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» Conspicuous Consumption

A lost world
I've always been a massive aeroplane nut. I grew up in Somerset, not far from near HMS Heron, the headquarters of naval aviation. The annual air show there was a regular family treat. This was during the cold war so there was a sense that there was some real menace behind the crowd-pleasing stunts. My favourite plane at the show wasn't military though, it was the Concorde. For a piece of machinery she was genuinely beautiful: an aerial E-Type, an aluminium swan. As an aeroplane she was the very definition of power. The pilots would make a low pass over the show crowd, wheels down, flaps out and nose up to increase the drag and help her fly slowly. The engines - four Rolls Royce Olympus 593s with afterburners - put out such an incredible amount of noise that my hearing completely overloaded. All I could hear was a deafening crackle, like God frying the atmosphere.

I had a little model Concorde of course, and posters, and I wrote to BA and they sent me all kinds of promotional guff. As I grew older I realised just how unlikely it was I'd ever fly on her. She'd fly over our house sometimes; you could hear her on a quiet day from our garden from 30,000' away. Here was machine and romance and lifestyle bought in a perfectly unattainable white bird, forever out of reach but still ours, still British; something to take pride in.

Then one day in 2003 I was reading the BBC news website in my office in Manhattan. I saw the story: BA to cease Concorde flights. 9/11, the Paris crash and the lousy economy had finally done for her. I read on and discovered that they were issuing a very, very limited run of discounted tickets to ensure that her final few flights were full and she could go out in style. So I rang up and bought one. My ship had come in that month: a distant Aunt had died and left me a couple of grand and I'd just received a decent tax refund from George W. Bush. I had been planning to save the money but it was just enough for a one way flight. I had no kids, no significant other of any importance, no debts and no reason not to fulfil a childhood dream.

I was hugely excited leading up to my flight. I'd planned my trip so that I'd fly to London in economy on Friday and take the Concorde back on the Monday. I'd see friends and family over the weekend. Due to the jet stream the flight was about 45 minutes longer going West and I wanted my money's worth. The flight was at 6pm but I turned up to Heathrow at lunchtime. I checked in at the special Concorde desk in T4 that I'd caught glimpses of on previous trips through the airport; it was behind a big wooden wall and it was another world for me. Through security (same, but no queue) and into the dedicated Concorde lounge. The lounge was the gate itself, so once I was there I was set until boarding.

The lounge itself was a luxury hotel, minus the bedroom. I enjoyed a back massage from a chubby, bubbly blonde in the spa downstairs, had a shower in a huge blue room with about fifty water jets and got my clothes pressed. Once done with that, I headed back upstairs in time to see the aircraft pull up to the jetbridge and the arriving passengers walk out through our lounge. I dined on lobster and vintage champagne - a 1985 Pommery Cuvée Louise, for anyone that cares - and when I told the lounge attendant how much I was enjoying the bubbly she insisted on opening another, even rarer bottle to try. I met some interesting people there; some BA staff taking advantage of the same tickets I was on, a French bigwig from Louis Vuitton who thought that English men were the most stylish in Europe and a university professor whose specialty completely escapes me.

Time was passing and it was nearly time to board. The captain came out to meet each passenger, shake their hands and have a chat with them. Apparently they did this on every single flight. Ours was completely full, but all that meant was that the captain came out twenty minutes earlier. He knew some of the regular passengers by name. Not me, of course, but he was happy to answer my inane and slightly tipsy questions. At this point I noticed that everyone around me had dressed for the occasion. I hadn't; I was 22 and really not all that clued up. I'd turned up in (nice) jeans and a T-shirt - one of the few I owned that didn't have holes but hardly comparing to the suits that every other man was wearing.

The plane itself was very small inside. The seats were very comfortable, but very close together; a bit more legroom than economy class and a fair bit more width, but not the giant armchair you might have expected. The roof was lower than a 737, the windows were no bigger than my passport and the aisle was very narrow. There were only 25 rows of four seats (two each side of the aisle) in the whole aircraft, just one class (of course) and two cabins. I was in the back cabin over the wing. We were looked after by a small army of pretty, middle-aged attendants. They were keen on having as much fun as we all were and created a lot of the party atmosphere on the plane.

