Sunday, September 03, 2006

Small Island

The most surprising thing has happened. An unexpected feature of being back in Britain after a few weeks in Central Asia. All I want to write about is here, not there.

After seven hours in a pressurised cylinder at thirty thousand feet, the long airport corridors, transit routes and carpeted, strip-lit tubes taking you from airside to landside function like passenger decompression chambers. They coax you back into ever-larger mental and physical spaces, each less and less like an aircraft cabin, until suddenly you find yourself outside the Arrivals hall smelling wet concrete, tarmac and avgas and feeling a mild flutter of post-flight agoraphobia occasioned by being at sea level under an open sky. Without those decompression corridors, you'd probably faint. Ha!

So I walked out into a perspex corridor after a seven hour flight, and stopped dead, because a big perspex window gave out onto the ramp, and Heathrow was busy and grey, and the sky was full of clouds. I'd not seen a cloud for over a fortnight. I'd forgotten that clouds were local things. Local like shipping lanes; local like icebergs.

These were massive cumulus congestus on their way to becoming stormclouds. From the bright summit of one blew long swathes and falls of ice.

The near-religious ecstasy of looking these clouds! I stood there for a very long time feeling exceedingly happy. Part of my joy at seeing these things might have been due to a system flooded with adrenalin. I'd just had the worst landing I've ever experienced ("was that a hard landing, or were we shot down?") but there was more to it than a bit of chemical exhilaration. And more, I think, than some dubious little-Englander nativism.

Because I realised something about this country, looking at the clouds. After weeks of the heavy, flat light of a double-landlocked country thousands of miles from the sea, I saw that British light — its serious greys and its soft pinks and blues and mild gunmetals that mimic pigeon plumage, and the particular way the sun cuts through these kinds of light, and the patterns clouds and sun make on trees and cities and water: all these things work as they do because we are so close to the sea. The light is maritime. I'd never before realised that the whole country sits under a sky mirrored and uplit by the sea.


No comments: