The army patrols at Nice airport go around three abreast, steely-eyed, fingers on the trigger. They walk slowly and scrutinise the passengers carefully, assessing each individual for minute clues to their psychology. They take the incredibly boring job incredibly seriously, or appear to do so, which must be great comfort to those with honourable intentions but a nervous disposition.
Contrast, then, these highly disciplined men with the armed pair I saw recently patrolling the floor of the departures lounge at Bristol airport. One had a comic, fall-guy, laughter-prone face, as characterful and funny to look at as George Formby’s. His boon companion looked like a great fellow to sink a few pints of cooking lager with, then go to a football match. One of them — hard to say which — had made a witticism and they were patrolling lopsidededly, corpsing with laughter. In the soullessness and anxiety of a British departure lounge, their intimacy and unaffected mirth was a kind of innocent rebuke.
I went into W.H. Smith’s ‘The Bookstore’ in the pathetic hope that I might chance on something. Over several visits to ‘The Bookstore’ at Bristol airport I have looked at every title on the shelves, sometimes desperately, and not once carried anything to the till. Call me paranoid, but every book for sale seems to have been selected to advance the cause of multiculturalism, or feminism, or equality, or puerile psychology, or gender ambiguity, or secularism, or a savage sort of capitalism, or all of the above crammed into one package. There were two blocks of shelving seven feet high dedicated to the works of David Walliams. These bore titles like The Boy in the Dress, Billionaire Boy, Gangsta Granny. The token bookshelf of black-spined ‘Classics’ — Dickens, Harper Lee, Dodie Smith, Virginia Woolf, Stella Gibbons, Jane Austen, Truman Capote — was narrow. There was nothing in the True Crime section that I wanted to read but hadn’t read before. I returned in desperation to General Fiction, at least three-quarters of which was by women for women.
Thinking I’d give anything to meet the person in charge of stock selection, out of curiosity, just to have a look at her, I noticed a cool, young, extraordinarily beautiful young Asian woman floating between the shelves, who appeared, perhaps, to be in the same difficulty as I was. She was swiftly and expertly casting a gazelle’s eye along the rows of spines and finding nothing to divert her sufficiently to finger it out and scan the blurb on the back cover. Her interests must have been eclectic because she browsed everything from self-help to David Walliams.
Disgusted, I gave up on General Fiction and had another look at Biography and Autobiography — What Happened by Hillary Clinton; How Not to Be a Boy by Robert Webb; George Michael: The Biography; Freddie Mercury: The Biography. She hove to beside me. I couldn’t restrain myself. ‘What a load of utter crap!’ I ejaculated. ‘And this is supposed to be the intelligent bit of the shop!’
She wasn’t in the least bit discomposed. I think she was a member of the global elite. Her calm, slow, ever-widening smile said that she was more relaxed about all this crap than I was. It said that she hadn’t really expected anything intelligent in a bookshop catering for a mass British audience. Propaganda, control, a dumbing-down and a tidy profit: so many birds killed with one stone, Allah be praised. What better outcome could possibly be imagined? What are you worrying about, it said? Of course it’s all crap! Actually, I wasn’t shopping, it said, I was just checking on the levels here. Oh, I see now, it said. You are joking, of course. You are only pretending to be angry. You British are so funny.
Class, diet, money, education, beauty and brains: my goodness, I thought, there must be a section of the global elite that has absolutely everything, even the good manners of common decency. We went out of the shop together. On the way, we paused at the table display whose titles and red price-reduction stickers are presumably meant to entice people into the shop. Dancing with Cats. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. ‘What about this?’ I scoffed, showing her the cover of The Gods Never Left Us — Erich von Däniken’s most recent appeal to the cannabis-smoking community. Again that composure. Again that slow, broadening smile, the unafraid eyes, the film-star teeth. Maybe Von Däniken is on to something, I thought.
Over her shoulder I saw the machinegun-toting response unit slouch past the shop entrance. George Formby said something to his partner. The latter’s elbows and one knee jerked spastically upwards, and his head shot back, as he convulsed with laughter.