2: In-flight entertainment
The joys of Travel was commissioned by the tenor Benjamin Hulett. He had recently sung my setting of Thomas Hardy’s poem I look into my glass in The NMC Songbook – a box set of four CDs containing about eighty new songs, issued by recording company NMC to celebrate their 20th birthday. He was about to record his first solo CD, and asked me to write a short song-cycle as both foil and contrast for Vaughan Williams Songs of Travel.
For some years I have been disgusted by the effects of mass tourism – especially since the era of ridiculously cheap flights. My response to the commission was to write three rather pungent little poems about the horrors of low-cost flights and package holidays. I have quite often written the words for my vocal and choral pieces, and it is liberating: there is no need to worry about ruffling the ego of a living poet by cutting his text about or suggesting alterations; and the ideas all come from the same source.
Departures is set in an airport at crack of dawn, and catalogues the discomfort (physical and psycholgical) of the battery-chickened passengers. In In-flight entertainment we are on board the CheapoJet aircraft, our knees wedged against our chins, and surrounded by the sort of people we would pay large sums to avoid (these songs are not notable for their political correctness). The last song, Arrivals, is more serious, and describes a visit to Corfu in 1964, before package holidays existed, and before that beautiful island became a playground for foul-mouthed drunken morons. The small village where I spent a month walking and swimming, and living in very basic conditions, has now disappeared, obliterated by concrete hotels.
“If Nisaki’s simple grace has not survived,
What else has been destroyed since we arrived?”
Giles Swayne 2009
O Muse, I sing of budget flights:
Packaged escapes to package delights . . .
Check-in at dawn: we’re walking dead,
Wishing we were at home in bed;
Haggard and pale, our bowels uneasy,
Our armpits moist, our stomachs queasy,
We shuffle in lines to be X-rayed
And searched, and see our underwear displayed.
Once through, we drift obedientlee
From shopping-mall to Duty Free,
Where escalators softly rise and fall,
Endlessly going nowhere at all.
With time to kill, and no escape,
We’re perfect targets for consumer rape:
We order breakfasts we don’t need,
Buy magazines we’ll never read,
And, glumly gazing at a screen,
Await the magic words: “Proceed to Gate Fifteen”.
2. In-flight entertainment
Aboard at last! We’re sandwiched in,
Our knees wedged tight against our chins.
“Welcome to CheapoJet!” the speakers blare:
“The no-frills airline with rock-bottom fares!
Fasten your seat-belts: Flight 242
Is cleared for take-off to Corfu.
(We are not liable for diagnosis
Of subsequent deep-vein thrombosis)”
The aisle vibrates, the cabin throbs
With bloated bodies and foul-mouthed yobs
All tanked up for a hard night’s binge.
(Am I a snob? They make me cringe)
I wonder if it’s fair on poor old Greece
To export the mindless and the morbidly obese.
I’ve been to this island once before:
In June, nineteen sixty four.
The boat from Bari (there were no flights then)
Brought me here and took me back again.
I went into a dockside bar
To get my bearings; a boozy old tar
Told me Nisaki, across the bay,
Would be a friendly place to stay.
I took a boat, and spent four happy weeks
Fishing, exploring, and loving Greeks.
My room was a tiny whitewashed cell
Under the village shop (a bar, as well).
Nisaki is gone now – vanished without trace:
Hotels have mushroomed in its place.
Trippers come in by CheapoJet in hordes,
Eat chips, get burnt, get drunk, and say they’re bored.
If Nisaki’s simple grace has not survived,
What else has been destroyed since we arrived?