Coming Down to Earth: a traveller’s lockdown life

How are you doing? The pandemic has touched so many of our lives. I hope that you and yours have suffered nothing more than the inconvenience of the lockdown, but of course that’s not the case for all of us.

Over these homebound weeks, I’ve been looking out of my study window. Beyond the horizon I’ve imagined launching myself on far flung journeys: trekking Nepal’s high Annapurna trail, savouring spicy breakfast mohinga in rural Burma or paddling a canoe across the dark mirror of a Canadian lake and leaving a trail of twisting whirlpools in my wake. In the coming months, travel restrictions will be eased — both around the block as well as across the continents — and within a year the virologists should have found a Covid-19 vaccine. But there will be more frightening viruses in the coming years, and further epidemics, hence to my mind our future behaviour will change — will need to change — to confront a greater danger.

All my life I have been moved by aeroplanes. At four months old a silver-bellied, three-finned Super Constellation flew me from Vancouver, where I was born, to Toronto, where we would live. A year later I crossed the Atlantic on my mother’s lap in a Bristol Britannia Whispering Giant, the first commercial aircraft to fly non-stop between America and Europe. When I was eight my father took me to Washington DC on a TCA Viscount to gaze at the Wright Brother’s Kitty Hawk Flyer. The Flyer’s historic hop — man’s first powered, heavier-than-air flight — had lasted 12 seconds. At twelve years old I shivered above the Arctic in a breezy DC-3. At thirteen I laughed out loud when a float plane lifted me up in a rainbow of spray from the Muskoka lakes. In 1967 I drank my first glass of wine on my first Big Jet, a BOAC Boeing 707, then fell in love with my first stewardess. She wore white gloves, a waisted navy uniform and winged pill box hat.

When I moved to Europe I began to catch aircraft like buses. Twice a year I was carried home by Freddie Laker, PEOPLExpress and on the maiden Virgin Atlantic New York flight. Two dozen times I rattled down the Berlin Air Corridor at 10,000 feet, far below the PanAm 737’s ideal cruising altitude but within range of Soviet anti-aircraft guns. I lost an engine above Rangoon, crossed the Pacific on bankrupt Continental and once had a Qantas jumbo — designed for 456 passengers — all to myself (but only from Melbourne to Sydney). I lost a lover in LAX and found another at London Gatwick. My first travel story won a competition and a flight on Concorde, delivering me to JFK an hour before I’d left Heathrow. Above Seattle I dined on ‘a collation of smoked salmon, sevruga caviar and prawn sushi’ and brown-bagged it on an Ilyushin 86 in an ice storm near Minsk. And every aircraft I boarded, from a Fairchilds Pilgrim to the Airbus A380, across tropical tarmac or cattle-like through a docking bay, thrilled me: the click of the seat belt, the start of engines, the surge of power, the hurtle down the runway, the anticipation of the miracle.

I have been lucky enough to live through a golden age of flight, the aeroplane lifting me body and soul, enabling me to become a travel writer. It let me feel at home in Toronto, London, Berlin and so many places in-between (on Crete I built my own flying machine, as pictured). Above all, aeroplanes taught me that much more links us than separates us. In the back row of a Boeing I learned that there are no island nations.

Now in our changing age, I realise that we need to limit long-haul air travel while at the same time resisting the temptation to be insular. For as frightening as is the pandemic, it is part of the greater emergency. Both Covid-19 and the climate crisis arise from humanity’s callous exploitation of the world. Neither respects national borders. Our control of nature — on which modern life depends — has been exposed as tenuous and fragile. Future, truly catastrophic pandemics, zoonotic mutations and extended stages of global warming will be mitigated only if we can devise a new multilateralism. We need to work together. We need to resist the seduction of simplistic, phobic nationalism so as to ensure that post-Covid-19 society is reordered for the common good.

For me, this is our post-pandemic future. This is our new, coming-down-to-earth responsibility, with the realisation that our security at home depends on cooperation abroad. So I’ll start — once the lockdown lifts — by curtailing my time at 20,000 feet. I accept that I’ll never reach many of my fancied, far afield destinations. You?

Today we all need something to lift our spirits, if not our bodies. If you fancy 28 minutes of pre-pandemic globe-trotting jollity, do check out my just-posted Spectator “Table Talk” podcast on dining on dynamited-fish with a Burmese drug lord, singing a duet with David Bowie in a Berlin lavatory, and how my mother was the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s Miss Moneypenny.

In this “Desert Island Dishes” podcast, I also chat about Russia’s chicken tsar and the food behind the researching and writing of Pravda Ha Ha (now shortlisted for the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year Award and chosen as a Travel Book of the Year by the Financial Times). I am sorry not to be able to talk about the book in person, as Hay, Edinburgh and many other summer festivals have been cancelled. But in September I will be at the Berlin International Book Festival.

In advance of that, in an attempt to stay in touch with writers and readers at home and abroad, I’ve been writing guest blogs for others’ newsletters and contributed to a Writers’ Way anthology. I’ve drafted the synopsis for the next book. I’ve also become an Arvon 1-1 tutor offering a one-to-one live conversation via Zoom or Skype.

As ever, please don’t hesitate to drop me a line and now, more than ever, take care of yourself.

May 25, 2020