Transatlantic litany of gins
Dispatch from 40,000 feet: Awkward encounters with airplanes.
It’s a big day, and big days start early.
Today started with a 7am alarm and a 30-second cuddle as a loin-girding effort.
Then, a last check to make sure everything was packed (it wasn’t), a frantic assessment whether all perishable items had been removed from fridge (they hadn’t) and all bin and food waste safely excreted outdoors (also, no).
Then there was a mad dash to drop three kids at school on time (fail) and make sure the other one had a robust sick bag (pass).
And then we were off to London Heathrow’s Terminal 5, which has upscaled considerably since the day — almost nine years ago, to the day — when I took a pregnancy test in the bathroom opposite Boots and discovered, yep, I was pregnant. (Side note: The resulting child is the one vomiting extravagantly en route to the airport.)
So why? What’s the big deal with this big day?
We’re Going To America.
It’s been almost six years since I last set foot in the States (or indeed anywhere on the North American continent). I am, as you may have deduced, half-American and half-Irish. The American half is not Irish; the Irish half has nothing to do with America. I last went to America in 2017 to get aforementioned child a US passport. This was pre-Trump and I often wonder what it’s like these days.
Now, to be very clear, I’m a terrible flier. My palms become moist, my heart flips and I feel like puking more or less continuously, from take-off until landing and for several hours (days) before. This, despite the fact that I lived in Southeast Asia for over five years and used to be a veteran of the 12 hour BA flight from Heathrow to Bangkok. (I have the Avios points to prove it and, once, slept 11 out of the 12 hours and arrived in London better rested than I’d been for months).
But that was then, this is now.
Now, I’m a nervous (almost) 38 year old with a sore back and a kid and a boyfriend who is hell-bent on joking about terrorists and catastrophic mid-Atlantic descents as we queue for security checks. I remember Erica Jong (remember her?) who wrote in Fear of Flying that she was convinced that the only thing that kept the plane aloft was her concentrated attention, gripped fingernails in armrests, for every second of the flight. An even-momentary lapse of concentration would send the plane plummeting.
This resonated so strongly with me that I still think of it every time I fly. Sometimes I catch myself not paying attention and immediately hone back in. Where are we? What speed? What altitude? What’s the headwind like? I watch the moving map and the in-flight data with the assiduity of a trainee pilot.
The funny thing is I have a brain that is well-trained in logic. I know how safe flying is compared to, well, most other things. I also (hang onto your hats!) happen to know the ins and outs of aircraft finance — the vast network of covenants in place to guarantee the security of the financing bank’s investment; the rigour with which planes are maintained and tested to ensure that there isn’t the slightest whiff of a breach of covenants, which would trigger a default under the financing arrangements. I am intimately familiar with the minutiae with which this is documented: the testing times, the service levels, the maintenance qualifications, materials, quality control. I know aircrafts are some of the most intensively contracted and regulated items in existence.
I know all of this. But it doesn’t matter. Floating untethered in 36,000 feet of air I come undone. Flying is the anxious person’s kryptonite — or at least, it is mine. Salud to more chilled-out specimens amongst us who cope with equanimity, but that is just not me.
I’m on the plane right now as I type and I’ve just had a double gin which has relaxed my white knuckles long enough to bang this keyboard. See?
Now, fingers on buzzers. Did you notice anything weird about this bottle?
Yes, it’s a Gordon’s, made to Alexander Gordon’s exacting standards since 1760-whatever — but it’s also imported. Which means it was loaded onto this hell-ship back on the other side of the Atlantic, in America. Did you know that good old Gordon’s is — in America — a fancy imported drink?! Well, now you do. I bring you this information from a remote position 36,348 ft above an elevated part of the continental shelf, west of Achill Island.
I’m also a bit shit-faced, because, you know, the Gordons, so bear with me.
But Achill Island. Have you heard of it? Have you been there? It’s weird that it has so much prominence on this map because I’ve spent a great deal of time there. It’s where a family friend has a holiday home, off in remote Dookinella (actual name of actual place), and for me it conjures the smell of peat fires, wet blown waterproofs and small houses clinging to impossible perches on the salt-battered Atlantic coast. It’s where surfers congregate in the winter months and swells pull them twenty feet up as effortlessly as a leaf in a breeze. There are weaver fish too, lurking in the sandy shallows, just under cover, ready to embed a spine in a numb un-wetsuited foot. Achill also has claims to some of the largest sea cliffs in Europe. I’ve never seen them. They are pretty inaccessible and invisible from land on the far seawards side of a steep and wild promontory. I could probably see them from this plane, if they weren’t under the consistent cloud cover that persists on the west coast of Ireland. I might even be able to see Rockall too — that nub of granite, remnant of the great south-west/north-east oriented Caledonian-Appalachian mountain ranges that were squished when the oceans of Iapetus closed to a puddle 450 million years ago and then sprawled out again into the Atlantic, carrying frozen, shit-spattered Rockall with it.
Let’s go back to flying.
Have you read Mark Vanhoenacker? He’s a British Airways pilot and he wrote Skyfaring, one of the more haunting and unique travelogues you’ll ever read. Unique because when else have you read what a pilot thinks when you thrust your piddly delicate little life into his hands above the wild North Atlantic — and haunting, because how odd to read about a thing I so loathe through the eyes of one who so loves it.
In a way, reading him has made me more sanguine about flying. Before, I just assumed pilots must all secretly be lunatics — who would do this for a living? On a daily basis? They must be insane.
And that doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.
But now I see. Pilots are poets too! And I can manage myself, and my copious anxiety, better.
“The sky’s below us! I can see the sky below us. Also, I can see the sky above us. Are we doing a 360 barrel?”
That’s my son, doing his bit to ease the terror.
I have another gin now. This one is a Tanqueray (fancy). And look!
How pleasingly symmetrical! Imported Gordon’s took a nostalgic journey home from the States to England. This Tanqueray, loaded in the UK, is now coming with us on a Stateside adventure.
What does it mean, all this export-import nonsense, except that flavours from afar always taste better.
Above the Atlantic, everything feels far and Gordon’s and Tanqueray both taste great.
There are no clouds today. It’s clear and I can see straight down almost 40,000 feet to white-capped navy seas as we approach Newfoundland, where it is always blustery. The shifting constellation of white marks waves; the rare unmoving patches, icebergs.
I remember being told once, on a pillowy flight above Thai clouds down the Malay peninsula from Bangkok to Krabi, to think how lucky we were. Every human alive in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is lucky. When you look down from a flight, you’re seeing a view that most humans who have ever lived — effectively, almost every human who has ever lived in the vast span of human history — never saw. Australopithecus to Caesar to Shakespeare. They lived and died and fought and argued about who ate all the Cheerios, without ever seeing the earth from 39,373 feet up. They crossed the Aleutian strait on the ice and walked from Siberia to Patagonia and spun out on rafts to remote Pacific archipelagos — but they never crossed the Atlantic on air. They never felt the great wonder of waking on one continent, drinking coffee and taking out the rubbish, to then alight ten hours later to pick up a rental car and drive to their cousin’s wedding on another continent, over a desolate, heaving sea.
And for that, and for many, copious in-flight gins, I remain sanguine.
So, come along. Now commencing, after a six-year absence, a ten-day Odyssean return journey to the States for a family wedding, a visit to my childhood home and a spin through one of the great cities of the world. Yes, I’m prone to grandiosity — but, never mind, here we go…..
The great eye of the world blinks, and now we are somewhere else.
Mark Vanhoenacker, Skyfaring