Going Home

Credit: Sunday Times - Sunday 12 August 2001.

You can fly an awfully long way on patience........

By Jeremy Clarkson

"I knew, of course, that a charter flight from some low-rent Spanish holiday resort to London's Stansted airport was never in a million years going to take off on time.

To make matters worse, it had a scheduled departure of 11.30pm which meant it would have had an entire day to get out of sync. And sure enough, when we arrived at the airport we were told it was still in Hertfordshire.

So what's the problem this time, I inquired with the world-weary resignedness of someone who has heard it all before. Technical problems? Wrong type of air? Leaves in the sky? No, said the rep. The captain got stuck in traffic on the M11.

I see. Because the hopeless git did not set off for work on time, I now have to spend four hours in an overheated, understaffed departure lounge with 70 children under eight, none of whom is mine. Great.

I don't know who you are, captain, but I sincerely hope you have a penchant for Thai ladyboys and that your colleagues find out. I am not a vindictive man but it is my fervent wish that from now to the end of time all your itches are unreachable. And that someone writes something obscene in weedkiller on your front lawn.

To keep us all happy and to help to while away the hours, we were assured that free soft drinks and snacks would be provided.

They were not. What was provided was a Styrofoam cup of hot. Hot what, I'm not sure. It could have been tea or it could have been oxtail soup. The snack was a sandwich filled with a piece of pink that was thinner than the paintwork on a 1979 Lancia. Then I discovered that the batteries in my Game Boy were flat.

To my left, a fat family clad from head to foot in Adidas sportswear had managed to find some chips. An amazing achievement this, since all the shops were shut. But you could put people like that on the fourth moon of Jupiter and within 15 minutes they would find a sack of King Edwards and a deep-fat fryer.

To my right there was a much thinner family, also clad in Adidas sportswear, attempting to get some sleep and using their Manchester United football shirts as pillows. Sleeping was difficult because every five minutes King Juan Carlos himself came on the Tannoy to explain very loudly that by royal decree smoking is prohibited.

Then it got more difficult still because a team of heroically lazy Spanish cleaners finally woke up from their afternoon siesta and decided that the floor needed a damn good polish, using a squadron of machines that were designed by the Russians in the 1950s and had been in service with the Angolan air force ever since.

By 1.30am I was reduced to reading the instructions on the fire extinguishers and contemplating starting a food fight. I decided against it because the bread in the free sandwiches was hard enough to kill and the filling was too light to fly properly. It would just sort of float.

At 1.45am we were asked by the king again to board buses which would take us to the plane. Yippee. At long last, Captain James T Berk had arrived. We were on our way.

Oh no we weren't. After 15 minutes of standing on the stationary bus, we were forced to endure 50 minutes of sitting on the stationary plane where there was no air conditioning and, worse still, no explanation or apology from the flight deck.

Only after we had become airborne and fallen asleep did Captain Fool come on the PA system to explain what had gone wrong. It had been too hot, he said, for the plane to take off and as a result, some of the bags had been removed from the hold.

Oh, that's marvellous. So you get us home four hours late, you separate us from our luggage, you never say sorry and then you come up with the worst excuse I have ever heard. How can it have been too hot, you imbecile? Because of your shoddy timekeeping, it was three o'clock in the bloody morning.

The thing is, though, that I (mostly) kept my temper because I knew I could come home, write this and therefore make his life as miserable as he had made mine.

What staggered me was the patience of my fellow passengers. They never complained. They quietly sat at the airport eating their meat veneer. They quietly stood on the bus, sweating. They didn't even squeal when the stewardesses poured boiling water into their laps, told barefaced lies about the luggage being on board and generally treated us as if we were a nuisance in the smooth running of their aeroplane.

The problem is that we are used to all this, and more. We expect the tiny bit of road that isn't jammed solid to be festooned with speed cameras. We expect the train to be late and the Tube to explode. We know that the plane will make an unscheduled stop in Bogota and that if we complain we'll be taken off by the police, arrested and shot.

Naturally, we expect a charter flight to get us back to Stansted four hours after everyone else because, of course, this particular airline is the sponsor of the spectacularly hopeless Minardi Formula One team which, last time I looked, was just finishing the 1983 French Grand Prix.


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