On the way to church we saw three intense bright lights shimmering in the early morning sky they were in a triangular formation. It was definitely a ‘close encounters moment?’ They appeared still, hovering above the cloud line, there was no sound, within an instant they disappeared. Ian began to whistle the Star Trek theme. No of course they weren’t UFO’s just three planes spiralling down the air corridor to Gatwick Airport 25 miles away, their fuselage catching the sunlight.
We’ve spent time in four airports in the last month or so: Heathrow, Bangkok, Vientian (Laos) and City Airport (London) there and back. A recent email said we have the “dream” job. In a few days we will spend time in Beijing, Shanghai and a couple of other cities then back to Heathrow, “Shrek and donkey on another world wide adventure”. I’ll let you decide which is which?
Did you day-dream when you were a child? Did you long to roam the Yukon with White Fang*, Swashbuckle across the Coral Seas* or live in a sod-roofed house with Laura Ingalls Wilder*? You may have gathered, if you’ve read my earlier blogs, that I’ve always been a bit of a book worm.
When I was older I enjoyed the Mardi Gras in New Orleans*, marched across Belgium with Wellington’s Infamous Army*, Waltzed with Prince Andrei as Napoleon’s army threatened Moscow* and ventured for Nutmeg with Nathanial Courthope*.
I love films too one of my earliest memories is going to the cinema with my family Mum, Dad and five siblings twice a week Fred Astaire, Danny Kay, Hitchcock, John Ford, Ingmar Bergman, Rick’s in Casablanca, King Solomon’s Mines. I digress I’m beginning to reminisce not where I meant to go at all.
In none of the above did they mention airports, only in Agatha Christie are the airports stylish and wreathed in mystery or excitement. Do you like to travel? I’m not a traveller by inclination. As a child I didn’t dream of venturing myself to foreign climes no my dreams were about a cottage with roses round the door, bluebells, and Lily of the Valley under the hedge and Forget-Me-Not in nooks and crannies; I did all my travelling by proxy.
I appreciate that we need airports but do they have to be so colourless as if they are in league with the washed out, expressionless passport photographs that make us all look like disengaged souls.
International and even short haul flights sometimes mean that we can be hanging around these Orwellian no man’s lands for hours and if there’s a cause for delay well you are suspended between worlds.
One might expect an air of shared excitement; I’m remembering the anticipation of childhood day trips to the seaside, bucket and spade in hand, candy floss and ice cream, donkey rides, crabs and starfish in the rock-pools, building sandcastles and pink blushed sea shells. Surely the majority of passengers are jetting off in anticipation of pastures new? Whether it’s baking on a beach in Ibiza, ‘finding themselves’ in the bars of Bangkok (a euphemism for anything you wouldn’t want your Grandma to know) or testing themselves on some social action project in Africa. Only in arrivals can you get a glimpse of joy – when families or friends are reunited, the eagerness as they wait, the gasp of recognition as they find each other in the crowd, a loving huddle, embraces and laughter which all too soon like a wave upon the beach dissipates as they head away to car park or train.
We occasionally get glimpses of other emotions; anger which erupts when something is not as we planned or out of our control, quickly suppressed when the angry realises what a risk they are taking as the security curtain swings into place, after all those guns are not for show and it is all about control.
And there’s plenty of evidence of boredom which often sets off a buying frenzy as we’re seduced by ‘duty free’ that if we stopped to think we could all really live without; a soft toy, a magnum sized bottle of brandy, a pashmina, a tie, the ubiquitous inflatable flight pillow, a plug-in insect repellent one of several you have bought over the years and forgot to pack again! And as if that is not enough they feel the need to separate us from even more of our ‘hard earned’ with chic food, overpriced lattes, muffins and thimble sized avocado and smoked salmon salads which we rush to consume ignoring the fact that no sooner are we ensconced in our winged sardine can than the long suffering Barbies and Kens of the air will start plying us with pretzels and other dubious delicacies to distract us.
Always apparent is an underlying tension, real or imagined, a combination of anxiety, frustration and impatience: did I pack everything? Will my flight be on time? Why am I having to wait, take off my shoes, my belt and throw away my Vaseline intensive care? “Thank God they are Rolls Royce engines”; yes I actually heard that said once.
Our fellow travellers are passing like ships in the night, disinterested, emotionless making little or no eye contact except with those who with forced bonhomie or smiling, stilted politeness herd us towards those endless colourless, dimly lit corridors, an ordeal of steel and plastic painted in 50 Shades of grey.
