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Open Features: Thoughts From Abroad

A writer's mind is never at rest, even in the bustling cheeseburger environs of Luton Airport. But should this writer really have been devoting his time to Flaubert's Parrot?

Brian Lockett presents a delicious travel log.

08/02/09
Luton Airport

This is madness.

I am sitting in Luton Airport at 7.45 in the evening munching my way through a double cheeseburger and fries washed down with Pepsi-cola. I am not going anywhere.

At least not tonight.

I hope I will be on a flight to Palma de Mallorca leaving tomorrow at 7.45 in the morning. Since check-in is at 5.45 and I cannot easily get here from my home at that time I decided to come down the evening before and sleep at the airport.

It is all a question of money, you see.

A firm with the unlikely name of Whoopydoo of Chester, a trading division of the even more unlikely Fireball Media Ltd, offered me a 'promotional holiday' (I do not know what that is) in Palma. I paid a modest sum for air passenger duty tax, fuel levy and booked luggage and in return I get (at this stage I'd better say I should get) a 7-day self-catering holiday (including return flights and 3-star or higher accommodation). Disadvantages include very short notice, the early start, the inconvenient departure airport, no free food on the flight and no transfer between airport and the holiday site.

Luton Airport was closed for a time last week because of what in the trade are known as awc (adverse weather conditions). As I write, I notice that flights are departing as scheduled, the last one due to leave at 9.15. There is then a gap until 6 when the Marrakech service takes off. The weather outside is cold with sleet and occasional rain and snow.

Luton is, I would say, a utilitarian airport, host to a number of no-frills airlines offering cheap and cheerful travel to people like myself who see no reason for paying inflated prices for indifferent service (though we are prepared to pay knock-down prices for it). It is Spartan in its construction and garish in its lighting. Catering is, let us say, unsubtle (hence my burger), but the staff are friendly and helpful enough.

2.26 pm
Santa Ponsa, Mallorca
10/02/09

I am now sitting on my balcony, listening to a background susurration of waves on shore (a minute's walk away) and waiting for a kettle to boil.

An airport, I would explain to those who don't know about such things, is not the best place to spend a night, especially if you are way over about 40. To its credit Luton is comfortably warm and has clean toilets, at least one of which is always open. Airports do not put themselves out to cater for those who would like to or are obliged to sleep on the premises. There are no couchettes or dedicated sleeping areas. The experienced young and fit, come midnight, will collect as many movable chairs as possible, select floor space away from busy lanes, perhaps under a stairway, and arrange their trophies expertly into makeshift structures on which they can stretch full-length. Dedicated back-packers (who are presumably used to sleeping rough - or perhaps even prefer it) will, if allowed, colonise check-in desks and baggage conveyors, even arranging mosquito net type covers to protect their eyes from fluorescent glare. The rest of us - total amateurs - simply wander disconsolately from seat to seat snatching five or ten minutes oblivion until excited girly chatter or noisy cleaning machines prompt us to move wearily on. The floors of airports are hardwearing and easily cleaned. They are, however inhospitable to the human body and blankets make little difference. I did not see any hammocks in use that night in Luton, but I would strongly urge the management to consider a hooked area and a cheap hire scheme. I would have been happy to try it out of sheer curiosity and desperation.

It was shortly after 4 when I realised things were happening. Coaches full of excited teenagers and harassed schoolteachers were arriving and the concourse was filling up. The cleaning machines had disappeared. A customer services man started moving the row of wheelchairs where I had finally taken refuge. The indicator board had come to life.

I collected my left luggage and checked in. It was 5 o'clock.

I went through the security control with several score of early risers. I found myself confronted by a 'traditional breakfast bar' and had tea, toast and marmalade.

The first floor departure lounge at Luton is quite different from the rest. In fact, although smaller, it can hold its own with Heathrow or Gatwick, that is to say you can, if you wish, spend a lot of money in a very short time on high-priced frippery presented to you in stylish bags bearing breath-taking names which mean nothing to me.

But all this passed me in a haze.

Suffice it to say that we took off only 17 minutes late. There was lots of room. I paid £2 for a plastic beaker of tea and then fell asleep. It was after we landed a couple of hours later that I was faced with my first big decision: should I attempt in my weakened state to take public transport to get to Santa Ponsa (2 buses) or should I splash out on a taxi.

No, don't ask.

I gave in and tolerated a chatty driver, who must have felt encouraged by my occasional Verdad?, Si, hace mucho frio en Londres and Si, primera vez.

*

Like most resorts that rely on sea, sun, sand and sangria to attract tourists Palma dies at the end of September and revives the following Easter. Which is why I am only one of a handful of people in the self-catering block to which I was allocated. Since the main point of my holiday - apart from spending as little money as possible - is to shut myself away and write, this doesn't worry me at all. I have a very pleasant, south-facing apartment on the sixth floor, complete with coffee table crudely engraved Scotland for ever! by a previous occupant, and no distractions at all. Santa Ponsa can be walked round in a morning and throws up no surprises. It is unabashedly a tourist attraction, catering for Europeans (mainly Britons and Germans) who feel uncomfortable if they are separated too long from those aspects of their normal routine which make the world civilised: their own language, televised football matches, their own newspapers, their own food and drink, supplemented by the souvenirs which are an absolute must if you are to demonstrate on your return home that you really have been abroad. I certainly wouldn’t want to be here at the height of the season, simply because (I say this neutrally) I am not the tourist that Palma and similar places sets out to attract.

On my first morning I met George and Margaret, who run The Pepper Pot, Kate of Kate's Kitchen and a Liverpudlian pair who have been coming here for 5 or 6 weeks at this time of the year for the last sixteen years.

11/02/09

Whenever I go abroad I never alter my watch. One reason is that I do not know how. The other is that constantly having to add or subtract an hour or two when I glance at it reminds me that I am not at home. Here, looking around, I could be in Blackpool or Southend. Now I will stop whingeing and start writing, which is what I came here to do.

12/02/09

The hotel weather bulletin at reception tells me to expect chubascos moderados today. The rain is falling steadily. They tell me that it will stop and become sunny. I have finished reading The Life of Pi, read Flaubert's Parrot and started Enduring Love. Discipline, Brian, discipline. Trouble is: reading other people's stuff is both stimulating and depressing. Do other writers feel the same?

13/02/09

Is it racist to say that that there are a lot of obese Germans about? This is a neutral, non-judgemental observation based on what I see in Santa Ponsa. Am I allowed to write a story about a fat Frankfurter who overloaded the lift and had to be rescued? It's the kids I feel sorry for.

Why is it that when I read a new novel I remember that I have already written something with a similar theme? Will anyone ever believe me? Why do better known writers keep reading my stuff and pinching my ideas? Will they ever own up? Watch the paranoia, Brian. Just write.

14/02/09

St Valentine’s Day! Broke off and took a tour of the northwestern part of the island. Coach, tram (1929), boat.

Random thoughts/fantasies:

1 I suppose someone has already written the definitive Chopin in Mallorca? Check on return.

2 Why did Robert Graves settle here? Did he recce the place with a Woopydoo ‘promotional holiday’ first?

3 Does olive wood burn well? Why does it remind me of Arthur Rackham?

4 Mallorquin and Catalan are either two distinct languages or exactly the same, dependent on which native islander you are talking to.

5 On the evidence of my own eyes I would say that neither language (nor, indeed, Spanish) appears to have a phrase for responsible dog ownership.

15/02/09

I am impatient today. I want to go home now and type everything up. Why can’t I just march up to the reception desk and say '‘Thank you very much. You have provided an excellent service. I want you to know that it is not your fault that I will never visit Mallorca again. Now take me home, please.’ Something for the usual customer satisfaction questionnaire, perhaps, under ‘Suggestions for improving your next holiday with us’?

16/02/09

I see from my desk diary that I have an entry for today: Sent anything to that guy in Huddersfield recently?’

Well, yes, as a matter of fact, I just have.

Cheers.

If you have any thoughts on Luton Airport, ‘promotional holidays’, Mallorca or even Brian’s choice of reading matter, he would be delighted to hear from you.


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