Thursday 22 December 2011

Concrete jungles

My recent journey from Nottingham back to Germany was a little less fun than I'd anticipated. This was very largely my own fault. I'd left booking my coach until quite late, and in consequence it turned out to be fully booked. After some hasty brainstorming with friends, we finally settled on Plan E: turn up for the coach and hope there'd be a no-show and thus a free seat.

Astonishingly, this worked. Thanks to a kindly driver, I got to Milton Keynes, where the influx of more passengers forced me to get out and share a taxi to Luton Airport with a lovely Spanish lady; thence I took another coach to Stansted. It was a madcap odyssey, but it was actually cheaper than just taking the coach normally would have been.

Stansted was busier than usual - Christmas, you know. I got through all right, though. I spent some time in the chapel praying and then joined the longest security queue I've ever been in. The Muslim family in front of me - wife, husband, and a girl perhaps six years of age - were, of course, subjected to a 'random' search. There were a good number of people in danger of missing their plane, and their naked fear was palpable.

Ryanair did the usual in forcing us to queue for absolute ages. (I never understand why some people pay extra for 'priority boarding': they're treated just as badly as the rest of us and have to wait for almost as long.) Eventually, they took us through the gate and into a narrow corridor, where we then had to wait for another fifteen minutes - no exits, no windows, surrounded by HSBC advertising. I'm glad I'm not claustrophobic, but even so I came to reconsider the relative merits of the previous, slightly less horrid queue: would we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt! I fought down the urge to start punching the walls - which, incidentally, someone is bound to do at some point.

The experience led me to reconsider my previous assertion that the problem with Ryanair is their total refusal to pretend you're anything more than cattle. That's not quite right. Sure, it's how Ryanair treat you in practice; but there is an ideological veneer to it. Other companies will dissemble class; Ryanair feigns an oppressive and omnipresent cheer with their wacky Irish accents, annual calendar of flight attendants in their knickers, and the in-flight magazine's joyous celebration of environmental destruction.

It's not so much the nakedness of commodification, then, but the radical cognitive dissonance between reality and ideology: flying with Ryanair is an extraordinarily mirthless experience, but the 'Turn that frown upside down!' mania makes it that much worse, like Ned Flanders's totalitarian regime in that Simpsons Halloween episode.

Obviously, I'm not a fan of the concrete jungles we inhabit. It's the air in no small part, that nauseating smell of metal, grime, and despair; but more than the bare facts it's the branding of all space, the impossibility of escape. That's an airport, anyway: there's still plenty of free space out there - occupations, collectives, parks - and it's deeply refreshing. A free space is an image of the world to be - one day, perhaps.

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