The captain announced push-back with what I learned was the usual announcement: "We're number one for takeoff, as usual. Those of you who haven't experienced a Concorde take-off before are in for a treat. We go twice as fast on the ground as anything else that flies and we accelerate twice as quickly. Enjoy the flight!" The engines started. Deafening! The roar inside the cabin was indescribable; unlike the ususal high-bypass ratio turbofans on passenger jets the Olympus engines are pure turbojets. There is no 'collar' of low-speed air surrounding the high-speed, hot exhaust from the compressor; it's this that makes modern jets comparatively quiet. We pushed back quickly and bounced down the taxiway straight to the runway. No delay, no waiting for Easyjet 123 to Malaga to clear the runway - that three mile strip of concrete was there just for us.

The captain lined the plane up and opened the taps. He wasn't kidding about the acceleration: it's not like a normal plane. It's severe - you're really pushed back in your seat - and it's relentless. We thundered down the runway at over 200mph, climbed and we were *still* accelerating. The rate of climb was incredible too: a readout on the cabin bulkhead listed our speed and altitude, and the numbers were flying by at an unreal rate. It's a while ago now, but I distinctly remember hitting 30,000 feet in less than five minutes! On a normal plane that 'bing' that sounds about 10 minutes after takeoff, when the cabin crew get up? That's 10,000 feet. We were three times higher than that before most airliners have finished turning to point in the right direction. This was deeply impressive stuff to a plane nerd like me.

A few minutes later we're over the Bristol Channel and the captain comes back on. "Well, we're making excellent progress and now we've cleared the south of England we can go supersonic. You'll feel two pushes as I turn the afterburners on in pairs. Keep an eye on the speed readout in the cabin, and I'll talk to you again in New York. Enjoy the service."

Another mighty shove in the back as, some way behind and below me, pumps dumped thousands of gallons of raw aviation fuel into the engines' exhausts. The fuel instantly ignited, creating a huge rocket and sending a jet of flame out from behind each engine. Fighter jets use afterburners to take off from aircraft carriers, or chase down enemy planes; here I was sipping (gulping) more champange and eating smoked salmon on toast (service started at 10,000 feet as usual - about a minute after takeoff - and continued right up until landing) while riding something who's power and climb rate are exceeded only by the space shuttle.

I ate and drank up through 60,000', twice the height of a normal flight, where the sky was black overhead and I could see the curvature of the earth by scanning the horizon with my eyes. The windows got extremely hot as the fuel - used for cooling the plane - was burned off. I chatted with my fellow passengers, sadly not managing to grab an autograph from Ray Liotta who was sitting five rows *behind* me. The good times continued. The attendants told me it was always like this; calmer when there were fewer passengers, but always a party. I was surprised - I'd expected a quiet, rarified, even stuffy atmosphere, like a gentleman's club or fancy hotel lobby, but it wasn't. It was all about fun. The captain's announcements, the laughing, smiling attendants, the jokes, the lake of vintage champagne and six courses of fine food, the buzz - it had more in common with an Club Med charter flight than first class travel. Utterly brilliant and worth every last penny.
(Mon 1st Aug 2011, 21:52, More)

» Bedroom Disasters

For one, terrifying moment I knew what it felt like to be a murderer
I jerk awake, suddenly and completely. There's no gradual period of growing consciousness; one moment I was passed out, not dreaming, dead for all I knew, and the next I here I am, alive and feeling great and... No. Not feeling so great. I must have drunk a fair bit last night. Where am I? Hmm, more than a fair bit. Can't move. Where *am* I? This isn't my room.

I look around. It's not a hotel either. No TV. So where is this place? I look up, ducking sharply as the space shuttle plummets towards my head! No, it's not crashing, it's not moving at all, it's tied to the ceiling. I look down. Spiderman glares menacingly at me from the duvet. The disturbingly small duvet. My feet are dangling over the edge of the bed, still clad in socks that fortunately I recognise as my own. Why are there plastic dinosaurs on the floor? Why are their aeroplanes on the wall? I keep looking. Shelves. Books. Big, bright, colourful books with titles in a foreign language I've never seen before. What the fuck?

Oh dear God what have I done?

I raise myself up, slowly, so slowly. Don't jolt! My brain feels like an over-full cup of tea, it's sloshing around and I have to move so carefully or it will spill right out of my ears. Waves of nausea crash up against me, battering my fragile grasp on reality. Is this real? Do I want it to be? I can taste something strange now, not the usual dead-rat hangover mouth, but something metallic. My face feels odd too, like I'm wearing a mask. I touch it, it's sticky. My fingers come away covered with something red.

Blood.

Instantly it comes to me: I've got so drunk I've blacked out, broken into a house *in a foreign country* and then killed and eaten a child so I could sleep in his bed.

How? I've never even been in a fight! I'm a monster! I remember stories of people blacking out and doing horrific things, strangling their wives in their sleep, or killing themselves. Now I'm one of them. Please let this be a nightmare. Please, please. I look around for signs of a struggle, for a body, a broken window. Nothing. The room is small, the only blood is on me and most of my clothes are neatly stacked on a chair in the corner. Where is the victim? Maybe I didn't kill him? Maybe we fought, and he escaped because I was too sloshed to finish the job. I want to throw up.

Time to see where I've been. Take stock. My mobile is dead. My pockets contain some money - Danske Bank! Aha! I'm in Denmark. Why, though? I should be in London. There's a receipt, 4,000KR, my name, 11:37pm and a word that looks like it might translate as 'gallery'. Eh? There's a ticket stub, too. Brian Wilson, in some place called Aalborg. It's coming back to me now. My Danish friend Tom was talking about going to see Brian Wilson in his home town. Obviously I decided to go. It seems like I spent four hundred quid on a painting as well, though there's no sign of it here. That, and I tried to cannibalise a child. I'm panicking now, not sure whether to laugh or vomit but wanting to do both.

Where am I *now* though? Where in Denmark?

There's a knock at the door. A pretty Scandinavian woman walks in, mid thirties, she looks a bit familiar. She's smiling, but her face changes when she sees mine. It's not rage though, it's concern. Doesn't she know?

"Scrumper! Morning! Did you sleep OK? Why is there blood on your face?"

Thank the Lord above for that. She knows me and I didn't eat her son. The relief is visceral, tangible. I cling to it, try not to cry.

"I don't know. What happened? Where am I? Do you know Tom?"

"Haha you idiot. We're having breakfast, come and I'll get you a cloth for your face."

The story emerged over some cold meat and bread. I had indeed flown to the far North of Denmark to see Brian Wilson be very weird and very brilliant in front of a few thousand people in a rain-soaked amphitheatre. Tom's new girlfriend, a single mum, had come along too. Her friend owned a gallery near the gig which was having a late-night opening with free wine. I'd bought a picture from her friend and we'd then all gone out to celebrate until four or five in the morning and then gone back to hers. Her son was with his father, so they'd dumped me in his bed to sleep it off. Nobody could explain the blood.

The picture turned up in London a few months later. It's a gigantic, nightmarish red abstract; a vision the artist called "The Beast." It captures perfectly the view a train driver would have if Snoopy decided to end it all in front of an Intercity 125. It hangs proudly in my bedroom now, scaring my wife and reminding me of the day I went to hell and came back.
(Wed 29th Jun 2011, 18:08, More)

» PE Lessons

There is some corner of a field which is forever England
Deep in darkest Somerset, a yellow-eyed headmaster peered through his tobacco-stained windows and noticed that, for the first time in three hundred and eleventy years, it wasn't raining. His brow furrowed atop his wrinkled head as he picked up the phone, dialed an extension, and breathed a single word into the receiver. A word which would change history, alter destinies, and cause more death than he could ever have imagined.

