{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…

 

12 Tales From an Alternative Universe

At Nice airport I give a young man the eye, because he looks just like Peter, whom I know from a short shoot a while back and who happened to be in Cannes with his girlfriend about two years ago.

In a multiverse of all possible universes there is one in which I go up to him and say: ‘Hello Peter, how are you?’

He doesn’t know me, but by coincidence his name is actually Peter (he has that Peter glint in his eye), and he too thinks there’s something familiar about me, something he recognises, and so, so as not to seem rude, he gamely says: ‘hey, I’m very well, thanks, and you? – Are you here for the festival?’ I say yes.

‘Well, do you want a lift into Cannes, I’m here with my girlfriend?’ Ah, girlfriend here too, I think, but, why not? and gladly accept. As we talk on the ride while his girlfriend is conversing in fluent French with the driver, we get along swimmingly, and by the time we reach Cannes, we sort of realise that we don’t really know each other, but we both of us don’t mind and if anything feel we should get to know each other better, and we both pretend to of course already have each other’s numbers but let’s exchange them anyway, just in case, and we hook up for dinner and then have drinks and arrange to meet up again the following night. As it happens, his girlfriend is going to some do or other with some of her friends, so we’ll probably just be the two of us, and after another dinner, a few more drinks and then just one or two more, we realise that we do have a lot more in common than one might at fist glance imagine, and even what we don’t have in common we complement each other on perfectly, and so we probably have a bit of a kiss, maybe a cuddle. Perhaps even a bit of a snog. But then he thinks of his girlfriend and that he’s supposed to be straight, which doesn’t bother me too much (it happens to the best of people), but we go to see a couple of screenings the day after, and then his girlfriend and a few friends have invitations to a really quite excellent party on Monday, and we’re tagging along there as well. At some point we conspire to lose them or they us and we suddenly find ourselves alone again, and peacefully zonked, on the beach, with the still mild air drifting in softly and us drifting off equally softly, together, and by Tuesday, my last day, I wake up next to him, and he’s actually there and I realise: no, this wasn’t a dream and the wedding will probably be some time next summer…

I’m reminded of the incident with the handbag. The incident with the handbag happened with a man I could have imagined marrying, could perhaps still imagine, if not marrying then being together with, easily, comfortably, steadily. Uncomplicated. It happened before he married someone else. We were out drinking, as on occasion we were, and after doing so to quite some extent we took a cab home, as on occasion we did. We got into my bed to curl up with each other, as on occasion we would, to literally just sleep with each other, when he reached down his side of the bed and lifted up a nondescript brown leather bag and said: ‘and here’s the handbag.’

That made no more sense to me then than it does now, but I was categorically drunk, so was he, and I had my arm around him and I could not expect of myself – nor was I able to think that the world could expect of me – to compute the significance of such a statement and gesture at this particular juncture. He dropped the bag back down on the floor and leant into my chest and fell asleep, as did I, almost immediately.

In the hungover morning I held on to him for as long as I could, which was never quite long enough, but he had to go to work and I said I would deal with the bag. The bag, it turned out, was an ordinary woman’s handbag with the ordinary things you’d find in a bag: not that I looked through the bag in any detail, that would have felt intrusive. I fished out the mobile and called the number labelled ‘mum’. I told a bemused lady that by circumstances which I couldn’t strictly explain but that involved a friend and too much alcohol, I found myself, somewhat involuntarily, in custody of, most likely, her daughter’s handbag, and was keen to restore it to her forthwith. There must have been a follow-up conversation with the daughter herself (presumably on her home phone?) and it transpired that the daughter in question was an actress currently performing at a West End theatre, and that she had been out with a friend after the show and ended up for a drink at the same bar as we did. She was gracious if a little taken aback, but then who can blame her. We arranged that I would bring her her bag to the stage door. I picked up a bunch of flowers and a bottle of wine and brought her the bag, apologising profusely on behalf of my friend. My friend never mentioned the matter again. Nor did I. The actress may well have thought that my friend was imaginary and that I just hadn’t been brave enough to come clean entirely, but what did it matter.

Which is perhaps why I am reminded of this incident in the first place: it just didn’t matter. And I thought: this is what it would be like, would it not, to have a partner, an ‘other half’, when they did something inexplicable, and it really just didn’t matter. I know him well enough to know he wasn’t stealing a woman’s handbag. There was never any chance of him, let alone me, taking anything out of it and keeping it. And it obviously fell to me to return the bag to its owner, because I was capable of doing so and I had the time, while he had a job to go to, in Pentonville prison of all places. Plus I had sufficient distance from the incident itself to just handle it factually. It made no sense at all, but it made perfect sense. And so to this day I don’t know why it even happened. But then what do we ever know?

What do we ever really know…

(I once spent about an hour or so, incidentally, on the phone to someone who didn’t know me, nor I him. I’d recently arrived in London, I was living in my first flatshare in Gloucester Terrace and we had a plastic payphone in the hall. It rang. I answered. He said, hello can I speak to George, I said, this is George speaking, and we talked. About all manner of things. For quite a while. A long while. I had no idea who he was, but he sounded nice and I was new to town so I assumed that sooner or later the universe would reveal to me whom I was having a conversation with, probably somebody I recently met and hadn’t quite filed yet anywhere in my brain. Then he asked me how my new job was going and I said, what new job? I’ve been in my job for six months now, it’s my first permanent job since I moved here. And then we realised we didn’t actually know each other. We laughed and told each other it was nice talking and wished each other a good life and hung up. I wonder does he still tell the story too?)