Featured Hotels Destinations Move Work Events Videos

A stiff upper lip

How do you solve a problem like Eyjafjallajökull? Cork it with the bodies of the bitching Brits, says Stuart White


Too damned right I’ve got a volcanic ash moan! I’ve been flying since 1966 and been delayed all over the world for reasons ranging from non-arrival of incoming aircraft, fog, snow, ice, even a hurricane – through to pilots with upset stomachs and the non-appearance of the in-flight catering.

I was once held up for almost two hours in a remote part of Tanzania because of elephants on the runway. And this was way before jumbo jets.

But it’s a first to linger in foreign parts indefinitely because of vicious volcano vomit in Bjork’s homeland.

(And what is it with Iceland? First they swallow our savings in the great financial glacier meltdown, and then they screw up our air travel. The Cod War was in the 70s, isn’t it time for them to bury the hatchet – and not in our craniums?)

But don’t worry, this isn’t one of those “The bastards at (fill in airline) left me stranded and I’ve spent $5,000 / £6,000 / €7,000 on phone calls / hotels / food…” rants variety. In fact I was in a spacious room in a luxurious North African hotel and the airline happily picked up the tab for my enforced stay.

It was the Brits that got me fuming by turning a 21st century travel crisis into a World War Two PoW camp drama.

It started at breakfast. A rat-faced man sidled up to me, looked both ways like he was being watched by the guards and hissed through clenched teeth: “You’re British right? Well we’re all stranded. That’s right: stranded. Volcanic ash. Emergency meeting. Ten o’clock. Hotel lobby.”

Suddenly we had all been transmogrified into inmates, and all anyone could think of was the Great Escape.

For curiosity’s sake I went along to the meeting. Judging by the conspiratorial atmosphere inside I expected to look out and see barbed wire, watchtowers and helmeted sentries.

The enemy was manifold. The airlines, that damned Icelandic volcano, the Met Office, the British Airports Authority, and of course – Johnny Foreigner.

The first suggestion until we could get back safely to Blighty was to steal and hoard dining room tea-bags for future emergency. “If push comes to shove at least we’ll be able to have a cuppa.”

Then someone moved a vote that we should all swap mobile phone numbers in case one got news of a flight out and could alert the others. It passed unanimously. “Don’t stray too far from the hotel and have your bag packed in case we get the word.” It was stiff upper lip time.

Rumours spread like wildfire through the camp grapevine. One frequent flyer offered: “Word is they’re laying on a special charter flight to Barcelona tomorrow, then coaches to Boulogne and a ferry.” Another chipped in: “I’ve had it from the horse’s mouth that they’ve chartered a boat to take us from Alexandria to Marseille. Then it’s a train to Paris and the Eurostar.”

I half expected us to start digging tunnels under the cover of a vaulting horse, hiding the dirt in the hotel grounds while trying to avoid the watchful eyes of the goons patrolling the electric fence.

By day four the wartime parody was getting all too real. There was a self-appointed escape leader. He had his baseball cap on the wrong way around – more Steve McQueen than Dickie Attenborough.

And on cue the spectre of the Old Enemy hove into view. “Word is,” Wing Commander Baseball-Cap-On-Backwards told us, “the Germans have commandeered the first landing slots when the ash lifts. This is totally unfair. Damned if a bunch of Krauts are jumping the queue.”

Not content with dawn dive bombing the poolside loungers with their towels, now the bally Hun was bagging the very runways. In the background I swear I could hear someone whistling the Dambusters March.

By Delay Day Six morale was low and my fellow Brits looked like listless PoWs with no end of the war in sight. “Says on Sky this could go on for months,” Flight Lt. Latest-Rumour told us.

But hell, we weren’t scraping by on ersatz coffee and Red Cross parcels. The days were hot and lazy, the pool shimmered, and best of all: we had the perfect excuse.

D-Day Seven my telephone rang. I had a place on the first available Escape Airlines flight to London. I was going over the wall!

That night I sneaked out quietly, leaving the Escape Committee members still feverishly plotting their own exodus.

Current issue