When I was a child my best friend’s father ran a toy company and sometimes liked to try out his new lines on us. We were more than happy to oblige, like super-professional guinea piglets. One day he presented me with a plastic case in the shape of an aircraft; inside there were little segregated trays for the airline dinners, napkins and plastic beakers, a stewardess’s apron and other assorted in-flight aids. There were small packets of sweeties and sachets of saltines. There were red cutlery sets. Everything was dinky in the extreme. We were beside ourselves with glee.
I thought of this little scene today when I learnt that a Taiwanese airline has converted three of its Airbuses into Hello Kitty planes. It’s just about the best thing I have ever heard. The aircraft have large pictures of Hello Kitty painted on the outside, there are pink Hello Kitty check-in machines at the airport proclaiming “Have a nice trip!” and the cups and straws and meal trays and Velcroed seat covers feature Hello Kitties too. The fruit salad boasts Hello Kitty-shaped cantaloupe balls and there are HK-profile salmon chunk entrées and pink-and-white feline fishcakes. There are Hello Kitty cookies and Hello Kitty sausage links. The air hostesses have pink Hello Kitty aprons and dispense pink sachets of mixed nuts and crackers emblazoned with you-know-who peering out of a box of popcorn.
The exteriors of the planes seem to come in three designs: Hello Kitty with her favourite apples; Hello Kitty with stars in a vaguely pastoral setting; and Hello Kitty with some of her favourite wonders of the world (the Leaning Tower of Pisa for example).
It was almost a mirage on the seventh wet morning in a row. It’s so nice when things that are too good to be true are also true. How often the news chimes with one’s worst nightmares and how seldom one’s wildest dreams, I thought, through broad smiles.
The first really significant present I remember receiving was Hello Kitty-based. My sister came back from New York in 1976 after proving such a success with the locals that Andy Warhol had even drawn a ring in felt tip on her wedding finger – she had a Polaroid to prove it – with a bag filled with Hello Kitty merchandise for me. It was an avalanche of delights: a miniature post office set, 24 tiny pencils in bright sherbet shades, little notebooks with encouraging slogans, stickers galore, a set of crinkle-cut correspondence cards, a pencil case with many mysterious secret compartments – and all of it resplendent with friendly, unassuming, cheerful, warm-yet-self-contained Hello Kitty.
Even at six I felt the spectacular courtesy of it: my dashing, modish sister had held my more fledgling personality in mind during her highly glamorous spree, and attended to it handsomely.
For what a playful, modest, lively creature is Hello Kitty! You could tell at a glance that as a friend she would be a champ. There is such an ease to her. There is no way she would ever ring you up in the small hours with some agonising tale of woe that involved you hopping on a night bus with a bottle of whisky and a bunch of daffs. You would never find yourself embattled with her, reaching for your favourite remonstration from Henry James: “You demand a great deal of satisfaction for the little you give.” No Siree! The red and pink of her mark her out as a really straightforward communicator. (So unusual in these complex times.) And the most important thing about her: she is cute but not too cute.
There are interesting myths and facts on the airline’s website, some of which I am proud to say I already knew. Hello Kitty is said to be the height of five red apples and the weight of three. Her favourite word is “friendship”. Other factoids from her past hover in my consciousness. I think someone once told me she has a boyfriend called Daniel who is a photographer living in the UK, but how I even know that I could not say. It’s a bit like when you go to a pub quiz and there is very often an answer that is “Gibraltar” and even though you barely know where it is, you get it right.
Of course, every successful female has her detractors. A Japanese artist friend who produces work about the thresholds where “cute” and “sadness” meet (I would love that job) said, “She makes me think of the pressure on girls in Japan to be cute. She kind of reminds me that being cute is a way to have a safe and easy life; cuteness as a way of conforming. She is quite an empty figure … and I guess you can project on her anything you want.”
“Because she has no mouth?”
“Maybe … and dots for eyes.”
I agree with everything she said. But all day there are two tunes playing on a loop in my head: “La Vie en Rose” and “Come Fly With Me”.
More columns at www.ft.com/boyt