Recent extinctions: a found poem

The Saudi gazelle,

the Japanese sea lion,

the Caribbean monk seal,

the Christmas Island pipstrelle,

the Bramble Cay melomys,

the vaquita porpoise,

the Alagoas foliage-gleaner,

the cryptic treehunter,

Spix’s macaw,

the po’ouli,

the northern white rhino,

the mountain tapir,

the Haitian solenodon,

the giant otter,

Attwater’s prairie chicken,

the Spanish lynx,

the Persian fallow deer,

the Japanese crested ibis,

the Arabian oryx,

the snub-nosed monkey,

the Ceylon elephant,

the indris,

Zanzibar’s red colobus,

the mountain gorilla,

the white-throated wallaby,

the walia ibex,

the aye-aye,

the vicuna,

the giant panda,

the monkey-eating eagle,

an estimated two hundred more species of mammals, seven hundred species of birds, four hundred species of reptiles, six hundred species of amphibians, and four thousand species of plants.

From The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley.

Visiting Tequila, the heart of Mexico

Tequila, the home of the sacred drink and Mariachi, is the heart of Mexico, Perla, our daughter-in-law, assures us. She is rightly proud of Mexico, its beauty, culture, food, drink, and music, and even prouder of Jalisco, her home state which includes Tequila.

You can take the Jose Cuervo Express, one of the few remaining passenger trains in Mexico, from Guadalajara to Tequila. Perla and our two sons, James and Freddie, took it a few years ago. It leaves early in the morning and takes around 90 minutes. They serve tequila on the train, and for the only time in her life Perla drank tequila for breakfast. The three of them drank tequila all day as they toured the distillery and the town—and insist they didn’t have hangovers.

Don José Antonio de Cuervo was granted land in Tequila by King Ferdinand VI of Spain in 1758. He founded the Taberna de Cuervo, the farm where he grew blue agave, the main ingredient of tequila. Today the Jose Cuervo company produces a fifth of the world’s tequila.

We drove from Guadalajara, and a fine drive it was. The country became steadily more rural and mountainous. Always in Mexico we seem to have long views of mountains running away into the distance. From soon outside the city, we began to see the fields of agave. It has a characteristic green, close to the green of olive trees but paler and bluer. The spiky plants are perhaps five feet high when fully grown, but the part of the plant that matters is the central piña. The plants take 8-14 years to mature, and the piña weighs 40-80 kg. We were told later in the distillery it may weigh as much as 250 kg.

The fields of agave were mixed with fields of other crops and with rich tropical growth and the dry . They ran up the sides of mountains and fill canyons. The effect was beautiful, but what was most striking was how every scrap of spare land, some inches from the edge of the road and some on near-vertical slopes, was being used to grow agave. We knew that demand for agave—mainly for tequila but also for syrup and other products—has grown hugely, causing a shortage. The price, we learnt later in the distillery, is now 38 pesos per kilo, making a 50 kilo piña worth 1900 pesos, a goodly sum for a Mexican farmer. The rising price has prompted famers to plant wherever they can, but it’s a risky investment: in the 10 years it can take for the agave to mature the price might plummet. It has been as low as 1 peso per kilo.

We could see Tequila perhaps 1500 feet below us as we approached the town. The town was crowded, but we gathered in the square with the large church that is the main feature of every square at the heart of Mexican towns and a smaller church opposite. James went to book a tour in English of the Jose Cuervo distillery, while Chicken toured the shops and stalls and I looked in the Capilla del Antiguo Hospital de Indios. The chapel was built in the 16th century by Franciscan monks and served as a hospital to the native Indians, many of whom must have been ravaged by smallpox and other diseases brought by the Conquistadores. Many old towns have such hospitals. I was the only one in the quiet chapel, and I didn’t find it hard to imagine the sick Indians on cots down either side of the narrow chapel. The most beautiful things in the church now are the tiles depicting the Stations of the Cross. I tried to photograph them but failed.

