Back to the future

Design byHugh Aldersey-Williams

Who said: "We walk backwards into the future"? Was it a) Northrop Frye; b) Paul Valery; c) Walter Benjamin; d) Montaigne; e) Robert Burton; or f) Plutarch? They all seem to lay claim to the idea in various tongues and forms of words. Bright chaps - perhaps they could constitute a new line in those football shirts advertised from time to time in these pages, though I suppose the names would have to be on the front.

Anyway British Airways is about to prove it. Half of the seats in its new Club World compartments will face aft. It is the most startling feature of a redesign of its business-class seating that the company hopes will begin to revive its fortunes. For some would say that British Airways has been flying backwards for years. Last month it announced profits cut by more than half, with the promise of worse to come. It is still riven with staff disputes, and the low morale is all too apparent to customers. Nevertheless it ploughs on with high-profile design projects that seem to speak of a quite different company. First the tail-fin folk art. Then new offices by the Norwegian architect Niels Torp, showing off the latest thinking in democratic work environments. Now this attention-grabbing seat by a top London product-design firm called Tangerine.

It is to another Norse-blooded leveller that we should turn in order to understand what British Airways is up to. This year marks the centenary of the publication of Thorstein Veblen's classic work The Theory of the Leisure Class. Veblen noted the decline of the true leisure class even then. Today even Prince Edward has a useful job. But British Airways' euphemism "Club World" shows that the concept of the leisure class lives on in today's business class.

Corporations perpetuate, or where necessary invent, class distinctions not only in the air but anywhere there is money to be made from doing it. Obsessed with replicating the mannerisms of air travel, the private train companies have been particularly busy in this sphere. But it works anywhere a benefit can be linked, and a premium price assigned, to a patch of ground. Expect pay-as-you-go business-class motorway lanes one day soon. Unlike business-class flight, at least they'll get you to your destination sooner.

Unable to deliver this ideal, business-class seating aims instead to allow its patrons to make best use of their flying time. For some this means Veblen's "conspicuous leisure", the companion activity to his better-known "conspicuous consumption". An airline seat is more than a comfortable armchair at home. It is home, or must strive to seem so, for several hours at least. Tangerine's design is said to be the first to recline to provide a completely horizontal bed, and this feature will undoubtedly be used to sell the premium tickets. Today's business class, however, is not a simple analogue of Veblen's leisure class. For one thing, it is now those travelling in economy class who are ostentatious in their idleness. So the new Club World seats are also wired for telephones and laptop computers.

As its name hints, Tangerine emerged in the wake of the success of Apple Computer. The company has a good record of creating electronic products rather in that image, although for less lustrous clients. Ironically Tangerine can claim to be godfather - and no more - to the celebrated iMac computer, which was the styling triumph of one of its alumni. That product suffices nevertheless to show the kind of paradigm shift that design can produce for the right client. The British Airways seat marks a shift, although its revolution has involved more fundamental design work. The project required ergonomists and experts in aviation medicine, to make sure that it would be safe for passengers to fly facing backwards, and market research, to check that they would buy the idea. The rear-facing seat has different engineering from the forward-facing seat, to compensate for the forces experienced during take-off. To all appearances, however, the forward and backward seats look the same, paired in yin-yang islands. British Airways' boss, Bob Ayling, calls them love-seats. An artist's impression shows them scattered across the floor of a plane, looking like a club room - the airport executive lounge borne aloft.

British Airways is cagey about exactly how many seats will be put aboard how many planes in the course of the two-year, £200 million fitting-out. They will be placed as close as they can be while still allowing the passage of duty-free trolleys. The ingenuity of the design is that, even with close spacing, the passenger's privacy is preserved, as no one sits directly alongside or opposite anyone else.

The improvement is so considerable that the airline will have to refurbish its first-class seating next. The back of the bus, though, looks more forgotten than ever. British Airways is aware that the gulf has widened but is unapologetic about it and plans no improvements there. So much for the matey new Labour posturing of Ayling and the brotherhood-of-man symbolism of BA's controversial corporate identity. It was recently announced that the latter is to be ditched. When will Ayling go?

This article first appeared in the 14 June 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Kosovo: a rich and comfortable war

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide