Economy class - it's enough to give anyone a bloodclot, even the deeply vain

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The Independent Online

It could simply be nature's way of telling me to accept my decline into the second childhood of old age, but I am suddenly noticing changes to my personality of a sort I can only describe as immature. I have started singing myself to sleep, dreaming of lambs, and waking hopefully. I have started not to mind - speaking of "hopefully" - when other people use that word in the sense of "I hope". And I am starting to sound like John Lennon. All you need is love, I've caught myself telling friends. Soon I will be taking all my clothes off in a public place and asking that we give peace a chance.

It could simply be nature's way of telling me to accept my decline into the second childhood of old age, but I am suddenly noticing changes to my personality of a sort I can only describe as immature. I have started singing myself to sleep, dreaming of lambs, and waking hopefully. I have started not to mind - speaking of "hopefully" - when other people use that word in the sense of "I hope". And I am starting to sound like John Lennon. All you need is love, I've caught myself telling friends. Soon I will be taking all my clothes off in a public place and asking that we give peace a chance.

This week I have been buttonholing strangers and urging them to believe that we are more powerful than we know, that all we have to do is band together for once and refuse to travel by rail until the trains are fit to travel on, and it will happen. Unbroken tracks, clean toilets, decent sandwiches, and no one in rail management earning more than a primary school teacher. People power. We can do it, I've been saying, the baby that I am. We can make the world a better place.

And now, it's air travel. Why do we put up with the torture? It's you I'm buttonholing this time - why do we pay lavishly to be herded like cattle into a space so confined that cattle would not survive the journey, supposing that the European Commission for the Welfare of Dumb Animals would permit cattle to travel in such conditions in the first place. What about just refusing to fly? Give us legroom, or we're not going anywhere.

How much legroom? A plane each. But failing that, sufficient space to prevent the formation of those blood clots that have killed a couple of young women recently - that's a couple that we know of - after the inhumanity of long-haul flights. "Economy-class syndrome", it's called. How's that for a euphemism? What's wrong with "criminal neglect, fuelled by greed"? We read of scoundrelly sea captains of the 18th and 19th centuries filling the holds of their ships with tortured human cargoes of snot-nosed convict children and we wonder that they weren't strung from the yard-arm. But we make no connection with the villainy of our own times, partly because we now have the word "syndrome", which removes illness from all association of blame, and partly because we climb on to planes with our skis and scuba gear and think that because we're pleasure-bound, we've nothing to complain about. Call it "muteness-of-the-affluent syndrome".

Except that the really affluent are too smart to mingle with the huddled masses and cough up to travel business. Forgive me for sounding like John Lennon again, but maybe if the airlines put up a notice saying, "Pay treble or suffer a thrombosis", we'd be in a better position to assess the risk.

And forgive me for sounding like Methuselah, but economy wasn't always a death trap. I recall flights to Australia in the Sixties and Seventies when there was so much space between the seats in economy, you could sit on someone's knee, read the previous day's paper and eat your lunch. I'm not saying I ever did that myself, however much airline dining recalls to me my early childhood - gooey food, plastic high chairs, bibs and tantrums. But I once came as close to being nursed and mothered on a plane as a grown man dare admit to.

The circumstances were these. I had left my wife and child. Not impulsively, but after months of soul-searching. It had seemed the right thing to do, and then, as soon I found myself aboard the plane, it didn't. You crack up for a while when you've left your wife and child. That's normal. The time to worry is when you don't. But, normal or not, I was in a sorry state. Blanched, shaking, blubbering - pretty much the way all economy passengers look now, but this was then, in the good old days, when you could scratch your nose without knocking the hat off the person three rows back. Blanched and shaking was how the two young Thai women found me, anyway. Women? Angels, more like.

They were travelling back to Bangkok together, me in the middle. One of those caprices of ticketing. I offered to move to the window, but they wouldn't hear of it. I think they could tell I needed mothering from both sides. They had scant English, and my Thai was no better than it needed to be; but the language of grief and compassion got us through. I showed them photographs of the family I was leaving, and they were tactful enough not to be too complimentary. They helped me off with my jacket. They mopped my face. They rubbed orchid oil into my wrists and took turns to massage my feet. Did they feed me my meals? My memory grows fuzzy here, but I have a feeling they did. A spoon from the left, then a spoon from the right. Who's a good boy?

They saved my life. They had room to save my life, that's the point I'm making. They could move around me. A man leaving his family wouldn't make it on a modern flight. A clot would stop his heart.

But journeys are for that. Half the people on any plane are bearing the sorrow of separation. Shouldn't they be allowed to grieve decorously?

Or is that John Lennon speaking again? Imagining our money-grubbing world will let us to do anything decorously any more?

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