{The Fire Breather}

Though he be strong, he is not fierce; though he be powerful, he is not violent. Although he be dependable, righteous he can’t be; though he be wise, he is not heard. He is a Fire Breather: his word burns like a torch; like Elijah’s does it purify – but can it ever be understood? By whom?

He casts a curious figure in the wilderness, as he stands by the shore, by the riverbank, on the mountain, on the traffic island in the city; in the square; shadowless, peerless, ageless. The inner beauty of his mind obscured and masked by the dust on his brow and the mud round his ankles. His hair all a-tangle, his white beard streaked now only with the occasional charcoal, with a strand of dark blond here, or there ginger. His scent is not sweet, nor is he at first glance a joy to behold. 

At second glance the wrinkles around his eyes show as laugh lines, and they are merry with wisdom. At third glance the light in his eyes shines bright as a flame: the oxygen of an insight beyond.

Through meditation and study and practice he has mastered the art of putting his mind above matter, and so he has learnt to walk on water, but he can only do so when nobody watches because he knows that if anyone were to see him, they would turn him into a miracle worker, a prophet, a freak. A messiah. A wonder of no more worth than that it defies the simple laws of contemporarily understood physics.

He will not have it. He will not be entertainment. He will not speak of his understanding, nor will he surmise his premonitions other than to those who are able and willing to pause. And stay silent, but for a while. Ere they ask questions. Those who are capable of phrasing these questions from a hunger for knowledge, a desire to learn. They are not many. The shouting, the screaming, the screeching, the demands for explanations, the sarcastic tones and the jibes, the heckling, the laughter, the desire—the instinct—for tearing him down, the lust for his failure, for his destruction, for him being hung drawn and quartered, for his undoing, are great.

He knows this, and he inwardly smiles. He has the capacity in his heart to forgive. He is magnanimous in his disposition towards those who hate him, who wish him silenced, who relish him misunderstood. Because he knows: one day something or someone will catch fire from his word and the fire will spread and will cause a great conflagration from which the lands will emerge purged and fertile for new thought to grow.

That is not his aim nor his goal nor his intention, that is just his purpose. His purpose is to quietly whisper into the din of the crowd that will not heed him, and plant the seeds he was given to sow. Until one takes hold. Until from just one or just two or just three or four first and then four or five more some thing starts to grow. He doesn’t even know what that could be. He has no certainty that it will not be dangerous, poisonous even, or made such by others who will take what they find and turn it upside down, inside out, who pervert him and his gentle teachings into dogma and strife. He cannot prevent this from happening, if it must. He can only be true to his purpose, his purpose being his word.

Fear not the Fire Breather, but neither dismiss or ignore him. And doubt not the might of the Word.

{Palimpsest}

What, then, if it is true.

What, then, if it is true that we live in this world.

What then, if it is true that we live in this world and this world is the best of all possible worlds.

What then, if it is true that we live in this world and this world is the best of all possible worlds but not the only possible world merely the best of all possible worlds right now made by us for us because every possible world is the best of all possible worlds at that moment in that place in that configuration; there are

an infinite number of infinities so there must be an infinite number of dimensions and an infinite number of potentialities.

What then if we were all of them at any given time.

What then if we were to learn to experience life like that.

What then if we were to learn to experience life like that and sense that we are everything we can imagine to be and everything we can’t imagine to be and that therefore everything is exactly as it should be if we will it so.

What though if we were to fail ourselves in our entirety and simply not realise our potential.

What though if we were to fail ourselves in our entirety and simply not realise our potential.

What though if we were to fail ourselves in our entirety and simply not realise our potential but know that that’s what we were doing and know that doing this was unnecessary:

What then if we were to know that we are able to realise our potential

What then if we were to know that we are able to realise our potential, at least part of our potential —

What then if we were to realise at least more of the potentiality than hitherto we had known about – what if we were to know this and act upon it; what if we were to know this and act upon it, then what would we do? What if we were to know this and act upon it: then what would we do?

What, then, if we were to know that we can realise our potential, and act upon it.

What would we do.

