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

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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

    Orthorexia nervosa

    How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
    Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

    Lady Chatterley’s Lover

    Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

    Set a pest to catch a pest

    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests
    Mexico: A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life

    The dark side of Mexico

    A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life
    Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde. Don't tell other victims it was theirs

    Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde

    Please don't tell other victims it was theirs
    A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

    A nap a day could save your life

    A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
    If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

    If men are so obsessed by sex...

    ...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

    Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
    The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

    Rolling in the deep

    The bathing machine is back but with a difference
    Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

    Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

    Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border