Destination… Airport

Have you visited your airport recently?

Not for anything to do with travel, but just to hang out. Because the clever airport rebranding folk have come up with The Airport Visit as something to do. Just for fun. I kid you not. Actually, there’s quite a bit to be said for it. More interesting than a day in Sockburn and cheaper than a trip to Phuket, an airport is a bit like a mall with benefits.

But what’s it like to be at an airport with no travel purpose in mind? It certainly enhances the appeal of the book  100 Places You Will Never Visit. But, no matter what, I love airports. Alain de Botton beat me to what could have been my dream job when he landed the position of Writer in Residence at Heathrow for a week. But there’s nothing to stop me from blogging from Christchurch International Airport, so here goes.

You’ll be spoilt for choice insofar as cafés are concerned. I settled myself in with my cappuccino and got right down to my favourite airport activity – people watching: retired travellers endlessly checking boarding passes, harried mothers with overexcited children, cool businessmen praying they don’t get seated next to them on the flight. And weaving their superior way through this mêlée are the pilots, co-pilots and flight attendants. Perhaps not quite a glamorous as the Trolley Dollies in the latest TV series PanAm, but surely free of suspender belts at least!

Air travel is a peculiar beast – lacking the romance of train travel or the languor of a cruise, it has failed to generate a body of literature to commend it. My best find is the evocatively named Airports and Other Wasted Days. But sitting in a terminal, you have to marvel at how much air travel has changed. Time was when people dressed up to fly overseas, like the passenger in this old Christchurch Airport 1950 photo who is wearing furs and a hat and is surrounded by men in suits and uniforms. Now it’s baggy pants and Crocs all the way.

Now I know that a trip to the airport is not going to be an easy option to sell to the kiddies (some of whose friends have parents who are actually going to travel with their children) and I never said  an airport outing would be cheap. All I’m saying is: you too can get that travel buzz, buy chocolate coated “Sheep Dropping” raisins at a Duty Free, smell of three conflicting perfumes, wave to a pilot, misidentify jets to trusting youngsters and do it all on a spectacular caffeine high.

And what’s more, not once in the whole outing will a whining child say to you:

“Are we there yet?”

Come Fly With Me

Many long haul flights have left me with two obsessions: my pursuit of the Perfect Travel Outfit followed closely by my search for the Best Ever Plane Read. I’m about to fly a long, long way in a couple of weeks and I am hoping I will be in line for some good plane read suggestions as a result of this blog.

Never one to keep things simple however, I have over time, created a set of draconian requirements with regard to my plane reads. First up, the book must be bought at an airport outlet – buying at Scorpio’s before I leave is cheating. No mention whatsoever must be made of plane crashes or even plane adventures. And the writing must grab me from the first sentence – this is a book that is going to have to compete with fidgeting fellow passengers, pilot announcements, in-flight entertainment systems and regular small trays of fiddly food.

Even with all those restrictions, there have been memorable successes and at least one dire failure. I count India Knight’s My Life on a Plate as a resounding success – any book that can make you laugh when you are in emigration flight from one country to the next must be good.

Nigel Marsh’s Fat Forty and Fired cheered me up at  Adelaide Airport at 2am after numerous flight delays and the news that I myself had just been made redundant. Deborah Moggach with These Foolish Things gets several gold stars after keeping me well entertained on a flight from Cape Town to Heathrow. On the other hand The Shack by William P. Young made me want to fling myself, screaming, out of the plane in mid-flight from Sydney to Johannesburg and is high on my list of Worst Books I Have Ever Read.

I picked up my most recent successful travel read at Bangkok Railway Station and started to read The Coroner’s Lunch by Colin Cotterill on the long, freezing cold, air-conditioned , underfed but scenically stunning train trip to Chiang Mai. I love all things Thai and almost every part of that holiday last year was perfect. But one day I woke up and over yet another strange Thai breakfast, I finally cracked and said to Greg: “If I do not get to eat real bread sometime to-day,  I fear I may start behaving badly”.

So he went cycling and I followed Sarah Coursey of Papanui’s directions to The Blue Diamond Cafe. Full to the brim with aging and soon to be aging hippies, the Blue Diamond Cafe bakes its own bread, washes its salads in bottled water and smells of real coffee and wafty sandalwood incense. My internal organs gave a little cheer when I spied barrels of bread rolls that screamed out Wholewheat, Organic and Heavy. In this lovely environment, I settled down for a feed and a read.

And it was only then that I realised that Colin Cotterill actually lives in Chiang Mai. I allowed myself a moment’s optimistic fantasy that he would see me and come across to sign his book. Regrettably that did not happen, but it is a cracker of a little read and I don’t know why he isn’t at least as popular as Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma Ramotse in Botswana. In fact Ramotse and Dr Siri should get together and make us all happy.

Very soon I will be standing outside a newsagent at Sydney airport, gearing myself up to enter and choose the perfect long haul read. Think of this as the holiday equivalent of  the Posh Report versus Claims Returned. Which will it be? Only you can help.

Imagine a week at the airport?

I’m not a great fan of flying, but being an avid people watcher I find nothing better than sitting at arrivals and departures and finding myself being pulled briefly into other people’s lives.   Surely then one of the best writing jobs would be the writer in residence at Heathrow Airport?

Alain de Botton, billed on the Heathrow Airport website as one of the world’s most respected philosophical authors , and author of  The pleasures and sorrows of work and The architecture of happiness, was given this opportunity by BAA, a British airport company that owns the likes of Heathrow and Gatwick. An obvious promotional tool, De Botton was however given a free rein as to what he wrote, and passengers could see what he was writing on large screens placed behind him.  Out of this experience came A week at the airport : A Heathrow diary.

The Guardian weekly was rather lukewarm in its response to the book.

De Botton’s run-ins with priests, shoe-shiners and pilots provide a nice glimpse behind the scenes of a familiar facade, but don’t turn to the book for industry analysis, journalistic dirt-digging or flashy first-person writing: it’s as chipper and soothing as an air stewardess.

Nothing wrong with a bit of chipper I say, and I have this book on my list of soothing books to read.