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Leisure • Food

On Luxury and Sadness

There is an age, and a frame of mind, when we are strong enough to treat luxury with every bit of the disdain it deserves, when we know how to pour rightful scorn on its cost, its futility, most of all its vanity. When we are young and hopeful, we know that there is no need for an overpriced hotel when a hostel can just as well house our dreams. We understand the folly of those overblown seats at the front of the aircraft whose occupants will touch down not a minute earlier. We have a future rich enough not to confuse paid-for kindness with love.

But then there comes an age, more sombre and melancholy in nature, when – if we have any possibility – we may find our Spartan honesty vibrate and start to crumble. We may invest in the roomier, more plushly carpeted section of the aircraft we’d once dismissed – and discover a happiness deeper than we had ever thought possible. High above the earth, we are looked after by a new friend who has troubled to learn our name and has hung our jacket in a closet with a wooden hanger! As we cross the Tropic of Cancer, as down below in Madhya Pradesh, villages flicker by the light of paraffin lamps, we receive a tray on which an infinitely thoughtful and fascinating-sounding chef has laid out a small bread roll, a lobster tail salad, a filet mignon and what might be the sweetest hazelnut and chocolate cake we have ever tasted – and we may feel the onset of what could be tears at the beauty and kindness that surround us. It is, in its way, like being a child again, ministered to by a devoted parent during an especially vicious fever. But now that parent is dead and we are far from being that little cute creature in elephant pyjamas that no one could hate and who had never done anything seriously wrong.

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Or we may find ourselves in a foreign city and be unable to resist the call of an idiotically costly grand Belle Epoque hotel on the main square. After an hour of reading in our room’s oversized tub, we may order room service and, soon after, receive a visit from another new friend, pushing a trolley that he steers to the foot of our immaculately turned down king-sized bed. The meal itself might not be anything wondrous, considered objectively – chicken schnitzel or a salmon tagliatelle – but what it symbolises is immense. They, our new family in the hotel, have kept things warm for us in a special heated recess under the table or covered it under a silver dome. Someone, an angel, has wondered if we might like flowers, and has inserted a tulip into a narrow glass vase, so as to cheer us as we eat. Someone else, a ministering deity, has worried about bread and provided a small but fascinatingly diverse selection (one with walnuts, another with olives, a third with garlic). Now kindly George from room service interrupts our daydream. He would like to know if we would prefer still or sparkling water. And should he pour balsamic or white vinegar over the tomato salad?

This sort of thing can end up mattering a lot (too much) because, in other areas of our lives, so much has gone wrong, for reasons that are at once complex but definitive. Our child no longer looks up when we greet them at breakfast; our spouse is filled with resentments. We seem to have lost most of our friends through neglect. There is so much that those close to us seem to hate us for. We are increasingly convinced of the complete meaninglessness of our existence.

But here, in the luxury cabin or bedroom, it isn’t – for a few hours – like this at all. Here is there is only kindness and indulgence. It’s all artificial of course – engineered by monstrous sums of money – and would come to an end immediately if the credit card were declined (we’d be in prison within hours). But, while the money flows, we can be in the presence of something astonishing and delightful: a portion of the kindness and consideration we crave, but hardly ever receive and know we don’t deserve.

Money obviously cannot buy us what we truly want: the warm regard of those we live around. But it can, at points, at least buy us a few symbols of considerateness – and sometimes that might be the very best we can hope for, and that is realistically available to us, in our distinctly bathetic and radically imperfect lives. We may not always have the inner resources to find luxury the silly thing it actually is.

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