Books: Flying Visits: Introduction |
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There is a bad kind of travel writer who complains that the airport he leaves from herds him like a sheep, that the airliner he travels on feeds and lulls him like a veal calf, and that the airport he arrives at herds him like a sheep all over again, with the additional insult of somehow concealing all the allegedly exotic wonders that would have been revealed to him had he been allowed to make landfall by sampan or on the back of a camel.

To complain that modern travel has become a cliché is a cliché in itself. It is also an especially conceited brand of romanticism, by which you imagine yourself in the curled shoes and flowing robes of Sir Richard Burton or T.E. Lawrence. Such adventures were already beyond recapture when they were first heard about, since new ground can be broken only once. Anyway, in this as in any other field, reality should be romance enough. I like airports and airliners. Nor is this a case of frankly admitting to myself, as with my fond feelings for television, an enthusiasm that was always there but masked by intellectual snobbery. There was never any hope of generating enough intellectual snobbery to cover up my keenness for the airways.

I was already enslaved when the old compound-engined Douglas DC-6Bs were shaking my house to pieces back in the early Fifties. The house, situated in the Sydney suburb of Kogarah, lay among the approach lights to what was then the main runway of Kingsford-Smith airport — or aerodrome, as it was always called in those days. Before attaining long trousers I could already identify, from the engine note alone, the DC-4, every variety of the DC-6, the Lockheed Constellation, the Convair 240 and the Boeing Stratocruiser. They all rattled the crockery but the DC-6B could crack a Pyrex casserole dish. When the first Stratocruiser arrived via Hawaii, to the accompaniment of a tremendous publicity campaign from Pan Am, I had already been camped for two days in the sand dunes about a hundred yards from where it was due to touch down. Other members of my gang were hollow-eyed from hearing me tell them all about the wonder plane’s double-bubble pressure hull, but they looked appropriately awe-stricken when the huge machine descended right in front of us, belching gouts of flame from the exhausts of its Twin Wasp radials. Essentially a B-29 bomber nine months pregnant, the Stratocruiser was far from being the world’s most elegant airliner, but it seemed to me aesthetically pleasing beyond anything I had ever known, and even today I can hear the pained squeal from the tyres of the main undercarriage as they hit the tarmac and started rolling at 100 m.p.h. plus.

Those old piston-engined airliners would have fascinated me even had they never left the ground, but the thought of such beautiful mechanisms actually travelling through the sky was almost too much to take. In those days, flying was an activity for grown-up, fabulously wealthy people with deep voices: to my knowledge nobody in short pants had ever been allowed the freedom of the air. But one could haunt the airport at weekends, and one did. All through my early teens I was down at the airport on Saturday afternoons making myself indispensable to the cleaners sweeping out the planes. Although I was careful always to wear an old leather flying helmet in order to blend into the ambience, somehow my daydream of being asked to replace a sick co-pilot (‘Think you can handle it, son?’) never came true, and indeed I was not to get airborne until many years later. But I saw the flight-decks of most of the piston-engined airliners up to and including the Super Constellation, a version of the original Constellation which had been so often ‘stretched’ that its shadow going over our house perceptibly lowered the air temperature.

Older now, the proud smoker of several cigarettes a day, I was there again in the sand dunes when the first Boeing 707 landed, ushering in the intercontinental jet era that should have begun with the de Havilland Comet but tragically did not. My theoretical allegiance was to the British designers, but emotionally there was only one thing to do about the 707 — gape in wonder. Kingsford-Smith’s old main runway was not long enough to take the new plane so the transverse strip was extended out into Botany Bay, thereby preserving our house from the cataclysmic effect of the twice-weekly Pan Am 707 flight from Los Angeles. In fact the 707, though noisier than the later wide-bodies, made nothing like the racket kicked up by the piston engines of all those stretched post-war classics that had been fragmenting my mother’s china for the previous decade. Jet roar has no throb in it — it can howl but it doesn’t hammer. Nevertheless the good people of Kogarah were glad to be no longer in the blast path. All except me.

