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ETCETERA / Home Thoughts

I AM writing this on an aeroplane, South African Airways flight 239, London to Johannesburg - and it's like spending the night in a giant ashtray 36,000 feet up in the sky. We are actually sitting in a no-smoking section, but a few feet behind us a multitude of smokers are all puffing away.

About six inches in front of us is a large screen which has been showing endless reruns of 'America's Favourite Home Videos', followed by a very long, peculiarly boring film entitled White Fang 2. I have finally persuaded Jamie to stop watching the videos of smiling dogs and fat men falling off waterskis. ('Persuaded' is perhaps the wrong word: to be honest, at 11pm I told him that if he didn't close his eyes and go to sleep immediately, we were going straight home to London. Being five years old, he believed me and obeyed.) Tom, meanwhile, has dozed intermittently since Heathrow, but he retains an uncanny ability to wake up the second I drift off to sleep. If I clamp him to my nipple and put my T-shirt over his head, I can just about distract him from White Fang 2 - but then the woman across the aisle starts tutting about me breast-feeding in public. I feel like telling her that I'm not wild about her, either: 5in red stilettos and painted-on eyebrows don't look so good on a leathery 75-year-old Afrikaner. But I decide on a non-confrontational Zen Buddhist approach; I flick through the SAA brochure, which tells me that the airline provides a curtained seat for breast-feeding mothers. I like the sound of the curtained seat: no more White Fang] So I ask the steward if I can sit on it, and he says no, unfortunately it is not provided on this flight, but I could sit in the kitchen instead. I am not so keen on that idea: staring at dozens of unfinished portions of chicken breast with linguini might be even worse than White Fang.

Now I'm obsessed with the idea of all those unfilled seats in First Class.

Why can't I go and sit there? I had, in fact, entertained hopes of being miraculously upgraded when we checked in: my mother always seems to manage it, so why not me? When I suggested this to the man at the check-in desk, he took one look at the children, raised his eyebrows and said: 'We never upgrade children. You can't put them in with the businessmen.'

This is why we're in the children's ghetto: two rows at the front of economy class, squashed together so that if one baby starts crying, the others instantly wake up. It's like hell, really: a smokey inner circle of hell filled with exhausted whining children, their grumpy parents, and the even grumpier non-parents who have paid hundreds of pounds for this flight and are still, still stuck next to us.

There is, however, one good thing. The beauty queens. I was wondering why the plane was full of young women who kept disappearing into the lavatories to touch up their already immaculate make-up - and then, just as Jamie was threatening to wet his knickers if he wasn't allowed in, one of the girls emerged wearing a Miss Commonwealth sash. Yes] I'm on a plane with the Miss World contestants] That makes it all tremendously worthwhile.-