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Ash, hot air, and clouds of uncertainty

Facing upheaval that could make Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano shudder, Britain votes in a cliff-hanger election. PM candidates participate in the country’s first debates, boosting underdog Clegg. The Independent brawls with Murdoch. And Macolm McLaren’s “minute of mayhem” funeral.

Top news: There’s nothing like a general election to divide Britain, and there’s nothing like a good volcano crisis to bring it back together. Prime Minister Gordon Brown decision to call the former on April 6 was nearly upstaged by the latter, but the country has rarely seen its sense of identity taken on such a rollercoaster ride.

While the world felt the effects of the Icelandic eruption, the isolating closure of airspace most keenly affected the United Kingdom as Europe’s busiest aviation hub fell silent and this island nation rediscovered its seafaring heritage.

For legions of Britons stranded abroad, the only way home was to head to overcrowded French ferry ports, squeeze on a boat and set sail for the White Cliffs of Dover. If the comparisons with World War II evacuations weren’t strong enough, the Royal Navy was dispatched, to great acclaim, to rescue several hundred plucky Brits stranded in northern Spain.

A less successful maritime rescue involved an amateur re-enactment of the 1940 Dunkirk retreat from Nazi-held France, which was — at least according to the Francophobe British tabloid press — scuttled by uptight French border police.

But even as supermarket shelves emptied of air-freighted vegetables, the volcano wasn’t all bad news. For the first time for several generations, those who live under the relentless takeoffs and landings of London’s Heathrow Airport savoured the sound of silence — and a quiet pint or two.

Even with the resumption of flights, the silence would have been short lived amid the brouhaha that followed the country’s first ever televised election leadership debates. The biggest noise was a phenomenon called Cleggmania – a surprise spike in support for Nick Clegg, leader of the minority Liberal Democrat party, mainly at the cost of a struggling Gordon Brown.

That the debates were credited with galvanizing a previously moribund campaign and the prospect of ending centuries of two-party politics (forecasters have been unable to call the knife-edge race), they also sparked furious media debate over who wields the most influence over electors.

Fearing that Clegg was stealing away middle class readers it was urging who vote for the opposition Conservative party, the rightwing Daily Mail and Telegraph newspapers did their best to undermine the new political wunderkind by unearthing a “Nazi slur” he had reportedly uttered.

Meanwhile, the Independent newspaper earned the ire of one of the world’s most powerful media dynasties by declaring on its front page that “Rupert Murdoch won't decide this election. You will." In response, News Corp scion James Murdoch reportedly stormed into the Independent editor’s office to deliver a rebuke that one onlooker described as a “scene out of Dodge City.”

Money: Uncertainty over the election result has been causing jitters on the financial markets, with the British pound taking a pummelling against rival currencies over fears that the vote winners — particularly if they form a coalition government — would dither in tackling a massive budget deficit.

For the governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, there was one election certainty: That the winner of the May 6 vote, whether Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat, would be compelled by the country’s parlous finances to impose such unpopular austerity measures that they would spend the next generation in the political wilderness.

British Airways, which endured crippling strikes this year before being foisted to the forefront of the battle to regain the volcano-clouded skies, hit more turbulence even as it struck a deal aimed at securing its future.

After months of negotiation, BA finally agreed to a merger with Spanish airline Iberia, However, in a development that will do little to endear the U.K. airline to already disillusioned British passengers, the merger left BA struggling to prove it was British enough to remain listed in key London financial index the FTSE 100, let alone fly the British flag.

Elsewhere: The death of punk impresario Malcolm McLaren — the unabashedly cynical creator of the Sex Pistols — resulted in uniquely British scenes of mourning. The horse-drawn hearse and burial plot near Karl Marx in London’s Highgate Cemetery were all very establishment, the “cash for chaos” wreath, Sid Vicious soundtrack and “minute of mayhem” less so.

As one legend passed, another was reborn. Doctor Who, a 900-year-old time fictional time traveler whose BBC television adventures have been an indelible part of British popular culture for half-a-century, endured a hotly-anticipated “regeneration” — a plot device allowing a switch of actors. Though typically scrutinized by die-hard fans, Tweed and bowtie-wearing new Doctor Matt Smith has caused less of a stir than his miniskirt-clad sidekick Karen Gillan.