Friday, 27 July 2012

Using up the Planet

Over the past few months I’ve been working my way – very pleasurably I may add – through the novels of the Master and Commander or Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O’Brien. For those who do not know them – and I cannot recommend them highly enough – the books tell of the adventures of Captain Jack Aubrey of the Royal Navy and his friend, the doctor Stephen Maturin, during the Napoleonic Wars.

In twenty books, published over thirty years up to 1999, O’Brien immerses us completely in the world of 200 years ago, a literary and historical tour de force, which critics have favourably compared with the works of C.S. Forester, Anthony Trollope and, above all, Jane Austin, all the more remarkable for the fact that he was writing at the end of the 20th Century. While there are all sorts of themes in the novels about which I could comment here, I was struck today by an aspect which, while mostly incidental to the development of plots and characters, provides a major contrast to our contemporary world.

Stephen Maturin, a well educated and highly intelligent man, is typical of a particular kind of character of that era in which the ideas of the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution were spreading throughout the world; the polyglot who is interested in almost everything. His major hobby is one which he describes as that of a “naturalist” or, occasionally, a “natural philosopher,” someone who occupies himself with the scientific discovery, observation and cataloguing of all sorts of living things (his primary area of interest is birds, but he by no means limits himself to the area of ornithology, naming a new species of turtle which he discovers after his friend, Aubrey, and regularly collecting interesting specimens of beetle for his friend and espionage boss, Sir Joseph Blaine). In the course of the books, Maturin regularly takes advantages of his world-spanning voyages with Aubrey to observe all kinds of birds and animals, going into raptures, for example, at his first sight of an albatross and frequently having to bargain with the captain – whose primary concern is the pursuit of his various naval orders – to obtain the opportunity to observe the local fauna in the many parts of the world they visit.

The impression one gets from O’Brien’s descriptions of Maturin’s naturalist activities is one, above all, of burgeoning abundance. So much of the world is still undiscovered, uncatalogued and, even in many of the regions where people are present, most of the birds and animals are largely unimpinged upon by humans. Even in those areas where men are making a living from the hunting of animals – the activities of whalers, particularly those from New England, play a role in a number of the books – the profligate abundance of nature is so great that it seems unimaginable that the activities of humans could ever make a real dent in it.

Well, not quite unimaginable. The Dodo of Mauritius had been rendered extinct by the end of the 17th Century, a fact of which Stephen Maturin is aware. He is also aware of the encroachment of human beings on the habitats of various other creatures, thus making it at first difficult for him to catch a glimpse of the platypus in New South Wales. But around 1812, the planet still seems to be so huge – even if the seafaring adventures of Aubrey and Maturin send them extensively travelling around it, including a circumnavigation – and so teeming with life, that the possibility of humanity significantly damaging it would hardly have occurred to anyone.

A month ago, Lonesome George, the last remaining representative of one of the subspecies of the Galapagos Tortoise, died. Aubrey and Maturin visited the Galapagos on one of their voyages – the visit forms part of the 2003 film of some of their adventures, Master and Commander, starring Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany. Given the longevity of the animals, it is possible that some of thousands of tortoises which they saw there were parents of the far fewer representatives alive today.

Although the world described in O’Brien’s novels is so different to our own, it is not really all that long ago. I’ve described a thought experiment here and it’s worth repeating at this point. Imagine that when you were a baby, a very old person (maybe a neighbour or a relative), over ninety years old, came to visit you and caressed you on the head. Now imagine that that person also had the same experience as a baby, being personally “blessed” by the oldest person in their neighbourhood. If you are over twenty years old today, then that old man or woman was already alive by the time Napoleon was finally defeated at Waterloo.

In that short period, less than the span of three human lives, the world population has grown from around one billion to seven billion people. And those seven million are claiming more and more of the room and resources of the planet for their own exclusive use.

There’s nothing special about this – it’s a basic characteristic of all life forms to exploit their environment to best suit themselves, usually regardless of the consequences, even the consequences for themselves. Any biosphere is in a state of continuously changing dynamic stability, a stability which is always fragile. Balance is always an interplay of a myriad of complex factors and relationships and is always subject to change. In a way, it’s like riding a bike; balance is only possible when there is movement, change.

But generally (and there are always exceptions of sudden, usually catastrophic change) alteration takes place slowly, over hundreds, thousands, millions of years. Against this background evolution unfolds.

Enter human beings. Like no other animal, we are always in a hurry. And we are endlessly, frequently for other species fatally, adaptable. We think, we learn, we plan, and change our behaviour within single generations.