The distillery is old and cool inside. It was crowded, and we joined a tour of some 20 people, mostly gringos. The leaves are chopped away from the piñas, and we saw the stripped pinas piled high before being cooked in iron vats. We could smell the sweetness in the air as we crossed the streams of juice produced from the crushed, cooked agave. We saw the huge vats where the juice is fermented to produce cloudy tequila, which is then twice distilled to produce clear, white tequila. Some of the white tequila is stored in oak barrels to produce the amber reposado. There are many other varieties of tequila, but I couldn’t keep up with more than two.

After the tour we were given chunks of cooked agave to chew to taste the sweetness and glasses of white tequila. The distillery is old and charming. I was reminded of the whisky distilleries of Islay and Springbank. All have more the air of monasteries than factories of a potentially lethal fluid, and most of Jose Cuervo’s tequila is produced in factories elsewhere. At the end of the tour, we saw in a huge cage the raven that is the logo of Jose Cuervo.

After the tour we went to a cantina recommended by a friend of James and Perla who is a member of one of the great tequila families. Supposedly Bill Clinton had visited. It was a wild looking place that was run down even by Mexican standards. I’d have been much too scared to enter without the recommendation and James speaking fluent Spanish, but the bar tender was friendly and the service good. A very drunk man at the bar (this was about 5pm) had to helped to the toilet by a friend. The bar tender knew nothing about Bill Clinton having visited the bar.

As we drove home the sun set. I was very taken by Tequila and its surrounding mountains and agave fields, which together with the drink constitute a World Heritage Site.

Mariachi and Ranchero bands and Charles Ives’s music in Tlaquepaque

This afternoon we went to Tlaquepaque (pronounced something like plakkyplak) and found ourselves in Charles Ives’s music as two Mariachi bands and one Ranchero band played around us.

Tlaquepaque, close to Guadalajara, might be called a pleasure area, filled with bars, restaurants, shops, and squares. There are also beautiful Spanish Baroque churches, but the extraordinary part of the area is the multiple bars that surround a high bandstand, where Mariachi bands perform. The bands also roam around the bandstand, leading to us being able to hear three bands at one.

There is a roofed area circling the bandstand, but the area immediately around the bandstand is not roofed. It is, however, mostly covered by canvas. The bandstand, which must be at least eight feet high, is roofed. The unroofed circle is perhaps 40 yards across, and the roofed rim some 15 yards across. There are gardens and trees in the unroofed circle with channels running through them to the free area around the bandstand.

Perhaps six different bars surround the bandstand, and both the roofed and unroofed areas are filled with tables and chairs with an area around the bandstand left free for dancing.

When we arrived a 12-piece Mariachi band dressed in black with silver buckles and with three trumpeters was playing on the bandstand. They were magnificent. Soon after we arrived a woman in a dramatic Mexican dress and with a gardenia in her hair joined the band and sang powerfully and beautifully. All her songs were of heartbreak. She and the band rotated so that everybody could see them full on.

We found a table and ordered beers, tequila cocktails served in a large bowls, guacamole “with all the trimmings,” and nachos and cheese. As I Iooked around I saw the extensive decorations, lanterns, pinatas, ribbons, and lights. But the effect was harmonious. I was reminded of the Renoir painting of crowds in Paris.

After about six numbers the singer and band left the stage, some of the elderly musicians taking the steps very slowly. After a short while a Mariachi band all in white and also with three trumpeters started up about 30 yards from us. A little while later the band who had been on the stage began playing about 10 yards the other way. We could hear both easily.

After one number the black-and-silver band began to tout for business. One of them told us it was 400 Pesos (about £20) a song. A more normal rate is 150 Pesos for three songs. Perla tried to bargain, but the Mariachi sad that there were 12 in the band (there may sometimes be only five). They were also a superior band, and Tlaquepaque is a place you expect to pay more. But we had plenty of music for free as the two bands played for others.

Soon a Ranchero band arrived and began to play for the next table but one. (Ranchero might be roughly described as Mexican country music.) They squeezed double bass, guitars, accordion, and drums passed us to reach the table. The drummer, playing a snare drum with cymbals, set up about six inches from the head of one of the men sat at the table. The band wore decorated, beige uniforms with pink trimmings and sombreros. They played some five songs. James thought that they were probably much cheaper than 400 Pesos a song, and as with all bulk purchases the more songs you buy the cheaper they become.

