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A view of the Yorkshire Dales – from 6,000 miles

Friday 23 April 2010

Our countryside commentator John Sheared, who had taken a post-Easter break to visit family in Singapore, found himself stranded by the volcanic eruption which caused chaos in international air travel. There are many worse places to be stuck, he says, but he still longs for the Dales

BACK in the bad old days when I was a national newspaper reporter, I once spent six days stuck on a bar stool at Heraklion Airport on Crete in a state of some trepidation because I had just written a highly critical story about the notorious colonels in power at the time and might have been arrested at any moment.

The reason for my unenforced stay was an airline strike, one of hundreds which made air travel in the 1970s and 1980s an ever greater hazard than the Greek colonels. At the time, Heraklion airport was little more than a wooden hut. Air conditioned it was not. And that’s what I call travel stress.

Far from home

As you read this, dear reader, I may – or may not – be at 30,000 feet on my way back home to the Dales. Or I might be in Spain. Or Italy. Or on a boat – even on one of Her Majesty’s aircraft carriers. Who knows – no-one, as far as I can see from the BBC World Service shown here in Singapore.

But compared with that week in Crete all those years ago, this enforced stay is sheer heaven. I am staying (free!) with my son and his family in a luxury air-conditioned apartment looking out over the skyscrapers, the trees and the parks of one of the world’s most beautiful cities. And that, to a once-proud Englishman, cuts with a distinctly two-edged sword.

For this city is a purely English creation. It was hacked out of mosquito and tiger infested swamps by one of the greatest Englishmen who ever lived. Sir Stamford Raffles, creator of one of the world’s most prosperous trading ports ever, was the sort of colonialists who is not even mentioned in our school history books anymore because most leftwing teachers look upon him as a white racist.

But they could not be further from the truth. He was a passionate, outspoken opponent of slavery, which made him many powerful political enemies back home in London. And far from being an uncouth, foul-mouthed soldier/invader, he was one of the first great naturalists and actually founded London Zoo. How about that for a man who died, virtually ignored, at the tragic age of just 45?

If there was ever one single setback which signalled the end of the British Empire, that was it....

Singapore was also, of course, also the scene of the worst defeat in British military history, when an incompetent general surrendered the city to the Japanese in 1941 with not so much as a fight, marching thousands of our soldiers into a nightmare of death from brutality, torture and disease during their captivity.

If there was ever one single setback which signalled the end of the British Empire, that was it. And when I wander through the bustling streets of this formidable place, where the old colonial buildings nestle in the shade of the most stunning sky-scrapers in the world – they make New York look like a neglected slum – I can’t help marvel at how the local Chinese built on those British foundations to create a single-city superstate.

Land values here are the second highest in the whole of Asia after downtown Tokyo yet the Singapore Cricket Club – which also fields soccer and rugby teams – boasts several acres of verdant greenery which are probably worth $100 billion local. There are more parks than in any city of comparable size in the world with the possible exception on Berlin. And in a single day here this week, they opened no fewer than 11 –repeat, eleven – new stations on their brand new rapid transport network.

This was all done through hard work, discipline, and a brilliant education system which still does proper British exams. There is not a speck of litter in the streets and – amazing this –thieves and other criminals go to jail. This reminds me of somewhere I once knew– but I can’t quite put my finger on where!

So, if I have to be stranded by a European volcano here in one of the world's most active volcanic zones, I am glad to be here. Strangely, though, after nearly three weeks away, I long for the Yorkshire Dales. After this, I suspect by jet-setting days are over. But I shall remember Singapore as I cast a fly for a plump brown trout – they don’t have those here!

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