Somewhere over the Atlantic, Heathrow-bound from Detroit, an air stewardess is unfurling a goose-down duvet, flattening my seat fully horizontal into a private nest, and passing me a soft towelling "sleepy-suit" (her words). "Would Madam like to be woken for breakast?" she asks, but we both agree that dinner – salmon, short rib, port, and cheeseboard – was rather rich. There is nothing more infantilising, mollifying or utterly ruining for the human being than first-class air travel.
If you haven't found anyone, as yet, who is pliant and deep-pocketed enough to foot its bill, please don't. Ignorance is bliss. I flew "Upper Class" to San Francisco – in Seat A1 – for the first time in 1997. I have spent every economy flight ever since coal-eyed with incandescence that some bitch on this aircraft is in a capacious leather seat, drinking complimentary Moet, being called Madam, and having her cuticles tamed while I'm stuck in the land of farts and snack-pretzels with people who wedge open the tin foil on their flight meal, inhale the steam, and shout "Glenda! It's snossidges! Snossidges!"
In Britain, first-class air travel is genuinely a first-class life-changing experience, unlike our first-class train travel where one is encouraged to pay £278 to travel from Euston to Preston in a very hot train which smells of effluent, with the occasional perk of a formidable woman from Crewe shouting, "Oooo wants a snackbox?", then throwing a flapjack and a tiny packet of cheese crisps at you. Not first-class at all. But in the air, it's all so very different.
I'm not for one second saying that wanting someone to buy me a return air-ticket that costs more than the deposit on a terraced house in Bradford is reasonable. It makes me little more than a shocking waste of human skin. But one trip behind the velour curtain is all it takes. This is why airport check-in desks are full of well-heeled, sharp-elbowed mummies with economy tickets angling for – nay demanding – free upgrades to First. Behold them flashing their frequent-flyer cards, name-dropping the pilot's granny, and offering any sort of compromise including shoving their first-born in the baggage hold with all the zoo animals and the transplant organs. "He'll be FINE! I mean – how cold can it be down there? And did I mention how much I love Sir Richard?"
The stewardess puts me into beddy-boo-boos for seven hours, with a mindfulness relaxation exercise paying on Bose noise-cancelling headphones. It's one of those exercises where you begin at the little toe, gently demobilising each toe, then one's foot, then the ankle, and so on, focusing on breathing, on existing. It's difficult to be mindful without pulling a face of beatific calm which to the onlooker tends to come across as "smug dickhead", so it's perfect for the expensive end of the plane.
I lie in the foetal position, surrounded by a dozen other first-class adult babies. There's a sense, I find, in mid-air that for the following eight hours none of life's tedious minutiae exist. That gang of merry pedants at the VAT office – whom I always imagine resemble Monty Python's "The Knights Who Say Ni" – have finally tired of sending me their demands. The insurgence of rats in my kitchen extension ceiling have surrendered and moved to Rita Ora's house. My father has decided against medicating his type-2 diabetes with cream buns and is at no risk of ending up an amputee from the knee down.
In economy there's always a desperate urgency to vacate the aircraft on landing – in fact it's de rigueur that one eager twonk must get his suitcase down from the overhead locker somewhere over Geneva. Meanwhile in First, if they wanted to do a quick vacuum under our knees for Lauder macaroon crumbs, then turn the aircraft around, I'd wager that passengers would shrug, remember all those awful children it seemed a good idea to churn out, and say, "Start the engines".
Because for those eight hours in Upper Class, it truly felt like everything was possible. That in-flight magazine they gave you full of stories of billion-dollar entrepreneurial start-ups, age-reducing skin-care regimes, and long-haul juicing bootcamps – well, for a short time, just over the Pyrenees, this seemed like the sort of person I was. Everything stressful that happens in mid-air is soothed by a magical band of boundlessly patient attendants. In fact in the words of The Thick of It's Malcolm Tucker, it's all completely "NMFP" (Not My F****** Problem).
I saunter off the flight at Heathrow in a blissed-out daze feeling like Gwyneth Paltrow after a lot of Hatha yoga. My phone rings just after passport check. "It's the dog," I hear my bloke telling me. "I think it's eaten a sock so it's quite constipated, but I'm thinking we wrap our hands in plastic bags and pull it out when it appears at the other end." I try to run back to the plane but the bastards have locked the doors.Reuse content