air travel

  • In praise of air travel

    (Photo by Vadim Sadovski)

    Would you consider a one- or two-stop flight from London to India? Or would you click the ‘direct flights only’ button every time? How about 21 stops, plus a rail transfer between Basle and Genoa?

    I’d bet no one would consider such an option today, and yet that’s the trip Lord Beaverbrook stood Robert Byron in 1932, weeks after the first Air Mail route from London to British India opened. He recorded his experience in the wonderful odds and ends travel book, First Russia, Then Tibet.

    It begins in self-deprecating travel journalist mode, moaning about the squalor of this new form of transport. But Byron ends up acknowledging that air travel has been a life-changing experience: 

    “I see it now as one of the great experiences of a life, a period of vivid, unclouded enjoyment in its revelation of a huge expanse of the world’s surface, of unsuspected and unimagined beauties, of heat and desolation beyond credence, of a new pleasure in physical movement.”

    His trip is scarcely believable today. Byron stands in the cockpit behind the pilot, his head and shoulders clear of the windshield, the air sending goosebumps down his arms as he surveys the land below. 

    He gazes on the Amalfi coast, the Gulf of Corinth, the White Mountains of Crete, the endless dunes of North Africa, and the corpses of Turkish soldiers still lying in a deserted fort in the Jordanian desert, over a decade after the close of the First World War. 

    Time for a spot of lunch?

    Byron enjoys scheduled stops for luncheon, and sleeps every night in an hotel. The carrier, Imperial Airways, lays on armchairs and morning papers in even the most remote desert locations. They land in time for tea, before a shave and perhaps a bathe in the ocean before supper. 

    One hint of the future of air travel occurs en route from Genoa to Naples, when they are forced to miss a lunch stop since the water is too shallow for their seaplane to land safely. In the event, the engineer produces a “typical Italian lunch of ham, salami, chicken, new rolls, cheese, Russian mushrooms, nectarines, and wine” to eat onboard. 

    In the age of pinched legroom, no frills and, finally, the moral yoke of ‘flight shame’, it’s breathtaking to read such a description of air travel. 

    “Unbuttoned, unshaven, and unfed, I clattered into the hall at a quarter past seven, to find the other passengers already waiting.” But never fear, for “we reached Gaza for tea”

    London to Karachi itinerary

    Day 1 – London to Basle (Luncheon: Le Bourget, Paris)
    Day 2 – Basle to Genoa (by train)
    Day 3 – Genoa to Naples (Luncheon: onboard the aircraft due to conditions on the ground)
    Day 4 – Naples to Athens (Luncheon: Corfu)
    Day 5 – Athens to Tobruk (Luncheon: Suda Bay, Crete)
    Day 6 – Tobruk to Alexandria (Luncheon: unrecorded)
    Day 7 – Alexandria to Gaza (Luncheon: unrecorded)
    Day 8 – Gaza to Baghdad (Luncheon: Rutbah, Iraq)
    Day 9 – Baghdad to Jask (Second Breakfast: Basra, Third Breakfast: Bushire)
    Day 10 – Jask to Karachi (Luncheon: Gwadar)

    Fast forward to the modern age, and find out How to Spend a Long Haul Flight

  • How to spend a long haul flight

    View from a plane window of the Altai mountains
    Gazing down on Central Asia

    I find the thought of long haul flights intimidating. The prospect of 13 hours of reading time is mammoth even for me. I’ve no interest in the films or in sleeping, so it’s all about the plane meals and the reading. 

    Read about somewhere you fly over

    Before my flight from China to the UK, I happened to find a short novel called Jamila by an author named Chingiz Aitmatov in the local charity shop. 

    The fact that the back cover claimed he was Kyrgyzstan’s most famous literary figure gave me a thought. I was pretty sure my flight would pass over Kyrgyzstan – so why not read about it?

    Watching real time maps

    The other thing I love to do in a plane is look out of the window. Anyone who is obsessed by maps will find a particular delight in air travel. It provides real life maps that you can gaze on for hours, spotting features you knew only from atlases. 

    As we flew, I interspersed gazing down at the Kyrgyz mountains, the foothills of the Altai range and the Kazakh steppe with reading Aitmatov’s little novel. I hadn’t realised it was old, but soon understood that it was written about the Second World War period. 

    In fact, Jamila was published in 1958. Gazing down at Kyrgyzstan as Aitmatov’s story gazed back into Soviet history gave me an extraordinary sense of time and space. The story itself is beautiful and simple, the story of life and love in a Kyrgyz village. 

    Next time you travel in a plane, pick a country en route, the smaller the better. Then go and search for its greatest novelist and see what you find…

  • Uncivilising

    Barefoot standing on sand and shells in the sea
    Rewinding civilisation (Photo by Nirzar Pangarkar)

    A clash of civilisations is indeed underway, but I’m not talking about Islam versus the West. I’m talking about a clash between civilisation as we have come to understand it, and its unraveling in pursuit of something better. 

    The revolution won’t be televised

    This clash is between people who instinctively want things to stay the way they always were (or rather, have been for a long time), and people who want to find new ways of living (or rather, resurrect older ways of living). 

    Unschooling, ‘barefoot’ footwear, chucking out the TV, rejecting car and plane travel, eating only local produce, being anti-plastic, sitting on the floor rather than in a chair, burning your bra, buying experiences instead of bling. 

    What do all these micro-tribes, these mini-movements, have in common? They are all about uncivilising. They are rejections of a highly artificial, manmade way of living in favour of lifestyles stripped back to more authentic essentials. 

    Living in a two-speed world

    It could be assumed that those not taking part in the uncivilising movement would be in the emerging economies where people are experiencing prosperity for the first time. Maybe, but it’s not the whole truth.

    In fact, many innovations that could be part of an uncivilising movement are being led by emerging markets. China, for instance, is innovating for a sustainable urban future better than most Western nations. 

    It’s quite possible that the biggest resistance to uncivilising movements may actually come from people brought up on Western consumer values and with a sense that such manmade commodities are their birthright. 

    Hence the clash of civilisations – or the civilized versus the uncivilised, as it may well be couched – that is already playing out in most Western societies. Things – it seems – are only going to get more tribal, which might just be yet another dimension to the uncivilising phenomenon.