A cold winter's tale
This morning I saw a pair of large deer in the castle garden. These animals often come up from a nearby valley to graze, and are completely unafraid.
AS I write this, I am constantly distracted by the vista outside my window: there's a blanket of snow on the road, and a heavy white cover on the branches that obscure my view of the 19th century castle that stands in the place of the ancient, 13th century structure that was destroyed by Oliver Cromwell in the civil war.
This morning I saw a pair of large deer in the castle garden. These animals often come up from a nearby valley to graze, and are completely unafraid. I saw some of their tracks in our garden this morning, and must remember to shut the gate as they can be quite destructive. Puffin, our Jack Russell terrier, loves giving chase whenever he spots them, and I often wonder what he'd do if the deer turned on him. He's sitting on my knees right now, watching for squirrels outside the window. Surprisingly, he loves romping in the snow, investigating strange new odours.
Although we haven't have had as much snow here in Devizes as some parts of Britain, it has still slowed down life to a crawl. A restaurant in Marlborough where we went for lunch was empty except for our table, and the owner complained of cancelled reservations. Why, he asked, did the media have to paint things worse than they were? People seeing constant images of cars stuck in long traffic jams did not want to risk even short drives to shops or restaurants. The media is warning of shortages in supermarkets and petrol stations if the current arctic conditions persist. But a book I ordered from Amazon has duly arrived, and the shelves were stacked as I went to buy a newspaper and a pint of milk this morning. No doubt there will be distribution problems in the north where conditions appear to be truly hellish, but I'm sure the Brits will muddle along, as they always have.
But it's unlikely to be a very happy Christmas for retailers. Even companies selling on the Internet are having to refuse orders because of the uncertain deliveries. Town centres are largely deserted as shoppers decide to wait for the freezing weather to abate a little. And in truth, it is very cold here in the UK, with the temperature often dropping to below zero even in the middle of the day. At night, we have been at six below zero.
It's not the snow that makes driving hazardous, but the sheet of ice that forms on the surface after the top layer has thawed briefly, only to freeze when the temperature drops again. Drivers, unaware of the ice, enter a curve only to discover that they have lost control, and skid off the road.
Air traffic has been especially hard hit. Heathrow is in chaos, with hundreds of cancelled flights, and thousands of stranded passengers sleeping on the floor in departure lounges. The problem is not so much the snow on the runaways, but the ice that has formed on the planes. A friend who was due to fly to Sri Lanka three days ago is still waiting for her flight to take off. Not unexpectedly, there has been a huge outcry about the lack of preparation for the cold snap that is expected to last for another few weeks. But I can say that in our part of Wiltshire, at least, the local councils have been very efficient in clearing the main roads, using grit and snow ploughs to good effect. Nevertheless, on the national level, a perception of ineffective crisis management is taking hold, with the Labour Party seeking to score a few points against a coalition government that has seemed impervious to criticism so far, barring the row over the rise in university fees.
Worryingly, the cold weather will put a further strain on the resources of the millions of unemployed as heating costs soar. Currently, the government has a 250-pound winter heating grant for those over 60, but this figure has not kept pace with the rise in actual costs. With more job cuts to come this winter, there will be little to celebrate in many households this Christmas season.
Already, several deaths have been reported as some of the elderly have succumbed to the bitter cold. Hundreds of thousands of old people live alone, and without anybody to look after them, are vulnerable to the cold and to malnutrition. In many cases, this is a lifestyle choice made by fiercely independent people who do not wish to live with anybody, including their own children.
One of our neighbours is June, a lady well into her eighties, and I often see her walking slowly into town to do her meagre shopping. Her son, a prosperous local farmer, comes to visit her on weekends, but there is no question of June giving up her house and her independence to live with him. In Spain, there was a recent protest by grandparents who resent being treated as unpaid babysitters for their grandchildren while their children go off to work. They have demanded the right to their own life.
Several friends have asked if I regretted having come to the UK during the current icy weather, and although it's much colder than I am used to, the fact is that the countryside is so beautiful that I'm very glad to be here. The Christmas tree has been decorated, and my wife and step-daughters have been cooking numerous puddings for the occasion. There will be 16 here over three days for Christmas, and we have borrowed a neighbour's house to accommodate the overflow. I have my instructions about what to cook for Christmas Eve. As I have written in this newspaper before, I am delighted to share in the festivities of others, even though some sour readers have reprimanded me for participating in non-Muslim celebrations. To them, I would only point out that Jesus is a prophet for Muslims as well as for Christians. So why the reluctance to celebrate his birthday? And I always enjoy a good party…