Apple Tree Cottage
25 November 1978
It is just a month before Christmas, and the rain, the winds and the early nights are all in keeping with the season. It is appropriate that the word November starts with such a negative sound. In November there is no warmth in the wind and no growth in the garden, there are no leaves on the trees, and no real light in the day as the year plods on towards the longest night. The bright evenings of summer are long past, and the cheer of Christmas is still some way in the future.
As regards November, as with all country matters, John Clare had it right.
“So dull and dark are the November days.”
The mist is so thick that
“The maiden passes close beside her cow,
And wanders on, and thinks her far away.”
And as we can see very little at all,
“The place we occupy seems all the world.”
At home by the fire some people are already looking at their holiday brochures and mulling over where to go next August. This often means taking a plane, and this takes us from grumbling about November to airports and to flying.
Air travel is glamourous only because it has declared itself so. It is the confidence trick of the age. We all feel we are more important in an airport than when we are standing, say, in the middle of a field. But why? Not surely because air travel is something different or exciting. In these days of charter flights and package tours it has become the normal way of moving around. But in spite of all the marketing, air travel has never had the romance of the long sea voyage, which for comfort, space, pleasure and a sense of travel beats the strapped-in seat of a Boeing by miles, even air miles. The sea voyage is the direct descendant of Columbus and Captain Cook and the schooner ‘Hispaniola’ that took Jim Hawkins to “Treasure Island”. Can an articulated chair, called first class, executive, club, preferential or whatever, compare with cabins and dining rooms, sea gulls over the stern and the view of the wake of the ship stretching towards the horizon?
No, flying is not glamourous. Some passengers do dress for the occasion, a new suit and smart shoes and so on, but the best clothes for sitting in a narrow row of seats are the oldest jeans and comfiest sweater that you have. And why do men and women apply to be stewards and air hostesses? Like Tom Sawyer when he whitewashed the fence, the job can be made attractive by telling others that it is so. Their working hours are spent in a flying tube. Is it the off-duty hours that are glamourous? But it is a weak argument that praises a job in terms of its by-products.
And the passengers? They are not individuals; they are types. I remember the row of six of us on my last flight. On the far side, next to the window, was the man who has done it all many times before. “This was a great airline ten years ago. Those were the days! But it’s gone downhill, you know. You haven’t travelled on it before? You don’t fly much? Oh, I see. Well, I always used to take this airline on flights to Mexico. You’ve never been to Mexico? This airline was far superior then. By the way, have you ever flown Air International? No? Wonderful outfit! Best food I have ever had! Now, let me tell you about the time…”
Next to him was the person who had lost, and after a flustered search, found, first his passport, then his ticket, then his boarding pass. He was clutching his ticket in his right hand, although he would not need it again. He was later to lose and then find his passport all over again when we had landed.
Between him and the aisle was the heavy drinker. He had drunk beer in the departure lounge and was drinking whisky in the plane. His voice rose as the flight went on. The man next to him grasped his ticket even tighter and we all pretended not to hear him.
Next to the other window was the talkative child. He knew and told us about the engines of the plane and its seating capacity, the time zones we were passing through, the climate in Rangoon, the midday temperature in Bombay and the customs regulations in Istanbul. He also knew a couple of jokes which he told his mother loudly, for the benefit of us all. Surprisingly, they were quite good, and they made up for the dissertation on the climate in Rangoon.
His mother was sitting next to me. She must have been on a diet because she did not touch her tray of food. The main course and the apple pie she gave to her son. I was tempted to ask for her bread roll, but I didn’t, and it went back with the tray.
All air passengers have one thing in common. This is self-preservation. The moment the flight is called, we have one aim; to get as near the head of the queue as possible. Then there is another rush to board the plane although each of us has a ticket with a numbered seat. Then, inside, there is the loo queue. Anything is preferable to sitting in our seat. We long to be doing something. After landing, the moment the ‘Fasten seat belt’ signs go off, we all jump up, and stoop, shoulders hunched, heads knocking the bottom of the baggage lockers, longing to get out. We are desperate to move, to go somewhere after the nervous waiting, and we are all nervous, even the hardened “This airline has gone downhill” man though he tries to conceal it. Yet this rushing and pushing shows us, sophisticated travellers of the late 70s, as the basic beings we are, rather ordinary without our trappings. No, flying is not glamourous.
But what a relief, like leaving the dentist or going out of church at the end of the service, when the whole business is behind us, and, pushing open the terminal doors, we breathe real air once more and join the humdrum people who have had their feet on the ground all day, and it is all finally over.