Remember when you were a kid and being bored was the most easily replicable mental state in your entire repertoire? Remember how boredom could be almost physically painful? Remember double maths? Rainy Sunday afternoons? School trips to museums? Homework assignments? Shopping with parents and / or other relatives? Remember how boring those things were? Well, those of you who are already familiar with the joys of long-haul flights can skip the next paragraph or so, but for those of you who are not, trust me, being stuck on a plane for anything between ten and approximately fourteen hours is the equivalent of that excruciating childhood boredom multiplied to the power of a very large digit indeed, one that would contain so many noughts as to not fit on the screen of a calculator.
On the face of it, long haul shouldn’t be so bad. After all, what is there to worry about? So long as you’re not afraid of flying (which on reflection certainly wouldn’t make the flight boring, just very frightening for a sustained period of time), all you’ve got to do is settle down with a good book or two, a good magazine or two, a good film or two, and the hours will just fly by (so to speak). Right? Wrong. OK, so aeroplane entertainment systems are a good deal more sophisticated than they used to be (I’ll never forget flying with Aeroflot a few years ago, when the in-flight film was at least thirty years old: a kind of children’s fantasy in the vein of The Wizard of Oz, projected onto a single screen at the far end of the cabin), and on our BA flight a couple of weeks ago, we could watch recent release films, recent release films dubbed into Japanese, and various TV programmes, not to mention the now ubiquitous flight map, which I have seen some people glued to from take off to landing. We could also listen to a whole library of old and new music (see an upcoming blog entry for my reflections on the Stones’ Exile On Main Street) and play computer games. Add to that the newspapers, regular mealtimes, trips to the toilet and so on, and you might think I’d be able to stave off boredom pretty easily, but oh no.
It’s like…it’s like…how can I put it? One of the films I watched on this occasion was called Buried, and was about a guy who’s stuck in a coffin somewhere beneath the ground in Iraq. He spends the whole film there, with only a mobile phone and a cigarette lighter for company – it’s a pretty good film, get it out on DVD if you have the chance – and it made me think while I was watching it just how much being on a long-haul flight is like being buried alive in a coffin with only one’s wife and a digital entertainment system for company (although not necessarily in Iraq).
The first hour of the flight passes quickly, because you’re a bit nervous about the possibility of the plane exploding into a ball of fire and twisted metal during take off. In our case, this tension was exacerbated by the fact that the wings were frozen, and we had to wait for a guy to come and spray them with anti-freeze before we could join the queue for the runway (as the plane took off, you could see a green liquid the colour of Swarfega speading across the wings in the on-rushing, sub-zero, foggy air), but anyway, it still passed quickly, and I had leafed my way through the Guardian by the time we were in the air (I saved the crossword for later, and had yet another crossword for even later than that, saved from a couple of days beforehand).
The second hour also passes quickly, because you are either anticipating drinks, drinking drinks, eating nibbles, anticipating your meal, eating your meal (full marks to BA here, as there were more veggie options to choose from than meat ones, and I hadn’t even put in a request beforehand), digesting your meal, or going for your post-meal trip to the toilet.
The third hour is a breeze. There are so many menus, sub-menus and general bits and bobs to tinker with on the entertainment system that by the end of it, you’ve successfully managed to delay the moment when you watch your first film by…well, by an hour.
So, hours four and five are mostly taken up with said film – interspersed with perhaps another toilet trip and another drink or two – and you haven’t even bothered to check the time yet. Checking the time for the first time (if you’ll pardon the rather inept phraseology) is the key moment in any flight, and the longer you can put this off, the better. When you’ve got twelve hours or so to endure, I find the clock watching begins before the halfway point, which is a very cruel self-inflicted blow. Only five and a half hours gone, you realize, as you check the flight map and see that you’re still Somewhere Over Siberia – a state that you will continue be in for about two thirds of your time in the air, Siberia being such an inordinately big place to fly over – pausing only to have your mind boggled by the thought that the plane (a 747 in this case) is traveling at over one thousand kilometres per hour, before doing a double-take when you see that the Flight Time Elapsed figure is still inexplicably lower than the Flight Time Remaining figure.
This is like hitting the wall for a marathon runner. Or rather, it’s like hitting a wall, as there will be several more during the coming six and a half hours, because taking a long-haul flight is far more demanding even than running a marathon. Like the funny / spooky zoom / track shot from Jaws, time and space seem to warp and stretch before your very eyes. The flight literally feels like it’s never going to end. The thought of spending another six and a half hours cooped up in this confined space with only the latest Julia Roberts romantic comedy to watch between trips to the toilet and mealtimes induces a boredom so profound it is – to get back to our bored child simile – almost physically painful.
The irony is, even by the time the plane lands, although it will be confusingly early the next morning Japanese time, and therefore already daylight, in UK terms it will not be long past midnight. ‘Hey,’ you try to convince yourself, ‘what’s the big deal? I’ve stayed up after midnight watching crap films before, so I ought to be able to handle that once in a while, right?’ Wrong again.
I began watching the new-ish Stephen Frears film based on a Posy Simmonds graphic novel after approximately my tenth hour on board, and like Buried, it was a perfectly good film - decent actors, funny lines, nicely shot – but I almost couldn’t look at the screen I was in such agony. Every sinew of my body was screaming at me. I wanted to get up and run around the cabin screaming my head off - better still, to get up and run around the cabin with no clothes on and screaming my head off. I was trapped, I was confined, I was frustrated, I was BORED. Bored, bored, bored, bored, bored (as Eddie once so memorably opined in an episode of Bottom). Mentally, I was twelve again, it was a rainy Sunday afternoon, there was a homework assignment waiting to be done, and I’d already been forced to go shopping with my mum.
Quite apart from the fact that you get jet lag at the other end, that flying is very bad for the environment, and that it costs a fair old whack to buy a return ticket to Japan these days, long-haul flights are just boring. Excruciatingly, agonizingly, tormentingly, indefatigably boring, and there is no way round this problem. For as long as I live in Japan and bother to come back to the UK, I will have to put up with this, and I sense that it may get to the point where I begin to feel anxious about my next flight as soon as the most recent one is over, and much of the intervening year will be spent mentally bracing myself for the epic, transcendental, mind-boggling boredom of it all.