With all due apologies to Greta Thunberg and her righteous minions, the thing I’m missing most during these dystopian times is travel – in particular, travel by air. I find myself staring up at the eerily silent skies above our Spanish home, longing for the return of vapour trails scratched out by distant aeroplanes, like small gleaming arrowheads, hurtling toward myriad destinations. Raised in the 1960’s and 70’s, I am an unreformed creature of my era and my conditioning, brought up to regard jet travel as the ultimate expression of independence and the gateway to adventure. And deprived of it now I feel caged in and frustrated, to the point where I find myself craving the most mundane of things, like the regular noise of the jet engines approaching and leaving our nearby airport, and even the smell of aviation fuel at the airport itself.
One of my most vivid childhood memories, is from my second ever flight in July of 1967 to Tel Aviv, on arriving at Lod Airport (as it was then – since renamed Ben Gurion) late at night. There were no airbridges in those days at Lod, and I can never forget, as we walked down the stairs, onto the floodlit apron, being instantly engulfed in a blanket of humid, oven-hot air, laced with the scent of kerosene. These intense sensations – startlingly alien to a little boy from north London suburbia – had a deeply intoxicating effect that lives with me to this day.
However, attitudes and perceptions have greatly altered in recent years, and what I still look back on as a happy memory that shaped my future, would, in these apparently more enlightened times, be considered by some as a scarring and damaging episode, which condemned me to life as an environmental criminal.
Nevertheless, during the 80’s and 90’s, when my painting career was in full swing, flying opened up an almost infinite canvas for my colour-hungry brushes, as expressed below in eight examples from those exuberant and innocent times. And so I would hope, even the most virtuous of those reading this piece, would at least own that some good came out of what they might otherwise regard as merely evidence of my multiple re-offending…
Regular readers of these pages will know that my wife Dido’s first career was as a professional ballerina, mostly, as a member of the touring arm of the London’s Royal Ballet; The Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet (since renamed and relocated as the Birmingham Royal Ballet). Being the premier national touring company, the main remit of the Sadler’s Wells was to bring top-class classical ballet to all corners of the British Isles, otherwise starved of such elite spectacle. However, during foreign tours (which occurred about every two years), the company had the additional role of being artistic, cultural ambassadors for the United Kingdom. More often than not, when meeting the great and the good of other nations, this responsibility could seem like a perk, but on occasion, it was more of a burden, when the handshakes and smiles were purely diplomatic.
Perhaps the starkest (not to mention most surreal) example of the latter occurrence in Dido’s Sadler’s Wells career happened during the 1980 tour of the Far East (to South Korea, Malaysia, The Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Hong Kong), during the company’s visit to The Philippines when they were hosted by the infamous Ferdinand Marcos, and – most especially – by his wife Imelda.
The self-proclaimed ex-diva and lover of the arts took a personal interest in the visit of the company, setting up their performances at her newly built Cultural Centre (part of the complex built for the visit of Pope John Paul to Manilla the previous year). She also attended all of their shows (including two matinees, they typically performed 7 times a week), and lavished the company with ostentatious hospitality. This included the dubious privilege, following the company’s final performance in The Philippines, of being invited to the Malacañang Palace for a banquet being held to honour another well-known visitor to Manilla, David Rockefeller.
The main banquet, with a full-service supper was held in the Heroes’ Hall, after which Imelda took the company upstairs, where she had laid on a disco, and more food – an enormous buffet – before the highlight of the evening, a tour of her shoe collection.
The first lady’s parting gesture, was to give every member of the company (over 60 dancers, management and crew all-told) goody bags, stuffed with an eclectic selection of gifts. While the audio-cassette of Imelda singing her “greatest hits” was merely an acquired taste, the set of teak salad bowls and servers were actually tasteful and useful (we use Dido’s to this day); but things like shell-decorated flowerpots (with accompanying plant), mahogany and shell-decorated light shades, were not only garish, but constituted a serious logistical problem for the already overladen company.
Ultimately, it was as much as people could manage, to schlep the unwanted extra luggage to the company’s next port of call, Singapore, where they were staying at the Mandarin Hotel. Thus, at the end of their stay there, rather than lug the goody bags to Thailand and beyond, all 63 company members left the pot covers and light shades in their rooms.
Two years later, the Sadler’s Wells returned to Singapore, and the Mandarin Hotel, where they were housed on the same two floors as on the earlier visit. To their collective astonishment, they found that all the rooms had been redecorated, and refurbished with Imelda’s light shades and flower pots! Who knew that the queen of shoes was also a pioneer of high-end upcycling – albeit, unwittingly – and as for her “greatest hits” cassettes, nobody knows what happened to them?