Deborah Orr: Ah, the glamour of modern air travel

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The Independent Online

For a variety of mainly unwelcome reasons too complicated to go into, I have lately found myself taking flights as regularly as most people take clean underwear out of their drawers. Suddenly, my dim awareness that there was something a little weird about the whole flying business has crystallised into weary insight.

The main problem with flying today is that while for the user flight has become another annoying and mucky form of public transport, the airlines, airport authorities, customs and immigration and the Government are still in love with the outdated idea that it is all terribly exciting, glamorous and serious. There's a terrible mismatch between what they think they are bestowing on you and what you think you are buying out of sheer, mundane necessity.

This mismatch manifests itself in all sorts of hilarious-looking-back sorts of ways, all of them linked to the disparity between what you are expected to put up with from them (which is anything they can throw at you), and what they are expected to put up with from you (which is nothing except sheep-like co-operation).

At Sao Paulo airport a couple of weeks ago, lunacy reigned because of an air traffic control strike. No one bothered to tell passengers that this was the reason for the total meltdown. One was simply expected to wear it, because obviously running an airport is very, very difficult for reasons too complex to understand. Even the awful crash at the city's domestic airport was reported without reference to the strike. The failure of staff management is always played down by all concerned with air travel anywhere in the world.

At JFK, efficiency was the order of the day, but only if you were an American citizen. So my husband, who carries a US passport, was rushed through immigration as if he were George Washington come back to life, while the kids and I had to wait for almost three hours in a ginormous queue of people unsure as to whether they should be most annoyed because they needed a wee or because they needed a glass of water. The message, quite clearly, was that it pays to be American. It does, because we missed our connection to Albany, and found ourselves in a Holiday Inn when we should have been at a wedding.

Heathrow, of course, is slagged off all the time, and I like to think I am ever so clever because I use little London City airport whenever possible. Even there, last Saturday, chaos ruled. Having waited more than an hour just to drop a bag at "fast bag drop", I was exhorted by the flight's purser - who signalled like a chap operating a marionette in a puppet version of Don Quixote - that I should run 20 metres to the aircraft at full speed so as not to waste another minute. I demurred, imagining that no further revenge for my failure to turn up two hours early for a one-hour flight could be visited on me. Oddly enough, the buggers lost my baggage, even though they'd had those extra few seconds to get it on board.

Meanwhile, even though Glasgow airport personnel were kind enough last week to allow me to travel with a cheese grater, I couldn't help noticing that the video they play while we're all waiting to be X-rayed, frisked and scolded is a little bit mad. For one thing, its star is a woman who has clearly decided that the way to get all of her make-up into the cabin is to put all of it on her face at once. For another, its little motto, flashed up frequently, is: "It's your security."

Really, they might as well just say: "It's your fault." But it isn't, is it? All other public transport - railways, underground railways, buses and so on - have been subject to successful terrorist attacks in Europe. But none of them insists that you are an enemy of the state if you decline to queue for hours for the privilege of being told you're carrying suspicious exfoliant, and that it's being interned for your own good. British airports now even have the cheek to erect those Perspex display cases full of innocent shampoos, boasting the legend "Over one million items confiscated". That's fine, if that's the way they want to play it. But sooner or later, they're going to have to wake up to the fact that it's insecurity, not security, that is the problem, and that the problem is theirs, not ours.

It is an unlucky woman indeed who struggles through this vale of tears without the sterling support of a gay best friend. Lately, though, I've been beginning to wonder if gay best friends may not become, at a certain age, a liability. My own gay best friend, a rock through more than two decades of clubs, parties, holidays and dark nights of the soul, has begun to ask me dolefully whether I would ever consider cosmetic surgery. When I reply in the negative, he sighs and offers, in a dispirited fashion: "Oh well, there are always fillers, I suppose." This is not gay in the least. It is very depressing. Even gay best friends are subject to the irritating but reliable law of diminishing returns.

Children and art don't always mix

Audience participation has featured in Antony Gormley's London retrospective perhaps even more than the famously people-friendly artist might have anticipated. The sculpture (pictured) that has been placed on Waterloo Bridge has attracted its own volunteer assistant, and early-morning commuters are regularly treated to the work's adornment in a bikini, in sunglasses, in a nappy and so on, adding much to the gaiety of the city.

Mass rebellion was also recently seen inside the Hayward Gallery, where Blind Light has been packing 'em. One class of ebullient 14-year-olds was so taken by their sojourn in Gormley's glass box of steamy vapour that the whole class refused vociferously to disembark when their time was up.

Unable to cope with the novel experience of a gang of disembodied voices shouting "We're not coming out", their teacher was obliged to call in the gallery's supervisor, who told the class that unless they emerged, the entire building would be evacuated and everyone would be told, over the public address system, exactly who had caused it. Faced with the teenager's greatest fear, public humiliation, the boys stumbled to the exit, with their clothing, but not their ardour, dampened by the experience.

My sympathies lie entirely with the teacher. I hadn't even got into the gallery when I ran into trouble when taking my own recalcitrant sons to the show. Before I had children, my fantasy was that it would be wonderful to inspire them with My Love of Art. In real life, they hate exhibitions so much that I have to tell them every time that it is either the gallery or shopping for dresses in Selfridges. Once they actually chose the latter.

"Look, children," I cried on this particular unhappy occasion, "at all the sculptures of the artist poised on all those buildings round the gallery. Isn't it amazing?"

"Don't you think," said my nine-year-old, "that they look as if they're contemplating suicide?"

"No, of course not," I replied breezily, before remembering that if at all possible one must never lie to one's children. "Well, OK then. Yes. They do." There are times, grim times, when I know exactly how those sculptures feel.

The triumphant and highly gratifying bid of the young, female singer-songwriter for world domination continues apace. Kate Nash at 20, is thigh-deep in hype not seen since this time last year, and Lily Allen. Nash's second single zoomed effortlessly up the charts, which prompted her record label to yank forward to next month the release of her debut album, with the happy acquiescence of all media. Talking to the Daily Mirror about her sudden fame, she says that on-air praise from Patti Smith, the New York musician whose talents have endured and evolved since the 1970s, alongside her undentable reputation for lack of compromise, has been one of the highlights so far of her whirlwind ascendancy.

Likewise, Natasha Khan, pictured, with her all-woman band Bat for Lashes, is being touted as the only serious threat to Amy Winehouse's shoo-in nomination for this year's Mercury Music prize. Since no one doubts Winehouse's "authenticity", she is perhaps the most likely lass to be compared with Smith. But Jefferson Hack, publisher of the witlessly hip glossy Dazed and Confused, suggests otherwise. For him, Khan has "an ancient power; like Björk or Patti Smith, she is in part shamanic".

He's certainly right that Smith has an ancient power. I met her some years back, and was almost speechless with the excitement of being introduced to one of my own musical heroes. As I stepped towards her, hand outstretched, the usual stuff about privilege, honour, great pleasure, am-not-worthy, and so on were all ready to drop cringingly from my lips.

Two feet away, though, and I found myself only just refraining from exclaiming: "My God! There's an unbelievable stink of sewage round here!"

My awful, not-a-moment-too-soon realisation was that the vagranty whiff was emanating from none other than the high priestess of punk herself. There's refusal to compromise, girls, and there's simple lack of acquaintance with soap and water. If that's what teen spirit smells like, I'm banking on a fortnight in Cliff Richard's holiday home.