Let’s be clear about this; this is not a modern phenomenon. By the time Europeans were starting to settle Australia (the era of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin) their aboriginal predecessors, arriving on the continent around 50,000 years earlier, had quickly wiped out all the large herbivore animals, and consequently the large carnivores which had preyed on them (megafauna). The same thing happened in North America, leaving only some wolves, bears and the bison around 15,000 years ago, and – most recently – in New Zealand only 700 years ago. That such major extinction events were less common in Eurasia and, above all, Africa, is most probably due to the fact that these were the parts of the world where humans first evolved and developed and thus other large animals had the necessary time to achieve a kind of modus vivendi with the strange non-conforming naked ape.

Haast's Eagle attacking Moas
Nonetheless, as catastrophic as these human settlements were for megafauna species like the giant wombat (diprotodon), the American lion, the sabre-toothed tiger (smilodon), the moa or Haast’s eagle, humans managed to settle into their biospheres in Australia and the Americas – having basically taken over the position at the top of the food-chain. But even within such systems, small new impetuses could lead to massive change. Thus, the reintroduction of the horse (one of those megafauna species wiped out by the first human waves of settlement around 12,000 years ago) into North America by the Spaniards gave rise to the great Plains Indian societies (Apache, Navaho, Comanche, Sioux, etc.) from the end of the 16th Century onwards.

But it was the spread of Europeans in the past five hundred years, driven by a new nexus of ideas and their results, like an aggressively missionary religion, Enlightenment ideas and the mind-set of the ongoing Scientific Revolution, which moved change and the rate of change onto a whole new level. By the beginning of the 19th Century this was really beginning to gather momentum and since then it has simply exploded.

“Increase and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it …” (Genesis 1:28) Well, we’ve certainly done that. The question is whether we haven’t overdone it a bit. The whalers Aubrey and Maturin encountered in their voyagers have largely disappeared – because nearly all the whales have been killed off. The oceans from which the crew of the frigate Surprise regularly fished myriads of anchovies, mackerel or tuna, and which even in my childhood (less than half a century ago) were deemed to be endlessly bountiful are now in danger – in large areas – of being fished out. Just ask the (former) cod fishers of the Newfoundland Grand Banks. And there are many other more complex chain reactions which can also be observed; anyone has gone swimming in or walking on the beaches of the Western Mediterranean in recent years will have noticed the explosive increase in the number of jellyfish … because we have killed off too many of the larger fish which prey on them. Remove one component of a food chain and you can cause all sorts or cascades of change, many of them unforeseeable, and the ecological effects can be colossal. It was rats, who travelled with the first Maoris to New Zealand and who preyed on the eggs of the flightless moas, which were as much responsible for their extinction as their hunting by humans. Rabbits in Australia. More aggressive American grey squirrels driving out the more timid native red varieties in the British Isles. There are countless examples of such unintended consequences and many of them lead to the extinction of species. Some experts predict that the number of existing species on the planet may have been halved by the end of this century.

So what? We need the room and what does it really matter if the final lesser spotted humpbacked toad croaks his last? The law of evolution is the law of the jungle, the survival of the fittest and if humans are the meanest, baddest sons of bitches in the valley of death, well, then, that’s just too tough for the others.

Except that the rules of evolution say nothing about the survival of the winners. Any species is faced with the continual danger that it will become too successful, that it will wipe out all its competitors, neutralise all who would prey on it and thus reproduce until it finishes up destroying the biosphere on which it is dependant. It’s always a danger in any closed system.

We humans have spread all over the planet and, large and complex though it may be, Planet Earth itself is a closed system. The signs are increasing that we are causing rising stress for the planetary eco-system itself. Like an organism with a bacterial infection, we are – in a real sense – giving our planet fever. Seven billion humans produce a lot of heat, particularly as our demand for energy is much higher than any other animal and, ever since we discovered fire, our basic way of producing energy is by burning stuff, and most of the energy produced this way is lost as waste heat. Moreover, from our own biological cellular energy production, to the metabolising of the billions of domestic animals we keep to feed us, to the cars that transport us and the oil-fired power stations which produce our electricity, the basic chemical reaction used to produce energy/heat is always the same. Take any variety of carbon bonded with hydrogen (carbohydrates or hydrocarbons - sugar, wood, oil, etc.), add oxygen and a spark of some kind and you get a more or less energetic reorganisation of elemental molecules to form water and carbon dioxide. It’s simple high-school chemistry and the only process working in the other direction on this planet is photosynthesis. That we are producing lots of heat and carbon-dioxide cannot be disputed, the only question that can be debated is how much of this we have to do before it reaches significant, dangerous levels.

So, as Lenin once asked, what is to be done? Wiping out 85% of the present population of the planet to return to the levels of two centuries ago isn’t really an alternative – although one of the last stages for a species which has become too successful in a closed system is the phenomenon of die-back, where, within a very short period of time, most representatives of the species simply succumb to the consequences of overcrowding and too few resources, The result is either, in the best case, the achievement of a new equilibrium with only a tiny fraction of the species or, at worst, a situation in which this fraction is so small that it is no longer viable and becomes extinct.

But, unlike lemmings, we humans have the value of our intelligence, our ability to plan and anticipate our future. We cannot bring back all the species we have managed to inadvertently kill off, but we can modify our behaviour so as to develop new ways of living on our planet in the future. However, this means changing some of our most basic attitudes. Above all, I believe, we need to look very critically at the whole idea of growth, which is at the basis of the economic and societal models we follow. In the world of Aubrey and Maturin, when the world seemed so huge and so bountiful, there was no need to question it, but today, when the reality of the finite capacities of our planet, large though they may be, is becoming more evident, it will soon become unavoidable. To believe that we can go on growing indefinitely within a finite system is fundamentally illogical.

This does not mean that we must condemn ourselves or our children to restrictive, soul-destroying poverty. A good start, in my view, would be to apply our intelligence, ingenuity and imagination to examining the possibilities involved in the idea of sufficiency.

We don’t really have any other alternatives.

What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.
Inversnaid, Gerald Manley Hopkins


Pictures retrieved from

Sunday, 22 July 2012


An item posted on various networks on the world-wide-web shocked many people this week; Kenneth Dunlap had died.

The internet has changed – and goes on changing – our lives; creating realities unimaginable for our grandparents. One of the most enriching changes it has made for me is the boundless possibilities it offers for making contact and developing friendships with all kinds of fascinating people worldwide. In my case, this has had an emphasis on people interested in meeting for the purpose of presenting, developing, discussing and exchanging ideas; people engaged in what might best be called “the life of the mind.” It has been, and continues to be a rich and fascinating adventure – one in which I have made many contacts, more than a few of which have developed into genuine friendships.

Given my interests, it is therefore not surprising that – long before things like Facebook and Google+ – one of the first places I started to make real contacts was on a Google Group known as Minds Eye. A couple of years ago, a new contributor exploded into the group, posting extensively and intensely on all sorts of subjects, someone with an online/group identity known as Fiddler.

Minds Eye has always been a group of very diverse free spirits, with different views about everything under the sun, views which are staunchly presented and defended and, as such, achieving a consensus among those active there has always made the challenge of herding cats look like a piece of cake. But – unusually among the thousands of forums which evolved out of the old talk-rooms and Usenet groups – Minds Eye was characterised by an predominant atmosphere of … civility, coupled with an exceptionally high standard of erudition and discussion on all sorts of subjects; philosophical, theological, anthropological, political, cultural, etc.

Fiddler irritated, irritated massively. He had very definitive opinions on all the subjects about which he posted and he did not suffer fools gladly – and his definition of a fool would have encompassed anyone who took up an opinion contrary to his own. His passion for the positions he held often made it difficult for him to distinguish between the ideas of those he saw as his opponents and their persons, so that his argumentation often became seriously personal and ad hominem. It was on Minds Eye that I first encountered one of his favourite words for describing someone with whom he did not agree and whom he consequently regarded as being seriously deficient in reason; “fucktard.”

Some of those involved in the group regarded him simply as a troll and a few even suggested banning him. But many more of us sensed that there was real sincerity here, combined with intelligence and education, but also with anger and a tendency to flame. I, for one, tried to engage with Fiddler, attempting to point out that, for example, there were many sane, intelligent, rational people who sincerely believed in God and who could not all be simply dismissed as “fucktards.” Moreover, there were more (and usually better) ways to win a debate than to try to bludgeon your opponents into submission, using your arguments as a cudgel.

In the course of that discussion, Fiddler – or Ken, for that was his real name – revealed something more of himself; he had Asperger Syndrome. It explained a lot, particularly about his difficulties in relating “normally” with other people. He was well aware of this, though not particularly apologetic about it – in common with many other “Aspies,” he did not regard his condition as an affliction or illness, but rather as a different way of being; one which made his social relationships more complicated but which also had compensations in other areas. He described being able to “taste” numbers, for example, something which made mathematics a real source of joy for him.

In the end, Fiddler/Ken quit Minds Eye. It was a reaction he made, I believe, in something of a huff, as he had received some sharp rebukes for the way in which he had been addressing others and there had been renewed calls for his banning. But we soon met again, at various other online hangouts, like Gravity (which kind of went and died) and (which is sadly also currently moribund) and we hooked up on Facebook and Google+. Ken joined that increasing network of virtual friends my burgeoning on-line life was producing, friends with whom you (just like in “real” life) sometimes have more, sometimes less interaction, but with whom you always keep up some kind of loose contact.

In the course of the last couple of years I learned quite a bit about him. He had lived, and continued to live, a chequered life, full of drama, conflicts and discontinuities. He grew up in an abusive family and had a sister who was murdered as a teenager. He had six children, from two different marriages. He had spent much of his youth in a religious fundamentalist setting but had abjured this in favour of a pretty muscular type of atheism. He had struggled with poverty for most of his life, but never let this stop him doing anything. He was a student, and passionate about learning – though his major area of study was geology, he was interested in almost everything.

For somebody with such innate difficulties in social relationships, there was something about him which seemed to fascinate people. I can only imagine how it must have been in real life, but over three and a half thousand people had him in their circles on Google+, a social network which he (inevitably) much preferred to Facebook. It was perhaps easier to be a friend to him on-line than it was in real life, for I have no doubt that Ken could be very strenuous. Even on-line he could be strenuous, but a computer you can always switch off.

I suspect that it was very hard to switch Ken off in real life. He was one of those people whose transmissions have one gear, full steam ahead, and whose brakes only work intermittently. But all that power, that energy, that rage which drove him, he channelled into a struggle for the rights of others, for the weak, the oppressed, any group or minority he perceived as being put down or persecuted by the forces of illiberality, intolerance, ignorance or small-mindedness. It got him practically involved in actions to free women in the Middle East who suffered under misogynistic forms of Islamic practice. And it frequently put him at loggerheads with the practices and values of Middle America.

Ken had a vision of what a free, pluralistic, caring and tolerant society could be like and it made him furiously, relentlessly rant against the present complex of hypocritical religious fundamentalism, heartless, profit-driven, corporate capitalism and anti-intellectual, petit-bourgouis jingoism he described – with his typical, savage wit – as Teathuglicanism. Though he was disappointed in Obama, he regarded the prospect of a President Romney with genuine horror, and his ascerbic, cutting commentary will be sadly missed in the coming months.

De mortuis nihil nisi bonum [Speak of the dead naught but good], they say, but Fiddler would have been contemptuous of this, also in respect of himself. De mortuis nihil nisi veritas [truth], I am certain, would have been much more to his liking. Truth, in that scientific, open, testing, questioning sense, was for him synonymous with the good and it was the lodestone of his life.

I can only speak of those truths about Ken which I know; his engagement for tolerance and liberalism (in its best, original sense), his championing of the rights of the weaker and those discriminated against, his campaigning for more social justice and a more caring society. The many other truths of his life – those which I sense or suspect, like the centrality of his love for his children in his whole being, are for others to tell, perhaps even today (July 22) when a service in celebration of his life will be held in Ferndale, Washington State.

Ken’s death was a shock to everyone. He had been seriously unwell in the past months and had found it hard to get adequate medical treatment, an indictment of the current American health system and something which is very difficult for a West European like myself, with our unquestioned systems of socialised medicine, to understand. But he also seemed down recently, feeling the weight of the seemingly constant struggle which was his life. Of course he carried his own, not insignificant share of responsibility for the many misfortunes to which he was prone, but he was also – at least in part – a victim of the callous, unfeeling harshness of the society in which he lived and, I feel, he deserved to live in that better world, the establishment of which he spent so much of his fury and energy for.

For those of us who knew him –  if only in the attenuated virtual world – he was a figure somehow larger than life, his struggles heroic, his difficulties epic. Thinking of him in the past few days, since hearing of his death, it strikes me that his character and story offers the stuff for a marvellous film, with Sean Penn, at best (for they share many characteristics), in the title role. But, for now, Fiddler is finally at peace. I will miss him, him and his outraged, idealistic fury. But I also feel honoured and lucky to have known him, even if only from a digital distance. Goodbye, my friend. Rage on.

The photos in this post are all from Ken's Google+ profile page

Friday, 6 July 2012

Travelling ...