"Aerobics."

Plans were put in motion. A matter of hours later the entire school, all one thousand pupils, teachers, assistants, administrative staff and the creepy old goblin who ran the tuck-shop gathered on the largest playing field and stood facing two scaffolding towers topped with an enormous PA system. A crude stage sat between them, assembled from wooden planks, gym mats and old benches. Some of us nervously joked that we were about to witness a public execution. Hah! Today was not to be the end of just one victim. Instead of a hooded hangman there, stood on the stage, was Miss O'Leary, school Head of PE.

Miss O'Leary was, naturally, a raging lesbian with a red-cheeked love of physical excercise that made a Hitler Youth leader look like, well, a typical B3tan. Looking back, she resembled God's first, rejected attempt at creating Ellen MacArthur (who was fresh from completing the first solo circumnavigation of her mum's womb at the time.)

With a nod from proto-Ellen, Mr Armstrong (the music teacher) handed her a microphone and pulled a huge lever. Giant speaker stacks sizzled and hummed and her voice, electrically enhanced, roared at us:

"Just copy me!"

Kylie began singing The Locomotion. Miss O'Leary begain doing star jumps and slowly the rest of us began jumping too. There we were, over a thousand of us, bouncing away in an ungainly parody of communist state mass public excercise. It beat double maths, anyway.

The occasional laugh and shreik came to our ears over the deafening chart pop. Strangely the laughs grew louder and more frequent, despite the excercise. I could see ranks breaking as I looked around me. Something wasn't right, I could feel it, but what could I do? I could see no escape, nor any obvious sign of danger. My sense of unease grew.

Then, with a mighty, wet SMACK, the first worm hit me in the face. Lured to the surface by the rhythmic pounding of two thousand pairs of feet, earthworms covered the ground. The mud and grass was barely visible, we were star jumping (this is the only move I know) on top of a writhing carpet of slimy, brown worms. Pandora's box had opened. Hell's gates were breached, and battle was joined.

Raising my head as if recovering from shell shock I looked up to a sky filled with countless flying annelids. There was no laughter anymore, only terrified, disgusted female screams. Children running for shelter, diving behind other children, crying, shouting, desperately flinging squirming invertebrates to cover their retreat, scrabbling in the mud for more ammunition; it was Guernica with living bullets.

I saw heroism that day, true, but it's the horror that haunts my sleep now.
(Tue 24th Nov 2009, 16:02, More)

» Festivals

Antifestival
I attended an event in July of 2006 that would make most b3tan's blood turn to powder in horror.

It should have been ace. All the right boxes were ticked: Knebworth. The Who. Hottest day of the year. Best of all, it was not only free but I was being paid to go.

It was not ace.

This was no festival. It was a corporate trade show for the hedge fund industry, organised as a chance for everyone involved to come together, sell eachother their services and forge high-value-add synergistic relationships in a relaxed atmosphere of friendly co-opetition. The twist was the festival theme, the highlight being The Who playing later in the evening.

The day started well enough. Hundreds of monumentally overpaid hedge fund managers parked their Aston Martins on the lawn. Bankers and brokers left their Ferraris alongside. I, mere pond scum of a junior software vendor monkey, carefully attached crook-lock on my girlfriend's 15 year old Fiesta. We set up our company tent as the sun started to get hot and amused ourselves trying to flirt with the models in sundresses that the bigger companies had hired.

As the day wore on a growing sense of just what we were involved in was nagging at me. My inner 18 year old was in tears. Everything about the event makes me cringe. The refreshment stand in the field called the "Nine Bar". The Bentley dealer who'd turned up to raffle off a couple of cars for £1,000 a ticket. The old VW campers painted up in what appeared to be psychadelic patterns but on closer inspection turned out to be highly stylised logos of major banks. I was in danger of drowning in pure wank. I was getting sunburned at an event called, I can barely write this now, HedgeStock.

