A Man Called Dan


02 2009

My son and his guitar teacher were rehearsing Greenday’s ‘When September Ends’ when the phone rang. It was Alain calling and from then on, August changed and the ninth month too.

A mischievous man called Dan was in search of a writer-in-residence at Heathrow Airport among London’s literary agents and it seemed that Alain had already gnawed at Dan’s arm so urgently that the poor fellow had no choice but to appoint said author plus tag-along photographer to spend a period in Terminal 5, reporting on the daily stories of this aviation village. An exercise in ‘transparent marketing’. This meant that if a family of cockroaches or Borrowers were discovered, we were free to crawl on all fours like David Attenborough and announce the zoology to the world.

‘Was I interested?’

Well, yes. Since being influenced by Martha Rosler’s ‘Observations of a Frequent Flyer‘, Le Corbusier’s concepts for transport hubs amid skyscrapers and by David Pascoe’s musings on the social history on airspace – airports have remained my favourite nearly-places to visit. I have witnessed the debris of Concorde at its final landing site in Gonesse and we all remember the head of Pan Am’s ‘Maid of the Seas’ lying on its side like a slaughtered stallion in Lockerbie’s winter field. The miracles and catastrophes and everydayness of flight still leaves me weak at the knees though nagging doubts about corporate-sponsored journalism made me nervous about objectivity.

Ten years before, I had approached the British Airports Authority to attempt something similar during a struggling project: A personal celebration of modern air travel a century after the Wright Brothers’ first 12-second/120 feet flight at Kitty Hawk. A Heathrow diary certainly demanded attention but back then, I had ignorantly missed the whole point of marketing strategies. Within a week though, I had been handed a carte blanche wish-list; a handful of Heathrow Express train vouchers; a 30-day ID pass; a letter of intent and a small team from the airport’s Commercial and Marketing office (also our patrons) to timetable immaculately printed schedules.


Avoiding drips of something resembling hydraulic fluid, I ducked under the grimy belly of a Jumbo as its hollow wings were being filled with Jet A1 at a rate of 3,000 litres a minute and I thought of 2.2bn people – 40% of the world’s population – sitting in flying machines like this. The spell was broken when I spied my chaperone pointing at her watch to tell me that BA’s Chairman Willie Walsh was expecting us at BA’s glass-sided Waterside nerve centre. An hour later and we were squinting into bright sun with WW himself, yellowish stains from the Boeing’s toilet fluid on my favourite shirt.

A few days later, we were driven around the southern perimeter fence towards Gate Gourmet’s airline food factory. Alain had excitedly seen a main set of landing gear striking the surface of runway 27R (“Look, look at those wheels. Wonderful!” he bubbled).

The night before, AOSU had walked over to us as I adjusted my tripod and crouched down at this piece of blackened concrete to touch the gluey black rubber that countless Bridgestones had skid-marked.

“I think we’d better move on,” AOSU suggested without the slightest hint of urgency. I glanced over his shoulder to see a bright diamond light growing brighter as 6 tons of Homo sapiens-created aluminium were bearing down on us – due to hit this sticky highway within two minutes.

“Now where else do you want to go .. Under an A380?” Alain and I looked at each other and nodded like primary school urchins allowed into the music room to bang drums.

The laborious and intensive making or breaking of books generally take months and even years to produce and yet Heathrow Diary has taken me just a blip for photography and leg-work. The biggest shock for me was a mid-point narrow boat holiday on the Brecon and Monmouth canal: A final day chugging up to Gilwern were followed too quickly the next morning as the lift doors separated at level 5 and there it was again .. the background hum of Departures. Instead of little vacation vessels swaying at their moorings, there were wide-bodied airliners locked to their jetties. Never had the transition from the waterway to the taxiway seemed so shocking.

03 2009

And if there were moments for me of exhilaration: I watched fellow-band members and their cellist from Oakham School inspecting her precious companion in Arrivals after its journey in the hold and a friend comically wrapped them both in the same pink towel.

There was also 8 year-old Chandra – here at T5 with her family en-route between Trichy, Southern India and Washington, North America. As they toured the cafes and shops to sip Mango smoothies, their suit cases were in an automated holding hangar four levels below being treated to a pampering of their own for the four hours of transit in the United Kingdom. The family’s Triple-Seven was being readied behind: Gate Gourmet meal trolleys laden with Welsh lamb cutlets about to cross the M25 at right-angles then westwards over Dinas Head where their woolly cousins still grazed. Little tails wagging.

Chandra tossed her own cuddly animal into the air and for some time I thought it was the best picture of the project. It seemed to yell at me ‘adventure, childhood, privilege’ but like music, pictures take their time to worm their way in (or out) of one’s affections. One might start off by adoring the beautiful moment but after a time, annoying faults surface leaving only errors and thoughts of failure. Tight editing by friendly designers and editors can immortalize or cremate a picture. And it can be a painful last minute when the image drops off .. the radar.

Access to the security frisk teams took some time to arrange but I was very aware that I was being allowed to photograph everywhere that those ubiquitous signs told me I normally couldn’t. I almost fell foul of an invisible line at the feet of a man staring into an X-ray scanner screen. Simply overstepping that invisible boundary in the industrial carpet which separated airside and landside would have meant migrating from western to the eastern hemisphere at the Greenwich Meridian. Along the way, someone said to me that working within airport protocols can be like negotiating the Civil Service in its complexity and ever-shifting rules.

Cities were once defined if they had a cathedral and by the twenties, great capitals had airports as well to lend them gravitas. Given a chance to pace the floors of another glass palace of aviation as grand as Versaille, it would need to be Berlin’s Templehof but a round-the-world ticket might also tempt me to discover the world’s corrugated arrivals sheds – more legacies of the brothers Wilbur and Orville.

And all the while under the floorboards of Terminal 5 I never once saw any little people nor Blattaria orientalis.

A week at the Airport: A Heathrow Diary’ is published by Profile Books (UK) on 28st September followed by Vintage (US) in 2010 with other foreign editions too.

See also Faces of Gods.


9 Responses to “A Man Called Dan”

  1. This blog rocks! I gotta say, that I read a lot of blogs on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment to say I’m glad I found your blog. Thanks,

    A definite great read…:)


  2. Hey, great blog…but I don’t understand how to add your site in my rss reader. Can you Help me, please 🙂

    Real Estate Mutual Funds 🙂

  3. I don’t know If I said it already but …I’m so glad I found this site…Keep up the good work I read a lot of blogs on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment to say GREAT blog. Thanks, 🙂

    A definite great read….

  4. 4 Anna Black

    Having just read/looked at A week at the Airport I wanted to be more familiar with your work. Most impressed.

  5. Thank you very much Anna, that’s very kind.

  6. 6 Tulio

    Hi Richard.
    Very nice work and interesting project.
    Your pictures reminded me of one I have taken a few months ago in Zurich airport (which confidentially I use now as opening image for my website).
    Have a look:

    Keep the good work.


  7. It’s funny how those large panes of glass and silhouettes attract photographers. Hope you like hanging round airports as much as I do.

  1. 1 Friday Shout-Outs, Knowing Smiles, and Firm Handshakes ‹ The PhotoShelter Blog
  2. 2 Faces of Gods « England’s Pleasant Pastures

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