19 May 2009

Predisposed to civil preparedness

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, 2 or 3 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. 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, prioritizing the more gravely wounded and organizing people to help carry the injured off. And the media didn't portray those who helped as “heroes”, further emphasizing 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 organization 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?

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.

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