"Something for you to write about," said Geoff, as our sealed glass pod soared high above the Thames on Sunday afternoon. "Going on the London Eye." I told him quietly that the same thought had already occurred to several thousand other columnists and that, frankly, there was nothing significant left to say about the experience of sailing over London on a super Ferris wheel.
It was good, though, to have some excuse for conversation. When I clambered aboard, I had expected the journey to be punctuated by nothing more than exclamations of delight as my fellow travellers spotted Crystal Palace and Hampstead, and told and retold the story about the civil servants at the Ministry of Defence pulling down their blinds in case passengers on the Eye with powerful telescopes were able to zoom in on secret documents.
But it soon became obvious, as the pod slowly gained height, that what really absorbed my companions was not their capacity to spot the Dome or the slopes of Muswell Hill, but whether or not Roger was going to do the decent thing and tell Sally that there was no future for their already rocky marriage now that Janet had unexpectedly returned from Australia looking tanned and eager.
I wondered if this desperate desire to chatter had something to do with the eerie silence of the pod. Nearly every contemporary experience seems somehow inadequate without the accompaniment of sonorous commentary or exultant background music; but here we were, slowly moving through the air without even the throb of jet engines to mark the nature of our adventure. This was the silence of the confessional or the failing dinner party, and the only obvious way to relieve the tension was to blurt out the news about Helen's phantom pregnancy or Dave's newly found impotence. But maybe the prickle of embarrassment that infected our pod was prompted by the oddly unsatisfactory nature of pure height. Years ago, I was persuaded by a former partner to take a trip over London in a hot-air balloon. It took nearly an hour to progress to the centre of London from the field in outer Hertfordshire where we boarded; by the time the Thames crept into view, we were both so heartily sick of staring at rooftops and reservoirs and football grounds that we would have positively welcomed the explosive intervention of a heat-seeking missile.
Then there was the nasty business of the campanile in St Mark's Square. It was Jane's first visit to Venice and, so as not to inhibit her enthusiasm, I was pretending that I, too, had never set foot in the place by attempting to match her cries of surprise as she encountered the Bridge of Sighs, the Grand Canal and the dome of Santa Maria Della Salute. But I drew the line at the campanile. No, I didn't want to enjoy the unrivalled views of Venice promised by the brochure. Eventually, there was no way out. I admitted that I had once climbed the campanile during a school trip and discovered its dreadful secret. It was almost the only place in Venice from which it was impossible to see the canals.
When our pod finally reached the summit, the woman on my right pointed excitedly to the far horizon. A sudden aesthetic moment? Not exactly. She handed the binoculars to her companion. "If you look to the side of Battersea Bridge, you can just make out the block where Sally lives. She's on the fifth floor. God, I wouldn't like to see her reaction when she learns that Janet's back from Australia."
One can only hope that, when the fateful day arrives, Sally has the good sense to lower her blinds.