It is said that the British are never happier than when their castle is burning down or ship is sinking and the recent spell of severe weather bears witness to this as the Beast From the East bore down upon the nation.
A siege mentality prevailed. Some people rejoiced in an unexpected break from work while others sat on stranded trains and coped as best they could with hellish commutes to work.
The papers and social media were filled with heartwarming tales of people pulling together to help others. Such goings-on was even compared to the Blitz Spirit, a time that some look back upon with misguided nostalgia.
There were also plenty of people demanding to know why we don’t have the same infrastructure to cope with one week of snow and ice that Canada, a sub-arctic country buried in snow for months, does. Things are not like the good old days they said, when we all walked 20 miles to school or work in 12 feet of snow in coats made from last week’s Daily Mirror; the stores were piled high with so much bread and milk we could barely push our way down the aisles; and farmers were never required to help us dig out our cars (mainly because not that many of us owned one).
At the time of writing the snow (and media hullaballoo) has been gone two days and quite frankly, I am amazed that none of us had to resort to cannibalising our neighbours to stay alive.
To quote Thomas Babington Macaulay, ‘there is also no spectacle as ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality’. I saw this first hand when the writer Debora Robertson tweeted that she missed the snow and received, in return, a po-faced rebuke that ‘ten people had died, just sayin’. As I read this my eyes rolled so far into my head I now know what my skull looks like from the inside out. Using this same logic, one must never yearn for a holiday because people die on them too and, as a food writer, I’d best not tweet photos of a meal I enjoyed lest I disrespect all the people who have died choking on a bit of meat. I hate the term ‘professionally offended’ but this time, I’m giving myself a free pass to use it.
It is possible to both love the snow and worry about people made vulnerable through circumstances beyond their control who struggle with severe weather of any kind. We can hold – and act- upon these two points of view without their becoming a defining take from which one must not move. It’s certainly useful to avoid falling into the trap of romanticising the past, forgetting that houses had no central heating and we had to haul in coal and wood in freezing conditions; a time when you were more likely to die in a snow-related accident because our emergency services had less life-saving knowledge and resources at their disposal. Hell, if you developed hypothermia in 1970 you were far more likely to die from it, no matter how promptly you received medical attention. I’ll take last week’s shut down over those of my late childhood any day and I speak as someone who used to work for the NHS and had to find a way into work no matter how dire the weather.
It’s not hard to see how frightening and isolating severe weather must have been in the past to people who were yet to benefit from meteorological forecasts and explanations beyond ‘the cows are lying down, it must be about to rain’. An approaching winter of terrible, unpredicted, weather must have loomed large in their imaginations as the line between the living and dead thinned to a tissue.
I think our frustration at not being able to move freely around the country in spite of the weather is a relatively recent thing, too.
Long ago, winter was imprisoning, it seized, clutched and fettered and we became wintercearig, ‘winter-sorrowful’. None of this was a surprise to the people living then – indeed, they prepared for it. We have been reminded that despite modern technology, some things remain out of our control: sheep will always become trapped in snowdrifts; buses don’t work well in deep snow; rural communities will become cut off. Of late, the weather has been terrible and a real hardship for many, but compared to the good old days, we’ve still got it easy.