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Around the World in One Pair of Shoes

Last Saturday morning when British Airways Concorde Flight 193 for New York taxied out to take off from Heathrow the coveted fourth seat on the flight deck was occupied by myself. My first Concorde flight was starting well. BA, having noted that I would be flying the flag on the opening and closing stages of my planned three-day flight around the world, was unashamedly after a good review.

It was in the bag. For my so-long longed-for, first-ever flight through the sound barrier I would be sitting up there among the lights, dials and digital read-outs. Usually the most glamorous young lady passenger gets the privilege and there were also several self-made British businessmen who had impressed me by their deportment in the Concorde lounge. ‘No way I’m pain a secrecry nine arf fousand,’ one of them had said loudly into the courtesy phone. ‘For vat much I’d be a secrecry.’ Once on board, another tycoon had handed the air hostess a suit-bag saying, ‘Can I have this back before we land? On account of I have to make a quick exit.’

Twice the speed of sound wasn’t fast enough for him. Undoubtedly the activities of either of these thrusting entrepreneurs were more essential to the national welfare than my strange mission, about which Captain Massie, as we waited for clearance to take off, frankly confessed himself puzzled. ‘Why the whole world in one go?’ I gave him the only answer I had ready. ‘I just wanted to make sure it was round.’

The young co-pilot’s response was something I had always wanted to say. Suave in dark glasses, he said it very well. ‘Three, two, one, now.’ An easy thing to overdo. The runway rolled towards us while from a long way behind came an amplified version of the noise an electric train makes crossing Sydney Harbour Bridge. ‘Rotate!’ The co-pilot was getting all the best lines, but the air-traffic controller’s voice through the headphones had a good supporting role. ‘Set course direct for the acceleration point.’

With three computers in charge and her 130,000 horsepower on a tight rein, the beautiful aeroplane dawdled upward at only a few hundred knots towards the point, 28,000 feet above the Bristol Channel, where she would be allowed to let rip. ‘From up where we cruise you can see the curve after sunset,’ said the captain, politely still considering my problem. ‘Believe me, it’s round.’

Time to pump the lamp. The engineer pushed the four throttles forward with one hand. The pointer on the analogue Mach meter moved but almost nothing else did. That was it. Supersonic. After about Mach 1.1 you couldn’t even feel her tremble as she went faster and higher all the time towards Mach 2 and 58,000 feet. ‘It’s a very potent motor,’ said the co-pilot, who ought really to have been in movies but was probably too butch. The avuncular Captain Massie smiled tolerantly. It was clear that the Concorde’s pilots have a good time. BA pilots who do not get to fly the gracile glamour-puss call her variously the Bionic Toothpick, the Poisoned Dart and the BAC Fuel-Converter, but would probably admit envy if pressed.

Back in my seat, I considered how long it took Magellan, almost half a millennium before, to get started on his proposed circumnavigation of the globe. Financed by Charles V, who wanted only 90 per cent of the take, Magellan left Seville with five vessels, having been helped to chart a course by Ruy de Faliero, the astronomer. But Faliero was also an astrologer, and after casting his own horoscope he decided not to go. He foresaw death. It might have been death from boredom, because after five weeks Magellan had still not even got his fleet clear of the river mouth and out to sea. But what Faliero saw was death from danger, of which there was certain to be plenty.

The chief danger I now faced was too much comfort. The Concorde is sometimes called cramped but in fact it is just snug. You aren’t in it long and anyway it lengthens by 10 inches when the racing airstream heats it up. Meanwhile the steak is excellent and the champagne copious. Very aware of the unemployed, I quelled pangs of conscience with the thought that my taxes had been paying the thirsty beast’s fuel bills for the previous decade, and that in most respects I was travelling light. Where Magellan had five ships, I had one tote-bag with three shirts, three pairs of underpants, three pairs of socks and a copy of The Magic Mountain, this last to be read during any long waits in airport lounges. My portfolio of first class tickets was just to ensure some sleep, otherwise I would be unable to write up my log at the other end. Magellan never had that problem. He got a sound sleep from exhaustion every night.

