The uncomfortable truth about air travel

Psychogeography 10

This column began in the British Airways flight magazine – and I’m not knocking that. The good people at High Life gave Mr Steadman and I a full year of monthly excursions within which to impress upon its readership the psychogeographical way of proceeding, but inevitably we had to part. The editor’s pretext was a redesign, but in my heart of hearts I knew that it was one of those relationships where I was obscurely grateful to the other for having had the guts to end it.

After all, just how much can you meaningfully divulge to the commercial airline passenger about the discombobulation of space and time effected by modern transport? Sitting in orderly rows, twiddling the tiny clitorises of computer games toggles, or watching epic movies on screens the size of fag packets, as in a blueish haze of nicotine withdrawal they scream through the stratosphere, these frequent flyers are wholly credulous consumers of the Promethean charade, ever on their way to wrest the Calibri lighter of the gods from a duty-free shop in Dubai Airport.

When the last Concorde was withdrawn from commercial service there was much sentiment expended about how dreadful it was that this futuristic aircraft was to become a thing of the past (nostalgia for the future, now there’s a thing), but personally I couldn’t resist a throaty cheer. No longer would Joan Collins and a chemical toilet containing a dollop of her chocolate mousse excrement sonic-boom over my south London home of an evening; and no longer would we be compelled to think how amazing it was that you could land at JFK before you’d even taken off from Heathrow. Such a gross failure to appreciate the relativity of space and time could only afflict a culture senescent with its own sense of creaking determinism. After all, if Joan really did arrive in New York before she’d left London, wouldn’t it necessitate a radical rethink of her own approach to time zones?

You can imagine New York Joan (let’s call her JNY for convenience) witnessing via a simultaneous telecast the absurd anachronism that was London Joan (JL) arriving at the airport, her cheeks stapled behind her ears, her waist cinched so tight that designer names were incised on her flesh, her make-up as thick as Bakelite, and 22 pieces of matching Samsonite luggage strung out behind her like the very drogues of death. “Wow!” JNY, might well ejaculate, “I can’t go on pretending that I’m a young sex-pot, it’s undignified and absurd …” Whereupon JL would disappear in a puff of whales’ intestines, while JNY would find herself mysteriously embarked – older-looking and wiser – on a Saga holiday to Madeira.

I digress – but not much. Now Concorde is out of service there’s also the agonising question of what to do with the 0.33 scale model of it that stands on the roundabout outside Heathrow. Surely visitors to the busiest airport in Europe can’t be welcomed by a model of an obsolete aircraft? I agree. The best course would be to press Little Concorde into service itself as a kind of back-to-the-future theme park conveyance. Board Little Concorde outside Terminal 2 and a team of Shire horses will drag it – and you – to Legoland, where you can witness durable models, built in small, brightly coloured plastic bricks, of a happier Britain.

All of which is by way of saying that when Ralph and I flew the flag for BA we couldn’t mention any of this stuff. We couldn’t treat of any cynicism concerning the nation state, and we couldn’t even touch upon the vexed question of flying itself. The last thing people flying want to be reminded of is that they’re in the air. Everything about the whole flying experience – the yards of ultra-mundane corridors, the stockyard of the check-in, the prosaic poetry of the in-flight announcements – conspires to make the traveller believe that far from being propelled by mighty jet engines 35,000 feet above the earth, she is in fact sitting in the waiting room of a mildly upmarket dentist, awaiting a mildly uncomfortable procedure. The idea that one minute you might be reading a novel by Joan’s sister, and then the next your thigh bones would be entering your occiput as the vehicle plunges at 32 feet per second per second through the bottom of a reservoir near Staines, is too dramatic a reversal for even the psychically robust among us to contemplate.

And let’s face it, none of us are that robust anymore. After September 11, when the rot really set in for international travel, all those downed aircraft became the very reification of our inability anymore to suspend our disbelief in the hocus-pocus of consumerism. Somewhere out in the Mojave Desert there’s a great parking lot full of 747s, aisle after aisle of the idle behemoths. If only we could be allowed to wander amongst them, marvelling at their obsolescence, and occasionally reading illustrated columns in their glossy, on-ground magazines, then perhaps people would no longer need to fly the flag?