The thunderstorms which swept through during the night had wakened me briefly, but they had left the summer morning air with a wonderful cleanly-washed feeling. The sun was shining and the pleasant fresh warmth promised to become close and muggy later but that didn’t worry me. By the time that later came, I’d be gone, flying nearly a thousand kilometres westward to Ireland.

The first stage of the journey was by rail; from my home town Remscheid to Düsseldorf, with a change of train in Solingen. The highlight of this is the crossing of the Müngsten Bridge, the highest steel railway bridge in Germany. Remscheid and Solingen are both built on hills, and you can see one town from the other, but they are divided by the deep valley of the river Wupper. You look 350 feet down from the train at the river, winding its way through a densely wooded canyon. A magnificent sight on this fine morning, with wisps of water vapour lazily writhing above the water. The bridge itself has a something of a sinister reputation locally as a popular attraction for desperate people, planning to end their own lives.

I change trains in the Solingen suburb of Ohligs. Like both the other two cities in the so-called Bergisch-Metropolitan-Triangle, Wuppertal and Remscheid, it is an amalgamation of various pre-existing smaller towns. Solingen is known as the “City of Blades” and has a tradition of steel and cutlery making going back for many hundreds of years, with an historical reputation comparable only with Sheffield and Toledo. Ohligs itself is on the border between the old Duchy of Berg and the Rhineland and has, if the truth be told, more a Rheinisch than a Bergisch character. Historically, the Rhinelanders have a reputation for being relaxed, laid-back and fun-loving, while the inhabitants of Berg are more frequently described as being dour, taciturn and serious. It is, perhaps, not entirely coincidental that the Reformation made a lot of ground in Berg, while the Rhineland remained largely (if generally unfervently) Catholic.

The journey from Remscheid to Dublin is one I’ve been doing three or four times annually for the past years, ever since my parents moved to Dublin. As the train moves smoothly towards Düsseldorf, I find myself thinking about how routine it’s become for me. I was twenty one years old before I flew for the first time; now it’s just part of my life. But the world has changed in the past thirty years.

The most basic defining fact about Ireland is that it is an island. This has always made it harder to get to or leave than countries with land borders. In my youth, the most common way to and from the country was the “boat” across the Irish Sea to Liverpool or Holyhead. I’ve taken the boat too, often enough in my youth, crossing England to take yet another boat to finally reach the continent, where the way generally continued by train.

I realise that it has been quite a few years since I took a long train journey. There’s something lost there, for I find rail travel more comfortable and relaxed than flying. You have more room, you can look out the window and watch the ever-changing variety of towns and countryside, you can get up and walk around. You’re more inclined to get into conversation with your fellow travellers – or perhaps I’ve just become older and more taciturn. But that loss of relaxation is what you exchange for that most highly rated modern commodity, time. To get from Remscheid to Dublin by train and boat would take a couple of days; the way I do it now, I travel from door to door (including all the waiting at airports) in less than six hours.

Though, even in terms of relaxation, I have nothing to complain about. I do this journey so often that I have long since personally optimised every phase of it and, from the moment I arrive at the first railway station, I have moved into a personal, time out mode. I know where to get tickets, which platforms to go to, where to check in, etc., and all this stuff runs semi-automatically. So I have the inner space to just enjoy the feeling of being on the move, without pressure.

My flight is from Düsseldorf International Airport, the third biggest in Germany after Frankfurt and Munich (though it will probably be relegated to fourth after the new single Berlin airport finally gets up and running next year). Düsseldorf, with a population of just under 600,000 isn’t one of Germany’s biggest cities, but it’s one of the most successful. There are various reasons for this, one of the most important being the decision by the western allies after the Second World War to make it the capital of Germany’s largest (by population) province of North Rhine-Westphalia.

Düsseldorf has an intensively competitive relationship with Cologne, just a few miles farther up the Rhine. Cologne is bigger and over a millennium older, having been founded by Agrippa, the faithful adjutant of the Emperor Augustus, while Düsseldorf isn’t mentioned historically until the Middle Ages. Cologners tend to regard Düsseldorfers as parvenu and claim that the insecurity resulting from this is the reason why the residents of their rival city are so concerned with status, fashion, and being “in.” Certainly, the Königsallee (popularly known as the “Kö”), the premier shopping street in Düsseldorf, would claim to compete with New York’s Fifth Avenue, or the Via Condotti in Rome, and you might be forgiven for a feeling of taking the tone of the place down if you find yourself driving down the in a car which isn’t a Porsche, a Mercedes, or a BMW.

