Border Lines

From London to Berwick: Culture shock? Oh, yes!

There’s no business like snow business

Berwick struggled with the huge snowfalls in November 2010

“It’s snowing! Fantastic! Sooooooo beautiful!”

That was me at the beginning of the ‘unprecedented early cold spell’… “When will it end? I hate this weather!” That was me after a week of relentless snow and arctic temperatures. And still the weather continued.

Everything takes ten times as long in the snow: putting on the layers of clothes necessary to face sub zero conditions; slipping along ice-rutted pavements to browse the empty shelves in the supermarket; even getting out of bed demands twice the energy and willpower.

So what would it be like in London? Do Londoners handle adverse weather conditions differently to more rural folk? We-ell, there’s something about a high concentration of buildings that just makes things easier. The roads are gritted reasonably quickly – but, to be honest, not noticeably faster or more effectively than in and around Berwick.

The combination of personal endeavour and council strategy here seemed to me to make the pavements, on the whole, clearer and safer in Berwick than my recollection of North London pavements in inclement weather. There’s a noticeable difference between the roads in Scotland and England (with Scotland streets ahead in gritting and clearing – literally!) – but that’s another story. In London, buses grind to a halt pretty quickly. Last year I remember a line of red double deckers perched like pantomime sausages up Muswell Hill: they just couldn’t get up!

Nevertheless, distances seem less when your constant companions are houses not fields. My impression is that more people take on the challenge of a treacherous long walk in London than they do here. Maybe that’s because they are driven by the City money machine, or perhaps the fear of being the one wimpy empty desk in a sea of snow-heroes who made it to the office. Or maybe heavy snow is rarer in London and so more of a novelty to be conquered.

The mechanisms of a big city do make it easier to keep things going. Here, even in urban Berwick, the weather has caused havoc for businesses and seasonal events alike. How many small businesses have been forced to put up the sign: ‘closed due to weather’ at some point? Or, having struggled to open, have seen barely a customer. It’s devastating at a time when you’d hope the town would be bustling.

It’s truly sad to think of how many Christmas fairs, school activities and local events have not happened. And it’s not just the organisers and punters who miss out – many good and needy causes will fail to reap the benefits from these lost occasions.

Roads were cleared quickly - the pavements became lethal as snow turned to rutted ice

What of camaraderie and good neighbourliness? In London during snowy weather grim-faced tube travellers become positively garrulous in the face of a shared get-to-work challenge. People in shops talk to each other – even when they don’t have to! If your car’s stuck on ice you virtually have to fight off eager offers of help. But there’s an unspoken understanding that it’s a one-off. Normal service is only suspended: the minute the first drippy signs of a thaw appear, people will return to their frigid and self-protective relations.

By contrast, my experience is that Berwick people are generally warm and friendly whatever the weather. But in inclement conditions is that generous spirit heightened? Do you hurry by the tell-tale whistle of a slipping wheel, or stop and help? The fact is that with snow up to our eyebrows we could all spend eight hours a day digging or pushing or supporting others in various ways: so maybe we subconsciously ration our good deeds?

Just as my townie’s delight at the ‘prettiness of it all’ rapidly subsided during the daily battle with the blooming white stuff, perhaps it’s hard to remain enthusiastic towards the umpteenth person who needs a lift, a shove, or a helping hand – and with more freezing weather on the way it may become more of a challenge to offer some cheery assistance…

(A version of this article was first published on January 6th 2011 in The Berwick Advertiser www.berwick-advertiser.co.uk)

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