Planes and Boats and Trains


Isn’t the best part of planning to go away buying those Lilliputian shampoos and conditioners from Superdrug?  As the threat from terrorism gets bigger, our cosmetics get tinier.  Soon we won’t be able to see them at all, or we will be carrying them around in small phials like vitamin capsules.  The British high street chemist knows well how to exploit customers and neck massive profits in the face of possible terrorism : “AHA, can’t take anything on an aeroplane larger than 100mls, eh?  Well, have this widdly diddly Aussie shampoo bottle for £2 SUCKERS.” My world has descended into miniature as I am going away on a short flight in a small plane, but my make up bag is full of extraordinary small things.  I have tiny bottles of nail polish remover, tiny bottles of moisturiser, itsy bitsy Impulse sprays which when made smaller look bizarrely like sex toys, teeny weeny toothpastes.  I feel I should be travelling with a small plastic doll, who will use these products.   When I say this is the best part of going on holiday, it’s mainly because everything else is tedious and unpleasant.

So, here’s the thing : it takes three days to get over the travel involved in a holiday.  If you need to have a proper holiday you should add about four months on to that.  That way you’re suitably rested.   But after a couple of weeks you’ll start complaining, be bored and miss the telly and decent tea.  Plus sand gets everywhere.   There is also a limit to how happy a breakfast pineapple cut into a tessellated crown shape can fulfil you in this world.  Plus there are things that make a feast of your body.   How many times have you flopped down into a well-made hotel bed somewhere exotic where mangos grow and people wear straw hats all year round and say “I can’t believe I was in Gatwick this morning!  Oh look it’s a mosquito come to eat my blood.  God, I love holidays!” 

Time stretches and does awful things to you.  When you move in physical space you seem to fall into a space time continuum where the usual rules don’t apply.  Maybe that’s because I have had so many rubbish holidays.  I once went on a week long holiday to Malta that was so horrible it lasted a month.   With an ex-boyfriend I spent two weeks in Sherborne, Dorset, but it felt like about a year.  But then again, I went to America on a holiday for three weeks but I’d swear I was only there for about 15 minutes.  And a week in Mexico flew by in a riot of wave surfing and alligator-avoiding and seemed to last about two and a half hours.  As for the time zone shift, is that not nature’s way of telling us that we are not designed to travel?  It completely ruins everything.  One moment you are toasting your new holiday under star-kissed skies, smugly bathing under the first glorious sunset of the holiday you’ve spent all year saving up for, and the next moment you are asleep with your face in a strawberry daiquiri, snoring loudly.     Jet lag takes you at about 6.30 in the evening and pushes you into bed like an irascible toddler.  On the up side, you then have the violent  inner alarm clock which sets itself in the morning, propels you out of bed, makes you think you are late for work and tells you in its own unique little way that it ain’t going back to sleep any time soon, all at 3.30am.   It’s just not worth it, jet lag.  I paid £700 to get to Mexico and what did I buy?  I bought a horrid reminder of the fact that my body owns me and not the other way around.  I had been deluded into believing things were the other way around for years.  When my body decided it was hot-chocolate-and-night-night-beddy-byes time there was no negotiation with it.  I was hostage to my own body clock.  This, for reasons I cannot understand, reminds me of death.  So, yes.    Highlands.  Yes, I’ll go to the Highlands instead!  Brilliant.  I may come back without my skin as I shall be eaten alive by midges but I won’t have to deal with the jet lag…zzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

You haven’t travelled until you’ve travelled with someone who is scared of flying.  The only time I managed to distract my husband from the fact he was in a machine travelling through the air which was using engines to defy gravity was the time I taught him gin rummy.  Like a child being distracted, he suddenly turned around and said “Have we landed? Oh I hadn’t noticed”.  But the Gin Rummy Teaching Episode was a high point, and it’s been downhill from there, mainly because once you’ve taught someone gin rummy once you can’t teach them again, and I only know one other card game, and I don’t think RyanAir will let you play strip poker.  I actually quite like the flying bit – give me a ham sandwich and a bit of turbulence and I’m very happy – because at least it’s better than the insufferable awfulness of the airport.  I only ever had one positive experience in an airport, which involved a hearty dinner and some gin and tonics with a dear friend.  We were there for hours.  Eventually our names were announced over the tannoy as our flight was about to leave.  We legged it to the Gate, only to find the Italian pilot and accompanying staff lolling about as if to say “What’s the rush?  Otherwise, airports are decidedly vile places where they trap you in somewhere called a “Lounge” for 90 minutes after the bit where they’ve decided you are / are not a terrorist.  “Shall we go through?”  “Yes, shall we go through and SIT AND EAT CRAP FOR AN HOUR AND A HALF?”  Yes, let’s.  Let’s go through where the air is so full of perfume sprays that my eyes water.  Let’s watch fat people in Wetherspoons.  Let’s queue at W H Smith and buy magazines we would never buy when we are in Sainsburys, and in our right mind, because it’s special, innit?  You’re going on holiday, aren’t you?  Oh, and let’s buy a ladies scarf from Tie Rack that no one will wear.  And then let’s sit in Pret a Manger surrounded by people who are going on holiday but who have eyes of death because they clearly don’t want to go to Majorca again.  And then – yes! – let’s kill ourselves to get away from the sheer, shuddering awfulness of it all.

