Friday, 18 December 2009

Long Haul

Usually calm and empty London City Airport is a zoo, with people encamped in the terminal like a casualty dressing station on the Somme.

Because of the early morning snow, most flights cancelled and the air's filled with announcements like "would passengers who WERE flying to Amsterdam please come to the desk behind the escalators to collect their luggage". Among this chaos, though, was a beacon: they had kerbside checkin for BA 001 to Noo Yoik and so I have been frisked and whisked to airside lounge where the snow's piled up against the windows but there does seem to be cleaning and fuelling activity going on around the BA plane although apart from a clapped out old Fokker (no, not me) it seems to be the only one on the tarmac.

It's a bright clear day so I'm not sure why a little white surface dusting has caused such meltdown. London City is quite a simple shed but BA have tricked out one gate-room to look like their classier lounges at Heathrow, although even without my interior design hat on I can see a lot wrong with it. For example there are exactly 32 armchairs which matches them one to a passenger and could be uncomfortable when everyone arrives. I think we're 28 booked today, so four spares one of which I am already defending with two bags and several magazines.

There are no desks or upright tables so everyone's using his or her laptop actually on his or her lap, as designed I guess. At least it keeps our knees warm in the cold. Having almost a master's degree in reading upside down I've already scanned the passenger list printed out on the counter to confirm there's no-one famous on boardm and certainly the dozen already assembled have no star status, although there ios a woman who looks a bit like Vogue editor Anna Wintour, but not very and she isn't barking Devil Wears Prada instructions to a cowering entourage so it can't be she.

Amazingly, there are children. I know BA have discounted this route massively from its headline £4,000 a ticket price but they don't look like a spectacularly wealthy family so I'm guessing it's an off-duty Captain and his brood. Another example, if any were needed, of how British Airways chucks money down the tubes. Must be BA staff, though, because the kids know how to behave, the approximately ten year old is now pouring Daddy a glass of champagne. He didn't learn that at state school.

Announcement: delayed to 2pm. Aircraft diverted to Heathrow early this morning and now being ferried over to City. Stupidly, they aren't planning to use the one already on the tarmac which is scheduled for the same route at 4.30pm. The boy in charge of the lounge says it's undergoing maintenance but since it's got the cleaners on board, seems unlikely. Have sent for management to explain itself.

Management turns out to be one middle-aged man in a bright yellow safety jerkin who won't expand any further on what 'maintenance' is required to the first plane, but his arrival coincides with that of the second A318 so we've now two to play with. As this one's been at Heathrow since 07.30 this morning you kind of wonder why they didn't clean and cater it before now, but with a skill borne of long experience BA staff are immune to rhetoric and sarcasm so there's no point in either and I begin to concentrate instead on the fact I'd quite like the toilet but it's upstairs the other side of security.

Captain arrives for reassuring chat/announcement and the delay is compacted to 45 minutes as we're shephereded on board. It really is a lovely plane, obviously everything is brand new but the seats are very nattily kitted out in dark brownish-black herringbone and encased in smooth white lacquer pods like something out of a John Wyndham novel, I feel as if I am being incubated for something. They're also much more adjustable than the conventional BA seats and it's easy to find a relaxing setting.

Like all BA flights, service is drink-led but since I'm peckish I'm more pleased to see the 'appetiser' served on this first sector to Ireland, which sounds delightful on the menu - sliced duck breast with celeriac, fig confit and something or other but which is frozen solid, I can barely get a fork into it and nor can the bony but smartly-dressed older lady the other side of the aisle who shouts at the crew 'it's like a fuckin' popsicle'.

Mine is replaced from one higher up the permafrost layer in the trolley and I quite enjoy it.

Flying low and slow over the brown wasteland of the West of Ireland it's easy to see why people refer to it as 'going back to the bog' and when we touch down at Shannon, I recall that this is an airport built for political reasons rather than because it's somewhere people want to fly to, or has a large catchment area of people who'd want to fly from it. Historically, it was a staging post between Europe and the oceanic crossing to Newfoundland which became redundant when aircraft developed range over 2000 miles, but why it's still in business is a mystery known only to the Irish Government and, I believe, the Russians who still use it substantially.