(I ache for my mind to expand. Not expand just a little to know a thing or two more, I ache for my mind to expand to the dimensions it can not yet comprehend through the layers it can not yet penetrate, beyond the colours on the spectrum to the prisms the frequencies to the scales it isn’t capable yet of taking in. I long, I long for it to make sense, in a way: a different kind of sense, a sense that I had never known could be made.

I yearn to absorb and be

absorbed.

I long, I

long

to)

exist

98 Irk

The elderly lady with silver grey hair and a formidable bosom corners the festival’s Programming Director and demands that he explain himself.

Her hair is tied at the back in an elegant bow of silver and black, and her glasses suggest literacy both cinematic and literary. Her lips are glossed red, but the upper lip is quite thin and the lower lip is quite full, and at the corners these lips pull somewhat towards eighteen past eight, which gives her a permanent expression of ever so marginally lopsided vexation. She bears an uncanny resemblance to Mrs Richards who pitches up in Episode One of the second series of Fawlty Towers. This lady though is not unhappy with her view, nor is she hard of hearing; she hears all too well, and what she objects to is English.

What irks – so as not to say angers – her (anger seems too uncouth a term for her form of displeasure) is that here in Locarno, the picturesque lakeside town with the second oldest international film festival in the world after Venice, an announcement (or was it a speech? I am not entirely sure now) was made not in Italian (the language of the Canton Ticino, where we find ourselves), or any of the other official languages of Switzerland, German, French or Rumantsch, but in the language of the global village, English. She had no problem understanding it – she probably has a Swiss education and her English is likely to be better than that of two thirds of all native English speakers around the world – her objection is one of principle. One of culture, even. And a concern for what is being cultivated, the unstoppable advance of the current lingua franca (obviously, and as the term reminds us, not the first one to sweep the globe, and it won’t be the last), or for the multilingual diversity of parochial Europe, specifically Switzerland.

This diversity has real charm and, when witnessed in action, can be seriously impressive. It’s not just the trains here which routinely make all major announcements in three languages (one of which is always English, although English is not an official language in Switzerland), or the packaging of consumer goods, which mostly (but not always) eschews English but finds room, on such everyday produce as butter and milk, for all four national languages; it’s when you see and hear people actually using their languages seamlessly and matter-of-factly across their spectrum that you realise how capable we can be if we try.

Not long before this ‘incident’ in Locarno, I’d been to the other major film festival in Switzerland, Solothurn. This, unlike Locarno, is not an international affair but focuses entirely on Swiss film making; it is therefore not of global significance, but really important to Switzerland. My friend had directed the opening film. He’d also fallen out with the producer and his erstwhile best friend over it, and so it was this not an entirely happy occasion. It was nonetheless memorable. Not least for the opening speeches. I don’t remember their exact sequence, but: one was held by the then Artistic Director of the festival, who happened to be from the Ticino and therefore spoke in Italian. One was held by the then President of the Federal Council (this, in the egalitarian direct democracy that is Switzerland is a nominal role rotating on an annual basis through the Federal Council, which consists of seven members who are elected by parliament and who form the government of the country as a joint cabinet; the President of Switzerland therefore only ever is in office for one year as a primus inter pares, or first among equals), who happened to be French speaking and therefore gave her address in French. And a third was held by some dignitary from the Swiss film making community, who spoke German. There were no translations, no subtitles, no surtitles, no captions. The expectation was – as it is in the chambers of the national parliament – that everyone in the audience (which here, this being an open event, is the general public) speaks at least two, but preferably three, of the four national languages.

And they do. Mostly. But you are talking about a film festival going audience with a particular interest in Swiss films. You are talking about Solothurn, not Locarno. Locarno is one of the most important and quite possibly the most beautiful film festival for independent film in the world, and so obviously not everybody attending it speaks either Italian, or German, or French, or let alone Rumantsch. (Hardly anybody in Switzerland speaks Rumantsch: it has a native speaker base of some 36,000 individuals with about another 25,000 people speaking it ‘regularly’. It’s a lovely language, though, and not at all impossible to learn, especially if you have Latin.)

