Books: The Dreaming Swimmer — Staying Sane Aloft |
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Staying Sane Aloft

LAST YEAR we sent Postcards from Rio de Janeiro, Paris nand and Chicago. This year we are sending Postcards from Miami, Rome and Shanghai. Six cities in two years; a flight both ways for each city; average flying time about eight hours; total flying time about four days; number of meals eaten while airborne, forty-eight. People in the air eat more often. An airline will feed you every two hours just to keep you quiet. In some of the places your aircraft passes over, people aren’t eating very much at all.

Guilt-ridden and stuffed, manfully denying myself the alcohol that would bring oblivion, I have sat there wedged, all too aware that life is growing short. When I get there, filming the Postcard takes every hour in the day. When I get back, editing the Postcard is even more time-consuming than shooting it. But time in the air is time on the hands. I can read all the research again, but I have already read it pretty thoroughly before taking off. I know how many people there are in Shanghai, how many nuns there are in Rome, how many muggers there are in Miami. I could read a novel, or even write one, but at the slightest sign of either activity the stewardess will arrive with another meal.

Everything is arranged to destroy concentration. Just suppose you can master the art of reading a fat paperback one-handed while eating the steak without scattering gravy on your tie, do you think the cabin staff are going to admit defeat? They turn out the lights. It’s time for the movie.

The movie is Cannonball Run IV: The Last Gasp. You can switch on your reading light and sit there illuminated, the lone intellectual, the only person pretentious enough to be reading Destiny while everyone else is watching Burt Reynolds racing his powerful wig from New York to Los Angeles. Or you can plug in the plastic headset and succumb. So you lie there defeated, listening to a couple of actors in a sports car shouting at each other above the noise of the engine. They have that slightly demented look of performers who know they are wasting their time, and so have you. Feebly, you rebel by dialling another channel. Thus you learn that Richard Clayderman can give his per-sonal rubber stamp even to Debussy. The aircraft is doing your thinking for you. It has you in its grip. Is there any way out?

Well yes, there is, actually, and since I discovered it, my life has taken a turn for the better. After a nightmare ride to Los Angeles, during which I went right through every audio channel twice and hated them all, it finally occurred to me that if I had my own sound system I could listen to a music programme of my own choice. I equipped myself with a top-of-the-range Walkman, featuring big pad-ded earphones that didn’t leak, so that I could play my Solti version of the Schubert Ninth at full blast without attracting a sideways glance from the man getting drunk in the next seat.

Having my own independent sound system not only transformed flying into a genuinely ethereal experience, it did wonders for my musical education. The year before last I worked my way through all the Mahler symphonies without touching the ground. The Mahler Ninth will get you all the way from London to Rome and the average Bruckner symphony is still going when you reach Singapore.

When filming a Postcard it’s always useful to speak a few key phrases of the local language. Up in a plane with a tape plugged into your head is the ideal way to learn. The shops in the big airports have language tapes at just the elementary level you need. Lazy Spanish is a good one. Search the racks and you will find French for Idiots, Swahili in Five Minutes and the invaluable Dullard’s Urdu. In Rio I was ready with the sentence in Portuguese that made all the difference when I met the muggers: ‘I am with the BBC: by all means take my wristwatch, but could I have a receipt?’ In Miami, where more than half the population speaks Spanish, I was able to say: ‘No, I only look like Don Johnson.’ And in Shanghai ... ah, but Shanghai was a different story.

Radio Times, 12–18 May, 1990

[ Postcard from Shanghai ]