Snow and Strangers – TAZ excerpt from Other

With the current snowy and icy conditions in the UK I thought I’d post an extract from ‘Other’ which links the huge snowfalls we’ve had in the past couple of winters to the idea of TAZ which is one of the central themes of ‘Other‘ – a welcome addition to anyone’s Christmas present pile, heartily endorsed by Brian Maclaren, Pete Rollins, Maggi Dawn and Phyllis Tickle, who called it ‘a brilliant work.’ Who could possibly disgree?!

In early February in 2009, the mid-afternoon sky darkened over London and a palpable sense of excitement rushed through the city: would it, wouldn’t it?

It did, more than it had done for nearly twenty years. The clouds began to empty the cargo of snow that they had faithfully carried from the plains of Russia, and by the time Monday morning had broken it was clear: nobody was going to work or school. It was going to be a struggle to even leave the street. We listened in awe. A blessed silence had fallen with the snow: no cars, buses or aeroplanes to be heard.

Naturally, there was only one thing to be done. After a hot breakfast we all togged up in our warmest clothes, grabbed whatever slippery objects we could and kicked our way through the fresh drifts to the park. What we found there was a community at play. Angular teenagers, who would normally be skulking at bus stops and hiding under hoodies on street corners, were screaming with childish glee. Two skinheads were puffing their way up the hill pushing, inch by inch, the most enormous snowball, which soon became a five foot snowman. A young Spanish guy, living in London for a year and surviving on menial work, was generously calling for anyone to have a go with his snowboard – a thing he had bought on a whim and had little idea how to use himself. None of us had boarded before, but with numerous falls and shouts and lifts back onto our feet we worked it out together.

Snow in London is not particularly uncommon, but falls of this weight are very rare. Normally it is only a few hours before things turn to black slush, but this was here to stay. For two days the city was virtually at a standstill, with the news full of images of communities like mine doing what they so rarely do now: playing together. Of course, there were those who became grumpy about the whole thing, and spoke of the money that this would be costing the economy – one put it at £1.2 billion, an extraordinary figure that put a price of £200 per man, woman and infant on the head of each Londoner. Others moaned about the difficulties they had had struggling in to work, only to find that others hadn’t bothered.

Seeing the snow fall so heavily I had had similar humbug thoughts myself: with the kids not at school on my day off I was going to lose my precious weekly writing time. Resisting the temptation to sulk, I ventured outside and began to see that I had been given a precious gift. Rather than sitting around theorising about the other, I got a chance to meet with and, most importantly, play with people from my local area whom I would simply never have normally had the chance to speak to.

This snow, these ‘thin flakes like frost’ from heaven, this icy manna, crystallised so much of what I want to say about engaging with and loving the other. It is simply this: our interactions with the stranger are so much better if played out on a different set of axes. Snow brings a strangeness to our landscape, and helps us to see its contours in a different light. Like the stranger that Simmel writes about, snow brings a renewed sense of the unknown to the known, and it is because we are thrown together as a community by it into this less familiar place that we find it so much easier to talk to those we would normally shy away from. The hard grid of economics, of work and profit and commuting, works against the possibility of meaningful engagement. This free gift of snow, unexpected and unsponsored, was the perfect bursting of the heavens into the everyday, and it is within these ruptured spaces that we so often find ourselves able to cross boundaries that we had thought insurmountable.

What I am also now convinced of is the centrality of impermanence to the efficacy of these ruptures. Deep snow for a couple of days was wonderful. To have to deal with constant snow-drifts, sliding cars and icy pavements would soon create conditions in which I am sure that we would see a retreat further into our bounded comforts, and situations where friction within the community would rise…

Do go out and buy it. It’s a book I’m really proud of, with ideas that I am convinced are highly relevant to our situation today.