|19-25 August 2007|
|Sun, 19 Aug
Surely any moderate-minded person with an ounce of common sense and a pinch of healthy skepticism will assure themselves the stories we read about the abomination that is Heathrow Airport are at least slightly exaggerated. This is my feeling as the British Airways 747 Megatube descends gracefully past the green and pleasant sewage treatment plants of London's western suburbs and approaches runway 27L. Washington DC's Dulles Airport has improved its procedures noticeably since my last visit, with immigration and (virtually non-existent) customs lines and procedures taking barely 10 minutes. The UK capital's main airport, while on an admittedly bigger scale, must have continued adapting more or less as well to the needs of the post-2001, War on Terror, no-shampoo-allowed era of international travel.
|My first task on landing is to stand in the aisle and cut off the oaf who has been sitting in front of me, squirming, stretching and testing the load-bearing capacity of his seat in every way imaginable for seven hours. Trapping the hyperactive claustrophobe in his little space for an extra five minutes while we wait for the doors to open will serve as punishment for not calmly submitting to the confines of the cabin and Sitting Still like everyone else. On being released from the airplane, the procession of travellers strides noisily down a ramp and along a narrow, ill-lit corridor. The herd then turns right into another gloomy tunnel, with little portholes on one side revealing rows of docked airliners from around the world. We then trundle to the left, into yet another murky channel, with barely enough room for sensible people who carry bags on their shoulders to kick idiots' space-consuming little cases on wheels out of the way. This 100-yard stretch of prefabricated structure and nylon carpet has framed pictures of cute animals along one wall, which naturally puts everyone into a relaxed mood of sublime well-being. The next leg of the journey is along a passage that is twice as wide as the previous ones, the extra space being occupied by a moving walkway that is out of order.|
|At this stage, passengers connecting to onward flights are prodded into another area, where they are sorted by size and forced to remove their shoes before passing through a series of security checks just like the ones they went through on the other side of the Atlantic. The rest of us proceed along yet another dimly lit hallway, this time sloping upwards, until we reach a large, temporary looking hall into a crowd of people of every colour and creed on the planet, wearing a wide variety of bright ethnic outfits. They are Government officials, tasked to sift through every batch of arrivals, sending us into different lines according to whether we hold UK, Irish, European Union member state, Norwegian, Swiss or for the truly unfortunate 'other' passports.
The latter group get the privilege of joining an extremely long line of humanity, snaking its way into the distance. At the end of it, the victims parade one by one into a bare, concrete chamber where a burly man in a leather apron puts a stun gun to their forehead and hoists them up by their legs onto a suspended hook on a cable that transports them into a rendering facility where they are processed for pet food. The rest of us, after standing in line for ages reading posters saying our patience is appreciated, are eventually allowed to pass the immigration desks. I am asked where I have flown in from and take a full 20 seconds to remember. After picking my way along yet another strip of furry artificial flooring and through a cavern full of conveyor belts where fools who check baggage in lie in starving piles waiting to be bulldozed into mass graves, I get to Her Majesty's Customs. Overweight, uniformed women let black sniffer dogs rub their disgusting wet noses against people's luggage. Interestingly, the canines choose to check only travellers that are their own colour. I stroll through and out into a welcoming area full of loud announcements, even louder signage and grim-looking people waiting to greet their loved ones or pre-booked taxi customers. This is where Heathrow proper starts. It is so vile, I can't bring myself to describe it.
|Mon, 20 Aug
After wending his way through the unspeakable loathsomeness of Heathrow, into what sort of country does the weary traveller emerge? When I left Hong Kong, it was a humid 90 degrees, and only a fleeting evening breeze wafting between the skyscrapers relieved the slightly clammy feel of T-shirt, shorts and sandals against my skin. In the idyllic exurbia around Washington DC, where the development is so sparse it seems the urban area is being consumed by forestation rather than the other way round, it is 80 and drier than usual, and the only people wearing jackets and long pants are the military staff commuting to the Pentagon in their pressed green uniforms. In the still, magnolia-scented air, I was gently fanning myself with a Defense News.
