Weather 1, UK 0

It snowed a bit here today. And I do mean just a bit – three or four inches on high ground, maybe half that lower down. That’s a light snowfall, as far as I’m concerned. Judging by the news here, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s Armageddon. More fool me, I went out in it… and it took me pushing three hours to travel about ten miles to get home.

I probably shouldn’t be surprised. This was the scene in Manchester city centre at about 6pm:

That’s a light dusting of snow, nothing more (to be fair, there is more here, ten miles to the north-east). Note the complete absence of salt or grit on either the road or the pavement. This was far from the most treacherous place in the city centre – the pavements in front of Debenhams in Market Street were slick with ice and very slippery (and no, neither Debenhams nor Manchester City Council had put any salt down). The Market Street Metrolink platform was just as bad – there had been no attempt to clear the lying snow, which had been compacted to ice under passengers’ feet, and nobody had put grit down.

Where I live is fairly high up, a few hundred feet higher than the city centre, and it’s not all that unusual for the public transport system here to experience some disruption when snow falls. I grew up here, I know what the weather can do, and I have the bus and train company websites bookmarked on my BlackBerry so that I can check for service updates if I go out when there’s snow on the ground (it slightly irritates me to do this, given that I’ve spent a big chunk of my adult life living in Toronto, a city that deals with far larger snowfalls every winter, usually without anything like the level of disruption snow causes here). I checked First Manchester‘s service updates page regularly; for most of the day (until some point after I got home, in fact) it showed only a bland message saying that there may be some weather-related delays. In the past, when there have been problems, this page has carried a fairly extensive list of specific services that are cancelled or diverted due to the weather. Since no such list was displayed, I assumed I was OK, and didn’t rush to come home.

The fun started when I went to catch a bus out of Manchester. There were no departing buses to be seen at my stop. Inbound buses (it’s the terminus) were dropping off passengers then going out of service, which isn’t a good sign (there’s supposed to be a bus between Manchester and Oldham town centre every ten minutes at that time of day). Rather than wait, I went to catch a train. The train departed exactly on time, and arrived at my station exactly on time. The station, however, was a mess:

That’s the platform, stairs and footbridge at Greenfield station. Nobody had made any attempt to clear the snow. No salt had been put down anywhere, even on the stairs. The station is staffed on Saturdays until 3.30pm, and sees one train an hour in each direction, timetabled to leave at more or less the same time. Aside from a window of about 15 minutes before both trains depart, it’s never that busy, so the lack of any salt anywhere on the platforms, staircases and footbridge basically comes down to laziness. It’s not as if this snowfall was unexpected. It was forecast 72 hours in advance, and arrived more or less exactly on schedule – and yet, obviously, the station’s staff (and their managers) didn’t bother to take even the simplest steps to mitigate the effect of the snowfall. I don’t know why this surprised me – I use Northern Rail regularly, and they’re committed to excellence in customer service in roughly the same way as the Communist Party of China is committed to promoting democracy – but it did. They usually make at least some effort, but they didn’t today.

The fun, for me, was only just beginning. The road outside Greenfield station is on a steep hill; it’s treacherous in ice, buses are often diverted away from there when there’s snow or ice on the ground, so I walked up to the main road (by now it was about 9pm, and the snow had long since stopped falling in any quantity). There was perhaps three inches of snow on the ground; usually, OMBC does a reasonably efficient job of clearing snow from the main roads, and you’d expect one of the borough’s major routes to be reasonably clear nine hours after the beginning of a snowfall that left an accumulation of only three or four inches. Not tonight:

