September 11 2007

Flying to New Delhi on a BOAC Comet in 1960.

“And the evening and the morning are the first day” [Genesis 1:5] – or was it the second? Certainly I left the ground in England on Friday the 19th February at 9.30 a.m., and landed at 11.00 p.m., English time, at New Delhi. And this would have been all in one day, if, in New Delhi, today had not already been tomorrow. My London 11.00 p.m. was New Delhi’s 5.00 a.m. next day. The philosophical problem defeats me: I can only report the facts.

But was it a fact? The time difference is and was GMT + 5½ hours. This is unusually inaccurate for Toynbee.

By lunch-time in the comet (sic) we were over the Ionian Sea, between Italy and Greece. Pydna? In 168 B.C. it took a fortnight for the news of the victory [the defeat of Perseus, the last king of Macedon] to reach Rome; and now here I am over Pydna an hour and twenty minutes after taking off at Rome. By five minutes past three I was looking at Asia from Istanbul airport, and the Sun was setting behind us below Thrace. At 5.00 p.m., somewhere over the Upper Euphrates or thereabouts, Istanbul airport re-contacted us with a radio message. The Queen had a son; they thought we would like to know.

Prince Andrew was born on February 19 1960.

We did like to: everybody clapped, just as if we had been standing with our faces glued to the railings of Buckingham Palace. By 6.30 we were in Tehran; and, by the time we took off again from there, New Delhi was less than four hours’ jet-flying-time away. By the end of dinner, we must have been somewhere over the middle of Afghanistan. Darkness had fallen on us ever so long ago – at the moment, in fact, at which we had left the Sea of Marmara and crossed the westernmost coast of Asia. But now the Moon was out, and I could just make out the landscape 37,000 feet below me. Those two wriggling river valleys: Could they be the Arghandab and the Helmand? If they were, I must be within a few miles of the minaret at Jam. In May it is going to take me eight or nine days to get to Jam and back from Herat, the nearest city. And here I am, being catapulted over Jam in my one day’s journey to New Delhi from London. I closed my eyes, but the word of command to fasten seat-belts woke me up to the sight of the lights of New Delhi, twinkling below me as we slithered down towards what, for me, was journey’s end (the untiring comet itself was bound for Tokyo).

Toynbee was fourteen when the Wright brothers took off.

“The craft of his engines surpasseth his dreams.” Sophocles wrote that before Man had invented even a windmill. But it was already true in Sophocles’ day. Our latest piece of clockwork, which conveyed me from London to New Delhi in 13½ hours (including stops), is indeed an astonishing piece of craftsmanship. But I shall not be content till Man the craftsman has done something for me still cleverer than that. I am waiting for the invention that will take me from London to New Delhi, as the comet does, within the day, but will take me, not up aloft, but on the ground, below the cloud-screen. My inventor must make it possible for me to do it in one day on foot, seeing everything that I want to see on the way, and arriving as fresh as when I started. When he succeeds in doing that for me, I shall concede that Man is a really clever technician.

Flying comet-wise is no solution; for just think of all that I skimmed over, blindfold, on yesterday’s (or was it already today’s) flight. After finishing lunch, I thought to myself, with happy anticipation: in a moment I am going to see again Mounts Pelion and Ossa and Olympus, and then, in another moment, Mounts Athos and Rhodope. But, after my glimpse of a stretch of the coast of the Gulf of Taranto, I did not see one thing more before the misty approach to Istanbul airport. The whole of Greece was blotted out, and so were the whole of Anatolia, Iran, and Afghanistan, except for that patch of dimly moonlit landscape within an hour’s flight [actually rather more: but he was asleep] of New Delhi. Lake Van and Lake Urmiah: What use is it to me to soar over them without catching a sight of them?

What did I actually see on this six-thousand-miles’ comet’s-progress that has thrown my time-keeping six hours out? I saw a strip of the Isle de France (sic) (a mosaic of minute snow-covered fields). I saw some Alps sticking up through the ubiquitous cloud-screen. I saw Cape Misenum and Lake Avernus as plain as on a relief map. But facilis decensus? [Virgil, Aeneid, VI.126.] Not a bit of it. There was no hope of getting down within even 10,000 feet of Avernus-level. And the clouds blotted out Naples, Vesuvius, Pompeii, and Sorrento as we swept on at our standard 520 miles an hour. So what had I seen, that day, in terms of things of really human interest? Probably I had seen less than had been seen by that man driving the bullock-cart that we are now passing on the road from New Delhi airport to the city. So, technicians, please get on with your job. When you can make me see, from a comet, as much of the World as can be seen from a bullock cart, I will give you nearly full marks. Till then, I have my reservations about Sophocles’ laudation of Man the craftsman.

