Sunday, January 17, 2010

Horror In Haiti

Our current domestic problems, from running out of heating oil because the lorry couldn’t reach us, to the continuing failure of American Airlines to deliver my mother-in-law’s suitcase, all faded into insignificance on Tuesday night when news broke of the calamity in Haiti. The horror of such human suffering instantly put all petty concerns into perspective.

We watched it unfold on CNN. It’s not a network we normally use, but we wanted to get close to the heart of the story and CNN’s headquarters in Atlanta is only a thousand miles from the tragedy.

It was brilliant coverage. While the BBC had a rather scared newsreader desperately waiting for any sort of expert to rescue him and Sky relied on a hastily drawn map, CNN was painting graphic images of what life must have been like at that very moment in the poverty-stricken country.

Satellite maps swooped into close-ups of thousands of tiny shanty dwellings. You wouldn’t be able to see anything from the air, said the commentator, because of the dust from the disintegrated reinforced concrete. It’s nighttime: the power is out so there’s no street lighting, just thousands of tiny braziers the locals use for heating, lighting and cooking. They spun the map across the devastated region: from presidential palace, across the desperate shacks in the sea plain (no sewage, no running water, two million people in a city built for 50,000) to the smarter hills where the diplomats live and where a hospital had just collapsed.

CNN found a correspondent in its newsroom who had family there, another who’d just returned from the city, then a UN representative, tearfully fearful for her colleagues in the collapsed mission. A reporter drew diagrams on a map with an electronic crayon showing how the plates of the quake had moved and which parts of the country were likely to be affected most. It was exemplary television journalism, but even they couldn’t begin to portray the terror that must have swept through the city of Port au Prince less than two hours before.

It’s impossible for those who haven’t felt it directly to understand the power and dread of an earthquake. I lived for five years in Los Angeles and used to joke how disappointed I was that in all that time I’d only experienced one wimpy tremor. It was in the middle of a meeting where the room rocked gently for a few seconds like the deck of an ocean liner. Everyone froze, then breathed a communal sigh of relief.

I mocked Jo when we first started living together because she made us keep a large plastic bin outside the house, with fresh water, tins of food, torches, a radio and a change of clothes. I thought it ludicrous at the time, but watching the news on Tuesday night, she and her mother recounted stories of another January night in 1994, when a 6.7 strength earthquake struck less than five miles from their own home in Los Angeles.

They told of being awakened in pitch darkness by the terrible volcanic roar of grinding rocks; of being flung like dolls across the room, their desperate attempts to cling together under a doorway, clutching their petrified howling dog; of the fear that the earth would swallow them up; of their relief in the morning to find their home largely undamaged, only to see that their neighbour’s had slid down the hillside to destruction just a block away.

That night just 72 people died: if it hadn’t been 4.30 in the morning, and if building regulations had been less stringent, the toll would have been far higher. The sort of concrete they’re digging corpses out of in Haiti has been banned in California for generations. Poor Haiti. We must give them everything we can.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Beating The System

The lost suitcase's trip to Hawaii had been brief.

The computer system that had misdirected it soon found the miscreant lying on a warm baggage belt and whisked it on to freezing Heathrow. That would have been the end of the story, had it not been for the American Airlines baggage retrieval system. Apparently it was passed to some delivery company, who promptly dumped it in a warehouse in Slough, where it remained for the following two weeks.

Now I wouldn't wish Slough on one my ex-wives, let alone a piece of my mother-in-law's baggage. It's a ghastly industrial estate masquerading as a commuter town outside London. People who live in Slough never admit it: they claim to live near Windsor, or even, if they're forced, in Reading. Slough was immortalised by the great English poet Sir John Betjeman, who wrote in wartime:

Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough It isn't fit for humans now
There isn't grass to graze a cow
Swarm over, Death!

Slough’s only real asset is its proximity to Heathrow Airport. That credential puts it 300 miles from our house, where mother-in-law’s bag was supposed to be.

Jo rang the airline daily to track its progress. Or tried to. You try ringing the airline’s 0208 lost baggage number. It rings ten times, then puts you onto a long voicemail message, before dumping you into the abyss. For days I saw her sitting sadly in the corner of Izzy’s room, phone pressed to her ear, endlessly redialling the number.

