trip started, as most trips do, with the inevitable sinking "I'm
sure I've forgotten something" feeling driving away from the
house. Mentally going over the known contents of the suitcase didn't
help: my pre-prepared and trusty packing list covers the essentials
but inevitably something not on that list gets missed. This time
it turned out to be some Internet access software for the laptop;
a hard one to recover from as the software was only available on
the Internet, hence a Catch 22.
Still; provided you have tickets, credit card and passport anything
else can be purchased. In a pinch, even tickets can be re-purchased.
Getting to the airport via a number of rainstorms
boded badly for the punctuality of the departing BA flight.
Arriving at Terminal 4 and not being able to find the chauffeur
scheduled to take my car didn't help. Two phone calls and 15 minutes
late, he strolled up, haughtily informing me of the need to have
parked at the other end of the ramp (impossible as there were cars
parked there on my arrival ten minutes early; of course at that
point he wasn't there to see me driving by...).
Then in to the Terminal where the longest queues
were, of course, for the San Francisco flight (the theory, in one's
minds eye, being that twenty minutes earlier there had been no queue
Half an hour later the front of the queue was reached
by which time all the Emergency Exit seats were booked (the chauffeur
was cursed yet again) but the kind man at the ticket counter took
pity and did at least provide a front of block seat.
Relieved of my huge but surprisingly light suitcase myself and my
small but surprisingly heavy hand luggage went through the passport
queue, the X-ray machine queue, the buying water queue, the buying
lipsalve queue, the buying a paper queue, the wrong queue at the
boarding gate, the access-to-the-aircraft-door queue and finally
the access-to-my-seat queue.
The final indignity was a 1hr 40 minute wait due to inclement weather
to the East (where we were taking off to) before we finally pushed
back, the engines were started (to one of those half-hearted cheers
the English are so good at) and we trundled off to the runway.
Slithering down the rain-slicked concrete at an increasing pace,
hitting the very last runway expansion joint so hard I thought we'd
burst a tyre, the pilot hit the pedal brakes, tucked the recalcitrant
vibrating gear away and at 500ft we disappeared in to the murk.
Once we had kangarooed our way up through the
clag, which reluctantly released us in to the sun-drenched uplands,
the flight was smooth, but no land was visible until Greenland.
Lunch was salmon and white wine, my fellow travellers
were a German investment banker who slept nearly the whole journey
and a woman bearing an uncanny resemblance to Zadie Smith (she of
"White teeth" fame), who also slept for most of the journey
(and who looked a little green around the gills when I unpacked
a copy of said "White Teeth".........).
The film was Chocolat (very good, lots of surprisingly well-known
actors and actresses in bit-parts including the ginger-haired nurse
from Casualty). It makes you reconsider your attitude towards Gypsies
and travellers, which in my case tends towards "move 'em on,
they're thieves and mess-makers".
The Irish boat-people in the film have a pretty rough reception
from the villagers (the saintly Juliette Binoche not included, of
course) and it's hard to reconcile the "rough diamonds, but
good boys at heart" image with my experience of modern-day
gypsies (in surprisingly good-quality 4x4s and huge caravans) invading
a field near the M1 and leaving a trail of what I can only describe
as devastation with piles of rubble, old mattresses and huge quantities
of those big, orange gas canisters. We use these for heating and
pay a deposit on them so was forced to assume they had come upon
them by underhand means.
Surprisingly, we made up all but thirty minutes
of the delay by the time we landed in a warm, sunny San Francisco.
The Immigration Officer was an unsmiling Oriental gentleman (no
irony, these Americans, at all) who grudgingly accepted my reason
for needing to enter the USA and signed me in until September.
The luggage carousel was (of course) jammed, so
luggage was delayed whilst a Menial was sacrificed to the inner
workings. Much thumping, cursing, and throwing out of suitcases
later the carousel bleeped, started and jammed again, (on the Menial
perhaps, who never did emerge) before finally lurching to life and
disgorging the largest rucksack any of us had ever seen, the sort
the SAS wear on their backs during snowy training marches across
Sadly, I was unable to see what Neanderthal dared
to carry this leviathan of the baggage system as just then my large,
but surprisingly light suitcase hove in to view and I dived for
it. My small, but surprisingly heavy hand luggage accompanied me
to the queue for US Customs which appeared to be swelling as I watched
(curse that Chauffeur once more!).
US Customs is weird: They have the familiar Customs
set up (butch women and stubble-cut men competing to see who has
the best-developed upper body physique, mirror glass and rubber-gloves
on prominent display to psych you out) but it's confusingly-labelled
"US Department of Agriculture" and the only questions
asked were about whether I had been on a farm recently.
Foolishly, I answered in the affirmative and was frogmarched to
a private room where I was strip-searched, cavity-searched, bodily
shaven, disinfected with louse-powder, and my luggage burned.
Just joking, actually I lied, said I lived in London and didn't
know what a farm was, so they let me through.
Out in to the incredibly bright Californian sunshine,
over to the Rental Car bus-stop and over to the Rental Car building
which is miles away from the airport, as if the authorities somehow
felt the business of renting cars to be unclean and did not wish
their clean, new airport (Americans do love unpainted concrete in
huge quantities) sullied by this non-ecologically friendly activity.
Staggeringly, no queue at Avis so after signing my life away to
the car rental company (at least with a picture license the staff
no longer pore endlessly over the old one trying to find the photograph,
unfolding it and turning it over and over as if the picture was
on it somewhere, maybe as a watermark, and they'd find it if they
looked really carefully) I performed my customary "behind the
car" quick-change into shorts, no socks and shades (actually,
if you don't wear shorts, no socks and shades in California the
Highway Patrol fine you for looking uncool) and headed for the freeway
deliberately and misleadingly NOT labelled "San Francisco".
They try very hard to corral Airport leavers on to the other freeway,
the one that takes you right through the congested heart of San
Francisco on your way North, but there is a secret entrance to I-280,
the Californians' private expressway to the North via the uncongested
side of San Francisco.
It's cunningly signposted "Roadworks" and is a tiny, easily-missed
side street which, once taken, immediately widens to 8 empty lanes
of freeway heading for the Golden Gate Bridge and freedom. Well,
Northern California, anyway....
Now was time to play "Welcome to San Francisco".
This consists of attempting to find KFOG on the radio whilst remembering
to drive on the right in a left-hand drive car, read the map, drink
some bottled water and read the signposts.
The frequency is something above 100 and normally it's achievable
within 10 minutes but this time it took a near-miss with a Porsche
and a very last-moment swerve (it's at 104.5MHz, so you don't have
to play "Welcome to San Francisco"), then it got turned
up loud. Say what you will about American cars (usually pretty rude
things), they do have damned good stereo systems.
KFOG is simply the best radio station on the planet: they just play
good music all the time; never a bad song. Like Virgin Radio was
before they bottled out and became like every other radio station.........
With no more bottled water and a need for lunch
(or was it supper? The jet lag was most definitely kicking in...)
a stop at a San Francisco mall became a necessity, sneaking in to
the only empty parking slot ahead of the biggest 4x4 in the world;
half expecting him to simply drive over my car and crush it in to
The rather snooty salesman in the high-class shoe
shop looked me up and down at my "terribly English" request
for a shoe horn, simply handed me a rather nice one with the name
of the shop on it and minced off. Obviously beneath his contempt,
a man who can't afford to buy shoes....
Californians are much more outward looking than
other Americans, as could be witnessed at the mall. The central
section was given over to various fast-food franchises sharing a
seating area, surprisingly similar to one in a Department store
in central Manila; but what was surprising was the franchises. There
were the inevitable steak and burger outlets but also a Sushi bar,
a Thai outlet and a Sbarro, selling Italian food. Sbarros are rare
outside Italy except, so it seems, for Israel and San Francisco.
Well there's a thing.
This was in the pre-digital days when you needed somethjing called
"film" for your camera, so an interesting conversation
with the photo store salesman ensued. In the UK the average photo
shop salesman struggles to put one word in front of another, but
this guy twigged my nationality and asked me about the £-$
Exchange rate (which hads slid recently, following the Election,
on the mistaken assumption that we were about
to join the Euro). Not only did he know this but he had an opinion
on it, as well!
Leaving the huge monument to American capitalism
(and relinquishing my parking space to a suspiciously familiar predatory
4x4asaurus) we proceeded in a Northerly direction, m'lud, via the
Douglas MacArthur Memorial Tunnel.
This tunnel takes the road under The Presidio and up to the Golden
Gate Bridge. It is a long, straight, round, inclined tunnel about
¼-mile long. I believe (but have never had it confirmed)
that they named it after MacArthur because it looks just like the
Malinta Tunnel in Corregidor (in the Straits of Manila Bay) where
he led the infamous (and ultimately doomed) resistance against the
Japanese in 1941.
And where I have been.
Having been through this tunnel many times and I often wonder how
many people driving through there know this.
San Francisco was warm but after crossing the Golden
Gate Bridge going North it got warmer. Apparently the Bay Area is
often cooler than the area further North due to the cooling effect
of the Bay itself.
Ten miles North of the Golden Gate it became too much so I gave
in, wound up the windows and hit the air-con; Santa Rosa came up
in about forty minutes.
I love the freeway: interesting things appear.
