A pair of anti-terrorism officers watched us check through into the boarding lounge. They stood behind the easyJet woman and took us in as we came through. One was about 30, the other about 40; both hard as nails. The younger did the Speedy Boarders; the other the common herd. What was remarkable about them, apart from their being there at all, was their Zen-like stillness and the slow economy of their eye movements. The check-in desk was a maelstrom of anxiety and pocket fumbling and the easyJet woman was working both queues like an acrobat. And there, just beyond, were these two very still individuals who appeared to be more in tune with the spirit world rather than with the information being relayed from their own eyes and ears. As I passed by them, my person, I felt, was being scrutinised chiefly on an extra-sensory level. There was nothing airy-fairy about these gentlemen’s faces, however, which stated clearly that their mediumistic gifts could be backed up at short notice by a supplementary propensity for state-sanctioned violence.
Almost as remarkable to my mind was the cut and quality of their plain clothes, footwear and hair. These were no low-paid state functionaries. Seen from behind, the width of their upper backs, outlined by the superfine cashmere wool, told of a professional level of fitness, athleticism and strength. These days, the various kinds of security officers one notices everywhere seem to be either fat or elderly. Capably fit, well-paid, highly intelligent, highly motivated-looking anti-terrorism officers like these were a bit of a shock, though a reassuring one. ‘What is strength,’ asked Milton, ‘without a double share of wisdom?’
But was I perhaps getting carried away by this intuitive face reading? Was it in fact a prelude to insanity? I had to ask the question because the man in the aisle seat one row in front, other side, about 60 years of age, brutal haircut, bullet head, white laughter lines in a tanned face, was to my mind without doubt an old-school London gangster. I knew it simply by looking at the face and instantly recognising that humorous, gentlemanly, renegade air. But in this case the association wasn’t intuitive, it was genetic. I’ve known them. I’ve worked with them. I’ve lived with them. I’ve loved them. And I know their style. And if this wasn’t one, I’d have been very surprised.
The French air traffic controllers were on strike again, but only some of them, and only for a few hours.
So although we were boarded and the aeroplane doors were closed, we wouldn’t be taking off for at least an hour and a half. We heard this from the captain’s mouth. Speaking into a hand-held microphone, he stood before us (next to the toilet) so that we could see for ourselves how transparent he was, and how nakedly sincere was his apology, and when he’d finished apologising we showed our appreciation for his levelling with us in person with a smatter of applause. Meanwhile, he said, his cockpit door would remain open and if anybody wanted to venture forward for a chat or a glance over the controls they would be made most welcome.
The gangster had the row of three seats all to himself — the only person on the plane to have that luxury — and he was therefore able to open his Daily Telegraph to it’s full extent. He read it in about 15 minutes. Then he stood up and went forward to the cockpit, where he had a long chat with the captain, perhaps as one type of aristocrat of labour to another. Later, when we were in the air and the drinks trolley came round, he ordered a half bottle of champagne and drank it modestly, as though it were a staple.
At Nice airport, the passport control officer had an anti-terrorism officer watching closely over his shoulder. This one was impressive also. He was a tall, gangling, 40-year-old skinhead with pale grey irises on bulging eyeballs. They bulged so far out of their sockets you could see almost all of them. Perhaps it was a medical condition. He was too tall to stand upright in the passport booth and there was no seat so he clung on to the ceiling with one hand and sort of hung there like a furious lemur. Twice I tried to look him in the eye and twice I recoiled immediately.
Then I was out through the sliding doors like a game-show contestant: one of the first to emerge among the meeters and greeters. A black-suited chauffeur stepped forward to intercept me. Monumental shoulders, a four-inch scar from the corner of his mouth to his ear. ‘Excuse me, but are you off the Bristol flight?’ he said in a hoarse cockney voice. ‘He’s right behind me,’ I said.