Farewelling an early girlfriend on her Pan Am 707 flight back to America, I stood heavy-hearted as the plane took off, not because she was going without me but because she was going instead. The aircraft looked powerful enough to reach the Moon. The wheels came up, the flaps retracted, and you could see the flexible wings take the weight as the plane went spearing up through the heat-wobble. Imagine how it must feel. Alas, imagining was all I could afford. When I left for England the means of transport was a rusty old ship that took five weeks to get there. Then there were two or three years in London when I scarcely earned enough to catch a no. 27 bus. But eventually I found myself getting airborne, not — emphatically not — because I had become rich, but because air travel was expanding to embrace the poor.

The Sixties were the great age of the charter flight. Before the wide-bodies had ever been invented, mass air travel was already under way. You could get to Milan, for example, for a very small amount of money if you were a student. The planes were ageing Britannias and even older Douglas DC-7Cs belonging to unknown airlines operating from tin sheds at the wind-swept edges of Gatwick or Luton, and most of your fellow students turned out to be ninety-year-old Calabrian peasant women in black clothes carrying plucked chickens. On my first flight I was petrified when we took off, largely because I had made the mistake of looking out of the window at the moment when the pilot arrived by jeep. He was wearing an eye-patch, walked with a stiff leg and saluted the aircraft with what appeared to be an aluminium hand. Around his neck the silver brassard of a Polish award for bravery gleamed in the weak sunlight. But in the air I was too busy to be afraid. The ancient dwarf nun in the seat beside me — one of my fellow students — had never flown before in her life except when dreaming of the Last Judgment. Her rosary clattered in her gnarled hands like a football fan’s rattle and when the plane tilted to avoid the Matterhorn she sang a brief excerpt from a Donizetti aria before being sick into her plastic carrier-bag full of new potatoes. I got the job of holding her hand while the heavily loaded plane crabbed sideways on the wind and hit the runway between the two long lines of gutted old DC-4s which in those days told you that you were landing at Malpensa, Milan’s second best airport. At Linate, the first best, we would probably not have been allowed to land even if on fire.

Other early flights were equally hair-raising but somehow I never seemed to mind. There was a way of flying to Paris which involved a long bus-ride from London to a grass-strip airfield terminating at the Kentish cliffs, an even longer bus-ride from the French coast to Paris, and, between the two bus rides, an incredibly short hop across the Channel. The airborne sector of the trip was accomplished in a high-wing twin-engined British airliner whose make I will not specify, lest you take fright and cancel if you ever find yourself booked on one of the few surviving examples. No doubt it is a perfectly good aircraft in normal circumstances, but with a full load including me it took so long to get off the ground on the British side that one felt one might as well have stayed on the bus. Once again I made the mistake of looking out of the window, this time as the aircraft was pitching and yawing over the bumpy grass and dodging at full power between blasé sheep towards the cliff edge. A rabbit popped out of its hole, looked at me, and overtook us.

It was worth it just to be airborne, even if that particular flight rose only just far enough over the English Channel to clear the upper works of Greek oil tankers steaming towards each other. I used to spend all those early flights with my nose squashed against the window. Nowadays I have learned the trick of always asking for an aisle seat, so that if you have a drunken Bulgarian hammer-thrower sitting beside you at least you won’t have to climb over him to get to the toilet. But in those days I wanted to see everything happening outside, even when what was happening outside was too close to the inside for comfort. You never knew when there would be a revelation. At night the cities were like jewelled cobwebs on black velvet. Coming back from Venice on a BEA Comet IV night flight as one of the only two passengers aboard, I was invited to the flight deck just at the right moment to see the lights of Paris. Stacking around Gatwick in a chartered Britannia while the pilot negotiated through an interpreter for permission to land, I saw an old Aispeed Elizabethan — one of the loveliest aeroplanes ever made — slip out of the cloud 1,000 feet below us. I presume our aircraft waggled its wings out of recognition rather than surprise. There was always something to look at, even if it was only a sea of cloud, and the more often you flew the more were the chances of an epiphany, such as the occasional clear day over the Alps when there was nothing under you except naked geology up which girls in dirndls ran yodelling, while the jet engines worked their continuous invisible miracle of plaiting cold air into a rope of power.

