Sunday, December 11, 2005

Plane mad

My travels last week took me to Düsseldorf airport. With caffeine levels lower than a limbo-dancing flea, I decided to go to the airport coffee bar. I remember when these places used to sell coffee but, progress being progress, I had to have a choc-sprinkled latte macchiato with a double left-handed twist of ox grindings and hand over what remained of my holiday money, so you can imagine the gloom with which I sat looking out onto the freezing apron, watching mummified baggage handlers going about their business like extras on Ice Station Zebra.

The space to my left was soon taken by a Dutch couple in their 60s. I christened him Francis because he was the image of a Franciscan monk - thin and bald with a long white beard - a retired psychologist, I decided. Marijke his dumpy wife went scavenging for food while he spent 5 minutes extracting a variety of tools from a small carry-on bag and lining them up on the table: binoculars, a small notebook and pencil, and a reference manual of some sort - all geared up for some heavy-duty plane spotting.

By the time Marijke returned he had already noted down all the registrations on the tarmac, and every time a plane took off he'd grab the glasses and follow it with a great sweep, entertaining Marijke with useful details on the peculiar type of undercarriage sported by the newer A320’s and reminding her that there was the very plane - the very plane - they'd spotted in Riga last December. (Who said Dutchmen aren't romantic?) Marijke, obviously an experienced spotter's wife, would answer the livelier comments in flat, beaten tones with encouraging responses like uitzonderlijk and wat leuk.

While Francis was coo-ing over some new discovery, my mind started wandering to those British plane spotters who sat in a Greek jail for a few months for - allegedly - doing nothing more (or less) sinister. Indeed if Francis had been sporting a long black beard and wearing a Muslim robe and prayer cap, I daresay the German border guards would have been diving all over him before he could say, "Zwei Doppel-Espresso mit Zucker".

It's all about perception these days. Ethnicity + activity + location = 10 foot square with a toilet if you're lucky.

Closer to home, I imagine there was a time when peering through the wire at Aldergrove while carrying weapons no more offensive than Francis' might have landed you in an internment cell indefinitely if you were Seamus O'Flaherty in an army-surplus jacket, but not if you were William McCourt in a business suit with your Merc parked nearby. (Apologies to Seamus and William if you're reading this).

I have no doubt that people from both traditions suffered under Ulster's internment-without-trial in the 70s and 80s. While it may have kept one or two bad eggs off the streets for a while, it's unjust to imprison people without fair trial, and getting rid of internment was a Big move in making Ulster a fairer, more democratic place to live.

Let's be grateful for that. Being terrorised by a plane spotter while sipping a €5 cup of flavoured milk is a small price to pay for progress.


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