The huge cloud of poisonous ash, spewed forth from an Icelandic volcano, was a painful reminder of our precarious dependence on air travel. It shut down the airports of northwest Europe for a week and left 20 million people stranded. One of my sons, on vacation with his family in Tuscany, due to fly back direct from that horrible place Pisa Airport, was obliged instead to use six different and desperately crowded railroads, two hotels, and a taxi to get home: for six people over three days it cost him a month’s salary.
Thanks to terrorism, security mania, bad design, and mass tourism, airports are now so un-popular that cruise lines, operating from old-fashioned seaports, make frequent air-free trips their leading advertising appeal. To many, Heathrow in August is a paradigm of Hell. Not the worst example, though, if you take into account foul, crammed roads from airports to city centers: Lagos in Nigeria and Seoul in Korea take some beating.
The only thing to be said for air travel is speed. It makes possible travel on a scale unimaginable before our present age. Between the ages of 20 and four-score I visited every country in Europe, all save two in Latin America, ditto in Africa, and most of Asia, not counting eight trips to Australia and 60 to the United States — all by air. When I compare my experience with the globe-trotting of Evelyn Waugh in the interwar period, condensed in his volume When the Going Was Good, I realize how lucky I was to see it all so quickly and in comparative comfort.
On the other hand, the going was good then: before airlines imposed monstrous uniformity, travel was enjoyable, full of surprises, a cultural and human education, and slow enough to change your outlook. In the early 4th century BC, Plato, traveling by fast trireme from Athens to Syracuse, found Pythagorean mathematics so absorbing he was away two years and returned a metaphysician. Marco Polo, visiting Asia, spent two decades there, getting about, and on his return was debriefed for a year in a Genoese jail, using the time to write the best book of travel in the entire Middle Ages.
In the 18th century, Benjamin Franklin crossed the Atlantic eight times, a record beaten only by professional mariners and perhaps one or two tobacco merchants. Jetters like, say, Rupert Murdoch or David Frost would think nothing of that, but it took a huge chunk out of Franklin’s life and energy. On the other hand, it made him the most valuable of all human bridges between the New World and the Old. In the age of the coach and horses you were lucky to get one big trip and it changed you. Consider the fuss over Elizabeth Bennet’s journey to the Peak District in Pride and Prejudice, and its effect on her fortunes: it would be small talk today, if that.
The real turning point came when steam downgraded the horse and sail into sport. I often compare the reading matter of Surtees’ celebrated hunting man, Soapey Sponge, who when not riding had his nose deep in the Official List of London Cab-Fares, the only book he ever read, to Sherlock Holmes, at the other end of the 19th century, whose first reaction to a case would be to reach for the latest issue of Bradshaw’s All-Britain Timetable, the detailed guide to what was then the best and most efficient railroad network in the world, to find out how quickly he could get to the scene of the crime.
Rail hugely accelerated but did not dehumanize travel. As a child I found railroad stations exciting, mysterious, and even beautiful, as indeed they often were. Bombay station is perhaps the finest neo-Gothic building in the world. There is in Paris the magnificent Gare de l’Est by François Duquesne, built in 1847-52. Broad Street Station Philadelphia, by the Wilson Brothers (1892-93), is one of a great series of monumental creations in the U.S., terminating in the magnificent Union Station of Cincinnati by Roland Wank (1928). The best thing Mussolini ever did in his unhappy career was to create three monumental stations in Florence, Milan, and Rome (the last finished after World War Two) which, for sheer grandeur and invention, would not have been out of place in the empire of Trajan. It is a significant fact that whereas airports, built by the hundred in the last half-century, belong to the culture of Modernism at its most squalid and brutal, railroad stations can still thrill and excite those who love architecture, as witness the new station at Lyons in France, by the Spanish master Calatrava. It uses ultra-modern materials and construction methods but still contrives to suggest organic beauty. It has been compared to “a giant butterfly enclosing the bones of a dinosaur.”
Artists have, from the start, found railroads a source of fascination. As early as the 1840s, Turner used their atmospherics, as in Rain, Steam, and Speed, to create wondrous color and chiaroscuro effects, and Claude Monet pursued the condensation theme to the end of the century. Terminals were places where the world gathered in sad and joyful congregations ripe for the artist of genre. W. P. Frith used Paddington for his masterpiece The Railway Station (1862) — its amazing arch also produced one of G. K. Chesterton’s best poetic images. The tradition still flourished when Norman Rockwell used the crowds at Chicago Central as one of his best Christmas covers for the Saturday Evening Post. No major artist has ever painted airports.
I thank God that the two places I most care to visit, Paris and Venice (plus Lake Como nearby), I can travel to comfortably by railroad. For the first I use the Channel Tunnel Eurostar — faster than air between the hated Heathrow and the still more detestable Charles de Gaulle — and for the second the revived Orient Express, which recalls the splendors of the interwar train de luxe. Nostalgia for travel three-quarters of a century ago, if you were rich enough to buy first-class tickets, is compelling, especially if the mind dwells on those majestic North Atlantic liners: the Mauretania, the Normandie, the Rex, and the Bremen, later the Queen Mary and the America. Men voyaged in those days with their valets, women with their lady’s maids, the menus and wine lists were books, the ambience a delicate blend of late Henry James and A la recherche du temps perdu.
Is there any possibility of giving international air travel, which we all need and use and hate, a touch of glamour, or even of reliable, soulless efficiency? I suspect future historians will puzzle over our failure. But by then, of course, we shall be in the age of mass space travel, with its fresh and unimaginable crop of horrors.