11 JANUARY 1963, Page 25

Life Below Zero


IHAvt: been in two of the coldest places in the world, Swedish Lapland and on the Yukon river just south of Alaska. On the Yukon, where I stayed in what remains of Dawson City, it was summer, very warm, but the river itself was icy and the earth was frozen solid only eighteen inches below the surface. The sky was blue all the time, the only sign of night was a slight dimming as though somebody had switched off a few lamps in a brilliantly lit room. In Lapland it Was the opposite. The temperature was far below zero centigrade or even fahrenheit. The sea was frozen; at an ironworks they had difficulty in Wping parts of a blast-furnace, warm enough. At the iron ore mine even farther north the Weather was so bitter even in the daytime that it Was. only just about possible for someone as unacclimatised as I was to move about in the °Pen.

1 have been in other below-zero places too, alid what was common in all these places was that People went about life and work just as usual,

dressed appropriately and didn't talk about the weather.

ROW different in temperate Britain where snow or frost on any scale becomes a drama, a titanic struggle to keep the country moving and the people alive. After five hours of snow, if it sticks, the railway system begins to crumble, the 'high' (i.e., about 1,000 feet) passes are anPassable, milk supplies threatened, water pipes fr°zert solid, helicopters called for to feed the cattle, cars stuck everywhere. For a technically- minded nation we look pretty silly on these occasions.

, -The answer generally given to the question '41)1, can't the British stand the cold?' is that it doesn't happen often enough to justify the capital 111)Ivestment, In most respects this is sheer , unoombe, In some it is just smokescreen stuff to Cover up carelessness and thoughtlessness in the Past. How do British Railways think the Swiss and the Swedes, the Russians, the Canadians, the Anto ericans have kept their lines on the whole

Pell for a hundred years or more during winters worse than anybody in this country has ever even

in,,lagitled? And why are our railways still merely kaddling with the use of gas and electricity to iseel3 points from freezing? They should have 741 looked after half a century ago. As for the °ads there are some signs of hope. It is a good tihness, that the really serious freezing-up points, e Places which even on major roads get sutocked every time, could be eliminated by under- urfaec electric heating for less than a million Pyounds. There is also the happy circumstance :at much of the heavy earth-moving equipment ueveloped for building motorways can also be :ed for snow-clearing. So maybe in fifty years il even less we might learn to keep the traffic sle'vlag when there is more than two inches of ennw. Even here there will need to be some more un--operation between farmers and engineers. '111°W many city slickers and townees know that a.e farmers for various reasons of self-interest dle cutting down the hedges wherever they can 0 so and either not replacing them at all

(between fields) or using fences by the roadside?

This is one of the smaller nuggets of bucolic information I have picked up recently. When walking through the countryside it is possible to see some logic in it, possible to see fields created which are of European rather than of insular area, though still nothing like the boundless acres of Canada or the Middle West. This cannot be done in all parts of the country, for contours conic into it as well as rural economics.

I need hardly say that these remarks are based on some recent events in the southern parts of the country. Overnight a secure, civilised village form of life is threatened: w ill there be any post, any newspapers, any milk? Can the fish-man fight his way through, and the baker? Will 'the butcher have his carcases to hack at (somehow nobody bothered about a candlestick-maker) and is it conceivable that the brewers' draymen might fall by the wayside? Will the telephone line stay open? Can even the almighty Dr. Beeching keep the branch-line moving (which he is planning to immobilise in a matter of months anyway)?

It is a highly developed countryside I am speaking about, not a `rural slum,' bounded by roads in every direction and not a hundred miles from the MI. Yet in a day or two doubts began to arise about normal supplies, about whether a car could or could not get up a certain road, about whether the brussels sprouts

could be cut, and what work there would be IQ do next week. The great metropolis, a men thirty miles away, was simultaneously collapsing under a weight of snow which might fall in Moscow in three hours or in Leningrad in ninety minutes. Of course, it is true that sex equality is only in its infancy in London compared with Moscow and there is no chance for the LCC or any other authority to call out special strong- arm squads of women to clear the roads: we have to rely on a man or on the machine.

Perhaps this is the nub of the problem, or the key to it. This country will continue to suffer both rurally and urbanly from slight extremes of weather until the women take over and apply a bit of foresight and common sense. It is the women who can do without the morning news- paper, the mail, even in extremity the telephone: but it is the women who want the water, the fuel, the milk, the meat, the bread (and even a little butter). They think more clearly about what is really essential, and man's job should be to provide what the defence and logistical experts now call the 'capability' of filling these modest demands. Then we might pay a bit closer atten- tion to whether or not there will ever be a British man on the moon. What kick could he get out of it if he knew that the little woman he left behind was having her life made a hell by the presence of two, or even three inches of snow, and of roads covered by as much as one-eighth of an' inch of ice? Perhaps the way to the stars lies in a bit tighter control of our ordinary day-to-day `capability' to look after ourselves in our own element.