We left after about 90 minutes, but the music, drinking, and dancing would go long into the night.

Mexico: the lost blogs

I arrived in Mexico two weeks ago with the intention of writing a blog every day. I’ve managed only one, and 90% of that was about anticipating being in Mexico and flying here. The main reason is that I am living my life rather than writing about my life, particularly spending as much time as possible with James, our son, Perla, our daughter-in-law, and our two grandchildren, Alexander and Marina. But a second less obvious reason is that Mexico is almost overwhelming—impressions and experiences, many of which are extraordinary for us, come so fast that I find it intimidating to try and capture them.

We have always felt very close to Alexander, our first grandchild. Lin was around for almost two months when he was born, and he lived with us for nine months in London, as he grew from 3 to 5. We spent hours with him, an energetic, imaginative, lovable, and loving boy. But when we arrived in Mexico we hadn’t seen him for two years, and interactions on WhatsApp were fleeting. Perhaps, we thought, he might have forgotten us, or—and this day is likely to come as he grows older—we simply might not matter in his life. But he was engaging from the first moment we met him, and as we drove to his home he chattered away about all sorts of subjects. Fluent in Spanish and English, he teaches us Spanish words and sometimes translates for us when we are out in restaurants or shops. It’s as if those two lost years have never been, despite his life increasing by more than a quarter.

Marina was a baby when we last saw her. She’s engaging on WhatsApp, laughing with her surprisingly loud and deep laugh and kissing the screen, but we must be distant, unfamiliar figures on the screen. We must be much less real to her than Pepper Pig. She is two-and-a half, and as she works at simultaneously learning Spanish and English her speaking is not clear. She’s also very much in a “mummy phase,” wanting her mother first all the time. But when she has slept and eaten well, she plays games with us and slowly comes to be familiar with us. Each day we become less strange, and perhaps soon we’ll be as familiar as Peppa Pig. It’s an advantage that we have a similar accent to the wondrous pig and her family, and I have worn my Grandpa Pig tee-shirt.

In future blogs I will attempt—with help from books—to capture the spirit of Mexico, which I know cannot be caught.

Mexico, according to Cormac McCarthy: “Even Cervantes could not envision such a country as Mexico”

Mexico fascinates me. I like to be here, not just to see our family but also to walk through the old streets and squares filled with gardens, trees, fountains, and statues, to marvel at the cathedrals and churches, to watch the huge range of people, to look over the vast spaces and distant mountains, to hear the music that is everywhere, and to enjoy the food.

But I struggle to describe the place and need help. I have found help in Cormac McCarthy’s  All the Pretty Horses, https://richardswsmith.wordpress.com/2021/12/24/a-strong-contender-for-the-great-american-novel/ which is set largely in Mexico in the 1940s and Fire and Blood: A History of Mexico by T R Fehrenbach, a well-written, engaging book that tells the story of Mexico from the most ancient of times until close to the present. I’ve been reading the history ever since I have been visiting James, our son, in Mexico, but I have read it only when in Mexico—so progress has been slow. I’ve made good progress on this trip and become fascinated by the highly complex history leading up to and following independence from Spain. I plan to finish the book back in London. I’ve taken many quotes from the book, which I will share.

But for now, in my inevitably vain attempt to understand and even describe Mexico I want to share simply the quotes I took from All the Pretty Horses.

I am not a society person. The societies to which I have been exposed seemed to me largely machines for the suppression of women. Society is very important in Mexico. Where women do not even have the vote. In Mexico they are mad for society and for politics and very bad at both.

Esquina de la Calle del Deseo y el Callejón del Pensador Mexicano. There was no mother to cry. As for the Street of Desire it is like the Calle de Noche Triste. They are but names for Mexico.

In the Spaniard’s heart is a great yearning for freedom, but only his own. A great love of truth and honor in all its forms, but not in its substance. And a deep conviction that nothing can be proven except that it be made to bleed. Virgins, bulls, men.

We dont believe that people can be improved in their character by reason. That seems a very french idea.

Beware gentle knight. There is no greater monster than reason. That of course is the Spanish idea. You see. The idea of Quixote. But even Cervantes could not envision such a country as Mexico.

