I suppose that when you travel as much as I once did—and by “much” I mean up to 200 days a year, which almost brings me up to Saint Lucia’s ministerial level—you are bound sooner or later to have someone famous, or infamous, sit next to you for the duration of the flight. Commuting as often as I did between Europe and the US (and being absolutely nuts about air travel), I took the Concorde from Heathrow to JFK and back about once a month for more than two years. Strangely enough, I encountered someone famous on only one occasion during that period.
It was on the return leg. I had left the Boston area early that morning by private jet just in time to catch the 10am flight to London that arrived in the late afternoon. My seatmate was immaculately dressed for business and seemed quite agitated. I was in 1B, as always, and he occupied 1A. Unusually, he was quite chatty (people tend to keep themselves to themselves on these flights) and he told me all about his flight “going technical” on him, which was why he was taking Concorde. I commiserated with him, poor devil, having to fly supersonic when he could have flown in luxury in his government jet.
I had to stay in London for a couple of days on business, which coincided with his stay and we met a couple of times for dinner even though we were staying at different hotels. Unfortunately, although he was to be joined by his wife later in the week, he had quite a different agenda for our “friendship” and I had to cut him off, which made him quite angry. I guess I had been naïve. Gays were still “queers” in the days before enlightenment.
Travelling first class on regular flights was quite a different matter. I remember one particular TWA flight from Boston into Heathrow, again a day flight, but subsonic, that was delayed for quite some time at the gate before departure. The captain was becoming pretty irritated and the one remaining passenger was clearly getting on his nerves. When she finally appeared, looking absolutely gorgeous, she plonked herself down next to me before grabbing my hand and wrist. “Hold me,” she panted, “I’m terrified of flying.” I graciously acquiesced and she clung on to me for most of the flight. The cabin crew was so star struck that I felt I had to ask my new found close companion, “Excuse me, but am I supposed to know you?” She cracked up and howled with laughter. It turned out she was the star of a TV series called Dynasty—which I had never heard of—and she was on her way to Paris to be fitted for wigs for an upcoming movie she was going to make. Coincidentally, we were staying at the same hotel in London, the Savoy, so she offered me a ride in the limousine that her studio had provided, and a good time was had by all for the next couple of days.
Then there was the Gatwick to Barbados flight with Mick Jagger by my side. David Bowie was on the same flight. They were on their way to Mustique. I took my small plane down to meet them and ended up donating loads of my books to the small school that they supported on the island. I received a very nice thank you note from a Lady So-and-so, who was clearly Mick’s private secretary or the person in charge of the school, that I still have today.
We chatted the whole flight, something I never did otherwise, but he was so different from the public persona, the image he presented. His father was a teacher of history, I remember, and the whole singing business was supposed to last just a year or two. He seemed fascinated to learn that I made a good living, to say the least, from writing textbooks.
For ninety-nine point nine percent of the time these chance encounters remained just that, but occasionally, just now and then, they became something more. I recall a memorable flight from Paris to Buenos Aires via Rio de Janeiro on Air France. The first class cabin was sparsely populated, just five Arab gentlemen and me. My guy was clearly the leader. They were from one of the Gulf States and they were on their way to do business in South America. The Sheik was chatty and friendly and kept feeding me figs with his fingers as we talked.
Believe it or not, it turned out that he had learned English using my books and could still, years later, quote from the texts in the books. By the end of the flight we had become firm friends and I found that I had promised to visit him in his country as soon as possible on my return to Europe and hold courses and workshops for his teachers. The collaboration that started at the beginning of the eighties lasted for many years until he passed.
Looking back at my career, I realize that perhaps the most momentous events have not been the most successful campaigns or the millions in sales but instead it was the quiet moments, the passing encounters that made all the difference.