Tuesday, 28 December 2010

The Great Thaw

“They’re here!” my little sister would cry ecstatically from the bedroom window when she saw our cousins’ VW bus pull up, each Christmas Eve. Over the past fifty years that battle cry hasn’t changed. “It’s here!” I shouted, glimpsing a long awaited guest --- the thaw. My father, who like most foreigners couldn’t pronounce the sound “th”, called it “The saw”. Its arrival was like a sudden awakening. There was a new gentleness in the air, a sense that it cares for you again. Gone is the severe bite that lashed out at you if you dared to step outside. The wind, newly awakened from sleep, blows over the snow and ice for all it’s worth, and brings the first raindrops. Out on the land heather bushes emerge into daylight again. Our river, the mighty Deveron rises and doubles its size. In the last thaw it burst its banks.

This year’s thaw came on Boxing Day --- so named because the gentry used to set out Christmas leftovers in boxes for those less fortunate. Not only the land came to life but so did Aberdeen.

I set out with the kids for the Aberdeen bus station so they could catch the Edinburgh bus. Soon after passing the Haudagain Roundabout (Also known as the intersection from hell) I noticed that we were progressing at 20 mph, then ten, then five. After crossing Union Street, our speed dropped to one foot an hour. An Accident? A terrorist attack? What the hell was going on? Side streets we passed were just as clogged. Finally Natalia and Adam decamped along with their luggage to walk to the station. An hour later when we reached it, located at the edge of Union Mall I saw the problem. Shopping! And there were the police, diverting traffic away from the mall, in an attempt to keep people away from the shops. When I tried to turn into the parking lot a harried cop yelled for me to drive elsewhere. So I headed down side streets for a parking lot that should have free space, only to land in another frozen traffic line. Everyone else evidently had the same idea.

Luckily Jon’s phone GPS came to the rescue and directed us to available street parking. Getting out of the car brough little relief as we ended up in an impenetrable mass of people all pushing us along the sidewalk, all headed for the mall. Like a scene from Lang's film Metropolis. The mall crowd was so thick that you could hardly turn without bumping into someone. Everywhere signs of 70% off and Clearance Sale dangled cheerfully. On all sides people snatched up piles of clothing, stood patiently in endless cash register lines. I couldn’t have bought a handkerchief if you paid me to; evidently Aberdonians will endure any amount of hellfire if the price is right.

During the three week long freeze leading up to Christmas, shops were so deserted that two assistants would jump up to help you as soon as you darkened the doorway. No assistants around in sight amid the current feedling frenzy, where shops unloaded their goods at fire-sale prices.

We were so hungry we each could have eaten a horse. But our restaurant of choice had a one hour wait for a table. The others had lines snaking out into the mall escalators. Except for Pizza Hut, which neither we nor other shoppers were crazy about. Half-alive and disoriented we staggered out of the mall, and headed for Musa, a delightful restaurant I knew of. Our moods didn’t improve when we found the place closed. No doubt, the employees were all at the mall. Finally we settled on a small pub across the street, where we ordered toasties (1) and stovies (2). A dark beer miraculously soothed our frazzled nerves. Though the pub was only a stones throw from the mall, only a few people were there. We sat drinking our beer and waxed philosophical about the evils of consumerism and shopping.

Outside, snow turned to slush and icicles dripped and fell from the eaves. Traffic lines remained solid, barely budging. The thaw had definitely come.


(1) Toasties --- a Scottish panini made on white bread.
(2) Stovies --- A hot dish with potatoes, Swedes and ground meat; served with oatcakes.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Here Comes the Cavalry

In the midst of our winter snows, blizzards, freezes, airport closures, broken down trains, a lack of road salt, yes the general travel paralysis, there’s one good story. No, it’s not news of a thaw. Forecasters say that there’s no end in sight to our current ice age. The good news is that two tankers have docked at Inverness and Aberdeen, carrying 2 million litres of home heating oil. Most rural Scottish homes have no other source of energy; they cook with oil, heat their homes and their bath water with it. Lately, supplies in many homes have been low, and oil deliveries unavailable.