|Now, in Stonegallows Hall, several hours west of London, I shiver and peer at the calendar hanging from an ancient hook embedded in the cold, granite kitchen wall. It was August in Asia, and in North America. It must be here. But the thermometer outside the window stubbornly insists that the temperature is 59F on the left, and a second opinion definitely being in order 19C on the right. From the lead-coloured sky, a chilly northern wind hurls icy drops of rain to the ground. It's been like this all summer, my mother sighs. My father begs to disagree. It was warm and sunny on that day! he exclaims, jabbing the month of July with his shooting stick. And the next morning! It was the day the village Neighbourhood Watch had a barbecue and when everyone went back in the evening their homes had all been burgled. He shuffles off to the living room to put another log on the fire. The mile-long queue of wretches at the airport clamouring to get into this country remains one of the world's great inexplicable mysteries. We have, at least, an extensive collection of Victorian children's books to peruse, to prompt inspiring memories of a time when, rather than sit around whining about the weather and teenage delinquents, folk went out and carved out an empire. This is what passes for a brighter note in these parts.|
|Wed, 22 Aug
Britain is a nation plunging into anarchy terrorized by marauding gangs of psychopathic teenagers that ride around on bicycles shooting each other and stabbing or stomping to death any adult that dares indicate the slightest disapproval. In London and Manchester, at least. A trip to the wild west's very own little Big City reveals streets stalked not so much by physical violence as aesthetic outrage. Gruesome individuals with visibly cold and possibly mildly diseased skin plod morosely around in never-washed nylon jackets and grimy, colourless woolen hats, any alertness and joy they ever had apparently sucked out of them by the semi-wintry weather and their diet of frozen fish fingers and cheap faux-chocolate. Intruding rudely into this Eastern European 1970s ambiance are garish reminders that this country is the world's fourth or fifth richest a veritable cornucopia of consumer delights, including a dazzling range of musical and other cultural events, bold Italian and Indian fusion pizzas from internationally famed culinary giants, an irresistible opportunity (though no promises) to catch sight of the planet's second-most unhappy, dull-witted and slow-moving life forms in the depths of China, and unique bitter ales. Meanwhile, back at Stonegallows Hall, the leaves are turning. This is between 50 and 51 degrees north of the equator at an elevation of a couple of hundred feet above sea level. In August. I spot several examples of such prematurely autumnal vegetation in the background behind another immense boon to the nation's economic well-being Olga the Lithuanian housepainter. On my last visit, Stonegallows was the last village in England whose population was less than 5 percent Polish/Estonian/etc. This sorry state has since ended with the arrival of the Tolvaldis family, who moved into a grasping resident's garden shed earlier in the year and now supply the community with high-quality and affordable services ranging from strawberry-picking, to elderly care, to home maintenance, to helping with German homework, to mathematics tutoring and much else. What hope would there be for Hong Kong's immensely industrious Filipino elves if these huddled, homeless, tempest-tost masses yearning to breathe free ever made it to the Big Lychee?
|Fri, 24 Aug|
|And Liverpool. I forgot Liverpool, where an 11-year-old kid has just been shot dead. This displaces the previous Big Mayhem Story in the UK media, the shooting of a Hell's Angel as he was riding his bike. The leather-clad half-gorilla in question was, we are told, a born-again Christian with Canadian connections, and a doting mother and devoted girlfriend, so perhaps in some matters of detail the killing is hugely unprecedented and noteworthy. Otherwise, since when has the shooting of a Hell's Angel been news? Prior to that, the newspapers were full of Madeleine McCann, a toddler who disappeared in May from her British parents' apartment in a Portuguese resort. This tragedy has the potential to become an epic of near-Princess Diana proportions, or at least the Lindbergh baby and JonBenet Ramsey. Suspects so far include friends, neighbours, bystanders, the family themselves and mysterious, sinister characters of Dutch, Arab and other more or less exotic origins or appearances, spied in the company of a blond child on CCTV in various parts of Europe. As for the crime itself, the little girl may have been abducted by pedophiles, snatched by a childless obsessive or perhaps the whole thing was some sort of accident. While the local police display the traditional Lusitanian standards of criminal detection that make Macau such a haven of law and order, the parents maintain a high, PR-driven profile that is heroic, unseemly or deluded, according to taste.
Back at Stonegallows, Olga the Lithuanian housepainter is merrily sanding down window sills for a handful of oats a day. A long weekend with family in Nether Drooling awaits a place that consistently beats Huish Episcopi and Westonzoyland Thrubwell to the much-coveted title of Most Primitive Settlement in the county, eschewing roads, electricity and Internet, while clinging obstinately to a life of illegal stills, witch-burning and morris dancing.
|More recommended holiday reading.