I've been wondering about this since last week, when I took the longest commercial flight currently available to human beings, and went First Class. It was a curious mixture of opulence and wildness, sybaritism and panic, claustrophobia and its stay-at-home sister ... It was, in short, London to Sydney with stop-overs in Vienna and Singapore. Twenty-two hours in the air plus hanging round airport lounges, plus late starts, plus the eight- or nine-hour zonal adjustments which mean that, somewhere above the Iranian steppes, you lose the last vestiges of Greenwich Mean Time.
I was flying in the Amadeus Lounge of Lauda Air, a posh division of Lufthansa owned by the retired Austrian racing driver, Niki Lauda. Being only one vowel away from flying with Lada Air, I experienced a few worries (22 hours in an airborne skip?) but prejudice melted away once I was cocooned in the world's most luxurious flying lounge. The seats are enormous thrones whose arm-rests conceal little television sets. They have flat screens and extendable arms and hover before your eyes like the visions of kingship in Macbeth. They showed Wallace and Gromit in A Close Shave, old black- and-white movies with Burt Lancaster and Frank Sinatra and the genteel hookers in From Here to Eternity, and modern stuff like The Saint. Your in-flight survival pack features, thoughtfully, an in-flight condom. The food is, for an airline, exceptional. Inside an opera programme the approximate size of a duvet cover, several menus promise, inter alia, a lunch that's eight courses long and written in Joycean portmanteau words ("Babyturbot on dijon-mustard sauce with fresh thyme & tomato cubes, broccoli, rice", "Fillet of beef in peppercoat gooselivercroquettes, haricots verts"). Stewardesses in tight denims and cheeky little red caps pour out unfeasible amounts of Kremser Rheinriesling '95. They're always beside you, cooing in your ear, offering you one more plate of exotische Fruchte ...
Then you look out of the window as the plane crosses over the Great Sandy Desert. What should, by rights, be the featureless wastes of the outback are full of unearthly, phantasmagoric life. The landscape beneath you is phenomenally, weirdly, excitingly whorled and striated with what seem to be vast fingerprints. Gigantic fractal blooms extend across your vision. Storm-blasted sand ridges and their shadows resolve before your eyes into huge cartoon faces. Mountain ranges stick up like vertebrae across the flesh-coloured plain. It is too much for the mind to comprehend and you look away. You close your eyes and have a little snooze, as the cabin staff come by, offering more Riesling, more bread, more passion-fruit sorbet. Five minutes later, you sneak another look down below, and it's all changed. It's now a black and blue mass of gnarly rock, segmented and glutinous like a colossal brain, like the mind of God, flattened and spread out for hundreds of miles. It's an overwhelming sight. The supper trolley comes by. Would you like the cannelloni or the yellow chicken curry? You can't eat any more (it's 3am, or possibly 7pm) but you do anyway, feeling like a Strasbourg goose. On your little television set, Burt and Deborah Kerr are snogging in the surf. You sneak another look out of the window. The steam-rollered brain has gone, and in its place a great orange tarpaulin has been thrown over a million miles of humps, hills and machinery. Feeling queasy, you settle into your extending seat, eye-patched, socked and somnolent. And between the lunar weirdness of the outside, and the pampered weirdness of the inside, your dreams come like monsters, full of mountain ranges of goose-liver croquettes, a desert plain with the face of Gromit the dog, a fear that you'll fall out of the first-class lounge into massive strato-cumuli of boiling towels, the Star Ride from 2001: A Space Odyssey accompanied by an indefatigably smiling Austrian blonde in a red racing cap ...
I woke up sweating, convinced that I'd had an insight into how they'd felt, the ancient travellers. Dehumanised by luxury, pampered almost to death, given every possible thing to distract me from the journey, I'd still been traumatised by the grandeur of the great unknown. The late 20th century and the timeless outback wrestled for mastery inside me, and the outback won. I sat, strapped in, dyspeptic and cross, the image of the modern traveller - but silent, upon a peak in Darien.
Shaggy and Spotty are not, as you might imagine them to be, a pair of hip-hop exponents living in Bristol. They are two dogs of strikingly unprepossessing appearance and a fondness for funfairs, and they're the latest creation (published in November) to come from the magic pen of Ted Hughes, the poet laureate. Possibly because of Mr Hughes's tragic past (the suicide of his wife, Sylvia Plath), possibly due to his thunderous brow and saturnine demeanour, possibly because of the barking peculiarity of his studies of Shakespeare and folklore, but mostly because of the feral nature of his adult subject matter, there's always been something a little sinister about Hughes's writings for kids, as if anything he creates, however innocent or cuddlesome it seems, might turn at any moment into a carrion crow, a slavering predator or a dead pig.
Shaggy and Spotty aren't like that, however. They are not out to sink their fangs into anyone, to rip out organs or gouge out eyes. They are merely little doggies who like going on carousels ... or are they? Only someone blind to the subtleties of Hughes's dark internal landscape could ignore the fact that this supposedly harmless work is stuffed with references to drugs, homosexuality, satyriasis and death.
The first thing they hear at the funfair is "The booming voice: `Roll up, roll up!' and the music, the music, the music". Beyond this invitation to take hashish while listening to "sounds", what they really want, says Hughes shamelessly, is "a ride" on the "roundabout". We all know Hughes's friend Thom Gunn's poem comparing gay sex to a see-saw ride. But this ... "Faster and faster they go," we're told, "until whoosh, WHOOSH" - Joyce himself would hesitate about such orgasmic frankness. There follows a repetitious theme of flying up in the sky and falling down to earth - a clear invitation to try "uppers" and "downers" - along with references to harder drugs ("the dogs shoot up up up"). As for the four strong men who jerk the dogs into the sky, the less said the better. The dogs end up flying (to comment would surely be otiose), and narrowly miss being shot by the "farmer", a wholly bogus authority figure who instead gives them "a big bone". I confess I ended this farrago of coded salacity full of concern for the state of Mr Hughes's moral health. Pray God it doesn't fall into the hands of impressionable children. Or dogs.
What is to become of Charlie Watts? Look at the photographs of the Rolling Stones under Brooklyn Bridge, launching their newest world tour, and you're looking at a desperate man. That line of Mick Jagger's about rock'n'roll touring being "a perpetual adolescence thing" may be all very well for the others (Ronnie Wood just gets more and more like the "Celeb" cartoon in Private Eye, Jagger trots out his skinny white T-shirts and his schoolboy grin, while Keith Richards, Marlboro permanently clamped to lower lip - well, pretty soon, you'll look up the word "incorrigible" in the Concise Oxford and find a photo of Keith instead of a definition), but Charlie just isn't wearing it well. That hand, snaking uncertainly into the pocket of his double-breasted suit, says it all. He's starting to resemble a diffident politician-turned-statesman, a Clement Attlee in the Lords, a national icon who's desperate to retire but isn't allowed to.
Or am I thinking of another figure, on whose face you see the same look every year, that says: "Yes, this is quite nice, but do I have to do it again and again for ever?" Charlie Watts - the Queen Mum of rock'n'roll.Reuse content