It had probably been gritted, but not for several hours, and it hadn’t been ploughed. First Manchester’s mobile website still – again, nine hours after snow had begun to fall – showed only a bland message about possible snow-related delays, so I waited. Half an hour after my bus was due to arrive, I caught another service into the next village (easier place to pick up a taxi, and the bus shelter there has a seat). I asked the driver whether the service I was waiting for was running or not, and he didn’t know; he couldn’t be bothered to use his radio to try and find out. It wasn’t that cold, and the road was clearly open, so I waited… for three quarters of an hour, at which point a bus came along that would deposit me within a mile or so of home. Rather than ring a taxi, I caught it and walked. This bus ran more or less exactly on time; there was no sign at all of the service I’d been waiting for. The driver of the bus I caught thought it probably wasn’t running, but didn’t know for sure (and, again, couldn’t be bothered to get on the radio and find out); First finally got around to updating their website with a list of services that weren’t running at some point after 11pm, and the service I waited for for over an hour and a half is not listed there.

The walk home – mostly uphill through uncleared streets – was lovely.

And all of this for three or four inches of snow! It’s pathetic. More than that, it shows the management of a mostly privatised transport system on which the bottom line is corporate profit holding their paying customers in absolute, unyielding contempt. This was a minor snowfall, forecast days in advance – but the snow was forecast to fall at the weekend, which means that deploying additional personnel to clear platforms and bus stops of snow, put grit down, and keep passenger information systems properly updated with details of service disruptions would have meant paying overtime, which would eat into profits (never mind that we’ve had above-inflation fare increases on both the buses and the trains within the last month, in both cases without even the hint of a promise of any improvement in services in return). The snow falling at the weekend probably accounts for the state of the main roads as well – to be fair to the council here, on weekdays, with this amount of snow, they usually do a better job than they did today. Presumably they too wanted to avoid paying out too much overtime.

Beyond that, the prevailing mentality here does seem to be that clearing snow is somebody else’s problem. Toronto has a fairly strict bylaw outlining when and how snow must be removed from sidewalks, pathways etc following a snowfall, and this level of snow clearance is the responsibility of the owner or occupant of each building. We don’t have any such law here, so nobody bothers – including city centre businesses (and, really, it’s not as if putting salt down on the pavement in front of, say, Debenhams would have eaten up more than about 20 minutes of someone’s time – I repeat, we did not have a major snowfall today, and there was far less snow in the city centre than there is here). The snow on the pavements either piles up to the point where it gets into your shoes, or it compacts into ice, because nobody takes responsibility for clearing the pavement in front of their own property. Indeed, there’s an obnoxious perception that clearing snow and gritting in front of your home or business can get you sued if someone slips and falls on the section you cleared. And no, don’t worry, I’m not going to list every single revolting thing this says about British society.

And then there’s the private cars. When snow falls here, it’s as if parking regulations suddenly no longer apply. People bring their cars down from side roads (which, admittedly, are often steep, quickly become impassable, and are never the first to be cleared) and park them on the main road – anywhere on the main road, including on double yellow lines, around blind bends, and in front of bus stops, reducing two-lane roads to a single car-width of carriageway. Since that’s too narrow for two buses to pass, the result is severe disruption – like I experienced this evening – for anyone trying to get around by bus, even after a relatively minor snowfall. These cars, of course, are never ticketed or towed, despite being parked illegally. If we put in place a system of designated snow routes that became absolute no-parking zones after a snowfall in order to facilitate snow clearance and enable traffic to move freely in both directions, and enforced it, an awful lot of this disruption would be avoided.

Unfortunately, that would require planning, and common sense, and when snow falls in this country both of those things magically disappear. We had three or four inches of snow, and it was forecast days in advance. Some delays are understandable; letting chaos result from such a minor snowfall is not.

And the Northern Rail and Metrolink managing directors – I’m looking at YOU, Ian Bevan and Chris Coleman  – who failed to put protocols in place to ensure that station platforms would be gritted ahead of a snowfall should be fired. Even given the generally pathetic way we deal with snowfalls in the UK, that takes a special kind of incompetence.

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More Separated at Birth…

Warning: you may need a discomfort bag.

Fit the first:

Oh, sweet mystery of life, at last I’ve found you. And now I have to gouge my eyes out.

