emphasise for many people the commonality of humanity. 

A new focus of complaint, however, are those who warm us about global warming.  There is a saying 'one swallow does not make a summer' and the same can be said in this case 'one snowfall does not mean there is no global warming'.  The climate does shift steadily, we know the 11th century was warm enough for people to farm on Greenland and the 17th century cold enough for people to have bonfires on the River Thames but within those periods there were hot or cold, dry or wet seasons.  As a spokesman for the Met(reological) Office noted on BBC1 yesterday, even if in 20 years when the global temperature is 2-3oC warmer we will still get snowy winters.

This beneficial, communal spirit which gets turned on by 'extreme' weather does have a counteracting behaviour too, sometimes among the very same people.  Britons are, on the whole, very selfish and often find it difficult to comprehend that anyone else may have equal and/or different needs that have any validity let alone greater validity than their own perceived needs.  This is most apparent when British people drive.  The bulk of British drivers want no-one else to be on the road and if there are other drivers, for them to get out of the way.  They see themselves as driving in a bubble, looking only a short distance ahead rather than what they are in fact, a cog in a complex machine of traffic.  This situation has worsened and drivers now often do not feel obliged to signal, they complain at attempts to make them stick to a speed limit, and in my experience, these days occasionally feel it is appropriate to drive on pavements if it can get them where they 'need' to be, that little bit quicker.  They take no responsibility for their actions, always blaming the others, especially if those others are cyclists or pedestrians. 

Rather than tempering this behaviour the snow has apparently exacerbated it.  Partly, I think, it is accentuated by the fact that 4x4 drivers, who assume they should be granted a superior position on the road at normal times, actually have it in such slippery conditions so apparently legitimising their arrogant attitudes and the fact that they are driving so far removed from the road.  Ironically, talking to a man this week who lives in rural Devon, he said that now the 4x4 drivers have conditions which suit their vehicles many drivers are too afraid and lack the expertise to use them properly and so end up blocking village high streets.  Despite the conditions many drivers are going too fast and are impatient with people trying to get over icy patches or going up and down hills cautiously.  In my office we discussed how one car was tipped on its side on a road.  Even stunt men find this a challenge, it is not the result simply of ice and snow unless the vehicle has slid sideways off a particular camber, it is achieved by driving too fast.  Too many people in the UK speed in normal conditions and apparently have no appreciation of the stopping distances needed even on dry roads let alone on icy ones.  Speeding among too many people, including, it seems newspapers like the 'Daily Mail' (complaining this week about the £15 increase in speeding fines to pay compensation to victims of other crimes, seemingly forgetting that speeding is a crime and that people who speed are criminals), is not seen as a criminal offence, rather it is perceived as a right, one that even outweighs commons sense.

The occasions on which such behaviour becomes insane is in the attacks on workers driving snow ploughs and gritting lorries.  Interviews last night with such drivers showed that they had had objects thrown at their vehicles on some occasions smashing the windscreens.  Apparently this stems from frustration that the roads have not been sufficiently cleared or not soon enough or that side roads are neglected or routes in rural areas cannot be kept open constantly.  Attacks on the gritting vehicles is like shooting yourself in the foot because you are tired from walking.  Yet, to too many people it apparently seems rational behaviour.  However, perhaps it is unsurprising in a country where ambulance and fire fighting crews are attacked when carrying out their duties.  If you have a problem with the services protest to the people who actually control it, vote for someone who will adopt a different policy, do not attack the people trying to deliver a life saving service, doing an ordinary job like the rest of us, under tough and dangerous circumstances anyway.  Think about it, someone who drives a gritting lorry has to get up early on the coldest days of the year and drive constantly in the most hazardous conditions.  Less severe, but equally moronic is the people who rush to overtake gritting lorries and snow ploughs.  Think about it.  If the road did not need a plough or gritting, the lorry would not be there and before a lorry has passed over a particular section the road is likely to be even more dangerous than usual, and you want to hurry on to that untreated road surface?

