Sunday, March 11, 2018

Snow Business: Bringing Out the Best and the Worst in People

Zoë Sharp

Last week the UK had a bit of snow. If this was Canada, say, or the French Alps, or Moscow, it would have seemed an insignificant amount hardly worth mentioning.

We English, on the other hand, are never prepared for our weather.

The calm before the (snow) storm

In this case, it wasn’t simply snowfall that caused the trouble, but a combination of snow and wind. The snow landed, and then the wind swept it into drifts that blocked local roads and created utter chaos with supply lines and transport.

First came a reduction in visibility, just to make you feel isolated ...

For two days, the village where I house- and cat-sit over the winter was more or less cut off, so the tiny village shop was raided for supplies vital to withstand this kind of siege—bread and milk, vegetables, soup, and chocolate. (All the major food groups.)

Then came the drifting snow across the roads...
And now the majority of the snow has gone, most people’s patience has run out altogether. It’s gone from a pristine white carpet to dirt-encrusted remnants by the sides of the road. They’ve had enough. It’s nearly Easter, and high time Spring was making its presence felt.

The mogs were fascinated by the white stuff, and found their usual hunting camouflage remarkably unaffected, sadly.
I am always fascinated by what happens when the normal order of things breaks down, even to a small degree. Two days, I concluded, was about the maximum length of time that most people’s patience could stand the disruption. Any longer than that and it went from novelty to serious inconvenience. A day or so off work was fine. More than that and deadlines would be missed, and the scramble to make up lost ground was not worth the enforced downtime.

For a while, everything looked pristine and beautiful.
How people behave when they find themselves in a situation that is one of overall rather than personal adversity tells you an enormous amount about them. It pares down human nature to a more fundamental level. Some people take a step up, and others a step back. Light and shadows.

It doesn't take long for everywhere to look dirty and churned up. The snow in the lane was thigh-deep in places.
It is also why setting any kind of crime fiction during a period of upheaval can be so intriguing to explore for the writer. Setting ABSENCE OF LIGHT during the aftermath of a major earthquake was a deliberate decision and one that gave me a chance to put the best and the worst of human nature under a microscope.

I am currently reading Andrew Taylor’s THE ASHES OF LONDON, set during and immediately after the Great Fire of 1666. Although this book does not use the fire itself as a major part of the storyline, the fact that it caused many Londoners to be ruined and made homeless, not to mention those who died, brings out the worst in people. Quite apart from the fact that a number of tenants found themselves financially responsible for the rebuilding of their home, despite not owning the building, and still liable for the rent as well. Desperation breeds ever more desperation, and that’s where the writer comes in.

The last remnants of snow-bones in the fields.
Needless to say, no fires broke out in the village here during our minor blizzard. All that's left now are a few snow-bones in the fields. As soon as the thaw started, naturally there were burst pipes aplenty, causing the water supply to be shut off, but only for a day. There weren’t even any power cuts, nor did the phone lines or cellular masts fail. 

But if they had …

This week’s Word of the Week is pusillanimous, meaning to show ignoble cowardice or contemptible timidity. It dates back to the 16th century and comes from the Latin pusillis, very weak or little, possibly connected to pullus, a young animal, from pau few or little, and animus, courage or spirit.


  1. I know I should not say this, Zoe. BUT your word of the week, it seems to me, applies perfectly to people who get all bent out of shape by a little snow storm that doesn't even put out the lights. An earthquake, however... I will be reading that one!!!

    1. I couldn't resist that one, Annamaria. And this is when I love the woodburning stove here -- if the lights do go out, I know I still have heat, cooking, and that wonderful kinetic light you only get from a real fire.

  2. Humans are creatures of habit, capable of creating acceptable habits in almost any set of circumstances. For those of us whose winters (Minnesota) have temperatures frequently reaching -30C and snowfalls of 50-80 cms, the chaos that you describe brings a shake of the head and a roll of the eyes. "What would they do if they had a real winter?" we ask. By the way, Baltimore, Washington DC and other nearby towns react much as the UK did.

    1. We are indeed, Stan. Interestingly, the only delivery driver who made it into the village was a chap from Poland. "Ha!" he said. "This isn't snow ..."

  3. I was once in Wichita. Kansas during a two-inch snow fall. You'd have thought the sky had fallen. Cars were spun out every which way across the interstate and even the Dairy Queen was closed. They simply weren't used to that sort of weather in that part of the country. On the other hand, they know to live with tornados, something we New Jersey farmers, don't generally have to worry about.

    Speaking of the farm, Zoë, two weeks ago we were hit hard by the first of two Nor'easters and it took down a Rockefeller Center-size spruce tree between the house and barn, and snapped in half a power pole, spewing power lines like spaghetti across the access road (by the limekiln). That made it impassable for the propane delivery truck, and without propane to fuel the emergency generator the sump pump would cut off, flooding the basement and extinguishing of the oil burner, allowing the pipes to freeze and...well, you get the picture.

    And did I mention that all this happened while my arm was in a sling and I was forbidden from doing anything that would strain my shoulder?

    But around here that sort of thing is common (not the shoulder part), and thanks to the kindness and improvisational skills of neighbors with chainsaws and bolt cutters the road was opened and the day was saved. Make that the past two weeks were saved. The power company arrived today with a half track to make it up the snowy hillside and replace the pole. Hopefully.

    If there is a moral to this story, I think it involves investing in a condominium in Arizona.

    1. I get the impression one doesn't live with a tornado so much as go and hide in the basement until it (and probably one's house) goes away!

      Wow, sorry to hear about your wild weather and timber-related troubles! All you had to do was call and I would have been on the first plane out with a chainsaw. Although, probably not in hand baggage ... :-)

      Hope the shoulder is progressing well.