Wedding photos age instantaneously

I remember walking past a wedding party being photographed in Trinity College, Dublin, and seeing the photo as if it was taken 50 years ago. I’ve long had the idea that wedding photos, including ours, age decades the moment they are taken. It’s perhaps something to do with the photos having a formal arrangement and us having seen hundreds of old wedding photographs.

I was pleased to see the same idea expressed in one paragraph in Cormac McCarthys All the Pretty Horses.

“He stood with the horses and watched the wedding party emerge from the church. The groom wore a dull black suit too large for him and he looked not uneasy but half desperate, as if unused to clothes at all. The bride was embarrassed and clung to him and they stood on the steps for their photograph to be taken and in their antique formalwear posed there in front of the church they already had the look of old photos. In the sepia monochrome of a rainy day in that lost village they’d grown old instantly.”

A strong contender for “The great American novel”

The only Cormac McCarthy novel I had read before All the Pretty Horses was The Road, and, although an excellent book, its unremitting bleakness left me wary of reading more novels by McCarthy. But I’ve enjoyed All the Pretty Horses as much as I’ve enjoyed any book.

I’ve read the book while in Mexico, which has added to my enjoyment in that 90% of the book is set in Mexico—and the book is full of acute observations about Mexico. I’ve collected those observations together and will share them in a separate blog. McCarthy loves the wild and loves horses, and he creates powerfully the feel of the Northern emptiness of Mexico. (For all I know, he may not love either the wild or horses, but he writes as if he loves them both.)

The story is of three teenage Texans who in the late 40s ride into Mexico looking for—what? Adventure? A future? Employment? Love? Wisdom? They certainly find adventure: one dies, one experiences both love and heartbreak, and two come close to death in a prison and learn something they could learn no other way.

There is a love story at the heart of the novel, but it’s told in a minimal way that worked well. I remember hearing Kurt Vonnegut say that he never put love into a novel because a love story leads readers simply to wonder whether the boy gets the girl and pay little attention to everything else. All the Pretty Horses avoids that fate.

McCarthy famously writes in short sentences with minimal punctuation, making you unsure at times whether somebody is speaking and who is speaking. I didn’t find that at all bothersome: indeed, I found the style so powerful that I’m having trouble adapting to the next novel I’ve started reading, an Irish one with long sentences and a flowery style.

One of the best parts of the book is the dialogue, particularly from the owner of a huge Hacienda, an elderly, well educated, upper class Mexican woman, and a man who is a boss in a violent prison. These characters and others speak with remarkable wisdom in simple sentences: in retrospect, the dialogue is not credible, but I never felt that as I read the novel.

All the Pretty Horses is the first of a trilogy, and I now intend to read the two other novels.

I took many quotes from the book, and here they are—minus the Mexico quotes.

The joy of horses

Among men there is no such communion as among horses and the notion that men can be understood at all is probably an illusion.

He’d go to the kitchen in the dark for his coffee and saddle the horse at daybreak with only the little desert doves waking in the orchard and the air still fresh and cool and he and the stallion would come sideways out of the stable with the animal prancing and pounding the ground and arching its neck. They’d ride out along the ciénaga road and along the verge of the marshes while the sun rose riding up flights of ducks out of the shallows or geese or mergansers that would beat away over the water scattering the haze and rising up would turn to birds of gold in a sun not yet visible from the bolsón floor.

Anglos

Pérez [the papazote, the man who lived a privileged, protected life in the prison] nodded thoughtfully. Even in a place like this where we are concerned with fundamental things the mind of the anglo is closed in this rare way. At one time I thought it was only his life of privilege. But it is not that. It is his mind. He sat back easily. He tapped his temple. It is not that he is stupid. It is that his picture of the world is incomplete. In this rare way. He looks only where he wishes to see. You understand me?

Death

I aint afraid to die. That is good. It will help you to die. It will not help you to live.

Dying aint in people’s plans, is it?

Observations on life

What if it is just talk? Everything’s talk isnt it?