The irony for my Swiss Mrs Richards in particular, and for us all, is that the one language almost all Swiss people speak to at least basic level – many to near perfection – is English. Professors often lecture in English at universities, there are kindergartens and pre-school groups conducted in English (also in Chinese, now, as it happens), and it is not unheard of for high school students to deliver their papers in English. And with so many people living and working and travelling in Switzerland from all over the world, the one language you know for certain you’ll get by in is, of course, English.

The festival’s Programming Director is patient and polite. He gives a somewhat resigned looking smile – resigned more, I think, to the fact that being accosted with these kinds of grievances is simply part of the job, even if he’s really just here tonight outside this cinema to see a film at his festival, than to the realities of globalisation – and explains the situation to his interlocutor in her seventies not unlike you would to a child of about seven. I half fear me she may feel patronised. She doesn’t. Her eyes light up, and she feels taken seriously. Her lips, at first reluctantly, but then giving themselves over to reconciliation, flatten out into almost a smile of her own. I wonder has he just charmed her. He is very charming, in a slightly headmasterly way: the kind of person who daily has to deal with unruly students and their impossible parents alike, and who just takes it all in his steady, slow-paced, long-suffering stride.

My queue starts to move, and I lose track of them both and their conversation. I don’t think it was his perfectly reasonable argument that won her over, I think it was just that he managed to signal to her for three minutes or four that he cared. And I’m almost certain he did, for three or four minutes. Which is probably about as much as it merited, after all.

What the film was that I saw, or what language it was in, or how it was subtitled (all films at these festivals are always subtitled), I can’t recall…

Obsolemnum

Then always the inherent question to self: am I going to be one who says I would if I could, or am I going to be one who says I could and I did. It’s a loaded question, heavy with expectation, anxiety; pressure, even. And it’s also maybe the wrong question. Because if I could and I did, what is remarkable about that? Isn’t that what we do: what we can? If we don’t do what we can, then what do we do? 

So is the more pertinent question: am I going to be one who says I could and I did, or am I going to be one who says I couldn’t but I did all the same. I found a way. I learnt how to do it. I overcame my reluctance, my objections, my fear. I surmounted the obstacles, of which there were many. I was told what I wanted to do was impossible and I said: I hear you. I don’t believe you. I believe what I have in mind may be difficult, it may be near unattainable, but impossible is nothing. I shall do it anyway. And if that is my way, and my way alone.

There are so many who opine. There are so many voices that make up the din of the world. There are so many who have tried, and tell you so. There are so many who know how it’s done. From experience, from having done it themselves. There are so many who will dispense with advice, with counsel, with rules. These rules that are being laid down by being followed. These patterns we draw on the mindscape of our culture by walking the path that has already been walked, often enough for it to be seen, to be recognised, to be followed, again, and again; to be treaded into the ground, until it appears inescapable: that’s the way, the only way to go. No other way seems possible now, it has been decreed. Not by authority, maybe, by convention.

What if the question is this: am I going to be one who says I took the path of least resistance, the path that was already mapped out for me, the path that I could follow, conveniently, because it had been taken many times before – so much so, it had become a road, and one much travelled – or am I going to be one who says: I saw the path, I recognised it, of course; it held no appeal to me. I was curious to know. What lies beyond the path. Where does the non-road lead. Whom shall I meet, and what encounter, if I take the unmarked route. So that’s what I did. I got stuck, many times, I took turns that weren’t so much wrong as simply dead ends. I had to double back on myself on occasion, and I cut myself in the thicket. My feet hurt, and my head. My limbs were weary with travel, with toil. I was alone, sometimes lonely. There were nights when I cried for want of shelter, for want of care, for want of some body to hold on to, for some mind to reassure me, for some light to guide me. I persevered, I continued. I had to. It was either that or the abandonment of myself: failure complete. It was either going on or getting lost entirely, in the wilderness. It was either holding on to the hope, the idea, to the notion that there is something yet to be discovered, something yet to be said, something yet to be thought that is in one sense or other worthwhile, that has not, in every possible manner, been expressed before, that is not fully known, or becoming obsolete.

