The Joys of Planespotting

A holiday at Heathrow promises to transform the way we experience the airport

One of the most distinctive features of the developed world is how ugly it can seem. What a good mood one has to be in not to be saddened by the appearance of the majority of airports, shopping centres and housing estates. Our way of coping with the ugliness is generally to keep our eyes half-shut, then on holiday scurry to certain unspoilt pockets of the earth where we can, for a few days at least, gain relief by looking at, for example, the hills of the Lake District.

But before we settle too comfortably into this narrative of modern ruination, from Grasmere to Brent Cross, it’s worth remembering that when it comes to a fitting holiday destination, there isn’t in truth anything inevitable or natural about what we describe as “beautiful” and “ugly”. For example, it was not until the end of the 18th century that anyone ever thought of describing the Lake District as beautiful. For most of human history, mountainous regions had been thought of as frightful places which must have been overlooked by God during his Creation. It was only a selection of great artists, and in particular Wordsworth, who persuaded the British public that there might in fact be something to revere in the northern English hills. It was Wordsworth who taught us to be charmed and even recite by heart hymns to butterflies and sonnets on celandines.

So we overlook certain places because nothing has ever prompted us to conceive of them as worthy of appreciation. We could conceive of many works of art as immensely subtle instruments for telling us what amounts in effect to: “Look at the sky of Provence, redraw your notion of Amsterdam, do justice to motorway service stations at night.” And in so far as we travel in search of beauty, works of art may in small ways start to influence to where we would like to travel.

Knowing how flexible humans can in truth be in their sense of a good destination, some friends and I have started a new kind of holiday company, whose chief aim is to get us to look anew and with greater sympathy at the landscapes of modernity. The company won’t take you to the Austrian Alps or the shores of Barbados, but it will try to interest you in the neglected charms of a range of locations of modern life. For example, you’re offered a chance to enroll on a two-day journey around the Isle of Wight with the photographer Martin Parr, who will encourage you to look at the British seaside through his eyes (as Wordsworth taught us to look at Windermere through his), and to find poetry in windswept piers and blinking neon arcades smelling of old beer and chips. Alternatively, you can book to go on a journey up the M1, marvel at embankments and bridges, take in the Hopper-esque beauty of Travelodges and, from the vantage point of a service station cafeteria, gaze out at passing lorries, carrying in industrial quantities items one tends to think of only on a domestic scale.

The holiday I’m most interested in is a two-day trip I’m leading to Heathrow in November. It’s almost routine now to describe Heathrow as hideous and to indulge in competitive accounts of just how brutally one has been separated from one’s luggage there. In the current climate, to say that one enjoys going to the airport, perhaps enjoys it far more than one’s ultimate destination, is to risk accusations of insanity. And yet throughout my life whenever I have felt miserable or listless, I’ve derived vital solace from driving out to Heathrow and wandering the terminals or sitting in the observation room at the Renaissance Hotel, taking in the ceaseless landings and take-offs. The arrival and departure halls are areas of particular resonance: you can sit in Costa Coffee on the upper floor of Terminal 2 and see all of life before you, the prospect of flight somehow releasing inhibitions. There’s even beauty in the overhead displays announcing flights to exotic destinations: Rio, Tokyo, Mumbai – places which won’t be without all the troubles we know from our own lives, but on to which we can – for a time, at least – project our fantasies of happiness. Looking at a departure screen, with 50 minutes to go before an A380, Airbus’s new Behemoth, takes off for Singapore, one gets a sense of how easily one’s settled life could change if, impulsively, one joined a plane flying to where one knew no one and had no history.

The group (15-strong) will be staying at the new Yotel capsule hotel near the back of Terminal 4. It’s an ideal place to look at big planes from Canada, Brazil, Pakistan, Korea. For a few hours, their wingtips are only a few metres apart, before each set begins another journey into the stratospheric winds. We’ll study the choreographed dance of the disembarkation process: the way trucks slip to the underbelly of the plane, black fuel hoses are fastened to the wings, a gangway bends its rectangular rubber lips over the fuselage and the doors of the holds are opened to withdraw battered aluminium cargo crates, perhaps containing fruit that only a few days ago hung from the branches of tropical trees or vegetables that had their roots in the soil of high silent valleys. We’ll watch passengers disembark for whom an ordinary English day will have a supernatural tinge, passengers who will be especially sensitive to the nuances of the nation’s identity expressed in such details as light fixtures, smells and the colour scheme of the BAA carpets.

We’ll be meeting some people, too: a man who has spent the past 20 years, every Saturday morning, photographing jets taking off and landing on the south runway. His work is a covert plea for us to consider industry as no less deserving of our attention than art. In his eyes, it is mere snobbery that causes us to devote inordinate time to the treasures of Renaissance Italy, while walking past the aesthetic aspects of today’s machinery. We’ll also meet representatives of the Sikh community, who are dominant in the engineering department at British Airways. The very people who ensure that the British are able to fly abroad have themselves come from far away and yet are now firmly rooted in neighbourhoods near the airport, where one finds some of the best Indian food outside the subcontinent. We’ll be having dinner in one with a Sikh with a superlative knowledge of every replaceable part of a Rolls Royce Trent engine.

And we’ll also think of the airport as it’s seen through the eyes of artists who have loved it: the novelist J.G. Ballard, the photographer Wolfgang Tillmans, the filmmaker Wim Wenders. It is their attention and celebration of this unlikely locale that will inspire us on our own two-day journey to nowhere. As Oscar Wilde famously quipped, there was very little fog in London before Whistler started to paint.

With any luck, after a holiday at Heathrow, it will be a little harder to dismiss it as chaotic and tedious and its muddle of terminals will come to have some of the charms that we’ve long associated with standard tourist destinations. As a result, we’ll learn to be a little more at home in our world.

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