Last night it happened again; London was struck. It is not exactly a rare occurrence but the response is always an explosion of complete confusion and chaos, as if the world, to everyone's utter surprise, had decided to end. Last night, there was weather. Nothing out of the ordinary, really, nothing catastrophic, no typhoon or tornado, no celestial avalanche or once-in-a-century flooding, just weather: a change of atmospheric conditions, a disturbance of generally calm patterns. Things were different from the days before, catching meteorologists off-guard and triggering a chain reaction of pandemonium that radiated outward from London with every person on the move, a particle-wave of interference in everyone's daily routine. Last night, it rained.
Rain, every well-informed tourist who has never set foot in the city will tell you, is London's default weather. In the absence of a forecast to the contrary, wet clouds hang low over the Tower. You shouldn't go sightseeing without an umbrella. This is as simple as it is wrong. The last twenty years have been good with the city. Global warming has pumped up the days of sunshine and cut down on the rain. London is no desert, but it's far from the damp cold misery it used to be. The Met Office even declared a drought earlier this year. Still, sometimes it rains.
Yesterday was such a day. The rain fell fast and hard in the afternoon and there was lightning – not a mad storm but considerable atmospheric activity. Nevertheless, when I embarked on my way to the airport, things had calmed down already. It was the time to go home from work and the usual hordes did, picking up, at the entrance of their tube station, a free newspaper that they would then be unable to unfold and read in the packed train. The streets were almost dry.
At Victoria Station, throngs were crowding the main hall as they always are, throngs of people staring at the big screens with all departure information except the platforms. Their commuter trains depart the same time every day, yet leaving the platforms unchanged and putting them into the timetable is too much to ask of National Rail. That's why the main hall always looks like a teachers' union demonstration. In irregular intervals groups dash off towards the trains as if retirement at 50 waited there.
I waited for the train to Gatwick to be ennobled with the whereabouts of its departure, but all I got was the cancellation of the train to Brighton, due to depart a few minutes before mine and to go in the same direction. Then everything happened at once. Crisp announcements of delays, more cancellations and rerouting filled the air, all united by an excuse that turned heads. Lightning had struck a set of points near Gatwick.
The English don't do indignation or anger – unless they're part of a teachers' union demonstration. There's no point. They've seen it all before. They might not have heard the lightning strike excuse – who would think of that anyway? – but they know that when there's rain, when there's weather, when it's not a mellow 20C and cloudy, things will go wrong, and creative excuses are cooked up with more energy than good and lasting solutions.
The day before the light-enhanced downpour, the temperature had exceeded 30C, leading to transportation mayhem much worse than what was going on right now. Dozens of trains got stuck and thousands of passengers spent hours locked in boiling carriages – unless they managed to break a door and walk home. One of the excuses that was produced to (successfully) prevent the media from commenting on incompetence and criminal neglect was sagging overhead lines. Your high-school physics teacher told you that metal expands when heated. Public-relations officers at the railroads tell you that the line has nowhere to go but down. Engineers in France, Germany and Japan shake their heads in disbelief. And prospective passengers stand patiently, waiting for the chaos to be resolved.
I had no time to wait. My flight's scheduled departure was less than an hour away. I went over to the Gatwick Express platforms, a place I normally stay away from. The Express is twice as expensive as the regular train and doesn't stop en route to the airport, thus saving all of five minutes. That's not worth my money, but it looked as if the Express were the only train still running.
A conductor shooed me on as I approached. "Get on quick. We're about to depart." Just the right words, but spoken in vain. Desperate travelers hung to doors much like fare-dodgers do in India. There was no way in, and the train got moving without me. The doors closed only with difficulty. I would have let panic take over at this point had I had any hope that this would help. Instead, I followed the swarm of fellow travelers to the platform where the next train to Gatwick was announced. This changed a minute later to a train to Croydon (not good), then to one to Brighton without stopping (not good either) and finally reverted to the first option, but with some added stops on the way. The doors opened against the assault of the crowd and the carriages quickly filled. I was flushed in and then, a little while later, taken away as the train left the station where confusion still reigned. I had fifty minutes left.