Joan Smith: We should button up and press on

What happened to Haiti is a catastrophe: delay to trains and planes isn't. Whatever happened to British fortitude?
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The Independent Online

At the beginning of this year, an earthquake struck Haiti. A quarter of a million homes collapsed, a million people were made homeless and many of them are still living in tents in refugee camps. According to the Haitian government, 230,000 people died in the quake and 300,000 were injured. What happened in Haiti was a crisis, a disaster, a catastrophe – the kind of event that happens all too often in developing countries and, very occasionally, as with the hurricane that struck New Orleans, affluent ones.

What has happened in the UK this month is neither a crisis nor a disaster. Heavy snow has fallen, flights and trains have been cancelled, and some travellers have had to spend a night in an airport. Some unlucky drivers have been stuck overnight in cars or lorries, but even then I've heard them praising the way local people turned out with cups of tea and sandwiches. No one's lost their home, cholera isn't rampaging through the population and, despite the gloomy prognostications, quite a few people still managed to get away for Christmas.

None of these facts has got in the way of a bout of moaning and national self-loathing. A country that used to queue patiently and endure shortages has been transformed into an army of outraged consumers, irritated by call centres, slow broadband speeds, hidden charges, late deliveries, heavy snow and volcanic ash.

I'm not disputing that some of the things we hate about the modern world are worth complaining about, including companies with appalling manners who leave "customers" waiting endlessly at home for gas engineers or deliveries; call centres drive me to despair because they're staffed by human shields, employees who are poorly paid and don't have the power to deal effectively with complaints.

But that doesn't alter the fact that the British have turned into a nation of moaners with unrealistically high expectations. There are plenty of poor people who are struggling to make ends meet, but I've also watched the rise of a vociferous middle class that expects to sail through life without ever being inconvenienced.

The over-reaction to this month's bad weather is a perfect example. It would be comic if it didn't border on offensive; frustrated passengers have been describing the UK as a third-world nation, as though having a flight cancelled is remotely akin to coping with natural disasters in developing countries.

The media encourage that impression. All it takes is a few snowflakes, observes one enraged pundit after another, and the entire country grinds to a halt. I mean, they don't have these problems in Sweden or Germany, do they? But they do, as lists of continental airports with delays and cancellations demonstrate. Last Monday, for example, 340 take-offs and landings were cancelled at Frankfurt airport, while air passengers using Berlin were warned that services would not return to normal before Christmas. On the same day, trains around Berlin were seriously delayed by heavy snow and frozen switches, while almost a third of train journeys were cancelled in southern Sweden – and they're used to blizzards. In future, furious columnists may need to look further afield – perhaps to some small Siberian airport no one's heard of – in their rush to prove how useless British airports are.

It doesn't seem to matter that this month's weather has been exceptional for Britain; that many parts of the country the snow have had much more than a picture-postcard sprinkling of powder; or that the Government has called for scientific advice as to whether climate change is making severe weather events more frequent. It might seem sensible to get an impartial assessment before investing millions of pounds in equipment that might be needed once a decade, but no matter: "We want more snow ploughs and we want them now," has been the refrain.

Whatever happened to British stoicism? There seemed to be some phlegmatic souls in the London Eurostar queue stretching along Euston Road in the bitter cold, but a lot of them had foreign accents. They also seemed to have dressed for the weather, which is something we Brits aren't very good at; we expect the people who run our transport system to be prepared for every eventuality, but I'm amazed by the unsuitable clothing I've seen in snow-packed streets in west London. I've noticed thin jackets, shoes that barely protect against snow and ice, and I even passed a coatless man in jeans and a sweatshirt as I trudged through several inches of snow last weekend.

What lies behind all this, I suspect, is the fact that life in the developed world isn't merely comfortable, but sheltered from harsh reality. We've got used to doing what we want, when we want, and the notion that a simple thing like the weather or volcanic ash has the power to thwart our desires is unbearable. I was due to fly to the Gulf during the volcanic ash "crisis" earlier this year, and when my flight was cancelled, I just got on with doing something else. But I heard daily demands that governments swing into action, not only to help stranded passengers but to get planes flying again, even though the risk to aircraft engines wasn't fully understood.

The world is unpredictable. Human intelligence has solved many problems but there are events, from appalling weather to a diagnosis of cancer, which remain outside our control. In the UK, we're protected from that knowledge most of the time, unlike countries where floods, hurricanes and earthquakes – not to mention disease and hunger – strike with depressing frequency.

As well as the earthquake in Haiti, Pakistan has suffered catastrophic floods this year, and there have been other smaller disasters around the world. We Brits aren't entitled to a special dispensation, shielding us from the effects of bad weather, so could we strive for a sense of proportion here? Arriving late for your Christmas holiday is an inconvenience, not a catastrophe.

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