You never know when you’ll be in need of them you’ve despised,

He said that war had destroyed the country and that men believe the cure for war is war as the curandero prescribes the serpent’s flesh for its bite. Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real. The events that cause them can never be forgotten, can they?

Why do I bother myself? Eh? She will go. Who am I? A father. A father is nothing.

Some crazy person, he can say that God is here. But everybody knows that God is no here.

I never knowed there was such a place as this. I guess there’s probably every kind of place you can think of.

Anybody can be a pendejo, said John Grady. That just means asshole.

A man leaves much when he leaves his own country. They said that it was no accident of circumstance that a man be born in a certain country and not some other and they said that the weathers and seasons that form a land form also the inner fortunes of men in their generations and are passed on to their children and are not so easily come by otherwise.

And after and for a long time to come he’d have reason to evoke the recollection of those smiles and to reflect upon the good will which provoked them for it had power to protect and to confer honor and to strengthen resolve and it had power to heal men and to bring them to safety long after all other resources were exhausted.

For me the world has always been more of a puppet show. But when one looks behind the curtain and traces the strings upward he finds they terminate in the hands of yet other puppets, themselves with their own strings which trace upward in turn, and so on.

Teníamos compadrazgo con su familia. You understand? There is no translation.

He said that those who have endured some misfortune will always be set apart but that it is just that misfortune which is their gift and which is their strength and that they must make their way back into the common enterprise of man for without they do so it cannot go forward and they themselves will wither in bitterness.

Francisco Madero was surrounded by plotters and schemers from his first day in office. His trust in the basic goodness of humankind became his undoing.

The closest bonds we will ever know are bonds of grief. The deepest community one of sorrow.

In the end we all come to be cured of our sentiments. Those whom life does not cure death will. The world is quite ruthless in selecting between the dream and the reality, even where we will not. Between the wish and the thing the world lies waiting. I’ve thought a great deal about my life and about my country. I think there is little that can be truly known.

We weep over the might have been, but there is no might have been. There never was.

It is supposed to be true that those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it. I dont believe knowing can save us. What is constant in history is greed and foolishness and a love of blood and this is a thing that even God—who knows all that can be known—seems powerless to change.

I’ve no sympathy with people to whom things happen. It may be that their luck is bad, but is that to count in their favor?

A prison is like a—how do you call it? A salón de belleza. A beauty parlor. A beauty parlor. It is a big place for gossip. Everybody knows the story of everybody. Because crime is very interesting. Everybody knows that.

It just bothered me that you might think I was somethin special. I aint. Well that aint a bad way to be bothered.

Love and heartbreak

Scared money cant win and a worried man cant love.

He’d half meant to speak but those eyes had altered the world forever in the space of a heartbeat.

Sweeter for the larceny of time and flesh, sweeter for the betrayal. Nesting cranes that stood singlefooted among the cane on the south shore had pulled their slender beaks from their wingpits to watch. Me quieres? she said. Yes, he said. He said her name. God yes, he said.

As she walked toward him her beauty seemed to him a thing altogether improbable. A presence unaccountable in this place or in any place at all.

He looked into those blue eyes like a man seeking some vision of the increate future of the universe. He’d hardly breath to speak at all

He remembered Alejandra and the sadness he’d first seen in the slope of her shoulders which he’d presumed to understand and of which he knew nothing and he felt a loneliness he’d not known since he was a child and he felt wholly alien to the world although he loved it still. He thought that in the beauty of the world were hid a secret. He thought the world’s heart beat at some terrible cost and that the world’s pain and its beauty moved in a relationship of diverging equity and that in this headlong deficit the blood of multitudes might ultimately be exacted for the vision of a single flower.

The hazards of being a radio gospel preacher

This microstory that I read in Cormac McCarthy’s “All the Pretty Horses” made me laugh, particularly the line “Crated em up and shipped em railway express.” What, I wonder, did the preacher do with all the corpses—ship em back or bury em? And who paid? It might be insensitive to charge the bereaved.

He was the first one to have you put your hands on the radio you know. He started that. Puttin your hands on the radio. He’d pray over the radio and heal everbody that was settin there with their hands on the radio.

Fore that he’d have people send in things and he’d pray over em but there was a lot of problems connected with that.