I did my job manning our stand. When 5pm rolled on I broke out the beers and got ready to watch The Who with my fortunately very cool colleagues. They played a brilliant, brilliant set that lasted well over two hours. It was loud, tight, we were pissed and right at the front, really getting into it and just loving watching an incredible band at a beautiful venue outside on a summer's evening. You can't beat it. Yet, when I turned around to take in the atmosphere, I was bought thudding back to earth. Here was a crowd of about a thousand people, with maybe twenty of us singing along and dancing like loons at the front. Everyone else, to a man, was either on the phone or emailing on their Blackberries. I saw one chap in a polo shirt and pressed chinos with a sunhat (bank logo'ed, of course) with his arms folded and a severe expression on his face, just standing there - during Baba O'Reilly!

Roger Daltrey summed it up perfectly about three songs in. Clearly underwhelmed by what must have been the worst crowd he has ever played in front of in his entire career - a crowd so bad it made the Jazz Oddessey audience look like whizzed up moshpit nutters - he shook his head sadly and said into the microphone in a bemused voice, "Who the fuck are you?"
(Fri 5th Jun 2009, 14:57, More)

» Sporting Woe

Too lazy to come up with a new story, appropriately enough
I haven't been on a sports field since, so this roasted pea from my childhood days will have to serve.

Deep in darkest Somerset, a yellow-eyed headmaster peered through his tobacco-stained windows and noticed that, for the first time in three hundred and eleventy years, it wasn't raining. His brow furrowed atop his wrinkled head as he picked up the phone, dialed an extension, and breathed a single word into the receiver. A word which would change history, alter destinies, and cause more death than he could ever have imagined.

"Aerobics."

Plans were put in motion. A matter of hours later the entire school, all one thousand pupils, teachers, assistants, administrative staff and the creepy old goblin who ran the tuck-shop gathered on the largest playing field and stood facing two scaffolding towers topped with an enormous PA system. A crude stage sat between them, assembled from wooden planks, gym mats and old benches. Some of us nervously joked that we were about to witness a public execution. Hah! Today was not to be the end of just one victim. Instead of a hooded hangman there, stood on the stage, was Miss O'Leary, school Head of PE.

Miss O'Leary was, naturally, a raging lesbian with a red-cheeked love of physical excercise that made a Hitler Youth leader look like, well, a typical B3tan. Looking back, she resembled God's first, rejected attempt at creating Ellen MacArthur (who was fresh from completing the first solo circumnavigation of her mum's womb at the time.)

With a nod from proto-Ellen, Mr Armstrong (the music teacher) handed her a microphone and pulled a huge lever. Giant speaker stacks sizzled and hummed and her voice, electrically enhanced, roared at us:

"Just copy me!"

Kylie began singing The Locomotion. Miss O'Leary begain doing star jumps and slowly the rest of us began jumping too. There we were, over a thousand of us, bouncing away in an ungainly parody of communist state mass public excercise. It beat double maths, anyway.

The occasional laugh and shreik came to our ears over the deafening chart pop. Strangely the laughs grew louder and more frequent, despite the excercise. I could see ranks breaking as I looked around me. Something wasn't right, I could feel it, but what could I do? I could see no escape, nor any obvious sign of danger. My sense of unease grew.

Then, with a mighty, wet SMACK, the first worm hit me in the face. Lured to the surface by the rhythmic pounding of two thousand pairs of feet, earthworms covered the ground. The mud and grass was barely visible, we were star jumping (this is the only move I know) on top of a writhing carpet of slimy, brown worms. Pandora's box had opened. Hell's gates were breached, and battle was joined.

Raising my head as if recovering from shell shock I looked up to a sky filled with countless flying annelids. There was no laughter anymore, only terrified, disgusted female screams. Children running for shelter, diving behind other children, crying, shouting, desperately flinging squirming invertebrates to cover their retreat, scrabbling in the mud for more ammunition; it was Guernica with living bullets.

I saw heroism that day, true, but it's the horror that haunts my sleep now.
(Wed 25th Apr 2012, 20:19, More)
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