There is a strange magic to aeroplanes.
I’m not just talking about the mechanics of flight, explained in the same terms of bilateral air pressure variance that apply to a cricket ball’s swing. Of course the physics are remarkable enough; that confluence of lift, drag, weight and thrust that allows three hundred tons of metal to glide across air like a skimmed stone. Every take-off, I watch the ground drop away, the world recompose itself into aerial maps, with a reverence akin to the religious.
But more extraordinary even than this is the concept itself: that of some kind of religious rite, in which you enter a strange low place of worship, wait for 20-odd hours in dimmed lights and hushed tones, carry out the dozens of little observances demanded of you by the priests and attendants, then walk out to find yourself on the other side of the world. By firing the right incense and mumbling the right prayers, you’ve traversed the planet in a day by sitting in an armchair.
Yet people love complaining about long-haul flights, enumerating the hours they’ve endured in the air as though they were strokes of a shipboard lash. I have never understood the mentality. Once, these journeys would once have involved six months on a ship, or years by foot, and involved very real danger. Now, they’re packaged and consumed like foil trays of chicken. (And somewhere, out there in the darkness, the saddest chef in the world is assembling airline meals, one by one.)
Tonight, we are floating high above the Java Sea. Heading to England to follow Australia’s Ashes tour for the months to come, Cam and I travelled to the airport in winter sunshine, a day away from changing seasons and hemispheres. I hugged my girlfriend goodbye, impressed her on my retinas, realising what a privilege it is to have someone prepared to cry for you.
Of the seven hours to Singapore, the first five and more are over Australia, reminding you of the comical vastness of our homeland. For those who’ve come across the sea, we’ve boundless plains to share, goes our barely remembered national anthem. Unless it’s an election year and you’re no good at cricket.
Under you, all that red dirt and spinifex, the cops and rocks and Max Max mythology, slide by, until you hit the north coast somewhere between Darwin and Derby, and suddenly you’re off the continental shelf. To your right is East Timor, occasional participant in our own national history, reminder of the times when we aimed to help others, and the times when we didn’t.
Singapore arrives, passes in a blur of nasi lemak, then falls behind, hundreds of queuing cargo ships dotting its coastline in patient islands of light. The Malaysian peninsula stretches away, its velvet black hung with the same glowing strings that enthralled me on my first real trip overseas, almost a decade ago, fizzing with nerves on the descent to Kuala Lumpur. The sight, unchanged this much later, eventually made its way into a poem, trying to hint at how Australian soldiers might have felt arriving here in 1941.
Malaya from below and from above
Your long body beneath me, laced
with arsenic-orange and blue-fuzzed stars
strung out like jungle flowers
Passing Singapore is strange. I’ve travelled plenty, but never much further north of here. This part of the world was destination, not transit; the end of flights and the beginning of adventures. Not much more than kids, I remember my girlfriend of the time waiting at KL airport, our combination of early morning fuzziness and dazed radiance, her mother pressing a bag of breakfast muffins into my hands and saying “Eat, Geoff,” in that way of hers that was part concern, part order.
But, like the years in which I lived there, Malaysia soon recedes from view. There is nothing for it but to face forward, crossing whatever new lines the night conceals. Now we are over the Bay of Bengal; now Georgia, now the stretches of Ukraine. We cross countries I know only from the wars that crawled their surface. Somewhere below us in the night, the Himalayas whisper by while we doze, casually exceeding the heights so many climbers have died for.
Germany proves impossible to see from the air without imagining the perspective of a British bombardier. Then comes England, its coastline emerging from the dawn against the Channel’s muted blue, the land taking form in the fields and hedgerows and woods of your most clichéd imagination.
It is strange to finally be going to England. This is a place that has so strongly formed my cultural understanding, yet one I’ve never even seen. Australia has both a preoccupation with race and an immense blind spot. If you’re anything but white, you will consistently be asked about your background. If you’re white, you probably won’t know what yours is.
White is still treated as the Australian default. Even the Greeks, Italians and Lebanese who reclaimed the word ‘wog’ for themselves will use ‘Aussie’ as its antonym. The variants of English, Irish, Scotch or Welsh are seen as facets of a British whole barely worth distinguishing.
I certainly don’t feel a kinship with any Anglo ancestors, not the way recent migrants are supposed to continue identifying with their own. But the connection of culture can’t be denied. England is the source of my sense of humour, my enjoyment of language, and the greater part of the books that have mattered to me. Its music, history, architecture and political system play big roles in my life. And importantly in the context of this trip, England created the game of cricket, one of the abiding fascinations of my life and so many others.
Considering that, it seems reasonable to make one visit to say thank-you. And as it will later turn out, with admirable prescience, I will have excused myself from enduring our election in close proximity. While toxicity still travels, these things are more palatable from afar.