Kam Raslan muses about how travel and its sentimentality has transformed over time
Once upon a time, and not so long ago, you could only fly if you had quite a lot of money. A journey (or a phone call) of almost any distance was an effort and expensive, be it KL-London or KL-Ipoh. Today, it’s still not cheap but travelling just for a holiday is conceivable. Once upon a time, and not so long ago, every departure from KL’s old Subang Airport was waved off by the entire family, but now? Perhaps some of the old excitement and glamour of travel has gone, but the in-flight entertainment has improved.
There’s a 1963 movie called The VIPs, which is about a group of, well, VIPs who are stuck in Heathrow Airport because their flight has been grounded by fog. The movie had a stellar cast, including a young Maggie Smith, Elizabeth Taylor and a quite possibly sober Richard Burton. It was set in an age when very few could afford to travel by air so everything was like travelling on an old cruise ship and very posh. “Posh” by the way, might have come from the policy of “port out, starboard home” that old British colonials used for booking cabins to avoid the sun when travelling between England and Asia.
When my British mother first came to the newly independent Malaya (now Malaysia) in 1957 with my late father they came by ship. They didn’t travel “posh” but it was a leisurely three-week journey shared with several students from other newly independent nations who were dropped off in India and Ceylon. As the ship made its way to the Far East the weather changed gradually, which helped introduce my mother to the humidity of Malaya and my father’s entire family who had travelled up to Penang to greet them.
In the time of The VIPs the lucrative Business Class had not yet been invented so there was only First Class and everybody else who were still paying a small fortune to fly. Back then, the entertainment in First Class probably included a full orchestra and a complete performance of Oklahoma! I have no idea because the nearest I’ve ever been to travelling in First Class is these words right now, so if you’re reading this in First Class, Hello Tan Sri, Puan Sri.
In The VIPs, Heathrow is spacious, comfortable and almost empty of people and the few who are there are all dressed in their best clothes. There were no Malaysian students in oversized winter clothes or European holidaymakers in flip-flops, just posh people going to posh places. Now Heathrow handles about 70 million passengers each year, so please be there two days before your flight if you’re planning to claim a tax refund. Air travel isn’t what it used to be. Or is it better?
We flew between Malaysia and London back in the 1960s and I had absolutely no complaints. I had plenty of leg-room. I was only three feet tall at the time, and the food wasn’t “chicken or fish” but venison. That’s right, we had venison in Economy Class. Now you can get deer (with black pepper) in any Chinese restaurant but back then it was a big deal. My brothers and I travelled with my mother because my father always seemed to have important meetings in KL and he could only fly out a few days later when, he explained, the only available seat was in First Class. After my father died our finances were, er, different and we travelled very rarely and on no-name charter flights. These were terrible planes that seemed to have to stop every 30 minutes for a rest. It would have been quicker to walk. On one occasion my brother got stuck in the toilet. The door wouldn’t open when we were entering some bad turbulence. I remember seeing the captain stride down the aisle with an axe to break down the door. It was very embarrassing for my brother so the rest of us pretended not to know him for the rest of the flight.
In-flight entertainment between KL and London then consisted of two films – one before Muscat and one after. The projector clunked down and rattled away overhead with movie reels being regularly changed, and the headphones were plastic things that probably used Second World War technology for detecting enemy submarines. Eventually a music tape was introduced that played the same songs again and again so that one trip to Malaysia will always be synonymous with the Bee Gees. But when we arrived in KL’s old Subang Airport, the entire family would be there to greet us. Surely all old Malaysia photo albums hold memories of family arrivals or departures from Subang, which was once just like the Heathrow of The VIPs, spacious and comfortable.