Düsseldorf and Cologne both have their own varieties of beer. In Düsseldorf it’s a dark ale known as Alt, while in Cologne they brew a light, lager-type beer known as Kölsch. It’s more than your life is worth to try to order an Alt in Cologne, while the Düsseldorfers generally say that Kölsch is a liquid which passes unchanged – apart from the temperature – through the human body.

With its finely-tuned consciousness of chic, Düsseldorf is, inevitably, a major centre of culture, although here there is also a keen rivalry with Cologne. One of the city’s most successful cultural exports in the past thirty years is the cult band, Die Toten Hosen (literally “Dead Trousers,” the phrase being a slang expression meaning “nothing going on,” or “boring.”), who play a good-humoured form of punk rock, often with a healthy dollop of social criticism thrown in.

The airport is, thankfully, easily reached by rail. Thankfully, I say, because, in common with nearly all others, it costs an arm and a leg to leave your car there for anything more than an hour or two. The last stage of the journey involves a short trip on the Sky Train, a hanging monorail which takes you from the station right into the terminal building. This is large and airy, the result of a comprehensive rebuilding programme after a major fire there sixteen years ago, thus providing enough room to handle 20 million passengers a year.

Air travel, as I’ve already mentioned, has changed considerably in Europe in the past couple of decades. The key phrase is “low-cost flying.” Whereas thirty years ago flying still had a cachet of being a bit exclusive, it has now become affordable travel for the masses. Part of the philosophy behind this is the optimisation of every element of every element of the process and the reduction of the fundamental fact to its minimum, the flying from A to B. The basic flight price – on a route where the size of the planes and the frequency of flights have been carefully analysed to ensure that the vehicles are always well occupied – is kept as low as possible. Everything else costs extra; luggage, meals and drinks on the plane, choice of seats, often even personal checking-in. One of the most successful of the low-cost carriers is the Irish firm Ryanair, with its spectacular in-your-face Managing Director, Michael O’Leary (if you’re interested, you can watch him outlining the company’s philosophy here). Fortunately, I don’t have to travel with O’Leary’s firm, who are pretty ingenious at thinking up new methods to make you pay extra (they don’t fly from Düsseldorf, claiming that the landing charges there are too expensive) – as the pressure of competition with them has forced to Irish national carrier, Aer Lingus, to go low-cost too, so that I can generally get a return flight from Düsseldorf to Dublin for less than US $ 150.

“I used to think Genitalia was an airline until I discovered Aer Lingus,” some comedian once commented. Personally, I’d prefer sex to flying any time. To be truthful, I find flying both boring and frequently annoying, uselessly annoying. It starts with the security check. Even today, years after the ridiculous measure has been introduced, there still seem to be passengers who haven’t realised that you’re not allowed to carry liquids onto the plane. It doesn’t matter which queue I choose, I always seem to finish up behind the lady who wants to bring her shampoo, face-cleaning fluid and Chanel No. 5 in her hand-luggage and engages some bored, underpaid security worker, who only speaks broken German, in an interminable and increasingly bad-tempered discussion. Forget it lady, ditch your Chanel or get another flight!

But even in the world of proposed extra charges for using the aircraft toilets, Aer Lingus still retains some of its old charm. The flight attendants are always very friendly and helpful, and they still offer a warm traditional Irish breakfast, with sausages and rashers, black and white pudding, fried tomato, potato cake, brown bread and butter with orange juice, coffee or tea. It’s not free of course – though, on reflection, it never really was, after all, it was all part of the princely price you paid for your ticket – but at € 7.50 it’s still a bargain. As I usually take the morning flight, and only drink a cup (or two) of coffee before leaving home, it has become another ritual of mine whenever I take this flight.

An hour and a half after taking off, we land. And now, another aspect of low-cost flying really comes into its own for me. All the cheap carriers make you pay extra for checked-in luggage. I have become expert at travelling light, carrying everything I really need in my hand-baggage. And so, only ten minutes after the plane as stopped, I saunter past the people standing hypnotised at the baggage carousel, waiting seemingly forever for their bags to be spewed up out of the innards of the airport, down the green customs line and out of the airport. A little more than five hours after leaving home, I’ve arrived. Now there’s just the short bus and car trip to my parents’ place.

It would have taken me just as long to drive from home to Berlin or Munich – and would have cost me just as much. Funny old world, isn’t it?

This little piece from the Toten Hosen is a love song from an extremely jealous lover, who first offers to kill himself to prove his love ... and finally decides to kill both himself and his girlfriend.

Pictures retrieved from:


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