Saturday, 7 February 2009

Some thoughts on snow

At the moment the British media are full of stories about the disruption caused by the exceptional snowfalls that have beset the UK over the last week. Commentators ask why the British transport system can grind to a virtual halt when other countries cope happily with much more snow. It is, they argue, the fault of government (central and local) to be adequately prepared, a decline in standards among the Brits - slackers who use the excuse of a few inches of snow to bunk off work, health and safety phobia gone mad, what ever happened to the bulldog spirit, blah, blah, blah.

My other country, the Czech Republic, copes with winter snows that last for several months most years. This gives me something of an insight into the situation. It is not true that all the roads here are kept clear of snow, as this photo near my villages shows, far from it - many of the rural roads are neither cleared, gritted nor salted. Such snow clearance as does take place is done by our local farmer, for good commercial reasons. And my observation is that is true of many minor roads in the Czech Republic, you can spot the road used by forestry logging lorries or leading to a factory as they are clear.

Czech cars are obliged by law to have winter tyres fitted every year, which help with driving on snow, but not so much on ice. Whether such a measure would be appropriate in a country such as the UK, which has heavy snow once every 28 years, is questionable. My old creative writing teacher always had snow chains on her tyres in the Winter, but then she lived down a narrow Cotswold lane on a 1-in-4 hill.

On driving in the snow in the UK after driving in the Czech Republic it is pretty obvious to me what the main problem is - namely that British drivers just do not know how to drive in these conditions. They drive too fast or too slow, the latter being as dangerous as the first when attempting to get up a winding steep hill in the Cotswolds. But is it surprising that this is the case? How can they gain such knowledge/experience unless they are sent to the Czech Republic for a few months? That said, a few weeks ago I was standing at the Spicak bus station in Cesky Krumlov when I saw Czech boyracer do a spectacular but unplanned 180-degree spin on the main road - I and the rest of the bus queue gave him a jeering round of applause.

One other thought about why the British have had so many problems this last week - a major cause is I think the British attitude to commuting. When I was a little girl we had the winter of 1963 - a far worse winter than this one. I can still remember it, although I was only four. For weeks my home town was cut off - it is surrounded on three sides by hills. The snow was so deep I have heard tales of people walking to the local papermill on the tops of the hedges. The school stayed open - even though the children's toilets were outside loos, which required the snow being cleared every morning and the ice broken in the toilet bowls (ah yes I remember them well!). But the difference was the teachers would have lived in the town, now they could not afford it. The majority of the population worked in the papermill and other local businesses, now people commute to Cheltenham, Oxford and Birmingham. I believe it is this reliance on being able to travel long distances that has made this year's "snow event" as the Met Office calls it so catastrophic.

I have observed Czechs do not share this willingness to travel for hours just to get to work. Friends in Cesky Krumlov will not consider a job in Ceske Budejovice only 20 minutes away. Is this because of the Czech Winter? I think not, but rather an attitude to work and the work/life balance which thinks an hour's commute even for a better job too much of a sacrifice.

1 comment:

Neil said...

In the harsh winter of 1962/63 I spent two months, at the age of 7, in Northumberland. My grandmother had fallen and broken her hip. While she was in hospital, my mother and I stayed with my grandfather. I attended school in the village, and walked down (and back up) a very steep hill to school each day. The snow was lying at least two feet above the tops of the telegraph poles - the roads were like canyons. The main problem at school was that helicopters were landing in the school grounds every ten minutes or so, delivering food for humans and animals. It was impossible not to look - but if you did, you were whipped on the hands with a leather tawse. This being Northumberland and 40 years ago.


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