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Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Oblivion denied

My Worst Journeys. An occasional series

We holidayed in New Zealand three times. Travelling there was hellish although eventually we reduced the torment somewhat by stopping off in Kuala Lumpur at a hotel with a swimming pool. Flight details are blurred since I ceased to be the person I am, became shrunken, reduced from three-dimensions to two - a poppadum dropped briefly into the frying pan, devoid of intellectual resources, desperate, inchoate. A victim of twenty-first century irony whereby modest affluence and advanced technology allowed me to undergo a form of torture previously limited to the rich.

The horrors started before take-off. Then, our carrier, Japanese Air Lines, had seating where the bum-to-kneecap dimension was 29 in. (vs. 32 in. on, say, United). As if my thighs were nailed into a cast-iron coffin. For fourteen hours.

Lunch consisted of dull western-style chicken and sushi. I opted to go native and sushi proved even duller - flavourless stodge. The small screen offered five US movies exquisitely chosen for their banality, laddishness, shouted dialogue and twanging background.

These objective terrors were bad but the subjective ones were worse. I needed an occupation that obliterated time. Of course I had books but books read solely for this purpose change subtly; they realise they are being betrayed and lose their power to distract. Later I acquired an MP3 player but engine noise overpowered the lower frequencies. Mindlessness is the key. Later still I was given a device which played Solitaire and nothing else; perfect, but by then we'd given up on New Zealand.

We are endowed with the ability to think constructively, to reflect, to guess at the future and to dwell on fond memories. Long-distance flight sets these abilities at nought. An arbitrary jail sentence.


  1. There was a time when I could fly with aeroflot to Africa (the cheapest option in the 1980s) - no food, no non-alcoholic beverage, strange engine noises plus overnight stop-over in a freezing Moscow airport hangar - and consider it comfortable enough. An adventure it was and almost a luxury after years of crossing the Irish sea on ancient smelly overcrowded ferries (aka the pits).

    But now that I am getting on and my health is not as sturdy as then, and we have a daughter living happily in NZ, I have been putting money aside every month for years, it seems, to afford the luxury of being able to stretch out and actually sleep in business class.

  2. Sabine: I can't quite beat that but when I went to the USA in 1971 to take up a job offer I flew Icelandic, the last airline to fly propellor-engine planes across the Atlantic. The trip lasted sixteen hours (that's a lot of cardboard meals) and involved a short stop at Reykjavik. But, heck, I was a mere 41 and all excited at the prospect.

    While still working I flew business-class from Heathrow to Tokyo in 1988 at someone else's expense. Just as well since the ticket cost £5000. I slept for an hour or two. When I woke the stewardess said she'd served champagne while I was sleeping and had saved my splits (ie, quarter bottles). Three or was it four? Can't be sure except I drank them all and slept some more.

  3. Been up in planes twice for a total of about three hours time. First a single prop, then a jetliner, neither in the current century. I ordered wine at 8AM on the jet.No desire to fly again.

  4. We have flown to NZ twice. Fortunately, due to my mother's legacy, we were able to indulge in business class each time. We shall never go again to that lovely country though. I simply could not contemplate that, almost 24 hour, trip in the sort of seats you describe and could never afford the luxury of "business" in the normal run of things.

    Anyway, a bimble around Romney Marsh on my ebike is (almost) as good. Certainly a lot cheaper and also much more relaxing. I hate the hurly burly of airports and getting to them.

  5. I wonder if it qualifies as meaningful conversation when one relates an anecdote and your interlocutor replies with their own related story, but so it goes, so often. Ah well...

    …setting off to walk the GR10 - (traverse of the Pyrenees from Atlantic to Mediterranean)

    Bus departs Lancaster to Stanstead 3:00am. I went to Lancaster bus station the day before to research exact departure point which was pointed out to me by an official - even a bus sign saying Stanstead.

    Daughter drops me off next morning at 2:45 am.

    3:10 am no bus.

    I look at ticket and find phone number. I am told bus has departed from a different point already, but if I can get to Preston they will hold the bus for me there.

    I launch out into dark Lancaster in an unlikely search for a taxi. A miracle - one is approaching - I leap into the middle of the road and wave my arms. The guy is sympathetic and rises to the challenge and takes me at suicidal speed the twenty miles down the M6 and I board the bus at Preston.

    At Stanstead I add a new word to my French vocabulary - en grève (on strike) - the French airport workers.

    I have to find a b and b near Stanstead - not easy, but I do. They chauffeur me to a pub for a meal where I have to share a table with a brain surgeon - true! Next morning I am chauffeured back to airport. There is till no fight to Biarritz - best I can do is to Carcassonne which is nearer the Med than the Atlantic. I fly there then catch a train to Bordeaux which is now north of Biarritz and Hendaye. I have to overnight in Bordeaux and take the train next morning to Biarritz and then to Hendaye.

    Unfortunately I was not blogging in those days, but here is an opportunity to use one of my best anecdotes even though I am pretty sure you have heard it before.

  6. MikeM: You are, in effect, saying you'll never go foreign. You could of course drive into Canada but this would almost certainly depend on a love of ice-hockey and I'm not convinced of that. You could also drive into Mexico and on to Tierra de Fuego but you'd be worrying all the way about whether you'd be let back in. Boats are irregular, vulnerable to the weather, fearfully expensive, so no go.

    I find this interesting but then I reflect: you've got a whole lot of acreage to the west if you get the urge, you could even walk to the Grand Tetons. I on the other hand live in titchy little Britain. Had you been born here might you by now be getting a little antsy for change? Wondering whether those guys to the south really did wear berets and were heavily disposed towards adultery?

    I came to the USA, not to make a fortune, but out of curiosity. Six years was enough for a warm spot in my heart to develop. Americans have patronised my two blogs; I've been glad they did and I think I've responded in a slightly different way (more colloquially?) than I might without those Pennsylvanian years. If I'd stayed at home there wouldn't have been that link, we might have missed each other and that would have been sad.

    Forget the jetliner, didn't the single prop excite your technoid tendencies? All those dials and gauges! And levers (pronounced with a short e.)!

    Avus: That's not comparing apples with apples. A bimble is entirely voluntary and intended to be fun in itself, like going to the pub. My NZ flight was utilitarian, mere transportation, simply a means of getting to the fun.

    I've been looking at ticket prices since we did once flirt with going business to NZ. Then the difference was horrendous, now econ costs less than it did and business represents a factor of three. Alas, in the interim since our first flight in 1999, farmstay prices in NZ have tripled.

    Sir Hugh: You have mentioned this before. I take it you did check out drive-and-leave which would have been my inclination. Not so much because of the price, rather the blissful sense of freedom a car provides after being shoved here and there by the airline industry.

  7. I quite enjoyed some aspects of the travelling outward on our antipodean trip, though idling away a whole day at Charles de Gaulle while the baggage handlers vandalised our luggage wasn't one of them. Still, a messed up connection in the end meant a largely empty and comfortable night flight, sunrise over the Tibetan plateau, a very enjoyable 24 hours in Hong Kong and an easy meet-up in NZ, thence a quick and pleasant hop Cathay Pacific to Aus a week later.

    The return was less happy: a broken bit on the plane at Sydney, poor communications and cavalier treatment from the airline, a night on the airport floor, our planned hotel stopover in Little India in Singapore lost, then more delays in an overheating plane on the tarmac there, luggage lost at Paris - the backpack containing exclusively dirty washing, very nice to get back ten days later - then finally back to our friends' place to a seriously depressed Molly (I'm not anthropomorphising) and a flat car battery.

    There were a very few, not many, small saving graces in the experience, one of which was being upgraded to business class for the Aus-singapore leg of the trip as compensation; so we were able to see that half-decent food and drink and being able to lie down can really make it altogether more bearable. With hindsight, I am eternally grateful to have been able to spend that time with my sister, and NZ is truly beautiful and in theory I wouldn't mind seeing it again, but I'm fairly resigned and resolved that I won't.

    A first world problem indeed, but one I'm unlikely to seek to undergo again.

  8. The single engine ride was a very successful surprise birthday gift. I had no idea what was about to happen until, after an hour of driving, my girlfriend took the turn (at the sign) into the driveway of a very small airfield. I believe it was in 1992,and the memories that have stayed are as follows: It was to cost $100 per hour and we ran slightly over an hour. My girlfriend was in the backseat. It was a top-wing aircraft. The pilot opened his window and shouted "CLEAR" before he started the engine. At a point about halfway through the flight, the pilot offered: "Do you want to fly it?" I believe my response was "No, thanks, this is exciting enough as it is." The moment of landing was far more memorable than my first take-off...soaring gently down out of the sky and at the moment of touchdown realizing instantaneously that we were going much, much faster than I had thought. I had a bit of motion sickness after the flight, or so I thought. It is only at this very moment that I entertain the notion that I may have been sick from the shock and fear. I've been in Canada a few times. My real wanderlust only extends a few hundred miles. Haven't seen the ocean in twenty years, but I sort of miss it. Seeing it from shore was quite overwhelming.

  9. Lucy: I might have said that what happened in NZ compensated for the physical and mental privations of getting there. Obviously this was the case since we went back twice more and I must say that what counted even more than the glorious scenery was the unforced friendliness of the people.

    Even so the exigencies of the return trip began to weigh down on me during the final week on all three occasions. I became obsessed with the need to find a seat near the emergency door since these had unrestricted legroom. But they weren't bookable and one couldn't even raise the subject before a certain time on a certain day. Once a travel agent was able to fix things, on another I found myself standing in a phone-box at some unearthly hour trying to wheedle my case with an Australian a thousand miles away as I pondered gloomily about national stereotypes. Serves me right for being prejudiced because the Oz turned out to be a pillar of grace.

    I believe your experiences are covered under the classical cliché "piling Pelion on Ossa" and I regret - on your behalf - that the telling of it involved re-visiting a time when Mol suffered. Had I passed through that almost comically excessive series of events I doubt we've have returned. It is a tribute to you that you can refer to it laconically; I'd be tempted, every time, to over-egg the prose.

    Would I go back? Only under impossible circumstances, as reconstructed in the boxed set of House Of Cards (shows the US president and his wife travelling hither and thither with their retinue in Air Force One) or in my new and completely free Netflix subscription to The Crown (Phil and Lilibet doing the Commonwealth in their very own four-prop-engine Vickers Viscount, later transferring to HMS Britannia, the royal yacht). I can recommend the latter, despite what must be your oohs and ahs; it's almost like a diary of my middle youth. As they used to say "a rattlingly good tale".

    MikeM: Your flight is well-remembered. As you must have guessed I have taken every possible opportunity to fly in single-engine planes (and helicopters) not realising at the time I was subconsciously doing the research for Out Of Arizona. Whether the novel is any good doesn't really matter now, I enjoyed writing (even re-writing) it, mainly because of the subject.

    I think your diagnosis about motion sickness growing out of apprehension is probably correct. Single-engine planes are terribly flimsy for obvious reasons and one has the sensation of the being suspended in air rather than flying through it. This must exacerbate apprehension.

    You're right too about wanderlust. Dotting round the globe has left me with this maxim: distance doesn't matter, new people do. And the point about interesting people is one can't guarantee meeting them; ironically, fruitful encounters may well depend on what sort of a person one (you/me/anybody) is.

    I do have a gentle recommendation, you're clearly ocean-starved and in Spring you could do some re-fuelling. I'm thinking of Watch Hill, RI, a place of (alas) wealth and privilege, mid-morning, out-of-season, deserted, a slight wind ruffling the tiny harbour, the yachts moored individually instead of squeezed into a marina like cans in a supermarket. Go alone or take a friend who understands the value of silence. How far? Two hundred (three?) miles?

  10. Oh. Dear. I have a lot of traveling this year, so you're making me feel woeful! I shall go hunt around to see what else you have to say....

  11. Marly: Don't forget (or perhaps you never knew) I start out with a disadvantage: I'm 6ft 1½in. tall. Thus born to suffer. Perhaps the answer is something somniferous.