People expect a lot of a minister of God. He cured a lot of people and of course everbody heard about it over the radio and I dont like to say this but it got bad. I thought it did. He ate. She watched him.

They sent dead people. Crated em up and shipped em railway express. It got out of hand.

You cant do nothin with a dead person. Only Jesus could do that.

How to build an empire through exploiting the fathomless foolishness of old men

I finished Bad Blood, John Carreyrou’s carefully documented account of the rise and fall of Silicon Valley entrepreneur, Elizabeth Holmes, and her company Theranos on the second day of the jury’s deliberations at the end of the criminal case against Holmes. The judgement may come today.

The book makes it clear that she’s guilty, but legal cases are always something of a crap shoot. She argues that she was the tool of her lover and chief operating officer even though she fired him when the company began to unravel.

I took two lessons from the book, both of which were familiar lessons but were deepened by the book.

Firstly, investing in the early days of a start up is really just gambling. I was taught this by a professor from the London Business School who is himself an angel investor. Venture capitalists invest in a person, a vision, and preliminary business plan. Holmes came across as smart and visionary. She also clearly had that mysterious quality that writers find impossible to capture, charisma. Her vision, hundreds of blood tests performed on a finger prick of blood, would take the pain out of blood tests and allow people to monitor at home their health and sickness. It was an exciting vision, and like almost every entrepreneur she had a business plan that showed financial returns skyrocketing after a start-up phase.

The fact that she had little scientific knowledge did not bother most investors. They bought the woman, the vison, and the business plan. But to counter my argument I have to report that none of the investors who concentrated on health invested in her company. Holmes’s ignorance made it unlikely that she would succeed, not least in that many people with much greater knowledge had never succeeded in doing what she proposed. Indeed, reading the book I couldn’t detect that there was every anything much beyond the words and the vision. The reality never came close.

Indeed, even in California, the home of excessive language, you wonder how many people could listen to the following words said to her staff by Holmes without thinking “I should get out of this”:

“The miniLab is the most important thing humanity has ever built. If you don’t believe this is the case, you should leave now,”

“Elizabeth told the gathered employees that she was building a religion. If there were any among them who didn’t believe, they should leave.”

The second lesson is that old men can be easily convinced by an attractive, young, intelligent woman. “There is,” my wife repeatedly reminds me, “no fool like an old fool.” Carreyrou rightly stays away from the role of sexuality in this sorry saga, and there is no suggestion that Holmes slept with any of these old men; but she clearly had power over them.

Carreyrou lists them at the end of the book, and they include George Schultz, whom I encountered at Stanford, https://richardswsmith.wordpress.com/2021/02/27/when-george-schultz-lost-it/  Henry Kissinger, General Mattis, the chief executive of Safeway, a senior executive at Walgreens, a leading Silicon Valley investor, and America’s most belligerent lawyer.

The power she had over these men is well illustrated by what her mentor, a distinguished Stanford professor, said to a journalist even after Carreyrou’s expose in the Wall Street Journal had made clear the fraud on which the company was based:

“In the same story, her old Stanford professor, Channing Robertson, dismissed questions about the accuracy of Theranos’s testing as absurd, saying the company would have to be “certifiable” to go to market with a product that people’s lives depended on knowing that it was unreliable. He also maintained that Holmes was a once-in-a-generation genius, comparing her to Newton, Einstein, Mozart, and Leonardo da Vinci.”

Schulz too continued to stand by Holmes long after he should have realised her fraud.

Many of these old men sat on her board, which didn’t include anybody who knew anything about blood tests. Holmes controlled most of the votes, these men were just grand puppets. But their names carried great weight, making it easy for Holmes to convince people to invest and sign contracts.

Carreyrou recognises the impossibility of capturing Holmes’s special magic, but he has some insight towards the end of the book when he describes how Holmes had the chutzpah to make a presentation to 2000 scientists after she had been exposed:

“The odds that Holmes could pull off this latest Houdini act while under criminal investigation were very long, but watching her confidently walk the audience through her sleek slide show helped crystallize for me how she’d gotten this far: she was an amazing saleswoman. She never once stumbled or lost her train of thought. She wielded both engineering and laboratory lingo effortlessly and she showed seemingly heartfelt emotion when she spoke of sparing babies in the NICU from blood transfusions. Like her idol Steve Jobs, she emitted a reality distortion field that forced people to momentarily suspend disbelief.”

