This morning I received an email from Ryanair, describing the precautions they have put in place to deal with Covid-19. Far from reassuring, these precautions indicate what an even more miserable business flying is going to become. On top of all the usual indignities of flying — the cramped conditions, the endless waiting around in soulless airport lounges — everyone will now have to wear a face mask at all times.
For those of us who find the recycled air of the airplane cabin already disturbingly artificial, this will feel like a suffocation. And no, my kids won’t keep theirs on. And yes, the people sitting next to us will have a go at them for this. Also, there will be no queuing allowed for the toilets — maybe we will have to take a numbered ticket — so it’s probably best if you just hold it in. And if, on the morning of travel, you wake up with a temperature, they are going to send you home.
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What was already a pretty hellish experience is about to become doubly so. Presumably, with demand collapsing, we are all going to have to pay more for the pleasure. And who knows what you are going to catch cooped-up in some metal petri dish for hours on end. Social distancing? In economy class? I don’t think so.
Flying was supposed to be freedom. Our access to a few days of sunshine. An escape to other worlds, a chance to broaden the mind. Well, if this is freedom you can stick it where the sun don’t shine. I will shed no tears for the demise of cheap flying. You don’t have to be a member of Extinction Rebellion to care about the effect that mass air travel has had on our planet. There will be much to celebrate when these polluting monstrosities are grounded.
But what of that cliched assumption that travel, and air travel in particular, is a mind-expanding experience — that travel is inherently educational, a chance to experience new cultures, different food and languages, a way of coming to appreciate that the way you think about things is not the only way to think about things? Before air travel, such experiences were the preserve of the rich, going on their grand tours. With cheap air travel all this was democratised. And so, for many people, the world has become a bigger place. This mind expanding aspect of travel is fundamentally moral. As Mark Twain put it in The Innocents Abroad:
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
The problem here is that Twain died in 1910 and the world’s first commercial flight didn’t take place until four years later. And air travel has not fulfilled much of the moral mission he ascribes to travel in general. If anything, it’s done the opposite.
There is a paradox here. People often travel to experience difference. But by travelling, they create sameness. From the ‘Fish’n’ Chip’ shops of southern Spain, to Disneyland Shanghai, to the increasingly ubiquitous culture of the international hotel, with their near identical menus and styling, the more we travel, the more that genuine difference is eradicated.
Furthermore, locals know that the tourist dollar flows to those who present themselves as the tourist expects them to be, not as they really are. Far from broadening the mind, quick in-out air travel often just serves to cement the preconceived ideas of the tourist. As GK Chesterton avidly observed “travel narrows the mind”.
Of course, part of my agenda here is a hostility to globalisation, of which the commercial aircraft has long been at the vanguard. In 2005, that would-be prophet of globalisation Thomas Friedman wrote a book called The World is Flat: A brief history of the twenty-first century. The flatness he sought was a level playing field created by free trade. In this flat world of global trade, differences and divisions between people become increasingly meaningless. The power of the nation state recedes as the needs of global commerce break down all barriers to its final hegemony. The price paid by this flat world of global commerce is the homogenisation of culture. Everything becomes the same.
But there is a deeper, almost spiritual problem with the ‘globe-trotting as freedom’ philosophy that is embedded in the lure of commercial air travel. “Sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything” was the advice of one of the most famous of the fourth century desert fathers, Abba Moses. The idea is that staying put is a way to face your demons and deal with them.
In this tradition, those who are constantly restless for new experiences are suspected of trying to run away from the things they should be facing. If you are dissatisfied with life, you will probably be dissatisfied wherever you are; if you find relationships difficult, you will do so in China or Scotland; if you are cynical, a new view from your window won’t change that. The thing about travel is that you have to take yourself with you.
In the monastic tradition, ‘stay put’ is not about confinement. It is a liberating invitation to explore where you are and who you are. In an age where ‘somewhere else’ always seems to be the answer, this desire to settle needs to be recovered and rehabilitated.
Perhaps this is just a little too abstract. There are many — including my family — who are divided by considerable distances. Only air travel will allow my children to see their grandparents. Nothing is ever quite as clear cut as we want it to be. But the need to address our global restlessness is another matter.
I have on my shelf a wonderful little book by Madeline Bunting called The Plot. It’s the story an acre of Yorkshire land on which her father built a chapel. It’s a beautiful account of the importance of place, and staying loyal to place: staying put. It begins with a quote from the Western Apache that has long stayed with me: “Wisdom sits in places”.
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