Invited back to the flight deck for the landing, I strapped in just as the Concorde began a long diving right turn back from the stratosphere and Mach 2 towards a low altitude, 300-knot extended holding pattern that had the pilots muttering imprecations at the Kennedy tower. ‘Request longer vectors.’ ‘Negative, Concorde.’ At her least fuel-efficient in such a nose-up attitude, snootily she guzzled gas. ‘She doesn’t like going slowly,’ said the co-pilot, still getting all the best dialogue. ‘It’s no problem, but it’s wasteful.’ There were rain clouds but we were signalled down before they broke. The runway swung up and pulled us in. Kennedy was crawling with wide-bodies. We were a needle among haystacks.

Killing two hours and a Silex of coffee in BA’s Monarch Lounge, I read half a page of The Magic Mountain, before picking up the New York Post to read about the Miss America disaster. Vanessa Williams, the reigning Miss America, had posed nude for Penthouse and forgotten to tell anyone. Now she must resign before the offending pix were published. Pondering the evanescence of fame, I transferred through the rain to the United Airlines terminal for my flight to Hawaii via Los Angeles. A short woman with a big behind was shouting at her son, who was called Scart, as in Sir Walter Scart or Scart of the Antarctic. ‘Scart! Come here, honey! Come here!’

She also shouted at her husband, who was standing right next to her. Praying for a seat near someone else, I trudged on to the aircraft, which I was mildly nervous to discover was a DC-10. Nobody had been killed on a DC-10 for some time but there are an awful lot of seats even up at the front and if you get pinned against a window it can be awkward. Luckily the aisle seat next to me stayed blank. There was a video tape to demonstrate safety. It fouled up. ‘Welcome to the friendly sk … section … front of … blup.’ It started again. ‘Welcome to the friendly skies of United.’

For dinner I wisely chose the duck, but I shouldn’t have eaten the sourdough roll. The movie started just as we passed over Kansas City. It was The Bounty, an excellent film about Captain Bligh’s ambition to circumnavigate the globe. For 31 days he had tried to round Cape Horn in vain. In vain I tried to suppress the repetition of the sourdough. The movie ended somewhere over California. As we descended over the freeway into LAX, my shoes felt tight. United had not issued the usual enticing little cloth bootees, so I had not taken my shoes off, because getting them back on again can be a problem after the feet swell in the dehydrated air. Another hazard that Magellan never faced.

Nursing an orange juice in the cocktail lounge while waiting for the flight to resume, I read another sentence of The Magic Mountain before picking up the National Enquirer, which had so many stories about the errant Miss America that I was still reading it when I got back on the DC-10. This time the aisle seat beside me was full, and how. At 2 p.m. local time, or 10 at night on my internal clock, I was facing my first big challenge to the successful completion of my voyage. He must have weighed three hundred pounds and looked twice that in his black silk Hawaiian shirt writhing with electric-blue flowers. It was Menehune Fats! With a Mai Tai clutched like a thimble in one giant paw he conked straight out. Getting past him to the toilet would take grappling irons.

The movie made things worse. It was Terms of Endearment. Before leaving, I had agreed with the Editor that only a movie starring Elliot Gould, or two movies starring Burt Reynolds, would be considered sufficient reason to abandon the expedition, but Shirley MacLaine and Jack Nicholson blending egos was a severe test. Also I had eaten too much papaya, the only fruit on Earth, in my experience, which actually tastes yellow. But Magellan, after naming the Pacific, had taken 98 days to cross it with nothing to eat except rotten biscuits. When those ran out, the crew ate ox-hides, sawdust and rats. United had treated me a lot better than that and I was duly grateful to arrive in Honolulu safe if swollen.

Until now I had been travelling through an extended day but at last it was night. It was too long before my next plane to hang around the terminal and not long enough to do the town, so I booked a room at a hotel within the airport perimeter. It was 15 dollars cheaper than the Holiday Inn but it had air conditioning and a bath. An alarm call woke me at 1 a.m. and I switched on the TV to make sure I stayed alert while repacking my tote-bag. A Bridge Too Far was on the Late Show, but just as Sean Connery was landing by glider there was a flickering transition to a porno picture featuring a naked lady practising fellatio on 20 male appendages protruding through a paper screen. From the visual evidence she was not having much success. A chorus of ecstatic groans from her disembodied clients suggested otherwise. I left them all to it and caught a Singapore Airlines 747 bound for Hong Kong.

