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25 July 2014

Will Self: an empty airport makes me feel like the only man on earth

The Madness of Crowds column.

By Will Self

Arriving at London City Airport a month ago, I was the first off the plane – and there’s always some satisfaction to be gained from that. For a start, you avoid the awkward game of Twister that ensues as cramped people lever themselves from their seats, un-gum underwear from clefts and pits, scrape carry-on bags they’re unable to carry from the overhead lockers and then hover leadenly in the aisle. If you’re at the very front you get to hear the gangway being cranked into position, then witness the strange moment as the cabin door is opened and the steward greets the ground crew with a bog-ordinary salutation that wipes away any remaining wonderment you may have felt contemplating the marvel of international jet travel.

If you’re first off the plane and the arrivals areas are devoid of people, you get a strange sense of being the first man ever to have arrived on earth. As I strode along the flexible and resonating floors, my eye was drawn to odd scraps of carpet affixed to vertical surfaces, a signature feature of airport interior design the world over. There was no one in the corridors and the man from Border Force, despite his homeland security-style uniform, seemed a mere will-o’-the-wisp – this was a frontier drawn in water on shifting sands. The baggage hall was empty as well and my footfalls echoed in the main concourse. None of this surprised me: I was still the man who fell to earth and, besides, there remains something so claustrophobically steampunk about the immediate purlieu of City Airport that you can be forgiven for being hopelessly spaced out.

I stood on the empty Docklands Light Railway platform looking at the great caramelised hunk of the Tate & Lyle factory in Silvertown, then boarded the dinky monorail and sat up front as it switchbacked its way past the winking battle star of Canary Wharf before plunging down the rabbit hole and into the Bank burrow. All was as usual – the same peeling posters, the same sough of virally loaded warm air in the tunnels. The only oddity was the absence of the city’s inhabitants and, now I came to think of it, as my flight had banked and turned 5,000 feet over my house, then flown downriver over the glassy pinnacles and slate spires, I’d been struck by the clear view I had of streets unobstructed by traffic – yet it was only nine o’clock on a weekday evening.

It wasn’t until, on my way back from the Tube, I was passing the pub at the end of my road that I realised the nature of the disaster. Peering in through the plate-glass windows, I saw them: the zombies thronging in their white shirts around a hurting, viridian television screen. Squinting, I could just make out the score – yes, England were losing again and the entire population of London was paralysed as it awaited the knockout kick. The realisation that the apocalypse was Uruguay rather than anthrax had me laughing like a drain.

I remembered the last time I’d enjoyed a football match that corralled the crowds indoors. Seeking respite from the frenzy that gripped the nation during England’s semi-final in the 1996 European Championship, I left the pub in Marylebone where I was drinking and headed for Hampstead Heath. The tension was too great: anticipating a historic re-enactment of the 1966 World Cup victory that did more to define English nationhood than the Blitz, the cockney multitudes had gathered around their laughably bulbous televisions. The match, played at the old Wembley Stadium, had gone to extra time and as I drove my laughably bulbous car along the deserted roads I could feel the tension rippling in the red-brick façades of the semis.

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I parked and walked to the top of Parliament Hill. Standing there, with the city spread out before me, I heard an odd susur­rus that rose in pitch and grew in intensity until it turned into a dreadful groan. There was a long hiatus, followed by a breathy roar. A rotund man then came puffing up the path from Gospel Oak; he reached the bench where I reposed and dropped down on it, saying, “I couldn’t stand it any more. It’s gone to penalties. I had to get away! I bought meself this fucking Havana to celebrate wiv . . .” – he opened his fist to reveal a crushed stogy – “but now I dunno . . . I just dunno.”

Cruelly, I abided while there came another groan from the city below, followed after a while by a second cheer. Then I observed: “Actually, you can hear the game from up here.” We waited. There was a third groan and I said, “See, that was the Germans scoring.” It was followed by a third cheer: “And that was us.” A fourth groan was succeeded by a fourth cheer. Then there was a fifth groan and after that . . . nothing: not simply the absence of a cheer but its complete inversion, as the mishit ball flew wide of nationhood’s net. The rotund man ground out his never-lit cigar on the ground, turned tail and, close to tears, stomped off down the hill.

I sat on the bench for a while longer, wishing England could be knocked out of a major football championship every day. That way I’d always be at the front of the queue.