Such is the hell of travel in the post-Covid world that Pissed-off Toff is tempted to never move from home ever again.
I was recently asked to help a certain Lord R with his memoirs. Although fraught with difficulties, the request was not one that I could turn down; because not only is Lord R the head of the family to which I am most attached, but what little is left of my credibility was at stake. Nor did I realise that the main challenge of the expedition that lay ahead would be not the memoir, but the undiluted hell of travel in the post-Covid world.
First, how even to get to the country seat of Lord R in Northern Ireland? Since I refuse to be vaccinated against a not particularly serious virus which we have allowed to turn our world upside down; since I refuse to have any part in the hysteria that has consumed us; and since I now belong to a small minority which faces persecution designed to make our lives quite unlivable unless we surrender … granted all this, would I even be allowed on the aeroplane from Newcastle to Belfast?
With rules concerning this accursed virus changing every day, how was I to find out? How, even, was I to buy an air ticket? I no longer know how to do this. Or rather, my resentment of the relentless encroachment of technology into every area of our lives is now so far developed that the prospect of yet another on-line operation with its endless pitfalls filled me with dread. And even assuming that I did manage to buy a ticket, how was I to get to Newcastle Airport? So long have we been imprisoned by this obscene ‘lockdown’, and so unused am I, now, to moving an inch from where I am, that even this small step seemed impossible.
* * * * *
Faced with such challenges, I was a prisoner cast out from familiar incarceration into an unfamiliar and threatening new world; until it occurred to me to ring Lord R’s secretary and to announce to her that she had to sort my journey out. Firstly: being unvaccinated, was I allowed to travel by air from mainland England to Northern Ireland? And secondly: would she please deal with the ticket?
As regards the virus, Lord R’s secretary assured me that unvaccinated persons could still travel within the United Kingdom, of which Northern Ireland is part. So in this case I was free to step outside my cell. And as for my flight, she would book it. All I had to do was print out the email she would subsequently send me, and which would have the booking reference on it.
There followed the packing.
* * * * *
What fun it used to be, when I was young, to pack for a foreign adventure, throwing a few shirts into a suitcase, along with a book or two, a wad of traveller’s cheques, and an address book containing the names of people who, back then, still believed in me.
This time, however, the prospect of travel induced intense anxiety, and there seemed no end to preparations as though for a journey into space. I now have to have three pairs of spectacles available at all times: one for reading, one for about-the-house, and one for outdoors and driving. Nor, nowadays, is it possible to leave home without an assortment of electronic gadgets, each with its own special charger. Then there are my solid gold pens: the tools of my trade without which I will go nowhere.
Thus: a solid gold pencil for writing notes in the margins of books; a solid gold ball-point pen for everyday use; and of course a solid gold fountain pen, this to be emptied of ink which would otherwise leak inside the pressurised cabin of the aeroplane, with potentially expensive results … as when ink expelled from one such instrument in the inside breast pocket of a tailor-made summer jacket ruined not just the jacket, but also a smart linen shirt purchased with little regard to economy. And just as my electronic devices need their various chargers, so every pen requires its spares and its refills. All these have to be packed.
Next: a well-chosen assortment of piano music, all of it annotated with carefully worked-out fingering representing many hundreds of hours’ work. There is, of course, a grand piano in Lord R’s house, so to travel there without music would be unthinkable; just as to lose it would be unbearable.
And worst of all, there was my Mac computer. In all but the most exceptional circumstances it stays safely indoors, hidden from adolescents, protected from the risk of loss or theft, and set apart, even, from any gin-and-tonic or whisky-and-soda that one might at the time be consuming.
Neurotic? Not really. Because so deeply are we in thrall to technology, that this one digital device contains and controls our entire lives. Lose this fragile box of tricks, leave it unguarded for one moment, splash a drop of liquid on it, and you cease to exist. Now, however, I had to take it abroad. Like King John, I might as well have been carrying the crown jewels across the Wash.
My careful preparations completed, I stepped out onto the street with a small hoard of possessions as irreplaceable as they were unprotected, and made my way on public transport to Newcastle Airport, here to take my first flight in four years. Such was my relief at making it through the ensuing obstacle course and onto the aeroplane that I even submitted to the ultimate indignity of being forced to wear a face-mask … a torture which, I soon realised, could be halted for a limited length of time by buying a drink.
* * * * *
Thus to Ireland, and to a fully-staffed house that has hardly changed in the last hundred years. In such surroundings the absurdities of the ‘lockdown’ and the ever-increasing madness of the modern world receded for a while, and my morale was further boosted by the fact that the only other visitors were a duke and his younger brother. All too soon, though, this foray into a sweeter past was over, and it was time to leave. And if the journey out had been bad enough, the journey back was a via crucis from start to finish; enough to dissuade anyone from ever leaving home again.
