Howard Jacobson: A one-eyed giant nearly stopped me getting home

Having a column to write, I went in search of other Englishmen as anxious to escape as I was
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The Independent Online

Heartbreaking tales all week of people trapped in their hotel swimming pools for up to five days.

They say you could hear the wailing in the Givenchy Spa at Le Saint Geran, Mauritius, from as far away as the beach at Sandy Lane where word had got out – good that something had got out – that supplies of iced strawberries were running dangerously low. I can no longer watch the news on television, so heartbreaking are the scenes of couples reuniting who have not seen each other for 72 hours.

Yesterday, at the bar of the Groucho Club, I was embraced tearfully by an old friend I'd last talked to at the bar of the Groucho Club the week before.

"I'm back", he told me.

I told him I didn't know he'd been away.

"Christ, man", he said, "the word 'away' doesn't get it."

I wondered what word got it.

He told me what has happened. He'd been in Torremolinos with his family. When he said "family" his eyes welled up. Had I not known his family I'd have pictured a tottering mother on a Zimmer frame, a wife already made weak by bulimia nervosa, and genius but fragile twins desperate to get back to a Mensa interview in London.

In fact his mother runs a major charity single-handed, his wife has completed six marathons this year, and his two boys had joined him after making their third successful assault on Everest without breathing equipment.

He'd been in Torremolinos with them, anyway, paragliding, when he heard that no planes were leaving Malaga for Britain. He rang up Willie Walsh who is a personal friend, but Willie said there was nothing he could do, the effing Icelandic volcano having grounded BA more effectively than all the effing cabin stewards in effing Christendom.

I'm not saying this is how Willie Walsh actually speaks, only that this was how my friend reported him.

The barman at the Groucho asked us to tone down the swearing as other members of the club were offended by it. "Christ", my friend said: "do you know where I've been for the last four days?"

The barman shook his head, but when he heard Torremolinos he apologised. "Swear away", he said.

Unable to fly out of Malaga, my friend had shepherded his little family into a hire car for which the shysters were charging a thousand Euros a day. For a Smart!

"Christ!" I said.

He put a hand over my mouth. "You haven't heard the worst of it yet", he said. "We were told there were ferries leaving from Algeciras to Tangiers, from where we could get a trawler to Lisbon, where a cargo ship was said to be leaving for La Coruna from which local fishermen were rowing stranded passengers to Roscoff from where light aircraft which could fly below the ash cloud were taking people to Cork. . ."

"So what happened when you got to Cork?" I asked.

"Cork! Who said we got to Cork? The car broke down five kilometres outside Malaga. Do you know much it cost to get towed back to Torremolinos?" I guessed a thousand Euros an hour.

And back in Torremolinos? I expected him to say they wind-surfed to Ibiza where they caught a pirate ship to Monaco where they hijacked a train heading for Luxembourg before terrorists attacked it in the Massif Centrale and kidnapped his mother. But only the wind-surfing was right. Back in Torremolinos they had to go back to their villa and resume their effing holiday.

"Christ!" the barman said.

So I told them my story. Setting sail from Troy, I ran into a fierce north-easterly which carried me across the Aegean sea to Libya where I'd heard there was a travel company called "Lotos" which, while it couldn't guarantee to get you out, made you very comfortable in the time you were there.

Having a column to write in London, I went in search of other Englishmen as anxious to escape as I was, only to encounter a one-eyed giant called Polyphemus – I know, I know, but that's foreign travel for you: you never know who you're going to run into – whom I had in the end to blind to get away from.

What happened next, to keep it brief, was that I managed to locate a tramp steamer headed for the Island of Dawn where I met the enchanting Circe with whom I am ashamed to admit I had a bit of a fling. Aware I could not afford to stay – her rates were a thousand Euros a minute without kissing, and that was if she liked you – she pointed me in the direction of home, warning me to watch out for the Sirens, a sort of Girls Aloud of the Ionian Sea, though thankfully I was no more into their music than David Cameron, whatever he says to the contrary, is into Take That.

Anyway, anyway, we all have our troubles, and mine finally ended when I arrived home, a little worse for wear, after 10 years of being away, and was able to massacre my wife's suitors.

Ten years, mark! 10 years, not five days. What's happened to our idea of what constitutes an arduous journey?

Don't mistake me. We make light of no one's travails in this column. Hell is other countries, airports are vile places, and I don't doubt that many a stranded passenger had pressing reasons to be back. But if you want to experience a real Odyssean travel nightmare try getting from Soho to Swiss Cottage. The horror of the London Underground has been well-documented – if you're not blown apart by Jihadists, or pushed on to the rails by homicidal maniacs on day release, or trampled by bored French schoolkids, you suffocate – and the overground is worse.

Despite Boris Johnson's promise to bring back buses fit for humans to travel on, they remain the Legoland suspensionless boneshakers they were, with nowhere to sit unless you go upstairs and you can only get upstairs if you're a gymnast. London roads are now an obstacle course: if you can find a road that isn't closed for the installation of new water pipes or Crossrail, you can be sure it will be potholed, or made impassable by bumps they have the effrontery to call calm traffic calmers.

What's calming about driving over hummocks? What's calming about breaking your spine? Has anyone met a calm London cabbie? London at this minute is in the grip of a road-induced collective nervous breakdown, and yet people are being winched aboard Royal Navy Chinooks in order to get back.

Explain that to me, someone.