Am I going to be one who says I tried, I wish sometimes I’d tried harder, but at least I tried. Or am I going to be one who says I tried and tried again and I did not give up and whatever the outcome – is there an outcome, ever? and is that the point? or is the point not a point but a wave and that wave is the process, the doing, the thinking, the loving, the giving, the taking, the seeing, the learning, the sending, the receiving, the being? – I put my all into it. Am I going to be one who says things happened to me and I made it through, or am I going to be one who says I am the things that I did.

Yet to what end? There is no end. Then to what purpose? Let the purpose be bigger than me, greater, if I dare think it so: nobler. Let the purpose be the ideal, the aspiration. Not for myself, but for my world. The world not as it is now, the world as I know it could be. That ‘better world’ that is forever in our power to create and seems forever out of reach. Because it is, both. But what if that is meaningless, what if we all mean nothing at all and are simple quirks of short-lived accidental matter in a constellation of incomprehensible – because random – energy fluctuations that have no purpose, that have no meaning, that have no end and no beginning, that may or may as well not exist?

What does that concern me now? Who cares if it matters or not? What need do I have for a reason? What I know is I am here, and I have so much time, maybe less, perhaps a bit more. What matters then, surely, is only that I be, in the end, one who says that was my time well spent, that was my cards – whatever these cards were – well played; that was my fellow human loved, my world respected, that was my work well done, my life well lived.

∞² Revival

I decide that the origin is clearly not what matters. It goes against my grain somewhat to accept this, because wasn’t that what got me onto this story in the first place? Wasn’t that the intriguing question: how did it all begin? Still, nobody knows, and no-one I met and talked to about it was able to give me any more hints or pointers. There’s the legend of the two guys in their twenties and their dare, and there is the tradition that has established itself over time, and that’s all there is to it. Does there need to be more?

Of course, everything has a cause and an origin somewhere, and probably this is somehow known: in the fabric of the common consciousness, unspoken, unexplained. It just happened, we all know it just happened, we kind of understand how it happened, and we’re all right with that. Or is it a case of avoiding uncomfortable truths? What could possibly be uncomfortable in a truth about an event as friendly and as inclusive and as welcoming and as joyful as the Boscombe & Bournemouth Nude Beach Stroll? I decide to let it go. This obsession with clear causes and rational effects. I’ve had, against all my expectations and severe reservations, a marvellous time in the unclothed company of strangers who turned out very much to be friends I hadn’t yet met. This belief I’ve held always, borne out by experience.

We are good people.

Yes, we do terrible things – the litany of our offences against each other, against the planet, against the animal kingdom, reads like a catalogue of monstrosity, and we’re never more than an inch away from some appalling misdeed or other – and yes our history is littered with catastrophic failures of humanity, and yes: you watch your news and you feel a moment closer to despair before you’ve had a chance to change channels, but… take a Sunday afternoon like this in almost any town in England, or in any country, really, and, away from the agitation, unstirred by some cause or other, some issue or concern, given a set of basic parameters – that the fundamental needs be covered, that the fabric of the community be intact and healthy, that the framework that allows human beings to feel safe and appreciated be in place and not threatened by crime or corruption or despotic politics – you will find us getting on with each other, pretty much. Across generations, across creeds, across ideologies, across gender, across ethnicity, across religion, across our own little preoccupations, and large ones too, across the spectrum. It’s not spectacular, and it’s not difficult. It’s human, it’s normal. And yet, it still feels amazing.

This, I decide to hold on to. As a thought, as a hope. I know some will find me naive and deluded, I realise at this time of confrontation and conflict and unbearable regression into isolationist rhetoric, simplistic solutions and the allocation of blame, guilt and shame, it may sound almost glib to say: ‘we are good people.’ But think of the alternative. Think of what it means if we decide, in the face of everything, that we are as terrible as the worst things we see? Then whatever makes whoever among us do wrong in whatever way will have won: we hand our worst version of ourselves victory over ourselves.

Because yes, the bombing of children in war zones, the dumping of plastic by the container load in the oceans, the burning down of refugee centres, and the shooting of students at high schools: they’re all done by us. People. Like you and me. That is the horrendous truth, but it’s also – and that’s much harder to comprehend and as difficult to accept – the reason there is hope yet. The people who do the most terrible things from which we recoil in disgust, they are not a different species. They are innocent when they are born and grow up with hopes and dreams of their own.

