Living the High Life, Seventies style

The man who pays his way

Forty years ago this week, passengers on British European Airways (BEA) perusing the seat pocket in front of them found a novel addition. Alongside the emergency instruction card and sick bag was the first edition of High Life. The mission of this pioneering inflight magazine was spelled out by the founding editor, William Davis, opposite a full-page ad for Benson and Hedges Special Filter:

"We hope to entertain you, give you some useful ideas, and provide information .... In short, to help you follow Jonathan Swift's advice to 'live all the days of your life'." That looks uncannily similar to the mission of The Traveller.

Unlike many British travel innovations from that era, such as cross-Channel hovercraft, Motorail and Concorde, High Life has thrived over the decades. BEA was already part of the same consortium as BOAC, and would soon rebrand as British Airways. And High Life is still to be found (alongside the sick bag and emergency instructions) in the seat pockets of nearly 900 BA flights today. For its 40th birthday, the editor, Kerry Smith, assembled a travel think tank to forecast how the world will look 40 years from now. But what was the state of travel 40 years ago? The first edition of High Life from April 1973 provides a splendid time capsule.

Aviation was a more innocent world, as you would imagine, with no intensive immigration checks – which enabled BOAC to boast: "No other European airline can get you from seat to street in only 15 minutes at New York." Yet the mag reveals a British obsession with alcohol.

"I haven't yet worked out how much duty-free liquor we're allowed to bring in now that we're in the Common Market," reads one article, "but it's probably as much as you will be able to carry without breaking your arm." The first recipe in the cocktail column is for a "corpse reviver" (brandy, vermouth and Calvados).

A story headlined "The Night We Went to Epernay by Way of Tours-sur-Marne" was written by the late, great Alan Coren, who is described in the byline as a "Rolling English drunkard". His story ends: "The dawn is doing great things now. The birds are crazed. The sun is poised to warm the grape-buds out there beyond the ruins. There must be a hundred million bottles of the stuff in the immediate vicinity. I may stay here forever. If I can find my other shoe."

King-size cigarettes, Jumbo-size fares

Smoking was encouraged just as much as drinking. Judging from the number of full-page ads for cigarettes, High Life was profitable right from the off. Was this sort of message really allowed? "The simple things are important in the life of the American cowboy. Fresh country air and a good horse. The smell of breakfast steaks on an open fire. And time to enjoy the rich full flavor of a Marlboro cigarette."

You didn't merely read about cigarettes and drink – the bar tariff reveals you could buy them, too. A pack of 20 Players No 6 King Size Filters cost 15p. (For comparison, an equivalent pack today costs £7 or more.) You no longer have to pay 10p for "Vermouths Sweet and Dry" as drinks on BA flights are free, at least for the time being. Perhaps we will return to the days when you must pay for "Minerals and Cola" on domestic flights; if so, I bet they will cost more than 5p.

While the price of almost everything has soared since 1973, air travel has not. The airline has a fare of £69 return between London and Stockholm, but only "if you are prepared to make a firm booking at least two months before you set off and don't plan on staying for fewer than 10 days or more than two months".

You can pick up a Ryanair flight next month with no trouble for £44 return (though the cost will rise steeply if you want to check in luggage or order "Minerals or Cola" on board). To emphasise how the world has changed: at the minimum agricultural wage in 1973, it would have taken almost seven weeks to earn enough for a trip to Sweden and back; today, at the national minimum wage, you would earn the fare for that Ryanair flight in seven hours.

Hitting rock bottom

The relentless march of progress is evident. High Life announces the first flights to Los Angeles that did not stop en route in New York ("taking the short cut over the North Pole"). It also reveals that "BEA has become the first airline in Europe to produce tickets by a purpose-built, computer-controlled ticket printer", while London's newest luxury hotel, the Elizabetta on Cromwell Road, promises the chance to "dial New York direct from your room" (though without revealing how much that might cost).

Geopolitics were easier then: the magazine reports: "BEA begins a Cyprus service from Manchester to Nicosia on April 7th and all of the choicest resorts – Famagusta, Kyrenia, Salamis, Limassol – are featured in the Sovereign Holidays lists." The following year Nicosia airport closed after the Turkish invasion, and the first three of those "choicest resorts" are now in the self-styled Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, with no direct links from the UK.

Gender equality was a long way off. One ad talks only about "businessmen going to the States", while another article is introduced: "High Life sent Carol Wright to the bottom-pincher's paradise, Istanbul." Somehow, in the same edition, the magazine also sold a half-page advertisement to the Turkish tourist board.

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