Imagine a City: A Pilot Sees the World

By Mark Vanhoenacker

Published by Chatto & Windus, 2022

Non-fiction, Hardback £16.99

Review by Dave Young

Part travelogue, part memoir, Mark Vanhoenacker’s beaut-ifully written non-fiction tome views the planet and its cities from the confines of an aircraft cockpit – the ultimate overview. Building on the success of his previous best seller, Skyfaring the engrossing narrative entertainingly re-visits his 20 years of flights to major conurbations on every continent. Taking the reader from the American author’s boyhood dreams of becoming a pilot to reminiscences as he prepares to retire. 

“Dreamy and erudite… [Vanhoenacker is] a most likeable, warm-hearted nar-rator with an original world view” observes Melanie Reid in The Times. An armchair traveller’s book par excellence Imagine a City skilfully and perceptively weaves elements of personal experience with anecdotes of the geography, history and peoples of many a great metropolis. 

Such is the originality of Vanhoenacker’s perspective the only other comparable writer is arguably Antoine
de Saint-Exupéry, writing nearly a century previously in the pioneering days of commercial flight. The French pilot and author, better known perhaps for Le Petit Prince, reflected on the interaction of modern machines and nature in Wind, Sand and Stars and Night Flight; traversing the Sahara and Andes in planes more primitive and elemental than Vanhoenacker’s Boeing Dreamliner but sharing a similar poetic sensibility and humanistic viewpoint.

Vanhoenacker, however, adds astutely observed details of places he’s visited many times, gaining a local’s knowledge of their intricacies and eccentricities. The sweep-ing roads of Los Angeles, the old gates of Jeddah, the utopian-inspired plan of Brasília. These in turn are repeatedly referenced to recollections of his upbringing, stories of his husband and family – the latter former missionaries – and, above all, the town where he grew up Pittsfield.

An engaging and intelligent counterpoint to the humdrum ‘tube in the sky’ experience flying has ended up being for the rest of us poor travellers.

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