Eventually I could take it no more, and went into battle. It's not a pretty sight. Having been, in my time (albeit in a former neolithic age) something of a consumer journalist, I simply won't take this sort of treatment, so I undertook to get the bloody bag back myself. In doing so I wrote off any possibility of doing any real work this week.

I played the 0208 game first. No wonder Jo has been in a tetchy mood. After half a dozen vain attempts to speak to a person, I was fuming.

Then I used a little lateral thinking. This clearly wasn't a switchboard which was messing me around. It was probably a single phone on a desk manned by a solitary bloke with better things to do than answer the telephone. Most likely with a queue of disgruntled passengers standing in front of him. I worked out that this phone was more than likely to be found within Heathrow Airport itself.

I pictured the scene: a long line of Americans wearing white shirts and fawn colored trousers with white golf shoes, complaining very loudly to this one person about their expensive suitcases winging their way round the One World stratosphere. In the background, you can hear a single telephone ringing. Ten rings, then it goes onto voicemail. That was me.

So I changed the last digit of the published phone number. A 7 instead of a 5. It was answered by a charming lady called Zoe. Who put me in touch with an even nicer lady called Sam. Once in the system, with a name to a voice, I wouldn’t leave them alone. I even heard them say, behind muffled voicepiece, “It’s that irate passenger again”.

I created such mayhem and dropped so many names that even I was fed up with me. So they gave me the number of the warehouse – the bag had been moved to Durham, and was scheduled for delivery, as I suspected, precisely one day after mother-in-law was scheduled to go home again.

As we set off to collect the wretched suitcase ourselves, the phone rang. American Airlines Customer Relations. To apologise. And ask us how we got Sam’s number. She’s the secretary to someone quite important, you see. I said I had my ways. Someone else then rang, with even more abject apologies. Then a third person. They were playing my game.

OK, AA, we forgive you. Now leave me alone. And next time, I promise mother-in-law will fly BA. Except that, mischievously, American told me that BA still have 15,000 undelivered bags of their own stuck at Heathrow. Now how come that news hasn't reached the press?

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Social Effects of Snow

Last week my mother-in-law’s suitcase went on holiday to Hawaii. We’re all rather envious of it; we hope it might send us a postcard to remind us of warmer climes. American Airlines thoughtfully flew it there instead of letting it shiver with its owner here in Newcastle. Now, a week later, it’s probably sitting in some nice comfy warehouse waiting reluctantly to come and join us in the snow. Doubtless it will turn up the day after she flies home to California. Or perhaps the airline will just wait till the spring, by which time Izzy will have outgrown the birthday clothes the suitcase apparently contains.

I’m actually rather relieved American Airlines’ luggage services haven’t even bothered to try to deliver the thing, or rung us to tell us what’s happening, or even answered their phones for the last week. It saves us having to dig their delivery van out of the snow.

On Tuesday a very nice man arrived with a large box from Marks & Spencer. As we live at the bottom of an incline, he had absolutely no trouble getting down to us. Leaving was another matter. After an hour of shunting back and forth, each whirring wheel digging the van further into the verge beside the road, the man despairingly told us he had 43 packages on board, and we were only his third successful delivery of the day. It was five o’clock in the afternoon.

It took us until 10pm to dig, push and tow him out of the snowdrift. Did he just give up and go home, or did he carry on regardless? There’s a reality show to be made about delivery men. And another about those magnificent men in their gritting machines. Don’t listen to the people who moan on about our councils. I think they’ve done an amazing job keeping the main roads going. Even though I suspect most people have had nowhere to go and nothing to do when they get there. The entire country has frozen into delightfully anarchic inactivity.

We opened the big box from Marks & Spencer. We were curious to see what had been so vitally important as to warrant all the guaranteed next day delivery stickers. We secretly hoped it might be a giant food parcel and wondered who might have known that we were running out of unsalted butter. Beneath layers of protective wrapping was a small wooden Noah’s Ark, a present from a thoughtful godmother. It was presumably to help Izzy survive the floods when all this snow melts.

The following day some equally nice men from John Lewis arrived to lay a carpet and they also threatened to become houseguests. However, unlike the man from M&S, they had thoughtfully been provided with smart new shovels with “Never Knowlingly Undersold” printed on the side. You can tell a lot about a store by the quality of its snow shovels. It only took them a couple of hours to get out of the same snowdrift.