It's deserted. We small but intrepid band snake our way round its fourteen-foot wide corridors to a holding pen whilst our luggage is notionally cleared by customs and then through an empty hangar to the cheerful team of US Immigration officers who process us merrily but thoroughly before allowing us back on board. As we waited, the two pilots who had brought us on the one-hour flight from London passed through the terminal with a cheery wave - ready for a three-day layover on full pay and with access to Ireland's finest golf courses, before they resume duty for another flight to New York. Apparently this is because union rules prevent them from flying the whole nine and a half hour service without crew rest bunks in the aircraft.

We're so quickly back on board that the delay has almost evaporated and are further surprised when the new captain tells us by flying higher and faster we'll land almost an hour ahead of schedule. So much tutting and fuming wasted, then.

I fall asleep after take-off and am awakened by the scents of overcooked root vegetables ... I could be at home. The meals on this service are designed by TV-popular chef Laurence Keogh of 'Roast' restaurant in Borough Market but they're clearly produced in the same kitchens as the standard stuff and my dish is a typical BA two-ounce beef fillet with a nasty feathered cap of blue cheese, cooked-to-fluff mashed potato studded with gobbets of bacon, and the aforementioned dice of veg which combine the school-corridor stench of boiled swede with a layer of singeing. Purser (do they call BA ladies of a certain age that because of what they do with their lips) Sandra is apologetic but unsurprised and the lemon cream dessert is actually lovely.

Fast forward - including fast forwarding the movie I had to speed-watch to finish it in time for landing - and we're on the ground at JFK and despite a circuitous route to the exit and a long wait for luggage, my driver's already there and we're quickly our of the airport and into the stalled Friday evening traffic on the mis-named Long Island Expressway.

As we're ahead of schedule and I make it to the hotel by 6, I claim my lovely and heavily-discounted top-floor corner room at the Waldorf Towers although with its high ceilings, cornices, crested carpets, gilt mirrors and pastoral scene curtains so heavily fringed and swagged they could have come straight from La Scala, it's clearly the kind of room some American decorator thinks the Queen Mother would sleep in. There are three huge windows including one in the ornate bathroom with its fancy vanity, ruched blinds, bevelled mirrors and definitely the only gold-plated U-bend I have ever seen.

I walk the half dozen blocks to Times Square as briskly as possible in the sharpening cold, but hampered by the huge crowd at Rockerfeller Center where the gawkers and out-of-towners are queuing for Radio City Music Hall or to see the Christmas tree. At every avenue our way is hindered by New York’s finest controlling the pedestrian flow and I worry I won’t make it before the discount TKTS booth closes.

At the booth there are still plenty of choices of drama and musicals, and figuring a loud musical will keep me awake better than a play, I dicker between two or three and have my choice made easier by two knowledgeable theatre students offering free advice. Not only do they know the plots, cast, running times and review details of everything I ask about, they’re also up on row and seat numbers and when I buy a ticket for Ragtime from an elderly female scalper bundled up like a Russian street-sweeper, for $50, the students reassure me the tickets are genuine and the view is a good one. Which it is, right in the centre of the front mezzanine and ideal for this gig which is played out on three tiers of scenic gantries.
It’s an easy show and both the melodies and the staging are very fluid, blending the stories of Jewish, Irish and black migrants to New York State at the turn of the last century. The Irish hate the blacks, and the blacks all hate the whites, the whites look down on the poor and, in Tom Lehrer’s phrase, everybody hates the Jews. The music’s a bit repetitive and my attention drifts in the second half but is fully reclaimed when Christiane Noll delivers a pitch-perfect ‘Back To Before’, the quite literally eleven o’clock number.

Back at the hotel, I’m thinking of a hot bath and bed when the phone rings with an invitation to a nightcap with a friend from J P Morgan so I dash down to the ‘W’ hotel for a couple of cocktails and when I finally get back about 1.15am, I realise I’ve been up for 22 hours. It’s enough, and I sleep like a babe.

1 comment:

  1. Lovely, lovely. Merry Christmas and Happy NY, NYNY (so good, I wished it 3 times...)!!