The Burrowers

Life in the capital cities of tropical Asia is largely lived underground, or, at least indoors. When I first visited Singapore twelve years ago, I mistakenly set out from my hotel, map in hand, to do some sightseeing, at street level and in the open air. I was quite unused to the heat and humidity and within minutes I was drenched in sweat and nearly in need of first aid. If it had rained, which it very often does, in sudden drenching downpours, it wouldn’t have made much difference to how I looked and felt.

What struck me as odd, though, as I crossed the roads, and trudged along the immaculately clean pavements, taking care, of course (this being Singapore), to do so only at the designated crossing points, and without chewing gum, was that there was no one there. The streets were empty. I’d thought that Singapore was one of the most crowded urban areas on the planet.

What I didn’t know, until a colleague pointed it out, is that everything happens underground. There’s a vast network of passageways, mostly doubling as shopping malls (with just the same shops that we see in Europe), that take you from metro station to hotel, to office block, to gym, to airport, and so on. These are teeming with life. You can live entirely away from and beneath the heat, the humidity and the glare of the midday sun. You could probably walk the entire length of the island without leaving the comfort of air-conditioned passageways. Many Singaporeans never leave the island, and perhaps nearly as many have never been outdoors. Only mad dogs, and foolish Englishman like me, venture into the elements.


Of course it wasn’t always so. My mother taught for the Royal Air Force in Singapore in 1955, whilst my father was obtaining a divorce. It took her five days to reach Asia by aeroplane, with stops for the night in Rome, Aden, Karachi, and Calcutta – so much more civilised than my 13-hour dash on Monday night. But there was no air-conditioning on arrival and she tells me that clothes and shoes would simply moulder and rot if you didn’t light a small candle in every wardrobe and shoe cupboard. Somehow, though surely at great risk of immolation of contents and owner, this dried the air sufficiently so that clothes remained wearable. The tropics before mod-cons must have been challenging, and not only for the colonists who weren’t used to the weather.

Kuala Lumpur is the same. A warren of cool passages take you from one place to another. These Asian cities, at least the ones in the more prosperous countries, are like vast airports, and nature is partially tamed. I’m flying to Jakarta now (no passageway beneath the Straits of Malacca) and I shall probably find the same shops and pretty much the same way of life.



Flying the Binliner

One forgets that an airliner is a workplace for its crew and that conditions differ markedly from one type of plane to another. I was amused, on Monday night, when I flew on a Boeing 787 (Boeing’s latest), from London to Kuala Lumpur to hear that the cabin crew call it the Binliner, rather than the Dreamliner. A dream it may be for the passengers but for the crew, they said, it was cramped, ill-equipped and prone to break down (though not in life-threatening ways).

‘It is our workplace,’ one of them said. ‘People don’t seem to realise that.’

Don’t get them confused…



It reminds me of a line in Alan Bennet’s withering monologue – Bed Among the Lentils – which excoriates the pretensions of an ambitious Church of England vicar. A sympathetic flower-arranging parishioner goes on about how the altar is, after all, his workplace, and must be treated with the utmost respect.

Monday’s flight to KL was my first in the new 787 (the 787-9 model, in case it matters), and I enjoyed it, inasmuch as one can enjoy a 13-hour flight. Air pressure is apparently set at about 6,000 feet in the 787, lower than for most other commercial long-range jets except for the A380, and that, the Boeing publicists tell us, means that you don’t feel like a wrung-out rag on arrival. I took a well-known prescription sedative before I slept, so I actually felt more cheerful than I usually do on a Monday night (I only take these particular pills once or twice a year for overnight flights). The plane is also quieter than most, though the wings, I notice, bend upwards alarmingly, equally on both sides, so probably as planned.

I chatted, as I usually do, with the crew (how they must hate passengers like me when there’s so much to get done in their workplace, especially when there’s inadequate space and equipment to do it in and with).

If I’m on British Airways, as I was, I tell them how I once heard the Captain make that fateful announcement ‘Will a senior member of the cabin crew please report immediately to the cockpit.’ Even as I heard this, some years ago, on a Boeing 777 somewhere above the mid-Atlantic, I sensed from the strain of the Captain’s speech that we were in trouble. There was smoke in the cockpit, we were told later, when it was safe for us to know it, and we were diving down in preparation for ditching the plane in the cold December waves of the north Atlantic Ocean.

We didn’t ditch, as you might have guessed, else I think it unlikely that you would be reading this, but it was a scary procedure. And the crisis didn’t end there. Once the smoke had dissipated and all the electrical equipment in the plane had been switched off (no hot breakfast on that particular flight) it turned out we only had just enough fuel, at low altitude, to limp into Shannon airport.

I tell this story to all the cabin crew. So often, in fact, that a few months ago I found I was telling it to a crew member who’d actually been working on that flight. She confirmed that it had been touch and go. Most crew, though, have never heard these awful words (and I hope you haven’t either), though on Monday night, one of them had heard it just once in 25 years of flying when some sausages had burst into flames. Most of them hoped they’d never hear it.

I’m always cheering for Airbus when it comes to the passenger airliner wars. There isn’t much of the patriotic Brit or European in me, but I like us to beat the Americans when it comes to the order book for larger commercial aeroplanes. And in my experience, there is no better plane for a very long flight than the Airbus A380. It is quiet and so spacious that you can hear passengers chatting, even sotto voce, ,from a distance of ten metres. But whether it is good to work in, or fly, I have no idea at all.