Friday, 1 February 2013

Atlantic crossing

I spent Christmas 2010 in England; it was fiercely cold and the country was blanketed in snow. On January 8 I travelled from my sister’s home in the Oxfordshire countryside to my flat in New York’s Harlem district. It seems a routine journey, but the Atlantic is never routine for me; my first memory in life comes from that journey, and the ocean has always fired my imagination. I jotted down random thoughts that spilled out on the Atlantic crossing, on the nature of travel and the movement of people. This is what emerged. If it makes no sense, don’t worry; it wasn’t meant to.

10.15am GMT
The blue sky is so pale in winter;  everything was thrown into delicate relief, the intricate patterns of the bare twigs, and the ridges of grit on the country road.  It was getting warmer, and the road surface was damp and black between the banks of snow on either side. I came round the bend at the bottom of the hill that leads out of the village of Combe and there was a magpie. I looked at once for its mate but it was alone. One for sorrow.

Over the brow of Stokenchurch Hill, and into the Chilterns. I was thinking of another journey to Heathrow on a November day nearly a quarter of a century ago, sitting beside my father in his silver Saab. Then as now I did not want to go. I'm mad. I can't do this. I can't go to Africa. Hubris. Idiot. The weather was dull, with a low thin cloud stretched over the landscape. Then just for a minute a small patch of very wan sun lit lit up a field to the left of the road, and I saw that there was a dip in the land towards the far side of the field, the little island of sunlight lifting it from the dull landscape around. Then the sunlight was gone, and we were surrounded by murk again. For some reason I never forgot that patch of sunlight on a dip in the field. It did not seem random. But I never could find that little hollow n the land again, and could not remember where I had seen it. Now this morning, as I hurtle over the crest of Stokenchurch Hill and down towards High Wycombe, I saw it again. The snow had melted here, and the field seemed greener than before; perhaps then it was fallow or rough pasture.  Then I looked back towards the road and see the traffic ahead dividing to the left and right round an object in the carriageway, and I veered quickly to the left myself. It was a swan. A swan was lying in the middle of the road, on its breast, its wings spread to either side, its neck twisted and arched. Then a small wooded valley opened up to the right; it was hemmed in by busy roads, and there was a white Georgian manor standing there looking oddly out of place.

4.00pm GMT
Sitting in Gate 40 of Terminal 3, looking out at the aircraft drawn up beside us, the aluminium gleaming dully in the thin yellowish afternoon sun, a little desultory activity beneath the wings, a yellow cart scurrying here and there and the odd chap in orange dayglo vest walking purposefully across the tarmac with a clipboard. There didn’t seem to be many passengers (there weren't; I would have a row to myself, with lots of room for long-flight detritus – books and jackets and customs forms and empty plastic glasses and little packets of biscuits that I would end up throwing away when I get home).

Once, this journey had a sense of occasion.  I was remembering a previous crossing; it was August 1968, I was 11 and we were on the boat train. I wonder which was the last boat train, and when did it run? This one began at Euston and ran straight through Liverpool and into the dock. We got out of the train on one side of a huge shed-like building; on the other side of it I could see a mighty white wall that seems to stretch right across the horizon, studded with windows. It took me a while to realise what it was, then the round portholes give it away. The shed was a heaving mass of steamer trunks and children and loud cheerful voices. There was a festive atmosphere. Lots of families had come to see people off.  Looking back, I suppose many of our fellow-passengers were actually emigrating. These were the last days of the Assisted Passage, when “ten-pound poms” made the six-week voyage to Australia for that sum. Others went to Canada and would certainly have been aboard; there were no wide-bodied jets then, and flying was still extremely expensive.

We rid ourselves of a huge mound of luggage, all of it plastered with labels that said CANADIAN PACIFIC NOT WANTED ON VOYAGE (yes, really; we had those labels). Two or three hours later I was standing by the rail somewhere near the stern, sensing a growing motion as the great white wall moves slowly away from the quay. The water in the widening gap was churned up, probably not by the screws – tugs  were pulling us out – but by the current flowing in to replace the 50,000 tons of steel as it pulled away. On the surface of the grey-brown water a solitary steamer trunk bobbed up and down; it had fallen in during loading, and now a trio of dockers peered down at it from the quay, waving grappling hooks. "I gather the chap's DPhil thesis was in it," says a jocular voice behind me. Someone else chuckled: "I say, I do hope he has a carbon copy!" I' was hemmed in on both sides by fellow-passengers taking their leave of those on the quay; many are clutching the ends of long thin brightly-coloured paper streamers, the other ends held by their friends many tens of feet below. As the gap widens, the streamers part, sometimes dropped, sometimes broken, and fall onto the rising and falling water below.

