How to create sports drama out of a transport crisis

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The Independent Online
HOLST'S PLANETS? Durer's etchings? Shakespeare's sonnets? God, they're all marvellous at the right time. But at the wrong time - when you have a thumping headache or a raging toothache - they are all irrelevant. Extraneous, useless.

It is the same with your top-class architecture, I've found. Sadly. If you have time to spare, it is possible to stand in awe of St Paul's magnificence, to marvel at the Victorian scale of Liverpool Street station. Possible, too, if one has arrived sufficiently early, to relish the newly-arisen loftiness of Sir Norman Foster's Terminal Building at Stansted Airport.

Unlike Heathrow, that sprawling, scuffed carpet tile of an airport, Stansted has been conceived of as an entity. No announcements mar its calm. And passengers are not merely the last straw.

Exit from Stansted's huge check-in section is invariably accomplished without the need for jostling. There is no need, either, for queue-jumping at the X-ray machines. The monorail link works with a healing regularity - arriving and departing, arriving and departing...

And as one reclines in the departure lounge, with its broad vista of parked, taxiing and taking-off planes, it is possible to read one's paper and sip one's coffee with a real sense of peace. The whole environment might almost have been designed to assist the air traveller.

But if one is suddenly presented with too much time - way, way too much time, time to fret in, time to sweat in - then the soothing effect of fine design evaporates.

Now I have had some sweaty times at airports, I remember the look on the face of the uniformed woman in a little booth at Split airport when I explained to her urgently that my luggage had not arrived with me. Her expression changed very little over the succeeding days as I returned in regular and vain pursuit of my missing items. Her expression said: "I don't care about you and I don't care about your stupid luggage. At all."

I recall, too, the look on the face of the Customs official at Heathrow when he inspected my passport as I was en-route to cover an event in San Sebastian. When he refused to let me pass, I experienced momentarily the same sense of bafflement one feels when one's London Underground ticket fails to open the barrier. Affront. Annoyance. And then the creeping thought that it might, possibly, be one's own fault...

The passport was fully valid and well within its expiry date. It just didn't happen to be mine.

For the benefit of anyone who may, in future, find themselves at an airport with the wrong passport, I can report that my solution was to miss my flight, find the airport post office, re-apply for a temporary visitor's passport, find a passport photo booth and have pictures taken, fill in a large form, pay a fee and wait for six hours until the next flight. But, as of 1994 I believe, this option is no longer open to British citizens. So do try to match the photo on your passport to the face you see in the mirror.

Such irregularities in my travel arrangements, however, were relatively minor compared to the stressful circumstances of one flight from Stansted to Newcastle a few years ago when I was due to cover an International Amateur Athletic Federation Grand Prix meeting at Gateshead.

I left it until mid-afternoon to travel, sufficient time assuming the plane took off to order. Only it didn't. And as I reclined with increasing anxiety, I began to accept that I was simply not going to be in Gateshead in time for the start. Or even the end of the start.

I had missed trains, buses, lifts, often. Not for nothing had my school report read: "Time late: almost daily." But this was different. This was serious. Because I was going to find it hard to fill 600 words of space for The Independent first edition - early on Fridays, as luck didn't have it - from a seat whose grandstand view was limited to the bar of the domestic departure lounge.

Time ticked on. The flight cancellation became official. I phoned the office with the news that, as far as I was concerned, there was no news for the first edition. Take in agency copy.

Dispirited, I began estimating how long the taxi would take from Newcastle airport to Gateshead stadium, always assuming the re-scheduled flight went ahead as planned. It was a mess. And what if the agency didn't bother to file quickly on the earlier events?

The meeting was starting by now. My colleagues would be in the press box, now, even as I sat in this poxy lounge with a disgruntled party of would-be spectators and... and... Matthew Yates. Matthew Yates!

The enfant terrible of British middle-distance running, seeking to bolster his uncertain position with the team selectors by competing at Gateshead that evening, had made the same travel arrangements as I had, with the same frustrating results. Frustrating for him, that was. Because at that moment absentee athlete Matthew Yates became, in my eyes, an Olympic gold medallist, a man to whom the highest accolades were due. In short, my first edition story.

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