The seats in the nose of a 747 are arranged in pairs but are so big that you enjoy the pampered solitude of an enthroned boy emperor. Singapore Airlines reinforces this impression by providing twice as many air hostesses as any other airline. For religious reasons they serve you one-handed: hence it takes two of them to do anything. I had always assumed this was the reason why there are so many of them but apparently it is not so: the real secret is low wages. If they are broke, however, it doesn’t stop them being beautiful in their damascene uniforms of hip-hugging sarong plus fitted, waisted jacket. Since cabin service sells the airline, the girls are a big plus. The hot towels they provide are up to JAL standards — i.e., not only hot but wet, so that after steaming your face you can flap them to make them cold.

Bootees being provided, I took off my shoes. This would be the longest stage of the trip — 10 hours plus — and the feet would inevitably swell. The rest of my body would swell to match unless I staved off every second meal. The seat reclined to the horizontal. Seven hours of oblivion supervened. When I opened the sliding window shutter it was dawn on the sea of cloud; pink-tinged on the streaked surface, puffs of lavender-blue cream underneath, and the depths shading from turquoise into lapis lazuli. ‘Did you have a good sreep?’ asked a lovely face. Oh yes.

Opening The Magic Mountain I found Hans Castorp drained of energy, so that each day in the clinic consisted of nothing but meals and the space between. His knees didn’t work. Mine still did, but only just. When we landed at Hong Kong I got my left shoe back on all right but the right one popped its stitches at the side.

Hong Kong was my big stop — from dawn to dusk. BA had arranged a press conference in a suite at the Hilton, so that the local media could ask me what I thought I was up to. This promised to be a major embarrassment but there would be several hours before the inquisition started, so I limped down into the Wan Chai district in search of someone who could mend shoes. An ancient man who had been doing nothing else for a century was sitting on a box. He wore sandals, an apron and little more. This was a sensible approach to the torrential humidity. I sat on another box, took off my shoe and handed it over. He took a look and got to work, bodging a fluted spike though the little holes and then threading strong twine through the spike. A dab of polish and the job was done. Five HK dollars. In Britain it would have taken a week and cost more than the shoes.

Once again evenly shod, with my shirt a wet rag, I walked through the fish market, where most of the fish are alive until you point out the one you want. Hong Kong is Computer City but you can still watch a woman gut the fish you will eat for dinner. That was what I told the bright young television man with the American accent and the quiff: that the world had grown smaller without necessarily becoming bland. Just because it was now one world didn’t make it all the same place. The young man smiled nicely and told his crew to wrap up. No doubt he was wondering how the philosophical stuff would go over on a channel devoted mainly to the sort of Kung Fu movies in which the hero wears black flared trousers and the soundtrack makes a noise like a tree being cut down every time he hits someone.

A nice girl called Anita packed up the glasses and the drinks the media had not drunk. For those who want to leave Hong Kong it now costs 400,000 American dollars for the so-called ‘investment visa’ that will get them safely away. The half-million people who make Hong Kong tick already have their getaway papers. The other five million are stuck. Anita is one of them. For a bad moment I felt like one of those rally drivers who go swerving dustily though an African village. The bad moment recurred at the airport because there were three big pictures of Mark Thatcher up on the wall. Billed as mark thatcher: racing driver, he was modelling Giordano tee-shirts and looked dauntless. In the city his father calls Honkers the same spirit perhaps no longer prevails undiluted.

How nice to have a home to go to. From here on it was a BA 747 all the way. Once again I was asked to the flight deck, for my very first takeoff in the cockpit of my favourite heavy. Taking off from Kai Tak can be either interesting or very interesting, according to the wind. If you take off up through the hills it is very interesting because you can look into people’s living rooms. If you take off out to sea it is merely interesting. We took off out to sea through the suddenly dark night but made an immediate 180º climbing turn so as to head back across mainland China. With the turn complete I could see a pool of glowing cloud cupped in the hills of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. It was shot through with the light coming up from the city, a junket of electric mist.

I had been to Hong Kong before, on the way out of China. It had been like coming back to life. The life was not so much in the glittering shopping malls of the Central district as in the hustling tumult of Wan Chai, where you can see a mechanic squatting on a box as he repairs a Ferrari Dino in a workshop so small that the tail of the car sticks out into the street. There are two-room electronics firms with washing hanging out of the windows. There are men who will repair your shoes. It is all very productive and all very untidy, and one day those mystical pedants from the mainland, who know what history should be like, might get the urge to neaten the place up.