We went below. In the morning I went back on deck. We had come up the Firth of Clyde in the night and were lying off Greenock. The engines had stopped and the late-summer morning was dead calm, the Clyde estuary miles wide and as still as glass below a huge blue morning sky, greenish-brown mountains across the Clyde, an extraordinary feeling of light and space. All that moves is the tender, a small launch that noses out towards us from Greenock with mail and a few last passengers for the New World.

It was almost the end of the North Atlantic liners. The Empress of Canada already sailed only in summer, and a year or so later the first wide-bodied jets entered service and the historic service from Liverpool to the St Lawrence was abandoned.  The last two White Empresses fell into the twilight existence of cruise liners; but the Canada was one of the last survivors, and lived on, long-forgotten, until the end of 2003. Then she went to Pakistan, to Gadani Beach. This must be one of the strangest places on earth. They just run the ships straight onto the beach at full speed so that they plough deep into the sands, and then an army of thin men in white swarm aboard and break them with hammers and axes and the sweat of their brows.

I'm looking at the aircraft outside; there's a little more activity; a few more people with clipboards, a whine as a cargo door is closed. They won't break her. They will send her to the Boneyard. The Boneyard is in the Arizona desert and hundreds of ghostly aeroplanes stand there, preserved in the dry desert air; vast Boeing 747s, 777s like this one, B52s, jumbos, transports from Vietnam, Northrops that once dropped napalm.

9.30pm GMT
There is an eerie tranquility in an aircraft in mid-flight at night. The lights are off and people are dozing; one or two are working on laptops; others are watching the screens set into the backs of the seats in front. Few read nowadays. I do though. I once devoured almost all 600 pages of William Woodruff's Nab End duology on a 12-hour slog from São Paulo to London. Tonight I had an anthology of the best American travel writing from 2010 and it was rather good. It included a very intelligent piece by Simon Winchester and I was reminded that he had recently written a 'biography' of the Atlantic. I haven't read it; I should, but I'm thinking about the Atlantic anyway, that great labile treacherous mass of water 40,000 feet below my arse.

I was trying to imagine that first flight in a fragile biplane, ending in an Irish bog. (I think it was probably just a field really. But it was in Ireland, so everyone decided they'd landed in a bog.) Leather jackets and thick woollens and leather flying-helmets, thick goggles; wind tearing through the strut wires; wooden propellors; engines forged from metals crude to us and badly fitting, sprays of oil in the slipstream, that sound from undamped exhausts that they used to say was like ripping calico, only nowadays no-one knows what ripping calico sounded like so perhaps there should be a new simile.

Some journeys on this ocean always have ended badly. You are in your cabin; it was a five-day voyage before, but now it's three weeks as you limp along at the pace of the slowest ship, and you zigzag and dogleg, and destroyers and corvettes fuss around like smoky sheepdogs. It's early morning and you're still in your bunk when there is a soft thud and a jolt and the ship falters and seems to have come to a stop. There is an odd silence. The lights flicker but stay on. You can hear the footsteps of a steward clanging on the steel floor of the passage outside so you open the door. No, probably nothing to worry about, but perhaps you wouldn't mind going topside, sir, do you have warm clothing? – good, sir, if you can get it on quickly. On deck everything's quite calm, but the other ships have moved on ahead, leaving a black smoke stain on the horizon; and you're alone in the early morning between a still, solid grey sea and a gunmetal sky, and there's a cool breeze. It's very calm and it must be only your imagination that the ship is settling slowly to starboard. In fact everything is so calm that you cannot envisage the jagged hole below and the cold water streaming in across the hot boilers and the lascars and stokers screaming in agony from the superheated steam.

When I was young, many older people hated the sea.

1.30am GMT, 8.30pm EST
Yellow cabs have this floaty motion, the big heavy old-fashioned bodies swaying across bumps and centrelines and potholes. A thick bulletproof steel wall divides you from the driver, but there is a sliding glass panel in it and it is always open. On the back of the steel wall is a little video screen, like the ones you get in planes. You can touch it to zoom in to the map and see your position, but mostly it plays a loop of what-to-do-in-NY and restaurants and cookery. Its clatter in the background merges with the sanitised rapping from the driver's radio and the murmur of his voice as he talks on his cellphone. He's talking to another cab driver, a friend or maybe a relative, and clearly a beginner, a fellow-African probably from Mali or Senegal, no you gotta take the other slip, the second slip for La Guardia, where're you anyhow, no the second slip, the second you listening to me? and just then La Guardia drifts past on our starboard bow. A little later the cab slows for the tollbooths before the Triborough Bridge that links Queens with Manhattan. It's very long, the Triborough Bridge, and if you look left you can see the spires of Manhattan stud the skyline in the distance, lights shimmering in the great expanse of the East River that lies between.

