There is overkill in reporting the vagaries of the weather in Britain.

So far, the weather in the United Kingdom this winter has been unusually cold. Satellite maps have shown the whole country covered in snow. There has been much discussion about the extent to which roads and footpaths have – or have not – been treated with grit and salt. In general, motorways have been kept open, but it has not proved possible to treat all other roads. A number of schools have been closed for several days because of the travel difficulties for pupils and staff. There have been accidents, including some leading to death, caused by the weather.

Making the most

The British are, as everyone knows, notorious for our obsession with weather. It is a perennial topic of conversation, and we are rarely happy with it. So far this winter, there really has been something to talk about, something to justify our obsession, and we are making the most of it.

News bulletins on television and radio have been providing short-term and long-term forecasts. Television, radio and the press present us with dire daily warnings: dress warmly; be careful not to slip; don't travel unless you really must; make sure your home is warm. The warnings are sensible enough, but because we live in an era of 24-hour news they do risk engendering excessive anxiety – and for those of us “of a certain age” they do confirm our belief that we are living in a “nanny” society. Surely, we chunter, we know without being told that it is possible to slip on ice. We know that in cold weather it is sensible to wear warm clothes.

How weather is presented to us is of course, like other aspects of our daily lives, very much a matter of context. In the past few weeks, I have been thinking quite a lot about that, and thinking in particular about how dramatically the context has changed in my lifetime.

Specifically, I have been recalling the very cold winter of 1947. For anyone in the South Asia sub-continent, that year, it goes without saying, is the year of independence – and of Partition. Against that major historical event, the 1947 weather in Britain is a meaningless irrelevance.

Not so for me, and my contemporaries. I was a schoolboy, and my memories are of bitter cold, lack of fuel (that is, specifically, lack of coal and electricity – largely generated from coal), shortage of food (following the end of the second world war) and, to make matters worse, a flu epidemic.

Against that background, the weather was only one of many things for people to worry about. What is more, there are many fundamental differences between the way things were organised then, and the way they are now, and those differences are a major factor in drawing realistic comparisons.

Past and future

Here are some of the differences. In 1947 there were no motorways in the UK. It was another twelve years before the first was completed. Because of this, the possibility of travelling long distances daily simply did not exist. Travelling to work, for most people, meant walking or cycling, and they lived near their places of work. A corollary of that was that shopping, including shopping for food, was largely focused on local retailers. Big supermarkets were a thing of the future. Most homes did not have central heating. They had coal fires, and coke or anthracite boilers, and at any distance from the fires, they were cold.

Life, obviously, was very uncomfortable in that extremely cold winter – much more uncomfortable than it is in modern Britain. The problems which a long period of very cold weather brought, however, were not the same problems that the country has been facing this winter. For example, the need to keep the motorways open for essential long distance travel simply did not exist. For another example, the problems of getting from home to work were less acute because these journeys were short. Schools did not have to close because teachers could not get to them; the teachers, and the pupils, lived nearby.

None of this is intended to suggest that this year's problems are not genuine, but merely a product of 24-hour news. They are real enough, and their effects for some people have been serious. Nor am I arguing that things in 1947 were better, or worse, than this year. The point is that many of the causes, and many of the difficulties, are different. It is important that we set what is happening properly in context.

Bill Kirkman is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College Cambridge, UK. Email him at:


Cambridge Letter: In perpetual motionDecember 14, 2009