I’m in the sky! I’m in the sky!

I was recently in a rural part of Senegal, West Africa, when a rumour filtered through that the volcanic ash cloud had returned, and was threatening to shut down the UK's runways all over again.

For a period of 24 hours, it wasn't clear whether my party of four would be able to fly home to London or even as far as Paris, or whether we would be joining the ranks of thwarted passengers seen on the news, slumped with all their bags in airport lounges - although, as we were so far from home, we wouldn't even have the consolation of being caught on camera (and in any case, I'm pretty sure the TV channels save money by using stock footage of trapped passengers, along with other frequently occurring news stories like flooding and papal speeches).

There was brief talk about trying to make the epic journey by cab, the way a few celebrities did during the original problems. But quite apart from the expense, it might be a hard job for which to find a taker. If cabbies in Senegal were anything like their English counterparts, you'd expect them to glance at the clock and say, "London? Don't fancy going there, mate. Not at this time of the night."

Head in the clouds

So, at the mercy of this strange Icelandic terror, now undeniably one of the biggest personalities of 2010, we sat and waited. To cheer ourselves up, we complained quite a lot. How could a world capable of building a machine as sophisticated as an aeroplane be outsmarted by a cloud?
Surely this time, as it was expected, there must have been a back-up plan in place - we didn't know what, but telling everyone to fly lower, or higher, or something? And to add insult to the injury of our helplessness, our fancy 3G phones couldn't pick up a signal in our remote location, so we couldn't tell our loved ones - even though our phone companies had told us we'd still be able to make calls wherever we went in Senegal.

Only now, safely home, does perspective set in. We learned a useful lesson from the chaos of the past few weeks: however clever our inventions, we're not quite clever enough to defeat the laws of nature/God/whoever or whatever is running the cosmic show. The human race has done an astonishing job of bending those laws. We've put a dog on the moon, a man on the moon, then put some more men and eventually even women on the moon, then quietly stopped doing it when we realised there was no point because there was nothing left to do up there except play golf.

We've developed mobile devices so small and addictive that people are now regularly run over while immersed in using them. Most significantly, we've cracked the age-old problem of wanting to video two things at once, with iPlayer and on-demand TV. (I must stress, I'm not claiming credit for these feats; I can only just about use a remote control.) It is easy for us to get cocky and assume we're capable of roaming about the universe doing whatever suits us. But the universe, like Alex Ferguson, has been around longer than we have and knows how to cut us down to size.

Toy story

The flipside of this lesson is also true, though: we should be grateful for how far we have come. It's a sign of remarkable times that if you can't make a call on a tiny phone from a part of Africa with no town in 50 miles, you feel swindled. If you're attempting to traverse a vast portion of the globe in eight hours and something goes awry, you react with fury. If your computer, capable of doing more calculations per second than you will in your entire lifetime, breaks, you bemoan the stupidity of the people who made it. The more jaw-dropping the toys, the more of a babyish fuss we make when they break.

What we should be doing, next time a volcano or a monster or some other as yet unidentified horror disrupts our flights, is using that time to reflect for a moment that we're lucky to live in an age when not being able to communicate with people for 30 minutes counts as being "out of contact". And when you do finally get off the runway, pause to imagine what a marvel this would have seemed to generation upon generation before us.

If you really want to make the point to yourself, why not try shouting "I'm in the sky! I'm in the sky!" next time you're airborne. If anyone questions you, just say that you're in touch with the wonders of the modern world. But please don't mention my name.

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 31 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The war on the veil