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Tuesday 21 December 2010

Winter Waterloo

Last Sunday we celebrated my mother’s 90th birthday. Given the weather in the UK, this turned out to be rather brave. We had to get from Edinburgh to Guildford – and then back. We were luckyish – some slight delays, walks in minus 8 temperatures due to lack of taxis. But our trains there and back were among the few not cancelled.

My brother and his partner tried to get the 20.30 Eurostar back to Paris on Sunday. They arrived at mid-day on Monday. On our way to King’s Cross we saw the queue waiting to get into St Pancras. From families with young children to elderly people, several thousand were being made to wait outside in sub-zero temperatures.

At King’s Cross we were frequently informed the weather was ‘inclement’ and that everything was being done for our ‘security and comfort.’ The ‘comfort’ part was notional. King’s Cross has been a very small station for generations – doubtless all this will change when the building work is finished.

The ‘security’ part was more obvious. The unfortunate police were out in force at St Pancras and they were keeping an eye on King’s Cross as well. My brother says potential passengers were each given a bottle of water and ‘a bag of chips’ at about 5.30 in the morning after the police had been called in and someone arrested and restrained for protesting at the lack of information and the order that everyone go out and through security again after someone else had left the building, apparently for a cigarette.

From Guildford the London train goes to Waterloo, named after a famous battle. The Duke of Wellington is supposed to have attributed his success to a lack of rigid planning or, more accurately, to tying a knot in a rope when it broke.

My suspicion (I am being nice) is that companies no longer do knots but summon the police, instead. Perfect storm patrol? I would hope the rail companies are charged for this service but suspect they simply add it on to fares. there is no Plan B. As they say at King's Cross, platform zero is to the left of platform one

I was also reminded of John Buchan’s career, based on cracks in the thin veneer of civilization. If Richard Hannay had tried to get a train on Monday 20th December 2010, he’d definitely have died.

Tuesday 7 December 2010

Snow Strikes

I recently delivered the completed manuscript of Blacklight – Peter Cotton book number 3 – which is set in London in the long, freezing winter of 1946-7. Rationing was worse than during the war. The coal ran out. Water, whether in the Thames, water pipes, or outside loos, froze.

In what I hope was an entirely unrelated event, it began to snow here in Edinburgh. The first day, my ninety two year old father-in-law told me how calm and pristine it looked from his East Lothian window and that afternoon, he even ventured out in his walking boots, thick coat and balaclava helmet, stout cane in hand, for a short stroll in the quiet white.

The view from our front windows overlooks some gardens, which soon became filled with Lowry-like figures of children (schools all closed) tobogganing down the slope on what looked like brightly coloured plastic tea trays.

The next day I put on my own boots and went out to meet a Spanish girl, recently graduated as a vet, called Rocío, for lunch. I knew all her family years ago in Cadiz – where it almost never snows, being almost entirely surrounded by sea. I believe a few flakes fell in 1968. But I knew that her grandparents lived in Granada, so she would have seen snow before in the Sierra Nevada. ‘Yes, she said, ‘but I love this. It’s the first time I’ve seen falling snow!’ The tone of wonder in her voice took me back, and I remembered how Spanish parents in the south of Spain would, like the father of the protagonist in ‘A Hundred Years of Solitude’, make expeditions with their children so that they could ‘conocer el hielo’ – see ice and snow with their own eyes, as a wonder of the world.

Over the following days, in Edinburgh, the wonder creaked and froze. A note of disquiet began to creep into my father-in-law’s voice. ‘What if there is no food in the shops? What if there is a power cut?’

I reassured him as cheerfully as I could, feeling pleased that our local supermarket was in charge of delivering our weekly shop (and my father –in- law’s) – and pleased that (barring power cuts), heat and facilities such as indoor loos were commonplace now.

As soon as I put the phone down, the supermarket texted me to say that they had had to cancel my delivery due to the road conditions, and that I should reschedule my order. This I did, but it still left me with having to negotiate my way down a snow and black ice slope – past people trying to dig out their cars – to stock up while waiting for my delivery.

Rocío’s plane back to Spain was postponed due to the weather conditions at Edinburgh airport – but I hope this didn’t prevent her from taking back her ‘falling snow’ feeling to Cadiz.

She also had to contend with the air controllers’ strike in Spain. Thirty five years after his death, the Spanish government had recourse to a measure employed by Franco. They ‘militarized’ the strikers.