Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Memo To The English: Winter Exists. Deal With It.

For the most part the English are an eminently practical race of people with their feet planted firmly on the ground in sensible shoes. No less than Napoleon thought he was insulting them when he borrowed Adam Smith’s phrase and sneeringly called them a ‘nation of shop keepers.’ Rather than be insulted the English took pride in the name, and smiled brightly as they packed Napoleon off to a rock in the South Atlantic to spend his sunset years.

Their national passion seems to be standing in line patiently for whatever reason, even sometimes no reason at all. Serious criminals may get off with a warning, but queue jumpers quickly become social pariahs. English drivers stop at red lights and actually let pedestrians cross the street safely at designated pedestrian crossing zones. “Keep Calm And Carry On” is more than a memorable World War II slogan. It has become ingrained in the English DNA.

For all that, they suffer from one serious blind spot. They refuse to believe that winter, more particularly snowy winter, usually comes every year. Temperatures drop. Snow falls. Yet the general attitude – especially in official circles – seems to be that this phenomenon is somehow unreasonable and really shouldn’t happen. Therefore, according to them, it doesn’t really happen. But winter does happen – every year. We have been back in London for several years now and every year it has snowed sometimes a little and sometimes a lot. But regardless of the amount the result is complete chaos.

London traffic snarled in 2 cm of snow
Every snowfall is preceded by dire weather announcements making it sound like a giant tsunami is rolling up the Thames or an errant asteroid is about to obliterate much of Scotland. Meteorologists react with wide-eyed wonder that such a thing could happen, as if this is the first time in recorded history snow has fallen on Britain. Every year the drama caused by as little as 2 cm of snow is the same. Britain’s largest airport Heathrow cancels flights, schools close, train service is disrupted, and the tube inevitably goes haywire. I’m not sure London even has a snow plough. I have never seen one. In any event, side streets remain snow covered, and no one even thinks about clearing the sidewalks. The attitude seems to be ‘God put it there. God can take it away.’ Maybe I’m a little prejudiced having recently returned from Canada where even a great deal of snow and freezing temperatures don’t cause a complete breakdown in daily life. But, really, one would think that official Britain would begin to get a grip and admit that winter comes around every year, and perhaps, just perhaps, they could learn from the Russians and Canadians and take some precautions.

Mariella on a snowy day in London

But you don’t really experience (endure?) a British winter until you have been invited to friend’s old country home that has been designated as architecturally significant. Forewarned is forearmed. The zealots of British architectural heritage have dictated that no amount of cold air sweeping through loose 18th century windows and thin, un-insulated walls should serve as an excuse to install useful things like double-glazing (Heaven forbid!) or modern insulation.

The Horse Guard braving a winter day
“Just put on another jumper and snuggle up to the fire,” they proclaim in their hearty, horsey tones, dripping with scorn that anyone would prefer warmth to architectural purity. This might be good advice if you weren’t already wearing two large sweaters and the fire actually generated some heat. Usually these homes come with enormous fireplaces better equipped for roasting an entire pig than heating a room. Any heat from the fire goes straight up into the huge chimney while acrid smoke from unseasoned logs soon fills the room. It is very bad form, of course, to notice any of this even as your eyes water and you start to lose sight of your hostess through the icy smog as she attempts to pass you a glass of champagne.

Planning commissions, in charge of guarding this dubious heritage, ignore completely that these houses are environmental disasters in wasting enormous amounts of heating oil and natural gas in a futile effort to heat them. Some brave soul even tried to put up, gasp, solar panels on a shed behind the main house. These were invisible to all except the planning authorities who quickly ruled that saving energy and limiting carbon emissions were far less important than maintaining the rather dubious architectural heritage of a 19th century barn.

Meanwhile, grab an extra hot water bottle as these two visions of ‘what’s good for us’ battle it out.

1 comment:

Elaine said...

You hit the nail on the head . . . . . and yes, the terrors of houses in the country, and the 'tony' drafts which could fell an ox . . . . I hope that the torment is all but over by now . . . . Anyway, your humour is intact! Elaine