Fit the second:

One way or another, she’s gonna find ya, she’s gonna getcha getcha getcha getcha…

Down the block there’s a riot…

So, yeah. I narrowly avoided getting caught up in the worst rioting Manchester has seen in decades. How was your day?

That’s a little melodramatic, actually. I was lucky, I saw very little and was never in any danger, although it turns out I was closer to danger than I thought at the time. I went into Manchester this afternoon intending to do some work in the library. Knowing what has been happening over the last few days elsewhere, I kept my eyes open and my BlackBerry switched on so that I could keep checking various news sites. I was later than I’d usually be; it was well after 4pm when I arrived in the city centre (the library is open until 8pm). As I walked through the Royal Exchange arcade, heading towards Deansgate, a security guard was telling the staff of one of the shops that they should close up and pull down the blinds, and several of the shops (including a couple of very expensive jewellery stores) were closed. I decided that this was not a direction I wanted to be walking in, and headed towards Albert Square. Albert Square was quiet, with no sign of anything out of the ordinary; I got a coffee from Starbucks, and sat down on a bench to check news sites on my phone and figure out whether I should head straight home. I know, I know, but at that point there really wasn’t any sign at all of any disturbance in that part of the city centre.

And then…

I’d more or less finished my coffee when suddenly a procession of half-a-dozen police tactical aid unit vans plus various other police cars and vans came hurtling into Albert Square from Bootle Street (where the police station is), sirens blaring. Not a good sign. A couple of minutes later, a woman approached me and asked if she could talk to me. She was a plain-clothes police officer, and she suggested very strongly that I leave the city centre quickly because “it’s kicking off on Deansgate”. Even at this point, there still wasn’t anything strikingly unusual visible from where I was sitting, but when a police officer tells you to leave an area, you leave the area.

How to leave posed an interesting conundrum, in that my usual routes home (train from Victoria station or bus from Oldham Street) would both have meant walking past the Arndale Centre, and footage of looting elsewhere in Britain over the last couple of nights means that I didn’t think heading that way would be a very good idea (correctly, as it turned out). The police officer told me that Oxford Road was clear and quiet; that’s where I headed, to take a rather circuitous route home (train from Oxford Road to Stalybridge, then two buses, changing to a bus that runs near home in a village rather than in Oldham or Ashton town centre). As I crossed Portland Street, traffic heading towards Piccadilly Gardens was absolutely gridlocked; Piccadilly Gardens, it turned out, was one of the city centre flashpoints. Bus and metro service into and out of the city centre shut down around that time, although I didn’t know that until later. There was no sign of any disturbance in Oxford Road, Oxford Road station was relatively quiet, Stalybridge station was eerily quiet, there was no problem on the buses home. Thanks to the plain-clothes police officer, I had a very, very easy time of it. I talked to people on the train who hadn’t been nearly so lucky, including a lady in a wheelchair who had spent some time cowering, along with other customers and staff, in a locked Pizza Hut while youths smashed windows in the shops opposite. I’m glad I missed that. I’d walked past that particular restaurant only a little over an hour before that happened.

Given the news that’s been pouring in since – looting, arson, pitched battles between police and rioting youths, children roaming the city centre and breaking into shops and restaurants, smashed windows and all the rest of it, the absolutely startling thing, in retrospect, is how little I saw. The city centre, apparently, went from zero to mayhem in the space of about half an hour.

What’s absolutely sickening, of course, is that all of this is so pointless. It started with a police shooting in Tottenham, yes, but Tottenham is 200 miles south of here. The “protesters” in Manchester weren’t outside the police station, or the civil justice building, or the town hall. They were looting shoe shops and electronics stores and clothes shops and engaging in a series of acts of nihilistic destruction, simply because they could. That’s a crime spree, not a protest, and the fact that so many people – young people – apparently see smashing windows, setting fires and stealing stuff as a viable form of entertainment says something fairly unpleasant about our society.