Britain comes alive in a weather crisis. Having done nothing but moan about our grey and wet climate all year, faced with a proper flood, heatwave or blizzard our country really rises to the challenge. What I like best is our rediscovered sense of community.

Neighbours who normally don’t speak to each other all year suddenly offer to help with groceries and path-clearing; four wheel drive vehicles cruise up and down the lanes seeking stranded cars to rescue. There’s a wartime spirit in the ice-clad car parks: supporting arms are proffered, bags carried, and everyone has an opinion. From global warming to the accuracy of the forecast, from the standard of the road gritters to the cost of winter tyres, people love to gossip about the snow. Now that it’s starting to melt, what on earth are we going to say to each other next week?

Friday, January 1, 2010

Careful What You Wish For

Having just penned several hundred words on the joys of a snowy winter, as if to show I had no idea what I was talking about, yesterday evening the icybars cascaded on Northumberland with two feet of powdery stuff: the farm looks as though a giant bailer of icing sugar has been emptied all over it. The cars are completely covered - you can't even make out the roof racks. We've been stranded in this white paradise since New Year’s Eve – I’ve photographs of our garden that would grace the lid of any biscuit tin. The whole valley is silent and the cattle in the neighbouring fields are shell-shocked. The bull is particularly grumpy and stands apart from his cows, who are huddled together round the empty feeding trough up to their rumps and sirloins in what looks like a sea of horseradish. Or maybe that’s my fantasy: our freezer packed full of sheep, the prescient gift of a local farmer. We’ll be baa-ing at each other in a few days if we can’t get out to the shops. I could murder a nice rib eye.

The dogs absolutely love it: they bounce through the powder, picking up giant snowballs of ice on their ears and legs. After a couple of hours' sledging down the big field, with dogs weaving giant spidery trails through the snow, we've spent the af
ternoon picking iceballs out of Truffle and Mabel's ears and trying a general dogmelt beside the Aga. Now it's time for Dorothy's Christmas Cake, iced by the children, and mulled wine with the neighbours. This must be how they celebrated Christmas in Victorian times, before global warming and Doctor Who. With the uninspiring Christmas television schedule rejected by the whole family, for the first Christmas holiday I can recall we’ve begun to open the board games we’ve given each other. Our most bizarre one is called The Clinic: it analyses whether you’re mad or not. I most certainly am, apparently. I don’t recommend it.

I’ve been trying to remember the last time we had a winter like this in the northeast. I can clearly recall my sense of wonderment at seeing the concrete emerge in the playground at Cullercoats Infants School after weeks of icy entombment. That must have been in 1957. It’s funny how snow brings back childhood memories.

It's quite nice being marooned, although Mum is due back from the South tomorrow, and Mother-In-Law flies in from L.A., so somehow I'm going to have to get out of here or they'll be staying in the Premier Inn. Bizarrely, Mum decided to book herself on the bus, rather than take the train or plane. She's travelling with her best friend Biddy. Should be a long trip - not least for the other passengers. The Volvo is daring me to take it down the lane, despite my nearly wrecking it on the ice last year. I wonder if Morpeth has a snowplough taxi service? Quite how we get out of here to pick any of them up from airports and stations is a mystery.

Best open another bottle of wine, throw a log on the fire, and let tomorrow fend for itself.

Speaking of log fires: I’m rather relieved the snow forced us to miss our friends’ New Year's Eve party. Apparently it was quite a momentous evening.

Just as Jools Holland was hooting his nanny, they suddenly heard what sounded like an earthquake inside their chimneybreast. A chimney fire is an alarming and potentially disastrous event at any time, but it’s particularly scary at 11 o’clock on New Year’s Eve. Especially when the fire engine rings to say it can’t get through the snow. Everyone rushed through the house with jugs of water to douse the flames (at one point they even tried Perrier). A solitary fireman managed to trudge through the drifts and arrived just after midnight. First footers are supposed to arrive with a piece of coal, which was the last thing they needed, but this one didn’t even have a hose. Luckily house and family survived.

I guess it made the party go with a bit of a swing, and it's certainly a talking point for the village. Make note to find a local chimney sweep. Or small boy with plenty of hair. Isn't that what they used in Victorian times?