As for the airports, even the low-rent, secondary ones turned out to be more congenial than the propaganda would have had you believe. After I learned the trick of carrying nothing much except hand baggage and nothing much in that except a few good books, I quite enjoyed the delays. Even within the confines of Europe, the idea that all airports were the same turned out to be exactly wrong. In fact any airport anywhere immediately reflects the political system, economic status and cultural characteristics of the country where it is situated. During the supposedly swinging Sixties, both of the major London airports gave you a dauntingly accurate picture of Britain’s true condition, with one delay leading to another, a permanent total breakdown of the information service supposedly responsible for telling you all about it, and food you would not have given to a dog. Zurich airport, on the other hand, was like a bank which had merged with a hospital in order to manufacture chocolates. At Milan and Rome, the radar operators went on strike during a fog, and the security police, all armed with automatic weapons, stood posing dramatically while Arab terrorists walked past them carrying dismantled bazookas in golf bags. Salzburg airport was full of pictures of Herbert von Karajan, thus providing a useful introduction to a city which depends on him economically, derives its cultural justification from his mere existence, and bakes cakes the shape of his head. And at Moscow’s Sheremetsevo, the sheer number of Aeroflot jet airliners parked in lines told you something about the size of the country, the conspicuous lack of things to buy in the airport shops told you a lot about its economy, and the sullen vindictiveness with which the female customs inspectors went through the luggage of their compatriots returning from abroad told you all you needed to know about how fairly the shares had been dealt out. I watched a blue-uniformed lady looking like Geoff Capes in a wig taking a young man’s newly acquired pig-skin luggage apart, laying out his rich assortment of silk ties and stroking one by one a plump heap of cashmere scarves. Both of them settled down for a long, painful interview. You could see why Russian diplomats, on their first trip outside the Soviet Union, sometimes break down and cry in Copenhagen airport, unable to cope with the mere sight of the consumer goods on the glass shelves.

I finally got a trip on a Boeing 707 at just the time it was about to go out of style, because the first wide-bodies were already proving their routes. But it was still a thrill, not least because the destination was Boston — a long way from Europe. Over mid-Atlantic a BOAC VC-10 going the other way went past a few miles to our left on my side of the aircraft, and a mile or so above. The condensation trail came out of the cobalt blue distance like a spear of snow. As we let down into Boston, I watched the magic suitcase of the Boeing wing unpack itself, the flaps jacking out and curving down to turn the aerofoil into a parasol. It was a long time since I had bought Flight magazine every week and memorised the contents, but I was still clued-up enough to be aware that the same wing had held the B-52 bombers up in the sky while they split the ground of South-East Asia and drove a lot of little children crazy just with the noise. There is good reason for thinking we are alive in a particularly shameful stretch of history, the only era in which the innocent have ever been obliterated on an industrial basis. But on the airliners and in the airports I found myself unable to pretend that I did not enjoy living in the twentieth century. You will find an extermination camp in the seventh book of Thucydides. People have always destroyed each other on as grand a scale as the prevailing technology allowed. But powered flight has all happened within a single lifetime. Recently I had dinner with a man who remembered crossing the Atlantic on the old Aquitania in 1903, the year the Wright brothers first flew at Kittyhawk. Even Leonardo, who could do anything, could only dream of flying. And here was I, without even a licence to drive a car, riding down out of the sky into Massachusetts after having crossed the Atlantic in a few hours. A king of infinite space, I was justifiably annoyed when the immigration officer sent me back to fill out my form again because I had not pressed hard enough to ink the carbon copy.

