Up in the Air
the history of supersonic passenger flight is unusual in the annals of design and tech in that it is a story of retreat. It is a transport story that travels in the wrong direction. There has only ever been one supersonic passenger airliner. Concorde took off in 1969, the year men first walked on the moon. It landed for the final time in 2003, a beautiful failure. That’s how Will Hersey puts it in his piece on supersonic flight past, present and future, beginning on page 114. For a few decades, Concorde made the world feel smaller, and then the world got bigger again.
I never flew on Concorde. No one I knew did. Concorde was for the point one per cent, before they were called that. People rich enough to pay the considerable fare themselves, or powerful enough to demand that someone else pay it for them. Its tight seats were filled by rock stars and potentates, corporate titans and media mandarins. Even, occasionally, editors of glossy magazines. Tina Brown once — at least once — made a joke about emigrating to America on Concorde. She was standing on Liberty Island at the time, underneath the famous statue. Nobody present, so far as I know, immediately invoked Icarus. They waited a week or so.
I never flew on it, as I’ve said, but Concorde loomed large over my childhood. It cast a shadow over my family’s back garden, in suburban southwest London. It cast a shadow, but never for long. Kids who grow up under a flight path can’t hear the planes. After a time, your brain tunes them out. Concorde was the exception. Its passing over our house was, for my brothers and me, always a welcome occurrence. It happened infrequently enough that each time we would race outside to marvel at the amazing machine, arrowing across the sky. A gigantic dart with turbojet engines attached, it was as close to a spaceship as we were ever going to get.
Twice as fast as the speed of sound is what we’d been told, though we couldn’t quite compute that. Happily, you didn’t need to understand the science to feel the noise. My God, the noise! Will Hersey likens the sonic boom, so-called, to the sound of a balloon popping. I remember it as an almighty metallic shriek that rattled the windows, put ripples in mugs of tea, set the dog barking, caused grown-ups to wince and put their fingers in their ears and us kids to run around in delighted circles.
Another thing all kids who grow up near an airport share: dreams of escape. We were the ones gazing heavenwards, wondering if the people on board could make us out from up there. One day we wanted to be in their seats, looking down, heading somewhere far away.
This is Esquire’s Travel and Adventure issue. We’re cheerleaders, here, for both of those things. Globetrotting is fun. Getting away is important. Being somewhere new and different and alien is thrilling and challenging. You can learn a lot about other cultures, perhaps more about your own, and yourself. Not to be a party pooper, but you can also do significant damage to those other cultures, if you’re not very careful; sometimes even if you are. And air travel, while shrinking the world, is also hurting it: the environmental costs are devastating.
And then there’s the surreal banality of sitting in a metal tube at 37,000ft, chewing warm nuts and watching Faster and Even More Furiouser. The up-in-the-air part of modern travel, unless you’re one of those jewellery-rattlers in the smart seats, tends to be something to be endured rather than enjoyed. It’s an experience you might wish to be over as quickly as possible, even if you are flatbedded in First with a range of entertainment options at your disposal and a G&T in your paw. Which is where Concorde came in.
Will’s piece focuses on a start-up called Boom Supersonic, based in Denver, Colorado.
Boom is planning to reintroduce supersonic passenger planes to our skies, starting from 2025. New technologies, they claim, mean they will be able to charge business-class prices — not cheap, certainly, but not ruinous — for flights that will not only be quicker, but also quieter and even cleaner. (Not everyone agrees that this is possible, and Will hears from doubters, too.)
As someone who believes that air travel, at least, is more about the destination than the journey, it’s hard for me not to wish Boom Supersonic the best. They’ve a long way to go, but then so have we all, and we’d like to get there as fast as we can.
I hope you’ll agree that, in making this issue, Esquire’s staff — members all of the nice-work-if-you-can-get-it club — have put their air miles to good use. Our fashion director, Catherine Hayward, took photographer Tom Craig and model Clément Chabernaud on tour in Cambodia. Johnny Davis flew to Tokyo, as it prepares for the 2020 Olympics. Miranda Collinge took a hike around Oslo with Erling Kagge, the Norwegian writer-explorer. Will Hersey used his trip to the American West to test-drive a new McLaren soft-top. (No kidding, part one.) Charlie Teasdale fetched up in New York, where he met a maker of sustainable menswear. Then he went to Venice, where he commissioned a pair of bespoke trainers. (No kidding, part two.) Finlay Renwick went to Rome, for the opening of a skincare shop. (No kidding, part three.) I know exactly what you’re wondering. And the poor old editor? Where did he go? Jam tomorrow for me, I’m afraid. It’s a tiresome business, let me tell you, having a powerful sense of responsibility, but some of us just can’t help it. There was actual work to be done, and I felt it was only right that I watched on while the designers and the sub editors did it. Exhausting, honestly, witnessing the efforts of others. But no out-of-office autoreplies from this email address.
Nor from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s. Her travel story in this issue is not really a travel story at all: it’s a profile of Lagos, the city in Nigeria where she keeps a home. Those who have read Chimamanda’s prize-winning fiction will not be surprised to hear that it is an exceptionally vivid piece of writing.
(Those who have not read her prize-winning fiction might start with Half of a Yellow Sun, her searing novel of love and betrayal and the Nigerian civil war of the Sixties. Or Americanah, an epic romance and a pointed comedy of manners, in which a young woman from Lagos and her lover confront racism in the US and the UK. My advice is to pack either or both in your carry-on next time you board a long-haul flight.)
People occasionally ask me about the perks of my job and they generally mean the smart lunches and the tickets to shows and the discounts on fancy clobber — and I’m not going to pretend those things don’t happen, and that I don’t get a kick out of them — but the thing that still thrills the most about editing Esquire is being able to commission new work by writers I’ve long admired from afar. Chimamanda’s one of those. It’s a pleasure to publish her here.
You’ll notice perhaps that, for a travel issue, this magazine seems to be scandalously lacking in holiday guidance. No reviews of resorts, no info on the best beaches on the Med, no listicles counting down the top 10 things to do before you croak: ziplining across the Zambezi, swimming with seahorses in the Solomons, all that caper.
But great travel writing is not about recommending which room you should book at the Park Hyatt Astana or what to order at the bar of the Four Seasons Quito. There’s a place for that, and it’s called the internet. Great travel writing is about taking you somewhere you’ve never been before, without your having to leave your armchair. I’ve never been to Nigeria, and I don’t pretend to any great knowledge of it, but I do feel closer to it than I did before, thanks to Chimamanda’s writing.
Also working from home this issue: Tash Aw, Richard Benson, Matthew Fort, Philip Hoare, Ian Maleney, Simon Mills, Andrew O’Hagan. These are some of the most distinctive writers in the business. I hope they help get you where you want to go. Quick style.