What little George needed to know about incendiary devices, he learnt very quickly; and Andy turned out to be an ideal accomplice. While George was methodical, wily, and determined, Andy was swift, small, and silent, and quite original in his thinking.
The biggest challenge, George surmised, would be to procure a large number of detonators and wiring without raising suspicion, let alone alarm. But in actual fact, this proved a lot easier than he had anticipated: relying mostly on the Calor gas bottles for the ‘bang’, George came to realise that with a few very ordinary household items and some basic physics he could most likely create simultaneous sparks, and if he could do that, he could ignite simultaneous boxes of matches and some firelighters or sponges doused in white spirit or petrol, and if he could do that, he could not, perhaps, cause simultaneous bangs, but the random series that would result in different huts exploding at slightly different times would lend the spectacle its own satisfying symphonic quality.
Conscious of the ‘one chance to get this right’ aspect to his endeavour, combined with a patent inability to do a test run, even on a model or an isolated, remote specimen, George felt there was a lot at stake and a lot that could go wrong. He confided this worry, such as it was, in passing to Andy. Andy was unperturbed:
‘Yeah you can run a test.’
‘Where would I run a test?’
‘There are beach huts on every other beach in the country: just go to a beach and do just the one, nobody will think it’s a test, they’ll just think: fuck, the hut blew up. Bummer.’
That made sense. It would be no more difficult than travelling to another beach, remote enough so as not to draw attention to Boscombe and Bournemouth and close enough so as not to take more than an hour’s travel or so, and a field test could be run on just one, perhaps slightly isolated beach hut that looked like it might recently have been in use and that fulfilled the principal criteria set by his actual target huts for reference.
‘Brighton.’ Andy did not need to think about this.
‘Brighton is miles away. And it’s extremely busy.’
‘Exactly. It’s miles away, and nobody would think anybody from Bournemouth would be stupid enough to go there just to blow up a beach hut. Plus there are any number of people off their heads enough there to set fire to one of their huts by accident.’
The reasoning was flawless. It was risky, George thought, but on balance, and thinking about it a bit further, longer, and more thoroughly, not as risky, most likely, as going to a remote beach where two teenagers, one lanky and tall, the other tiny and cute, would be instantly memorable. In Brighton, nobody would bat an eyelid. All they had to do was go there, find the right hut, maybe somewhat to the end of the beach, and run their test without getting caught. It would be like a rehearsal. It would be indispensable, George suddenly understood. Of course they had to do a test.
Now the question was: how to stay away overnight without raising eyebrows…
‘We go and visit my uncle, Edward,’ Andy suggested.
‘Great, where does he live?’
‘In London, of course.’
George told his dad, Andy his mother; they would spend a weekend in London with Uncle Edward. Uncle Edward was asked and readily agreed, he was looking forward to seeing them.
Once in London, they would simply go out, as you do of a Saturday night, and return very late or early next morning. Uncle Edward would not ask them where they had been, or if he did, he would do so in the way uncles do: all right boys, have you had a good time last night? Yeah. Where did you go? Oh we went out. Great. Help yourselves to juice in the fridge and whatever there is to eat.
There wouldn’t be much to eat in the fridge, and the juice would be something like ‘Açaí Berry’ or ‘Radiant Beetroot’, but no further questions would be asked. The thought that the boys might have taken a train down to Brighton would not occur to Uncle Edward, and if it did, he’d think that was a splendid idea. But they wouldn’t tell him, just in case by some freakish coincidence the ‘news’ of a beach hut in Brighton having blown up might reach London. They thought that was extremely unlikely, it would be more likely—though still wildly improbable—to reach Bournemouth, in a ‘typical: someone in Brighton blew up their hut…’ kind of way.
Time was tight, but Uncle Edward confirmed he’d be around the following weekend; and the weather, as if to order, was gorgeous.
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 kind 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 were never really ‘free’, they were included and obviously accounted for in the airfare—and now sent its little trolley down the aisle, charging you for every last peanut 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 seemed like a genuine improvement. In theory, once again, that is. In practice, any hope of obtaining any actual food was foiled by the fact that by the time they got to me in row 21, they were not only out of time, they also 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-pleasure’ operators run by crude Irishmen, 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, 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 doing in Cannes. We didn’t even exchange details. 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 to Leeds. 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 you would 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 was 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 certainly 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 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. On reflection, it turns out to be far from trivial, after all…