The sweet smell of sulphur

When I was a lad, our family didn’t take any holidays abroad. Instead, we usually spent our summers in a guest house at one of our more salubrious British holiday resorts such as Clacton or Cardigan Bay.

My dad didn’t travel much on business either, despite the fact that he was the chief engineer at one of the town’s most reputable engineering firms. The one trip I do recall he took to commission a machine at a plant in Germany was such an occasion that he recorded the rather dull view from the aircraft’s window on film with his 8mm camera.

Back then my dad grew all his own fruit and vegetables too. I can still recall the rows of potatoes, beans, peas, carrots and turnips that he would harvest each year. Not for him the convenience of a large supermarket with shelves bulging with cheap goods – they simply didn’t exist, and even if they had, I doubt whether my dad would have got as much pleasure from buying food that he could just as easily grow himself.

Since the evolution of cheap air travel, however, and especially since the meteoric rise of low-cost airlines, life as we knew it has changed spectacularly. Now, it’s only too easy to take a short break to Europe’s capital cities to soak in the sights and sounds of foreign cultures for a few hours before returning home the same day.

And business has changed too. These days, it’s commonplace to fly across La Manche to conduct a business meeting, attend a seminar or visit a trade show. Even if such trips are slightly superfluous to requirements, many of us are now required to make them as part of our job requirement, whether or not anything really useful is gained from the exercise.

Growing your own food is a thing of the past too. Since vegetables are now so inexpensive, there seems little point to planting, watering and weeding a vegetable patch when it is so much easier just to pop down to the local Frescos to pick up bags of the stuff relatively cheaply. Grown in Africa or India? It doesn’t really matter just as long as it’s inexpensive.

But last week, something happened that, for a brief period at least, temporarily altered the way we live rather dramatically – a large volcano with a name too difficult to spell erupted in Iceland, and as a result of the ash that filled the skies, all flights from UK airports were grounded by the authorities.

Each day that the misery lasted, business folk were inconvenienced by the fact that they couldn’t attend trade shows in sunnier climes, tourists were disenchanted that they were unable to holiday in glamorous places, and traders reported that their fresh fruit and vegetables were rotting in overseas warehouses.

This week, the Icelandic volcano quietened down a bit, the airlines re-opened, and life will soon return to the way it was before. Once again, we’ll all be able to go on nice little holidays in the sun, take business jollies to Brussels and eat fresh fruit from Africa.

But, I wonder, what will we do if the volcano has a change of heart and decides to intensify, shedding yet more of its horrid load all over our lovely European airspace? If that does happen, I for one will be one of the first down to the local garden centre to stock up on some seeds. After all, volcanic activity can do wonders to renew the soil.

Dave Wilson
Editor, Engineeringtalk

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