Saturday, 17 April 2010

Dead sky at night, Londoners delight

There is no real night in London. The sky never falls completely dark. A sort of extended blue dusk instead creeps over the city and remains until the morning. Street lights and office buildings aglow place a pale filter over the skyline, uplighting London from beneath. The light pollution, as in most big cities, is said to mask the twinkling skies high above, hence anything a Londoner can see sparkling overhead tends to be a plane en route to or from one of the various airports serving the London. But at the moment there are no planes. Nary a one, snaking white streamers across the blue sky. Not a single plane has flown over the city in several days, and all because of some old volcano in Iceland.

When I lived in Putney (beneath the Heathrow descent flight path) the first sounds of the planes on their way in to land signalled that a new day had begun, and when finally they ceased, that another had ended. In poor weather storms in the atmosphere would force the planes down lower, and they sounded like dragons bearing down on the streets below. High up in a plane myself, and knowing where to look, I could pick out my street as we came in to land, follow the traffic flowing over Putney Bridge and imagine spotting neighbours going about their daily business.
Accidental colleagues who currently live beneath the city's flight paths have reported a sense of peace in their homes the last few days. No thundering jets in the sky mean far less broken nights. But homes aside, businesses are experiencing this odd absence of flying machines in a very different way; the grounding of planes inducing frustration, anger and panic rather than calm. The international company which I work for must pay a huge contribution towards the city airports' bills for x-ray machines and shrink-wrapped microwavable meals. At any one time countless members of our staff are usually in the upper atmosphere, being shuttled from one office to another. With the UK airspace in shut-down mode we have UK staff twiddling their thumbs in offices across the US and Asia, and staff who live in the US wearing holes in horrid swirly hotel carpets over here in London.

Many have discussed the financial losses to business of this Icelandic ash cloud here in London, with figures such as one billion pounds a day being bandied around. Some have joked about enforced no-fly days as a means to combat climate change. For me, the whole incident reminds us that we may build gigantic towers, divert vast rivers, and reclaim land from the sea but we would be foolish to forget that Mother Nature still holds the upper hand. One simple "Act of God" (clever insurance men to pop that clause into their agreements, meaning that further billions will not be paid out to claimants for this incident) and a city system is seriously debilitated. The natural world was here first, we have merely parked our human world within it, and Mother Nature is the global freeholder of our once blue-green planet.

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