Saturday 12 October 2013

Chilling News?

The Daily Express,which likes to wind up its readers, if only for circulation reasons, has decided to splash on the winter weather.  Observing, as many of us have done already, that the Jet Stream has shifted south and delivered "blocking highs" it says that this is bad news.

It is all very well in the summer when delighted TV forecasters and the media can talk of hot and sunny days, but not in the winter when they can deliver all the weather we do not want and leave it there for weeks.

You need to be knocking on to recall the winter of 1962-1963 and more to have memory of 1946-1947.  There is material online dealing with these.  I was lucky both times.  No car to worry about and living within short walking distance of work, shops and other facilities, including rail stations. 

In those days along the line of supply at all stages there were substantial stocks held when possible and much of what we ate came from far shorter distances. Nowadays it is all very different, just in time applies to everything.

As the Minister for Fuel and Power in 1947, Emmanuel Shinwell found out that if you took the risk that the winter would be a mild one it would not simply be embarrassing, it could destroy the credibility of your party.  He decided in October 1946 not to press for increased coal production to avoid more trouble with the miners just when the coal mines were to be nationalised.

In general economic terms both of these winters came at bad times.  The 1947 winter was a particular case.  The UK was in serious economic trouble after World War Two.  Because there was so little to consume and severe rationing was in place for many goods there was little to cut.  The War had run down public services so badly that there was little left at the margins.

The consequence was a major setback to the economy and a political disaster for the Labour Party, coming just 18 months after an election where promises had been made.  Because of the scale and nature of other problems of the period the impact of the severe weather on the margins of economic activity at the time was severe.

The 1962-1963 bad winter was different in scope.  However, a Conservative Government that had won re-election by upping spending in 1959 was now in the situation of trying to control and correct rising inflation and major balance of trade issues, among other serious problems.

The economic impact of this winter was worse in some ways.  Notably, this was on consumption spending by now a much larger feature of the economy.  But it hit badly on those parts of the economy where the government had tried to drive up activity. 

In a world without credit cards and banks being obliged to operate strict credit controls the cost of the winter to the ordinary people had a large impact on overall spending.  Food prices shot up and household fuel spending rocketed with an immediate impact on other spending.

If we do have a long cold and difficult winter it will not be easy to work out what would be the overall effect in 2013-2014 as we try to struggle out of the financial disaster.  This is especially the case as so many government and other indices have been manipulated to tell other stories.

It may be that all the pessimism about what the weather conditions are likely to be in the next month or two may be wrong.  But bad winters can and do happen from time to time.  In 1946-47 in some respects we were more ready and had the labour to deal with some of the worst.  1962-1963 was troublesome but there was still enough flexibility and  know how to deal with many things.

This time round if it is a bad one at that kind of level it is possible that we no longer have the labour, the wide expertise or the facilities to deal with it properly.  If some critics are correct we are too close to the margin if the demand for energy rises sharply and persists.

Cameron may need to have a key committee and other government emergency advisers looking at this one if he isn’t going to go the way of Attlee and Macmillan.

Just how bad can it get?  Germany, at present, thanks to the EU malign energy policies, is in hock to Gazprom. There was a time when it was very bad.  If it was severe in the UK in 1947 it was far worse there.

The quote below is from the Manchester Guardian that year when it was a respected journal fierce on the accuracy of its reports, how much it has changed.


The Manchester Guardian: "Postwar Germany: a place of horror." by JP Hogan, Thursday October 30, 1947.

In the square in front of the station, a few lamps shed pale incandescence over the deserted pavements below, emphasising the desolation and dereliction. I floundered over pavement edges with the aid of a torch.

I would shy at the approach of a glowing cigarette-end. I knew, well enough, that human lips held the cigarette, that human feet propelled the wooden shoes.  But there are times when it is hard to believe what one knows; and in Oberhausen I could never be sure that I was not a dead man among the dead in a dead town.

The platform was just light enough for one to see that an enormous crowd of men, women, and children had congregated, with suitcases and portmanteaux and sacks.

They are "hamsterers", town-dwellers who go into the country to "scrounge" potatoes, fruit and vegetables. "Hamstern" means to hoard; but in Germany today it means to take the requisite action to keep body and soul together.

In Oberhausen (and probably elsewhere) secondary schools were closing on Saturdays in October so that the children might go and get potatoes wherever and however they could.

Rolf had not expected to see this crowd; he had brought me to see the returning "hamstering" train from the country districts between Hamm and Hanover. But this crowd, from the easy way they swung their suitcases, was obviously at the beginning of its journey.

Then a loudspeaker announced that the train from Hanover was already over a hundred minutes late.  Almost as he spoke the German voice, announced the night train from Cologne to Hanover was approaching.  The train drew in. Every compartment and every inch of corridor was already crammed, but this did not deter the people on the platform.

Within a few seconds men were already on the roof, on the buffers, between, the coaches, on the running-boards.  The occupants, if charitable, opened the windows. I saw women handing in their babies and husbands their wives, themselves following as best they could.

The Ruhr today, if you like facades, is a place where children play boisterously, in streets that are not unlike Stockport and Bolton, Rochdale and Oldham, if you discount the rubble.

But under it all is hunger and horror: in the hundred and one secret places of the Ruhr, thousands know that the coming winter will bring them little soup, less fuel, and no hope.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2006


The Atlantic Isles occupy only a small part of the globe.  So whether climate change is going one way or another or whether there are just shifts in existing patterns it could happen that we could be in for colder conditions for a while.

Or we might not.

But we have all forgotten how bad it could be.


  1. I remember only too well. '47 was worse, Water standpipes at the end of the street - queues of neighbours with buckets. No water in the loo to flush. Mum ripped open my coat lining to put layers of extremely thick brown paper in at the back for warmth, and made me mittens of old grey blankets, embroidered with wool on the outside, inside them several layers of thick cotton old vests cut up. The War ensured everyone knew about having the absolute necessity of having a store cupboard, because lots of shops couldn't get in provisions. Most people had things bottled in Kilner jars from the summer. However, the majority of neighbours were known, were trustworthy, and used from wartime to doing without. I shudder to think what might happen nowdays.

  2. "But we have all forgotten how bad it could be."

    I think it's human nature - people have to go though bad times before they understand what bad times are. Unfortunately they may yet have that chance.

  3. I can remember having to break the ice in the washbowl in order to wash my face. I was an inmate of a boarding school and the teacher thought the windows should be open for "fresh air".
    And after the snow came the floods. In Bedford anyway.