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The High Life – what’s wrong with flying

Thursday, October 23, 1997

Much of contemporary life would be hard to explain to earlier generations (it’s hard enough explaining what I do to my parents), but air travel is so spectacular that sometimes it’s difficult even for us to cope with. 

You get on a metal tube in London, sit down, have something to eat, maybe watch a movie, snooze for a while, and then when you wake up you’re in (say) Tokyo. 

In the face of this miracle, we have become so blas? about things that all we do is moan about the plastic food and the lack of leg room.

If you wanted to be grand about it, you could reflect that you are among the first set of people ever to travel so far so fast, and that this privilege is hard to quantify. 

However, if you wanted to be practical about it, you could consider techniques to fill the time available on board. The Australian cricket team, for example, hone their competitive edge on the flight to England by seeing how many cans of lager they can drink. I don’t have the exact figures in front of me, but we’re certainly talking dozens of tinnies each. 

Alternatively, you could try the film, but there are usually two problems – you?ve either seen it before, or the sound is so bad you can’t follow it. 

The famous exception to this is Virgin Atlantic, who give you your own screen with a wide choice of films and comedies, but then they also provide video games for those in first class. A nice idea, but those people who can afford to travel expensively are just the sort who wouldn?t know what to do with a PlayStation. Networked Quake throughout the plane would be better – ideally us plebs travelling economy against the fat cats up at the front. 

Another technique to pass the time that is more honoured in the breach than the observance is talking to your fellow passengers. Like most people, I harbour a devout hope that the person sitting next to me on the longest flights will turn out to be that attractive art history PhD and part-time model we feel we deserve. 

Until this happens, though, I have a different approach. Air travel is so artificial and preposterous that any attempt to distract yourself from it just doesn’t work. It’s the ultimate man-made environment – timeless, placeless and completely enclosed – you’re doing something the human body was definitely not designed for (unless you’re extremely lucky in who you get sitting next to you). 

In the face of this assault, I switch myself off for the duration of the flight. Propped up against the window, I doze and wake up, day dream and drink water, and not much else. Like your PowerBook screen dimming to save power, you?re still ticking over but you don’t look it. 

This may sound like wimping out, but I’m just giving the abnormal experience the respect it deserves. The English travel writer and novelist Bruce Chatwin tells the story of native bearers who after a few days of constant travel refused to carry some Victorian English explorer?s stuff any further. 

The explorer demanded to know why they’d stopped. They calmly said that they were waiting for their souls to catch up. How much more time does it take for ourselves to recover after we?ve crossed the Atlantic? We’re not jet-lagged, we’re soul-lagged. 

(first published as a Modest Proposals newsletter, 23rd October 1997)

Posted by David in • Modest ProposalsLife