Most times I do look left. I don't know why but I looked right that night. Another, unlit, bridge runs parallel to the Triborough Bridge, a thousand yards or so to the north. It's an old-fashioned bridge, desolate and lifeless; gantries show that it is a railway bridge. It rises to an elaborate iron cantilever that reminds me of the Forth Bridge; this must carry the central span, and then it runs downward to the shore, where its great length finally merges with the mess of sheds and concrete on the Manhattan bank. As it runs down it passes through an archaic arch and pediment, surmounted by ornate stone or concrete globes, just visible against the night sky. That night, nothing stirred on this old bridge.

I was looking through a wormhole. Any moment, I would see sparks and smoke, and steam white against the night, and an enormous engine with four or five driving wheels on each side would issue forth onto the cantilever, followed by dimly-lit carriages with slatted wooden benches packed with tired and sullen Swedes and Sicilians and Galicians, rocking gently with the movement of the train, fresh from a grimy floating coffin that has brought them to try their luck in the homesteads of Oklahoma and the stockyards of Chicago and the orchards of California. Then the cab floated and swayed across the ramp at the foot of the Triborough Bridge. The wormhole closesd.  We were surrounded by bright lights again, and brightly-lit and deserted pizza parlours, furniture wholesalers, shoe repairers, small piles of grimy ossified snow, crushed hamburger cartons, liquor stores, overhead railroad tracks in latticed iron cages, congealed posters on boarded windows, short nuggety Hispanic men on bicycles delivering takeouts, and lots of African-American men in parkas and earphones, hunched against the bitter cold.

In November friends went to Sudan on business. "You must see the Mogren, where the Blue and White Niles meet," I said. "Especially at sunset. It's a huge expanse of water and there are oxen ploughing near it and date-palms, and it's where the big silver Short Empire flying-boats landed from 1937 to 1947 on their way from Southampton to the Cape." After a week, I got an email. They were sharing a modern flat near the airport, and every morning a car came to collect them and drive them from one side of the airport to the office on the other, past rows of identical modern flats lining wide treeless streets under a white-hot sky. "It isn't really charming," says my friend. At the office they worked 12-hour days, then did some more when they got home. "The Nile's only 300 meters away, apparently," my friend writes. "We haven't seen it." So it goes for six weeks, and then the day before they leave they finally get to the Mogren and stand beside it for five minutes. There's a picture, of two graceful but rather tired young women standing squinting beside a sheet of blue-grey water, the scene bleached of all detail by the midday sun.

If I look for long enough I see the sun start to set over the Mogren. Details emerge, trees, fields, the odd oxen driven across loamy earth by a chap in a white headcloth and djellabiya. Orange rays lance across the water from the setting sun. There's a big silver flying-boat on the water, and someone is leaning from the nose with a grappling hook to push it away from the shore. On the jetty stand great tin drums from which aviation spirit has been poured into the tanks, very slowly and carefully, filtered through muslin. There's one hell of a roar as first one engine, then the other three, start, black smoke jetting from crackling exhausts. The boat turns and taxis away, leaning down a little by the rear, its tall tail-fin standing up against the dark blue sky. After a mile or so it turns; the engines pick up and it lumbers forward and the hull lifts slowly from the surface, and thin sheets of silver water cascade off the shiny aluminium surface, and drop away, leaving a few flying drops to catch the setting sun behind. Then the plane goes higher and further away until it's just a dot, droning south towards Lake Victoria across Kordofan and the Sudd and great herds of animals and men with spears who stand on one leg in the shallows.

The future has yet to be created; it does not exist – but the past does. Those who came this way before are all around you.  If you stop and close your eyes for long enough you can see them flowing past you like a river, and if you think hard you can make the river flow backwards so that aeroplanes rise from bogs and ships reassemble themselves on beaches strewn with steel detritus, and men and women stream back across the midwestern plains, through Ellis Island and back into steerage, and if you go back far enough you can see us all cantering backwards across the steppe on small, stocky, shaggy horses, back to wherever we began.

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Mike Robbins's collection of travel writing, The Nine Horizons, was published in 2014 and is available as a paperback, as a Kindle download and in other eBook formats.


  1. Ah the good old days! Wonderfully evocative writing Mike. But you made up the bit about the DPhil in the steamer trunk, didn't you?!

    1. I actually didn't. I was standing next to someone who must have had overheard the poor man talking to the crew. I hope it was not, in fact, the only copy; no Dropbox then!