As I said, I was lucky. I went into the city, got coffee, got told to leave, and got out before anything really bad happened. But I got out just before anything really bad happened, and I was, it turned out, far closer than I’d thought to scenes of absolute mayhem. The experience wasn’t at all frightening, but if I’d been 40 minutes later, or chosen to turn left instead of right when I left Albert Square, things could have been very different.

And I’m really not OK with sitting outside a Starbucks minding my own business and being told that I should leave the area because I’m not safe. That’s simply unacceptable.

Election II: The Misguided Revenge of Elwyn Watkins

This time it’s personal.

Oh, wait. It was personal the first time too, and that’s the problem.

It’s been all over the news all day. My MP, Phil Woolas, is apparently no longer my MP. I have no MP. Oldham East and Saddleworth is rudderless. My sakes, how on earth will we cope?

A specially-convened election court has found Mr. Woolas guilty of breaching the Representation of the People Act 1983. He’s been suspended from the Labour Party; there will apparently be a statement on Monday about his status as MP, but in the meantime his election has been declared void. He’s seeking a judicial review of the ruling, but the likelihood is that we’ll have to suffer another election. Apparently, one wasn’t enough. In the meantime, he’s barred from standing for parliament for three years. The odds are that his political career is effectively over.

He’s been found guilty of making false statements about the character and conduct of his Lib-Dem opponent, Elwyn Watkins. The charges were brought by Mr. Watkins, who was beaten in May by a margin of just 103. And, for all sorts of reasons, it’s troubling.

On the one hand, yes, the election campaign in this constituency was brutally negative. This was a Lib-Dem target seat and Mr. Watkins and his team pulled out all the stops to claw it from Mr. Woolas. Indeed, the Lib-Dem pamphlets and mailings were the first to get personal in their attacks on their opponents (God help me, I read all this stuff when it came through the letterbox). The Lib-Dem campaign, in fact, went negative less than 24 hours after the election was called. Among other things, they more than implied that Mr. Woolas’s parliamentary expenses claims were fraudulent, and that he was, therefore, a criminal; there were certainly a couple of claims made in error, but they were more or less certainly genuine mistakes. As the campaign went on, the accusations from both sides became wilder and wilder (since the Tory candidate was never going to win this seat – he finished trailing a fairly distant third – he managed to remain mostly above the fray.)  Mr. Woolas – and this is inexcusable – cynically played the race card in a constituency in which there is a very real racial divide, and tried to play on white fear of Muslim extremism by presenting Mr. Watkins as a candidate who had allegedly tried to woo the extremist vote, whatever that is. Disgusting and distasteful, yes – and I didn’t vote for Mr. Woolas – but also no less vicious than the crap printed by Mr. Watkins’ own team.

Beyond that, I have a bigger issue with the way all of this has played out. We had an election campaign, and it got very nasty indeed. Both sides sailed too close to the wind. We cast our votes, the votes were counted and then recounted twice, and there was a result. And then the loser – who had, himself, behaved appallingly badly during the campaign – lodged £5000 with the court himself to trigger the challenge. If anybody else had put up the money, I’d have less of a problem with it. As it is, whatever the rights and wrongs of who said what about whom, more than anything else this smacks of a bad loser throwing a fit because he didn’t win the prize.

And, in the end, it’s hard not to feel at least a little sorry for Phil Woolas. He fought a dirty campaign – but he did so against an opponent who also played fast and loose with the rules. He sometimes seemed to be out of his depth as a minister – Joanna Lumley wiped the floor with him over the Ghurka issue (justifiably, the government’s position was wrong, and insupportable – if we’re prepared to send people into battle on our behalf, we should be prepared to let them live here afterwards) – but he’s been a good, committed and genuinely caring constituency MP, and it shouldn’t give anyone any pleasure to see his career end in humiliation. It’s been particularly nauseating to watch the Labour Party drop him like a hot potato, and it’s been just as nauseating to watch Simon Hughes, the deputy leader of the Lib-Dems, effectively gloating on national television, as if his party’s candidate’s behaviour during the campaign was above reproach.

