Seat 31A in Premium Economy Class, Singapore Airlines’ Airbus A380 – I can recommend it. Enter the aircraft, turn right and it’s the first window seat on the port side. There’s plenty of leg room, and the position behind a bulwark even affords a little extra. I booked the seat both ways on my New Zealand trip. Premium Economy is a nice compromise between the purgatory of riding down the back, and the exorbitant opulence of the suites, accessed by turning left as you enter from the air bridge. It’s not just the expense of the suites that puts me off. I’d feel a bit of a prat, like being borne along in a sedan chair, or driving a red Ferrari. Incidentally, have you noticed the resemblance between a diagram of the seating on an aircraft, and the stowage arrangements for human cargo on a slave vessel? Such are the rigours of latter-day travel. I used to travel business class when I was on business and wanted to turn up fresh usually for a college meeting. I’ve been bumped up to First Class a surprising number of times, thanks to rendering medical treatment to passengers taken ill. When I left New Zealand after 13 years I came back to the UK First Class because I wanted to offload the millions of air points I’d accrued.
Back to 31A – I chose a window seat because I never tire of the view from aloft, and I specifically wanted to savour the experience of landfall on NZ’s North Island’s west coast. As it turned out, I gave my seat up so that an elderly American couple separated by the aisle could sit together. Sometimes you do something simply because you are importuned. I was rewarded by the company of a charming young woman from Kashmir, en route to Christchurch to study for a Masters in something like “Big Data”.
On the way home a month later I resumed my seat without even checking the number. A woman across the aisle did what I’d done on the way out and swapped seats to allow a young couple with their baby to sit together. She sat down on 31B and whispered to me, “I think I’ve done us both a favour.” Oddly enough, crying babies do not disturb me, even although I’m very noise sensitive. I think the reason is that when I did Obstetrics, and Paediatrics, and Neonatology, as a junior doctor, my worst nightmare was to be faced with a non-breathing, floppy, grey, flat neonate, and the most joyous sound in the world is the lusty cry of a pink baby. I once took an Aerolineas Argentinas flight back to Auckland from Buenos Aires seated beside a screaming infant who was inconsolable for virtually the whole trip. His mother was profoundly apologetic but I reassured her it was fine. All I needed to do was put on my headphones and listen to another tango from the fiddle and the squeezebox. The only thing that seriously discomfited me on that trip was the realisation as we crossed the International Date Line that I’d miscalculated my dates and that on arrival in Auckland at 7 am I would need to head straight for the hospital and go to work.
Talking of noise intolerance, I went with a friend to see The Post in Auckland at The Lido on Dominion Road – Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, rather good, a “speaking truth to power” movie which no doubt resonates in the current US political climate. My companion sat on my left but after about twenty minutes she moved to my right in order to distance herself from the incessant blethering of a couple on her left. I gave it another ten minutes and then leaned across and said, politely but firmly, “Excuse me, would you mind not speaking during the movie? Thank you very much.” Unlike a gentleman who recently made a similar remonstration in an English pub, I did not in consequence suffer life-changing injuries from a machete. My friend said, “James, I’ve seen a new side to you.” Well, I don’t know about that.
But to return to seat 31A, while looking down upon the endless vista of Australia’s hot red centre, I was rewarded with a remarkable view of Uluru, and the Olgas. What an extraordinary apparition in the middle of nowhere is Ayers Rock, and no wonder the aboriginal people regard it as a holy place. I scaled the rock several times (and once ran up in 44 degrees – mad dingoes and Scotsmen…) in the days when it was not considered sacrilegious so to do. The view of the Olgas from atop is rewarding. In some ways the Olgas, and the Valley of the Winds, are even more atmospheric than Uluru. Standing at the base of the Olgas and looking upwards it isn’t hard to imagine one is standing on Mars looking up at Olympus Mons. I’ve twice driven to Uluru by car from Alice Springs, a 450 kilometre road through the outback. I found myself driving at 100 mph – no speed limit in the Northern Territory, at least then – and thanks to the unchanging vista having little sense of speed. The second time I made the journey my fan belt broke about 30 kilometres from the settlement at Uluru and the engine began to overheat. I pulled over and let the engine cool down, then started up and drove a few kilometres, pulled over, restarted, drove a bit, pulled over… and thus limped to my destination. I got nervous as dusk fell as I was not insured to drive at night because of the danger of hitting an animal. During this entire incident I never saw another car nor another human soul. If it had happened 100 kilometres to the north-east I might have been in a spot of bother. On the return trip – problem fixed – and about 30 kilometres outside Alice, we encountered a vehicle full of aboriginal people that had left the road and overturned. Nobody was injured. I gave a bushman in a grass skirt a ride into Alice to get help. My companion, a young lady from New York, was a bit nervous about that. The bushman reminded me so much of people I’d worked with in the highlands of PNG. In Alice, the white man walks along the asphalt roads but the aboriginal man walks along the bed of the Todd River, dry. In New Zealand, I believe the Maori and the Pakeha knock along pretty well together and this is entirely due to the effort that went into, and continues to go into, the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi. But in Australia, the white man is on tarmac and the black fella is down on the riverbed.