Yes, I had been here before, going the other way. So with a long way left to go I already knew for a moral certainty that the world was round. When Magellan died in the Philippines he had the same certainty for a comfort. He had been there before, and therefore knew the way home. Not that it would have been quite as easy for him as it was for us. The captain dialled the course into the inertial navigation system and the aircraft headed for Abu Dhabi. I went downstairs to my reclining seat for a meal and a movie. The movie was Footloose and I watched it half asleep, which was apparently the way it had been made. Then a few words of The Magic Mountain put me out completely.

When I woke up and looked through the window I could see fires at the bottom of the dark: oil platforms in the Gulf. Still in my bootees I lurched up the spiral staircase to the flight deck and strapped in just in time for the approach to Abu Dhabi. The lights of the 13,000-foot runway lay on the blacked-out desert like a bejewelled Jugendstil hair-clip. When we touched down I thought there had been a mistake: the 747’s cockpit is so high up that you feel there must be another 50 feet to go. ‘This is still the only really great people-mover,’ said the co-pilot, true to the BA tradition by which the first officer gets better dialogue than the captain as compensation for less seniority.

Topologically speaking, the terminal at Abu Dhabi is a torus — a doughnut of which you inhabit the inside surface. This is completely rendered in mosaic tiles, like a Byzantine particle accelerator transformed into a bathroom. It was here that the retiring captain, who had been even more avuncular than the captain of Concorde, introduced me to his successor, who was more avuncular still, like James Robertson Justice without the beard.

I had a fresh crew for my last leg to London, but in my case they did not have a fresh passenger. Strapping in on the flight deck for the take-off up into the seemingly perpetual dark, I was a hard man to impress or even contact. Nevertheless I was wowed all over again as we rolled like a tall building on castors down the extravagantly long bowling alley of lights. Captain, first officer and engineer all grew six arms each and the sum total of their button-punching sent us up to where, under the dome of the stars, a rim of soft white light ran around us far away, with nothing holding it up except darkness. I thought it might be dawn but the engineer said it was the ozone layer catching the starlight.

The engineer seemed very boyish although no more than the first officer. Nor did the captain, despite a great show of wry eyebrow and booming voice, look anything like what must be his true years. Flying keeps them young. Perhaps if I could work the controls it would do the same for me.

All I could control was my reclining seat. Expertly depressing the lever, I moved smoothly into level flight. The movie was Splash, an entertaining nonsense about a mermaid out of her element. On land she grew legs, but had to be back in the sea inside six days. After almost three days in the air I had not grown wings, but got ready to become earthbound again with some regret. To my own satisfaction I had solved the mystery, and in doing so risked disappointment.

On 27 April 1521, almost two years after Magellan’s enterprise began, the only surviving ship came home. She was the Vittoria, commanded by Juan Sebastian del Cano. He must have been a world-weary man. I like to think that Ruy de Faliero was waiting on the dock. What a meeting: one of them worn out from having actually been there, the other still excited with the possibility. If Faliero had been less the astrologer and more the astronomer, he would have realised that his science was the true magic and gone in search of adventure.

But he would have found it hard to maintain his enthusiasm. Once the imagined thing is done, it takes more imagination to bring back the excitement. In just my lifetime, long-distance air travel has stopped being an event and started being a cliché. But a miracle is no less miraculous for having become commonplace. Faliero’s celestial maps and Magellan’s heroic generalship are still there. But they are deep inside the instruments and the computers. One of the things that writers do, I think, is to recapture the old strangeness that lies hidden in the new normality.

Perhaps the price of wanting to do this is a childish nature. After sleeping like a small boy worn out by too much Christmas, I woke somewhere above Frankfurt to be regaled with BA’s catering triumph: a jumbo version of the old country’s chief culinary treat, the British Railways breakfast. How the ingredients for this had been obtained in Abu Dhabi defied explanation. I ate two lots of everything except the fried tomato, and thereby put the finishing touches to what would be, by the eye’s reckoning, a net gain in weight of about ten pounds for the trip. Of the 18 men who survived Magellan’s voyage, few would have had the same complaint.

Back on the flight deck, the windows were alight with the slow dawn of Tuesday morning. We were scheduled for an autolanding, but one of the transmitters on the ground got its wires crossed, so the captain took her down hands-on. As we banked over London I could see the Observer office where they had a hole in the page waiting for my copy. Then we straightened up, jacked out the flaps, and went in, parking right next to Concorde, which was getting ready for the run to New York. Using my index fingers for shoe-horns I finally got my shoes back on, but spent a lot of time bent double.

Observer, 29 July 1984