Friday, February 09, 2007

Frost and Snow thaws England's Fear and Loathing

Yesterday I awoke like most people in England to a white landscape. While the 3 to 6 inches covering London and the south of England is modest compared to elsewhere (New York state in the US is approaching 100 inches in recent weeks) the snow had predictable consequences for London's transport.

I arrived at my station to be told there were "no trains for now". Seconds later an empty train hurtled through the station towards a depot, leaving the long suffering station mistress struggling to explain what was happening to the couple of passengers sufficiently irate to be bothered to complain. I, like most other wearied London commuters, realised it was futile to complain in such circumstances. Trains follow their own rules here and snow is licence to behave as they want.

In fact the majority of commuters seemed happy with the circumstances. Faced with the complete absence of trains they were powerless to get to work. Driving into the centre of London is really not an option. The message was relayed to others as they arrived some turning around before they reached the station.

Faced with the complete absence of trains on my line, I went home. Rumours abounded of "moving trains" carrying passengers on other lines that are 2-3 miles from me. I had no urgent meetings in the morning so went home to send emails and "work from home". On my way I met a man obviously heading to London. I told him of the lack of trains which he accepted happily with a "Cheers mate" before turning on his heel and heading for home

Other colleagues had been more successful in getting in so after an hour or so I tried again and this time some trains were moving. I was two hours late for work but made it. Everywhere was generally quieter. Commuters swapped travel stories with fellow passengers. The normally frosty silence of suburban trains was broken by the frosty weather. Many schools were closed. Children played in the snow, snow boarders were seen on Hampstead Heath and our finance team made a snow man outside our office building in the City of London. All in all the snow seemed to bring some sunshine to a recently gloomy nation.

In the last week, an outbreak of the H5N1 bird flu at a Turkey farm in Suffolk brought a bit more fear. At my firm the "Facilities Manager" has suddenly been promoted to "bird flu expert" on the basis of attending a couple of seminars. If (and it still is an "if") bird flu becomes a human to human disease big corporations along with Governments and health authorities are making plans. There is an amateurish "Dad's Army" feel to plans at my firm. The Facilities Manager was considering ordering face masks and investigating whether he could purchase Tamiflu for all the staff. HR were determining the appropriate level of leave to give to people to care for sick relatives and more ominously how much "compassionate leave" to give people bereaved by a new plague. There seems very limited compassion in such calculations. IT are investigating how many people could work online from home before the network crashes. This all seems a bit too hypothetical for me to take seriously. After all H5N1 has been in the far east for a decade and nothing dramatic has really happened. However there is always a need for plans and some people need to justify their job by being a bird flu expert.

The mystery of how bird flu came to England remains. There have been no recent outbreaks in neighbouring countries such as France or Germany. The nearest outbreaks have been in Hungary where Bernard Matthews, the Turkey producer also has factories (not farms ?). The prospect of some very dangerous bird droppings coming in on someone's shoe from Hungary seems a bit far-fetched.

The turkeys suffered the most in all this being gassed on an industrial scale of 160,000. This in the same county of Suffolk blighted by a serial killer before Christmas.

Elsewhere in the Midlands the Police arrested a gang of alleged muslim extremists for a plot to kidnap and behead a British muslim soldier.

A letter bomber is sending bombs in the post to Government agencies, accountants and security firms apparently connected with the enforcement of vehicles taxes and fines. Parallels have been drawn with the infamous American "Unabomber".

So England has not been a particularly happy place of late with stories of serial killers, letter bombers, Iraq style kidnap and beheading plots and a potential plague that sends middle managers running for face masks suppliers.Yesterday, a bit of this fear and loathing seemed to be broken by the snow. People were happy not to work for one day, those that did talked on the trains, the letter bomber took a day off and so far we don't need to wear face masks in the office !

No comments: