Fear of not flying
John Burnside, Herald Scotland
I don’t know why – I’m fairly sure it had nothing to do with my father’s oft-discussed spell in the RAF, or with the notion, generally true back then, that only rich people could afford air travel – but it was, for a long time, my defining fantasy. More than anything else, I wanted to take off, to go up into the ether, to look down and see everything in all its glorious complexity from above and, though the conviction now strikes me as irrational, I had no doubt that I knew what that bird’s-eye view would be like, long before my first plane ride. I knew that, if I could only rise to a sufficient height, everything would fall into place: all the chaos and mess of ground-level would make complete and beautiful sense when seen from on high, and I was quite sure I would become a better person for having witnessed that subtle, emergent order.
Fed as it was by books and old movies, that fantasy quickly shifted from an abstract dream of flight to a more specific, almost classic narrative; soon, inspired by the novels of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and films like Only Angels Have Wings, I began imagining myself on some lonely night-flight, carrying the mail to Buenos Aries or Rio de Janeiro in a violent storm, my fragile craft lost in the mountains and almost out of fuel, and only the most fleeting and poignant of messages crackling, then fading away, on the now useless radio. A good many of those daydreams ended, not in death, or even heroic rescue, but in a quiet and extraordinarily elegant disappearance: the signal fading, the radar suddenly blank, the exchange of puzzled, then knowing, looks back at the control centre when the tiny aircraft that should have dipped in out of the clouds failed to appear – but I can honestly say that it was never a morbid fantasy, not even when I was a teen.
It wasn’t symptomatic of anything; it revealed nothing of my family dynamic or my admittedly flaky personality; it wasn’t even particularly sexual. I was simply indulging a child’s understanding of the transformative properties of flight – the alchemy of the sky, as it were – and, even now, on certain lucky journeys when the plane isn’t packed to bursting with stag parties or sour company men in blue-grey suits, that alchemy can still occur, a transformation that comes of a renewed sense of wonder and delight in the very fact of the material world.
And, though I am slightly embarrassed to admit it, flying still does that for me even now: to look down and see the land mapped out below is still, not only a deep pleasure, but a renewal of some marrow-level sense of belonging.
I don’t know why that admission embarrasses me, but it does and, even as I am gladdened by the capacity for wonder that flying brings out in me, I am also oddly reluctant to say out loud how much I love going up in a plane. I could blame the green movement for making me feel guilty about it, I could point to the faux sophisticate “business traveller” who appears to be so inured to it all that he finds flying a necessary evil, but the real reason for my embarrassment is that I know I am so very clearly being taken for a ride. Like some kid at a fairground who sees right through the tawdry amusement he’s being offered, yet still goes back to it again and again, squandering his hard-earned pocket-money on a fraud, I am being duped by almost everyone involved in the process of getting me from Edinburgh to Frankfurt, or Paris to Sao Paulo and, as much as I love being in the air, I know that the childish delight I take in flying is not much wiser, from any objective point of view, than a two-minute dodgem ride operated by a bored white boy with capped sleeves and bad tattoos, who only ever liked me for my money.
Of course, flight means different things to different people. It’s a way of escaping the daily grind for a couple of weeks, to lie on a beach, or take in the sights of Istanbul or San Francisco; it’s a vital line of contact with friends and family whose feet were itchier than our own; it can even be the means by which a sick child, who would otherwise have died, is given the opportunity to continue in meaningful existence, courtesy of some faraway specialist in Moscow or Atlanta.
For me, the myth is Icarus and Amy Johnson, the history a series of sketches by Leonardo da Vinci and some apocryphal stories of medieval monks jumping from bell-towers with batlike wings fastened to their shoulders, for others it is a matter of freedom and mind-expanding mobility or even that pedestrian, and only recently over-glamorised notion: business opportunity – yet, whatever the reason for flying might be, it isn’t hard to see that only a very few of us get what we want from airlines, just as only a very few of us manage to be satisfied with financial institutions, or insurance companies or, for that matter, government.
We all feel, more and more, that the system is set up to profit those who are richer and less moral than the rest of us: the banker takes home his fat bonus after yet another year of smug failure to maintain the economy; the insurance companies issue policies that, at their very inception, are designed not to protect, but to prevent us from making claims; huge landowners are given whacking subsidies, from taxpayers’ money, to denature the landscape, while organic farms and small-scale holdings suffer (the grant applications are too complicated for anyone who can’t afford a consultant to complete them); faced with an understandable demand for renewable energy, the government doles out subsidy for ungainly and inefficient giant wind turbines, while ignoring or sabotaging human-scale projects. And now the airline companies, whose response to the Eyjafjallajokull ash cloud was to run away and hide, while thousands of passengers were left stranded and incommunicado all over Europe, are already putting together their demands for “compensation”, after initially assuring those same passengers that they were entitled to nothing for all the misery they have suffered.
