On Monday the television doomily reported that London was paralysed. No buses, no tubes, no trains...and threw in for good measure that conditions underfoot made walking beyond perilous. When I decided to ignore all this and set off for London in the middle of the afternoon my wife looked at the leaden sky and said simply but possibly accurately: 'You're mad!' I told myself that the mileage from my home in Worcestershire to central London is a mere 120 miles. Besides, in my mind, my journey really was necessary.
I have spent the best part of a year setting up the launch of the Centre for Freedom of the Media at London's Chatham House. We had set up a half-day conference to look at what had become of media freedom in the 20 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. There were guest speakers from Berlin, Vienna, Moscow and Kiev. The expected audience included senior journalists from the British and Russian media, academics from 10 universities, diplomats from several embassies, lawyers and politicians. The Chatham House people – partners in the conference – had had nearly 200 acceptances and were nearly as expectant as me about an important occasion. So I had a fair incentive to be there regardless of the weather.
When I ploughed my way through about four inches of snow to the station, I was disturbed to find that the car park was deserted. There was no one on the platform and when I went to the ticket office, the booking clerk shook his head gloomily: 'London? You'll be lucky!' He seemed reluctant to sell me the ticket, almost as if he expected to have to sort out a refund when the train failed to materialise. It did, although it was late...by two minutes. Surprise, surprise, there was no buffet car.
It's a circuitous route that takes us tortuously north-west through the Black Country to Birmingham before we're allowed to then turn south-east for the capital. All along the route the snow was piled high and every now and again the flurry of snow would turn to blizzard. The Chiltern Railways heating actually worked, which allowed the view to appear very picturesque. Somewhere along the way the conductor was pleased to announce we had picked up the two late minutes. Three hours later we arrived in London – exactly on time.
It was only as I tried to go out of Marylebone Station that the chaos that is London became clear. There was no queue for taxis. There were no taxis. There was no queue for buses. There were no buses. This was five o'clock in the evening at what should have been the rush hour. There was no rush hour.
No attempt had been made to clear the pavements and in the evening's sub-zero temperature, the slush had turned to glistening ice. Shrewdly, as it turned out, I had booked a hotel less than a mile from the station. It took me only about 15 minutes to glide gracefully across the ice and although I had the odd hairy moment, I didn't once lose my balance. Later on television I did see those unfortunates crashing down the stairs at Victoria Station.
I did lose my cool, however, when I hit the hotel. They weren't expecting me. They didn't think anyone would have made it...from the north. My room had been given to a stranded London businessman. Just before I could explode or even brandish the confirmation email, they went into diplomatic mode and said they would of course fit me in elsewhere and would adjust the bill. My new room proved to be a box on the second floor – it was initially unheated. The double bed (which I always book) was a single reminiscent of my old army bunk and the bath was a shower with no soap. They soon sorted the heating and supplied soap – I think I was meant to be grateful that they had put themselves out.
Later, on the deserted street, I failed to find a black cab and retreated to the hotel and put myself at the mercy of the dreaded mini-cab system. The journey that would normally have cost about £8 cost me £20 and took me through what was by now a ghost city. Restaurants were closed and so were the theatres and cinemas. There were very few pedestrians and almost as few cars.
When I got to the reception laid on at a colleague's home, the difference between the Londoner and the non-Londoner couldn't have been more marked. Those who had travelled from Berlin and Moscow, as well as Worcestershire and Sheffield, were totally sanguine and said little of their journeys. However those who came from different areas around London spoke breathlessly of miserable journeys, near misses and of their anxiety about getting back home.
Throughout most of Monday, my email and then my mobile phone brought grim news about the likelihood of the conference being cancelled. With Heathrow closed, our international speakers were unlikely to reach London. Even if they did, Chatham House was unlikely to be able to stage the conference. Only a handful of their staff had made it to work on Monday and that day's conference crashed. The fear was that Tuesday would be a grim action replay.
I was never once tempted to call it quits and blame it all on the weather. We found alternative venues and prepared for a truncated version. Then the tide turned. A speaker from Moscow rang from her London hotel and asked the time of the reception. She had arrived at Heathrow totally unaware of any problems. Two other Russians reported in shortly afterwards. Our man from Berlin had one flight cancelled but simply sat it out at the airport and came on the next plane. We had a sad call from Kiev where the Ukrainian journalist had been told flights to Heathrow had been cancelled. He checked out the possibilities of flying from Kiev to Amsterdam, going by train to Paris and catching the Eurostar to London only to find that the London terminus was closed. He was our only casualty.
Then came good news – Chatham House confirmed they would certainly muster enough staff to handle the conference although they were uncertain about being able to provide their usual hospitality. When Tuesday came, we gathered all the speakers and a few key guests in the reception room at Chatham House and apologised for lunch appearing in the form of sandwiches. No one minded.
Ten minutes before we were due to start, I looked into the conference room and got a shock. There were six people luxuriating in the 200 seats. It appeared that the worst had happened. The weather had beaten us. Before I could report back to my colleagues, however, a few more people arrived...and then some more...and some more. 'People often leave it until the last minute,' said the Chatham House events manager.
When we took in the speakers, they were warmly welcomed by an audience of around 140 brave souls. The freedom of the media isn't going to be impeded by the hysteria of the London-centric media.
Return to annals homepage