No. Once I was a mere mortal who knew nothing of this big blue marble we call the Planet Earth.
Reader, do you remember the mid 1980s? Simpler times, weren’t they? Ordinary folk could just cobble together their own passports at home and airport metal detectors were strictly voluntary. That’s how I remember it.
Up until then, our family holidays had been unswervingly domestic. I like to think we were extreme early adopters, predating ‘staycationing’ by some 20 years, my parents among the first acolytes of a movement that would come to grace so many future newspaper travel sections.
A more accurate truth, though, is that my parents simply liked unassuming coastal towns such as Fleetwood and Torquay, and so the first decade or so of the travelling life I can remember was spent bickering with my brother in sweaty car back seats on our way to old-school English seaside resorts.
In 1986, that all changed, and none of us would be the same again.
Finally accepting the idea of nosing out into the sphere of geography hereto suspiciously referred to as “abroad”, the Oswells ventured forth towards Spain, exalted hosts of that year’s football World Cup and ever-growing hordes of boozed-faced British holidaymakers.
Our destination: Salou, a touristic hub in Catalonia in north-eastern Spain, just outside Barcelona. I’d like to think it was the fiercely proud Catalan spirit that drew us; or perhaps the intriguing regional cuisine or the work of home-grown visionaries such as the iconic architect Gaudi. The prosaic reality is that my mum’s sister had been the year before and had had “quite a nice time”. She and my uncle were coming with us, along with my three cousins. Safety in numbers, after all.
Emboldened by the promising lack of cultural challenge and whispered-of availability of English breakfasts, we found ourselves, like it was the most natural thing in the world, at the trembling gateway to the Earth’s hidden kingdoms: Manchester Ringway Airport.
Our plane awaited. As we walked up to the gangway, my eldest cousin Mark told me to look at my watch, to make a note what time it was so I could always remember the first time I got onto a plane. “Yes,” I remember thinking. “This IS an important moment. I SHOULD remember this. It’s a fact that my inevitable biographers will need to know.”
My self importance was further buoyed by the fact that my brother and I were sat a row in front of our parents, in our eyes a development on a par with being upgraded to business class. “This is exciting, isn’t it?” said the air steward as he checked our seatbelts. “You can pretend you’re travelling all by yourselves.”
I thought he made an excellent point. At 14, I was beginning to make my own way in the world and in the absence of actual independence, this was just the sort of delusional fantasy I could easily work with.
As the plane taxied onto the runway, I cued up the song on my cassette walkman, the song that I had selected to be the soundtrack to those first airborne moments: Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now. As we hit a ground speed of what seemed like a thousand miles an hour, Freddie sang, “I’m travelling at the speed of light, I want to make a supersonic man out of you…”
Oblivious of the gay subtext, I felt a surge of euphoria. A supersonic man. That’s what I’d be. That’s what I WAS.
And so I took to the skies for the first time, thrust headlong into a world of tatty charter airline seats, the hacking backseat smoking “sections” and barely edible inflight cuisine. It all seemed…impossibly glamorous.
I stared out of the window in wonderment as Queen’s Greatest Hits continued to serenade me through the cloud cover. I felt totally alone, unhindered by the petty concerns of terra firma, unfettered by homework and rules and thoughts of the girls in my class that surely couldn’t prefer that young, stubbled street tough with the motorbike who hung around outside the school gates because he didn’t seem all that bright and was it really safe to ride around with someone on the back because they’d have to hang on really tight and…
…and then something unforeseen happened. I wasn’t sure just what was going on, but my recently assumed status as spunky young pioneer of the skyways was about to take something of a hit. My eardrums were on fire. I felt nauseous. Something was awry.
Forgoing my illusion of travelling alone, I turned, teary-eyed and panic-stricken, to my parents, just to make sure I wasn’t about to expire on my maiden flight. Cursory enquiries revealed my parents’ knowledge of aeronautical ailments to be as limited as my own, but in any case the commotion had attracted the attention of the cabin crew, and after a quick assessment, they deemed that my condition was an unfavourable reaction to the artificial pressurisation.
I don’t know if medical science in this field has progressed, but I pray for my fellow humans’ sake that the cure for this condition is now with us. The only apparent antidote in those days was for me to sit holding two glasses over my ears. Glasses that had been crammed full of cotton wool that had been soaked in boiling water.
Looking back, this seems like a measure that was created with the sole intent of amusing my fellow passengers, but I was sincerely assured that this was the way to health. All I could think was that it hardly evoked the devil-may-care adventuring of, say, Raiders of the Lost Ark.
But so it was that I spent the remainder of the flight in this hamstrung, humiliating fashion, clutching my steaming ear goblets and listening to the muffled strains of my surroundings, my inelegant debut on the stage of world travel.
Some might argue I never recovered my poise. In any case, I’d like to make it clear that at no point during this episode did I think, “Hey, maybe I can make a career out of this.”
That bit…well that bit just kind of happened…