We wait, every expression observed, it’s Orwell again with CCTV everywhere. We watch the flickering, clicking, shuffling monitors then wordless stream away, like the Eloi in H. G. Wells’ Time Machine, to the gate leaving and forgetting this soulless hub without regret in anticipation now of journeys end. It reminds me of Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis’ (1927) Zombie like drones in some futuristic urban dystopia.
I’m not talking about those seat of your pants air strips in the outback of Australia, or South America or other far flung corners of the earth I’ve experienced a couple of those in my time. Nor am I just describing Heathrow but virtually every international airport I have ever been to, there are exceptions to the rule of course: Singapore; corners of its greyness brightened by exuberant splashes of real flowers, Beijing; silk clad girls playing the Ur Hu, like oasis’s in a desert, I’m sure you could tell me others, but in the end the greyness always wins.
Maybe this cheerless monotony doesn’t register with my fellow travellers because their minds are already focused on their destination eagerly anticipating what is to come but for me, who longs for what I have left, the soulless void looms large. After all I am a traveller by necessity not inclination.
How do I cope with this thief of my precious time? I watch looking for something worth the remembering or recounting. After a storm in Vienna we watched in awe the most resplendent sunset dipping behind the mountains; apricot and pink infused clouds shot through with shades of indigo and purple and silver and gold all reflected in the wet runways and tinting the fuselage of ascending and descending planes in to or out of a blaze of light, fire mirrored in the windows.
It reminded us of taking off from the old Hong Kong Airport in Kowloon Bay at dusk during the Grave Sweeping season as all the hills surrounding the bay; which seemed to be at our wing tips, were ablaze as the sweepings burned out of control. It could have been a clip from a blockbuster but this was real life. It was always an adventure taking off from Kowloon one second too many thundering down the runway and we could have ended up in the sea.
In 1996 a group of 20 Christians arrived at Kowloon Airport to catch an 11:30pm flight. Waiting patiently in the Check-In queue we were told that we would all be checked in as a group and would we mind waiting until other individuals were checked in first. The airport departure building gradually emptied and the hands on the clock were clicking closer and closer to boarding time and we were still not Checked-In. We enquired politely about the delay. Regretfully they wouldn’t have time to check us in now we would have to fly out next morning. We could sleep in departures. We decided to pray and huddled together. Then we decided to worship and lifted our voices in joyful praise of our loving God. I can’t remember what we sang but we let it rip and in seconds we were surrounded by security, intimidating, their guns in their hands we ignored them, a very British protest. They were perplexed they didn’t know what to do with us. The airport director appeared and we were on the last flight out of Hong Kong that night. Praise God for answered prayer- always an adventure flying out of Kowloon.
London to Beijing vie Vienna doesn’t seem a logical route but if you check your atlas at least it is going in the right direction.
We had to change planes in Vienna, the airport could have been anywhere in the world, same shops and merchandise only the language and the currency changes. In the Duty Free huge cartons of ‘fags’ emblazoned “Cigarettes Kill” were cheek by jowl with a kiosk set apart for smokers and whilst we waited for our flight it had a constant sad, stream of occupants. It contained just a shelf with a number of ash trays, it was narrow, no chairs. The smokers tried to look nonchalant but stood incongruously shoulder to shoulder or even face to face, with barely room to turn round, they rarely spoke or made eye contact. The kiosk’s sliding door was always kept closed and whilst there must have been some fume extraction they undoubtedly must have emerged smelling like Loch Fyne Kippers.
I observed this whilst eating a delicious bowl of beef goulash. The sunset, the goulash and Ian’s jokes were the oasis in this particular desert.
“Were on the road again… Sing it with me Shrek!”
In my book ‘Reflections of the old past’ available on Amazon kindle Books Annie Brown, my unlikely hero, is jolted out of her comfortable rut by the unexpected she has a choice face up to the challenges or go under. Her friends, and she has loyal and loving friends, with some humour and encouragement walk this difficult path with her. This physical and emotional journey drags her reluctantly into present reality forcing her to examine her grief, hopes and desires and to draw on her inner strengths to an unexpected end.
• 1984 – George Orwell
• Coral Island – Ballantyne
• Little House on the Prairie – Laura Ingles Wilder
• White Fang – Jack London
• Carnival – Francis Parkinson Keyes
• An Infamous Army – Georgette Heyer
• War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy
• Nathanial’s Nutmeg – Giles Milton
• The Time Machine – H.G. Wells