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Thoughts in the wake of a volcano

April 15, 2010

I suspect part of the legendary aura of badassery associated with the Vikings is specifically to do with the places they lived: rocky shores, looming cliffs, ominous forests, icy wastes, godforsaken islands full of sulphurous pools and volcanoes. Especially Iceland. No doubt Norway and Denmark could also be pretty bleak if you were a peasant in the ninth century, but it takes a particular brand of heroic stoicism to accept exile in a land where even the geography is trying to kill you. And when their homelands were like that, no wonder they were keen to get their hands on the flat, fertile and distinctly unmurderous fields of Britain and America.

Reading some of the Íslendingasögur,* at times the landscape seems almost like an extra character in the drama: the dales, the snow-banks, the way stories ebb and flow with the rhythms of high and low tide, summer, spring, harvest and winter. Characters who want to sail to seek their fortune right now have to wait for spring or risk shipwreck.

We call them Íslendingasögur, sagas of Icelanders, but you could probably just as well say Íslands sögur, sagas of Iceland. Life in the sagas organises itself around the land.

It was something that came to mind as I was perusing the news reports today. In a nutshell, a volcano in South Iceland – the majestically named Eyjafjallajökull, pronounced approximately AY-a-fyat-la-yer-kuttle for those unfamiliar with the vagaries of Icelandic spelling – erupted rather spectacularly, and the ash cloud from said eruption has been carried south and east, saturating British and Scandinavian airspace and causing a massive hazard to planes. Ironically, Iceland’s own airspace is fine – Eyjafjallajökull is close to the southern coast, and so the cloud went straight out over the ocean.

And so nothing will be flying into or out of Britain until the ash cloud clears, which will be at least three or four days and could (the newspapers cheerfully inform us) potentially be months, depending on how long the volcano continues to erupt for. There is also the possibility that the eruptions will set off another nearby volcano, Katla, and double the problem.

The most likely course of events is that Britain is grounded until the weekend, with the north seeing some very red sunsets thanks to high-altitude particles, and then the cloud will have dispersed sufficiently that it won’t gum up jet engines. But until then, there will be no flying.

Several Members of Parliament who were planning to visit Scotland for campaigning purposes have had to cancel. Thousands of people going on holiday, coming back from holiday, or passing through Britain in the course of either of those things are stuck in our airports, faced with the prospect of an unexpected three-day stopover. Were I in their position, I suspect I’d have lapsed into weary fatalism rather early on: security alert is one thing, simple airline incompetence another, but a volcano? You can only be very abstractly annoyed with a volcano. You can berate security guards and sue airlines, but you can’t take a volcano to court.

I’m not in that position, obviously; as I write this I’m actually in bed, surrounded by dissertation books. Anyway. Following the progress of this nation-wide air shutdown, two things struck me.

First is the volume of air travel. I’m twenty. I’ve been on seven plane journeys in my life, fourteen if you count the return trips separately. Three of those were to Russia, two to Australia, one to New Zealand – places where the alternative to flying is, at the very least, weeks of ground or sea travel. Our family holidays never involved planes; my parents insisted that a two-day drive across Europe was all part of the fun (to be fair, it usually was.) The sheer number of people who seem to fly all the time (or, you know, every year) is distinctly odd.

I suspect I’m extremely atypical in this respect, and probably speaking from privilege, as a lot of people fly not because they particularly love flying but because cheap holidays are tied in with airline deals. I’m not intending to be obnoxious (and apologise if I am being), just wanting to be clear that I already tend to think of flying as something a little out of the ordinary.

Evidently not; there are thousands of people stranded. Some of them, who have to get back to the other side of the world, will doubtless be stranded until the planes are back into the sky. But lots more? Are turning to ground-based transport. National Express (the coach company) say they’re fully booked for the next couple of days. Trains are filling. I imagine the roads will also be full, as people turn to relatives or hire firms or taxis to pick up the slack.

This is the thing. Britain’s a small country with pretty damn good transport infrastructure: a big road network, many trains – we may moan about the shrinking of the train system since the nineteenth century, but it’s still damn comprehensive next to the US, say – many buses. Every big city has its own public transport net. We’re connected to the Continent by ferries and the Tunnel; you can get from London to Paris in a day, or Newcastle to Norway overnight. The UK is scarcely transport-isolated – unlike, say, Iceland.

With which in mind, I wonder why we do so much flying. Nowhere in the UK is far enough from anywhere else to warrant getting the plane, excluding some of the Scottish isles; compared the expanses of America or Australia, our island is ridiculously tiny. And yet politicians and businesspeople and normal people visiting Auntie Sarah in Glasgow or whatever fly round it all the time. It’s strange.

It’s not like plane travel is especially cheap, either: once you add in all the crap they want to charge you on top of the ticket, you might as well pay for the train, where you get more legroom and don’t have to check in and also don’t get horrible altitude headaches and insomnia, if you happen to be me. And even in standard class, there are real tables – if you’re quick, you can nab one and play cards. You can bring your own food. You can bring your own drinks. You can bring your own laptop these days – the main London-Edinburgh trunk line has power sockets and wi-fi. And the view out of the window tends to be more interesting, as well. (Clouds: one looks much like another.)

Of course, my perspective is skewed: first, as I said, I’m not someone overly familiar with planes. Second, I’m a student, soon to be an unfunded and therefore flat broke postrgard, and am not anticipating getting on a plane any time before about 2015. And third, planes make me ill. So not in the best position to comment. But still. We have a pretty well-maintained and far-reaching non-air-based transport network, and I am bemused that it is so often passed over in favour of flying. Why, for example, didn’t Vince Cable just hop on a train this morning? He’s an MP, it’s not as if he wouldn’t be able to stump up the money for an on-the-spot ticket. It’s very odd.

The second thing is slightly more abstract and less ranty, and is basically this: the twenty-first century is dreadfully fragile, really it is. Airplane engines can pull three hundred and fifty tons of 747 through the air at several hundred miles an hour, but are defeated by airborne dust; computers can do maths millions of times faster than ever before, but die when confronted with dust or water or being dropped on the floor. We can pack more information into smaller spaces than ever, but the electronics needed to make the contents of a flash drive intelligible are fiddly and frangible.

We’ve achieved speed, we’ve achieved power, but often we seem to have done so at the expense of durability. It’s depressingly ironic that our rubbish – plastic bags, disposable nappies, dead mobile phones – may well last longer than anything else we leave behind.


* That is, sagas of real or based-on-real Icelandic ancestors, as distinguished from sagas dealing with legendary heroes (fornaldasögur, sagas of ancient times) or later romantic sagas (riddarasögur, sagas of knights).

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