Wednesday 22 May – Heathrow Terminals 1,2,3 (Square E1 on the Tube map), Heathrow Terminal 4 (E1), Heathrow Terminal 5 (E1), Hendon Central (A4), Heron Quays (D7)
How to explain the cocktail of emotions as I jostle towards Heathrow? Perplexity: what has Heathrow got to do with London? Or rather, what has it got to do with TubeforLOLs? Boredom: an airport is an airport is an airport. And three stations with five terminals? (You could skip one of them, grunts The Inner Curmudgeon, no-one would notice.) A thrill of boyish excitement: yes, it’s silly, but it’s there, that sense of venturing into the unknown. Finally, awe – a sizeable chunk of awe. Why awe?
Because everything about Heathrow is so mind-boggling. It’s the busiest international airport in the world. Passengers: 133,666,888 passengers fly annually into and out of London, most of them through Heathrow. Jobs: it sustains 192,600 jobs. Emotions: 344,200 local residents have lobbied against a further runway or sixth terminal. Health: Hospitals locally report a 128% above average incidence of burst ear-drums while MPAES (Mental Perturbation Associated with Excess Sound) is recognised locally as a ‘debilitating condition’.
Births: In a regular year, the dedicated Heathrow Midwives Team assist in the delivery of over 135 births. Alligators: the Animal Border Control Unit prevent the arrival into this country of some 200 alligators (nearly all American) and repatriate them humanely to the Alligator Protection League’s headquarters in Bayou County, Louisiana (Patron Saint: George W. Bush).
Emotionally embroiled as I am, I almost forget to record The Metro’s headline: Blown to hell. It’s about the super-tornado that’s storming across Oklahoma.
I’m on a Piccadilly Heathrow T123 & 4 train which visits Terminal 4 before Terminals 12&3. I decant myself onto the platform at Osterley to await a tube going direct to T123, to undertake a few soothing Yoga exercises and to test my ear-plugs on a few planes thundering overhead. It’s cloudy and cooler than of recent days and I’m on my fourth cold of the year.
The Piccadilly train into Heathrow Terminals 1,2,3 station (Square E1) is busy. The seats are occupied half by people, half by towering stacks of wheelie luggage. My seat has a rather annoying spring which searches out that part of my anatomy I would prefer to be left alone, even by doctors. Especially by doctors. I’ve noticed this before with Piccadilly line seats. I blame the wheelie luggage.
I arrive at T1,2,3 at 10.35 am. I have decided on a plan to tackle the Heathrows. First, I will be the sole judge in the TubeforLOLs Best 2013 Heathrow Terminal Award. Second, I will bother as many Terminal workers as possible with spurious questions.
In the worst traditions of story-telling, I will reveal my findings now rather than as a coup-de-théatre towards the end of this post.
The TubeforLOLs Best Heathrow Terminal Award goes to … Terminal Five. T5 wins partly because it’s newer than the others and its – ahem, how shall I put it? interior design? – is a little fresher; and partly because outside, in what could loosely be called a courtyard, there’s a weird display of painted wheelbarrows tilted up as though for take-off.
Flying wheelbarrows! Is this an ironic comment on air travel today? Or a comparison between what wheelbarrows normally transport (muck, manure…) and what aeroplanes normally transport? Perhaps it’s a historical reference to ‘Digging for Victory’, a Conservative Party appeal to travelling UKIP voters? (Though surely, particularly in these decades of austerity, UKIP voters will be holidaying in the bosky south of England?)
The Inner Curmudgeon has been bellyaching the whole journey. That’s your problem, Craig. One of your many problems. You’re a fantasist, an ironist, a political ranter. The planners of these places don’t think like that. It’s staring you in the face. Follow the money: B&Q were doing a special deal on wheelbarrows.
So Terminal Five wins but it’s a close run thing. Writing this post two days after my visit, I have to use the time-stamp on each photo to work out which Terminal I was in. In that, at least, Heathrow reflects something about London as a whole. Just as each Terminal is, basically, nondescript – as Le Corbusier said, airport terminals are machines for shovelling travellers on and off aeroplanes – so, too, is much of London. One nondescript suburb sidles into another segues into a third churns into a fourth … One town centre and the next are like unto each other as peas in the pod. One shopping mall is indistinguishable from the next.
My second spiffing idea also turns out to be useless. Everyone I broach with silly, spurious questions is unflappable, courteous, charming. Coffee shop? Over there. Toilets, sir? Why, they’re right behind you. The exit to the Tube? Take those lifts over there. You want to walk from here to Terminals 4 and 5 underground? But they’re miles away. No, don’t take the tube. Take the Airport bus, it’s free. Let me show you the way …
I make the staggering discovery that there is no Terminal 2. No Terminal 2! I ask an obliging and well-spoken young Asian man staffing a currency exchange at the entrance to the (closed) pedestrian tunnel to Terminal 2. He explains that they are refurbishing it and that it won’t re-open until 2014. But I have to go to Terminal Two, I wail. He enquires which airline I’m looking for. I change tack. Perhaps I could visit it this afternoon? He regrets that that isn’t likely. I lean further over the counter and drop my voice to a conspiratorial whisper. I’m an undercover agent of the Animal Border Control Unit. We’ve had unconfirmed reports of alligators in Terminal Two. His face brightens. Ah, the ABC Unit isn’t based here, sir, he says. It’s at Terminal 4. Take the airport bus – no, not the tube, sir – the bus is free inside the airport – to Terminal 4.
