In 2009 the author and philosopher Alain de Botton spent some time at Terminal 5 of Heathrow Airport as writer-in-residence capturing the poetry of aviation and the romance of air travel. His account was written up in A Week at the Airport; a Heathrow Diary. It talked of the dreams of travel -" it's easy to fall into daydreams at the airport and remember the good and the bad trips and where you are in life's journey”. For those whose view of airports is lost luggage, queues for security checks, queues for a lift, queues for passport control, expensive coffee, exhorbitant parking charges, terminals as shopping malls and waiting, waiting, waiting, such a soliloquy might not come so easy.
Airports have always seemed not quite part of the real world, a kind of no-man’s land between journeys with its own boundaries and ways of behaving. Back in 1978 Brian Eno recognised the potentially tense atmosphere of an airport terminal with his ambient Music for Airports, designed to defuse and relax and actually installed at some airports for a while, including La Guardia. There have not, however, been a huge number of songs about airports (as opposed to flying, of which there are plenty) and even less about particular airports like Heathrow. Somehow they haven’t quite played the role in songs that railway stations have. There was L.A International Airport (where the big jet engines roar) by Susan Raye; Luton Airport by Cats UK, jumping on a passing Lorraine Chase Campari advert bandwagon; Airport by The Motors; The Byrds’ Airport Song, also written about Los Angeles International Airport.
The song here by Magna Carta has the same title, The Airport Song but was supposedly inspired by a wait at Heathrow Airport. Magna Carta were a British folk-rock group perhaps remembered now, if at all, for the fact that Davey Johnstone, guitarist with the Elton John Band in the 70’s, passed through its ranks. The song is reminiscent of Simon and Garfunkel put to a summer bossa-nova rhythm and, in many ways, is Homeward Bound transposed from Widnes Station to Heathrow Airport: guitar and suitcase and a photograph to remember.
The song is interesting for two reasons. There is an obvious mismatch between the picture of the airport drawn by the song and the reality that most people experience, partly because of the age of the song :it came out in 1970 and reflects a different world of air travel. To quote from one account of flying in the mid-sixties: "...boarding a plane was such an event that stewardesses took souvenir Polaroids of passengers as if they were sailing on an ocean liner or catching a dinner show. Once, there were planes with piano lounges. Once, a first-class meal might have included turtle soup served from a tureen, Chateaubriand carved seatside, and cherries jubilee. Steaks would be cooked to order -- eggs, too, on breakfast flights." The song’s narrator is sitting in the departure lounge not just with a coffee but a cigarette and news about the weather is given by ‘the girl in information turning with a smile to break the news..the fog is on its way’. At Heathrow?? Flying then was still a novelty for most people. I had an aunt who around the time of the quote given above went on an aeroplane for the first time, determined not to look out of the window. After what appeared to her a lengthy period she did take a glance out and to her relief saw they were on land -- the flight must have been so smooth it had passed unnoticed. The plane, was of course, still manoeuvring towards take-off.
The second reason, however, is that the mood of the song does also capture the romance and excitement of being at an airport ,waiting to set off somewhere, that De Botton described and which travellers still hope to capture, despite it all. The memories and nostalgia for other trips and times; the destination boards with names of cities you have barely heard of and the realisation that you could just go and buy a ticket to fly there. I'll be leaving in the morning on a plane bound for the sun.
Reality, of course, can still fall short. The narrator is waiting for a flight to Singapore-what could sound more romantically exotic? I did go on a flight from Heathrow to Singapore a few years ago, en route to Brisbane. The night flight was overbooked, a mother spent much of the time chasing her toddler up and down the aisle to tire him out and during one of the flight meals the seat in front suddenly reclined so much the tray went flying. However, even a fog-bound delay in Heathrow’s departure lounge can sound an almost pastoral experience if you try hard enough.
Link to song