Each house has a tank containing 1,200 litres or more. When the level drops to less than half, you call a supplier and they fill your tank, usually within a week Not these days. Two weeks ago Brogan Fuels gave me an estimated delivery day of mid to late January. Their stocks are down; demand is up since mid November when the first snows fell. We’re lucky. In addition to oil we have a wood burning stove to warm our house. Our neighbours offered to loan us some oil if we run empty. But many others don’t have those options and must cope in cold houses. Here are some stories.

Everyone blames the winter chaos on government policies. Complacency. After all if Canada and Russia can handle their winters why can’t we?

We can’t because we’re in the midst of a paradigm change. Climate shock. This is our second severe winter that’s worse than anyone remembers. For over fifty years we’ve had mild winters. Our culture evolved around them, allowing us commutes of 50 miles to work, and unrestricted travel in good or bad weather. Suddenly we find that no longer realistic. Last years severe winter did little to prepare us for this one, because no one really believed it was coming. We bought some extra road salt, but not enough. Employed more gritting crews, but not enough. Heating oil budgets were way off. Airports left with too few de-icers and snow blowers. Even if they had them, incoming planes couldn't have landed safely.

When climate change happened before, it didn’t happen gradually. It didn’t give societies time to adapt. The medieval warm period lasted 300 years and ended in 1309. That winter caught everyone unprepared; was so cold that the Thames froze over. The following winter was no better. Then came the disastrous summer of 1315, cold with constant rain. Trading with the continent was disrupted. Corn varieties adapted to a warmer climate no longer grew. There were widespread crop failures and famine, especially serious because England and Europe’s population more than tripled during the medieval warm period. No amount of preparation could have mitigated the disastrous effects.

Following Scotland’s recent paralysis, the transport minister Stewart Stevenson resigned. What will his successor do differently? He can decide that we’re in a mini ice age, buy up new fleets of gritting trucks. Go to Russia for lessons. Or he can shake his fist at the weather. Despite our technology, weather often has the last word.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Father Frost

In an attempt to cheer us up, convince us that the typical Cottarton winter is not that bad after all, and to dissuade Amber and I from moving to southern France, our neighbour Anne Christie sent us these pictures from Russia. Father Frost is laying it on pretty thick there, but at least Russians have tractors and diggers when they need them, and don't have to rely on local councils for spreading grit. Their council taxes are also much lower than ours.

I guess I can fix the phone problem

The readiness of the dreaded Russian army

Here comes the plumber. Now where did you say you had a burst pipe?

Call this a highway?

Man, do I have to dig out this car?

Who left the car windows open?

Let's get this bus moving.

Let's count the strata. For how many years has this car been lost?

Does it blow this hard at Cottarton?

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Blowin' in the Wind?

The lack of wind adds to the oddity of this winter. Winter --- yes it began this year not in December but in mid November when the first snows fell, like giants clouds, large flakes drifting down aimlessly. When it was over, I measured a constant 18 inches in our field. Usually we’re snowed in by gigantic drifts but not this time. The ski resorts opened and recouped their losses from several years back, but the renewable energy folk (those who cover our hills with clusters of steel giants with whirling hands) gritted their teeth. And not for the first time. Last year their production was down by at least 10%. From January to March while we waited under the snow, the wind giants stood still as sentinels. If this is the new pattern for our weather in the coming years, it doesn’t bode well for renewable energy, or our plans to derive our future energy from wind farms.

Usually it’s the gales and hurricanes, roofs blowing off, or flattening whole fields of barley that make a good story. Where’s the story in still air? It’s always windy in the northeast; we often stagger from the car to the door, bent double, while our shopping bag sails down the driveway behind us. Trees bend this way and that, their branches in an epileptic frenzy. I curse the spring wind that shrivels the seedlings that I've set out. I usually plant with an eye on the wind forecast. But when in November or January, the windy months, the air is breathless and the trees stand stupidly like they don’t know what to do, when the land feels like a tame puppy rather than a wolf, I know that something is amiss.

The pundits at the UK Met Office say that a long-term blocking high over Greenland has separated us recently from our Atlantic depressions, those that usually blow over us every three days bringing soggy but mild weather and a lot of wind. Now we’re getting cold air from Siberia. Father Frost from Russia has crossed over to Scotland and is now stalking our hills. He’s surrounded by snow clouds, has a bright red nose and piercing blue eyes. His hoary breath freezes rivers and lakes. The last time he came over was 200 years ago. From 1805-1820 Europe had very severe winters. In 1816, cold temperatures and excessive rain caused widespread famine. Ah Father Frost. In 1812 he came out to meet Napoleon’s troops, marching in their short sleeve shirts toward Moscow.

