I note with interest that January 1, 2014 marks the centenary of scheduled commercial passenger airplane flights. I note with further interest, although the interest now has some dark tones, that my own experience as a plane passenger will cover nearly half of those hundred years. On August 25, 1965, I took wing from London for a vacation in Barcelona, transported thither by British European Airways, now long defunct. That’s a lot of years ago. Hence the dark tones. Eheu, fugaces labuntur anni!
No memory remains of that flight, though the date is stamped in one of my old UK passports. Most likely my thoughts were fully occupied with anticipation of a month in the company of my female companion on sun-struck beaches far from parental authority. Our affections eventually proved to be as mortal as British European Airlines, but it was a pretty nice vacation in what was then a remote, unspoiled village of whitewashed houses where everyone slept for three hours at midday, men squirted wine into their mouths from a bota de vino, the grocer slapped the hanging meat so you could see it without the flies, and the benign gaze of Generalissimo Francisco Franco radiated Counter-Reformation assurance over all. Nowadays the place looks like Miami. Eheu! Eheu! etc.
Er, where was I going with this? Oh, right: Yesterday I flew in from London on British Airways, under whose wing (as it were) BEA found its final resting place. The flight was horrible. I hate flying. I need a week at least to recover.
How horrible was it? Let me number the ways.
Mainly, the people—my fellow passengers.
First I’ll put down a firm marker here: I am not a misanthrope. A misanthrope is the chap in one of Jean-Paul Sartre’s plays who says that hell is other people. A misanthrope is Sir Isaac Newton explaining why he published so much of his stuff anonymously: “Public esteem, were I able to acquire and maintain it…would perhaps increase my acquaintance, the thing which I chiefly study to decline.” A misanthrope is Florence King removing not just the rear seats from her car, but the front passenger seat, too. I’m not in that league.
There are times, though. Transatlantic flying is one of those times. What’s the matter with people on planes?
This trip was a jumbo jet and I booked too late to get an aisle seat. I was the E in a DEFG deal. F and G were two aging guitarists who talked nonstop about their trade the whole seven hours: Fenders, Gibsons, riffs, gigs, and what Hank Marvin said to Mick Taylor in ‘69. Worse yet, they both spoke with Manchester accents, the vowels all flattened out like roadkill and a question tag for every verb: “It’s a shame…innit?” “It was…wonnit?” “He would…woodnee?”
D was a middle-aged East Asian gent—Korean, I’m pretty sure—who made sinus noises the entire trip. What is it with East Asian sinuses? I once attended a performance of Madame Butterfly at English National Opera, seated next to a Jap. (You always get plenty of Japs at Butterfly.) He was working on his sinuses the whole time, sniffing and snorting—completely spoiled the thing for me. This gent, the D, annoyed me so much I leaned over and asked pointedly whether he would like to borrow a tissue. He did not favor me with a reply, just stared stonily. A proud people, the Koreans.
The F seat in the row ahead of me—which is to say, at half-past one from me—was occupied by a colossal Negress with a terrifying man-jaw and hair worked in a multitude of braids as if deliberately striving to bring to mind the Medusa myth. She watched movies the whole flight—movies about black people, of course—and responded to their comedic highlights with a throaty huck-huck-huck that cut through the drone of the engines, the sinusal evacuations at D, and the Mancunian F-G guitar patter like a flash mob in a drugstore. Along with the sound effects, Shamu also managed to rock her seat, a thing you don’t often see on planes. I would have made some remonstrance with her too, but frankly I find huge man-jawed Negresses scary.
My fellow passengers aside, seven hours in coach is more than humanity should have to bear. You can’t read, you can’t sleep, and the entertainment isn’t entertaining. I ended up watching the teeny plane on the seatback screen creeping across the Atlantic. Reykjavik…Godthåb…and all those Canadian outposts that nobody you ever knew had come from or been to: Gander, Halifax, the Bay of Fundy. Do they really exist? This is the source of all metaphysics: extreme boredom.
Mind you, I’ve been spoiled: Two years ago I flew First Class with Air France. First Class I’d already sampled: The firm I worked for in the nineties flew us First Class at weekends. Air France is something else, though: a rest lounge inspired by the Palace of Versailles, exquisite food, and people to meet you everywhere. First Class squared.
Mrs. Derbyshire and I flew thusly to Moscow. First Class only goes as far as Paris: Paris-Moscow-Paris is Business Class. Coming back from Moscow we landed in Paris, stood up, gathered our bags, and jammed into the aisle resignedly with all the other business folk, belly buttons and arseholes waiting for the slow shuffle to the exit…when suddenly came a melodious call: “Madame et Monsieur Derbyshire?” It was our Air France greeter. She even pronounced our name correctly! We elbowed our way contemptuously past the awestruck peasants and sashayed off down the ramp with mademoiselle, throwing small-denomination coins over our shoulders to appease the mob. The wife still talks about it.
Coach, feugh. I was intended for better things. There’s been a terrible mistake somewhere.
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