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February 05, 2009

Britain Hit by "Snowmageddon"

by Clive Irving

It's an old British joke that tells a lot about the national state of mind: Supposedly a newspaper headline that reads "Fog in Channel, Continent Cut Off."  There you have, in one sentence, the hubris of island isolation.

This has been a week when minor snowfalls have generated national paralysis, as any unfortunate traveler has found. On Monday all London airports were closed and not a single bus ran in the capital. A snowfall of four or five inches had been accurately forecast, but no preparations made. The oafish mayor of London, Boris Johnson, said "It was the right kind of snow but in the wrong quantity."

Now a second wave of modest snowfalls has again closed one London airport, regional airports, and major roads. But it's obvious that the Brits really enjoy the comic potential of this chaos. The media colludes with the kind of pitiless mockery of politicians normally reserved for bankers and the managers of hedge funds. And now a new term, Snowmageddon, is used to describe conditions in southwestern England and the Cotswolds, where the counties responsible for keeping roads open have run out of salt.

I have myself seen the peak of snow clearing technology at work. Riding in a taxi through Knightsbridge, bordering Hyde Park, I saw a lone member of the highway department at work. On one side of the road he had a cart the size of a wheelbarrow carrying salt and grit. He scooped this out with one paper coffee cup, crossed the street and used it as though distributing seeds. He caught my eye and winked.

Snow is a rare event in southern England. It will be rarer still, say forecasters. But if you are a visitor, the best thing to do is to enjoy the communal spirit of ineptitude and self-mockery and put up with it--that is, unless you are stuck at Heathrow for sixteen hours.

Further reading:
* Heavy snow disrupts London travel (BBC News)
* Dispatches: On the road


"Fog in Channel, Continent cut off" is wonderful apocrypha equalled only by the supposed press release issued by Harvard's news office a century ago: "The President is in Washington, visiting Mr. Taft."

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