Early January I found myself on the main road from Sligo in the Republic of Ireland to Dublin. Outside, the temperature was minus five. The grass on the verges was sparkling white, the mountains snow-capped. The EU funded dual carriageway, though, was perfectly clear, as smooth and black and driveable as a runway. Nevertheless, everyone was going along at a crawl of 50 kph.
It was obvious we could have been doing twice that. But on the car radios across the nation, presenters were relaying police and road authorities’ demands that drivers should exercise extreme caution. People I spoke to in Dublin were of the same opinion, the reality of the particular road in question being beside the point. I detected a kind of pride, as if this hard put-upon nation, stripped bare by the civic unvirtue of its banks, was finding unity in the abolition of common sense and the dangers of three inches of snow.
Now that we’re into the fifth day of the “volcanic ash crisis” that has paralysed Europe’s airports, you can only wonder if the no fly ban implemented by our aviation authorities isn’t of a same piece. As early as Saturday 17 April, the Telegraph reports, airlines like Lufthansa, BA, and KLM were sending test planes up into the skies without incident. No ash cloud sandblasted windshields, blocked fuel nozzles, contaminated oil systems or blocked airspeed sensors. Ash did not collect on engine blades. Engines did not lost thrust or shut down. Conditions, as a BA spokesman has said, were “perfect” - i.e. without ash.
There is no ash, but computer says No. So we can't fly. Giovanni Bisignani, director-general of the International Air Transport Association has called this, “a European embarrassment… Europeans are still using a system that's based on a theoretical model, instead of taking a decision based on facts and risk assessment.” Air France pilots last night on France Culture were fuming too, as is Air Berlin’s CEO, which has also sent test flights up. He has declared himself "amazed" that the results of the German airlines' flights "did not have any influence whatsoever on the decisions taken by the aviation safety authorities."
And the politicians back them. “Mandelson’s Dunkirk” pipes the Independent, with a photo of him and luminaries in front Number 10, Downing Street. The British government is attempt to summon up the fondly remembered spirit of getting kicked out of France by the German army by deploying the Royal Navy to rescue 150,000 British citizens now stranded abroad. Denis MacShane in the London daily op-ed pages argues we need “a 2010 equivalent of the Berlin Airlift” to give the EU “a chance to show what it is made of”. The list of urgent measures is long. One includes "Local university students who speak the foreign languages of stranded citizens can travel to help monolingual people." So avid is the rush to the fostering of all sorts of spirits of World War 2 or Cold War unity, that the more obvious question as to why planes aren’t just back up in the sky shuttling monolinguals home is completely overlooked.
There's a cloud hanging over Europe right now, but not the one gushing from the mouth of Eyjafjallajokull. This one is an even darker fog projected by increasingly irrational authorities. Think of Goya’s The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters with its ghoulish birds flapping about the dozing scholar’s over-heated unconscious. In the past year we’ve been treated to swine flu pandemics, Himalayan glaciers melting, and Obama’s claiming that we are threatened by SPECTRE terrorist organisations bearing rogue nukes when Al-Qaeda operatives in the West have trouble even blowing their trousers up. Now there’s a toxic airborne event that hasn't brought down a fly. Exercising extreme caution when the roads and skies are clear are just another symptom that we can longer distinguish dream from reality.