Life in UK

Brits: Predisposed to civil preparedness

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Tom Carroll applauds the Brit-on-the-street's instinct to act in a crisis. So why isn't the nation better prepared for predictable things like leaves on the track?

It's hard not to come away with the impression that Brits are culturally conditioned to pitch in and help out in a crisis. If this is true, I have some suspicion that this is a holdover from the second world war, when the folks here pulled together to weather Germany's attack.

But I've witnessed two different motorcycle accidents, one in Paris and one in London, to which the passersby reacted very differently.

In Paris, when the guy on the scooter went down, two or three pedestrians made their way over to help the downed cyclist (scootist?). But in the London incident, when the motorcyclist went down, the busy commuters who choked the sidewalk swung into action as a group, almost as if they were guided by an invisible foreman.

Woman on scooter in Paris

Some went to the aid of the rider, some cleared debris off the road out of the path of the cars, some pulled the bike to the side of the road, others spontaneously began to direct traffic, while still others were on their cell phones to emergency services. Simply put, it was amazing, and all the more so since London workers are actually pretty grumpy during the evening commute.

Things went similarly on the Underground during the 7/7 bombings: people broke out their cell phones and used the backlights to provide lighting for others in the tunnel, and others automatically started helping everyone get off the destroyed train, prioritising the more gravely wounded and organising people to help carry the injured off. And the media didn't portray those who helped as ‘heroes’, further emphasising how this pitch-in attitude is part of the UK cultural identity.

In fact, it almost seems like the British may be better at instinctual reaction than they are at planned action. In contrast to these spontaneous acts of organisation in crises, planned responses, such as dealing with the annual leaf fall on the railroad tracks, or facilities for snow handling (or lack thereof) to keep the roads clear for drivers, are surprisingly inadequate.

Sure, it doesn't snow all that much here, but apparently that's a newer phenomenon from what we've been told by the locals. What did they do with the snow when they used to get more of it?

Snow  trouble near Aberfeldy, 1972

At the end of the day, I think I'd be pretty glad to have a crowd of Brits around when the chips are down, but I'll keep my own snow shovel in the boot.


Tom Carroll / Expatica

Tom Carroll is from Chicago and has been living in the UK on and off since late 2000. He lives on his farm  between London and Cambridge, with his wife, son, two cats and a garden full of chickens. Tom is a software architect/developer, expat, family man, cultural observer and a ‘curser of garden weeds’.  Read more from Tom at The Transplanted Yankee.

Photo credits: Paris scootist by Let Ideas Compete; Snow trouble near Aberfeldy, 1972 by Philip C.

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