Monday, 18 March 2013

I love the smell of jet fuel in the morning

I first smelled freedom as I stepped from a Boeing 747 at Grantly Adams International Airport - and freedom smelled like jet fuel.

Standing there at the top of the steps, I was struck by three things: the first, as my clothes instantly stuck to my body, was the humidity, the second was the taste of molasses in the air (which, I would soon learn, seemed to be everywhere on the island), and the third was the fumes of burned aviation kerosene wafting warmly, damply, across the apron.  And in that instant, I realised what that smell meant, what it had always meant, though I hadn't known it until that moment.  That smell meant freedom.  The freedom to escape small towns and small-mindedness.  The freedom to be whoever I wanted to be, and the freedom not to have be what anyone else wanted me to be.  And it tasted like Barbados Sugar.  And it looked like sunshine.  And it sounded like Jonny Nash singing: I can see clearly now, the rain is gone...

I had flown before of course; stepped onto planes under grey British skies and stepped off them into very un-British light.  I had exchanged the polluted air of damp English cities, for the snow-blind glare of crisp alpine afternoons, and for the perfumes of Mediterranean mornings: tomillares and dust, good coffee and sweet pastry.   I always felt though that there was something more - that damp kerosene smell in the back of my mind, the meaning of which was always just out of reach - until the day I stepped off that plane in Bridgetown.

Looking back, I think that holiday (our dream honeymoon two years too late) was, in many ways, the high-point of my first marriage.  You might think that that is another way saying it was the beginning of the the end, but, for me, that came years later, on the streets of St Tropez.  It was, for me, however the end of the beginning.

It is only now, through the telescope of years, that I see how the middle part of my first marriage, the part that was neither exposition nor resolution, the part where the drama was supposed to unfold but never did, was bracketed by two holidays.  And I can't help but wonder whether my epiphany on the aircraft steps didn't prefigure the slow-dawning over the years, only acknowledged one Côte d'Azur morning, of the realisation that our paths through life had never even been parallel, let alone destined to converge, no matter how much we thought we wanted them to.

Because I had smelled freedom - and it smelled amazing!

I had had a small whiff of freedom some years earlier - when I left home to go to University in another city.  On my first day there, a group of fellow freshers introduced themselves and asked me my name.   I could have told them my real name of course, and I made no secret of it if anyone asked why I signed anything official with another name, but I chose not to, I chose just to say: "Joe".

I chose to be a more confident, more out-going, version of myself.   I chose the nickname that had been bestowed upon me years before with teasing; the nickname that I had claimed as my own to subvert their harassment.  And in so choosing, I let go of home, and school, and insecurity, and small-town small-mindedness - and all the shit that goes with it.

But after a while a started dating a girl from my home town and then I fell in love with her, and I slowly got drawn back into it all.  When I finished University I moved back to my home town and got a job in an office, training to do something completely unrelated to the degree I had dreamed of getting for years.  And on the first day in the office when my fellow trainees asked my name I said: "Matthew".

          Woolfe entitled his
          book: "You Can't Go Home Again" -
          best precis ever

I finally left my home town for good two years after my first wife left me.  I was thirty.  My new job was very similar to my old one, and my new colleagues still called me Matthew, but that's all they knew about me, and my family, and my life - and I felt free.  And freedom felt lonely, but I knew that that was just temporary.

          You only live twice -
          when you leave home, and when you
          choose not to go back.

I'm flying to London tomorrow morning for work.  I hate leaving the house at 05:30 and not getting back until 21:30, all for just seven hours in the office, but, with the economy the way it is, I know I should be grateful to have a job.  Unfortunately, there's more snow forecast overnight which inevitably means digging out my car, then crawling along unploughed side streets while hoping that the snowploughs have been able to keep the major routes clear.  Equally inevitable are delays at the airport while they clear the runways and de-ice the planes.

For some reason the budget airline I'm flying with never seem to use the air bridges (maybe the get a discount on their landing fees if they don't use some of the facilities of the airport) but insist you walk across the tarmac and use steps.  Despite the fact that I'm only going to cold, grey, London to work, despite the early hour, the snow, and the freezing walk to the plane - despite everything - I know that as I climb the aircraft steps I will be smiling, because I love the smell of jet fuel in the morning.

I would like to dedicate this to fellow blogger unbearablysharp.  I'm thirty years and some ovaries away from always being able to get inside her words, but when something she writes does grab you, it grabs you by the throat, because this girl doesn't just wear her heart on her sleeve, it's like she carved it into her wrist with a broken beer bottle.

While I'm writing about snow in Edinburgh and foggy London, and dreaming of summers like the one she tells me is showing no signs of turning to autumn, she is writing about a girl living in a town too small to contain all her words and all her dreams who longs to escape to Dublin, or Edinburgh, or London.

So, if you are reading this Ruth, thank you for reminding me what it's like to be twenty-three, and to have those dreams.

Air travel will always have a special place in the minds of people like me, people born in the '50s, growing up in the '60s.  For us, no matter how old and cynical we have grown, no matter the budget airline, cattle-class, reality of it all, air travel will always remain glamorous, exotic, exciting, and will forever be linked in our minds with that phrase: The Jet-Set.

My children will never have that same attachment to air travel.  For them it's just something that they have always known: to them, travelling by train probably seems more exotic.

I first flew in the same year that Peter, Paul and Mary recorded the John Denver composition Leaving On A Jet Plane, but I probably wouldn't have have heard it until it was released as a single and became a hit two years later .  Being too young to care about the themes of separation, infidelity and the desire for forgiveness, when it came on the radio I just homed in on the hook: "Cause I'm leavin' on a jet plane", and whenever I heard the song thereafter it always evoked, for me, the excitement and exoticism of air travel in the '60s and '70s.

Forty-odd years on, one of my playlists still contains Leaving on a Jet Plane (my preferred 1973 John Denver version, from his Greatest Hits album).  And hearing it still makes me smile just as much as the smell of aviation kerosene.  The only difference today is that now I understand what the song is really about, and when I'm getting ready to leave for an early flight to London, I can't help but think of that first verse:

         "All my bags are packed I'm ready to go
          I'm standin' here outside your door
          I hate to wake you up to say goodbye
          But the dawn is breakin' it's early morn
          The taxi's waitin' he's blowin' his horn
          Already I'm so lonesome I could die"

The title of this piece is of course a reworking of a well-know quotation from the film Apocalypse Now, and "the end of the beginning" is an equally well-known quotation from a wartime speech by Winston Churchill.  In fact, I'm slightly embarrassed at how much I have taken and reworked in this particular piece.  I am however happy to acknowledge my sources.  The first senryū refers to Thomas Wolfe's: You Can't Go Home Again, and the second is a reworking of:

          "You only live twice:
          Once when you are born
          And once when you look death in the face"

Which is supposedly composed by James Bond in Chapter 11 of Ian Fleming's: You Only Live Twice

It is my habit to recommend to readers of my blog, something that inspires me that is related to the posting.  Today's recommendations are two songs I love:  Jonny Nash singing: I Can See Clearly Now, and John Denver singing: Leaving on a Jet Plane.  And, if you can, I recommend leaving your home town and making a new life for yourself somewhere where everybody doesn't know your name.

"Leaving On A Jet Plane" lyrics Copyright © EMI Music Publishing, Chrysalis One Music, BMG RIGHTS MANAGEMENT US 1969.  Extract used under the principle of "Fair Dealing".

"You Only Live Twice" Copyright © Glidrose Productions Ltd 1964.  Extract used under the principle of "Fair Dealing".

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Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.