Trains and Boats and Planes: Hitch a ride to freedom
Trains and boats and planes carry us from the mundane into the extraordinary, from the here to the anything’s-possible. Maybe it is. For a new generation, we could all help to make it come true.
I am sailing like Rod Stewart on board Queen Mary across the Atlantic into New York. The force of the wind at my back, like DiCaprio on the prow with Winslet, propelling me as if I might fly like the bird whose spirit of freedom I admire. The bird in my soul and in my heart, compelling me to strive and to thrive, to soar and to thrill on alighting at my destination. The yearning to travel and to be free. Once more. I am sailing stormy waters, to be near you, to be free.
When you first step on board the great passenger liner she seems to shift and sigh under you, a living, breathing thing; her welcome’s a hug, a stroke on the shoulder. Don’t worry, I’ve got you, I’ll keep you safe out there on the rolling blue where dragons lurk and ghost ships prowl. The fathomless water beneath her takes charge of you and all who will travel in her, defying logic and common sense to survive against all odds. Maybe.
It was on a ship that I first met a dinner roll. Pretoria Castle, cruising up the coast and back between Cape Town and Durban. I also learnt that ships do not take a definite article, that it’s Pretoria Castle, not the Pretoria Castle. A good dinner roll is small, perfectly round and buttery, with a gleaming golden crust. You do not touch it with a knife; you break it with your hands, then dab a pat of butter on the bit that you’re eating. This I learnt on a great ship in the Indian ocean. It was on board another, Canberra, that I thrilled the most. I had made a plastic scale model of Canberra when I was a little boy. Stepping aboard in Durban as an adult in the Nineties brought a lump to the throat. There was red Leicester cheese and partridge and grouse, and perfect dinner rolls. I want my GrandBoy to sail and fly and eat dinner rolls on board a great ship plying the ocean.
When you climb the stairs to the jumbo you’re already in another country. The tarmac beneath the hulking sky monster is a world away already, dispensing with you just as suddenly on arriving where people speak and eat differently and don’t understand your ways. Not really. They’re not in your head, don’t have your story; couldn’t begin to know what it is like to be you from where you have come. Your words fly above their heads and land in a splat on the other side of them. Biltong. Droëwors. Melktert. Don’t you mean jerky, it’s the same? No it isn’t. Don’t you mean…? Never mind.
It was on a plane that I first met Leslie Richfield, must have been late Seventies. He was staring at me intently from a right-hand page of the in-flight magazine. His mind took me off the height of it all, the turbulence that has always disconcerted me. He wrote about food and ingredients and restaurants and chefs with insight, knowledge, texture and wit. What are we if we never travel or read; how do we grow? It was reading Leslie Richfield that first made me want to write about food, and to do it well and interestingly, to find the stories in it but, first, to get to know it so that when the time came I would know what to say and how to say it. Never to be dull with it, or stupify my readers; never to pontificate or condescend. To find the richness of it; the life. I want my GrandBoy to find his stories.
It was on a plane that I met Richard Branson. You can guess which airline. It was Virgin’s inaugural flight between Cape Town and London and the man spoke to everyone on board the full plane for several minutes each, twice; before dinner and after. For the first part of the flight he flew Upper Class, but changed to an economy seat for the rest of the night after eating the economy dinner. On disembarking he shook everyone by hand and thanked us for flying Virgin. He soared in the collective imagination of all the passengers. I want my GrandBoy to soar.
On a British Airways flight flying First Class to London with the inimitable force of nature that is Ann Wallis-Brown I admired the crystal Royal Doulton sherry glasses so she quietly arranged for me to be given a pair to take home. I still use them 25 years later. That younger me was too reluctant to let his hair down on that flight with the PR dynamo and I consequently rendered myself dull. I should have just drunk and be damned; life is too short for holding back. Ann was a powerhouse in her prime; she played Cape Town’s journalist community like a maestro conductor. We were all in awe of her fearless presence. I cannot imagine her in a mask, stilted. It wouldn’t make any sense. I don’t want my GrandBoy to hold back.
The step from platform to railway carriage is more than it seems; it’s a passing-through into another world where trees fly in blurred masses and chefs make big meals out of tiny kitchens like fishes-and-loaves conjurers. See my sleight of hand; here, have this plate of food I cooked in a teaspoon. The train has a rhythm even when still, as if the motion somehow lingers in the air when collecting passengers on the platform; the hurtle of the speed consoles, kata-kata, kata-kata, your eyelids droop; the whooshing scene racing past your eyes dissolves into dreams of Mad Max desertmobiles, steampunk sleighs and gladiators clashing swords with visigoths.
It was on a train that I sang my lungs out on Piano Man and a dozen other songs with wine writer Fiona McDonald and I powering through every number late into the night while perplexed staff looked on, at the bar of the Blue Train on a press junket from Pretoria to Victoria Falls and back. A winemaker friend and I, much younger then, were like a pair of naughty schoolboys. During dinner we crept away and swapped all the name tags on the cabins around so when the nation’s leading wine writers got back to their compartments they couldn’t find them and landed up in one another’s. John Platter took it particularly well in an avuncular, they’ll-grow-up, wryly smiling sort of way. The venerable Jos Baker didn’t look too pleased; who could blame her. I’d like my GrandBoy to be a naughty teenager pranking people on trains without having to keep away from them in case he caught something.
It was on a train that I felt surrounded, because I was, by six young men eyeing each other with intent and watching my big blue suitcase. It was a suburban train from Sultanahmet, Istanbul, heading for Ataturk Airport. A laager of tough young dudes all around me. I had no doubt that they wanted to grab my suitcase when they got to their stop and run off with it. Never was malevolent intent clearer to read. I thought fast and adopted a clear strategy. I stuck one hand deep into my coat pocket, clutching my wallet with a vice grip. I kept the other hand tightly on the suitcase handle while anchoring it against the side of the standing compartment with my body, pushing it forcefully between two of the boys while not losing eye contact. I stared each of them in the eye, in turn, so they could see that I could see their intent, circling them from within the human cage they had formed around me. We reached their destination with my steely intent intact and their own intent having faltered. I felt like a giant. I’d like my GrandBoy to be courageous and strong.
And it was on another jumbo that I looked back at that New York trip with head-shaking wonder that it had happened at all. Istanbul had been a between-flights stopover on the way to Kennedy International. That was on the out flight; the train incident occurred on route back home a week later. We’d never been before. I had applied for two ESTAs, approval forms for travel to the US by UK passport holders, for my wife and myself. Queuing at Ataturk on arrival from Cape Town, a uniformed young man came over and glanced at the ESTA forms in my hand, calling me out of the queue to a bank of computers where an older uniformed man was peering at a screen. He showed the man the forms. The older man frowned, gave me a funny look, looked back at his screen.
“Where you get this? Online?”
I chilled to the bone. This wasn’t right.
“Yes,” I said. “You can only apply for an ESTA online.”
“What you pay?”
“Oh, a hundred-and-something dollars.”
“A hundred dollar! It cost ten dollar. Look here. This is form you want.”
I’d been scammed by shysters called Migration Expert which all looks so legit until you get taken by them. Be warned. But we’re already far from home. Our connecting flight takes off in eight hours. All available funds have been spent on fares, Manhattan couch tours, tickets, transfers.
It takes quick thinking and faster acting to fix this but plans are made and, miraculously, within an hour we’ve solved the problem, have our ten-dollar ESTAs, find a bar lounge and order coffee and a bite. The waiter puts down two red table-mat hearts. It’s Valentine’s Day, 2013, and Oscar Pistorius has just killed Reeva Steenkamp.
Thoughts of finding our way into Istanbul long gone, we pass the time, and finally clutch hands as we take off. Europe and Ireland pass below us, the Atlantic washes away earlier worries, and Maine is looking like a glacial paradise below us. We’ve been too wired to sleep.
By the time we land it’s night again and a shuttle drops us at our Manhattan hotel just paces off Times Square. We shower and change, get out and find an Irish pub, and it’s 10pm in Connolly’s, an ode to the Emerald Isle. Pouring wine, the waiter says Happy Valentine’s Day.
Next morning we’re back at Connolly’s for the best breakfast I’ve eaten before or since. Just a simple Irish affair with perfect eggs, perfect bacon, a little basket of perfect chips and a round each of white and black pudding, just like we had every day on our Irish trip in 1996.
That tight budget brought some light relief later that morning. Walking up Fifth Avenue towards Central Park east we crossed the road and entered Saks Fifth Avenue. Up the escalators to the top floor cafeteria. Checked my wallet. Tight. Erm, how much is a coffee? I asked the waitress, who frowned. “I don’t know, sir, I’ve never been asked.”
Connolly’s was just like every New York pub you see on TV. The long, long bar and the characters at it; a proper Irish barman, Noo Yahk accents all around. At the restaurant end you could order the best burger you’d ever had, with a bottle of decent French white. Which we did. Time to pay. I add a tip and put the credit card down. Swipe. Sorry, sir… no no no… Tell me this isn’t happening.
I look her right in the eye. “Ma’am, I need to ask you to trust me. There are funds in this account and I know I can sort it out at the bank in the morning. Will you trust me to come back tomorrow night with the money?”
She sees something in my eyes and agrees. Her glance back at me while we’re leaving suggests she was hoping she’d done the right thing. I did get the money, we did go back the next evening, and she greeted us like old friends. Gave us a complimentary bottle of wine. Life is good when we do the right thing, or stare down thugs who would make off with suitcases. I’d like my GrandBoy to feel the freedom just to be, wherever he is, and to do the right thing.
Listen while we wrap this up:
I am sailing like Rod Stewart into New York some time in a future I dream will come true. A post-pandemic world of the mask as a memory, not a precaution; the proximity of another person a comfort, not a threat, a future where my grandson can find his adult feet and explore his adult horizons; where he can find out what a New York slice is, munch a bagel for breakfast in the street and buy a hotdog from a cart without having to sanitise, see a Broadway show with strangers in the seats on both sides of him, and ride the open-top tour coaches all over Manhattan breathing fresh air without the encumbrance of a mask.
I am flying like a bird ’cross the sky into New York City and landing without my temperature being taken at Kennedy Airport, taking a cab to Times Square to join thousands of people whose smiles I can see. It’s night time and strangers are hugging me, and here’s The Foodie’s Wife and here’s my girl and here’s Neal and my GrandBoy. Maybe it’s the end of 2026 or 2031. It’s New Year’s Eve and my ambition is finally about to come true. To ring in the New Year on Times Square and whoop and laugh and rejoice.
Maybe it will. If everybody gets vaccinated. Do it for the kids. If not for yourself, for them. We owe them that, to clear the world of this thing. And maybe grandad will get to see a Times Square New Year too. DM/TGIFood
Tony Jackman is the Galliova Food Champion of the Year 2021. His book, foodSTUFF, is now available in the DM Shop. Buy it here.
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