And then things go wrong. Over time, bit by bit, through circumstances, through personal choices, through the need to survive, through the culture we’re born into, through what behaviours are reinforced. Through illness. Through despair. For every person who does something destructive, violent, inhuman, cruel, there is also the person they could have become. May yet turn into, given the chance. And vice versa.

So if we give in to despair, surrender to cruelty, and accept violence and destruction as the norm, then we feed them. We give our energy to them, we make them stronger. We start to meet hatred with hatred, instead of with love. We start to build walls, instead of dismantling borders. We start to arm teachers, instead of disarming society. We crank up the tension, instead of defusing situations, we add fuel to the wildfire, instead of extinguishing it, and planting new trees. They’re simple choices, really: whichever version of ourselves we nurture will grow strong.

And so I take my leave of Boscombe & Bournemouth and its famous Nude Beach Stroll, on the last Sunday in June. I salute you, good people, there, by the coast: I thank you, you’ve given me much food for thought and made me see my world differently. I do wish you well!

Istanbul

We wander on for a bit, and I breathe it all in: the people, the tourists, the tram and vendors; the noise and the scent and the flavour.

George, I’m beginning to realise, is telling me everything I need to know. He’s hardly said more than a couple of dozen sentences since we met, improbably and unfathomably, a few hours ago, but I know now that seeing him, listening to him, looking at him, being with him—in his presence, in no other than that simple, literal sense—has triggered in me the abundance of memories, connexions and emotions, the thoughts and the synaptic excursions, the diversions, the captions, the mild insurrections of heart, mind and soul, that I need, to move on.

Move on from what? Had I got stuck? Most severely. Had I manoeuvred myself into a dead end? More than of sorts. Was I on the verge of becoming obsolete, not just to myself, but to the universe that has somehow produced me? I fear me I was. Is that now all at an end? Who knows…

I again put my arm around George, instinctively, without thinking, and he doesn’t shirk or pause or look at me, he just lets it be. My George: that’s how I know him. We wander, like father and son, like brothers, like friends, but not lovers—can one constellation embody all these in one, even, ever?—and I feel me an abundant sensation of love. Of loss too, and of forgiveness. Most of all of forgiveness: I forgive you, George, for everything, really. All your inadequacies. Your presumptions, your misunderstandings. Your aloofnesses and your hesitancies. Your delusions and your noble intentions. Your foibles, all of your weaknesses. Your constant quest to connect, your patent inability to do so in so many senses. There are too many things to mention.

Too many things too, for which I do not need to forgive you, for which I can quietly, humbly, respect you: even admire you. Your sense of justice and your faith in humans. Your optimism, your hope. Your openness, your curiosity. It may, ultimately, have killed the cat, but the cat had nine lives and so it continued. It lived. You’re not unlike a cat, George, I’ve known this for centuries, for all the millennia that I’ve known you. And I’m beginning to know you now, George, and I’m glad on’t.

We reach Taksim Square where we take a turn to the right and keep wandering. Not aimlessly so much as non-directionally. We both have no particular place to go, not at the moment. We end up by a steep small street that looks a little familiar and quite attractive, and decide to head up it, rather than down, and before long we recognise a wooden house and a half hidden entrance: we have inadvertently come back to right where we started: the Limonlu Bahçe.

There is, probably, in some way some significance to this: have we actually gone round in a circle? I like to think not, not least because we are not moving in three dimensions. We have, at any rate, walked a spiral, a triangular shaped one, as it turns out, but that is most likely quite by the by. Some things have meaning, others less so. Some things are profound though we but capture the surface, others are really surface. Or maybe I’m being lazy. At some level, most likely, everything has some other layer, some other meaning, some other significance that could or could not be, or become, at some point quite relevant. We can’t take it all in, all at the same time: we do need a filter. And that’s yet another insight I’m having, right there.

