Heathrow's in-house writer revels in romance of flight

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The Independent Culture

It's the peak of the holidays and London Heathrow is full of passengers enduring what is likely to be the most trying part of their trip. But Tony Parsons, the airport's new writer-in-residence, is loving it.

"A man who is tired of airports is tired of life. It's a gateway to adventure," gushed the best-selling British novelist, as tired-looking families pushed trollies laden with bags past him in the sleek and modern Terminal 5.

For the next week, Parsons has unrestricted access to the world's busiest international airport, from the "church-like" air control tower to the often frantic departure and arrivals halls, which handle 65 million passengers a year.

"I think some of the shine has gone off air travel in recent years, especially since 9/11. We think of airports as a place where we take off our shoes and our belts and we get delayed," he told AFP.

But he insisted: "You don't have to look very far before you find massive human drama, the real work of changing lives and love, families brought together and moving and changing. And as a storyteller, that appeals to me enormously."

Parsons, author of the bestselling novel "Man and Boy", is the second in-house writer employed by Heathrow, after philosopher and author Alain de Botton spent a week at the airport in 2009.

De Botton wrote a well-received book of non-fiction, but this year, Parsons is intending to write a book of short stories entitled "Departures", 5,000 copies of which will be distributed free to passengers at Heathrow in October.

The stories will be based on the lives of the passengers and the 76,000 staff, from cleaners to security staff, who keep the sprawling airport running 24 hours a day.

Parsons has a lifelong passion for air travel and he regularly passes through Heathrow as he heads overseas with his Japanese wife, Yuriko, and his daughter.

Although the 57-year-old expected the pilots to be the highlight of his stay, he admits it is the air traffic controllers who fascinate him.

"You're up in the air traffic control tower and looking at weather systems over the Atlantic and planes coming in from Jakarta, and Singapore and San Francisco, you do feel connected to the rest of the planet," he said.

"You do feel as though you're plugged into something epic and majestic."

The controllers manage Heathrow's two runways, one for departures and one for arrivals, although Parsons has discovered that these switch at 3:00 pm every afternoon because of the changing wind. "It keeps it interesting," he mused.

He was surprised to find the controllers were all young technology geeks staring at screens.

"You think it's going to be like BBC presenters in the 1950s. And they're kids in khaki shorts with martial arts tattoos. It really does look like 'The Social Network'," he said, referring to the film about the founding of Facebook.

They are not talkative, but Parsons is already weaving stories about them, imagining a romance featuring the "air traffic control tower of love, where the guy loves the way she brings in Charlie Delta and lands it in bad weather".

"But I don't know if I'm going to get enough material. It's quite silent and church-like up there," he said.

Parsons praises all the staff at the airport and says it is "remarkable how well it's run" - although he admits this was not always the case, a reminder of the technical problems that marred the opening of Terminal 5 in 2008.

Heathrow also came under fire in December after heavy snow left thousands of passengers stranded just before the busy Christmas period.

Cat Jordan, a spokeswoman for the airport, admitted that granting their first writer unrestricted access two years ago had been a "bit of a risk", but it was such a success that they were happy to repeat the experience.

"Heathrow is just a bunch of buildings, it didn't have a personality and we wanted to build a personality around it. There are so many people and so many stories, and we could never bring that all to life," she said.

Back in Terminal 5, Parsons is excitedly explaining how three different types of gull land on Heathrow's runways, and staff need to identify them so they can scare them off by playing a tape of a similar gull in distress.

On hearing the sound, the gulls "immediately leave and go somewhere else, preferably Gatwick", Heathrow's rival airport, he jokes.