The volcanic ash has caused chaos over the past few days. Neil Faulkner gives us firsthand experience of how business has managed to make the situation unbearable for thousands of stranded people
Rock bottom was Milan Central Station at 8 am on Sunday morning. My eldest daughter, 11, was huddled on a suitcase in a drafty lobby, cold and crying. My partner was shelling out ‚Ç¨650 for five train tickets to Brussels in two days’ time. The hotels were full and the station was sprinkled with standees’ camping in the alcoves of marbled corridors. You could buy a designer handbag on the station, but you couldn’t get a breakfast coffee.
The latrine-capitalists were doing a roaring trade, charging a euro a piss on the far side of metal barriers barred by Perspex swing-doors.
The creeping commodification of pissing has always struck me as wonderfully symbolic of the neoliberal moral order. Where there’s muck, there’s brass. Where there’s a stench of urine, there’s another euro to be made.
Low-paid workers in orange overalls defended the gates against backpackers who had run out of money. Maybe they got a cut. Maybe not. Either way, the latrine-capitalists had pitted the poor against the poor in a sordid struggle over paying for a piss in a station basement.
I’d already decided we weren’t staying. We were jumping the first train to Zurich.
We’d done this once already. We were on a family holiday in Sicily when the volcano exploded on the opposite side of Europe. We’d managed a flight from Palermo to Rome on the Saturday, and had a booking on a flight to Britain for the Wednesday.
No-one thought the second flight would happen. So Rome was the end of the official road. Suddenly, we were on our own. Two adults, three kids (aged 11, 9, and 6), and a fortnight’s worth of heavy luggage. Pitched out of the tourist bubble into a neoliberal void.
No-one cared. No-one offered advice or support. No-one was doing anything to help anyone get home. Nothing. It was much worse than even a cynical old revolutionary could have guessed. There weren’t even token gestures. There was just nothing.
The queues for tickets were the length of a tennis court. They shuffled at the pace of ten meters an hour. When you got to the end, you got a ticket for a train that took you part of the way home in two days’ time. Then you did the same thing again. And again. Each time you forked out. Meantime, you traipsed the streets for a non-existent hotel room you couldn’t afford, or you slept rough.
We’d jumped a train at Rome - a night-sleeper to Milan - and occupied a corridor with about a dozen other strandees. Accosted by train guards, we refused to move. The train was delayed. Cops arrived. We still refused to move. They gave up. The train departed.
Later, they brought bottles of water. Then they came and charged everyone a full ticket price for spending the night on a corridor floor.
We didn’t have cash and the ticket inspector didn’t have a machine that worked. She said she would send a colleague with another machine to collect our fare later. He never appeared. I suspect she didn’t tell him. Or if she did, he didn’t bother. We met that tension between profit and solidarity again and again.
We’d got from Rome to Milan by jumping a train. So now we did it again at Zurich, camping out at the end of the buffet car. Then we jumped a TGV to Paris. When Lucy, my partner, texted her family, they were impressed. Apparently, TGVs are prestigious. You don’t jump a TGV.
The inevitable on-board collision with two ticket inspectors was the class struggle in microcosm. There was humorless one who looked like Monsieur Hulot. And there was a friendly young Swiss.
Lucy proffered tickets for another train going in a different direction in two days’ time. Monsieur Hulot was for chucking us off. The young Swiss wasn’t. Direct action had produced a split between an official who wanted to follow regulations and a worker who wanted to show solidarity.
The children were a factor. The tickets made us look respectable. And Monsieur Hulot’s TGV would have been delayed by any attempt to remove us. But it was direct action that had produced the crisis, won the victory, and got us moving north. My children (I hope) learnt a political lesson.
Later, on the ferry back, I read Libby Purves in The Times proclaim her ‘restful reflection’ on the volcanic cloud that ‘there is nobody to blame’. Even Tony Blair was not responsible. There would be no need for an expensive inquiry.
At the same time, Brown was on the telly, a balloon of pomposity, announcing an election stunt: the dispatch of the Royal Navy as part of the government’s unstinting effort ‘to get our people home’.
In fact, he was doing nothing serious to rescue 150,000 stranded Brits. Like ordering the ferry companies to transport them.
We pitched up at Dunkirk ferry port mid-morning on Monday. This bastion of neoliberal stupidity had already hit the headlines. The Norfolk Line didn’t allow foot-passengers onto its ferries. So people were buying bicycles in order to qualify for tickets.
Nothing had changed in five days. We saw a middle-aged businessman with a huge suitcase turn up with his new bicycle.
We were five people. In Norfolk Line terms, a five-bicycle group. I had a row at the ticket office. Eventually, a flicker of humanity, and I was quietly advised (when no-one else was listening) to try and get my family into other people’s cars.
We trudged into the vehicle stream nudging onto the ferry. I arranged luggage and children into a cameo of waif-like destitution in the middle of the road, then starting banging on windows.
Our rescuers were a young Dutch petty-trader with a boot-full of tobacco heading for the Midlands, a Polish worker on £250 a week at a recycling depot in Southampton, and an Albanian couple from Southend. They all had old cars. None of them wanted to take any money as part-payment for the ferry-ticket.
We needed all three rescuers because the rule was four per car. So the family rolled on and rolled off in three bits. The final drama was uniformed customs threatening me with the police for being in a ‘restricted area’ as I tried to find my children at Dover.
If we had followed the rules, we would still have been in Rome, trapped by an army of officials, cops, and ticket inspectors employed by neoliberal Europe to stop people getting home so that they could be preyed upon by profiteers.
Instead of commandeering trains, buses, and ferries to transport people home as quickly as possible, governments did nothing. Instead of organising accommodation, food, information services, and other amenities, it was business as usual - everything with a price, a market price, a price that goes up when there is scarcity and suffering.
The only people who helped were ordinary workers and other strandees. This crisis, like all crises, reveals two Europes: the Europe of politician, profiteer, and policeman, and the Europe of working people.
My 11-year-old watched Brown claim to be doing everything possible to get people home and scoffed with the worldly wisdom of an ageing activist. She had also learnt that direct action works. Now was that an educational three days or what? Certainly worth being late back for the start of term.
Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.
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