Ash Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday…April 27, 2010
That’s a hell of a name isn’t it? You probably can’t pronounce it and you may not remember it, but it will almost certainly feature in the endless programmes highlighting the events of 2010, when we get close to waving it goodbye in a fog of booze, regrets and foolish optimism for the year to come. It’s better known as the Icelandic volcano whose ash was blown over the skies of Europe a fortnight ago, leading to the grounding of all commercial flights for nearly a week.
When the authorities decided to shut down our airspace on the 15th April, I’ll admit I was less than charitable when I watched the news and saw people at airports complaining about not getting their flight to Alacante or Ibiza. The aviation business didn’t set out to create volcanic ash to delay your holiday, love. That business is struggling in this recession and they need all the passengers they can get. The skies will open up again at 7 in the morning, so calm down. I spoke too soon. As one day became two, then three, the ban remained in place and no one could either leave or return to the country. This led to people running out of money and/or places to stay if they didn’t book with a package holiday company (these types of holidays will get a resurgence after this, I’m sure). Others couldn’t get to weddings or funerals. Vital organs were not getting to the recipients and those who were trying to find other modes of transport and had enough money, were being ripped off in royal style. Dan Snow, the TV historian and son of Peter Snow, the news reporter (better known these days for helming election nights on the BBC and getting excitable about the CGI charts), took on the Dunkirk spirit and organised boats to get people back to Blighty. He managed to save 25 people before he was stopped by the French port authorities. The air restrictions were finally lifted after six days and people could now finally go home. Compensation claims had become a big talking point, as an EU directive put the onus on airlines to compensate passengers for the extra food and accommodation they would’ve had to shell out for, while stuck in various pockets of paradise that had now become hell. Ryanair was going to refund the airfare only, but soon relented and the refund was extended for ‘reasonable’ claims.
I thought I escaped the effects of the volcanic ash, but no. Last Tuesday, I trotted along to the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank in anticipation of seeing Gil Scott Heron, in one of his rare UK appearances. I arrived to find a notice on the door and a couple of sheepish looking young men, who proceeded to tell me that in spite of their best efforts, they couldn’t get him here. So Gil was resolutely stuck in America. I texted my friend, O, to warn her and moments later she arrived. She couldn’t even speak to the woman at the box office to get her refund she was so upset. We weren’t going to waste the night though. We decided to go to The Stockpot, one of our cheap eating faves in Old Compton Street. As the bus taking us to our destination crossed Waterloo bridge and we drank in the vista, we declared that Gil, or no Gil, London is fabulous. Still, it wasn’t all bad – the ash also kept Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber from our shores. Now that’s what we’d call in East London a result.
There are still a large number of people trapped abroad, but hopefully they’ll all be home in a couple of weeks. In the meantime, as the dust finally settled, the blame game was being played regarding the over cautiousness of the various authorities and the airlines were looking to be compensated by government. Like this country is awash with ready cash. Six days was possibly three days too long to maintain that level of caution, but there again, this ash is not the fine powdery stuff you may find at the bottom of a fireplace. It consists of tiny jagged pieces of glass and rock that scratches windscreens, sandblasts the paintwork off planes and gets into the engines, shutting them down. The documentary I found myself watching because it replaced the advertised CSI last week was sobering to say the least. It was about an incident in 1982 when a British Airways jumbo had all four of its engines shut down as it flew through volcanic ash. Everything went well in the end, but that ash is hardcore. So then, would it have been better for me to gnash my teeth at the inconvenience and possible distress of being stuck in another country? Or to be grounded here at home, missing my holiday? Or to grit my teeth and cry in distress because of the knowledge that I’m encased with 200 other passengers in a big metal bird, that’s now dropping like a stone? Hmmm, now let me have a think about that one for a minute…