Snow Business Means No Business in London
Snowfall in London is not unlike the city's quixotic bus service: you wait for what seems an eternity only for several to arrive in quick succession. Serial flurries starting on Sunday had by Monday morning spread a nice little blanket of snow across the British capital. It was only 6 inches deep, but it managed to shut down or sharply curtail service on most Tube lines, it caused chaos at airports, and it halted London's entire fleet of red buses. As disgruntled commuters were quick to point out, unlike today, buses continued running throughout intensive aerial bombardment during World War II. That comparison resonated with one elderly supermarket stock boy in an affluent London suburb. "A fine country, isn't it?" he observed, as customers loaded up on provisions against the possibility of snow-driven food shortages. "Good thing Hitler's dead. He couldn't get us with the Blitz, but the place is so incapacitated now, he'd walk right in." (See pictures of London's cripplin...;
Germans, used to being the butt of such comments, were quick to exploit the humor in Britain's floundering response to what the country's weather forecasters called an "extreme weather situation." "Where I come from, this isn't snow," a Croatian living in London told the Munich-based Süddeutsche Zeitung. But "in Britain, different measurements apply," the paper added. Another publication from southern Germany, the Badische Zeitung, turned Britain's enduring addiction to wartime jokes back on their old adversary with a simple two-word headline: "London Capitulates."
Many English schools have yet to reopen, suggesting that Britons even more than Washingtonians lack the "flinty Chicago toughness" that President Obama missed when his daughters' new school closed its doors during a recent wintry blast in the U.S. capital. When Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's London visit was disrupted by the snow (at a joint press conference with Prime Minister Gordon Brown, his British host was diverted toward answering questions about the meteorological emergency), Britain's international humiliation was complete. (See pictures of London's Tube after midnight.)
Nevertheless, few Brits in positions of power to boost the U.K.'s capacity to deal more efficiently with snow believe that further investment is warranted. A poll, to be published tomorrow on the website PoliticsHome.com, of 100 Westminster politicians and other influential figures will reveal a big majority against the proposition that "it is time for Britain to invest in snow preparedness." More than three quarters of respondents believe that snowfalls like this one are so rare — this week's fall was the biggest in 18 years — that buying additional equipment would be a waste of money. That doesn't mean they're happily enjoying the snow with their more carefree compatriots. "It is odd how those who wanted to be at work got there anyway," commented one respondent. "A national 'duvet day' at a time of crisis ... is pathetic," griped another.
There's the rub: while snowplows may seem like an extravagance in a mostly temperate country, the "snow event," to use another weatherman catchphrase from yesterday, has cost Britain dearly, up to £3 billion according to some estimates, with at least 20% of the workforce taking a day off and many retailers and restaurants failing to open. Economists predict that the disruption will hasten the demise of businesses already struggling in the inclement economic climate. Now the snow on the ground is turning to ice, creating fresh problems, and further snowfalls are predicted. Additionally, England could run out of gritting salt in two weeks. (See pictures of London's financial crisis.)
In the teeth of what could prove a real crisis, many Britons are remarkably insouciant, including London's remarkably insouciant mayor, Boris Johnson. Echoing a spokesman from the national rail operator who in 1991 told an incredulous interviewer that trains were not running because of the wrong "type of snow," Johnson said yesterday, "This is the right kind of snow — it's just the wrong kind of quantities. My message to the heavens is, 'You've put on a fantastic display of snow power, but that is probably quite enough.' "
Meeting adversity with wit: that's what Brits mean when they talk about "the Blitz spirit," and snowbound London is infused with it. It's the reason its citizens cracked jokes and conducted sing-alongs in bomb shelters. It's also the reason they seldom complain with sufficient conviction to make authorities take notice. They're too busy having a laugh. Customers have to navigate sheet ice at the entrance to a central London branch of Holland & Barrett, a chain selling health foods and natural remedies. "I'm not sure it was worth opening up yesterday. We only took £300," says the attendant. As another would-be customer literally falls through the door, she smiles. "But we are selling lots of [the bruise remedy] arnica."
— With reporting by James Graff / London