I give up. After thirty five minutes in Terminals 1 and 3, I head for the Tube. I’m standing in the blank artificial light in the blank streamlined cavern of Heathrow Terminal 1,2,3 station when I receive my revelation.
There’s an American family waiting beside me – Mom, Pops and two daughters. One daughter is whirligigging around in an excess of delight. Mom and Pops are looking stunned: 20% jet-lag 80% bliss, I’d guess. The second daughter has been overtaken by sibling joshing.
I engage them in conversation. The whirligig daughter has been studying in London for the past year. Mom, Pops and joshing daughter have come to visit her. The reason for their rapture is obvious.
I have been missing the big picture. Le Corbusier got it wrong. Airports aren’t machines, they are portals to other worlds.
I take the train to Hatton Cross then the train back to Heathrow Terminal 4 (E1)
At Terminal 4 I watch the people waiting by the exit in the Arrivals hall. Not the cabbies and professional meeters holding up little cards, but the Mums and Dads and families.
Within seconds of taking up my stand, a woman leaps and shouts, Look Ginnie, she says to her young daughter, there’s Aunt Joob-Joob! She turns her buggie with her young son to face Aunt Joob-Joob. Look, look, Olly! Ginnie jumps up and down. Olly squirms with delight. Packets of salt-and-vinegar Hula Hoops are thrown in the air. Aunt Joob-Joob does a particularly splendid war dance the other side of the barriers. Joob-Joob and Mother (her Sister) fall into each other’s capacious arms.
That’s the Arrivals Hall for you: whoops of joy, tears of joy. I will draw a veil over the Departures Hall except to say that there are tears here, too: tears, many tears, of parting. Elderly Mothers and Fathers from other lands leaving their grown-up emigré Sons and Daughters. Skype and Facebook may shorten the distance between continents, but nothing shortens distance better than actually shortening the distance. Completely.
At Heathrow Terminal 5 (E1) I encounter the wheelbarrows and make my Best 2013 Heathrow Terminal Award.
The Piccadilly train clicks and clacks between the red-tiled roofs of semi-detached through Hounslow and eastwards. Beyond the trackside trees are vast tracts of semi-detacheds. They are slightly different from the North London SDTs (Semi-Detached Tracts) but in a way that I can’t quite put my finger on. They are another sub-species of the suburban nondescript.
I arrive at Hendon Central (A4) at half-past one. Hendon Central gives quite a good first impression but there’s no follow-through. The A41 on its way to the wilds of Watford dual-carriageways its way through with a kind of Wish-I-Was-Somewhere-Else snarl. There’s extensive shopping parades either side but, despite Middlesex University up the road, this feels like a neighbourhood slowly coming down in the world.
I make my way to Hendon Park, a perfectly serviceable example of a London park, though it feels bleak today with the cold wind and the threat of rain. I munch my packed lunch of smoked salmon and cream bagels, huddled on a bench in the Garden of Rememberance – remembrance for everyone who has suffered persecution.
A Jewish mother is pushing an empty buggy through the Garden. Her young daughter runs round the kidney-shaped basin then returns to her mother. Then she runs off to another part of the park. Her mother follows. A mallard flies in, waddles along the lip of the basin, regards the water, decides there’s nothing for him there and flies off. There’s nothing more for me here either. Will any of us remember this moment in time, this place of remembrance?
I make my way to Heron Quays (D7). This is about one hundred yards from Canary Wharf station but it takes the curiously slow and creeping DLR train 54 seconds to get from one station to the other.
The wind is gusting between the skyscrapers and, since I’ve been here before (See post A Jiggle of School-children …) I decide to curtail my stay. Besides, we have friends – Fran from Forest Hill and Renee from Dublin – coming for tea at Gingerbread Cottage.
I get back at around four o’clock and am taking the short-cut home through the flats when I am stopped by a young black woman. She is well-dressed, petite, fine-boned, almond-eyed, distraught.
While she was waiting at the bus-stop, she says, she saw a wood pigeon being hit by a car. The car clipped the bird’s wing but it managed to fly into an overgrown ivy patch by the flats. She explains that she really loves birds and that she’s called the RSPB on her mobile. If she can find the bird, they’ll come out and take it to a vet. But the bird is nowhere to be seen.
Pigeons, feral or wood, aren’t my favourite bird and I fear that either the bird is hiding itself so that it can die as best it can or it is hiding itself so that it can gather strength – maybe its wing isn’t too badly hurt – before flying away. This is the sensible, rational, male way of thinking. Those three words illustrate the limitations of that way of thinking, a lack of empathy – for other members of our species, but also for other species.
We – Almond Eyes & Sir Crotchedy Galahad – poke around the ivy patch, but we cannot find the bird. Eventually, we give up. There’s nothing we can do.
After tea Fran and I accompany our friends through the Albion Millennium Green. Some time ago, Bruno put up bird boxes around the Green and from one of these we hear chirping. Baby tits, we think.
As I look up at the bird box and try to decide whether the cheeping is really coming from there, I get to thinking again about portals and missing the big picture. Is it so bad missing the big picture? Are there too many – or too few – portals in this world?