A complete Japanese Zero WW2 fighter on the back of a truck, those
amazing mobile homes that hook up to the back of a pick-up truck
using a 5th wheel like an articulated lorry, the fact that you have
to pay for petrol before you start the pump (and they only pay about
30p a Litre, who cares if people run off?), the endless fast food
offerings, the HOV lanes no one uses because they can't read the
signs "6.30am-8.30am" - this at 11.30am, the good condition
of the really old cars (thanks to a favourable climate) and the
overall low speed of the procedure.
American cars and roads simply aren't designed for people to go
over about 85mph, unlike UK roads. American cars run out of steam
at 75mph, and most American drivers seem to run out at about 60mph..........
My company had booked me in to an Extended Stay
America hotel. These are almost great: like a motel, but with big
self-catering rooms and good Internet access for business people
like me. Having unpacked the search was on for groceries. Wonder
of wonders, they had Weetabix..... Made my day, that did.
Early to bed, slept like a log until 4am then tossed and turned
until 6am (2pm UK time, no wonder....), watched a Thunderbirds movie
on Showtime then made proper pop-pop-pop coffee in the percolator
(not as good as our Bialetta).
A leisurely two-hour breakfast/shower/hairwash/nosepick/toothclean/coffee/Weetabix/toast
session in my underpants ensued. There was no toaster so an experiment
was conducted whereby the bread was suspended directly above a hot
ring. Good toast, but nearly set off the smoke alarm.
are rough, but someone's got to do it! However, with hindsight this
one was really dangerous.
Travelling Internationally with checked luggage
has become a nightmare. So is it possible to survive a 3-day business
trip on just hand luggage? Time to find out.
How different Gatwick is from Heathrow: Heathrow
is for business travellers, Gatwick for the holiday trade.
From the moment of arrival I was surrounded by kids, pensioners,
and back-packers, every single one of them reading The Sun or The
Mirror. Fortunately my handy BCP chauffeur awaited, and whisked
the BMW away, me hoping they would clean off the birdshit that had
been accumulating upon the paintwork for the last few days, but
not holding out much hope.
The queue for Virgin Economy Check-In was huge,
stretching almost to the car park but desperately waving my Get
Out of Jail Free card in the form of my Silver Virgin card allowed
check in at Upper Class where there was no queue whatsoever. Result!
My valiant attempt to avoid the luggage carousel at Orlando made
my hand luggage over twice the permissible weight, but Virgin Atlantic
kindly gave me a rather natty black bag with a velcro closure, into
which everything heavy was stuffed before being passed Fit for Muster
by the Virgin (virgin?) girl.
However, this scuttled my prospective upgrade to Upper Class: she
couldn't even get a front of block seat for this 6' 3" troublemaker.
Within 20 yards of the desk everything was back in my single bag:
knowing too well my own absent-mindedness, remembering 2 bags is
surely a recipe for disaster. Nice bag, though.
Having done my list of "to do before Departure
Lounge" jobs (water, stamps, post letter, last pee in an English
urinal etc etc) it was time to confront the simply vast queue for
the metal detectors and x-ray machines. What is wrong with Gatwick,
can't they manage to have people staffing all of the machines? A
wait in the shortest queue before realising it was for the Channel
Islands caused a further delay.
Still, the wait in the queue allowed me to read exactly the quantity
of magazines I intended to ditch prior to boarding, allowing a turn
out in to a bin in the Departure Lounge, appreciably lowering the
weight of the bag.
The normal "don't x-ray my film" charade
followed - why is it that only UK airports insist on x-raying films?
Everywhere else in the world they will happily hand-search them
but at Heathrow & Gatwick they just have to x-ray them. My theory
is that the Government have it in for UK photographers, like competitive
pistol shooters, PAYE employees, married couples with children and
anyone who drinks alcohol. Strange, that. Digital photography has,
at least, put an end to this little charade. But for the record
airport x-rays do damage
A whisk through the Departure Lounge to secure
the best possible deal on new films followed, then down to the gate
via the natty little unmanned mass-transit system looking like a
prototype for the Docklands Light Railway and the system at Stansted.
It seems something of a white elephant as it's only 200 yards long.
I'm sure moving walkways would have been hugely more cost-effective.
I finished the last of the magazines at the gate
and binned them (an even lighter bag resulted), then looked around
to see whether the plane was full. There didn't seem to be many
people around, but when they called the flight, every last person
in the lounge stood up. It was going to be a crowded flight...........
Waiting until the last moment to be the absolutely
last person to enter the plane, I trundled down the aisle to my
seat, which was beautifully placed between Craig the two-year-old
screamer and Waynetta the tower-block bottle blonde and her partner
Wayne who, staggeringly, never peed the entire 8 hour flight! Some
people have enormous bladders: me, I pee every hour, but then I
drink huge quantities of water when flying to combat the dehydrating
effects of the air-conditioning and to make me get up and walk around
to avoid DVT. At least I got an aisle seat (and actually Virgin
seats are pretty comfortable).
