Reminding us that Britain’s present severe cold snap
could be far more severe than it has been so far, the BBC has just aired an old
news documentary about the Big Freeze of 1963.
The programme wasn’t a new production, merely a rerun
of a special news report, originally shown even before the last of the 1963 storms
had abated. Comprising an hour of black
and white news footage, it had commentary from three of the presenters from the
BBC’s Tonight show, then the most
popular current events programme on television.
(In case you’re wondering, the commentators were Cliff Michelmore,
Kenneth Allsop and Derek Hart. Hands up
all those who remember them.)
What happened in the winter of 1963 was that for two
months, from the week after Christmas until the end of February, Britain was
battered by a series of fierce Arctic blizzards. They swept down repeatedly, dumping snow upon
snow, wreaking destruction and death on unprecedented scales. All forms of transportation were disrupted for
weeks on end, and for days would be suspended altogether. Villages cut off by mountainous snowdrifts had
to be supplied, and sometimes its inhabitants evacuated, by helicopter. Fatalities directly attributable to the storms
soared into the hundreds. Throughout
that long winter, everyday living was virtually abandoned.
The news footage suggested an icy Armageddon.
But for some reason, even though I was living in London at the time, I
don’t remember any of this. My vivid
recollections are not of snowstorms but rather of smogs, those sulphurous
‘London Peculiars’ that would sometimes envelop the capital for days at a time. My abiding memory of them is of catching a
bus on Fleet Street that crawled westward at ten miles per hour, guided by its
conductor, walking in front holding a lamp.
So, at this moment, as I look out of my window at a garden
– of late transformed into a picturesque wonderland in white – I feel
disinclined to entertain the thought that I may be witnessing the start of a
new ice-age brought about by melting polar glaciers. What happened in 1963, and before that in
1947, might be what is happening this year, and what might happen again some
year hence. The television programme
somehow reassured me – a reminder that monster storms come along every few
years for reasons not readily explained, and which don’t necessarily represent the
advent of a new frozen era in the planet’s history.
Perhaps I’d worry more if I took the time to study the
statistics. Five of the six coldest
winters of that past fifty years have occurred in the last decade; so, too, did
six of the wettest. Okay, I made those figures
up, because I can’t be bothered to check them out, but I’ll bet they’re not far
Something serious does
seem to be happening to Britain’s
climate. That’s not a scientific evaluation,
of course, merely the observation of a layman who seems to remember from
childhood winter snowstorms that were few and far between, and always disappointingly
light – bringing hardly enough material to build a snowman, or a toboggan run –
even if they did bring British Railways to a standstill. That, one might add, doesn’t take much doing. Autumn leaves still bring our trains to a
Boris Johnson, London’s mayor, writing in today’s Daily Telegraph, has a similar recollection of British winters: “I
remember snow used to come and settle for just long enough for a decent snowball
fight before turning to slush; I don’t remember winters like this.”
Come to think of it, I don’t either.
But if meteorological experts are evenly divided on
the question of whether polar ice-melt is changing our weather permanently,
with conflicting theories abounding, what are we mere laymen to believe? All we can do is rely on our powers of observation
and an unreliable facility for recollection.
Even as I write, the snow on my driveway is receding,
the daffodils poking through the mush.
Perhaps that’s it for the year.