Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Quietest Chaos

Look up. See the blue sky, untramelled by vapour trails. A hundred years since this unique view. The Icelandic volcanic ash explosion, a rare reminder of how even in the west we can feel the effect of primal nature, and, more importantly, do very little about it. What we can do - choose not to live on quake faults or build houses on flood plains or settlements on the side of dormant volcanos - has kept us safer than other more volatile parts of the world. In a sense this unexpected entry of nature into our daily life should be a relief as well as an annoyance. I don't know what % of the UK population fly each year but it must be quite small; and there's a sizeable minority who never fly, have never flown, possibly haven't even got passports. In trying to cut down on "air travel" for environmental purposes we enter a world of absurd assumptions: that we can't do without the airplane. There was an interesting article on international trade a year or so ago where it pointed out that many items that we "import" we also "export" an equal number. This is made possible not just by container ships but by freight travel. Our interconnectedness for business and pleasure reasons is real, but it can be overplayed. For instance, it is tiny Ireland that is our biggest export market, not massive growing China.

One of the reasons I don't have much time for contemporary poets who write about nature is that it seems in denial of the world that we live in. Thomas Hardy would certainly have written vapour trails into his poems if his sky had been filled with them constantly, yet the modern nature poem wants to take us back to a world without technology (despite probably driving there.)Well, today and yesterday and tomorrow are theirs. Here is the bright sky without the roar or the dispersed fumes of the constant air travel. I feel genuinely sorry for people who are stuck abroad or stuck here - but if they're on holiday, well it's surely a chance to extend it? and if it's business, then find an internet cafe and carry on as normal. It will be interesting, assuming this continues for a little while longer, to see what effect it does have. We know that Eurostar is full, but the ferries still have places. In other words, air travel isn't maybe as "essential" as we thought it was. Nature, I feel, is just being a little inconvenient for once.

The airline industry, of course, could go bankrupt, but in reality, I'm not entirely sure that without a low to no-tax regime the airline industry wouldn't always be bankrupt or close to bankrupt. Perhaps, like the banks, we should nationalise it, and see how much of it is necessary for the greater good, and how much is socially (and environmentally) useless. If you look at Victoria Station in Manchester, the outside wall has a list of destinations, including a number in continental Europe. The old railway systems were able to deposit us on the continent without too much difficulty. In "Brooklyn" by Colm Toibin, set in the 50s, the poor Irish heroine has to travel from Liverpool to New York, it takes a week in each direction. It is our addiction to things happening "now" that addicts us to air travel. I've worked on cross-European projects for the last few years, and travelled more abroad with work, than ever before. You still travel for a day in each direction for a meeting or a conference. I always enjoy the experience of seeing somewhere new, and think that Britain's insularism needs more European interaction rather than less, yet rarely think it's actually "necessary" in the scheme of things. A man from Cisco, at a conference last year, said that after the economic chaos, they'd cut their foreign travel by 80%. Of course, as the company who makes the pipes that connects up the technology for video conferencing and the like, they should be able to. But 80%, that's a hell of a lot of unnecessary travel beforehand.

I wonder how long the news will be making this main story. The human interest - people being stuck in a place, and their families worried - is one thing; but beyond that, beyond the wedding's delayed and the concert's cancelled it's actually something that doesn't affect most people that much . There will be BBC reporters in far flung locations unable to travel to their next assignment; and we've already had a few sporting fixtures cancelled. Had the volcano blown the week before the World Cup we'd have had a few problems - though it would have been the media, rather than the teams who'd almost certainly already be out there.

I like most of all the headline writers. "Airport Chaos" they say. Well, it's the quietest chaos. Airplanes on the ground; empty terminals; people bundling themselves onto buses or queueing for ferry tickets. Though in the original Greek myths chaos was "the original dark void from which everything else appeared." Perhaps, after all, the headline writers have got it right. Only in our contemporary myths we call it Stansted.


Anonymous said...

It's your human right to dislike contemporary nature poetry, but you seem unaware that large swathes of the British Isles are not yet urbanised, and that the writers who live in these places may find their rural surroundings a source of inspiration. A little odd...! My prose writing is inspired by nature because the natural world makes its presence felt in my everyday life, much as you point out that the eruption of an Icelandic volcano is impinging on human lives all over the world (regardless of where they are normally lived). I rarely see contrails in the sky here, and the ones I do sometimes see come from RAF jets on training. I'm very lucky, as well as realistic!

Adrian Slatcher said...

Not quite what I said. Rural poets still live in the contemporary world, after all. (And poets based in a city, like I do, still write about nature.)

Anonymous said...

That's exactly what you siad:

"One of the reasons I don't have much time for contemporary poets who write about nature is that it seems in denial of the world that we live in."