Shown here is a group of peasant women Ralph caught on camera during his recent sojourn in the rural fastness of Puglia. According to a local ethnographer (who Ralph managed to corner in a bar, then strong-arm until he divulged), the ancient crones are worshipping a totemic carving of Rianare, the God of Cheap Plane Flights. Their belief is that if a suitable offering is presented to Rianare (a garland festooned with polished olive stones is usually enough), he will bless the donor with a £27.49 return flight to Stansted; or Luton, or Gatwick - and possibly even East Midlands Airport. Anywhere, in fact, so long as it isn't Heathrow, the passenger wasn't born in a leap year, and their hold baggage doesn't contain more socks than pants. (Pants surcharge is £4,578.23 per pair.)
I myself am a recent convert to the cult of Rianare, having flown to Cork at the weekend on a low-cost airline. In Ireland the God is known as "Ryanair" (Rían-àr in the original Gaelic), and his devotees, despite the anathema pronounced on them by the Cardinal Primate of all Ireland, are quite as numerous and fanatical as those in southern Italy. Personally, I didn't know what to expect when I started on this new, spiritual path. I had been warned that in return for a seat, Ryanair demanded exorbitant mortification on the part of his supplicants. There would be a 20-mile walk from the departure lounge to the gate. Indeed, very likely there would be no gate at all, simply a gash in the aluminium skin of the terminal building, through which passengers would be bodily hurled on to the concrete apron.
Once on the plane - already battered and bruised - I would find no seats, as such, only straps from which to hang. When turbulence came, us dangling punters would collide with each other like ball-bearings in a Newton's cradle, setting in motion the most inappropriate collisions, and even spontaneous acts of congress. No wonder, I thought, the Cardinal Primate takes such a dim view. Moreover, there would be no strap allocation, for on cheap flights it's every man, woman and even child for themselves. In the event things weren't that bad at all. There were seats, and as none of these were secured, instead of finding myself sandwiched beside one of my own, needy offspring, I instead plumped down and discovered that my thigh was melded against that of Kate Moss, the internationally renowned model and demi mondaine.
Surprised? I didn't even know she was Irish. It transpired that Moisty - as she is familiarly dubbed - flies back and forth to West Cork with disarming frequency. As she vouchsafed to me, the flights are now so cheap that it's more cost effective for her to hire a babysitter in Bantry and have them flown over for the evening, than to engage one in Primrose Hill. I spoke to a couple of other parents of young children on the flight, and they said the same thing: Ryanair brought families closer together; now Nan could sit, chewing a quid of tobacco, and singing "The Croppy Boy" in the corner of their Danish Modern kitchen in Clifton, for the price of a loaf of soda bread. Mind you, that isn't for the price of a loaf of soda bread actually on a Ryanair plane; that costs £27,609.43 (€19,372.21).
Who are we environmentalist Cassandras to deny these simple folk their consanguinity admixed with aviation fuel? What perverse ideology would dare to tear grandchild from grandmother, stag night from Cork bar? So what if the improved familial relations of today are ruining it all for succeeding generations; at least those future generations will have had well-adjusted parents. And anyway, the airspace of today is not the airspace of yesteryear. That was a moneyed preserve, accessible only to the super-rich, who in a very important sense owned it. Now the sky belongs to all, and is like unto an illimitable, blue moorland, across which the masses have the inalienable right to roam.
Frankly, this is all just as well, because once you actually arrive in Ireland you will find yourself subject to a most astonishing reversal: you may have been able to fly hundreds of miles with utter abandon, but at ground level the Emerald Isle sets up fierce resistance to the idea of anyone daring to stray off the beaten track. Since 1995 something called the Owners' Liability Act has been in force. This makes property owners legally obliged to compensate walkers for any accidents that happen to them on their land - even if these occur on public rights of way. Needless to say, this has made Irish landowners - never that keen on unconstrained roaming in the gloaming - positively Stalinesque: exiling ramblers from their land with brutal alacrity. Only in the burgeoning cult of Rían-àr can the people find succour.
Will Self's latest novel, 'The Book of Dave', is published by Viking at £17.99Reuse content