TO THOSE LEFT BEHIND AT HEATHROW

I am typing this in a remote alpine valley near St Moritz, where I will spend Christmas, to express my deep gratitude to British Airways for getting me here, against all the odds. I cannot deny that their approach to tiny crosses made me regret that I was trapped into flying with them, having booked my ticket back in August. In fact, I wore a big cross during my flight and otherwise, with seasonal good cheer, I personally forgave them.

There were more flights from Heathrow cancelled on Thursday than has been indicated by the media. I could scarcely believe the data on the Terminal 4 departure board, showing that only about a third of the flights were taking off. Zurich was still one of the destinations, though Geneva was not. I had checked online, in advance, but I never believe online reports. Actually, I did not believe that I was flying, until the plane’s wheels left the runway. I had not had time to contemplate yet another Christmas stuck in London, where I have spent it for the last 20 years. This time, I was the one who miraculously got away.

The obstacle course of airport security, which leaves one exhausted, was endured with a mixture of gratitude, guilt and fortitude. I did not mind discarding my battered handbag as I was only allowed one item of hand luggage. For “security reasons”, I was forced to abandon it on the floor of the terminal, next to slumped, dejected travellers and their children, whose flights had been cancelled.

Taking off on a foggy and gloomy runway, only forty minutes late, we arrived in Zurich airport, which was deserted compared with the huge milling crowds at Heathrow. At the departure gate at Heathrow, I had had the surreal experience of watching BBC News 24 showing pictures of ghostly aeroplanes taking off in pea soup fog, while looking out of the windows at exactly the same sight, knowing that I was going to be inside a grey ghost, a few minutes later, myself.
We did not know whether to laugh or cry. Some who had slept overnight in the Terminal were on our plane. One of these, young student, quipped to her friend as we boarded “They are telling us we can’t get on”. The pilot told us “our safety was important” and so we would be sitting on the plane waiting for a precious slot for 45 minutes. He added that in view of “the other circumstances”, meaning the pitiable situation of those travellers left in the terminal, we “would not mind” waiting around. No one complained, as our minds and hearts were silently with the ones we had left, lying or sitting, bemused, all over Heathrow.

I still cannot eradicate their unspoken distress from my mind. It is difficult not to feel very guilty about despairing families with bulging luggage, on sparse seating in Terminal 4. I just hope they find some relief in the next couple of days and will enjoy Christmas all the more for this period of “expectation”. These were people who may have planned a special family or romantic Christmas months ago. Christmas is a time to escape, if not physically then mentally, from the routine. We all want a little magic at this time of celebration.

The British make more fuss of Christmas than those on the Continent. Christmas customs in Switzerland are nothing special, although the lighted trees and houses in their tasteful white lights in the high Alpine snow are magical. Continentals know that the British, even though less churchgoing than they are, celebrate Christmas more fully than they do. For the British, Christmas easily makes up for numerous Catholic holy days. We prefer “carols, pudding and the Queen” to street processions. In an age of family breakdown, terrorism, relativism, pluralism and every other “ism”, Christmas is an escape from “isms”, if only a week or two.

By the wizardry of modern technology, I am now sitting listening to carols on Classic FM being transmitted from a computer to a radio next to me. On Christmas Day, I am being sent the Queen’s message online at the exact time it is broadcast, hearing my own church singing on Premier Radio online, after preparing a Christmas lunch for a Swiss family, complete with Harrods Christmas pudding, bought at Heathrow.

British Christmas customs will live on wherever the British are, and even more so with the help of technology. Christmas for the British is their most special celebration. We may think we are bored with cards, carols, plum pudding, presents, Christmas cake and the Queen’s broadcast but we should think ourselves lucky. These are among the world’s top customs and foreigners do not have them.

I wish everyone at Terminal 4 yesterday, a very happy Christmas escape from Heathrow, even if it is to a comfortable bed and home, with a log fire and hastily erected Christmas tree. I wish them an even happier, fog-free Christmas, next year.

Annis Bailey

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