I watched Bridget Jones' Diary (very funny) and
Shrek (very tongue in cheek) before opening the laptop. It's amazing
how much work you can get done whilst on an aeroplane (or a train:
there is something to the adverts after all...) - the secret is
to switch off from the racket around you (hard to do when Craig
is kicking the back of your seat, but a strategic and covert stab
in the ankle with a biro usually cures that one....).
Flying is such a stratified experience. At the
bottom of the scale are the short-haul charter flights: always late,
overcrowded and uncomfortable. Then come the budget airlines' scheduled
flights: usually late, often overcrowded and slightly less uncomfortable.
Then come the regular airlines scheduled flight: much less likely
to be late, less crowded and bearable seats. But within the scheduled
flights is a subtler form of stratification that has the unwritten
rule "the richer you are, the further towards the front of
the aircraft you get to sit, and the less painful your journey is".
So for Mr and Mrs Patel in row 62 at the back by the loos it's noisy,
uncomfortable and smelly. Further forward, Mr Ballard in row 32
gets less noise but still screaming kids and close affinity with
Mr and Mrs Tower block. Further up, in Premium Economy, Mr "My
company appreciates me" gets a bigger seat, less engine noise,
a better class of neighbour (who is also further away), better service,
and no screaming kids. Mr "I own a window-cleaning firm, don't
pay tax and paid cash for my ticket" and his permed, bejewelled
and bottle-blonde trophy wife sit in Upper Class at the front or
upstairs. They get on and off first, get no noise, no kids, a really
nice seat and very nice wine.
But these all suffer the same Air Traffic Control delays as all
scheduled flights. There are two more rarified methods: by business
jet (go when you want, fly where you want, and never meet Jo Public.
A different world), or the ultimate: front left seat, yoke in hand.
The food on the flight was mainly chicken-based
(actually, Virgin food is pretty good). Eventually Wayne Tower block
even went for a pee, I finished the last of my magazines and we
began the descent in to Orlando. We landed (very smooth) and whizzed
through Immigration (no queues!) and into the terminal (no checked
baggage = very smooth progress!).
The 2-day meeting went agreeably. To
keep the costs of the flight down I had agreed to spend a Saturday
night, which kept me away from my family but earned me a spare day
in Florida. Where else to spend it but Cape Kennedy?
Our entire generation remember Patrick Moore, Raymond
Baxter and Richard Burke anchoring the moon shots: it was the most
exciting thing we had ever seen and sparked an interest in science
for me that might have one day got me in to space except for a few
small obstacles: Blue Streak got cancelled so to get in to space
nowadays you have to be Russian, American, a racial minority or
very rich; my eyesight failed to get me in to professional aviation;
and I am insufficiently bright (no Masters Degree) and insufficiently
fit (can't jog 10 miles a day without getting puffed) to be considered.
I'm probably somewhere behind an Indian peasant in the queue, but
still interested. NASA, fancy giving me a shot?
My last trip was in the Winter of 1986 during NASA's
darkest hour. They were burying the remains of the Challenger in
a disused missile silo in the older part of the base. Everyone had
long faces. No one knew if the shuttle would ever fly again.
This time around, NASA's decision to use the Shuttle
had been vindicated. They were brimming with self-confidence and
celebrating 20 years of Shuttle flights. They had taken the last
Saturn V from outside the VAB where it had got very rusty, rebuilt
it and made it into a proper Saturn V/Apollo museum in it's own
building. It is, however, missing it's 1st-2nd stage adapter ring
(come on, NASA, you think we wouldn't notice?). Elsewhere, like
before, you couldn't get close enough to anything current to satisfy:
the closest we got was being able to see two Italian ISS modules
through a glass wall being turned upside-down to shake all the loose
bits out before they went into zero-gravity. They've got 4 Shuttles,
you'd think they'd let the public at least see one of them in their
hangars. A vaguely unsatisfactory tour, although there was plenty
of information to be had, and they do great
Back to Orlando in a rain shower, I slithered in
to the parking garage, ditched the car and headed for the flight
to New York, a very comfortable night at the Hilton Newark, then
a very smooth Continental flight back to Gatwick.
Day flights are so much more pleasant than night
flights. On the climb-out from Newark I had a window seat on the
right-hand side of the aircraft and got a great Sunday morning view
of the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in Manhattan. In 48
hours they would be dust and rubble entombing 5,000 people.
The terrorists must have been planning the explosions
on that Sunday, just counting down to Tuesday. If they had wanted
to cause maximum damage with minimum casualties they would have
chosen Sunday to do it, and what better weapon than a 767 with a
Trans-Atlantic fuel load? Too close, much too close, for comfort...