On Wednesday morning, walking to my South London railway station, I overtook someone. This would not normally be news, but this man was in a car — indeed in the only car travelling the quiet downhill street where our paths converged. He was in a Volvo estate, the official vehicle of upper-middle-class prudence, and he was driving like an actuary. I suspect him of wearing galoshes.
The scene gave me a rich feeling of superiority. I am from Boston. In Massachusetts an inch of snow on the ground does not constitute a reason to slow down, and the drivers keep the actuaries at a safe distance.
In America, things would have played out as follows: the car would have been an SUV, which the owner, a family man, had purchased to avoid the humiliation of driving a minivan. The snow would therefore present an opportunity to switch to four-wheel drive, proving that the car was a practical choice rather than a totem to ward off emasculation. To avoid any ambiguity, he would be driving considerably faster than usual.
These thoughts brought my snow-dazzled mind back to London. Could the most dangerous place in London during a snowstorm be . . . Mayfair? Are the roads there crammed with Range Rover drivers giving the gas in a frantic bid to show that they did not pick their car just to look posh?
In any case, Londoners — and I say this without national prejudice, masculine insecurity, or class antagonism — stink at snow.
Let us begin where so many of Britain's shortcomings are found: the tabloids. Now, the front page of the Daily Mirror is not the place to look for British reserve. But headlining a story about snow "RAGE OF THE BEAST" in 100-point type seems a bit much in a country that prides itself on dealing with foul weather while resorting only to constant, low-level moaning. Anyway the headline was undercut in the third paragraph, in which a meteorologist was quoted saying, with almost audible boredom: "The showers will become widespread."
As a scene from the Book of Revelation this leaves something to be desired: "And lo, the beast did come forth and lay waste to the land with widespread showers."
The Daily Mail got into a tangle familiar to all papers when faced with writing about non-news: they wrote stories about how everyone was overreacting — ignoring the fact that writing such stories is itself another overreaction. It tried to obscure this little problem by taking its usual swipe at "luvvie" city dwellers: it dug up a headmaster who banned playing in the snow, for fear the little darlings would be hurt. The Guardian had no choice but to turn the whole thing into a po-faced reminder about global warming. Things were easiest at the Daily Express, where they could just grab some old copy and substitute the words "EU bureaucrats" and "immigrants" with "snow".
The collective failure to deal with a light covering of powder has not been confined to the media. The bar for spectacular incompetence in the face of a flurry was set high a quarter of a century ago. Back in 1991, the then head of operations for British Rail blamed service disruptions on a "type of snow that is rare in the UK", instantly turning the phrase "the wrong type of snow" into national shorthand for a sorry excuse.
This year's rail bosses have, despite efforts, failed to reach similar heights. Happily, a new snow-fail champion emerged from an unexpected quarter. A ski centre in Kent closed because of excessive snow. Its car park became inaccessible and the staff could not get to work (it usually accommodates skiers with an artificial surface). This offers not just a delicious irony but a prize example of Britons' habitual pessimism: a business that was shut down because of failure to prepare for ideal trading conditions.
Pessimism is an English trait, but it is hardly the dominant one. The key characteristic, in my view, is a certain dogged practicality, a rationality that is as much in the gut as in the brain. Ultimately, the failure to prepare adequately for snow is a good expression of this.
Yes, few London homeowners have snow shovels, so paths are not cleared. The city seems to have an inadequate supply of grit for its roads, and few if any snowploughs. But you know what? It doesn't snow much here. Money spent preparing would mostly be wasted. Better to blunder through, energised by an invigorating dose of collective hysteria.
There are also, it is only fair to note, instances where the British excel in snowy conditions. Unsurprisingly, one such involves the consumption of beer. During a big storm in 2013, I am told, a pub in a Lincolnshire village, usually open evenings only, opened in the daytime. The trains were not running and the barman had trudged to work with the noble intent of serving stranded travellers. He hung a sign in the window: "Due to snow, we are open."
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