Whoever said it is better to travel than to arrive never had to deal with the British motorway system on a bank holiday weekend. Or maybe they did – for there would be no hope for timely arrival, so embracing the joy of the journey is the only option. The classic 1970s holiday solution of setting up a picnic table by the side of the road makes perfect sense in these situations. A solution based on the austerity of a war that had ended in 1945, but still echoed through the thoughts and actions of people like my parents. The modern family would probably take a different approach. Selling coffee by the side of the road would have been a decent business plan when I think about it. Plane travel is no better and possibly much worse. Entertainment is provided not because it’s entertaining, but because the journey will be almost unbearable, even if it goes without hitch or delay. For a plane journey to be better than arrival you need to be sitting in the seats at the front of the plane and you need to be going somewhere very, very dull.
But on the occasion of migration excitement merges beautifully with anxiety until you can’t tell which is which and this takes the edge off the boredom, at least for an hour or two.
I prefer to arrive by boat. It still has an air of mystery that planes have lost. A gentler way to travel, where the journey may be part of the whole, rather than being something different and separate. Boats have the feeling of being in a strangely decorated house, rather than the badly disguised metal toilet roll of a plane’s interior. Sea sickness would be the only thing that could bring boat travel down to the hellish level of cattle class air travel – but thankfully I have only had to put up with that on a working boat, where I did not have kids to look after or excitement to contain. Being able to stand on deck, with the hope of whales or dolphins or seabirds, far exceeds the value any seat back entertainment system no matter how many channels it offers. One channel here, being better and more unpredictable than a dozen seat back ones. The blue green shape on the horizon slowly becomes clearer and larger, and soon it’s clear that it is land. Often it’s an island.
I had no idea how much the simple British countryside meant to me until I no longer had it, just outside the window, on the drive to work or on the walk to the pub. Whatever I knew about the world around me was based on the things I had seen for so many years, but now they were gone. Some post boxes were yellow; the police were armed, in some places you had to turn right by waiting in the left hand lane. Football was played on an oval pitch with a pointy ball, and the teams did not play each other twice a year. There were drive-through bottle shops, with cheap beer and cheaper wine, and at the same time the TV had gut wrenching advertisements saying “don’t drink and drive”. I recognised almost nothing. Trees kept their leaves all year, herbivores bounced on long legs and mammals laid eggs. The trees were full of parrots and the grass was full of snakes. There were spiders that could kill you under the lid of the compost bin. And each summer a few people would be eaten by sharks. The few things I could name or recognised were pests or weeds.
I felt shipwrecked, floating in a sea surrounded by random pieces of other people’s luggage. I grabbed anything that came to hand hoping it would keep me afloat. Sometimes it did, sometimes it was just baggage I would later have to discard. Slowly, gradually, I came to know more and more of this new world. The birds began to have names and the flowers too. Some beaches and woodlands became familiar, I came to think of some places as my local patch. And every time I looked around the same sheet anchor stood next to me, as she had stood next to me at the baggage claim and in that staff room so many years ago. She stood next to me when my brain started to fall apart and she helped me pick up the pieces and put it back together again. She helped me remake my brain.
As the neurones reconnected words tumbled from my fingertips. This was a huge shift from the derisory comments of school English classes, from embarrassed spelling and an anger that hurt all around me. Each new post pushed me further towards some kind of understanding and further from rage.
The swallows will be back next summer – well most of them anyway. They will have swum in a sea sky so much larger than even the continents and the oceans. I wonder, when they look down, do they notice the things that have changed? Changed for the better, changed for the worse. Do they only know the sky as a home, and the strange flat land below them some kind of other? Or do they come to see, as I have done, that the world around them has changed and that the past can never be refound, and that they have no option but to look into future and fly with all their might.