Tomorrow I fly away on a visit to Hong Kong and Singapore. My business has recently opened offices in both cities (as well as Bombay) and I will be spending time with our local partners and visiting clients and prospects. With ongoing crisis in the Eurozone and the UK low in confidence I am pleased we have an exposure to Asia, and keen we make the most of it. We have over 20 meetings lined up for next week; it’s going to be a busy few days.
But for now I am thinking about the journey. When I flew to India last month I was reminded how miraculous air travel is, and how blithely we regard an experience which transports us thousands of miles in just a few hours in extraordinary comfort. Sitting in a plane we need use no energy, we are kept warm and safe, food and drink is brought to us, we can choose from a range of entertainments. Just think of the suffering of British travellers to India 200 years ago: the slow passage, the deteriorating food, the poor sanitation and risk of disease, the relatively high chance of disaster. We do not understand how lucky we are today.
Hong Kong is even further from London (14 hours). The idea of my strange confinement for this period is concentrating my mind: I will work on my novel, read a novel, watch a film, have a drink and gaze down at the brown highlands and mercury rivers of Central Asia. I guess I will sleep too though I am bad at sleeping on planes because I find it difficult and because there always seems to a better option. Late night vigils in the gloom of a British Airways cabin have generated epiphanies and rich literary streams of consciousness. There may be a price to pay at the other end for using flights in this way, but give me a few decent lines of dialogue, a moment of illumination about something important, or a decent idea for a book or a business, and I feel it’s worth it. I’m still just young and foolish enough to think that staying up late and grabbing experience when you can is ‘living’; going to sleep is just too easy. And there is the simple fact of the height one reaches in an aeroplane; height and the sensation, when one looks down, that one is not moving but instead hovering over the earth. I can’t think of a sensation better suited to contemplation.
This anticipation of departure – alone and to far places, leaving my wife and family, leaving my home and my country, with a programme of important activity waiting for me at the other end – makes me think of other moments of other journeys, and other moments of anticipation.
I remember the fear I felt as my mum cut my hair the evening before I was to fly to Zimbabwe with 40 others to teach in a rural community for 9 months. I had recently left school, which had not been a fulfilling experience, and while I knew that this was an expedition I had to make, I was frightened about leaving my comfort zone, and the possibility that I might fail.
I felt frightened and lonely as I walked across the tarmac of a military airbase outside Ancona to board a Luftwaffe Hercules. I had graduated that summer, and I was about to hop over the Adriatic to Sarajevo, where I had a job working as a freelance journalist. The city was under siege and in anticipation I had spent several days in Venice fattening myself up. As I walked towards the Hercules I carried a rucksack, a French military issue flak jacket, and a bag of food, alcohol and cigarettes for the family with whom I was going to stay. I didn’t know who this family was, or how I should find them. My new boss in Sarajevo had simply told me that I would be met at the airport, but there was no one there, and I had to hitch a lift to UNPROFOR HQ in an Egyptian Army personnel carrier.
Not all my departures have been frightening (and a fearful start often begins a memorable adventure). I remember catching the ferry from Portsmouth to Bilbao, to spend days at the Saint Fermin fiesta at Pamplona with friends from university – this was joyful moment full of irresponsibility and laughter. Boarding a Friday evening Eurostar at Waterloo bound for Brussels was a low key way to start a November week-end in 2000; a day and a half later, after changes in Berlin, Prague and Vienna I woke in Transylvania and spent the rest of the day sitting in the dining car drinking red wine and reading Sherlock Holmes. And there is in my memory a long, confused series of preparations for flights to Africa: Dar es Salaam (four), Kampala (four), Harare (twice more). All of these were adventures, on almost all of them I travelled alone.
And what about my honeymoon. The greatest departure of them all. We spent our wedding night, and the next, in Bath and on the Monday morning a taxi drove us across England’s green heart to Gatwick. There we boarded a plane to Seville. I remember the moment I sat back and let my head hit the headrest. That was the moment the hullabaloo of our wedding really ended, I could let go all of the procedures and rictus exhibiting that accompanied this happiest of experiences, and Clara and I entered a new time in our lives.