Airport culture is really going places, even if we aren’t

Eva Wiseman
·5 min read
<span>Photograph: David Levene/The Observer</span>
Photograph: David Levene/The Observer

At the beginning of lockdown I reread Alan Warner’s novel The Stars in the Bright Sky, about a group of young women on their way to Las Vegas or maybe Benidorm or Magaluf, destined instead to spend their holiday drinking and bitching at Gatwick airport. I was drawn back to this book when it became clear no real holidays were to be found in my own immediate future, and when I realised what I yearned for was not only the foreign house or lake or pastry, but the airport itself.

It was with tender solidarity then that I recently clicked on a piece about “airport culture”. Investigating what Generation Z do when not online, where these teenagers who have little money and no appetite for alcohol, and no social spaces designed to hold them, actually go, Vice discovered an as yet undocumented subculture hanging around Stansted.

Yassir, 17, said: “You get a milkshake and watch the planes and chat about shit, and it’s a nice feeling. You could be anywhere in the world, in any airport.” “Most of my friends can’t afford pubs, clubs or festivals, and you just get hassled so badly in the park or walking around the street,” explained Isabel. “At the airport everyone is really friendly and often chatty because they’re either waiting for someone or to go somewhere. If anything bad happens, there are security there.”

Her best friend, Hannah, met her boyfriend at Heathrow. “I love Heathrow,” she said. “Provided you aren’t stupid or too loud, no one even notices you. We take edibles, usually chocolate truffles with hash, but sometimes gummy sweets with CBD oil, and just have a good time soaking up the atmosphere. There’s something exciting and anonymous about an airport. The only time we got asked to leave is when we were having trolley races in the bit outside.” I could. Not. Love. This. More.

You get a milkshake and watch the planes and chat, and it’s a nice feeling

Perhaps it’s just because I have wrung all parks dry that I now see the new beauty in a covered playground off the M23. A simple maze with polished floors, nowhere else will you find a high street where Prada is nestled between a newsagent with a tempting meal deal if you also buy a Telegraph, and a shop selling dinky hand sanitisers only. Breakfast at airports is deconstructed and rebuilt for fun – nowhere else will you see families sharing four beers and a baby’s arm of Toblerone before a dawn flight, or bolt a four-course Pret meal followed by champagne at 6am. The lights are always bright, the perfumes always flowing.

I yearn to step through a revolving door into that bleachy carpeted air having driven all night, and line up behind couples raw and angry in anticipation. A portal, a no man’s land, those hours in the airport are beautiful in many ways, one being that they promise nothing but boredom, so anything beyond is a bonus. I can easily see the attraction of such an amusement park. Unlike almost anywhere else in our stuttering world, people have time in an airport. In between two sweaty rushes, there is a sterilised river of emptiness in which whole relationships can bloom and fester, life stories told as a litre of latte cools.

Sitting in Arrivals you are caught in a cloud of strangers’ longings as they wait for someone they love to wheel their tiger-print case through customs. Even if you’re going nowhere, having taken the shuttle bus an hour west for the pleasure, you can have a hundred little holidays while lingering meaningfully on the seats outside Costa.

It’s not just the idea that you can be anyone in an airport that is appealing, it’s the idea you can be no one. The hours here are wipe-clean and weatherless, the time of day smudged. Airports defy community, hundreds of strangers contented and anonymous, but all on the same slippery bench. The pubs here are packed at breakfast time, not dulling reality exactly, but gently smothering it, pressing until white spots appear. Even those who have paid to be babysat in a first-class lounge must eventually join their fellow travellers among the vending machines, the air now static with coffee breath, and shuffle forward again, alone together.

Though not travelling further than Accessorize, those teenagers killing an afternoon here have a role in airport society, too: every reunion requires an audience, every spilt Coke needs a witness. There is no limit, I think, to the number of times you can watch a stranger’s head turn to the sound of “Mum!” in a voice only she knows – all the other mothers keep on walking, but the right one turns, and turns and, when the next plane comes in, turns again. Go left from Arrivals and the windows to the runway are so wide it feels as though you’re watching from inside a TV, all scale is off and all at once it is dizzying to look down at your hand.

In Warner’s novel, the vacuum of Gatwick airport means the story is propelled by chat and memory, and the glamour of the place is revealed as if through slashes in a curtain. Airport culture might have arisen out of compromise, but like its members, it will surely stay a while.

Email Eva at e.wiseman@observer.co.uk or follow her on Twitter @EvaWiseman