There is a rock face, a ridge about 600 feet high, above Alice Springs and I once scaled it of an early evening and sat down to admire the view. I became aware that I had been joined by a kangaroo. It had never even crossed my mind to consider whether venturing out into the bush at dusk was foolhardy. At any rate the kangaroo was perfectly sociable. We didn’t box.
Back in 31A, it was poignant to farewell the beautiful and deserted beaches on Australia’s north shore and to head out across the ocean to south East Asia. It was about here that I once treated a man in Business Class on the same Auckland – Singapore trip, who had lapsed into unconsciousness. I remember I was watching Tom Cruise and Demi Moore in A Few Good Men – good movie – when the call came – “Is there a doctor on board?” Opportunistic medicine is incredibly rewarding. You are privileged to enter somebody’s life in a unique way. The clue to this patient’s condition lay in his hand luggage. He carried a generous supply of insulin. I rummaged in the Qantas medical bag – rather well supplied – and was able to measure this gentleman’s blood sugar. When I pricked his finger he said, “Whas mah nah?” He had a serum glucose of 1 mm/L – low. I decided he had enough of an airway to tolerate oral fluids and ordered an orange juice. The cabin crew was gone for a very long time and returned with a cocktail, exquisitely prepared, with a twist of orange skewered on the edge of the cocktail glass.
The gentleman recovered rapidly. Meantime the Captain asked me, “Should we land in Darwin?” Well, I’ve never been to Darwin. It was tempting. But I assured him we could go on to Singapore. No wonder I got bumped up! I ordered the patient some dinner. He said, “Have I been making an ass of myself?” I spent the rest of the flight – this all happened pre 9/11 – on the flight deck. There is no more beautiful view than that from the flight deck, at dusk, coming in to land at Changi.
This time round at Changi I had a few hours to kill but fortunately found a very comfortable lounge, as I had also done at Auckland, and whiled away the time. Still, it’s daunting to reboard and be faced with the announcement, “The flight time is 13 hours and 45 minutes.” I ignored offers of food and drink and fitfully went to sleep. Later, I think over India, I watched the movie Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri. Very blue collar. Very coarse. Yet very good. I remember Woody Harrelson’s letter to his stupid subordinate, and the extraordinary and rather touching conversation between the tough protagonist lady and her midget “date”.
Somewhere between the Aral Sea and the Caspian the aircraft seems to go into suspended animation. Then as we made the interminable journey across the Russian Federation I thought of the latest diplomatic spat that has sprung up, over an incident in Salisbury, between Britain and Russia. We passed to the south of Moscow and then crossed to Poland and thence to Germany and France, these lands upon which have taken place the greatest conflicts ever known to mankind. As day began to break we flew parallel with the beaches of Dunkirk.
Landing at dawn, I had five hours to kill in Heathrow’s Terminal 5. I have to say the Lounge was a disappointment. It didn’t even have a loo and charged £20 for a shower. I ask you. I’m back in the land of carping and bickering and already I’m carping and bickering. I got a Financial Times and got up to speed with all the parochial preoccupations, then did the crossword. Eventually I got on a BA flight to Glasgow.
I always watch the safety videos. Sooner or later, I’m bound to get on to a flight where something goes wrong. The current BA safety video is quite attention-grabbing because it features various high profile British actors and there is an element of spoof. It’s typically British, full of irony. I imagine the Chinese will find it completely incomprehensible. Gordon Ramsay told me that if I had to leave the aircraft in a hurry I must leave everything, “And I mean, everything!” I had a coffee (bizarre cup requiring a tutorial on how to imbibe) and a delicious M & S sandwich, all paid for by the beep of a credit card – money is so passé. After the tranquillity of the A380 it was a bumpy ride and we landed in Glasgow in a cross wind. Tricky things to finesse, these crosswinds. Yet it was safe, for which much thanks. Now I have to grapple with Glasgow humour, and it is then that I know I am home.
What will this journey be like in another decade? Perhaps on the fourth runway at Heathrow the captain will say, “Our flight time to Auckland today is 25 minutes. Our cabin crew will be serving lunch. Transient loss of consciousness in the ionosphere is perfectly normal… We apologise for a fifteen second delay…” I think I’d rather take the flying boat with Imperial Airways, flying at 6,000 feet and dropping into the ancient capitals of the world to dine and sleep.
Now I close my eyes, and easily conjure an image of Ninety Mile Beach. So beautiful. When I was there, I wanted to walk down Sauchiehall Street in the sleet. Now I am here, I want to slosh down Te Paki stream in the heat. Such is the perversity of human nature.