The big question now, of course, is what’s going to happen next. Mr. Woolas is seeking a judicial review, yes, but it’s more or less certain that we’re going to have another election, a prospect which I’m sure absolutely nobody, apart from Mr. Watkins, views with anything even slightly resembling joy. The Tories will have to pay for another campaign they’ve no hope of winning. Labour will have to find another candidate, who will have to run in a seat where the last Labour MP’s personal reputation has been shot down in flames in the national press. The Lib-Dems will have to run a by-election campaign when they’re rating far, far lower in opinion polls than they were in April, and try and sell their platform to an electorate that, in the centre and on the left, is increasingly mistrustful of the coalition that they themselves engineered. Mr. Watkins lost in May, and it’s by no means certain that he’ll win the rematch, whenever it’s called. He certainly won’t be getting my vote – and, yes, this time it *is* personal. There’s a certain delicious irony in Mr. Watkins using his own money to lodge a complaint that will lead to a by-election in which it’s very likely that he’ll be far more roundly defeated than he was the first time. Whoever Labour puts in to stand in Mr. Woolas’s place is quite likely to be returned to Parliament with a substantially increased majority. Sometimes, in politics, it’s better to let sleeping dogs lie.

Crash! Bang! Wallop! zzzzzzz….

So, apparently, the world didn’t come to an end last Friday. Pity really, I have to go to Tesco later and an apocalypse would liven the place up a bit. We had an election – God, don’t I know we had an election, I mostly work from home and I watched most of it – and nothing happened. Two of the three major parties appeared to be campaigning in slow motion until the last three days. We had four-and-a-half hours of painfully stage-managed, over-regulated TV debates between the three party leaders, in which the two feasible candidates for PM performed, mostly, appallingly badly while the leader of the least major of the three major parties seemed to go into overdrive, and suddenly the numbers started to change, but then the nation went to the polls… and nothing happened. We’d been gleefully promised all kinds of mayhem in the entirely predictable event that the polls returned a hung parliament, but on the night the numbers stacked up with a sort of numbing inevitability. Nobody won, everybody lost. We didn’t even get a Portillo Moment – just Comedy!Lembit and Jacqui Smith biting their lips and wobbling on camera, and they’d both been doing that at least twice a week for years anyway.

There’s no party with an overall majority, which means that our various political factions have been engaged in closed-door meetings in various combinations since Friday afternoon.  This, of course, means that our most cherished institution – the 24-hour news media – has spent the entire weekend analysing the crap out of a series of conversations that none of the participants care to discuss, on camera at least, giving us an almost orgasmic frenzy of kremlinological dissection of gesture, rumour and hypothesis, leavened with the implicit subtext that the sky may fall at any moment.

I just looked outside. The sky’s still where it’s supposed to be. So is the Sky dish. I’m shocked.

Our news networks, bless them, are running out of language to describe stasis. Nothing much happened during the election campaign, but nothing happened on a regular basis – a lot of people who look like middle managers appeared on camera walking through factories and supermarkets with their sleeves rolled up, low- and high-ranking members of all parties were caught saying regrettable things on camera/with the mike on, and potential embarrassments like Jacqui Smith and Comedy!Lembit were fitted with electronic ankle bracelets and confined to their constituencies on pain of death/multiple appearances on appalling reality TV shows. The sun rose, the sun set, and life continued as usual, apart from that week when a pesky volcano in the North Atlantic blew the campaign off the front pages by closing all the airports. But since we voted for deadlock, nothing has happened two or three times an hour, and we’re all struggling to keep up. Sorry, BBC, if the fourth meeting that nobody’s talking about finished three hours ago and the participants didn’t talk about it to camera beyond the blandest platitudes as they left, it’s not ‘breaking news’. There’s not going to be a quick agreement between any of the parties, because any deal, whether for a formal coalition or a more relaxed cooperation agreement, is going to involve at least one party leader eating a great big shit sandwich when the deal is agreed, and an even bigger shit sandwich six months to a year later if the deal goes south and we end up having another election. Two parties want a reform of the voting system, one doesn’t, and the one that doesn’t has the most seats. So, deadlock.

