Susan Morrison took her other half, aka the Grumpy Yorkshireman, on a plane ride to see the Aurora Borealis. It didn’t appear but they suddenly found themselves in a place that felt almost like outer space.
This year a grateful nation gave us bus passes to mark our birthdays, but what gift could I get to mark the Grumpy Yorkshireman’s 60 glorious years?
How about a flight to hunt the Northern Lights? He’s always been interested in that sort of thing. Bingo. There was a fair amount of triumphant air guitaring going on in my living room back in July.
Fast forward from that warm and sunny afternoon to a November night awash with rain so torrential I swear I passed a lost US infantry platoon who took a wrong turning in the Mekong Delta back in 1968.
Prior to our flight to the stars we would have a pre-flight briefing. I got quite excited by this. I imagined the sort of thing you saw in The Dambusters where moustachioed chaps ask questions like “Heavy flak over Bremen, sir?”. The biggest centre of potential aggression we were to fly over was Lerwick, so I figured we’d be safe there.
The pre-flight briefing was in a hotel. Naturally, I assumed that the hotel in question would be out by the airport, on account of the fact that there are hotels at the airport. I’ve seen them. No, the hotel in question was in fact by the zoo.
Two terribly nice men told us a lot about the aurora and the sun and the stars. I couldn’t help but notice that a lot of their customers were the sort of folk who still mourn the loss of Sir Patrick Moore. In other words, they pretty much knew the script already.
A ‘penguin’ was about to die
The aurora, we were warned, was a tricky lady. She might not put in an appearance. I figured this was par for the course, what with it being a natural phenomenon caught only by accident, like Boris Johnson telling the truth.
To the airport. There were three options. One, take your car. Park at the airport. Have a nervous breakdown when you get back at the price, even with a discount. Two, get a taxi. Wet Saturday in Edinburgh and the Christmas party season is open. Three, the airport bus, which meant a bunch of perfect strangers huddling together in the teeth of a howling wind like a scene from Blue Planet where Sir David Attenborough is breaking the news that the littlest penguin in the pack is about to die of exposure.
It did cross my mind that, given you had some 120 people to get from Point A to Point B, the idea of hiring a coach to ferry said customers to Point B might have been an idea. Slap a tenner on the ticket price lads, and you’re flying. Well, driving. You could also hire a meeting room at one of the hotels actually at the airport, and we could all have walked.
This, you see, is the problem when an event is organised by men who wear polo shirts and get wildly excited by shooting stars in yer Pleiades. Enthusiasm is lovely, but so is comfort, guys.
The lights went off
We got into the air. The lights in the cabin were switched off. We were plunged into utter darkness. Well, I know what’s going to happen here, I thought. When the lights go up, a passenger will be sitting dead in their seat, murdered in some fiendishly grim manner. Another passenger will out themselves as an FBI agent hunting the killer, then have a massive fight with the assassin in the toilet. They always do.
Minutes later, the pilots shut down the external lights on the wings and tail. We were hurtling through the sky just north of Shetland in total darkness. You can’t even do that on Great Junction Street. For all I know, other aircraft in the area were busily flashing their headlights at us to say “Mate, your lights are off”. Even more worrying, we were a little too close to Russian airspace in a blacked-out plane for my taste. We had our passports, obviously, but I had a sneaky feeling they wouldn’t be of much use in the face of jumpy fighter pilots forcing our stargazy flight down into some remote ex-Soviet airport. The idea of us appearing on the Six O’Clock news as Boris Johnson pleaded for our release wasn’t comforting. He’d have left me behind anyway.
The aurora, true to her capricious nature, decided to go get drunk with her pals that night. She was a no-show. It didn’t really matter.
As our eyes adjusted to the darkness, we saw the stars. And it was just a little bit magical. Well, a big bit, as far as the Yorkshireman was concerned.
We had the eerie impression that we were in space. The constellations floated serenely past, seemingly close enough to touch. It was, as they say, an experience.
Now, here’s the problem. How on earth do I top that for his Christmas?
Previously...Scotland’s history festival returns on 21-24 November at the French Institute. Come and find our how to pickle your body, get a ring side seat for the very first reading of a screenplay based on the life of Mary Slessor and discover the Scottish history lurking in Game of Thrones. Tickets available now at historyfest.co.uk.