The other unhelpful thing is the attitude of employers who are given privileged opportunities to whine about how much the weather is damaging the economy.  It is the same whenever there is a bank holiday, they are allowed to come on to radio and television and produce some huge figure about how badly industry is missing out by people being off for a day or two (in the case of bank holidays, of course, the UK has five fewer than the next nearest number in the EU and many of our competitors have many more than us.  I imagine only the fact that the additional 2012 bank holiday is linked to the Queen's diamond jubilee that has meant no complaints from business leaders about it).  Apparently the snow is losing business £600 million per day.  Of course fuel utility companies and even many supermarkets (given the British tendency to stockpile food at any hint of a crisis) are actually benefiting from the cold weather.  The new twist is the complaint from employers that too many schools have closed too quickly and so compelling parents to take time off to look after their children. 

What the employers forget (or choose not to notice) is that often teachers cannot afford to live anywhere near the schools they work at because house prices have risen far faster than teachers' salaries over the past forty years and schools are fearful of being sued if any child has an accident even in good weather so are terrified they will get a slew of litigation if children slip over in the snow.  Added to this, much investment in school buildings and heating facilities has been neglected over the past thirty years, there are regular reports on the poor conditions many schools actually are in, so it is unsurprising when their aged boilers pack up or single-glazed classrooms are too cold to study in.  None of these considerations is allowed to get in the way of employers yet again telling us we are lazy and negligent and so are costing the country money (though of course not reducing their salaries or bonuses a jot).  Hassle from employers makes many people feel they must get on the road to reach their work, often adding the hazards and accidents.

Extreme weather shows how shabby the UK's infrastructure has become from decades of cuts and when this is combined with an unassailable belief that satisfaction of all individual wishes is the only legitimate concern, it creates 'crisis' that neighbouring states must look upon with bemusement/amusement. I wonder what happens in places like western Normandy and Brittany which, like the UK, benefit from the Atlantic warm currents that stop the climate being as cold, most winters, as, say, northern France, the Benelux countries and Germany.  In these regions of France they must have mild winters but the occasional harsh ones too, yet I never hear Cherbourg or Rennes or Brest grinding to a halt when this occurs.  I suspect it means keeping things in store that you might only use once per decade, but at least you know they are there.  I guess to it stems from an attitude which is not all 'me, me, me' when harsh conditions bite.  I may be wrong and would be interested to hear from people who have had experiences in these regions.  I have certainly travelled around Belgium in the winter when the temperature is often -10oC or worse without difficulty and without the madness that seems to affect too many Britons whenever snow comes.  The weather might be extreme for the UK but let us hope that negative extreme behaviour can be moderated and the positive behaviour become normalised rather than needing extreme weather to trigger it.

P.P. 12/01/2010: One contributory factor to schools closing that I had missed, but is now being reported widely, are the league table ratings around percentage of attendance.  This means that if a school opens and say, even a third or a quarter, in fact anything more than about a tenth, of its pupils cannot get in then it slides quickly in terms of its standing for attendance.  I should have remembered the messages that I have seen coming home from the school that the 8-year old who lives in my house attend.  The headteachers writes of figures like 92.4% attendance and a drive to get this figure higher.  It is unsurprising then, that heads shut the school and so have that day null-and-void for the statistics rather than risk dropping even a 1-2% and so looking worse than last year when we had a mild winter.

Another point of behaviour that I forgot to mention is drivers using their fog lights when visibility is good.  Many drivers, even now where there is a lot of thawing going on, certainly in the counties I have been driving through, seem to assume these lights are simply 'bad weather' lights.  They forget that on frosty days often the air is far clearer than even on rainy days and so there is no need for fog lights.  You can be fined if you have them on when visibility is more than 50-100 metres.  On the back fog lights can be up to 30 times more powerful than normal rear lights.  I know when you are driving up and down valleys on foggy days you go in and out of fog and may be excused for leaving them on in clear patches, but some people switch them on just when it is cold and frosty, every one car in ten I passed this morning had them on and there was not a scrap of fog on the 190Km I covered.  I do wonder, if, as with drivers who keep full beam on at all times, whether these drivers actually know how to operate the functions on their cars or get stuck with a certain setting.

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