Long before man had constructed the machinery of flight he had dreamt of it: Icarus and his waxy wings, Pegasus galloping amongst the clouds, Hanuman the monkey god’s short-stop hop from India to Sir Lanka. For us mere mortals, however, flight is not possible without the clunkiest of technologies, yet the dreams of transcendence and escape persist in that most mundane theatre of mass transport: the airport.
‘If a place can be defined as relational, historical and concerned with identity,’ argues Mark Augé in his book, Non-Places, ‘then a space which cannot be defined as relational, or historical, or concerned with identity, will be a non-place… Supermodernity produces non-places. For Augé you can’t get a better example of a non-place than an airport: technologically sophisticated, excessively sign-posted, aspiring to the condition of personnel-less operation, addicted to the idea of isolated individuals rather than social groups, part and parcel of the acceleration of history and the shrinking of the world.
But try looking at the ‘non-place’ of the airport a bit more closely: not just as a place to go through or rather to be got through – since as passengers we are passive, human items to be processed and sent packing – but as an entity in itself. Next time you’re checking in, check out your fellow passengers too and you will see their faces register a familiar spectrum of ‘airport expressions’: a combination of excitement, fear, anxiety, hope (all held in check). And if you glace at the duty-free window and see yourself, there’s that same look staring back. For far from being an emotionless depersonalized transport-factory, the airport is abuzz with humanity: not yet on the runway, people have already embarked on their own inner flights of fantasy.
All around people pat their pockets and recite the travellers’ rosary sotto voce – ticket-passport-money: check. Has anything been forgotten in the last-minute flurry of packing. Did I remember to turn off the gas and put out the cat? Will the place take off on time? What if there’s a bomb scare? A crazed terrorist on board? What if there’s no one to meet me at the other end? Why am I leaving? Who am I going to?
Wrenched from the relational, historical and identity-affirming place of ‘home’, we clutch our passports like shields, protecting a suddenly fragile sense of self. We regress into children, helpless and trusting that the parent-airport will deliver us safely down its gleaming chrome tubes back into the world. We stumble and blink into another country from our new-age incubator, and in the pantomimes of relief and delight performed by the new arrivals one can detect more than the standard ‘hail fellow, and well met’ greetings you’ll see at train stations. Perhaps the identity-shrivelling experience of air travel suggests that in those excessive arrival embraces what we crave is not necessarily love, but recognition – a re-uniting of our selves with our identities by a third party.
Airports engender a peculiarly modern phenomenon – the heightened sense of isolation among many people summed up with chilling clarity in the first sentence of Don DeLillo’s novel Mao II: ‘The future belongs to crowds’. Yet there is a paradoxically liberating effect to all this alienation, as though the blanker and more faceless the backdrop, the more heightened by contrast the play of human emotions. The English, notoriously unwilling to express emotion even in the privacy of their own homes, can sob and shout and gleefully hug at airports. And the possibilities of romance are, well, endless…
The adrenaline kick of air-travel is also addictive: tearful farewells proof – in public! – that you’re loved enough to be missed, and tearful greetings proof – if any were needed – that you’re loved enough to be wanted back. What luxury to be traveling between two longings. And who knows what will happen en route? Perhaps you’ll be seated next to that gorgeous lanky guy you spotted at passport control, whose monogrammed suitcases and furrowed brow bespeak a sensitive soul and, just possibly, a passionate nature. More likely, of course, you’ll find yourself jostling for elbow space with a Texan tubing company executive with halitosis bent on talking your ear off clear into the next time zone. But one can dream…
Walk into an airport and you’re walking on to the set of your very own film. Of course, modern airports are a far cry from Bogart and Bergman – tears forced from the corners of your longing eyes by the juddering propellers of your leaving lover’s flight – but they still feature in countless Hollywood or Bollywood dramas: that first chance meting, that final embrace, reconciliation or abandonment. The very mundanity of the ‘non-place’ of the airport seems to demand swelling violins.
For as you queue up at passport control, or step onto the articulated bus to take you across the tarmac, or clamber up the metal steps to the plastic smile of the waiting stewardess, don’t you keep looking back? Hoping for the sudden appearance of your beloved running at full tilt, passport held aloft, hair streaming, shouting your name with tears of forgiveness, repentance, love, passion starting from his eyes, his arms outstretched and ready to embrace a new beginning? I know I do. Even on a two-day business trip. The quintessentially modern romance of the airport is a drug, and I’m ready – bags packed, passport-ticket-money in hand – to be hooked.
1st published Glyndebourne Touring Opera notes for Jonathan Dove’s opera Flight (1998)