Magazine article The Spectator

Planes Are for Convenience, but Ships and Trains Are for Delight

Magazine article The Spectator

Planes Are for Convenience, but Ships and Trains Are for Delight

Article excerpt

As I write this, I am about to leave for a flight to Buenos Aires. The older I get, the more travel-hardened I become, the more I loathe this kind of thing. The actual flying is bearable - I am not afraid of death - but I hate airports. They encapsulate for me all that I most detest about the modern world: its mechanical impersonality, its homogenised overcrowding, its disturbed ants'-nest scurrying. International airports are huge: each is a Nowhere City in itself. I once dozed off in one and when I woke I had no idea where I was. Signs, advertisements gave no clue. The people I saw were all nationalities and none. I might have been anywhere in the world. I asked the man sitting next to me, `Where are we?' 'Singapore,' he said, 'I hope.'

In an airport you are dependent on technologies you do not understand. You do not even see the vehicle which transports you until you are actually in it. There are mysterious delays which are not explained; or, if explanations are given, they are often misleading. Air travel still clings by its titanium fingernails to some of the luxuries of the old Atlantic liners -- there are VIP rooms, first-class lounges; unwanted caviar, champagne and lobster are slapped down in front of you. But at the airport your eyes tell you that it is the huddled masses who are now the bulk of travellers, dark little men seeking work with dubious passports and missing visas and dirty little bits of paper they display to impassive immigration officers. Or harassed women in saris or djellabahs, with screaming, bewildered children. Or families setting off on cheap package tours, wearied by delayed flights and already regretting it.

Airports never shut, their clocks slide inexorably on. There is no daylight. Times of day, months, seasons, mean nothing. Periodically, cleaners mechanically sweep away the detritus. People come and go, endlessly, no one knows whither or for what, and no one cares. If you come back in a week's time, it is the identical scene, with different, equally unknown people. And wherever you go in the world, these big airports look the same, smell the same, just as their food tastes the same and their hard, synthetic surfaces feel the same to your touch. To me, Hell is a giant airport, from which no aircraft ever leave; they only land, bringing more unhappy people.

By contrast, sea travel is human. On the QE2, on which I have twice voyaged, they can't quite eliminate the tang of tar, odd smells of paint and wood, resin and smoky fumes. Comforting ropes lie about. Even in harbour, and however big the ship, there is the faint swell of the sea, repeating its rhythms which go back to the beginning of the world. Your cabin is small but it is your own, a little womb you can fill with familiar objects. Waiters, stewardesses soon recognise you. You find a little corner of the deck in which you can establish proprietary rights. You can get to love a ship. The port is an ancient thing, which has changed little since Alexandria or Ostia were built in classical times. You wave goodbye to it. It welcomes you visibly when you dock. You have made friends on board, exchanged addresses. There have been confidences, possibly even kisses. You have not left the world to fly in limbo, but have lived it more intensely on those sustaining billows.

Trains are humanised too. When I was five I started to go with my big sisters to their convent on one, and I loved that train. I was fascinated by the way the engine behaved in the station, emitting, for reasons of its own, different kinds and intensities of steam, smoke and vapour, occasional sparks. …

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