Phil appeared round the door with the hugest microphone in his hand.
No euphemism intended. This microphone was one of those with a comprehensive Jackson Five Afro. It’s about a foot long.
We had a project this evening: Phil had a presentation for work and he had asked if I would read out some stuff posing as a customer. No problem, I said, and Phil dug out the equipment he had used as a radio reporter in preparation.
But the moment he appeared round the door with the microphone our daughter let out a surprise remark.
“Oh!,” she said, “that’s the microphone we used to say goodbye to Concorde!”
She was just three years old when the event she was recalling actually happened.
Concorde: the miracle of supersonic flight, creator of many a sonic boom, a marvellous piece of European engineering which could never quite earn its voluptuous keep.
As children we knew it well. Concorde would come over the house, having taken off at nearby Heathrow bound for New York, at about 11am each day. We took it for granted as children will: but my Nana would sit out in the garden, equipped with a cup of tea and a biscuit, at 10:45, ready to watch it pass overhead.
The name means harmony: it represented a rare union between French and English governments, a marrying of the British supreme engineering instinct and the French effortless style. The story goes that the harmony didn’t last long: Tony Benn recalls that after Charles De Gaulle offended Harold Macmillan the British prime minister ordered the French ‘e’ on the end of the planes name removed.
It stuck, though.Benn brought the ‘e’ back. The consortium between the British Aircraft Corporation and Aerospatiale bagged more than 100 orders from top airlines across the world.
The crash of the Russian equivalent, the Tupolev Tu-144, at a major air show dented the global love affair with all things supersonic, though. Cancellations flooded in, and eventually just the French and the British flew Concorde commercially.
With its first flight in 1976, it continued in service, astounding its passengers, for 27 years.
Until the day my husband took a microphone up to the attic windows of our third floor, trailing a little girl who didn’t know what Concorde was; but knew that whatever madcap scheme her father was hatching, it was bound to be exciting.
For this was Daddy, The Historian. He had watched, as a child, the shenanigans surrounding the creation of this great white beauty of the skies. He had celebrated its first flight. He had watched it excel over the years.
A photographer friend of his had an air hostess wife who worked for British Airways, and got cheap flights as a result. The two of them travelled out on a subsonic flight together for a long weekend in New York. She returned as part of a Concorde flight crew; he used a conventional plane to return to their house on the outskirts of London.
He got up early and left her, asleep in bed in the hotel in New York. He took a taxi from the hotel to JFK. His plane took off on time, and he landed in Heathrow without delay. He took the short tube ride from Heathrow to his house in the suburbs.
He put his key in the lock of his house: and opened the door to find his wife, doing the washing up in the kitchen.
Phil garnered stories like this, and more. He watched with dismay the plane’s one and only crash a few months before Maddie was born. And he saw the writing on the wall for this princess of the skies.
He stood a chair by the skylight so that his three-year old toddler, still in baby ringlets, could spot Concorde as it took one of its last flights. It was just a few days before the final one on November 26th, 2003. “Concorde is going to stop flying over soon, Maddie” he told her. “So we’re coming up to say goodbye to Concorde.”
And he switched on the recorder.
It was a beautiful clear night; the sun had just set. The two of them were in the huge attic room with one skylight that faces east, one west. And within a few minutes, right on time, the great white miracle appeared from the east.
The sound was always deafening: it started a low rumble and built, as it had always done, to a deafening roar. If you listen to the recording, you can hear a silvery little voice shouting: “Goodbye, Concorde!” They ran from the east window to the west window and almost as if it were saluting, the plane banked slightly over the house and then soared off on one of its last journeys across the ocean.