I like trains.

Once, on a school ski trip, an incident involving a lost passport at an airport culminated in the Head of Physics having to smuggle me into France.  I thought this was very exciting.  The French allowed me to pass through undetected.  Unfortunately, I hadn’t allowed for the fact that after this bizarre episode the school trip had a theme  : the idea was they’d strap two slats of wood to my legs and propel me from a mountain.   Not likely, I thought, promptly feigned ‘flu and stayed in my bunk bed for 5 days, my only comfort being a bright pink-jacketed novel by Barbara “call me Babs” Cartland and the occasional Surgical-Spirit scented visits of the school matron.  It astonished me then and it continues to astonish me now- people go away in order to throw themselves off mountains.  And – worse still – they call it a “holiday”.

Whenever I am away from London ,and particularly in the countryside, I basically turn into the Scottish croft-cottage-living wife that Peggy Ashcroft plays in the original film of The 39 Steps. There she is, all Scottish Presbyterian modesty and trying not to be impressed by the dashing, delightful Robert Donat as he chases spies across the Highlands.  She asks him about London and what it’s like.  She is agog whilst gutting a fish.  Off he goes, making her salivate with the descriptions of Piccadilly Circus in 1934, of late Saturday nights, of the theatres turning out and Quaglinos beckoning them in, and general city stories of gentlemen “larging it” 1930s stylee.  Eventually, carried away by the robust mental picture he is painting of Londoners going out and getting mullered, she asks “And is it – and is it true that in London – the ladies PAINT THEIR TOENAILS?”

“Some of them, yes….” he says, looking suave and attractive and not a little cosmopolitan.

When I’m away, London is a place of painted toenails.  There is a slither of a sense that something exciting is going on just out of reach. When we are away, London gets ludicrous.  We think it exists, I mean, it must exist, mustn’t it?  But we can’t quite imagine it.  In imagination, it becomes so much pleasanter.  If you are travelling to a remote countryside area, London seems an unreal universe, thousands of light years away, impossible to conjure.  For a big city, it gets smaller and smaller, until it fades out of our sensory world.  Crumpled Costa loyalty cards and Oyster card payment receipts flutter out of our handbags onto countryside floors as if they were remnants of another era and another people.  What is this? Stamp for each coffee and get a free coffee? It is covered with the grime and the rush of Bond Street station at 3.23 on a Tuesday afternoon.  It speaks of rapidity, noise and muggy, twice-breathed London air.  It seems to come from another time.

London from a distance is a city of gold and beauty, because your memory decides it’s going to forget the bad bits.  I don’t know why this is, but I would like to believe that it is because our minds have a chemical balance towards optimism.   The word London invites some kind of special promise and weight if you are in Lisbon.  This is odd, because we certainly don’t think that when we are on your way to our busy offices in the morning.  But there are transcendental moments here, in this grand city of ours, just as there is in the countryside.  And it is these transcendental moments that make our lives here somewhat giddy and glorious, and worth living. Being Londoners we are moulded by its stone.  We begin the dreaded holiday resolution list, the one that starts “when I am back from holiday I shall….”  We shall return to the City, and we shall make anew our bonds of loyalty to London.  We shall go to a museum.  We shall eat sandwiches on those pretty benches in front of the Thames outside the National Film Theatre.  We will stop to look at the river.  We will inhale the scent of the ground floor of Selfridges. We won’t waste the city.  We shall go to the theatre and walk more.  Won’t we?

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  The blog is usually updated every single Thursday, but this week I decided to be perverse and posted on a Wednesday instead.  Please return on Thursday 21st June, unless you are a pagan and will instead by busy dancing on Primrose Hill and beckoning in the Summer Solstice.

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