Are you green with envy at James Lasdun’s long account of chasing and experiencing the Northern Lights in Norway and Finland in the 29 April 2019 New Yorker? I could certainly have done with the commission –thirty-five years ago. But I have to allow that it was purely by chance that I saw the Aurora Borealis on the 23rd or 24th of June 1984. I might even then have been a bit blasé about my sighting, as I was drinking a glass of champagne at the time, seated in the cockpit of the first-ever Virgin Airlines flight from Newark New Jersey to London Gatwick. I might just have seen this vivid green display on other, perhaps later occasions, just as I am almost sure it was on an early Virgin flight – perhaps this very one – that I spottedmy double (in a queue at Newark, about 5’6” or 5’7”, stocky, with curly blond hair and watery blue eyes). This, however, was definitely the Virgin flight on which I lost my Northern Lights virginity.
The reason I am a little unsure about the date is that I was on the return leg of the inaugural flight from Gatwick, and I don’t remember whether it was a daytime or an overnight flight. The latter seems more likely to have given the flight crew and me a glimpse of this vivid emerald spectacle, though I grant you that Newark does seem an unlikely venue for this show. The pilot and co-pilot had, of course, seen it all before.
I must hasten to say that the champagne was drunk only by me, and none of the crew indulged.
Why was I on the flight-deck? That is the bizarre part of the story.
In 1968-69, I lodged in a huge mansion flat in Hanover Gate Mansions, across the road from London’s Regents’ Park. I was a Harvard Travelling Fellow, with some sort of honorary appointment at University College London, of which I never availed myself. I was writing a book (my Harvard PhD dissertation; but I rapidly got a top publisher’s contract for what became Moore: G.E. Moore & the Cambridge Apostles). The person who invited me to stay there was Myles Burnyeat (my dear friend, who was formerly Prof of Philosophy at Cambridge and Senior Research Fellow of All Souls, and not long ago voted the most influential classical scholar in the world). The day of my arrival at my new temporary home, Myles confided, over a cup of dreadful instant coffee, that, as I was certain soon to discover for myself, he was himself a Cambridge Apostle. He had, indeed, made an appointment for me to meet the semi-official spokesman for the Apostles in the next few days.
This, though, is a distraction. Other residents at Hanover Gate Mansions included Myles’s then-partner, the American academic Nancy Gayer; plus her elder son, Gordon Ivan Fields (b. 1951), who became “the British fashion mogul” Gifi Fields (responsible for the rah-rah skirt, I read); and twin boys (b. 29 Dec. 1952) Robbie (later, owner of Posh Boy Records), and Randy. As the boys were so close in age, their recreations were similar, and I soon got used to the fragrance of marijuana that pervaded the apartment’s soft furnishings. Naturally, the boys were frequently busted for minor infractions to do with smoking spliffs (and it’s not impossible that they, or a friend of theirs, were the chief suppliers to my Aussie art critic pal, the late Robert Hughes, who also lived in our block of flats.)
In any case, they made repeated calls upon the legal services of my also late closest friend, Michael Seifert, who was constantly rescuing one or another of them. It was at this point that Michael got fed up, and said to the boys that they now knew the law on the subject as well as he did, and could perfectly well plead for themselves from then on. That’s how and why Randolph Fields became an eminent barrister, expert on insurance matters, asbestos clearance and other environmental coverage – and a celebrated poker player.
Randolph was also interested in the airline business, and during the Falklands troubles had the idea of opening a commercial route to the Islands, which didn’t work but, to abbreviate a long narrative, got him hooked up with Richard Branson in founding what was then called Virgin Airlines. Randy and Sir Richard had the inevitable dispute, was bought out by Branson for an initial £1m in 1985, and sadly, died in Jersey in 1997, but not before winning several World Poker titles.
We kept in touch: the Fields boys’ mother, Nancy was at our 1977 wedding party, and so, perhaps, were some of them. In 1984, having lapsed from academia, I was the Food & Wine editor of The Observer newspaper, during its golden age. Except that I was returning to the UK on that flight, I’m afraid I cannot remember any of the circumstances (although it was probably something to do with the US publication of The Official Foodie Handbook later that year). But it was at the invitation of the then co-owner of Virgin Airlines that I was drinking fizz that night on the flight-deck, and saw the jolly green giant lights. Though champagne may well have been against the rules, there was definitely no spliff involved in the apparition of the verdant forms trailing scarlet, which looked like vast brushstrokes of a Howard Hodgkin painting.