We’ve not walked very far, maybe less than an hour, perhaps a bit more; we’ve been ambling really, rather than striding. We’ve not been saying all that much more. Metaphorically, though, we have come a long way. In my mind I have travelled a little light year. Is there a big light year? Or even one of average length? Aren’t all light years the same? It is not, of course, and I realise, a year, and it’s not one of light. Some metaphors don’t stack up. I have percolated, I feel me, through my own conscience and come out enriched. If that makes sense. Does it have to? Make sense? To me, it doesn’t have to, even though somehow it does. I don’t think it matters to George if it does. Does it matter to you?

I realise I have a reader. I realise I need you as my reader, because without you I don’t exist. I realise I am not alone in this, nor only with George: I realise we are, in our own constellation, triangular. Hello, Reader: welcome to my world.

George and I are both creatures of habit, and having walked for an hour or so—maybe a little less, possibly just a bit more—we both fancy another drink, and we readily, easily, without thinking or negotiation, decide to go back to the Limonlu Bahçe: we liked it there, we were comfortable there, why would we not now go back there, seeing we are already here.

I like that about George and about me: we can stay in one place for hours and never get bored. We both never get bored, George and I. That is a realisation I had and passed on to him long before I knew I would be him: if you watch paint dry close enough, it’s entirely riveting. At molecular level, let alone subatomic: there’s a riot of things happening, a mesmerising display of spectacular wonder. How could you ever get bored?

We head down the hidden staircase back into the garden which is now not full and not empty, but at that agreeable mid-to-late afternoon state when luncheon has petered out and dinner hasn’t yet started. The table we had been sitting at has been taken, but we find one as pleasant in the mid-to-late afternoon speckled shade two or three tables removed and sit down, and our angular waitress returns and recognises us and smiles, and we order another couple of mojitos and some chips, just to nibble.

Now, for the first time in maybe a million years, I am here. George, because of the configuration of the table, the bench and the chairs, has naturally sat down next to me, not opposite, so he can survey the garden with me, this paradise of our own making. This Eden. “Look at me now, and here I am,” she had said, and I had understood her, immediately. Joyce, Shakespeare, Stein. Then Shakespeare again, then no particular order.

I can be at home with myself in a paradise of my making that doesn’t know what it is, in a city I’ve never been before, within an instant and find me not tempted by knowledge, in no need of a companion, at ease. Not forever, of course, just for now. The curiosity and the fascination, the alertness and also the need will soon get the better of me, that I know, it has ever been thus.

But now. And here. We are.


< {Memories of the Past}


Read Istanbul in Paperback or as ePub:

EDEN miniatures

5473593 Trivia

The world, I realise with a pang of melancholy and nostalgia, has become a slightly more prosaic, pragmatic, perfunctory place while I was away. I was away in Brazil for two months (and stories entirely of their own ilk and wonder were lived and experienced there, which to regale you with is for another place and another time, for certain), and since I had set off to São Paulo from Zürich, I flew back to Zürich for a few more days in Switzerland with my family before taking a plane home to London, only to find on that particular flight that the world had, in these few weeks, been impoverished and made just that bit more mundane. 

I knew this was going to happen, yet it still came as a shock to the system. A trivial, first-world-problem kind of shock, no doubt, but still: British Airways had ditched the ‘free’ drinks – the drinks included and obviously somehow accounted for in your airfare – and now sent its little trolley down the aisle, charging you for everything you wanted off it. In theory, that is. In practice, this newly utilitarian procedure, which now involved taking card payments from everybody for every coffee and every water, let alone every little bottle of wine, every can of beer, and every snack, took so long that by the time they got to me in row 21 the announcement came through that we now needed to fold up our tables and put our seat backs in the upright position, because we were just about to touch down in Heathrow.

There may well be a commercial argument for not including drinks on short haul routes that other providers offer at rock bottom prices, and the ‘free snacks’ had long dwindled to such minuscule sampler sachets of some desolatory crackers or crisps that in fact the idea of suddenly now being able to choose from a whole range of sandwiches, wraps and porridges sounded like a genuine improvement. In theory, once again, that is. In practice, any hope of obtaining any actual food was foiled by the reality that by the time they got to me in row 21, they had sold out of everything edible on their trolley, and so, even if there had been enough of a flight left to eat something (which there wasn’t), there was nothing now on offer to buy.

