Will Self: PsychoGeography

Greetings from Stansted
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It's a Saturday in late December and, as is my wont, I'm standing in a straggly bit of woodland in Essex. The afternoon sun slants down through the coppices and my boots are claggy with damp leaf-fall and mud. It's a scene not just of peace, but also of delightful seclusion. I've no doubt that other people are out and about, enjoying the other, marvellously straggly woodlands of Essex, however, not this one. According to my companion, Carol, this ancient woodland is a designated site of special scientific interest - and who am I to doubt her? Apparently a rare oxlip is to be found hereabouts, although she, herself, has never actually seen one.

But hark! What's this great roaring, this elemental screech? Is some giant abroad, shaking the earth with his own seven-league, claggy boots? Er, no, it's just an airplane, its toothpaste-tube fuselage bulging with an undifferentiated gloop of humanity. In it comes, groaning above the treetops, squeezing out fumes, as it descends into Stansted Airport. The moment has passed, peace returns, anaemic birds are again all a-twitter. But hark! What's this? Yes, it's another one, another FacileJet; so easy to board, so difficult to get out of the habit of taking.

We're on the flight path for Stansted's sole runway, and if we were crazy enough, we could stand here for another eight hours (for the purposes of our economically essential aviation industry, "daytime" runs until 11 at night), and experience the peculiar sensation of thousands of people hurtling over our heads. Stansted is the baby of the London airports; even so, 24 million passengers pass through it every year. 90 per cent of them are travelling on low-cost airlines, seeking out bed knobs and broomsticks in Budapest. Their eyes are firmly fixed on far horizons: they wouldn't spend a Saturday here in Eastend Wood if you gave them a tax break.

Listen, I'm not going to pretend I like the remorseless expansion of air travel, the urge we all have to go, lemming-like, and buy a newspaper on another continent. Given the overcooked globe, there's something in decidedly poor taste about reheating what little biodiversity has been left over. And yet, these edge zones, these interfaces between mass transit and solitary tramping, they never fail to entrance me with their juxtaposition of irreconcilable opposites: wood versus steel; earth against concrete; Starbucks squaring up to The Three Horseshoes at Molehill Green. I feel uneasy about sharing this recurrent epiphany of mine with Carol, because her commitment to the preservation of Stansted's backyard is longstanding and fervent.

Not that it's her backyard, you understand. On the contrary, Carol is a professional PR person, and she was approached by the Stop Stansted Expansion campaign in that capacity. She doesn't even live in the country - let alone the county. Indeed, she's come all the way from her home in France to meet with me, and walk in the soggy twilight, because over the years she's become infatuated with stopping Stansted from growing. She's like some foot-binder of an environmentalist; intent on swaddling the burgeoning appendages of the airport, so that it can never do anything save hobble.

Or rather, she would if she could. For the airport has already hypertrophied. There's been a six-fold increase in passenger numbers over the past decade; and if British Airport Authority's Spanish parent company get their way, there will be a second runway so that thousands more toothpaste tubes can be hurled into the sky. Already, locals who bought houses in the purlieus of the airport, believing that passenger numbers would never grow this much, have abandoned them, to be bought up by BAA. Carol and I went and saw some of these: beautiful half-timbered cottages winnowed out by the stiff wind of retail opportunity.

Because that's the nub of it: Hatfield Forest blanketed in pollution; Philipland Wood annihilated; 70-odd villages and market towns adversely affected by noise - and what's it all for? The two or three quid BAA can make on each passenger who parks their car, or does a little shopping. For the actual airport charges aren't enough to create the roseate glow around Norman Foster's moderno-barn of a terminal, oh no. What's needed here is more through-put: more flying for shopping and parking's sake.

Still, it's not looking like a bad Christmas for Carol. The council has objected to plans for Stansted's expansion on the grounds of its adverse effects on climate change. This is a first, and Carol hopes the start of something big.

"You're right," I assure her as we trudge back through the straggly wood to her car, "your campaign is in the very cockpit of history. If, that is, you'll forgive the metaphor." Then another jet screeches overhead, wiping out all my fancy imagery.