“Imagine a City: A Pilot Sees the World” by Mark Vanhoenacker

Mark Vanhoenacker Mark Vanhoenacker

Travel-writing, according to some of its critics, is a “belated” genre. The adventurers of the 19th century who wrote books about their efforts to cross uncharted deserts typically travelled by the best means available. But traversing the Sahara by camel begins to look decidedly self-indulgent when you could do it more easily by jeep. It is belatedness, the argument goes, that sometimes leads modern travel-writing into dubious nostalgia, or reduces it to silly stunts. Another option in the scramble for continued relevance is to embrace modernity, the so-called “cosmopolitan travel writing” exemplified by Pico Iyer, with its emphasis on shopping malls, airport terminals and the quirks of globalization. But this too has its pitfalls—not least an occasionally gratingly arch tone of irony. 

What makes Mark Vanhoenacker’s Imagine a City such a joy, then, is that this is a travel book entirely rooted in modernity and globalization, and thus unbothered by belatedness, but which nonetheless retains the wide-eyed wonder, not so much of a 19th-century explorer as of a medieval pilgrim.


Imagine a City: A Pilot Sees the World, Mark Vanhoenacker (Chatto & Windus, May 2022; Knopf, July 2022)
Imagine a City: A Pilot Sees the World, Mark Vanhoenacker (Chatto & Windus, May 2022; Knopf, July 2022)

Vanhoenacker is a commercial airline pilot who makes his living on long-haul routes from London. His 2015 debut, Skyfaring, was partly pitched as an insider’s account of aviation, the sort of book that might reassure a nervous flyer or satisfy the technologically curious. But it also brought a lyricism to the writing of air travel seldom seen since Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Imagine a City delivers more of the same, but this time Vanhoenacker’s focus is less on the journey than the destination: the global cities he visits in the course of his work. These are, typically, places he has visited over and over—though usually only in short snatches:


The most remarkable effect of visiting cities in this manner, time and time again, year after year, is that each begins to take on a curious sense of familiarity. Indeed, in some cities this familiarity is so powerful and deceptive that I’ve struggled to remind myself: I am not from here. This city is not mine.


Eschewing linearity for a mosaic form well matched to the discombobulating experience of frequent international air travel, the book arranges its cities into eleven thematic chapters. Some of the themes are fairly straightforward: “City of Rivers”, “City of Gates”. But others are more abstract: “City of Blue”, “City of Air”. And an individual chapter might leap between places as disparate as Liverpool and Brasilia, Kyoto and Milton Keynes.

Amongst all this there are the snippets of history and cultural information that readers might expect of a travel book, and a good scattering of satisfying factoids. Of the 548 cities with a population exceeding one million identified by the United Nations, more than 120 are in China. And of the 20 cities with the greatest concentration of buildings over 150 metres in height, just four—New York, Dubai, Chicago and Toronto—are outside East Asia, and nine are, again, in China.

Vanhoenacker has a fine knack for identifying and naming city-related phenomena. The aforementioned proliferation of tall buildings might be plotted on a chart of “skylinearity”. Frequent long-distance air travel might prompt “place lag”:


a bewilderment and astonishment at where I find myself, as if not only our sense of time, but our deep sense of place, too, requires a period of adjustment.


And those exploring the hinterland of a city might be able to identify its “name-shed”—the outer limit of the halo of road signs pointing towards it.


The individual sections of the chapters provide brief but atmospheric immersions. While other airline staff might be happy to pass their layovers resting in anonymous hotel rooms, Vanhoenacker routinely heads out to explore. Outside KLIA in Malaysia, he hops onto a Melaka-bound bus and ends up dazzled by a cycle-rickshaw plying the riverside: “the effect, at least on a jet-lagged introvert, is nearly hallucinatory.” In summertime Kuwait, he abandons air-conditioning and finds the intense heat marvelous—“in the literal sense, it’s something to marvel at”. The abrupt lurches from place to place can, at times, produce a degree of “place lag” for the reader too. This is, surely, the point, though it is generally the more extended meditations on a particular city that are most satisfying: a cycle through the seasons in Cape Town; an exploration of Delhi framed by the poetry of Ghalib and others; a reflective circuit of Tokyo’s Yamanote suburban railway line.

Nonetheless, Imagine a City has a clear anchor-point, and if the book were visualized as an airline’s route-map, its central hub would not be London, but the small Massachusetts city of Pittsfield, where its author grew up. As much as an account of ceaseless globetrotting, this book is a memoir of a life ultimately rooted in a single place and the way the relationship with that place is both maintained and transformed across a lifetime. It was as a child in Pittsfield that Vanhoenacker first conceived a personal “imaginary city”, a place of shifting name and location to which he could escape “when I don’t wish to think about what I don’t like about myself”, and “when I want to escape my dawning awareness that I’m gay”. The myriad real cities that he visits in the course of the book are, it seems, all iterations of that original imaginary city—though it is clear by the end that if Vanhoenacker is still in flight, it is no longer from himself, and no longer from his hometown.

Imagine a City is a blissfully un-belated travel book in which form, theme and sensibility are perfectly matched to the realities of modern travel. But it also manages to recapture the old romance of journeying itself, particularly in the sections emphasizing a pilot’s-eye view of the world. A night flight from London to Jeddah evokes the voyages of classical antiquity in the passage between Greek and Egyptian airspace, and descents on Kuwait or Kenya attain a geographical grandeur seldom acknowledged by dozing passengers:


Dusk fell while we were over Sudan, near the place where the Blue and White Niles meet and Khartoum rises. Now, between the clear stars and the unseen highlands of Ethiopia, we’re completing the preparations for our approach to Nairobi.


Coming to the end of this book, even the most jaded frequent flyer may find themselves booking a window seat for their next journey, and making plans to get out of the hotel on their next layover.

Tim Hannigan is the author of Murder in the Hindu Kush, shortlisted for the Boardman Tasker Prize; Raffles and the British Invasion of Java which won the 2013 John Brooks Award; A Brief History of Indonesia; and Travel Writing Tribe: Journeys in Search of a Genre.