Then the wide-bodies came in and the age of mass aerial migration was on for young and old. By those who flew them, the wide-bodies were known as heavies, and the name was soon in use among such non-practising pilots as myself. The DC-10 I found hard to love at first, especially after one of them crashed near Paris and killed a lot of people, including someone I knew. The Tristar I found disconcertingly hard to tell apart from the DC-10, until I learned to remember that the DC-10 was the one with the third engine halfway up its tail. Twenty years earlier I would have learned a hundred different recognition points but as you get older other things usurp your attention. There was no difficulty, however, about spotting which of the three principal heavies was the winner. Nobody with a proper appreciation of the Boeing 747’s looks will ever call it a jumbo. The 747 is so suavely proportioned that it doesn’t even look very big, except when it happens to taxi past its ancestor, the 707, whereupon you feel that a mackerel has given birth to a mako shark.

Loved by pilots for its handling qualities and seemingly infinite reserves of getaway, the 747 handles like a fighter and at first glance even looks like one. In fact it looks a lot like the old F-86 Sabre, with its flight-deck bulge perched right forward like a Sabre’s bubble canopy and the same proud angle to its tail feathers. On the ground the 747 is perhaps a bit fussy underneath, like a house being moved around on a lot of roller skates, but when it gets into the air, cleans itself up, and pours on the 100,000 plus horsepower of its turbofans, there is nothing less awkward or lovelier aloft. Unless you had been told, you would never think of it as having 400 people on board. It looks as if there is only one man in there, having the time of his life.

Like millions of other travellers I soon got used to walking on board a heavy and going anywhere I felt like in a straight line. But when the straight line was stretched around a curved world it sometimes meant that if the eventual destination was Tokyo or Los Angeles then you had to spend a couple of hours at Anchorage, Alaska. Sharing with Bahrain the distinction of being an airport from which absolutely no transit passenger ever gets the urge to take a taxi into town, Anchorage is like a British Rail waiting-room equipped with kiosks flogging Eskimo artefacts made in Taiwan and large segments of duty-free raw fish which the Japanese buy gift-wrapped. You will see half a dozen Japanese team up to buy the component pieces of a yellow-fin tuna the size of a baby killer whale. From a glass case a stuffed polar bear looks on, beady-eyed with boredom. But if you bag a plastic seat near the window and look up into the sky, you will see the heavies queuing to land. When the air is clear you can see them stacked up, a couple of minutes behind one another, all the way to the stratosphere.

The greatest number of heavies I ever saw in one place was at New York’s Kennedy airport after a storm. There are almost 400 747s in the world and it looked as if half of them were queuing to get away. Unfortunately I was in one of them and so didn’t get a very good look. The best airports to watch big jets taking off at are those in which a single main building parallels a solitary runway. Dubai gives you an excellent show, especially at night. While the locals snatch a quick kip on the floor of the coffee lounge, you can take a window seat and enjoy an uninterrupted view of a heavy full of furiously praying pilgrims rolling out of nowhere and heading straight up.

Dubai is a very good-looking airport, whose Moorish formality, like a bleached Alhambra minus the filigrees, suggests the controlling hand of an Arab designer conscious of his heritage. In fact the architectural firm involved was English. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia’s Dharan airport, which looks just like Dubai, was dreamed up by Minoru Yamasaki, the same Japanese architect who designed New York’s Trade Center. Aesthetic considerations have become more important now that the hazards which once gave airports their individuality have perforce been eliminated. There are not many airports left like Hong Kong’s Kai Tak, and even there the precise ground control has made the wing-and-a-prayer element illusory, although the illusion can be hair-raising on a stormy evening when the pilot seems intent on flying you into a hillside tunnel. In the old piston-engined days, if Chicago’s O’Hare airport had cloud down to the deck the pilots on their approach leg used to correct for drift by the neon sign on Joe’s Diner. No such news comes out of Chicago today. When there is a big tangle on the ground, it usually, as at Tenerife, happens under a clear sky, with all the right signals being given but one man out of his senses. At Madrid it happened in a fog but that was an exception, even at Madrid.