Allowing a generous margin for any possible delays, I arrived at Belfast airport one and a half hours before departure; and after queuing for what seemed an eternity, though it was perhaps not much more than half an hour, I got to the so-called ‘bag-drop’ desks of easyJet; noting with ill humour that they are no longer called ‘check-in’ desks.
I knew from Lord R’s secretary that even though easyJet do everything they can to get you to (I quote) ‘check-in on-line and print your boarding pass from [sic: not ‘in’] the comfort of your own home’, this is not in fact necessary. Determined that I would not be cajoled into doing their own work for them, I had no boarding pass; and once at this confusingly named ‘bag-drop’, I asked to be put in an aisle seat.
“I can’t do that,” said the female operative from behind a Covid-secure screen that made her almost inaudible. “The computer allocates seats automatically.” Surely not, I objected; at which stage a more competent colleague called me over to her own desk nearby, and even smiled. Not only had an aisle seat already been allocated to me, she explained after checking my booking reference, but I was also a so-called ‘Speedy Boarding’ passenger. So I could have skipped the long queue and gone straight to the ‘easyJet plus’ bag-drop …
* * * * *
By now aware that time was passing, and with the stirrings of unease making themselves felt, I came to a digital turnstile, against which I pressed my boarding pass a number of times and from a number of angles before calling on a nearby operative to get me through. Then along a Byzantine cordoned path which wound its way towards the queue for ‘security’. Here there was no ‘speedy boarding’ for passengers of enhanced status; snake-like, this queue stretched ahead interminably; snail-like, it moved forward imperceptably.
Three-quarters of an hour later, I had stripped off half my clothes, and my worldly possessions were once more out of my hands and out of my control, trolleying forward through a scanning machine. As I stood in a nearby scanning booth made not for hand-luggage but for human cattle, and just when I thought this part of the ordeal was over, I was pulled up short by a para-military figure equipped, it seemed, with guns, taisers and who knew what else; this latest hiccough in the proceedings being caused by a barely sentient old man parked there in a wheelchair, his head lolling from side to side.
As two security operatives painstakingly checked his person and his invalid’s chair for hidden bombs, while swabbing him and the chair with anti-bacterial wash in a pantomime act of anti-viral zeal … as the entire security process was brought to a halt by one doddery OAP of decidedly non-Islamic appearance, my briefcase containing that all-important Mac computer was now through the scanner and well ahead of me, jolting forward along the rollers, seconds away from being pushed off onto the floor ahead by the luggage behind it. Yet still we were being held back by the OAP. Now on the verge of panic, I mouthed frantic messages to a nearby member of staff, begging her to prevent my Enigma machine from crashing to the ground.
* * * * *
It was lucky that they did not stop me then and there for further questioning; this, I imagine, being the normal procedure when a single passenger travelling with an expensive black leather briefcase starts getting twitchy; and as I shuffled forward, shoeless, beltless and jacketless, to the ‘repacking area’ … as I shuffled forward like some miserable PoW, clinging on to possessions in pathetic disarray … as I endured this further indignity with barely suppressed rage, I vowed that I would never again travel by plane.
Worse was to come. When, by now only half-sane, I went through to the departure lounge, my flight on the overhead panel was blinking red for ‘last call’ at Gate 26. But where was Gate 26? I saw no signs; just endless shops and bars. An operative in a high-visibility jacket whom I approached with mad eyes waved me vaguely towards some doors leading to another shopping mall, where again there were no signs for any departure gates. Or none that I could discern. And although the place was crawling with shop-assistants eager to sell almost anything one cared to purchase, there were no airport staff in sight.
Rushing wildly here and there, I found someone at last: a woman in the inevitable hi-viz jacket, tut-tutting ineffectually over yet another OAP in a wheelchair; a sight which now triggered murderous fantasies that in a different time and place would have propelled me straight into the highest ranks of the Nazi party.
My memories of what happened next are vague … or perhaps I can’t quite bring myself to confess the details. Let us just say that I went up to this woman and threw a fit so violent and so deranged that it could not be ignored; after which she and one other airport operative, walkie-talkie crackling in her hand, accompanied an almost delirious passenger through various twists and turns and to the stairs leading down towards the waiting aeroplane.
Even then the route was unclear. And when, after a sally into a shallow deadend somewhere along the way, I walked across the tarmac and up into the aircraft, the steward closed the door behind me and I sank, gibbering, into my aisle seat as the engines powered up.