Tom Hodgkinson: 'The machine told me the flight was closed'


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ASCAL famously wrote that all of man's troubles come from his inability to sit quietly in his room, and I always think of this aphorism when travelling. Why on earth did I bestir myself from my peaceful study in order to submit myself to the indignities of the security check at Heathrow Airport? Why does travel always seem to involve getting up so early in the morning? Why do trains, planes and automobiles create such a fiery rage in my breast?

Last week I was cursing myself for taking up an invitation to give a lecture on freedom and play songs on the ukulele to a group of artists in Rotterdam. I rose at the customary 6am, washed, shaved and checked my bag. The previous week I had set off for a trip to Brussels before realising that I had left my passport at home. The delay to the trip caused by returning home to get it, thereby causing me to book a later train at the last minute, cost me £120 in Eurostar fares.

So this time I was determined to keep the passport, along with e-tickets, close by me at all times. I set off to the airport, constantly patting my pockets, ukulele in hand, while thinking about how unlucky I was to be alive. I alighted from the Heathrow Express at Terminal One in good time and started to hunt around for my check-in desk. There seemed to be no flights to Amsterdam. I asked a moustachioed gent in a fluorescent tabard where the KLM flights left from.

"Terminal Four, mate," he said cheerily, and directed me back down to the Heathrow Express, where a train would whisk me to the correct terminal. This process took another half an hour, Terminal Four being located some miles from Terminal One. I located the KLM zone and scanned my passport into the new electronic machines. (Why is it that at the very moment you get used to one system, they introduce a new one?)

The machine told me that the flight was now closed. I was directed to the KLM ticket desk to get on to the next flight. This was possible, though it would cost me another £150. That rather cut into my £250 fee for the talk, but I felt it would be wrong to cancel, tempting though cancelling appeared to me at that moment. I emailed the organiser from my iPhone and prepared myself for the two-hour wait for the next flight.

Friends who enjoy travelling say that they love these periods of waiting in airports. They read books, wander around the bazaars, check Twitter. I can't see it like this. To me, the waiting is full of anxiety. Should I sit down and take a proper meal in the fake pub? Browse the bookstall? Or just get myself to the gate in plenty of time? What I normally do is phone home to rant and rave about the ugliness of airport architecture, my own stupidity, and the whole system in general, which penalises the chaotic. Plan ahead carefully and you get cheap tickets. Leave things to the last minute and they make you pay.

My gloom was lightened temporarily by a jolly security guard. "Got a ukulele in there, mate?" he enquired while examining my socks and tube of toothpaste as I put my shoes and belt back on. "Where did get your coat? Very dapper, mate." (The answer to the second question is John Pearse of Meard Street, Soho.)

I dozed fitfully on the plane. The Dutch organisers of the event had told me to catch a train from Amsterdam airport to Rotterdam. "It's easy," they said. "Trains either go to Rotterdam or Amsterdam. So you have a 50 per cent chance of getting the right one." Yes, it's all right for you to say that, you live here. Miraculously I got the right train. But I had neglected to prepare my phone for roaming. So on arrival I tried to find a phone box to let the organisers know I had arrived, but there were none. Luckily the tourist office took pity on me and made the call.

That evening we were lucky with the turnout: about 70 were in the audience. In the bar after the talk, which took place at a wonderful arts centre called Worm, I discussed composting toilets and defended myself to a Dutch artist who enquired why English people insisted on undermining the seriousness of their message by adding jokes to their talks.

I got the wrong train out of Rotterdam and only just made the flight back home. I was completely cream-crackered, and had earned £100 for two days' work. Work much, earn little: the tragedy of the 21st-century idler.

Tom Hodgkinson is editor of 'The Idler'

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