When I am flying I find it very hard to read. Theoretically it should be easy. Here you are in cushioned seats (I won’t say comfort because I flew a budget airline and the seats were “cosy”). You can’t rush around doing things and you are trapped in one spot so it should be perfect for reading. I can however, only manage the lightest of reading. I think that it is the sense of being compressed into a small space with many other people. There is so much going on that it is hard to get any head room for thinking. On my way down to Sydney, I ended up simply plugging myself into my iPod and closing my eyes. There was a large family party in front and behind me who communicated over the seat-tops throughout the flight while simultaneously entertaining their two year grand-daughter with a Wiggles DVD on a portable player without headphones. Not that I will criticise anyone for doing whatever it takes to keep a two year old occupied, but it didn’t leave any mental space for anyone else.
Now trains are a different story. Same space, same sense of many people conducting their lives too close to you, more mobile phones (and there is nothing like a mobile phone conversation for exposing the banality of people’s lives), but somehow the sense of rushing through space, the world sliding past the window gives you room for thought. I love trains.
As I often do, when I go to Sydney I fly into Newcastle and catch the train south rather than flying into Sydney airport and taking the train north. It’s further by train but about the same price and time, the airfare is significantly cheaper flying into Newcastle and I just like it. Newcastle airport is a shared commercial/air force airport so commercial planes line up with jets for take-offs and landings. Leaving Newcastle we had to wait for three trainer jets to land. They then taxied slowly past us with glassed-in cockpits open. I don’t like the military, I don’t like small planes, but paradoxically I love the sight of fighter jets. Perhaps it is their kinship to birds. Living near Amberley airbase, sometimes looking out from our hilltop I can’t tell whether the black wheeling formations in the sky are distant birds or F-111s until the sound reaches me.
Newcastle is also a small airport. You get to climb down the stairs and amble across the tarmac to a single small terminal albeit one equipped with excellent coffee and free wireless internet. What more could a person want? Then you catch a bus to the heart of Newcastle winding past row after row of freighters lined up for loading. Painted on their bows are the names of every maritime nation. You end up at a train station on a harbour. Waiting for your train you can watch these huge freighters heading seawards and beginning to wallow in the waves of the entrance. You remember that there is a whole world out there – a world of ships, planes, commerce. Now the ships are huge container vessels, but their path to the world is the same as those original traders and settlers who found their way to such a distant port.
Then you get on the train and travel from one suburbia to another. In between are the vast spaces of river and forest that remind you why settlement in the Sydney area was so difficult. Even today with expensive shacks clinging to the sides of the Hawkesbury River it is still a wild and lonely place. The sun drops below the horizon and the furred hills are dark outlines above the silvery grey water. You can sense the loneliness and vastness and you are glad for your bubble of banality speeding through the darkness.
Perhaps that is the difference between planes and trains. In a train you actually sense that you are travelling instead of being transported in a small room between two larger rooms. I wonder how travel will feel in the future? Will we have any space for thought and reflection, let alone any time for reading?