Meanwhile, the insurance companies are making it very clear that they have no intention of making good: whole teams of lawyers are, at this very moment, defining the ash cloud as an act of God, even though I doubt very few of them actually believes in any deity whatsoever. It’s a long way from Wind, Sand And Stars and The Memphis Belle. It’s a long way, in fact, from anything even remotely honourable. It took a volcano to bring it out into the open, but there’s no going back now: nobody flies any more, it’s all just haulage and, if by chance a lone passenger finds himself on a half-empty plane over the Australian outback, staring out at a seemingly infinite expanse of rock and sand and light, it’s nothing more than a freak accident, like a poem or a truth told in Parliament – the exception that proves the rule, the isolated incident that reminds us how far we have fallen from grace, we who once dreamed, as Leonardo did, of rising into the air and becoming, if not like godlike, then at least divinely graceful – and gracious – in our perceptions.
“You forgot it long ago, but Italians still know that Vulcan is a powerful god.” I am told this in a café in Rome, where I have been stranded for five days now, calling my airline at ridiculously frequent intervals, only to be answered by the same taped message advising me to call back later, as all their operators are busy. My friends, one of whom comes from Naples, are reflecting on the Eyjafjallajokull eruption, not because it directly affects them – most of the day to day talk in Rome is of the Vatican’s paedophile scandal, the latest development being the hair-raising pronouncements of the Pope’s right-hand man on the link between gays and child molesters – but because it affects me, and Italians are by nature empathetic people.
“We are like ants, in the face of such events,” another friend adds and I nod in agreement, though it only takes a moment’s pause for me to see that I don’t really agree with the sentiment. Even confronted by the fact of a volcano, I don’t feel small – or not, at least, in the sense of belittled, just as I don’t feel powerful when I soar above the earth in a jet plane. A volcano is massive, compared to me, and infinitely more powerful. A volcano is capable, as I now see, of overturning my best-laid plans in a matter of minutes, but it doesn’t make me feel small or inadequate or puny. It doesn’t even make me feel powerless. I don’t think of myself as antlike, I continue to think of myself as a human being, proportionate to my surroundings, just as an ant, or a volcano, or a supernova is. There is nothing in nature that belittles me, because size isn’t what matters in nature, it’s proportion. I am small and human, a volcano is massive and powerful – and this is how things are supposed to be. What I think of as nature, even at its wildest and most destructive, is a system with which I feel an accord, and in which – be it ever so humble – I feel at home. I have no wish to be bigger, or more powerful, or longer-lived, than I am and, to be truthful, I am mystified by those who do.
On the other hand, I do feel – if only temporarily – belittled by those grandiose institutions and corporations that mismanage my immediate social and economic environment. It seems to me pretty clear that these institutions are committed to an agenda that holds me in contempt, whether I am a taxpayer bailing out carpetbaggers and opportunists in the financial sector, a voter who knows that any politician to whom I could possibly pledge my support is already in the pocket of big business or special interests, or a stranded passenger trying to get some information from an airline that would, quite frankly, prefer me to make my own way home and leave them to get on with the important task of applying for EU compensation.
I feel powerless, not because those fat-cat individuals and institutions are genuinely strong, but because the people around me seem so willing to let them get away with it, over and over again. After 9/11, airlines could have put in place measures that would have dealt so much better with the Eyjafjallajokull emergency – but they didn’t. What passengers needed were special, dynamic websites, active phone links, a flow of information and a co-ordinated strategy to get them home, or deal with their temporary, but often distressing and costly circumstances as quickly and efficiently as possible; what they got were recorded messages, conflicting data and unmanned desks at the airports.
It wasn’t Eyjafjallajokull that belittled us, it was the airlines and, in the weeks to come, it will be the insurance companies, who will refuse, and no doubt get away with refusing, to honour the policies we took out with them when we travelled. No doubt some window dressing will be put in place (the EU suggests that, if we don’t get compensation for our losses, we should sue them, which isn’t very realistic for most citizens) but in the end, business will go on as usual and Joe Public will be out of pocket – again. As for me, I am not home yet; but I hope to be soon. Though how readily I think of it as home is a matter for question now: there are thieves on the stairs and con-men at the door, and it isn’t nature I fear so much as the men who come, under the cloak of the law, to dismantle what I hold dear and sell it off to anyone unscrupulous enough to buy it.
John Burnside is a poet and novelist. His latest book, Waking Up In Toytown – the second volume of his memoirs – is published by Jonathan Cape, £16.99. His most recent poetry collection, The Hunt In The Forest, is published by Jonathan Cape, £10