The German aviator Otto Lilienthal in 1894. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty
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Will Self: Fearless flying is an act of collective delusion

If only you could still sit next to the pilot.

I was hungover and jittery in St Louis, and there was a blizzard raging across the Midwest. As I looked at the departures board in the airport it riffled into DELAYED, DELAYED, DELAYED . . . the only exception being the New York flight: my own. Cursing this glitch that was sending me to my doom, I tramped down the companionway, reflecting ruefully on how my last moments on earth were to be spent noting, yet again, the bizarre habit air transport infrastructure designers have of fitting odd vertical surfaces with carpet.

On board the plane, things got worse: it was virtually empty, confirming my worst suspicion – to fly in this maelstrom was suicide and the other passengers had all checked in to the airport Sofitel to watch reruns of Friends. I have heard it said often enough that you should be worried on a plane only when the flight crew start to look anxious – but I couldn’t even see any stewards to assess, and we were still on the tarmac.

I plonked myself down beside the only other passenger. It’s a tactic I had used in the past to ameliorate my fear: because I’m at least demi-English, not keeping a moderately rigid upper lip can strike me as a greater solecism than dying quite pointlessly. “Nervous?” my neighbour enquired. He was youngish, casually dressed, and the picture of sang-froid. I explained that I felt I’d every right to be, given this was the only flight taking off into the kind of weather that did for Captain Oates. “You shouldn’t be,” he said. “These planes are flown on a wire – that’s the expression we use – and it’s effectively impossible for weather to bring them down.” Realising that my companion had a professional interest in such things, I began pumping him. It transpired he was a cockpit fascia designer heading home from the Boeing plant in Seattle.

Over the next hour or so he patiently explained to me a great deal about how commercial airliners are designed and built. I remember that at one point – in response to my pathetic whine, “But they’re so heavy. How can they stay in the air?” – he said: “On the contrary, given the laws of physics it’s impossible for them not to stay in the air – and you believe in the laws of physics, don’t you?”

Whether or not I believed in the laws of physics, I believed in him, and had been pretty much oblivious to the humping, bumping and shuddering as we surfed the jet stream. As we made our approach in to Newark, I thanked my airborne life coach and firmly resolved never to succumb to such irrational idiocy ever again.

That was almost 20 years ago, and by and large I’ve managed it; from time to time I’ll have a little babbling relapse, but mostly I behave myself, sitting there motionless in deep-vein-thrombosis-inducing thought as the big titanium tube thunders through the sky. In the days when I was seriously scared of flying I’d look around at my fellow passengers and marvel at their detachment. How could they go on reading Jeffrey Archer or scanning spreadsheets while we were hurtling towards our destruction? But after the St Louis blues I began to understand: flying itself may require no magic, but fearless flying relies on a collective delusion of occult proportions. For to sit calmly with only a bit of carpet and some tinplate underlay between you and the void, you must not only be a believer in the laws of physics, but a believer in progress, a believer in growth, a believer in connectivity, a believer in tourism, a believer – in the final analysis – in the whole crazy carnival of so-called globalisation.

That is my fundamental problem. Not having a proper job of my own, I labour under a different delusion – that I’m free; and when I find myself strapped into a chair and being sold plastic sandwiches at €7 a pop, the delusion is punctured and I start brooding on the utter weirdness of my predicament. After all, mass jet travel is only a very recent phenomenon and people have been plummeting out of the sky since Icarus Airlines operated the low-cost route from Minos.

Only contact with people whose work consists of flying can act as a prophylactic against this inability of mine to suspend disbelief in the raw mechanics of late capitalism. The only flights on which I’ve ever felt at complete ease are the ones where I’ve been in the cockpit with the pilot; and since the 9/11 attacks that’s difficult to organise on commercial flights.

A fortnight ago when the Malaysian Airlines flight went missing over the South China Sea all my feelings about the madness of international air travellers came screaming back to me. Consider this: had the plane crashed in a comprehensible way – due to mechanical or human error, or even terrorism – people might have been upset for a few seconds or hours, but soon enough they’d have got on with it (whatever “it” is). However, the mystery of the plane’s disappearance sent a shiver through the collective psyche, because, I’d argue, it darkly shaded the enigma of all our lives: why, in the final analysis, do we get out of bed in the morning at all, let alone get on a plane?

 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Russia's Revenge

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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war