Mexico Diary: Day one: London to Mexico City

In the middle of the night I thought of all that go wrong. That’s my steroids at their lowest point, the commonest time to die. I had fretted earlier that excitement might keep me awake, but neither anxiety nor excitement have stopped me sleeping. I wake at 5.30 ready to fly to Mexico and see our son, daughter-in-law, grandson, and grandaughter. We haven’t seen them for two years, and Marina, our grandaughter, was a baby; now she’s a spirited girl very clear in her opinions.

Are we deserting a sinking ship? Britain, our utterly untrustworthy Prime Minister tells us, is experiencing a “national emergency.” The cause is the surging omicron variant of the coronavirus. It is probably in Mexico already. It’s also likely to be on this plane, lodging snugly in the respiratory tract of one of the passengers. Another cause of national emergency, which went unmentioned by the prime minister, is that his government is falling apart under his chaotic leadership. 

Travelling has become still more complicated during the pandemic. Mexico, following WHO advice, asks almost nothing from us apart from a short questionnaire, but to return to Britain we must book a test before we leave for when we come back, complete a complicated form that almost defeated me when we returned from Paris, and self-isolate when we return until we have the result of a negative test.

The first of a string of anxieties is that one of us will be ill, stopping us from travelling, but we are not. Second is that the taxi won’t arrive, but it does. Third is that we can’t fit in our luggage, but we can. Fourth is that we won’t have some essential piece of paperwork, but we have all we need. Fifth, I worry that one of our suitcases will be too big or too heavy, one is almost five feet high. We do have to take the large one to a special place, but nobody seems concerned. We pass through security to the lounge, where we drink Buck’s Fizz and cappuccino, and eat a bacon sandwich. I’m relaxing to the point of wondering who Buck was.

On the plane we settle into our business class seats, me by the window facing backwards, Chicken by my side through a dividing screen, facing forwards.  The Captain tells us that we will take off to the West, passing over Reading, Swindon, and South Wales before “heading out over the Atlantic.” That last phrase sends a spasm of emotion through me. 

It’s the first time that we’ve flown for almost two years (since we flew home from Mexico in December 2019), and I haven’t missed flying at all. Indeed, I’ve enjoyed not flying. But on this flight I revert to the pattern I established in my days as a carbon criminal: drink champagne, red wine, and a whisky, eat a meal, fall asleep for a couple of hours, wake up, and sometimes work, sometimes watch a film that I wouldn’t go the cinema to watch.

The film this time was Gone Girl, an immensely complicated film that revolves around a woman trying to frame her husband for her murder. Her attempt comes unstuck, and instead she says that she was kidnapped by a man who had long been obsessed with her. She murders him, she says in self-defence, and gets away with it. She returns to her husband who is trapped by her. They key lines in the film are something like “How can we continue in a marriage where we hate each other and are each trying to control the other?” “That’s what a marriage is.”

Landing in Mexico City is extraordinary in that the plane lands not on the edge but in the middle of a huge city. We fly over tightly packed houses and roads red with traffic in the night. The government planned airport, but the new president cancelled the plans. Ivan Illich used the airport to illustrate the injustice of transport: when built the airport allowed a few rich people to fly across the world while millions had the journeys lengthened by having to travel round the airport.

There’s a hiccough at immigration as the woman wants to see our return ticket, but I haven’t printed it out. I search for it on my phone, but it takes so long the woman lets us through. That’s Mexico.

Almost to our surprise, all four of our bags come out quickly. Chicken was sure one would be lost or plundered. The airport used to have a system where you pressed a button, and if it showed green you went through and if red you were searched; but they’ve abandoned it in favour of officers deciding to pluck out. In moments we are out. I never thought it could be so quick and easy. It is not so easy finding the hotel and lugging our four huge suitcases up and down the airport. But after a confused half hour we make it, and after a bath we celebrate our arrival in Mexico with a beer, good, cold, Mexican beer.