But whether any of this makes sense commercially, or simply reflects the harsh reality of a fiercely competitive market, racing itself to the unforgiving bottom of absolute discomfort in a fight for dubiously worthwhile survival amidst the ruthless cannibalism of ‘no-frills’, ‘no-standards’, ‘no-enjoyment’ operators, what pains the heart and saddens the soul is the realisation that the poetry of flying, such as it, barely, still was, and had, even at this most basic level, been cultivated, still, a little at least, by BA, has now been wiped out by brute rationality.

I so fondly remember a flight to Nice – not that long ago – where I found myself sitting next to an improbably well spoken and strikingly beautiful woman who was also on her way to the Film Festival in Cannes and who, witnessing me order a Bloody Mary and realising that that was just part of the service provided by British Airways, decided with enthusiasm that that was exactly what she wanted too. We naturally got talking about this, that and the other, and roughly a quarter into our conversation we were nearly out of Marys. This looming crisis was noted by the attentive cabin crew who immediately offered us each another. Halfway through our conversation we obviously needed a third one which, in truth, we this time had to ask for, but which we were served with unflinching, even indulgent, patience and a smile by our delightful flight attendant. And whether or not, for the last quarter of our conversation, we required, requested and were given our fourth Bloody Mary I can’t now with certainty recall, mostly because we were really quite jolly by then, in the most agreeable way, and it was, after all, still mid-morning, but I certainly like to think so.

And the beauty of it: that was all there ever was to it. We never kept in touch, we never met up, and, although she was bound to have told me, I have no idea what she was even doing in Cannes. Once, on another flight back from Nice to London I actually ended up involved in some potentially useful networking; on this occasion, though, no purpose whatever was served: we just had ourselves a wonderful flight and positioned ourselves in a perfect frame of mind for the festival, thanks entirely to BA. But now, when you fly with BA to Nice to attend the Film Festival in Cannes, it will feel just like any other airline, and not much different to a National Express coach or an East Coast Line train. You can buy yourself a vodka and a tomato juice, of course, and if you’re extremely lucky, they may even find you a slice of lemon. They won’t have the Worcester Sauce for you though, and although it will taste bland but still cost you nearly as much as a legendary Bloody Mary at the Century Club, it is possible, just, that economically you actually fare better with one or two like this that you pay for, than if their potential cost had been factored into the price of your ticket.

And true: if you went for three or four drinks with mixers, as we did, it’s likely that a fellow passenger who was just drinking water might have been subsidising you, in those days. Yet, isn’t that the kind of thing that makes life worth living? That sometimes you find yourself in a situation where in all likelihood you’re indirectly buying a drink for someone you’ve never met, and other times you become the recipient, quite unexpectedly, of such similar munificence, because in a civilised society having a Bloody Mary is considered par for the course on an aeroplane. And on that rare and exquisite occasion when you sit next to a person so articulate and so beautiful that this one Bloody Mary just turns into four, well then so be it? That way, surely, lies the generosity of gesture that makes it all bearable; and the moment, surely, will come – I daresay it has most likely occurred many times before – when someone on a plane who paid just the same as I did has something to celebrate and gets bumped up and offered a glass of champagne, or when somebody somewhere in some other context is inadvertently, involuntarily, yet graciously, still, my guest.

I welcome them to it and wish them well. And I wish BA would rethink their mean-spirited approach, and not just for my sake, or the sake of my fellow passengers. I recently had a long conversation with a man who works as cabin crew for BA. And oh how unhappy he did sound. How demoralised. How sad. About the state of affairs. About the cost-cutting culture. About the dwindling levels of service he is able, even encouraged, to provide. About the erosion of anything resembling an ethos. About the way in which being BA – just as flying BA – feels no longer special, but has become pedestrian, mercenary, banal. And there, precisely, lies the beginning of the end of civilisation: when what matters is no longer the sophistication of your experience, the excellence of who you are and what you stand for, and the pride and joy you take and make from and through what you do, but purely the profit, and nothing else. What a poor world we live in, where only the profit matters, and nothing else. It may only be, on the surface, about a complimentary Bloody Mary. Yet on reflection, it turns out that it is far from trivial, after all…