The pie chart, developed by 19th century statistician Charles Minard, tells the story of the appalling military disaster. The beige chart shows the French advance on Moscow, the black chart is their retreat. Line thickness indicates the size of the army. The red curve is the air temperature during the retreat. You can just see how the French army froze during their retreat.

The first wave of snow has gone.We're looking out at our green hills, and the sheep cropping the grass. But the air is suspiciously still. We're expecting Father Frost's return in a few days. It's time I chopped some more firewood.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Failed Service

The dreaded words come over the PA system while your train is stuck in the middle of a snow field. “Blah blah blah…This delay is due to a failed service ahead of us…” Translation, “Broken down train.” And so we wait; an opportunity to contemplate the meaning of life. That we’re all gathered in this tin can, all victims of “extreme weather.” Do any of us know each other? Know the same person? How might some of us be connected?

For once family members can no longer tell me…”But of course you have snow. What can you expect if you choose to live in Aberdeenshire. It’s so nice and sunny where we live. ”

The picture from on high tells a different story.

Despite the blizzards and freezing temperatures, I was determined to make this journey down the length of Britain. My daughters, Johanna and Natalia had recently moved to London. Natalia was singing in the chorus of Handel’s Messiah, something I didn’t want to miss. Amber volunteered to stay home, keep the house warm and feed the cats.

The train sits helplessly yet no one complains. Back in Texas, you’d see people pacing up and down, demanding to know who is in charge anyway. Scottish people are used to muddling along without being too vocal. Failed service is to be expected; actually no service is more common when temperatures dip below -10 Celcius (20 F) because the railway points freeze up. And so when I started the second leg of the journey south, I found no trains leaving Perth. I hopped on a bus headed for Edinburgh. The driver, a small chubby man enjoyed tormenting passengers shivering at the bus stop, telling them, “A’ve nae room. I’m a’ fu.” He waited till their faces dropped before waving them on board. We drove through a white landscape, so still you could hear your own thoughts. After crossing the Forth Bridge, a bridge similar in length and design to San Francisco’s Golden Gate, the bus started to make thumping noises. The driver pulled over; opened the door. A loud hissing coming from under the bus was not encouraging. He radioed for help, then turned to us and said. “Sorry, we’ve broken down.” (No euphemisms of a failed service).

“Ye can wait here for another bus or ye can get oot and walk.”

“Where’s the replacement bus coming from?” asked a passenger.

“Inverness.” He waited to take in the terrified faces before winking.

Actually we only waited for a minute before an Edinburgh local bus pulled in behind us and took pity on us. And so we limped into Edinburgh, where I boarded the London train. Because of subsequent failed services, the train rolled into Kings Cross four hours late.

On the train journey back to Scotland, my cousin Basia and I sat opposite two men who were involved in a conversation about music. I was astonished to hear the older man talk about a superlative performance of Handel’s Messiah he’d participated in.

“A performance in Spitalfields?” I asked during a lull in their conversation.

The older man was Bill Hunt, the violone player in Natalia’s concert. Johanna and I had noticed him, and wondered about his instrument, a cross between a cello and a double bass. What are the odds that out of twelve million Londoners you will find yourself sitting opposite a man who participated in the concert you just attended? Odds as small as winning the lottery. The concert had been extraordinary. The choir, known as the Nonsuch Singers, with the sharpness and discipline of a professional choir, produced an enchanting effect. Of the top-notch soloists, most interesting was David Allsopp, the countertenor. Countertenors produce a high voice similar to an alto, the same range as that of Baroque castrati. David sang the alto part in the Messiah. His high voice was so unexpected that it sounded supernatural. Small wonder that Baroque women used to swoon when a castrati sang.

And who was the second musician opposite us? He was a countertenor though not the same one as in our concert. There aren't many of them, but here was one. We talked for a while about how he produces the high singing voice, as his speaking voice is quite low. When you scream, you’re apparently using the same vocal technique that countertenors use.

The train slowed down then ground to a halt. Yes, another failed service near Newcastle was the problem. Here we were, five hundred people aboard a train. I’d met two connected by only one or two degrees of separation. How many others might there be among the others? Many more than one might expect.