I should be concerned. I am concerned. I cast my vote for electoral reform. As I numbed myself into a news coma over the weekend, I signed online petitions, joined Facebook campaign groups, emailed MPs, officials and party leaders to show my support for major electoral reform. I want change. I do. I’ll happily sign petitions, write letters, attend marches and all the rest of it. But I also, on the third day of negotiations, want an immediate ban on media pundits and political journalists beginning sentences with “if”, “I don’t think”, “we shouldn’t underestimate”, and “we’re not getting much information, but”. If this goes on much longer, I’ll want the ban imposed by an army of Turok-Han carrying outsized cricket bats. Enough already.

The problem with nothing continuing to happen in the aftermath of nothing happening is that the dialogue just. isn’t. bad. enough. Tory politicians and the more hysterical factions of the press – get your hands out of your pockets, Daily Mail, I’m looking at YOU – promised us Armageddon if we were faced with a hung parliament. It sounded quite exciting. I had visions of barricades, mayhem, rending garments, public shouting matches, disaster-movie dialogue, perhaps a cabal of B-list action stars led by Jean-Claude Van Damme swooping into Whitehall on nuclear-powered unicycles to kick ass, restore order, and impose a fairer electoral system. Instead, I got a series of men in dull suits and bad ties mumbling about making constructive progress, and a group of protesters forcing the dismal Sky News presenter Kay Burley to go to commercial by standing behind her as she tried to conduct an interview and demanding, in unison, that she be sacked. Much as I might sympathise with the sentiment, it’s not a fair trade.

Faced with such disappointment, what does one do? Particularly, what does one do when one’s bank balance, this week, will not transport one to a remote hut on an otherwise uninhabited South Pacific island with room service and a stack of recent literary novels? Why, one turns to the cheesier movie channels, of course! What saved my weekend? “Céline”, a Canadian made-for-TV biopic of Quebec’s most uninhibitedly tacky diva, starring two actresses whose names I can’t remember as Ms. Dion herself, along with Franco-Ontarian musical theatre diva Louise Pitre as Mama Dion and Enrico “Keith Mars” Colantoni as the supremely creepy René Angélil. And it was, thank God, a telemovie to treasure, albeit for most of the wrong reasons. The actress whose name I can’t remember (and, obviously, can’t be bothered to look up) who played the adult Céline had two (constipated) facial expressions and, oddly, three noses. In succession, not all at once. The production values were magnificently valueless – Toronto and Hamilton stood in for, well, everywhere, and the props, costumes and most of the script were purchased from the Dollarama in Toronto’s Dufferin Mall. The dialogue was special. “Buy yourself some shoes, you deserve it!” “What happened to our dream?” “You must promise me you won’t touch her!” And my favourite – ” I’m not crazy about this song, René. And I’m not sure about this film. I mean, come on. Everyone knows the boat sinks!”. Ms. Pitre – if you’ve never heard her sing, go and buy her records NOW, she’s sensational – and Mr. Colantoni gamely attempted to lend the proceedings a dignity they did not deserve, mostly by wearing bad clothes and worse wigs with conviction and delivering their dialogue without corpsing or throwing up in their mouths.  Sure, it was a horror show – but none of it took place in Westminster.

Yes, I know. I could just not watch the news. Get real. This week, the news networks and the grimmer offerings of the True Movies channel seem remarkably similar – I’m simultaneously repulsed by and glued to both. Thank God for deadlines.