While you sit in the airport coffee-lounge killing time, it is extremely unlikely that the aeroplanes you watch will be killing people. One pilot might have a heart-attack while climbing away, another might complete his landing run in an adjacent suburb — both those things have happened near London in my time — but usually at the airport itself you will be offered only the subtler forms of drama. They can be very pleasing. At Tullamarine airport in Melbourne you can sit high up in the terminal building and see the whole takeoff run with nothing in the background except unspoiled country. The experience is easier on the eyes than anything they are likely to encounter in the cabin once you get airborne, unless you are flying with Singapore Airlines, whose stewardesses really are as advertised. They are far more beautiful than they need to be and in First Class there seem to be two of them assigned to each passenger, filling him continuously with delicious food and bursting discreetly into tears if he stops eating. The Singapore commitment to the putative beauty of air travel verges on the mystical, and not just in the air. The same applies to Changi airport, which is currently the second most beautiful piece of aerospace architecture in the world. But after admiring the indoor fountains and having been suitably dazed by the shops full of microchip prosperity, you might need something to read. Relax: your needs are catered for. The bookstalls all carry several different biographies of Lee Kwan Yew, whom Singapore has got the way Salzburg has got Karajan. But somehow, read in that glittering context, Lee’s story becomes exciting instead of tedious, in the same way that the coffee tastes better than it should. It is because there are so many aircraft in the vicinity. Airfields made even Kafka happy: his Die Aeroplane in Brescia of 1909 is a cry of love. Proust was mad about airports until his beloved Agostinelli wrote himself off in a crash.

The most beautiful piece of aerospace architecture on earth — no ifs, buts or cults of personality — is undoubtedly Narita, which has now replaced Haneda as Tokyo’s number one airport. The students did all they could to stop Narita being built, but now that the fait is accompli it is hard not to be glad. Haneda was a health hazard and Narita is a work of art. The main building is one vast, deceptively simple arrangement of glass and distance, while the runways at night are a ravishing display of emeralds, sapphires and rubies. Heading south from Narita in a JAL DC-10, I climbed unharmed through miles of sky which had once been full of screaming danger. Here was where the last great strategic battles between aircraft that the world will ever see were fought out to the bitter end. The Japanese, improvising desperately against time, built fighters that could fly just high and fast enough to knock B-29-san down. But as Admiral Yamamoto had realised before Pearl Harbor, the war was lost before it started. High over Saipan, whose defenders once fought all the more savagely for having no chances left, I knew just enough Japanese to ask the hostess for more coffee (Kohi arimas ka?) and she knew just enough English to ask me if I wanted a hot towel (You rike hot taoaroo?). As cultural contact goes it might not have amounted to a securely united world but it beat having to drop bombs on her.

The airliners haven’t shrunk the earth. Going all the way around it still feels like a journey. But they have turned it into one place. Not the same place: but one place. Beyond the airport boundaries, each country remains odd enough to satisfy anybody’s thirst for strangeness. Meanwhile the airports hint at a world which might become peaceful simply by being too pointlessly busy to do anything else. My only regret is that I will probably be too old for space. I have done my best to snare a window seat on an early space shuttle but so far they are being niggardly with the tickets. To go up so far that there is no down is still one of my dreams of heaven.

Meanwhile, as always, there is poetry enough in the here and now. All I do for a living is put words beside each other but I have been shown wonders without even asking. With raw egg dropping from chopsticks into my lap I have looked down on the North Pole. Over the Persian Gulf at midnight I have looked down and seen the oil rigs burning like the damned. Best of all, I have found that every way you fly leads home. Crossing the paralysed red rock ocean of Australia’s Dead Heart as the sun comes up, Qantas flight QF2 lets down over Sydney Harbour before the morning glare has burned the pale-blue summer mist off the silver water. Over there on the right is my house, the sideboard now full of intact crockery.

