One of the few compensations for the ghastliness of business travel is the opportunity to disappear into a book, uninterrupted by colleagues, children or spouses. This is best done in a business-class seat on a plane with a regular supply of hot towels, salty snacks and fortifying drinks, but a cattle-class seat on a train will also serve, so long as it is next to a window. Yet even this simple pleasure is being taken from me. Misanthropes have always had to put up with crying babies, whining children and tourists who interpret a snarl as an invitation to chat, but modern life throws up ever more audial horrors: bores jabbering nonsense on their phones, workaholics hammering as hard as they can on their keyboards and earphones leaking out tinny music. One irritation caps all the others, however. Everywhere you travel these days, you are subjected to amplified announcements on this, that or the other.
Modern announcements appear to be governed by a rule that says they should be so loud that they break your eardrums but so distorted that you can’t understand what’s being said. I was once – joy of joys! – upgraded to first class on British Airways. BA did everything it could to soothe the travelling plutocrat – the champagne was chilled to exactly the right temperature, the seat delivered a relaxing massage at the touch of a button – but ruined it all with a public announcement system that jolted us out of our seats with a succession of jumbled words and blasts of static.
The quality of PA systems is one of the great puzzles of our time. We can watch crystal-clear images on our iPads even as we hurtle through the sky. We can luxuriate in perfectly reproduced music on our iPhones. And yet PA systems are trapped in the age of Alexander Graham Bell.
Their awfulness might be endurable if the announcements contained urgent information. But the ratio of unnecessary to necessary information seems to be rising by the day. I understand the importance of safety warnings: planes do fall out of the sky every now and again and terrorists are forever plotting carnage. But must they be so long? It’s nice when a train conductor apologises for a 45-minute delay. But isn’t an apology for a five-minute delay really a humble-bragging boast that the company’s punctuality standards are so high that a five-minute wait is outrageous?
Some companies seem to revel in redundancy. In the railway world Amtrak is the champion of verbosity. Recorded announcements on its trains proclaim the arrival of each station with a peroration ending in a request to “please take this time to look about you and collect your bags”, as though the majority of passengers were otherwise likely to canter off the train in a spiritual ecstasy, leaving their material possessions in their wake. Airlines make a point of telling you the names of the pilots who are flying the plane and the crew who are “taking care of you”. I recognise that most stewards do a remarkable job of remaining cheerful in difficult circumstances. Some of them are veritable saints of the airways. But these days travel is not, for most of us, an exotic adventure that benefits from a close familiarity with our guides but a tedious necessity best endured with as little fuss as possible. We don’t need to name-check the uniformed Virgils who guide us through these latter-day Infernos.
The final ingredient of this aural hell is enforced jocularity. The people with the megaphones have taken to subjecting their captive audiences to their humour. The London Underground now echoes with the sound of announcers assuming “amusing” voices. Airline pilots appear to think that they are auditioning for a slot on “Saturday Night Live”. On Kenyan Airlines you have to listen to this routine in three languages, English, French and Swahili. The horror, the horror.
As a solution, I’m thinking of buying a pair of headphones and listening to books rather than reading them. This would have the additional advantage of cutting out the noise of yabbering travellers. But if I did that, some disaster would inevitably strike, and as my fellow passengers, alerted to the onrushing flames by the PA system, fled to safety, I would be immersed in a novel, unaware that I was shortly to become toast.