On a recent plane flight from Heathrow Airport, London, to Glasgow, I entered into a typical – but for all that grindingly depressing – altercation. I had been assigned the window seat, while the aisle was occupied by a man two decades younger and a head-and-a-half shorter than myself. I pointed this out to him and suggested that he might have some compassion for his elder, taller, better but he demurred, saying that he wanted to “get out quickly” at our destination. “What are you,” I snapped irritably, “a bloody brain surgeon?”
Of course, he wasn’t – he was a runner for Endemol, the TV production company responsible for such gems as Can Fat Teens Hunt? And to confirm that I was in a purgatorial transit, he and his little colleague in the middle seat spent the rest of the flight yakking nonsense, while slurping kiddie drinks – vodka and lemonade, the alcopops of a criminally extended teenage. However, in a way they did me a favour, because they forced me to contemplate: first my own weird hypocrisy – here was I, a fearless psychogeographer, ever-determined to assault the conventions of mass-transit systems, yet still falling prey to the most blinkered of herd instincts – and then, latterly, the view from the window.
It was a night flight, but even by day viewing the British Isles from the air can be a problematic endeavour: they’re too damn small, and more often than not covered in cloud, like an ancient dessert submerged in whipped cream that’s going off. At least, that’s what I like to tell myself. When I grope back through the frayed card index of my memory, I do come across startling prospects I’ve experienced from the air: the west of Ireland, spread out below, a green counterpane bejewelled with tiny lochs, the snow-bound Orkney Islands, streaked black-and-white like killer whales in the hammered lead of the Pentland Firth.
But what marks these sights out is their singularity – they are not what you expect of Britain, and especially England, its unmade bed of a landscape cluttered with human leftovers. Moreover, they are views I experienced when I – if not the world – was still young. Still, there I was, and rather than listen to the he-wank, she-wank talk of my travelling companions, I decided to garner what I could from the darkling empyrean, the bejewelled cities of the plain – like inversions of the Milky Way – and the metropolises along our route: Birmingham, Manchester, then Glasgow itself, which seemed like transparent jellyfish, sparking with unknowable sentience.
What is it about flying? Why is it that what must, by any reasonable estimation, be the most exciting and extreme, technologically mediated experience any of us are ever likely to have – apart, that is, from radical surgery – is hedged round with such ineffable tedium vitae? Getting into a titanium tube? Being hurled by vast jet engines six miles high, then impelled down an Aeolian slalom into another time zone? Why not squabble over the aisle seat, bury yourself in Grisham wood pulp, goggle at the pixellated manikins cavorting on the back of the seat in front of you, or plug your ears with soft rock – do anything, in short, to avoid being fully conscious of this revolutionary, quintessentially Modernist experience: the 600mph, hundreds of miles wide vantage of a superhero – or a god.
My hunch is that the way in which every aspect of air travel is trammelled by the ineffably dull – tedious airport architecture, monotonous muzak, anodyne announcements, superfluous consumer opportunities – is the result of an unconscious collective denial. After all, if flight crew wore winged helmets, and “The Ride of the Valkyries” came blasting over the PA as the plane picked up speed on the runway, then, when the oily behemoth slipped the surly bonds of gravity, the captain cried: “Weeeee!”, the latent anxieties of every passenger would be unleashed. Even if we survived the flight, we’d probably land determined never to do it again: “Flying? What a trip! Once is enough for me.” And the whole go-round of work-consume-travel-die would grind to a halt.
As it is, plane flight is the most intense juxtaposition of the banal and the sublime available to humanity: we sit, belted in, eating dry-roasted peanuts, and veering between contemplating our own unavoidable mortality, and the bad karma of the person sitting next to us – it’s bad enough to be working on Can Fat Teens Hunt? but to die working on it, that, like, sucks. We sit, cramped (and in my case, thanks to the teeny-rotters, with my knees pressed into my eye sockets), while just beyond two layers of Plexiglas the very curvature of the earth can be glimpsed.
It’s all enough to make anyone philosophic – except, that is, a bloody brain surgeon.