Nowadays I go home too often to get particularly excited about it, but I was fifteen years in Europe before I first made the trip back, with the result that the two pieces about Sydney at the start of this book are perhaps slightly overwrought. My home country struck me not so much with its foreignness as with a familiarity I had not taken sufficient notice of in the first place: hence the uneasy urge to pontificate. But Donald Trelford, newly appointed as the Observer’s Editor, graciously announced that I had stumbled on a new format: the Postcard, which might be written not just from Australia but from anywhere in the world I could get to in those few weeks of the year when I wasn’t sitting in the London dark reviewing television. In the age of jet-lag most travel pieces by a non-resident correspondent were condemned to impressionism anyway. The last thing a visiting fireman could do was to investigate the causes of the fire. Leave that to the man on the spot. The Postcard writer would make a virtue of necessity. Wherever he was, he would be there for only a few days, but nowadays the same applied to almost everyone. Now that first impressions were common currency, they counted more than ever. Get them down and bring them home.

Which is pretty well what I did. The Postcards are arranged chronologically and the reader will discover, if he keeps going, that the writer became less and less inclined to wax sententious, asked fewer and fewer important people for their considered views, and grew more and more shameless about doing corny tourist things, down to and including the guided tour of the catacombs and the pool-side barbecue billed to your room. Somewhere out there in the allegedly shrinking world I lost some of my pride.

It could have been because my curiosity was expanding. Life is so various that the first things you notice will be strange enough to go on with. At any foreign airport you will meet your sophisticated compatriot who will tell you that everything you are about to see is a cliché and that the real life is behind the scenes. But he himself is the cliché. You will learn more from the local man with the bad shave who sells dark glasses. One hot afternoon on the West Bank near Alara, a Palestinian taxi-driver showed me his house. It was Ramadan, so the children could look at the cakes his wife was preparing but were not allowed to eat them. I, on the other hand, was not allowed not to eat them. In the glass-fronted tall oak-veneer cabinet against the living-room wall, sets of coloured glass tumblers and cups were displayed in their original cardboard cartons. He was making something of his life but either didn’t believe that he would be doing worse under Arab rule or else thought it irrelevant. Eventually, he hoped, the Arab nations would destroy Israel, but meanwhile the British would combine with the Americans and turn against his people, unless Lord Carrington came back as Foreign Secretary. I couldn’t think of a polite way to tell him of my suspicion that the Middle East problem was no longer high on Lord Carrington’s roster of priorities. Helping to keep me tongue-tied was the inescapable fact that this man was myself under another name. He had merely been born somewhere else, and in less kind circumstances. The main difference between us was that I had seen something of the world. The main hope for the future is that his children will see something of it too. That chaos in the airports is our chance to live.

— London, 1984

Postscript 2007 : Twenty years later, a lot of facts need updating but the spirit seems true enough. I was right to praise the enchanting looks of the Boeing 747. In the next generation, there was to be no comparable thrill, and indeed the Airbus 380 is the least elegant major airliner ever put to market. (Patrick Thomas, in Spiegel on Line, has written a learned and definitive review of the new behemoth’s truly repellent appearance.) But I was wrong about Narita airport even at the time. It was always a bit of a barn. Changi had more class even when the interior waterfalls were switched off, and by the time Hong Kong’s new airport Chek Lap Kok replaced Kai Tak, the standards were already up sky-high all over the world. Except, of course, at London’s Heathrow, where Terminal 4 was not much of an addition to the boring turmoil of the first three terminals, and Terminal 5 will have so much to make up for that it can’t win. But a whole essay could be written about a single aspect of the modern airport. Who had the idea of steering arriving passengers through a duty-free area, and what would he charge you for a night with his daughter?