BOAC was formed in 1939 from the merger of the state-subsidised Imperial Airways and the original private British Airways. It was the sole state airline from then until 1946, when British European Airways was created from part of it. In 1974, we went back to a single “national” carrier, when BOAC and BEA were merged into the revived British Airways. BA was privatised in 1987.

I flew from Abu Dhabi to London in an Airbus yesterday at the height at which Toynbee had flown in his Comet from London to New Delhi in 1960 – 37,000 feet.

Another Trucial State – Sharjah – had been an overnight rest on the Imperial Airways route to India. Until even 1970, some of the Gulf states seemed like silent outposts. Only a little Morse code might disturb the night. Now the feeling of remoteness, for strangers, has been utterly lost.

Only mountains stand out at 37,000 feet. Greenland and the North Pole are fascinating because of what and where they are. Lower down, things are more interesting. Burned into my memory forever are astounding views of Cairo and Baku. English fields can look beautiful in the late afternoon.

Yesterday, the only part of the journey which was visually interesting was as we left Syria and flew over the Turkish province of Hatay – which juts down into Syria – and passed over the Nur Mountains. Toynbee would have known where to look for the Orontes River. We must have been near Antakya (Antioch) and Iskanderun (Alexandretta): two little-visited cities – unlike Antalya. Memo to self – make time to visit this part of Turkey. Consider starting in Aleppo in Syria. You can or could fly to Aleppo direct from Paris.

Then, in Anatolia, we passed near a majestic Mount Erciyes (13,000 feet), and I could see Kayseri beyond it.

Toynbee will have had a printed route map to guide him. I had to rely on a personal screen showing our progress and on the Internet after the event. The problem with the inflight map software is that you can’t have a long topographical reverie, alternating between the window of the plane and the screen, and test yourself by it, because the screen keeps changing. Mine went through eight or nine different views, most of which told me nothing of interest. So the spell kept being broken. At the moment I needed the detailed screen it was no longer there. It doesn’t allow you to select different screens.

The displayed information is crude, random and inaccurate. The company which supplies this primitive software could do a serious deal with Google Earth and Google Maps.

Toynbee also had a sharper sense of topography than most historians now have. Historians – or others. This sense has atrophied now that we drive fast through landscapes or fly over them. Even the detailed awareness which English people used to have of England’s own topography is no longer there.

Where does the line of the Downs defend the Sussex Weald? Where do the soils change? I can remember someone in the ’70s saying that X or Y “lived at the other end of the county”, and thinking what an old-fashioned remark that was then, and not only socially. Urban and semi-urban sprawl and high buildings have helped to dull this sense – but so, at root, has the feeling that we could simply fly over it all. When a modern reader reads that this or that society was protected from invasion by mountains, doesn’t a deep part of him or her think: “Couldn’t the invaders have just gone round the mountain or found a gap?”

Flying over Afghanistan, you see mountains and valleys. And there is often no cloud. Who can be living there? What do they even know about the next valley, which you can see? Do they go there? A stunning macro-change which you can and do see from the air is the contrast between the brown Hindu Kush and the fertile and suddenly green Punjab, with its “five rivers”. (“Teeming.” Colonialist word. I thought that even in the ’80s when the Far Eastern – also “ist” – Economic Review ran a series called “Asia’s teeming cities”.)

The sky is usually more interesting from the ground than the air. There are exceptions, including sunrises, or sunsets, which can be prolonged, depending on the direction of travel. But I felt like deleting my mental bon mot “The sky is only sublime from the ground” yesterday – because the views of clouds from the high-resolution frontal camera as we started to descend were beautiful.

Between Oxus and Jumna, OUP, 1961

I bought my copy of this book, stamped London Book Co., while staying with a Pashtun friend in Peshawar, North-West Frontier Province, in September or October 1978.

4 Responses to “Flying”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    Considering that the 1960 flight landed in Rome, Istanbul and Tehran, the total journey time of 131⁄2 hours does not compare badly with today’s 91⁄2 non-stop. I would prefer four short flights, and at least one visit of an exotic cleaning crew, to an unrelieved long one.

  2. davidderrick Says:

    The Syrian port of Alexandretta and the cities of Urfa, Aintab and Antioch were ceded to Turkey between the wars.

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