Tuesday, March 27, 2012

A ghost of aviation

Flying from Birmingham to Belfast on an afternoon of weak spring sunshine, filtered through light clouds as though the day is seen through misted windows. Seated by the window, the sun from the south-west bounced off roofs and windows below me, each reflection flaring briefly into life and dying again as the plane moved past, so that the view through the clouds to the ground beyond became a symphony of flares of light, like glow-worms on a summer evening. Sunlight flared on the bends of a river; a burst of gold pulsing through the deep meanders. As the clouds below me thickened, I recognised only dimly some familiar landscape features: the Dee estuary, its sandbars like the sloughed skin of some vast and mythical beast; the Irish Sea, furrowed like beaten zinc.

That same morning, I had read in the newspaper of a renewed attempt to explain the disappearance of Amelia Earhart in 1937, rumours of aeroplane wreckage in the shallow seas of a Pacific atoll, discarded remnants of western artifacts on an uninhabited island. From my air-conditioned seat with its view through a small and smeared window, I thought of the ambivalence of air travel, its contradictions and allure. It is an activity that, only eighty years ago was imbued with the explorer spirit associated with deserts and arctic wildernesses, and now is an experience of inconvenience and discomfort, of boredom and sterility. I remembered, years ago, seeing the memorial to Alcock and Brown's first transatlantic crossing, a squat cairn on the lip of a bog-filled basin on the west coast of Ireland, and the sense of crossing that vastness of the ocean stretching to the west seemed improbable, heroic.

And I found myself thinking of Amelia, Joni Mitchell's haunting song in which the loneliness and risk of solo air travel becomes a metaphor for a doomed love affair. The music inhabits a landscape where to move, to keep travelling, is the antidote to sorrow and self-doubt. It is a hymn to longing, to the desires of distance, the allure of the open skies, from an age when the oppressive heat of the mounting carbon in the air had not troubled our romantic souls. The elegy of lost love is also an elegy for the days when flight was a privilege, a rare experience, an invitation to move with the gods for one brief moment of our earth-bound lives. It is only in my generation that we can glance across the tops of cloud-seas lit by the fierce glare of full sun, and be unmoved.

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