Have we had our heads too long in the clouds?

OVERHEAD the sky was palest blue. As you looked towards the horizon, and therefore through a thicker slice of the atmosphere, it appeared strangely yellowish. In every direction.

And then there was that thin layer of slightly sticky grey dust all over the car in the morning.

Seems the impending General Election isn’t the only cloud hanging over Britain.

But then you know this. Unless you’re one of that tiny handful of unaware folk who turned up at Stansted hoping to travel (and wondering where everyone was), you know the effect an unpronounceable Icelandic volcano has been having on our skyways.

And since you’re reading this newspaper I know you’re not that uninformed. But then, not everything you’ve read in every paper about this particular airborne, economically toxic event has been quite as informative as it might have been.

You might, for example, have read in one national paper a remark about “waiting for rain to bring the ash down”.

This tells you not about the density of the ash cloud, only the density of the reporter.

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To enlighten him a little: Rain falls from clouds. Aeroplanes mostly fly above the clouds. Nearly all the ash is above the clouds too. Rain almost never falls upwards.

Well, that was easy. Trying to inject some reality into most of what you may have seen or read isn’t quite that simple.

Because mostly it’s not so much about what has been reported as what hasn’t – or at least, not widely.

Nearly all the coverage of the Eyjafjallajokull eruption so far has concentrated on the stoppage of air travel. On the effect that’s had on airlines and passengers. And based on the apparent assumption that it’ll all be sorted out in a day or two – a week or two at worst.

Well, OK, air travel is quite big and important in our lives. Most of us have some experience of it. We can grasp what it’s about.

We can imagine what it’s like to be “stuck” somewhere we’ve been on holiday. And right now, most of us probably know someone who’s stuck right now.

(One person I know is holed up in a place called Normal, Illinois – how delightful an irony is that?)

But this temporary local difficulty may be the least of it. Or maybe only the beginning.

Every report that pushes the re-opening of flightpaths back another 12 or 24 hours overlooks a couple of things.

Like the fact that the last time this particular volcano erupted, it went on spewing on and off for months.

That didn’t have much impact on air traffic in 1821-23, but it could make the Stansted expansion plans look pretty pointless if it happened again now.

And Eyjafjallajokull is only a fairly small volcano. What will happen to air traffic when (it’s really not a question of ‘if’) a bigger one blows its top?

Like Katla, for example.

You probably haven’t heard of it (I hadn’t until this week), but it’s a near neighbour of the one now erupting, a whole lot bigger – and followed its smaller chum into action on two previous known occasions.

All of this is another reminder that we are not as big, or as clever, as we like to think we are.

In geological time, the timescale on which things like volcanoes operate, human beings are a pretty recent phenomenon. The history of air travel is the briefest blip.

A blip that could wink out again just as quickly as it turned on.

What will that do to globalisation? To the holiday business? To international diplomacy? To international sport?

Maybe those Kenyan growers of roses and sugarsnap peas who have been so hard-hit this week will have to learn a new life independent of Tesco. And maybe, in the long run, it will do them good to start growing their own food again instead of ours.

Maybe we’ll see a great new age of sail as the age of flight touches down earlier than expected.

Maybe the whole global warming debate will have to be revisited, balancing our (maybe reduced) emissions against the (much smaller) volcanic ones.

And, in passing, perhaps we should note that the reduced weight of polar ice may be a factor in kicking Iceland’s volcanoes back into life. Now or in the future.

Not that unstable Earth has ever needed help from us in deciding when or where to bubble over.

The Eyjafjallajokull eruption is not – as I’ve heard some people suggest – nature’s way of showing us who’s boss.

The fact is, nature doesn’t care about us that much. Or, indeed, at all.

THERE’S a story behind what I’m about to say. Well, a couple of stories actually, in which I figure in rather different roles.

But, if you don’t mind, that’s personal. And this column isn’t about my private life.

What I wanted to say was just this: Aren’t the crews who staff the East of England Ambulance Service wonderful?

Simply the nicest, kindest, most understanding and helpful people you could ever wish not to meet. Thank you.