Long haul flights - and I feel I undertake more than my fair share of these - provide the ideal opportunity to catch up on some serious listening. On-board entertainment has changed beyond all imagination in the years I've been flying intercontinentally, and with well over 100 movies shown on demand in wide-screen monitors with outstanding sound heard through top-rate headphones, not to mention vast numbers of on-demand audio recordings, I should not need to provide my own in-flight entertainment. How easy it is to escape the tedium of a flight and allow the plane's entertainment system to while away the hours filling one's brain with images and sounds. But I cannot fly without being glued to the live on-screen map showing the flight's progress, which rules movies out for me (I hate leaving the map even for the short walk to the nearest washroom), and for all the choice, the on-board music is pretty predictable fare. So when I get on board, I settle down, switch on the map, take a glass of something fizzy and wait for the seat-belt lights to go out. Then it's out with the portable CD player, the noise-cancelling headphones and the latest crop of as-yet-unheard CDs. I reckon the average flight between Singapore and the UK requires six CDs (allowing time for sleep, meals and walkabouts), and it is my ambition to get through them all on a single flight.
I know that it is a function of news to report the unusual and the exceptional, but we are so overwhelmed by the news of atrocities and terrors in Iraq, that it is difficult to perceive that anyone on the ground beneath our plane was able to live in peace or tranquility, let alone get themselves into the mood to savour the sheer joy of these performances from this outstanding Spanish ensemble.
Unable to take much more of these grotesque parodies of wonderful music, I switched off and turned to the glorious and vivid sound I carry with me everywhere; my musical memories. And I replayed these chorale preludes in my head, in versions which combined Marie-Claire Alain's ingenious use of registration with Ton Koopman's sprightliness and Simon Preston's boyish buoyancy. Re-living the glories of Bach reminded me that while the Muslims on the ground were, if the news reports were to be believed, celebrating their religion with violence, hatred, bloodshed and inconceivable atrocities, at least in some areas, Christianity still celebrates the joy and beauty of life. Bach's Lutheran faith as portrayed by his organ choral preludes underlines more vividly than anything the huge chasm which has grown up between these two monotheistic religions. True, Christianity has its problems and its fundamentally misguided leaders and adherents (I never go into a church these days simply because I feel so alienated by the widespread belief that, since Christ died in his mid-30s, there is no place in Christianity for anyone over the age of 40), but the prominence afforded to the ignorant, the violent and the intolerant in Islam, points to something having gone even more fundamentally wrong with that religion. A documentary I caught on television in India about how the more violent and aggressive inmates in prisons were being converted to Islam only reinforced that view. How convenient to be able to transfer responsibility for violent and inhuman actions to a long-dead prophet rather than accept responsibility for ones actions oneself. (True, the Catholics have their Confession which allows them to do whatever wrongs they like and then have the slate cleared, as it were.)
Long-haul flights might inure one to the horrors of life on the ground 30,000 feet below, but spending the time listening passively to great art opens up channels of thought and contemplation which are denied those who, quite understandably, indulge in the escapism of on-board movies.