Monday, 2 February 2009

Let it snow

There was no real need for weather reports in London this morning. It was snowing as if you’d woken in Helsinki and any further information could be gleaned just by eavesdropping on the mobile phone conversations of the thousands of commuters forced onto slushy pavements by a six-inch overnight fall.

“I’m telling you, there’s no buses, no tubes, no taxis,” said a woman, obviously late for work, outside the closed doors of Whitechapel Underground station. “We’ve got no dry goods, no frozen goods, no deliveries, it’s madness,” squeaked another, explaining the situation down the line to a co-worker or a customer.

It was a kind of madness but the blissful, car-free, snowflakes on the tracks kind of craziness that descends on the city with heavy snow. In north Britain people scoff when the weather in the south east becomes a news story but when snow strikes London it really does mess things up for the commuting world.

The airports were shut, the M25 threw an impregnable, white moat of clogged cars around the metropolis. Black cabs handle white stuff worse than old VW Beetles so they were few and far between, London’s buses carry six million passengers a day - like moving the Scottish population to Carlise and back before 5pm - and there were no buses. The tube system, the veins and arteries of the city, ran sporadically with ten of the eleven coloured lines disrupted to some extent. Eurostar was disrupted by staff shortages - the continent was cut off.

Most sensible people were persuaded to stay at home. City brokers who cancelled their half-term ski break in Zermatt in the face of economic uncertainty played joyously with their children in the parks. Those who made it to work compared outdoor gear and fretted about getting back out of the city as the snow just kept falling.

Londoners do bizarre hats well at the best of times but this morning the fashion focus was on footwear. There was severe competition among the ladies for the most outlandish colour of wellingtons - lilac flower prints being the clear leader in the fashion stakes by 9am. Teenagers sported the traditional solution to inclement weather - Dunlop greenflash sandshoes - but then teenagers listen to a completely different weather forecast judging by their choice of everyday clothing.

Around the Bank of England, where amazingly the lights were still on, there was a better class of wellington on display. Two people passed in the opposite directions wearing green Hunters but I suspect they were pressed into service by the Bank just to show that standards are being maintaining.

One woman strode confidently through the pavement drifts with neat, custom-made crampons attached her black leather boots. She looked smug and possibly Swiss. Imagine - foreigners coming over here and taking advantage of our snow.

To the relief of the criminal fraternity, and possibly some bank directors, the City of London magistrate’s court was closed - no beak on the bench - and across the road the suit shop, with its 80% sale signs, didn’t look as it would be open for long.

The gothic grandeur of Whitehall lends itself well to picture postcard snowscapes and, as widely suspected, there were no green shoots on display. In Parliament Square Brian Haw, the war protester, made himself a martyr to the weather while several backbench snowmen were being built by Chinese camera crews here to cover the visit of their premier.

Big Ben’s bong seemed dulled by the airborne flakes. In the shadow of the Churchill statue a street sculptor, who is usually found playing in the sand on the South Bank of the Thames, carved Jimmy Hendrix on a sofa out of the pack ice he had collected. He did it for no particular reason, just to have fun in the snow. The parliamentary authorities suspended voting for the day so the centre of the political universe was blanketed to a halt. Does that mean I can go home now?

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